She thinks she understands, thinks she loves this land. How can you love what you don’t know?
She would bring us “better ways,” but we know things our own way. While I do not understand her language, I know she pities us; I see it in her smile, a smile that tells me how little women who wear the veil mean to her. But I see things she does not.
I must show her how little she understands before it is too late.
Haley focused her digital camera on the relief of the expedition to Punt carved into the wall of the temple of Hatshepsut. It wasn’t hieroglyphs, but it was a female pharaoh, and as such certainly within the bounds of her dissertation topic.
“Do you have a photography permit?” a deep voice asked with an Arabic accent.
Irritated, she rose and turned, only to see a mischievous smile beneath dark eyes surrounded by thick lashes.
“I don’t need one here, only in the tombs.”
The smile grew wider. “True! But if you would move aside, I could explain the reliefs to these ladies and gentlemen.”
Haley glanced behind him and saw a horde of sweating tourists, sun-glassed and sun-hatted, gazing wide-eyed at the interchange between her and their tour guide.
She nodded. She could return to the expedition to Punt when he was done. Setting her own sun-glasses back on her nose, Haley moved out of the shade of the terrace portico and into the glaring light of the late February sun. Sweat was gathering at the back of her neck, and she lifted her dark hair up, wishing she had pins to knot it as she had yesterday while exploring the Valley of Kings. The walls of the desert rose above the walls of the mausoleum, blending in shades of sand and brown and gold, integrated by the will of a queen and her lover over three thousand years ago. Haley could hardly believe she was here, finally, after years of studying the monuments from afar and saving to visit the land of her dreams — a whole month at the Institute.
Here — in Egypt, with its donkey carts and its palm trees, its men in their galabia of white or blue, its women in abaya of black. In the bus from the airport last week, Haley had felt tears start at the back of her eyes and in her throat, it was so different and exotic, so obvious she was somewhere totally outside her own experience.
One of the small, ubiquitous sandy dogs sniffed her feet. Haley was bending over to pet it when she began to feel faint. Dizzy, she leaned her hand on a column for support.
Blood. Blood everywhere, blood and screams. Cries for help, Hilfe, tasoketeh, au secours. A little boy, crying, begging for his life in German, gunned down by men in Egyptian police uniforms. At her feet, a blonde woman, dead eyes staring into the bright morning sky, a round, red hole in her forehead …
“Madam! Madam, you are not supposed to touch!”
Slowly, the vision of blood faded. Haley looked up to see the tour guide who had teased her earlier. She gagged and covered her mouth as he put his arm around her shoulders, calling out to the group of curious tourists, “Ist hier ein Arzt?”
“I think you have been in the sun too much,” the young Egyptian said to her as he led her back to the protection of the temple portico.
Haley nodded. She didn’t feel like confessing to a horrendously vivid daydream of the terrorist massacre here several years before. Heatstroke was a much saner excuse.
“Here, drink,” a plump, graying woman said with a German accent.
“Thank you.” Haley took the bottle of water and drank, trying to push aside the images of blood and death that still clung at the edges of her vision. She handed the bottle back and wiped away the sweat beading her forehead. “I’m fine now.”
The tour guide shook his head. “No, you come with us, we bring you back to your hotel when we are done with the first emancipated woman in the world.”
Haley heaved a sigh of relief. After a vision like that, she would feel better with someone taking care of her, someone to catch her if she fell again, someone to keep the shadows of blood at bay. “Okay, as long as you let me take pictures.”
The tour guide turned to his troop with a look of triumph, and they clapped and smiled, happy to take her under their wing.
Haley pulled away from the arm enclosing her but didn’t protest when he took her elbow. He was being a gentleman, and she still felt weak. She hoped she wasn’t committing a cultural sin by allowing him to touch her arm; she always dressed as the guidebooks told her, wearing long pants and long-sleeved blouses, even in the heat.
“I am Ahmed,” he said. “And you are?”
The sandy mutt joined them, trailing along behind as they wandered from the expedition to Punt to the temple of Anubis, to the temple of Hathor carved in part right out of the rock. Ahmed explained the sights in German, but Haley didn’t mind; she had studied this monument in depth. When he allowed her to pull away, she took series after series of pictures of the hieroglyphs.
“You are interested in them?” Ahmed asked as they made their way to the long ramp leading back down from the second terrace.
