The Arabic Republic of Egypt… dawn over the pyramids…
With only a one hour stop-over in Cairo, Granny almost misses the connecting flight to Luxor. Sometimes it’s good to be an elder, she muses, being whisked through the long corridors on an airport cart with a driver who scatters frightened passengers in his wake as he accelerates, angrily barking into a walkie-talkie in Arabic. She even had the time to buy some sunscreen in the tax free perfume shop.
If it was warm in China, there’s no description of the weather in Egypt. It’s only eight in the morning when Granny steps off the plane into the dry desert heat, adjusting her sunglasses. She follows the other passengers into the airport building, queues though the passport formalities and takes a taxi to her hotel. The AC provides a nice contrast to the unusually warm weather for the season. She calls reception for a taxi and takes a quick shower while she’s waiting.
There are no roads to the school compound, and she has the choice of hiring a jeep, or ride, which is not really an option. The taxi drops her off at the outskirts of the little village, and she has to walk along a dirt track to arrive at her destination. “Moussa Location”, the big sign can’t be missed.
A jeep vanishes in a cloud of dust as she turns around the corner. To her dismay it was the last vehicle. An elder woman introduces herself as Uuma Moussa, the owner’s wife. ‘We only have three jeeps. Two are already hired and the third is at the garage for service. It will come back tomorrow or the day after…’
Which will be too late for Granny.
‘But we have horses – beautiful Arabian horses. Look!’ The owner’s wife, assures her that they are extremely gentle and that she won’t have any trouble riding to the school complex.
‘To discover Egypt from a dusty, noisy car cannot be compared to discovering our ancient and magnificent country from horseback. You know Lawrence of Arabia? Yes? Exactly the same.’
Granny is dubious. She watches a horse prance away with its rider, knowing full well that she won’t be able to stay on the back of something as full of energy.
‘You shall ride the grey mare. She is old and steady, and she knows the way. Just make sure to keep the pyramids on your right, you won’t get lost. My grandson, Aziz, will get her ready in an eye blink.’
‘Aziz! Bring out Mahbouba!’ she shouts, making the stallion in the next enclosure rear and gallop away in a burst of energy. ‘That is Malik – the King. Beautiful, eh?’
Granny can feel her stomach churn. ‘Ahem. Yes. Magnificent. My… err… granddaughter would love it here. She’s always asking about a horse or at least riding lessons,’ Granny says, trying to hide her fear of the horses..
‘You bring her and she will ride, too.’ Uuma beams at her. ‘Aziz will teach her.’
‘Yes. I might very well do so…’
They are interrupted by a black clad woman bringing some delicious looking pastries on a platter.
‘Samosa,’ Uuma says. ‘Taste. It is good. Only vegetables inside.’
Granny takes a bite and nods. ‘You are right, they taste delicious,’ she says her mouth full, smiling and nodding politely to accentuate her satisfaction. The samosa is also terribly spicy, and she can feel her face go bright red.
The black clad woman purses her mouth and looks her over, saying something to Uuma. Uuma nods thoughtfully, pushing away the horse who tries to have a bite, too.
‘I will be right back,’ she says to Granny, disappearing around the corner followed by the woman in black.
Granny is now sweating profusely. She could use a glass of water or even better, a whole bottle. She looks around her for some help, but there’s only the young boy, Aziz, who is deftly tacking the grey mare. He notices Granny watching him, and explains that the horse’s name means “Beloved” in Arabic.
‘Na’am, yes. You will love her, too.’ He throws the reins over the mare’s neck and gestures for Granny to mount. ‘Do you need help?’
Granny looks at the scrawny boy and shakes her head. She decides to acquaintance herself with her ride, but the grey mare assigned to her doesn’t seem to want to be ridden. She doesn’t look gentle at all, snapping at Granny she stomps her tiny hooves and tries to look menacing.
Aziz laughs merrily. ‘She will never get on the horse without help,’ he says in Arabic to his grandmother who arrives carrying ankle boots and something green. She shushes him sternly.
‘Aziz. Stop making fun of our guest and take Mahbouba to the bench.’
Granny has not understood a single word, apart from Mahbouba, but she starts following them when Uuma stops her with a hand on her arm. ‘Your shoes. They are not appropriate for riding.’
