1. An island in the Nile, in Aswan, in good old Egypt.
2. An Arabic word that describes the state in which you feel a mixture of content, exhilaration & euphoria.
They lead very simple lives. They live in houses, barely covering their basic needs and necessities. They don’t make much money and they don’t have much to choose from or much to offer. What they do have though is sensational beauty that surrounds them, hospitality and smiles to offer, pure water to drink from, and clean air they rightfully breathe. These are the people of Heisa*.
There are people who are adventurous, flexible, can easily adapt and are open for new experiences and those who aren’t adventurous, who face difficulties adapting and like to stick with the familiar. Heisa is one of those places that make you let go of all inhibitions, whichever type of person you are, and simply enjoy your every move. One of those places that make you joyously drink water from a ‘zeer’ (earthen water jug), gladly use a ‘7amam balady’ (floor toilet), walk for hours on end in the sun, have your own legs and boats as the only forms of transportation, and upon collective euphoria, jump in the Nile, fully dressed.
How did I get to do all that on an island that its name alone is enough to put a smile on your face? Every year, for four years now, the ‘Characters of Egypt’ festival is held. It is an event that brings together different tribes from all over Egypt and “aims to unite different ethnic groups to participate in an annual cultural exchange festival to promote cooperation & responsible tourism in Egypt,” as described on their Facebook page. For the past three years, the festival was held in Wadi ElGemal in Marsa Alam. However, this year, the first year I joined as a volunteer, they held it on the magical island of Heisa.
Walid Ramadan, the founder, is a man who sincerely wants to help anyone and everyone in any way he possibly can; constantly roaming the place whenever he’s free, asking us volunteers what we do back in Cairo and if there’s a way for him to help, he will not hesitate to use it. His festival guarantees Egyptian unity, which benefits us, as volunteers, a family of different people who become inseparable, and tribes as they get to know each other, and the residents of the island. We truly all become characters of Egypt, getting along and exchanging culture and beliefs.
For the volunteers, each day seemed endless. Our day started early in the morning; we would wake up from people’s snoring around us, another tent’s alarm or to an alarm inexplicably called ‘Meshmesh’ (apricot). Either way, we woke up with a smile on our faces and bags under our eyes. After the hike to the bathroom and back, we’d go for a general meeting then smaller group meetings for each committee; some of which were held as swims in the Nile. You’re on Heisa; why not? There was always something to be done, there was no room for free time, no room for boredom, it simply didn’t exist over there. There were amazing people surrounding you day and night; be it your fellow committee members, other volunteers, a group singing some Nubian songs, or the most hospitable people you’ll ever meet, the residents of Heisa or the members of the tribes. Every single person worked to his/her last sweat, and at the end of the day when you were so tired you could sleep standing, it was all more than worth it.
Some of the highlights of each day were the nightly musical performances. Each tribe would perform music to which everyone couldn’t help but dance to. They wanted to have a good time and show everyone a good time as well. There were open mics from ‘Mashroo3 ElMareekh’; performances included Nubian dancing, popping, reciting of the national anthem, poetry, and singing. Performances were so versatile and diverse all the way from ethnic to modern. The mixture was phenomenal. The arts’ role was big on this trip with more activities like art therapy, tie-dying from ‘Alwan we Awtar’ and artistic, handmade products for sale from ‘Nabta’ (NGO) as well as from different tribes.
The daily schedule included a workshop, or a lecture covering topics such as tribal law, development, or education. These workshops were very beneficial to everyone. A workshop, led by May Gah Allah, taught the tribes’ members and the residents of Heisa how to go about preparing proposals for projects, tips on collaborative effort, and how to study, plan, and start the process.
It was very easy to get to know someone. People could just be themselves; no masks, and no affiliations whatsoever. It didn’t matter what you do, where you’re from, or where you live; we all had one thing in common and that was all that mattered: we were all characters from all over Egypt, uniting on an island in the middle of the Nile. Some volunteers and guests were foreigners but that wasn’t ever an issue. We all took it all in; the experience, the place, the air, the beauty, the friendships, the talks, the dancing, the camping, and the hiking. The festival aims to bring Egyptians together; it does, on all levels it definitely did, and I have no doubt it will continue to do so in the future.