“I’m working on a dissertation on details of the lives of women recorded in the hieroglyphs.”
“Yes? I am working on a dissertation on this great queen!” The statement was accompanied by a sweeping gesture taking in the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut. His dark eyes shone with enthusiasm, and Haley smiled, the ghosts of terrorism nearly banished.
In the air-conditioned bus back to Luxor, they sat together and compared notes on universities and professors and courses. By the time they arrived at Haley’s hotel, it had been decided that she would visit the bar of the cruise ship where he was working that night.
When I peel off the skin of the onion, it does not bring me truth. Her kind thinks that revealing the layers beneath what is on the outside is truer, better.
But the skin of the onion is as much a part of its truth as the layers within.
For a ridiculously small fee, Ahmed arranged for Haley to join the Nile cruise to Aswan. He was proud of his contacts, proud of the people who owed him favors, proud of the deal he could offer her, and the ship had not been full. So here she was, leaning on the railing, wondering a bit about whether Ahmed was ripping her off or being nice, but enjoying herself too much to really worry.
They drifted past palm trees dusted with orange in the setting sun, past ruins of small temples not worth a stop and villages huddled close to the water on the thin strip of fertile land to either side of the Nile. Just past the vibrant green rose hills of desert, a clear demarcation the areas where people could and could not survive. And she had it all to herself — Ahmed was leading an evening event on Egyptian culture in the bar, in German, of course, and she had the deck and the sunset and the Nile.
When they reached Aswan the next morning, they took a smaller boat to the Island of Philae. Which it wasn’t really, because the original island had been sunk by the great dam; the huge temple complex had been moved to the island of Agilkia. On the boat over, Ahmed sat with her, telling her about the program in Egyptology at the University of Tübingen in Germany, where he had studied for a year with an exchange program. She found her focus narrowing down to the conversation, to his faintly accented voice, filled with passion for what meant most to her, the long history of this great land he called home. She was so engrossed, she missed the approach to the island temple, watching instead the light in his dark eyes when he spoke of Hatshepsut and Ramses, when he looked at her.
As they were docking, Haley noticed how the tourists in his group watched them surreptitiously, slight smiles on their faces.
On the island, Ahmed left her regretfully, leading his flock to the pavilion of Trajan, while Haley wandered next to the colonnade leading to the first pylon at the entrance of the temple. The scratches on the figures carved into the stone were clearly visible, scratches made to “deface” the pagan idols, by Coptic Christians or the Muslims who followed, no one knew for sure. Isis had been worshiped here until the sixth century, when Justinian ordered the temple and its priests converted to Christianity.
After taking a number of pictures, she went through the door in the first pylon and made her way to the temple of Isis proper.
Where the dizziness hit her again.
The soldiers in their sandals and capes, armed with long spears and oval shields, herded the robed priests and priestesses into a circle next to the Mammisi, jabbing at their legs and feet for fun. An old priest ineffectually tried to bar the wide entrance to the Temple of Isis, but a laughing soldier slit his throat, and the blood ran down the stairs of the temple to pool at the feet of a priestess. Her short, sharp screams rent the peace of the early morning in the middle of the blue of the Nile and the green of the palms and the sandy beige of the stones.
Haley dropped to her knees in the courtyard between the first pylon and the Temple of Isis. She felt sick, the metallic smell of blood drowning out the fresh smell of morning. What was the matter with her?
A security guard in a blue uniform leaned down and took her elbow, and then suddenly Ahmed was also by her side, murmuring soothingly, telling her of the bed waiting for her on the ship, pressing a bottle of water to her lips, scolding gently, suggesting she should see a doctor.
She had to agree.
My son tells me she studies the old way of writing, the hieroglyphs, that she can read the lives of those who are long dead in this valley. His voice is full of life when he says this, his eyes glow and his hands move more quickly. He thinks that means she understands us, understands him, can share more with him than a woman who wears the veil.
He does not see that the symbols and their language are there to hide behind, not to reveal.
But he is closer. He will understand someday.
The sandy dog had adopted her. Haley found it comforting, although she knew she might just be mixing the beasts up — there were so many skinny, middle-sized, sandy strays on the streets of Luxor.
