Night Battles in the Underworld
‘The rain, he has come!’
The announcement appeared to herald the return of the divine. There was a bustle of galabeyyas – the long Nubian robes that distinguish upper Egyptians from their northern contemporaries – as the men tumbled out of the airy entry and hurried to relocate two motorcycles to drier ground under a tall date palm.
Luxor, where our host Mahmoud runs a small hotel at the edge of the Sahara, up against the Valley of the Kings, is one of the two driest habitable places on earth when calculated by annual average rainfall. Its sister city, Aswan, a few hours further up the Nile, is the other.
‘It has been many years,’ Mahmoud said, grinning through wildly crooked teeth, ‘since my motorcycle had a shower.’
Inside, the men returned to huddle, cross-legged, around a grainy computer monitor in the corner of the room, under a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, streaming Egyptian football through unreliable internet. But Mahmoud stood in the drive, letting the rain come down on him, dotting his clothing with thick, wet, spots.
The heavy drops kicked up the dust as they hit the ground, lending a strange aromatic dusty-wetness to the night air. Within moments the power went out, and the hotel, absent the bright, cloudless, desert moonlight, plunged into darkness. A mobile phone screen sent a weak green glow from one corner of the room; then another, and another, until it was alive with squares of opalescent light dancing in the void. Then came the phone calls. Tinny Arabic pop song ring tones, and even the call to prayer burst through the microscopic handsets, and the men answered in turn: ‘yes, here too… no electricity either.’ They were trying to find out who might still be showing the end of the game.
* * *
Luxor has been inhabited for more than 6,000 years – for as long as the concept of rulers and cities has existed. It began not long after humans began cultivating land and keeping livestock. In Asia, horses had been domesticated for the first time when Luxor was built, and wooden carts were newly invented. It was the beginning of Empire.
Luxor has been through so many rulers, invaders, kingdoms, dynasties and name changes that keeping them straight requires a specialized graduate degree in Egyptology. High-ranking universities in China, New Zealand, Finland, the USA, and Sudan offer the degree. There is even an Institute for the Study of Egyptology in Uruguay.
Pharaoh Ramses II called the city Waset, although the pronunciation of the hieroglyph is disputed. To the Greeks and Romans it was Thebes, and to the Arabs, al-Uqsur, meaning ‘City of Palaces’, from which ‘Luxor’ is derived. In The Iliad, Homer calls it the city of a hundred gates, ‘through each of which, by horse and car, two-hundred warriors march’ and celebrates its countless wealth.
Ultimately, though, Luxor is and will always be the City of Amun-Re, the Pharaonic amalgamation god, a combination of Amun, the King of the Gods, and Re, the Sun God. Amun-Re outlasts all other things here, and adorns everything from the grandiose temple of Karnak to the faux-papyrus bookmarks and poorly-registered postcards peddled to busloads of international tourists that are the backbone of the modern economy here. His falcon-headed or feather-crowned human vestige is featured in elementary school textbooks around the world, and is the most recognizable symbol of ancient Egypt after the Pyramids and King Tutankhamun’s death mask. The summer sun blazes here, scorching the red-brown earth with average high temperatures of 107˚F, reminding modern Egypt of his ancient power.
But this is winter, and the rain is falling.
I consult the mythology and learn that Re traverses the sky in two boats each day, one rising out of the East between two sycamore trees, and the second carrying him West to the sunset. The journey is a symbol of life and strength. In front of the boats swim two pilot fish named Abtu and Ant, guiding it through the waters of heaven. During the night Re travels through the underworld, where he faces three monsters: Sebau, Nak, and Apep. In order for the sun to rise, he must, each morning, defeat each of these. The serpent monster Apep, the most powerful of the three, represents chaos and darkness, and is the most difficult to conquer. Re does not win every battle, and if defeated by Apep, storms engulf the earth.
I try to imagine a world where even Gods can be defeated. I don’t yet know about Ahmed Hashem el-Sayed, the 25-year-old in Alexandria who, yesterday, like his brother five years earlier, set himself on fire in protest of untenable life under Mubarak. He was the fourth Egyptian in three days to do so.
Heavy thunder rolls across the sky. It’s the first I have ever heard in Egypt, and I wonder about last night’s battle in the underworld.
* * *
According to Xhosa and Zulu legend, a giant carnivorous sail-finned eel called the Inkanyamba controls the powers of the wind and sky. The Inkanyamba needs to be regarded with constant measures of respect and caution, for fear of its tendency towards massive destruction when angry. As children, Xhosa elders ‘were not even allowed to use the word inkanyamba, for the inkanyamba might hear its name and come’.1 Through these Inkanyamba-controlled skies, Air Lesotho briefly navigated a tiny fleet.
Air Lesotho took passengers across the Limpopo and the Vaal – to Johannesburg, Gabarone, Maputo and Manzini – before it was forced to suspend all international flights for reasons of safety, and before it was totally disassembled due to financial insolvency. The Limpopo and Vaal are not insignificant rivers, and each runs deep with history. The Vaal served as the boundary between the two breakaway Boer republics seeking to establish themselves free of British colonial rule in the Cape Colony – Transvaal (‘across the Vaal’) and the Orange Free State. The Limpopo was immortalized in the West as “green” and “greasy” by Rudyard Kipling in Just So Stories, and Vasco de Gama anchored here in 1498. The distances are not great, but the nine Air Lesotho planes, in tandem links with Royal Swazi Airlines and Air Mozambique, provided the only way to leave Lesotho, the only landlocked country with a single border, without stepping foot in South Africa.
