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Where the Nile is the Only Road

At Aswan, the painter Renato Guttuso joined our contributor Franco Fellini, who had descended from Khartoum. Together they travelled down the Nile to the Delta. Here is the first part of their notepad. The second part will be published in the issue for April

 

I am sitting, almost sinking into the soft soil, amongst rows of broad beans washed by the river waters. The stars fade, in the west the opaque moon sets, to the east the horizon is tinged with yellows and reds. From the bank, a boat silently breaks away, makes headway, rapidly moves obliquely towards the centre of the river. Of the two men on board, one is sitting at the helm, the other moves a basket packed with nets from prow to stern. The boat vanishes. From the darkness on the right emerge the smooth light trunks of sycamores. From them comes a dense chirping of birds. Behind me looms a wall striped with slits and breached at several points. Well, these are the bastions of Omdurman. […] A little farther upstream, but just until you see the bubbling of the water, the White Nile and the Blue Nile meet to form the great Nile of Nubia and Egypt. The dome and minaret rising beyond the river and the date palms, outlined clearly in the dawn light, belong to one of the mosques of Khartoum, the gateway to Black Africa. As the light broadens, the fogs in my tired mind dissipate and everything takes its place in fabulous memories and precise points of reference […]. There’s only one thing I can’t place: myself. In the village where I live it was snowing, it had been snowing incessantly for four, five, six days and all the village men had mobilised, so I had to leave my books and shovel most of the day to keep a passage open between the house and the road. One morning, on waking up, the sky appeared as clear as crystal over an amphitheatre of precipices and pinnacles. Just time to close my suitcases and give the children a hug and, from one face of Mont Blanc brushed by the sun, the first avalanche descended thundering. Now I’m sitting on the sands of the Nile, as the vermilion disk of the sun rises behind the dome of the mosque, splitting it like a water melon. How many dawns have followed each other from the one on Mont Blanc to this one on the Nile? None. The transition took place in a single rotation of the sun. One might wonder whether it’s all a dream, a reverie. […]

 

Brief Day in a Capital City
The willing gentleman who came to fetch me at the airport at 2.30 a.m. has a name as long as a pharmaceutical product: Castrinoyannakis. Born in Greece, he grew up in Egypt, works in the Sudan and dreams of coming to live in Italy. I met him as an agent of a tourist company and, after a little conversation, found he is a representative of Pirelli in Sudan. […] Mr Castrinoyannakis’s black Buick took me through the night, through the streets of Khartoum and Omdurman. There were white ghosts, walking hastily along the sides of the roads. […] Police jeeps rushed clattering through the streets of Khartoum. Among the mud houses of Omdurman, an immense proletarian suburb of the capital, there was not a soul. […] After leaving me, at my request, and picking me up after dawn […], on the bank of the Nile, Mr Castrinoyannakis escorted me to the Grand Hotel […].
The porter is asleep, his forehead touching the counter, a sleepy waiter takes two deck-chairs into the garden, disappears and reappears with two providential cups of French coffee. It’s 6 o’clock, the city wakes up. Ancient cars, but American and British makes, pass at top speed, in increasingly dense traffic along Nile Street, the only road that’s totally asphalted. A few buses, a number of lorries full of people, as at home when there’s a tram and bus strike. Very few pedestrians. Here, progress and modernity coincide with motorisation. […] The brief day of the Sudanese capital has begun. Towards 1 or 2 o’clock, everyone – or almost everyone – will go back home to sleep and will only reappear after sunset. […] Along the street that leads to the station, on the lawns between the bungalows that once belonged to European masters, little boys in khaki-coloured trousers, bare torso and musket, prepare for the only task that the dictatorship requires of its citizens: to affirm the country’s independence. […]
Take care, travellers to the Sudan! If you go to catch the Khartoum-Wadi Halfa train relying on the timetable of the Tourist Office of the United Arab Republic […], on Sundays you will take the Wednesday train and on Wednesday the one for the following Sunday. It would have happened to me too, were it not for my clever Castrinoyannakis, thanks to whom I reached the station five-and-a-quarter hours before the time advertised by the said agency and fifteen minutes before the actual arrival of the train. I ask the station master, to check, at what time we’d reach Wadi Halfa.
“Tomorrow”, he reassures me. “During the day tomorrow”. And he looks at me strangely. He’s not the only one: they all look at me as at some rare animal and laugh maliciously, as though I had an April Fool’s joke stuck on my back. I realise that I’m still dressed as I was yesterday at Ciampino airport, with tie, pullover, jacket, and also my anorak thrown over my shoulders to leave my hands free. I’m a sight. Before the train departs, I manage to reappear on the platform in jeans, shirt open to my waist and sandals, as in Portofino in August.