But her little short-hair had dark paws and floppy ears, and she was almost sure she would recognize him wherever he showed up. Today he was following her through the Temple of Luxor, while she tracked down the less-than-knee-sized statues of Nefertari next to her husband Ramses II. Perhaps the sandy stray was her guardian angel — she’d had no more hallucinations since returning from the Nile cruise.
Or maybe it was the hat the doctor had told her to wear.
“What should I name you, beastie?” Haley asked, scratching behind the floppy ears. “Anubis? But he’s black and has pointy ears and is a god of death. You’re not black, and I’ve had enough reminders of death recently.” She caught sight of the hieroglyph for “dog” on a nearby wall. “That’s it, you will be ‘Uher.’ Can you deal with that, dog?”
The newly christened Uher wagged his tail.
Haley rose, pushed a damp strand of hair behind her ear and looked around for Ahmed’s tour group. He had a new one this week, British this time, and he’d said he’d be here today. She looked forward to seeing his dark eyes and ready smile, found herself slightly nervous at the thought. She couldn’t get over what a complete gentleman he was, how much he seemed to respect her, and that charmed her more than nearly anything else.
As she wandered through the courtyard of Ramses, the stray trailing faithfully behind her, Haley caught sight of Ahmed and smiled. He was giving a lecture on hieroglyphs — probably in front of a cartouche of Ramses, the clue which had allowed Champollion to crack the code.
Sure enough, Ahmed was just wrapping up Young’s initial attempts to apply the Rosetta Stone to the Egyptian language as she came within hearing distance. He was so caught up in his tale that he didn’t see her.
“When he was only ten, Champollion was told no one could interpret the cryptic writing which covered the Egyptian antiquities. The boy decided then that he would one day solve the mystery.”
Although it was the end of February and not yet 10:00 a.m., hot dust rose around them. Haley slipped unobtrusively into the back of Ahmed’s tour group.
“Champollion used Young’s technique to decipher several cartouches, but names like Alexander and Cleopatra were also foreign, like Ptolemy from the Rosetta stone. So was the theory true that hieroglyphs were only used for sounds when the names were not Egyptian? Then in 1822, Champollion came across older cartouches,” and here Ahmed gestured at the wall behind him, pointing at the cartouche of Ramses.
“One cartouche had only four hieroglyphs. The meaning of first two symbols was unknown, but the repeated pair at the end were ‘s’s. Luckily, Champollion was familiar with the Coptic language, descended from ancient Egyptian, helping him solve the puzzle. The first symbol in the cartouche was a round disk with a dot in the middle.” Ahmed indicted the symbol he meant.
“Champollion wondered if it might represent the sun, which in Coptic was ‘ra’. This meant that the symbols together were ‘ra-?-s-s.’ Only one pharaonic name fit — Ramses.”
It was a story Haley knew well, but unfortunately it wasn’t completely true, and she had to chuckle. Ahmed came out of his historical trance, a look of irritation on his face. “It is nothing to laugh about.”
“I wasn’t laughing at Champollion,” Haley said, truthfully enough.
Finally, Ahmed noticed that it was her, but the bright smile he normally greeted her with was absent. “Ah, there is an expert in hieroglyphics in our midst,” he said instead. “Perhaps you would like to tell us more?”
Haley shook her head, embarrassed. His voice was still on edge. But he must know that the tale he had told was a romanticized simplification — didn’t he?
She bent down to pet Uher to draw attention away from herself, but it had the opposite effect.
Ahmed moved over to her, ostensibly leading his tour group toward the colonnade. “It is not a good idea to pet the strays. The dogs here are dirty scum, full of fleas and disease, no better than rats.”
Haley stared at him rebelliously, and then turned and walked in the other direction, Uher following faithfully at her heels.
She thinks the signs and the words reveal things, but I know they hide them, as it should be. When I peel this onion to the core, all that is left are tears; when I remove my veil, it is less than the secret the veil promises.
Haley tried to return to the temple of Hatshepsut, but even without hallucinations she kept seeing the blood everywhere, blood and bodies; the metallic scent filled her nostrils, and she could feel the terror, the pain, as if she were the one running from chance execution by religious fanatics. She was wearing the floppy straw hat as the doctor ordered, but it didn’t help against memory.
So instead, she cut off her visit to the Valley of Queens and sought out the temple complex of Karnak.