She lets go of a pair of brown ankle boots, letting them fall into the dust in front of Granny. Uuma is right. Her peek-a-boo shiny red shoes aren’t even suitable for marching on the dusty village roads. Gratefully she accepts a pair of socks before kicking her shoes off and putting the boots on. ‘Thank you.’
‘Yes. They are not expensive. ‘1,500 E£.’
‘What? How much is that in dollars?’
‘How should I know? It is not important. They are 1,500 E£ or you cannot ride.’
‘But I have to get to the school today!’
Uuma frowns. ‘Or… we can change. I keep yours.’
Granny doesn’t hesitate. ‘OK. That’s not exactly fair, but OK:’
‘And you must wear this.’ Uuma waves the green silky cloth in front of her, making Mahbouba nervously back away. ‘It is hijab for adult women. It is not appropriate to be uncovered.’
Granny nods. So that was what the black clad woman had wanted. She takes the green cloth from Uuma. She can always put it in her backpack as soon as she’s out of sight. ‘Err… I don’t know how to wear it.’
Uuma helps her, clucking her tongue satisfactorily. ‘Much better. And it will protect you from the sun and the dust.’
Appropriately outfitted for a trek in the desert, she is ready to mount. Mahbouba is patiently waiting in front of a low bench Granny understands is to be used to get on the horse’s back easier. Aziz gallantly offers her his hand to help her and this time she accepts it. Painstakingly, Granny puts a foot in the stirrup and heaves herself up.
‘Easy girl… Still now…’ she murmurs a little nervously.
Even with the additional height of the bench, she has trouble swinging her leg over the croup. Heavily she sits in the ornate traditional saddle. Aziz and Uuma looks at her expectantly from very far under. What if she falls off? There’s no way she could get up on Mahbouba’s back again without help.
‘Ma’a salama! Goodbye!’ The young boy slaps the mare’s hind quarters and she jumps forward and sets off, galloping out from the yard.
‘Aziz! You crazy boy! Inshallah she doesn’t fall off and sue us!’
‘Oooooh!’Granny shrieks. Grabbing the saddle with both hands she closes her eyes in fright.
It is lucky for her that she doesn’t see the other horse entering the yard. Trying to avoid Mahbouba it stops net, sending its rider flying over its head.
Granny is doing her best not to fall off. Mahbouba speeds out of the village, keeping to the dirt track. Suddenly the grey mare veers off to the right. Passing over a rolling sand dune, Granny gets her first glimpse of the Pyramids.
Not that she has the time to enjoy the view, she’s struggling to stay on the horse. Granny’s backpack bumps against her back, pulling her backwards. She doesn’t realize that her posture helps her keeping her balance. Not daring to let go of the saddle she leaves the reins free. She doubts that she could have guided the careening horse anyway.
She tries to adapt to the rolling motion of the cantering horse, reassured to see the pyramids to her right.
They slide down a dune and stops so abruptly Granny is projected forward. She taps her face on the horse’s neck, hurting her nose.
Mahbouba stands stock still, breathing heavily. Granny doesn’t dare move but she can’t very well stay like this. Slowly she straightens her back. Mahbouba just snorts and scratches the ground with her front hoof.
Granny takes advantage of the sudden calm to look around. They seem to have stopped at a crossroad, but the wooden signs pointing in opposite directions are of no help. Written in Arabic, they are pleasant to the eye but incomprehensible.
‘I think we should try this way. Or that.’ She waits for the horse to react. Uuma had said the mare knew the way, hadn’t she? She grabs the saddle with one hand, anticipating the sudden surge forward that will surely come when she urges the horse forward. She has never, ever ridden before, but she has seen John Wayne movies and it didn’t seem very difficult, they all used just one hand anyway. She tries to urge the horse on by lifting the reins with her free hand and waving them a little, urging the horse on with clucking sounds. The mare perks up a little, the ears pointing forward.
Granny smiles grimly. Who needs riding lessons?
But the mare doesn’t budge. She is staring fixedly towards a huge boulder behind some bushes.
Granny gestures forward. ‘Hey. Move.’
Mahbouba starts walking backwards. Suddenly she rears and Granny takes back everything she thought about how easy it is to ride. Holding on for her life, she sees in the corner of her eye a cobra Naja strike.