I didn’t know Air Lesotho had ever existed when I took my seat on a Uganda Airlines Twin Otter prop at Entebbe Airport in Uganda in 1998. Every seat on the plane was either a window or an aisle, and they were small. I could feel the tightness against my hips and my knees dug into the seat in front. It felt like it had a cardboard back – hard, but somehow malleable.
Twin Otters are bouncy planes, like station wagons with wings. They’re made in Canada and are touted as ‘bush planes’, able to take off and land over very short distances in demanding circumstances. They’re custom-fitted with skis, pontoons, or wheels, and make up the core of the Antarctic research fleet. You can find them over the Himalayas and in the Masai Mara, over the Sahara and in the Andes.
I’ve never enjoyed flying. I’ve always thought it to be the ultimate test of anyone’s faith in capitalism. Airfare wars compromise every element of flight from manufacture to operation. Airlines are routinely scolded for not keeping up to regulation and calculating risk on cost-benefit analysis: how much it would cost the company to ‘get caught’ versus how much it would cost to upgrade entire fleets. Pilots board drunk and sleepless, cargo is loaded to maximum capacity for runway conditions that can change during flight, and the power of nature will always remain dominant to the mechanics of humanity.
But flying in Twin Otters is different. These planes seem built for the sky, unlike their multi-ton globe spanning cousins. They’re closer in size to the Maribu Storks that perch in the trees outside the airport than to a 747. The cockpit doors often remain open, allowing the pilots to yell back updates as there are not hosts or hostesses, and, at least on this flight, no functioning public address system. These pilots know their planes by sound and feel, and rely on their eyes and ears more than electronic auto-navigational GPS systems.
And thank goodness for that.
As I looked around I realized that all of the signage in the plane was in Arabic. The seatbelt signs, door instructions, and various other placards were unreadable. The same could only be true of the cockpit controls. Uganda is, of course, a multilingual country that has two official languages, but neither is Arabic. Puzzled, I reached for the safety instruction card. Across the front it read, in typography reminiscent of a mid-1980s discotheque roller-rink, AIR LESOTHO.
The mystery deepened. I opened the well-creased tri-fold, and found the requisite rudimentary drawings of flame engulfed airplanes, smoke-filled cabins, and emergency water landings. This plane only had one exit, so it wouldn’t be hard to find, and we’d have to be miles off course to get over any water.
I tried to trace the lineage of the plane in my mind as the door closed and the propellers started. Slowly cranking in circles on one side and then the other, their uneven rhythms building to such a tempo that they unified into a loud and persistent hum. I was in Uganda. I knew that. The aircraft was built in Canada. I knew that. It was not built for Uganda Airlines. Nor was it built for Air Lesotho, a country many miles further removed from any Arabic speaking neighbor. So who was it built for? And when? Each scenario I imagined pushed the airline into an older vintage, with a greater number of clocked hours and second-hand sales. I stopped thinking about it. We passed the president’s private jet, cordoned off with cones and rope. I looked back down at the Air Lesotho safety card. Inside, in small print, it read “ALL FLIGHTS SUBJECT TO GOVERNMENT APPROVAL”.
Twenty minutes later we were rising over the end of the runway, rocking slightly and vibrating at a considerable rate. The landscape below quickly transformed into the picturesque rolling grasslands and stark outcroppings of trees that are so often stereotyped as ‘typical’ African landscape. We were headed southward, towards Rwanda. I wanted to watch the land change into the lush green hills that had long faced speculation as the source of another of Africa’s great rivers, the Nile, but the ground here was parched and dry. I could feel the vibrations in my whole body and thought about old pilots like Beryl Markham who traversed these skies before there were runways, with a box of tools in the back just in case.
The seats around me were empty, and the plane was conspicuously absent of passengers. Flights from Uganda had increased since the Rwandan Patriotic Front, using Uganda as a staging ground, had invaded Rwanda to end the genocide four years earlier, but nobody seemed to be going to Rwanda; at least not by air.
I pressed my head against the window, trying to get the widest vantage possible of the country below. I pulled my head back off the window and rolled back into the chair. Within seconds the window assembly came tumbling off, exposing the raw steel and bolts of the outer shell. Wires dangled precariously between the bulk in my lap and machinery somewhere deep in the plane. Frantically, I tried to reattach the estranged piece, pressing and adjusting it, concerned that this could just be the first piece in a disintegration chain reaction. I hoped that this window wasn’t the critical piece holding it all together. After much struggle I was able to precariously balance the window panel back in place along the side of the plane. Should I alert anyone? I moved to the seat behind me and pretended like it hadn’t happened. There was nothing about the windows falling out in the Air Lesotho safety guide.
1 Wood, Felicity. Inkanyamba, the snake in the sky,accessed 06 March 2015: http://www.hogsback.co.za/magical_hogsback/tornadoes_serpents.aspx