 

The White Train of Sudan
We are six “Europeans” on the train. A pretty, young Parisian girl, alone. She teaches at the Chateaubriand school in Khartoum. Earlier, she did two years in Syria. In 1960 she’s counting on going to Japan. She goes back to Paris in summer. She’ll go back finally in twenty years’ time, she says, when she’s an old lady. An American couple at the end of a three-month tour of Black Africa. He’s 68, she’s 67 (I can see from their passports). They’re fresh, smiling and frivolous, like guests living in an hotel on the Riviera. The mysterious one of our group is a gentleman with a Swiss passport, who speaks perfect New York dialect and says he’s a retired journalist. He knows the names of the train attendants, who treat him with special respect. Lastly, there’s an Italian, young and alone, single, who, against all the rules, pays no attention to the Parisian teacher. He’s a rather squalid individual, the only one, throughout the journey, with whom I won’t start talking. The six of us, plus two Sudanese of imposing stature – two officials, I believe – occupy two carriages of the train, a sleeping car and a buffet car with fans and blue glass windows. […] The first class is empty. […] The second class, with separate compartments but wooden benches, is full. All men, not even one woman […]. The third class, on the other hand, is incredibly crowded with women and children. Why so many women and children should be travelling in a country like this, I have been unable to discover. It’s like an exodus: the men are soldiers, fighting the invader; the women and children are escaping by train. […]
This is the white train of Sudan: someone may know when it starts, but no one knows when it arrives. For reasons that perhaps only the subconscious of the guard knows, it alternates between a snail’s pace and racing along like an express. It makes an incredible number of halts and each one is a true siesta. […] At Atbara, the change for Port Sudan, there’s a real station. Otherwise, stations consist of a guard with a red cap and a whistle and two in kamis, before and after the halt, who manoeuvre the points in the sand.

Where the train halts, the whole village gathers on the hypothetical platform. First are the men […]. Then the women and children. Women and children sell stuff […]. It’s poor stuff […]. I followed a little girl for the whole length of the train: she was trying to sell an egg, a single egg. […] The goods to sell are poor, and poor are the potential buyers. […] I never saw anyone begging. I never saw two vendors competing for the same customer. They offer their goods with dignity, without insisting. They’re handsome people, generally speaking, looking healthy and discreetly vigorous, serious and proud. Amongst themselves they are extraordinarily cordial, great handshakes, happily joking and laughing heartily. […] In the afternoons, it’s impossible to stay long on the platform. You get roasted. After some time, the travellers get back into their compartments, the peasants shelter in the shade of the few trees, they crouch down close to each other, densely filling the circle of shade, like sheep in Sicily and Sardinia on summer afternoons. They wait, gossiping, for the train to depart.

It’s not exactly a desert that goes by slowly beneath my eye. It’s worse than a desert. Mud villages, houses shut up within courtyard walls, high, grey, aligned walls, so that each built-up area looks like a fortress of the Foreign Legion. There are no fields: the fields are further away, along the Nile; the desert villages are far from the green, to avoid being destroyed in years when the floods are high. Often they are without a single tree. Almost always without any large house, place of worship, a square that would signal any form of social life. Around, scattered herds without a shepherd, herds of donkeys and goats: the two animals, of all the domestic species, that can live, like man and with man, on the edge of nothing. Not even a blade of grass; the bushes are mostly dead. The scene is dotted with carcasses; here hawks are at home, just like sparrows in our fields. Besides the herds and their relics, sand, stones and scrub, a total absence of life. Shortly after leaving Khartoum, I saw a tractor. It was running tall, shiny and new over those ruins and looked like a Martian spacecraft after the destruction of the world. Further on, in a couple of places, there were new buildings, even whole new areas, built of bricks, and yet identical the mud houses. Where front doors had been made in the houses rather than to the courtyards, as is customary, I saw that they were walling them up. The railway seems to have brought nothing new.

