On the morning after our visit to Abu Simbel, we were scheduled to visit a botanical garden and the Aga Khan's mausoleum.
I decided to pass. I am not botanically minded, and I was tiring of mausoleums. My wife went.
Since our boat was docked in Aswan, I decided to explore the town--as it turned out, a serendipitous choice.
I had walked only a block or two along the river before I came to a dirty ocher two-story building with two barred windows and a door guarded by two uniformed men with assault rifles. I guessed it was a police station. They are much the same worldwide.
I walked in, unmolested. Inside there was one long hallway crossed by another. People sat on benches along the hallways. They looked bored, anxious or despondent. One woman in the long, loose black outer garment worn by most Muslim women was nursing a baby. In the hallways, much business was being done. Men in business suits with long, black scarfs tufted with white at their ends were talking to humbler people. The men with the scarfs were obviously lawyers. I was in a courthouse. It was L.A. Law Aswan.
I walked down the main hall and looked into a room that appeared to be a court. I walked in and sat on one of the benches. There was the usual rail, with a judge's bench beyond it. On one wall there was a barred cell, about four by 12 feet. Several people sat on benches behind me. In the front row were three women in black garments with white-tufted scarfs. I was surprised to find Muslim women could be lawyers.
One of them turned and smiled at me. "Is this a courtroom?" I asked.
She grinned. "In half an hour," she said, her English surprisingly good.
I decided to wait. Gradually the benches filled up with the friends and relatives of the defendants. An officer brought in a handcuffed man and locked him in the cell. A woman with a small girl in her arms walked over to the bars and held the girl up. The prisoner stood and kissed her through the bars.
A man I took to be a clerk came in and sat at a table beside the bench, riffling papers. An older man in a yellow robe came in. Obviously the bailiff. He looked sternly at the spectators. Finally, he gave an order in Arabic and everyone stood. Including me.
A door opened and a young man walked in. He was rather good looking. Blue business suit, shirt, necktie, plastic-rimmed glasses. He took the bench quickly and began the proceedings, going through a pile of loose papers handed to him by the clerk.
One by one the lawyers came forward. Oddly, the three women were last. I assumed that it was simply an arraignment court, that the judge was merely assigning dates for later trial.
Finally he was finished and the court began to empty. I tarried, wanting to say goodby to the woman lawyer I had talked to. Then I noticed the bailiff was beckoning me. Come forward, he seemed to mean. I wondered if I had violated some protocol.
Naturally, I went forward, and the bailiff directed me to the bench. I stood before the judge, not knowing what I might be accused of.
"What is your nationality?" the judge asked.
"American," I said.
That seemed to interest him. "Do you speak French?" he asked. I knew I was finished. I have no French.
He said he had studied law in France. I told him my wife was French, but unfortunately she was visiting a tomb. I don't think he understood me.
"I would like for you to have tea with me," he said.
I was delighted. The judge stood to return to his chambers. He spoke to his bailiff, who led me through the corridor and through a door into a room in which the judge was seated at a small table. His clerk sat beside him. They were working.
In a moment the bailiff brought me a glass of hot tea. The judge asked me where I was staying. I told him I was on the Queen Nabila I. He said he would like to visit me that evening. I said regretfully that we were sailing at midday for Luxor. He seemed disappointed.
He asked me for my card. I gave him my name and address and asked for his. His name was Mohammad Mohammad. That virtually ended our conversation. I thanked him for his hospitality and withdrew.
When my wife came back from the Aga Khan's tomb, she said: "Well, what did you do with your morning?"
I said: "I went to court."