If she had been scared galloping across the desert before, it was nothing compared to the flight of the scared horse. The fluid movement from a few moments ago is gone, left is only hooves pounding hard on the ground, the roughness of the pace menacing to dislodge her at any moment. She loses her stirrups, sways hither and dither, finally grabbing the horse’s long mane to hold on to.
Fortunately the mare soon gets tired of fleeing. Or maybe she knows that the snake can’t follow them this far. However, she settles for a slow but steady lope, and after a while they’re just walking. Granny starts enjoying the ride and regrets using up all the camera rolls in China. She even ventures to take out a bottle of sparkling water.
She makes sure she always keeps the pyramids on her right side as Mrs. Moussa had advised her to. The little grey mare seems to know where they are heading and doesn’t hesitate.
Almost two hours after leaving “Moussa Locations”, they enter the oasis sheltering Qasr al-Hayr al-Salim Academy.
Granny dismounts. ‘Ouch… I wonder what to do with the horse?’ she mutters, rubbing her aching back.
But before Granny has the time to ask one of the persons curiously watching her, a young boy comes running.
‘Ahlan sadiqati! Hey friend! I take good care of horse, Madam! It safe with me! I’m Hassan, and I feed it and water it. Only 10 dirhams! For 20 I brush too! You OK? 20 dirhams? Yes?’
Granny laughs. ‘I’ll give you 50 if you show me the way to the Academy!’
’50? I show you!’ The boy looks around him, then he gestures to another, smaller boy. ‘Moustapha, come take horse! I give you 5 dirhams, feed it and water it! I have important business with the lady!’
He turns towards Granny again. ‘Come! I show you the way. Come! Asre’ee! Hurry!’ The boy turns left around the corner. ‘Ta’alay ma’ee! You follow?’
Granny follows. The boy turns left again, and again and again. ‘Onzori! Look! You have come to entrance Academy! 50 dirhams, please!’
Reluctantly Granny digs out 50 dirhams from her purse. ‘You little thief… We’ve just made a complete tour of the building!’
‘You didn’t ask! Shokran! Araki fi ma ba’d – see you later!’ With a happy wave, he runs away.
‘I just hope he won’t steal the horse,’ she mutters to herself, but she can’t help admiring the quick mind of the boy. It has at least taught her something – to ask.
‘As-salāmu `alayki. Welcome to Qasr al-Hayr al-Salim Academy. I’m Fahad, can I be of assistance?’
Granny turns around. A rather fat man is standing with his hands outstretched in a welcoming gesture.
‘Wa `alayka s-salām,’ Granny says painstakingly. ‘I have an appointement with the director… Sekhmet Hawas.’
‘You must be Assayeda Grey? We were waiting for you.’ The man wrinkles his nose. ‘Maybe you would like to… wash your hands? It’s a long ride from Isna…’
Granny gets the hint. ‘Yes please, washing my hands would be… lovely.’
Fahad takes her to a building with the international blue restroom sign. As soon as she’s inside the rudimentary bathroom, she sniffs her armpits.
‘Yuk… He’s right, I’m reeking!’ Quickly she opens the door slightly to see if there’s anyone in sight, but the street is empty. The only sound is the faint, melodious call for prayer. ‘Good. Let’s take care of my appearance.’
She unwraps the hijab, trying to arrange her hair, but it is impossible. The rough ride has totally ruined her hairdo.
She goes through her backpack, swearing when she doesn’t find what she’s looking for. She has to empty it on the counter – passport, perfume, chapstick, agenda, wallet, magnifying glass, two bottles of Perrier – she empties one while she continues going through her things. Oh, her credit card has slid out of the wallet. She puts it together with the key to the hotel room next to her passport. She mustn’t forget to put them back into her wallet… But first she has to find her wand. Chewing gum, fresh mints and a wad of Egyptian Pounds. Where is it? She is sure she put it in there somewhere. Irritated she shakes the bag upside down and a carefully wrapped little parcel falls onto the floor.
She picks it up and puts it next to the washbasin. Then she strips off her horsey clothes and places them next to the parcel. She pulls out her hairpins, passing her fingers through her tousled hair before reverently unwrapping her wand. It had taken a long time to repair it, finding a suitable tree to graft it on while it recovered. She had used it for the first time packing her things and it seems to work relatively fine. At least on minor spells. It is getting more powerful for each time it is put to work. She concentrates on the pile of dirty clothes, waving the wand.