[…] The poles along the track are for the telegraph (something devilish for the rich and powerful of the big cities), not electricity. What will happen the day electric light arrives with radio, and television? They will learn to distinguish a turbojet from a jet, and perhaps Perry Como from Rascel, before they know how to work the tap for running water. After roughly five hundred kilometres, the track moves away from the Nile and ventures through the real desert. Where the train halts there are no villages, just wells. It’s night, the moon is sailing high in the sky. The sand is snow, a disconcerting effect: pink snow that at dawn, for a few fleeting moments, becomes salmon pink.

A bustle draws me back from sleep. There’s a real station, a real town with avenues, bungalows flowering with bougainvilleas, a minaret and a Coptic church tower that emerge from the dense acacias and sycamores.

It’s Wadi Halfa. On the platform, two young Americans popped out of who knows what dim recesses of the train grab the only taxi and stuff it with suitcases, paratrooper’s bags, cine cameras, film canisters, rolls of blankets, cases of whisky. In vain, the Parisian, who will be staying here, asks for a little space for her streamlined hips and her single travel case. The train goes on for another couple of kilometres: Wadi Halfa customs. There’s a thickset, blind fellow who acts like the boss; he assigns the porters, squares up the “European” passengers (except for the Swiss, who manages on his own: here too he is known and revered), accompanies them from one customs office to another, and ensures that no zealous customs officer opens our suitcases. When he has got us on the steamer, each in his own cabin, he returns to collect us and take us back, beyond the customs barrier, to visit the town. To worry would be insulting: the steamer won’t depart before he has brought us back on board. “A beautiful place, this city of mine, what do you think?”. It is actually an attractive small town, clean, painted in various colours, with a subdued buzz of small traders, artisans’ workshops, cafes where youths play at taula on the ground and old men smoke crouched over their narghilè; not a single woman on the streets, children, some wretched, some beautiful, a round square with an immense sycamore in the centre, with sleeping camels beneath it, other camels around entangled like ants in a bathtub. “And to think that Nasser would like to put my town under water, with his damn’ dam.” A sarcastic pun; because dam, in English, sounds both like “dam” and “damned”. He seems to like me. He makes me get on a camel, cross the customs barrier, right to the ship’s gangway.

The Wadi Halfa-Esh Shallal steamer is a river village: in the middle is the boat itself, with its bridge, engine room, first and second class, restaurant. On each of its two sides a two-floor vessel, one for third-class passengers (women and children segregated behind wooden lattices), one for the cattle. At the prow, there’s a third vessel for cars and bulky goods. […]

On the second-class deck, I make three new friends: Yaki Abdullah el Iaiep, from Omdurman, nineteen years old, as handsome as the Apollo Belvedere, the first of seven brothers and seven sisters, a medical student at Cairo University and mad about the cinema (“Bicycle Thieves! I saw it six times”); Naguib Shehata Khalil, an Alexandrian, secretary at the Arab University of Khartoum, who gets tears in his eyes when he pulls out his children’s photos; and Hassan Mohamed el Alfi, who has learnt from the Italians how to make rush chair seats and has made – says Yaki – millions. […] Every now and again I get up to ask when we’re arriving at Abu Simbel. “Shortly, shortly!”. Hours go by. All of a sudden, breath-taking scenery appears before our eyes: a small bay of very light-yellow sand, shut in by a precipice of reddish rock. Sculpted in the rock, on two sides, are two temple façades with portals, friezes, cornices. Seated before the temple on the left are four marvellous colossal statues of Ramses ii. I’d studied books on Abu Simbel, and was looking forward to it like a man in love. Now I see it rush past my eyes and vanish in half a minute. Why? Because, they say, you have to ask the Captain to stop. Another warning for anyone following in my footsteps.

 

