Scrabble on the Nile

Posted by Mishqah Schippers on 10 September 2021

It’s very old, its drivers very wild and its beer very good. Looking for Egypt? walk – do not drive – this way.

Words: Chris Marais | Illustration: Jess Nicholson

It’s 1992 and I am in Cairo. It’s a hot Egyptian night and the taxi driver is called Ahmed. We’re stuck in traffic the likes of which I have never seen and to make matters much worse, Ahmed is driving like an idiot.

Weaving through the night crowds, singing a cheery Arab song, offering himself up as a sex toy, dodging little North African donkeys, Ahmed is using his beat-up 10-seater cab like a battering ram.

When I threaten to call down the wrath of the Cairo constabulary on his driving, Ahmed jams on the brakes, swings open his door and lurches out into the insane traffic flow on foot. He walks up to a cop on a traffic island, grabs him by the ears and kisses him on the mouth. The traffic constable shows no emotion.

Ahmed strides back to the cab, flings himself in, turns to me and says: ‘Police? Ha!’

I am a stranger in an even stranger land.

The next day, I find myself inside the Egyptian Museum, where it’s quiet and cool. I am wearing my Woolworths hieroglyphic shirt here, at the font of civilisation, at the feet of some of the world’s oldest artefacts.

Suddenly, there’s a rush of button-down British types bearing walkie-talkies. They are followed by swarthy Egyptian security men and a wide, tourist-free walk space is cleared for someone important.

Turns out it’s Diana, Princess of Wales, bless her heart.

She is tall, trim and shy. And although she’s working very hard at not looking directly at commoners, I can sense my Woolworths hieroglyphic shirt has caught her eye. I can tell she is fascinated by the garment.

Hey, all Princess Di need do is blink and I’ll whip off this shirt in a jiffy. She can have it. I’m not normally a friend of royalty but this girl gets my vote.

Alas, Diana has places to go and mummies to view. With a look of abject sorrow, she passes up the unspoken offer of my party shirt and strides off down the corridor to see King Tut.

A day later, I’m cruising the River Nile on the Sun Boat, drinking an outstanding beer, with the chappie from Style Magazine wriggling at the losing end of a Scrabble board.

The cruise is great until we visit the night market at Kom Ombo, where I witness a couple of guys blowing mealie seeds down the throats of their pigeons so they can pick up weight for a better sale.

We troop back on to the boat and everyone but me washes up before dinner. I head off instead for a quick Stella beer at the open-air on-deck bar. Big mistake.

The next morning, it feels like a restless cobra has come to live in my stomach. As the merry shoppers disembark on their way to more retail, more trinkets, it’s all I can do to raise a limp hand in farewell from my cabin window.

And while I’m trying my best not to heave for the millionth time, five little berry-brown faces appear at the window and yell: ‘Baksheesh, Meester?’

Suddenly Egypt is too rich for my blood.

But by the next day I’m chipper as a meerkat. The boat captain and his crew have been treating me with honey, lemon and a mystery muti.

First rule of travel: wash handies.

The Sun Boat finally arrives at Luxor, the Miami Beach of Egypt. Cruisers are lined up alongside five-star hotels. German accents rub up against American twangs and English under-statements, which in turn shake hands with Scandinavian lilts. There’s even a little Souf Effriken mixed into the lingo-stew.

The sun is going down and the light is cheesy-rich in the Luxor marketplace, a mass of Arabs and tourists, horse-drawn carriages and smoke-spewing sedans. For the 10th time, I decline an offer of hashish. Why do they always pick on me? Do I look like a dope fiend?

At the Valley of the Kings, Ismail the Egyptologist tells us about the God Min: ‘There is a major campaign and all the men of Karnak have to go and fight. So they leave the God Min behind to look after the women. When they come back, they find all the women are pregnant.

‘It must have been Min. So they cut off one of his arms and one of his legs.’

Ismail points to a hieroglyphic of an armless, legless man on the hop with an enormous erect penis before him. Hello Min.

‘That’s where you get the phrase “an arm and a leg”,’ says Ismail as he saunters away, with perfect comedic timing.

Two days later I’m with Gabi, the museum guide. She’s fuming because of a back-page report in the latest issue of the Egyptian Gazette.

A Mr Ahmed Osman, an Egyptian-born academic, has written a book titled The House of the Messiah, in which he argues that the real Jesus lived nearly 1 400 years before everyone says he did, and that King Tut, Jesus and Joshua (from the era of Moses) were one and the same.

Osman says Jesus’ mom was Nefertiti, wife of Akhenaton. Also that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, who also went by the name of Ankhesenamun. Who, obviously, was Mrs Tut.

I think that’s what Gabi said. I’m really not that sure, anymore. I know I had a good time in Egypt. That it’s very old. That they drive like maniacs. That they make great beer.

And also that the River Nile gives me very special Scrabble powers…

Chris Marais is a storyteller at

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