‘Tiny grow and big reduce
Become something I can use’
She waits for something to happen, but there is only a faint amount of magic sparkles. Disappointed, she realizes she doesn’t have enough force to get a fresh change of clothes.
She is reduced to use the black soap next to the sink to wash off the travel dust. It makes her feel a little better, even though she has to put her horsey clothes back on. She sprays Estée Lauder generously all over herself, picking up the wand again. She has to fix her hair somehow…
Using her last ounce of energy, she uses her wand to fasten her hair in a stylish bun.
Unfortunately there’s no magic way to get rid of her aching back, or the slight nausea that seems to accompany her spells nowadays. If it wasn’t for her ill-being after throwing a spell, she would have used her wand more intensely to build up its power until it was as potent as before the zombie destroyed it. She has to contend herself with an aspirin and Perrier, that she shakes the sparkles out of first.
When she finally is ready to face the school administration, Fahad is nowhere in sight. So is no one else. She walks outside into the blinding sunlight, but where the place was filled with people only minutes ago, there is now emptiness. Lifting her eyes towards the high minaret, she understands why. Everyone is at the mosque, praying.
If she only can find the administration office, she’ll wait there. But not even Aziz and his friend are anywhere to be seen. She tries to retrace her steps, but is soon lost. The compound is really big and when she stumbles on a noticeboard, she finds that it is not as easy to read the many notices as it was in China. Here everything is written in Arabic, and even though there’s a detailed map, she doesn’t understand what is written on it.
She decides to ask in the nearest school building and pushes open the door, only to quickly back away when she sees the people prostrated on praying mats facing Makkah. She continues up the stairs in the hope of finding a terrace, but she’s cautious to listen at the door before opening it.
The door opens onto the flat roof. She threads over the threshold with caution and walks over to the low wall in the hope of seeing the administration building from up here. The site is magnificent. The numerous school buildings are nestled in an oasis of greenery, surrounded by high mountains and within sight of the pyramids. She tries to make out which direction she came from, with no success. She presumes the horse will find its way back to the stables, as all horses do.
She stands still, admiring the sight of the historical monuments, listening to the peaceful melodious chant of the muezzin. Her eyes stray to the nearby mosque and in awe she watches the rhythmical movements of the Muslims praying. Standing, bowing, prostrating and finally sitting on their knees. Their murmur in response to the muezzin reciting the glory of Allah is carried by the faint desert wind up to the roof where she’s standing, unable to move.
She’s not a believer. In fact, she only believes in the Goddess, of course, but this place and sound make her travel in time and glimpse the past. She squints, sheltering her eyes. Is that what she thinks it is? A line of camels advances slowly on a dune. A caravan. Granny sighs contentedly, almost expecting to see Lawrence of Arabia come charging…
The caravan disappears out of sight and she walks over to the other side of the terrace to try to get a sight of it again.
And there it is. The administration building, just as she remembers it from the front-page of the brochure. She’ll use the big pyramid as a landmark once she gets downstairs again. With a last, longing glance at the disappearing caravan, she hastens downstairs.
Granny walks briskly, in spite of the heat, across the yard to the school’s office. The prayer is over, and people are milling about just as when she got here not half an hour ago. With satisfaction she closes the double doors behind her, gratefully tilting her hot face towards the air moved by the large ceiling fan.
A young man with a prayer mat rolled under his arm comes forward to greet her.
‘Marhaban, you must be Madam Grey. Welcome! I’m Geb Hawas, I’m a student here. Please have a seat, my grandfather will receive you in a minute.’
The minute extends to five, then ten. After about a half hour of waiting, Granny falls asleep with the magazine she had tried to read still on her knees.
The cleaning woman who is mopping the floor chuckles when Granny’s mouth goes slack and she starts snoring lightly.
‘Madam Grey? Welcome to Qasr al-Hayr al-Salim Academy.’ An elder man looks benignly down at her, his hand outstretched. It must be the Director who has come to greet her himself.
Granny blinks a little disoriented. Discreetly she dabs drool from the corner of her mouth. ‘Mr. Hawas? I’m sorry, but I must have fallen asleep.’
