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Spring 2007 | Costume Parties on the Nile

Spring 2007 | Costume Parties on the Nile

Read the late great Hanns Ebensten's final travel tale, which we received shortly before his passing. OutTraveler.com proudly presents Hanns' last book.

Editor's note: We mourn the recent passing of Hanns Ebensten, widely considered the founding father of gay travel. Tour operator, tour leader, and author, Hanns wrote a wonderful article about an all-men gay costume party on a Nile cruise. We received his request to publish it "in toto without changes and deletions" the day he died. And now, OutTraveler.com proudly presents…

Costume Parties on the Nile: Queen Hot Chicken Soup, and other Egyptian frivolities

In their attempts to raise laughter from the tourists, Egyptian guides are apt to make degrading jokes about their country's heritage and historical personages.

Arriving at the ruins of Memphis, Egypt's ancient capital, they call out: "First I take you to Roseland, to see if Elvis is at home," and as they lead their groups towards the temple of the celebrated Queen Hatshepsut of the Middle Kingdom, who ruled from 1473 to 1458 B.C., they announce: "Now, ladies and gentlemens, we come to the temple of Queen Hot Chicken Soup." Other guides tell the tourists that they can never forget the queen's name if they remember that she bought her husband a hat and a cheap suit.

But Egyptians are indignant when they hear tourists make frivolous comments about their country and its history, or see such statements in foreign publications--as Russian advertisements for tours of Egypt with a faked photograph showing six pyramids at Giza instead of the actual three, or when a leading American magazine turns their sacred Sphinx into a vulgar cartoon.

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It is traditional to have a costume party on the last evening of every Nile cruise.

When I first cruised with my groups in the vintage paddle steamer s.s. Kassed Kheir--the name means Good Intent--in the 1950 and 1960s, the ship's manager and crew organised these with great care and flair: stewards went to the cabins in the afternoon offering the loan of a variety of robes and costumes, Pharoahic wigs for women and men, and were adroit at applying khol eye make-up for those passengers who either had not brought theirs or not purchased any Egyptian garments. They even had a leopard skin as worn in ancient times exclusively by the priests, which always appealed to some young man to whose face and body stewards professionally applied dark stains and, if required, a bold moustache; and a ghaffir's outfit complete with his mirrors­ for flashing sunlight in the tomb's whose custodian he was, and his lantern of office.

When I traveled with the eminent archaeologist Professor H.L. Fairman in 1964, I borrowed one of the sailor's navy-blue sweaters with the ship's name stitched in white on it, and his black, baggy shalwar Turkish-style trousers, so that for years afterwards when Professor Fairman or his wife wrote to me, they always addressed me as Dear Jack.

One year a young, beautiful lady appeared in a superb belly-dancer's outfit and was greeted in the lounge by the delighted passengers. When eight members of the deck crew entered, playing drums and flutes, she joined them in their boisterous dance, to the consternation of the ship's manager and the mortification of the prudish British passengers--"Mixing with the lower classes aboard is simply not done!"

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In 1972, when I began to operate Nile cruises for what I called "discerning gentlemen," these costume parties were particularly popular. I was older by then, and wiser, and did not feel comfortable en costumé, so wore a plain Egyptian workman's gallabiya--those floor-length, long-sleeved robes with wide, swirling skirt that is so becoming to men--or a formal white suit with a black tie. But my gentlemen relished the opportunity, at the end of our scholarly tours, to prance about in exotic and occasionally erotic creations. Most of them wore lavishly embroidered gallabiyas of the kind never worn by Egyptians but made solely for tourists.

In 1985 a Dutch cruise member won the first prize as Queen Cleopatra--his sister in Holland had created the splendid replica of her crown, wig and wide jeweled collar, which he wore over a plain white linen gown. The senior editor of Viking Press in New York transformed himself into a dignified Saudi prince, with the ubiquitous dark glasses that matched his blackened moustache, and wore an immaculate white silk head-cloth and robe--but, when safely out of sight of the ship's officers and crew members, he raised the latter high above his waist to proudly display his massive endowments under it.

During a later cruise an exhuberant young dentist joined the assembled group dramatically in an extremely abbreviated belly-dancer's outfit, in which he looked quite as attractive as the young lady had been in hers twenty years before. He was greatly admired by his fellow passengers, his popularity and too many cocktails went to his head, he began to dance and discard one garment, then another, and another, so that the ship's manager and the barman became alarmed and told me this behaviour was shocking and unacceptable aboard the historic s.s. Karim. I interrupted the dentist's gyrations and told him to go and put on some other clothes. "Just let me finish this drink," he said. "No: go now, please," I replied; and he immediately left and returned in one of the many gallabiyas for which he had loudly bargained from ship to shore when the s.s. Karim had been slowly raised through the lock at Esna.

On another cruise a gentleman made a contrasting, and very stylish, transvestite appearance as Gloria Swanson in the role of Queen Cleopatra, in a grand gold-embroidered black robe, his chest suitable padded and with expertly applied maquillage. The ship's manager accorded him his accolade by dancing with him.

Two talented men from San Francisco noticed pictures in our ship of Mohammed Ali, Egypt's 19th Century ruler who always wore enormously large turbans measuring more than a foot across; and they spent many hours in their cabin to re-create such turbans for themselves by using dozens of yards of different, brightly coloured, glazed cloths and rolling and twisting them together and then adroitly stitching them to ensure that these magnificent turbans retained the correct shape.

When my Key West massage therapist joined the cruise at the time of the second Gulf War, when America's invasive military presence in the Arab countries was resented and feared there, he did not consider that "dressing up" suited his macho image and had brought along a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot's olive-drab flight-suit with all the insignia on it. I feared that his provocative appearance in it would offend our ship's officers and crew and gave him a kefiye to wear with it--that checkered square of soft cloth, the most attractive head-covering devised for man--so that he would look like a Suadi airman; but he did not put it on and when he strode into the lounge with his sinister dark sunglasses, scowling manfully to suit his role, the crew members did not feel threatened but, always ready to share a joke, called out: "Bush! President Bush!," laughed, and mockingly saluted him.

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Occasionally a few of my "discerning Gentlemen" decided to make a joint grand entrée into the lounge. The best of these, by far, was that in 1999 when a real estate entrepreneur from Los Angeles presented a secretly rehearsed cabaret turn--Queen Hot Chicken Soup and the Nefertitties. With great foresight, the costumes for this had been bought at the beginning of the cruise, in Cairo's Khan el Khalili bazaar, where several speciality shops supply professional belly-dancers with their costumes, and others stock well-made Egyptian garments for male and female shoppers of discernment. The producer's handsome friend, a strong swimmer and gold medalist at many of the Gay Games, starred as the great 18th Dynasty queen and was supported by three other members of our group in golden belly-dancers' outfits. The hilarious performance was received with rapturous applause by all the passengers and the assembled crew. Those who saw it will always remember it.

Hanns Ebensten Travel's next Nile in Style Cruise in the privately chartered s.s. Karim will operate in November 2007. Plan your costumes now!

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