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  Field Notes From
Death on the Nile



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On Assignment
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From Author

A. R. Williams



On Assignment

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From Photographer

Kenneth Garrett



In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Brian Strauss (top), and John Echave
 

On Assignment On Assignment On Assignment
Death on the Nile

Field Notes From Author
A. R. Williams
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I had heard a lot about Mohamed El Walili before I ever met him. He has been a driver, guide, interpreter, fixer, and good friend to National Geographic writers and photographers for decades. So we weren’t quite strangers when he picked me up at the Cairo airport. After working with us at Saqqara all day, Mohamed often took photographer Ken Garrett and me home with him. We would watch from his balcony as the nightly sound-and-light show played across the nearby Giza pyramids. And then his wife would serve a feast: sheep kebabs, lamb chops, grilled chicken, buffalo meat stewed with potatoes and tomatoes, finger-size eggplants seasoned with hot peppers, tender stuffed cabbage leaves, navy beans in a tomato broth, basmati rice, fresh pita bread, all heaped on our plates. Seconds? Thirds? We weren’t allowed to say no. By the time my trip ended, I knew all the El Walili children—four grown sons and a daughter—and a toddling granddaughter always startled by the strange woman with red lipstick and no headscarf. When Mohamed and I said our good-byes, I gave him a big hug, just as I would a relative.



Imagine the traffic of Rome, Mexico City, and New York coming together in a chaotic, crowded, aggressive flood. Cars, trucks, taxis, mini-buses, motor-scooters, bicycles, and the odd donkey cart and camel all trying to get ahead on wide streets with no lanes and few traffic lights. That’s Cairo. Now imagine having to cross one of those streets. That’s what I faced before my first appointment on my first morning in Egypt. But luck was with me, along with Ken Garrett, who gave me a quick lesson in street smarts: Look for other people crossing, wait for an opening, then move when they move. Cross one car-width. Stand still. Let the traffic whiz past you, front and back. Wait for the next opening. Move again with everyone else. I waited, scurried, stood still, swore, scurried again, and again. But I made it across. And then I laughed. Piece of cake.



Egypt is seven time zones and a world away from my life in Washington, D.C. So as I packed my bags, I prepared mentally for the unfamiliar. But I forgot how small the world really is. One of Ken Garrett’s friends invited us to dinner one evening. She lives in the Cairo neighborhood of Zamalek, on an island in the Nile where acacia and ficus and palm trees shade old villas and spacious apartments and upscale boutiques. We arrived promptly, walked up the wide white marble steps of our hostess’s home, and knocked on a large door of time-burnished wood. She was busy arranging flowers at the last minute, so she asked another guest to greet us. The door swung open, and I did a double take. The other guest was a close friend’s brother, now working in Cairo. And there was more. The hostess and I had both majored in archaeology at the same college, just a dozen years apart. Suddenly, Egypt wasn’t so unfamiliar after all.





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