Mr. Hawas shakes Granny’s hand warmly. ‘I am the faulty one, Madam. I was in an important meeting that took longer than expected. Business.’ He shakes his head, escorting her towards his office.
Mr. Hawas indicates her to have a seat in a comfortable armchair in front of the old desk. He fusses over her, serving her a glass of mint tea, while politely asking her about the journey. Granny sips carefully at the hot brewage, but it’s the extreme sweetness that makes her gasp, not the temperature.
‘You don’t like, Mrs. Grey?’
‘Oh, but I do. It’s unexpectedly good.’
Sekhmet Hawas leans back in his chair, sipping at his tea. ‘We have Internet access by satellite, very modern!’
‘Uh-huh. Yes. That’s good.’
Granny can’t help overhearing Geb Hawas talking to a young child, ‘What are you doing here, Meret? You know you mustn’t come to see grandfather when he’s working! Now leave. Asre’ee! Hurry up! ’
‘But he promised me he would show me how to play Tumblebugs on his new computer!’
Granny smiles to herself, focusing on the director again.
While Sekhmet Hawas goes on and on about the advantages of a good computing system, Granny looks surreptitiously around her. The office is spacious, mixing old and new, Oriental and Occidental. It opens on a small but well-kept garden. There are jasmine and hibiscus, honeysuckle and wisteria are climbing the walls all the way to the roof, and clusters of red carnation peeks out here and there. The sweet, yet musky smell of the flowers is almost overpowering. She remembers reading in her Egyptian travel guide that the ancient Egyptians believed that the intense scent of flowers indicated the presence of a god… Her eyes are drawn to a movement in the large terrarium in the corner. She can see a furry little mouse in a corner. Fascinated she watches a snake rise behind a green bush. It opens its hood and strikes. The poor mouse doesn’t stand a chance. She looks quickly away, shuddering. She wonders if it is legal to keep venomous snakes, especially at a school. She’ll have to ask Mr. Hawas…
‘… Abdelilah El Bayed! You know Abdelilah El Bayed? He was a student here. Al-ḥamdu lil-lāh.’ Mr. Hawas beams at Granny.
‘Abdelilah El Bayed? Eh… The chemist Nobel prize?’
‘Yes! And also Majed Al-Nour, who leads the Supreme Council of Antiquities. He graduated here, al-ḥamdu lil-lāh, and now his children are among our best students…’
After a light lunch with the teaching staff, consisting of lamb Shawarma and spicy fava beans -Ful medames- with Taboon bread on the side, Granny follows them to the teacher’s room for yet another cup of sweet mint tea. Farid Kamel, the History teacher, is fluent in English and eager to talk to her. He explains to her that Ful medames dates all the way back to ancient Egypt and is staple food in the region of Cairo.
Shadia Rashid, Arabic literature and poetry, silently serves the tea, filling the tiny glasses with an elegant gesture before sitting down next to Granny. Granny and Farid are soon having a heated discussion, debating the pro and cons of Ernest Simmingway’s “Another Shade of Sim”. Shadia prefers to stay out of the heated discussion – as a woman she’s not even supposed to have read such a sulfurous book anyway.
Mena Lufti, the housekeeper, interrupts the debate.
‘If you please come with me, Assayeda Grey, I will show you the lodgings.’
The rooms are newly repainted in a pleasant shade of blue and the beds seem comfortable enough, but most important – there is air conditioning.
‘Most of the students are like your granddaughter, Assayeda Grey – not used to the heat. They need a good night’s sleep or they sleep during classes.’ Mena tut-tuts and shakes her head. She is talkative, and her English is quite good. She makes Granny laugh a lot with her funny anecdotes about the students.
If Granny wants to get back to Isna before sunset she has to take her leave.
‘Shokran, we hope to see you soon, Assayeda Grey.’
‘I have spent a lovely day, very instructive. Can you show me the restrooms, please?’
Mena Lufti indicates one of the buildings, and Granny quickly goes through the same magic ritual, switching her clothes for the long ride back.
The next day, Granny wakes up so banged-up after the long hours in the saddle that she hardly gets out of bed. Moaning and complaining, she calls for some pain killers, but room service has got something better in mind. A young woman arrives with a tube of Aspirin and a fluffy white robe. She takes a protesting Granny to the Hotel Hammam, where she leaves the old lady sweating in a large beautifully tiled steam room together with several other women of all ages.
