I don’t go in for a big New Year’s Eve celebration that much in recent years. Think it might be because I’ve had enough great New Year’s Eve celebrations to do me for the rest of my life. And New Year’s Eve 1999 was the biggie for me. And to get this out of the way – yes; we partied like it was 1999. Because it was. So there.
While I was living in England, a friend of mine organized a group of us to be a part of a tour group in Egypt over the Christmas break. We were to fly from London to Cairo, spend a day or two there, take a train down country to Aswan and Luxor, and then train it again back up to Cairo in time to fly home again. It was an amazing trip, with a lot of stories in there for me to treasure. But, one such story is our New Year’s Eve party in Aswan, which is the Nubian end of the country up river.
It was suggested to us that we buy some local garb to get into the feel of the place we were in,. So, we all bought traditional Egyptian clothes for the event itself – a party which would be a combination of Christmas dinner and New Year’s Eve bash. The venue was a banquet hall on an island in the Nile river, to which we took a boat while stealing sips from a communal bottle of ‘water’. This was in the middle of Ramadan and a part of the Arab world too, so everything we drank, officially, was ‘water’ even if it tasted like, oh I don’t know, gin and tonic.
The first thing I noticed upon our arrival was that our hosts were coming out to greet us, carrying hand drums. They ‘danced’ us into the hall from the boat, playing drums and dancing themselves. On the way in, I noticed a plastic snowman, guarding the door. They had gone through a lot of effort to make sure we felt at home. We danced to our seats and food was carried in – chicken, rice, real comfort food. There was a floor show, and group participation.
English was a second language to our hosts, and sometimes not even that. So some of the instructions we were given during group participation was a little hard to get. I remember being instructed to lean against a pillar while some other part of the act was going on. Whenever I moved, the proceedings had to stop until I recommenced leaning. It was odd, but really funny too.
At some point in the evening, the idea of Christmas came to the fore, even though it had passed a few days previously. Like I said, our hosts really wanted us to feel at home. A song was struck up – “Happy Birthday”. My friends and I figured it must have been directed at Jesus. And I should mention that one of our hosts – a skinny, unsmiling fellow – was dressed as Santa Claus, and was brandishing a can of fake snow. Once again – odd, but entertaining and appreciated too.
Then, the drumming started. Our hosts brought out the hand drums, and went to work – an amazing display of musicality and, as I found out later on, athleticism too. We were allowed to try the drums ourselves, while the real musicians played. These guys were wiry, lean, and smiling. They were clearly enjoying themselves as much as we were. And I was having a blast dancing, playing drums, and laughing with my friends. Later, there was a DJ’ed dance and a lot of Western pop music was played. So, we danced some more.
I was aware the whole time that we were not only seeing out the year, but also the decade, and the century, and the millennium too. And we were doing it in the place where civilization had begun. It was exciting and meaningful. At some point in the evening, news went around that there was an opportunity to go to see the temple in Abu Simbel right after the party and just in time for sunrise on January 1, 2000. How could we say no?
After a few more drinks at the hotel, we embarked on a train to Abu Simbel. I was simply not prepared for the site; temple hewn into the side of a cliff, guarded by four enormous statues. While inside the temple, the sun peaked out over the far eastern horizon, sending orangey rays of light through the temple doorway, lighting up all within. The great part was that we all knew, in that moment, how great a moment we were in. It’s that experience that makes the mystery of life all the more compelling; to feel that you are in the place you were meant to be in, and at the right time.
This year over New Year’s, we’ll stay home and relax as we always try to do. Enjoying the small moments, I’ve found, can be just as meaningful as being in the middle of the more dramatic ones. But, it’s nice to have those memories of the larger events too, driving one along to explore new possibilities even when not seeing out an epoch. The thing that I take away from my favourite New Year’s experience in Egypt is that to dance, eat, celebrate, and enjoy the company of friends is something that all cultures have in common. It was true in the ancient world, now, and into the future too.