Boat transformed into Police Headquarters
A wonderful life, the crocodile’s: from the warmth of the sand to the coolness of the water, and vice-versa. Judging by the great mouth that Mother Nature has seen fit to endow them with, procuring food must be a game. […] The first one I saw was enormous, stretched over a sand dune with his harem around him, comprising three smaller crocodiles. At our shouts, the harem slipped into the water. He, the contemptuous sultan, didn’t budge. He just opened his jaws wide in a yawn – the most monstrous yawn imaginable. […] Now the bank opens out into deep inlets. It’s like navigating through an archipelago. Black fishing boats slip into the water, doubling the wake of the moon… Towards midnight, a capricious wind comes down from the north, assailing the convoy, raising waves between the vessels up to the top deck. I move like a sleep-walker towards my cabin. […] The siren whistles, I look out of my cabin door, as does the American, his face thickened by shaving soap, only to withdraw, slamming the door. On the rocks on both sides of the river run two long parallel lines of white paint. This is the lay-out of the High Dam. […] “The High Dam will be built”, whispers Naguib Shehata, as though it were a secret. He has tears in his eyes as when he showed me his children’s photographs. I, too, wave my handkerchief at the workers on the dam.
[…] As soon as we dock, the boat is transformed into a police station. A band of officials comes on board, some in uniform and some in civvies, they take over a couple of rooms, arrange tables and chairs, set out ink-wells, stamps, registers. […] The admission examination to the uar begins. […] What is my actual occupation? Why am I in Egypt? Have I got friends, relatives, real or personal property in Egypt? What is my intended itinerary? Where shall I be staying? And so on. It seems I have passed. But no! There’s still a terrible man. He’s alone, at a corner table, he’s short-sighted and his gaze is plunged into an enormous register. He’s the man of the black lists. […] At my side, the American lady is struggling with the third commission. “Oh, what nice people these Egyptians are!” she says with genuine enthusiasm. “You should see what we have to put up with when we go back to the States!”.

 

What do the Natives wear in Winter?
For those coming from Nubia, Aswan is like Cannes. […] The beauty of the place itself is so complete and perfect as to seem artificial, illustrative and affected. Despite its name, the Hotel Cataract is not located where the water breaks dramatically from the mouths of the dam against the steep and harsh bed of the first cataract. From on top of one of the banks, smoothed as it were with emery cloth, the Cataract is reflected in a lake, a Nile-lake where the water sweetly laps slender islets with scenically ruffled palm trees, the remains of ancient temples, Berber villages, orderly parks with clumps of pink and scarlet bougainvilleas, black basalt cliffs, whimsically sculpted and perfectly smoothed.

[…] When first encountered, you accept that this landscape is very beautiful, but once acquired, and entirely paid for as the hours lazily go by, by the transmutation of light and tones, it emanates a fascination that grows continually, so that the more it enchants you, the less you can divine its secret. And what a climate! […] The hall of the Cataract is the camping ground of new arrivals from Cairo, the depot for their luggage. They are waiting for the rooms to be free, rooms they had booked months in advance. […] The square outside is riddled with taxis blowing their horns as though they carried wounded people, which discharge groups, take groups on board, set off again throwing into confusion the ranks of donkeys and little Arab horses provided in the garden for the amusement of the tourists’ children. […] The Organisation is an octopus with a hundred tentacles. It even grips me, standing apart enjoying the scene and not bothering anyone for anything. It grips me and, about ten o’clock at night, puts me on board a boat overladen with Milanese, Turinese and Romans competing at who is the wittiest. […] We land on a thin bank of very fine pink sand: an enchanting place. […] This is the night between the 30th and 31st of December.

In the midday sun, they get out at Aswan station, having arrived by sea and land, Guttuso, his wife and my wife. They’re happy, especially my wife who thought I was lost somewhere in Nubia. From the train, on waking, she saw the Nile, she saw it as “blue” (though the Nile, like the Tiber, is “blond”) and populated with ibis. The Guttusos say how beautiful Citera was, viewed from the deck of the “Ausonia”. Against Citera I pit my crocodiles. Thus begins our roaming around, all four of us. […] In order not to lose even a quarter of an hour of the Nile, our wives change their clothes on the line between room and balcony. On the balcony Guttuso draws and I let myself enjoy being the heir of the Aga Khan. […] Next day, a guide who knows only English – “I speak very good English”, accompanies us to the bazaar. It’s an important market day and all the fellahin from a long stretch of the Nile and of different races: Masri, Nubians, Beduins, Ethiopians, converge on Aswan. The big market is behind the bazaar: a vast open area between squalid houses flooded by dazzling light. In a cloud of dust move men in white kamis and women in black mila’yehs or they sit beside their goods […]. Throngs of children play hide-and-seek among the sacks. When they see us, they assail us, demanding baksheesh, hand-outs. The stench is acute, the dust dries your throat. We go to cleanse ourselves by sailing on the Nile. Along the Nile we walk, waiting for meals to be served. Over the Nile, we look, in the evening, between one whisky and the next. On our balcony overlooking the Nile, we linger, at night, before going to sleep.