Granny closes her eyes, trying to shut out the women talking in low voices, gathering her strength to stand up and leave, but being acutely aware of her nakedness. A girl Taïga’s age comes forward and points to the fountain in the middle of the beautifully decorated rom. She says something incomprehensible and points again, but gives up when Granny demonstratively turns her head and closes her eyes. Cold water on her feet makes her gasp in shock and she discovers the girl again. Giggling she holds out a recipient with water, making a gesture for Granny to wash her face and neck. She nods a thank you, forcing a smile as she dips her hands into the fresh water, splashing some on her face. The girl leaves the recipient by her side, and Granny uses the rest of the water on her warm body.
Slowly her aching muscles seem to unknot. She’s even starting to enjoy the warmth when a Tellak comes to fetch her. She accompanies the hammam attendant to an adjoining room, where she lays down on a hard marble table and gets doused with tepid water before her hair gets a rhassoul mask and every inch of her body is covered in black soap. The Tellak then starts on exfoliating her body, wearing a kessa glove. The whole ritual ends with her being doused in water smelling strongly of roses.
When she exhausted staggers upstairs with a cup of mint tea in her hands, she has never felt as clean before, nor as tired…
When she wakes up in the afternoon, there’s no trace of pain anymore. She quickly applies sunscreen and decides to visit the souk looking for souvenirs. She would like to bring a little something back from Egypt and the relic merchant seems to have quite a lot of somethings.
‘Hal a’jabaki? Do you like it? It’s Sobek, the king of the Nile! A very special ancient relic, from the Den of Lost Souls… I give you special prize. Bargain prize!’
‘You tell me how much you want to pay, eh?’
Granny and the relic merchant start discussing the prize. But after the little mishap with the rickshaw driver in China, Granny is more careful with her money.
A familiar figure shows up just when Granny is about to give in to the relic merchants exorbitant price.
‘Ah, Mr. Hawas! I’d like to bring a little something back to Vulturu, but I got a feeling I’m being fooled…’
‘La taqlaqi, Mrs. Grey, don’t worry! Tell me everything.’
Granny explains to Sekhmet Hawas what she would like to buy. He listens and nods, assuring her the merchant is an honest one, but that the price effectively was a little exaggerated.
‘السلام عليكم, Saïd!’ (Peace be upon you, Saïd)
‘و عليكم السلام و رحمة الله و بركاته, Sekhmet!’ (And peace be upon you and gods mercy and His blessings, Sekhmet)
‘كم هو ثمنه؟…’ (How much is it for…)
Granny listens to the fast exchange in Arabic without understanding.
Sekhmet Hawas and the merchant negotiate for a while, and finally they settle for a genuine bargain prize.
Granny is satisfied, but she’s afraid the prize announced only concerns one of the items she wanted. ‘I will take both. Do you understand? Ithnaan. Two.’ She shows two fingers to make sure the merchant gets it.
‘Sobek and canopic jar? Khod! Here you go!’ The merchant smiles with yellowish teeth and starts wrapping the items in old newspapers.
‘Thank you, Mr. Hawas. I’m very grateful, how can I thank you?’
‘By accepting my invitation to dinner tonight, Mrs. Grey!’
Granny blushes, but accepts. They exchange information about where to meet and Mr. Hawas leaves. As soon as she has paid the merchant, she calls her sister.
‘Yes, Missy! I bought you something I’m sure you’ll like… How is Taiga and you getting along without me? … Fine… Tomorrow morning, at 8 a.m. Yes, it’s a direct flight to Paris…. No, tonight I’ll have dinner with a friend…’
The full moon rises over Al Simhara…
Sekhmet Hawas takes Granny to a wonderful little restaurant, where they discuss Egyptian history, antiquities and horses over a tasty Tajine and succulent balaclavas, dripping with honey. And mint tea…
Granny settles comfortably in her seat while the plane dips its left wing, offering her a last view of the desert Madinah and the Nile. She spent a wonderful evening with Sekhmet yesterday and promised him she’ll be in touch. There’s still a country to visit, but at the moment Egypt is top of the list. She is seriously thinking about sending Taïga there…
Part I – End of Chapter 29