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. But when the taxi drops her off at her destination, two of the jeeps are already hired and the third at the garage for service. But there are horses – beautiful Arabian horses. The owner’s daughter, Nabila Moussa, assures her that they are extremely gentle and that she won’t have any trouble riding to the school complex.
‘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 left, you won’t get lost. My son, Aziz, will get her ready in an eye blink!’
‘My granddaughter would love it here. She’s always asking about a horse or at least riding lessons,’ Granny muses.
‘You bring her and she will ride, too.’ Nabila beams at her.
‘Yes. I might very well do so…’
Nabila Moussa excuses herself, and hurries over to hail the chauffeur of a rusty truck loaded with hay.
Granny decides to acquaintance herself with her ride, but the grey mare assigned to her doesn’t seem to want to be ridden. Turning her behind towards Granny, she stomps her tiny hooves and tries to look menacing. She doesn’t look gentle at all.
Granny backs away, looking around her for some help. A young boy has been watching from his position perched on the fence, and now he comes forward, proposing his assistance. He quickly tacks the grey mare, explaining her name is Mahbouba, which means “Beloved” in Arabian.
‘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. Painstakingly she puts a foot in the stirrup and heaves herself up. ‘Easy girl… still now…’
‘Ma’a salama! Goodbye!’ The young boy slaps the mare’s hind quarters and she sets off, galloping towards the pyramids.
‘Oooooh!’ Granny is doing her best not to fall off. Grabbing the saddle with both hands she tries to adapt to the rolling motion of the cantering horse.
The mare gets tired of galloping –or maybe it is Granny’s riding skills resurfacing. However, they settle 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. They pass not far from the Pyramids and she makes sure she always keeps them on her left side as Mrs. Moussa advised her to. But the little grey mare seems to know where they are heading and doesn’t hesitate.
Almost two hours later, they enter the oasis sheltering the Qasr al-Hayr al-Sim 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-Sim Academy. I’m Fahad, can I be of assistance?’
Granny turns around. A rather fat man is standing with his hand outstretched in a welcoming gesture.
‘Wa `alayka s-salām. 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 bathroom at the end of a long dark corridor.
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 corridor is empty. The only sound is the faint, melodious call for prayer. ‘Good. Let’s take care of my appearance.’
She takes out a carefully wrapped little parcel from her pocket and puts it next to the washbasin. Then she strips off her horsey clothes and places them next to the parcel.
She draws 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.
‘Tiny grow and big reduce
Become something I can use’
The little parcel expands and there are her grey suit and a clean white shirt while the dirty clothes are now reduced to a small package.
She quickly washes off the travel dust and gets dressed again, feeling much better. Unfortunately there’s no 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, building up its power until it was as potent as before the zombie destroyed it.
She puts on some lipstick and fastens her hair in a bun before putting the flat little parcel with her riding gear in her pocket.
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’s now emptiness. Lifting her eyes towards the high minaret, she understands why. Everyone’s at the mosque, praying.
If she only can find the administration office, she’ll wait there. But it’s not as easy to read the many notices on the board as it was in China. Here everything is written in Arabic, and even though there’s a detailed map, she doesn’t understand what’s written on it.
She opens the wrong door… again, and quickly backs away when she sees the people prostrated on praying mats, apparently facing Makkah. She continues up the stairs in the hope of finding another terrace, but she’s cautious to listen at the next 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, within sight of the pyramids and the Sphinx.
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, but the 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 Laurence 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.’
She can see an elder man in the spacious office, busy working on a computer. He stands up and calls through the open glass doors to his grandson to show the client in.
Mr. Hawas shakes Granny’s hand warmly, and 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 heat.
‘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.
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 climbing the walls all the way to the roof, and clusters of red carnation here and there. The sweet, yet musky smell of the flowers are 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…
‘… Abdelilah El Bayed! You know Abdelilah El Bayed? He was a student here!’ 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, 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 26