The first day and the last are certainly the most difficult to cope with: the anxieties before the get-together and the feeling of loss at the farewells, the always deceitful expectations, and the pain one has to keep in check over the past left behind.
Last night was fraught. My blood pressure descended as quickly as the pressure from my thoughts and feelings bouncing around in my skull escalated. I rose way later than what I’d become accustomed to in the last ten days. I exert myself more than usual to enhance my appearance in front of the mirror. I apply the same concealer I use for my face to my feelings.
I spend the day unable to concentrate, bearing an absent mind. I recap everything in my head: the return trip with my heavy bags, whose added load of presents and souvenirs purchased at Aswan’s bazaar had more than doubled their weight and bulkiness; and my new dear friends from the workshop who all, like myself, were going back to their provinces, homes, jobs, and families after having this beautiful dream come to an end. Ta was the name of the girl that had mesmerized me with her rare ability to make the power and resilience of simplicity and innocence stick out. It was an amazing gift seeing that they are the only values that ginger our hearts up and bring us down a peg or two from the summit of our principles until we recognize, while caught up in their game, that the world is under the sway of fakery.
I think of her: the Sehel Island! This spot where one can still trace God’s fingerprints. Carved in her surface rests the trail of the Tibians, ancestors of the Nubians, who speak a language I don’t understand but boast enough chivalry, generosity, and empathy to make the world a better place.
After breakfast, my eyes slid from the threshing floor of Sehel’s House over to the Nile and the other shore. My friend sat down next to me and we started a conversation whose topic I no longer recall but which I remember ending with the following words.
“By the time you return to this place, you’ll find it unrecognizable. They’ll have paved the path that leads here and furnished this spot on earth with an entire harbor, to the point where the island will have turned into something utterly different.”
I then felt a tight knot in both my stomach and my soul. Was it because of the comfort I found in allotting my point of view extra weight when it came to how I would love the place to preserve its original virginal candor? Would I be willing to live in a place with muddy unpaved alleys and no cars? Because there is no way to arrive on the island with a car to begin with. The roster of ferries circulating between the island and terra firma comprises small shore boats, most of which lack even an engine.
Wouldn’t the island and its inhabitants be happier if civilization were to take over and swipe this unique spot off the clear face of the Nile waters? I recalled our routine thirty-meter long trudge from the place where we were lodging to the small villa belonging to Ahmad, who also owned Sehel’s House, all just so that we could put the villa’s conference room to good use by turning it into a cinema hall, thanks to the projector inside. Every inch of the rocky trek was an uphill climb that left us out of breath and completely wiped out at the end of January—in the middle of winter! The islanders steer some three-wheelers to return home from the haven. A new asphalt road will soon cover that stretch.
Would the people not be happier if the roads were paved? If the docks distinguished themselves with a better endorsed veneer and some proper ferries? Was I so hypocritical as to embrace civilization myself while preferring that others refrain from it on account of having taken a fancy to spending vacations on a peaceful place tailor-made for taking beautiful pictures of nature? I was torn between seeing my preference as proof of my arrogance and ascribing to it the righteous fear of seeing the beauty of this bucolic spot, thus far preserved by the dint of political frontiers, vanish into thin air.
In the end, I trusted my guts, which made me uphold my first impulse and make a decision according to what I reckoned was the best choice. I thought of myself as the true lover, who for his or her dearest’s sake doesn’t mind putting his or her own interests aside. “If the island turns into a ‘city,’ I won’t visit it anymore,” I reassured myself. The unique and enchanting village would stay with its marvelous mountains embedded in my photos, which I would cherish and turn to when the nostalgia becomes unbearable, when the redolence of the olden days makes it difficult to breathe, and the loose gravel of the stones we once picked up along the way fuses into the memory stones I stash away in my jar of joy. It vouches for the experience I have gained finding celestial love and ultimately enshrines the sentiment in my heart. In case the islanders end up choosing to become citizens, cheers! Let them have civilization and contribute to disfiguring God’s trail. The ones following their steps will imprint their choices, cementing the way they will be remembered.
I look away from the landscape I may have just had in front of my eyes for the last time and go back to my room to pack my bags.
Written by Caroline Nabil.