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T hey know about alchemy in Aswan, for it is a place that has always shifted from one thing into another. To ancient Egyptians it was a line in the sand, a buffer against the barbarians of the south and a place of exile for troublemakers from the north. According to their myth-makers, it was also where the Nile had its source, gushing from a cave beneath rapids immediately south of town.
For Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert, travelling in Egypt in the winter of , it was an obstacle that had to be overcome: their boats were manhandled over the rapids so that they could sail further south to Abu Simbel. To Hisham, the young man who followed me halfway along Aswan's corniche, it was the doorway to a land that has since disappeared beneath the waters of Lake Nasser: "Nubia, my home. The name Aswan is an Arabic corruption of the ancient word swenet — to trade. It has always been a marketplace, but these days business is slow — so slow that Hisham had plenty of time to tell me about the problem with foreigners.
That is where they spend their money. So when they come to Aswan, they pass right through. There is no business here. Even top-end independent travellers are thin on the ground thanks to a dearth of suitable accommodation.
But the north wind is still there, flapping against Hisham's white gallabiya, sending feluccas the single-masted Nile boats scudding across the river below us and reminding him of his business. Wanna boat? One of the benefits of so few people staying in Aswan — for visitors, at least — is that big business has been slow to muscle in.
Arabi has earned himself a reputation as "the birdman of Aswan". While one of his brothers manages the American Express office in town and another trades in Switzerland, Mohamed has stayed close to the Nile and developed a passion for ornithology. You don't have to be a twitcher to understand why birds love Aswan. There's limestone and sandstone to the north, but Aswan's bedrock is hornblende granite. Unable to cut a way through, the Nile is pushed around rocks, over rapids and between the islands.