I am on the Nile in a feluka, the Egyptian sailboat, commandeered for our small group. There is a light breeze and the day is comfortably warm. The boat drifts slowly. I sip my cold drink and eat oranges so impossibly fragrant that I can’t help but wonder if they are really oranges – not some rare, exotic fruit that looks identical.
Mohammed is our ship’s captain. He wears a turban and a galabeya, the Egyptian traditional robe. He has a small, tidy beard and appears to be about fifty. Mohammed’s English is very good, if strongly accented, and it’s obvious that he has spent many afternoons just like this one, sailing up and down the Nile with English speaking tourists. Making small talk, I ask him if he has children. He smiles and takes out of his wallet pictures of his two small daughters, one a sweet-faced baby and the other a black-eyed three year-old girl. I ask him if he has a picture of his wife. He reaches into his wallet again and takes out a photo of a woman in a head scarf whom he tells me is 26 years old. While I admire her unblemished youth in the postage stamp-sized photograph, he inquires if I would like to see a picture of his other wife. I look at him and ask if he has two wives. He nods yes, and then hands me the picture of the second wife. Her face framed by an Islamic headscarf, she looks to be in her late fifties, with fair skin and blue eyes. Mohammed sees my wondering look and tells me that this wife is Swiss. He then shows me his laminated Swiss identity card, in which he wears a charcoal grey suit, the red Swiss cross emblazoned in the card’s upper right hand corner. It appears that Mohammed is a Swiss citizen, too. After many years in Switzerland, he moved back to Egypt only a few years back. He returned to Egypt so that he could get married for a second time.
Buoyed by the strange intimacy created by our time together on the Nile, I ask Mohammed if his Swiss wife was Muslim before he married her. He shakes his head, explaining that she was Christian but has now converted. Describing their lifestyle, he tells me that each wife has her own apartment, located in the same building. As dictated by Islam -- which stipulates that a man must treat his wives equally -- Mohammed spends one night with one wife and the next night with the other. I ask if this arrangement works well, and he tells me that the two wives are jealous of each other. Looking down, he describes the situation as, heavy, very heavy. Hearing this conversation, a female companion with me looks pointedly at Mohammed and says, No woman wants her man with another woman. Of course they are jealous. Mohammed, responds coolly that he knows of many men in the West who are married and have girlfriends on the side -- that at least in his arrangement, he is obligated to take care of both wives. I ask him if, secretly, he prefers one of his two wives. He confesses quietly that he is very fond of his Swiss wife, describing her as special.
The mosquitoes begin to swarm as it turns to dusk. It’s time to head back to the shore. As I step off the boat onto the dock and say my goodbyes, I smile at Mohammed and tell him to try to resist getting a third wife, if he can. He just throws back his head and laughs.