 

Students and the Gods of Ombos
Hearing that we are going from Aswan to Luxor by car, the porter of the Cataract shakes his head. He had thought we were nice people. The asphalted road runs along an embankment that divides precisely and dramatically the lush countryside and the corroded stretch of sand and ruins. Ahmed, the driver to whom Allah has entrusted us, is in no way inferior to his colleagues at Aswan. On the asphalt you can go at eighty, ninety. Why waste such a rare occasion? […] Camels and dromedaries, their necks emerging from enormous loads of baskets or canes, take umbrage; they swerve and buck, some run down the embankment, some pull the reins from their drivers, and start galloping in front of the car, swinging their scrawny buttocks set on interminable legs, slouching, flapping, until some good soul throws himself down, defeated, in the middle of the road and induces it to make a deviation through the fields. Where – after about forty kilometres – the asphalt ends, archaeology begins. The sun is still low over the dunes. Above the brilliant stretch of fields rises a tuffaceous terrace. It is defended to the east by Roman walls, whilst to the west the Nile laps its base and bends in a very wide loop. Here rises the Ptolemaic temple of Ombos. The sands still hold it prisoner, for fifty percent; as compensation, the Organisation hasn’t yet discovered it. Five piasters to the custodian suffice to convince him that you don’t want to see mummies of priests or crocodiles, that you’re not interested in knowing which is Haroeris and which Isetnofrit. You just want to spend a silent and happy half-hour in a place that’s no less fascinating than Agrigento, or Paestum.

Not even the time to formulate this thought and behold, having who knows how overcome the bastion on the Nile, about a hundred children burst in, school children who overflow the pedestals, pillars, portals and columns, the boys in white smocks, the girls in little violet, yellow, light blue or turquoise uniforms. Calls, shouts, laughter echo through the colonnades of the hypostyle hall, beneath the ceilings illustrated with impassable gods. Until, panting, four or five teachers arrive and make them form a queue and conscientiously lead them to see the mummies of priests and crocodiles, and explain to them which is Haroeris, which Isetnofrit. Across the sky a flock of candid white storks.
The follow-up has a background that needs to be stated. On New Year’s Eve Guttuso, back in his room and looking out from his usual balcony, was bewitched by the sorceress of Elephantine Island. Only the first light of dawn restored him to his legitimate consort. The ailment, next day, only revealed itself in small and negligible signs. It progressed slowly, like a woodworm in a plank, until, having reached the ideal moment, it exploded. Imagine a track full of holes winding its way through an ocean of rocks and sand, oppressed by the midday sun, without a soul, a tree, or any sign of life; which, when at last a bunch of palms appears in the distance, bends in the opposite direction, entering a deep and interminable canyon only to emerge into another ocean identical to the first. Along this track, at fifteen or twenty kilometres per hour, a black Chevrolet is bouncing about with its windows hermetically closed. Beside the Nubian driver is Guttuso in a jacket, scarf, winter overcoat, with its collar raised to meet the brim of his felt hat; sweat pouring off him, inevitably racked with feverish shivers, assailed by pains in every part of his body.
On the back seat, three suffering souls, not knowing what to do except to shout at Ahmed to close the window whenever the latter – who doesn’t understand what’s going on – opens it in order not to suffocate. The competition regarding the progress of which goes faster – Ahmed’s Chevrolet or Guttuso’s fever – lasts all day. […] After Esna we just missed a tragedy. A little boy of three or four crosses the road in front of the car. Ahmed brakes and swerves like a hero, the Chevrolet ends up on the edge of a canal. Ahmed gets out of the car and we are convinced he wants to beat the child. But no: he bends over him, speaks to him for a long time, caresses his hair and then returns, entirely calm, and drives off. Men and women, children and dogs, camels and donkeys and flocks of sheep (it’s dusk, time to return to the village) emerge like ghosts in the headlights and disappear in clouds of dust. Tutankhamun reborn, entering the hall of the Winter Palace at Luxor, in the sparkling light of the crystal chandeliers, among evening dress and veiled nudity on the waves of a Viennese waltz, could not be less stunned than we are. The rooms are still occupied. Two more hours go by before we can bury Guttuso beneath a mountain of woollen blankets.

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