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A Sail on the Nile by Sara Keables Hunt


Did you ever go sailing on the Nile? Come, then, and imagine yourselves, on a clear warm January day, afloat on the river of which you have so often heard. What a sensation we should create if we could go sailing up the Hudson some sunny morning, our broad lateen-sail swelling in the breeze, and the Egyptian flag flying behind!

Let us take a walk over the boat which for two months will be to us a floating home, and to which we shall become really attached before we leave its deck, and the shores of the Nile. It is a queerly shaped vessel, entirely different from any other which has ever carried you over the waters. The length is about seventy-two feet, and the width between fourteen and fifteen feet at the broadest part; it has a sharp prow, and stands deep in the water forward; it is flat-bottomed, like all Nile boats, on account of the shallow water in the spring.

Here, a little way from the bow, is the kitchen—a small square place, where the cook holds undisputed sway, and gratifies your palate with novel and delicious dishes. This little spot is a very important part of the boat, I assure you, for sailing on the Nile gives you a keen relish for good dinners.

Somewhat back of here is the mast, rising thirty feet or more, and the long yard, suspended by ropes, large at the lower part, but tapering toward the extreme point, where floats the pennant which you have secured for the occasion.

This long yard bears the large triangular lateen-sail, its huge dimensions necessary to catch the wind when the river is low and the banks high. The sides of the boat are protected by a low railing not more than six inches in height, over which the sailors can easily step, as they will have occasion to do many times during the voyage. The main-deck is usually occupied by the crew, and from here are stairs leading to the quarter-deck, over the cabin and saloon, where we will take seats under the awning by-and-by, and watch the scenery on the banks of the river.

Let us go down these few steps leading to the saloon. We find ourselves in a room occupying the breadth of the boat; there are windows on each side, with long divans, below them, a round table in the centre, chairs, cupboards, and book-cases completing the furniture. Now let us open these glass doors, walk along this narrow passage, and take a look at the sleeping-cabins. They measure six feet by four, half of which is filled by the bed, which gives you girls little room in which to arrange your toilet; but you will not care to devote many hours to that while here.

Such is our floating home, and though limited in space, you can be most comfortable if you have a contented disposition, and a heart and mind to appreciate the wonders around and above you.

And now let us ascend to the quarter-deck. It looks very cheerful, with its centre table loaded with books and papers, its bright-colored divan and easy-chairs; so we will be seated while I introduce you to the crew.

There is the reis, or captain—Hassaneen by name—a grave, quiet little old man, standing there at the bow of the boat, with a long pole in hand, sounding the water now and then, and reporting the depth. You will always find him there, reserved, thoughtful, his whole attention apparently fixed on his employment.

Do you see that old gray-bearded man with his hand on the rudder? That is Abdullah, always there, even when we are at anchor. Then a heap of blue and a gray burnoose in the same place tell us Abdullah is asleep. We need never fear while that old man is at the helm, for he will guide us safely by sand-banks and bowlders to the destined port.

Of the remainder of the crew I can not give so good a report. They are a curious assemblage of one-eyed, forefingerless, toothless men, bare-legged, in robes of dark blue, and gay turbans, it being a common custom to render themselves thus maimed in order to escape military conscription. There is Mohammed, a good-natured fellow, ready to do just as his companions do, whether it be good or bad. There is Said, a cunning, deceitful-looking man, but a good sailor. Just to the right is Hassan, black as coal, with glittering eyes, a tall form, and tremendous muscle; he is a faithful fellow, willing to obey to the letter, but without any judgment. There are Sulieman and Ali, the laziest ones on board, strong as any, but the first to cry out, "Halt," and the sleepiest couple on the Nile. There is Yusuf, always at his prayers, and more willing to pray than work. There is Achmet, watching his chance to run away. Then comes Mustapha, whose duty it is to clean the decks, scour the knives, and wait on the travellers generally. And last but not least is little Benessie, called "el wallad" (the boy), who does more work and takes more steps than all the rest of the crew together. Ah, these boys!—they're worth a dozen men sometimes. He makes the fires, waits on the crew, and is at everybody's beck and call, from the howadji to the sailor. He is a dark-eyed, shy little fellow, not particularly neat in his appearance, and always sucking sugar-cane, which probably is one of the attractions to the flies that gather continually on his face and eyes.

So there they are—a lazy set of fellows, take them all together; lazy in general when there is no present labor on hand. I think they work well, though, when a necessity arises. It is not an Arab's nature to look ahead; he sees only the present.

And now our sail is shaken out—we are off, the American flag floating aloft at the point of our tapering yard, and we seated in our easy-chairs or reclining on the divan of our decks, watching the scenery as we glide along. There before us are endless groups of masts and sails. The western shore is like a rich painting, with its palms and Pyramids, while opposite, half hidden in shining dark acacias, are palaces of the pashas, with their silent-looking harems and latticed windows. Cangias (small row-boats) are fastened to the banks, and the moan and creak of the sakias (water-wheels) tell us we are indeed upon the enchanted Nile.

Behind us rise the shining minarets of the city, and the Pyramids follow us as we go, photographing their outlines on our memory forever; the soft green plain slopes gently to the river; and as if stirred to life by the witchery of the surroundings, our bird-like boat flings her great wings to the breeze, and skims the waters, bounding along, as if with conscious joy, between the green plains of the Nile Valley.

The river is alive with boats, all bound southward, fine diahbeehs sweeping along, and looking proudly down on the lesser craft, and huge lumbering country boats laden with grain.

The landscape is not monotonous, though there is a sameness in its character, for the lines in that crystal air are always changing, and day after day the panorama unrolls, with its fields of waving tobacco and blossoming cotton, where workers are lazily busy.

We are passing the ruins of ancient cities as we sail onward, or are dragged along by the crew harnessed together by ropes, which task they call tracking. They never perform this labor reluctantly, or with any ill temper, but always accompanying their work with a monotonous sing-song in a slightly nasal twang, till the air is filled with these perpetual sounds of "Allah, haylee sah. Eiya Mohammed."

We see in this a relic of by-gone days, for the ancient Egyptians are painted on the tombs accompanying their work with song and clapping of hands.

As we are borne on through and into the creamy light of this glowing atmosphere, where the sunshine seems to pour into and blend with everything, we can hardly wonder that sun worship was an instinct of the earliest races, or that the little child believes that the East lies near the rising sun.

On, on we go, past the ruins of ancient cities, never pausing in the upward journey: it is only on the return that you visit the places of renown.

There lies Karnac, with its myriads of gigantic columns. Yonder sits Memnon, "beloved of the morning," which was said to give forth a note of music when the rising sun shone upon it. There is Luxor, Dendereh, Thebes. Sometimes amid the warm light your thoughts will go away thousands of miles, where the frosts shiver upon the windows, the snows lie heavy upon the hills, and warm hearts are praying for the traveller; but the days will creep swiftly by on the Nile, and too soon will come the hour when, the journey ended, we must leave the river, the palms, the Pyramids, and bid a long adieu to our pleasant floating home.