The ride in the “taxi” — a van which served as a kind of unofficial bus — was an adventure. Haley had not yet dared to try one out, and she wasn’t sure if she would do it again, despite the unbeatable price of two Egyptian pounds, well under a dollar. The driver passed every vehicle in his path, then honked his horn and put on his brakes every time he saw another tourist he thought he could add to his cargo. Haley clenched her hat in her hands and tried not to look as scared as she felt.
When they arrived in the parking lot of Karnak, she heaved a huge sigh of relief and pulled the Egyptian pound notes she needed from her wallet. As she was stepping out of the sliding door of the van, the driver appeared in front of her and took her by the waist, lifting her and setting her on the concrete. He probably wanted more bakshish for the special favor. But instead of demanding money, he murmured something low that she couldn’t understand and ran his hand slowly down her hair. For a moment, Haley froze, not knowing what was going on.
“Shukran,” she said and put the hat she held fisted in her hand back on her head. What had she done wrong this time? She was wearing long pants and a light, long-sleeved blouse, just like the guidebooks told her to.
And she was wearing her hair loose, not twisted in a bun at the back of her head as she usually did when it was hot.
She wasn’t blond, but her hair was long, and it wasn’t covered by a veil. So she was supposed to wear a veil now too?
Repressing a feeling of annoyance bordering on anger, Haley headed between the avenue of the sphinxes to the first pylon of the temple of Karnak. Past the court of Amenophis III, there was an obelisk of Hatshepsut still standing which she wanted to study in detail. Most of the obelisks which had once stood here now graced the squares of Rome and other conquering powers, stolen to prove sovereignty; only two were still in Karnak.
She went through the fourth pylon to the vestibule of the temple. The top third of Hatshepsut’s obelisk was much lighter than the bottom; her successor Tuthmosis III had the obelisk walled up when he came into power, but for some reason only part way. Now it was the tallest standing obelisk left in Egypt. Haley couldn’t help enjoying the historical irony of that.
She also enjoyed the gender mix-up of the female pharaoh’s great seal, the two cartouches that made up her throne name and her birth name: “The King of Upper and Lower Egypt, the son of Re, Joined with Amun, Hatshepsut.” Her name itself, in ideograms rather than phonograms, meant “Foremost of the noble ladies.” The transition from male to female was fluid, at least according to the symbols.
As she stared up at the pinkish-beige monument against the intense blue of the Egyptian sky, she felt a damp nose against her hand and looked down to discover Uher at her side. “Found me again, little friend?”
Uher padding along beside her, she made her way to the sacred lake, a rectangular pool for use of the temple priests. There, next to Hatshepsut’s broken obelisk, once the twin to the one still standing, stood Ahmed with his British tour group. This time when he noticed her, the mischievous smile she was used to lit up his face, and he gestured for her to join them.
Her stomach tightened with an emotion somewhere between fear and anticipation as she moved slowly towards his group. Ahmed was pointing to the cartouche on the pyramidion, the tip at eye level. “This symbol which looks like a feather, and is actually a flowering reed, stands here for a sound, meaning it is a phonogram rather than a pictogram. But it can also be part of a pictogram representing marshland. This was only one of problems Egyptologists of the nineteenth century had in deciphering the hieroglyphs: how could they know when a symbol stood for a concept and not for a sound and so on?”
This time Haley kept her expression serious, although the whole puzzle of hieroglyphs tended to make her chuckle in enjoyment on a regular basis. But Ahmed seemed to take laughter personally when he was leading a tour.
After he had attempted to explain determinatives to his flock, Ahmed raised a stick adorned with a shawl above his head and headed towards the ruins of the Eastern Temple, gesturing Haley to join him.
“Hello, Haley. How has your day been?”
“Fine. I was at the temple of Hatshepsut again for a while, and then I came here.”
Suddenly he was charming again, taking her elbow to help her over difficult terrain in the ruins, training his dark gaze on her, making her feel as if she were the only woman near. She had missed him the last few days.
But she did notice that he made no mention of the incident in the temple of Luxor.
“Have you been to Cairo or Alexandria yet?” he asked.
Haley shook her head.
“A cousin of mine has a charter bus and has asked me to lead a group on the weekend. Would you like to come along? You must sleep on the bus, but for you, I get a special price.”
“Wow, I’d love to.” The Institute offered its own specialized field trips, but those were not cheap. And she had only one more weekend in Egypt; it would be a shame to leave without seeing the pyramids.
Besides, the tight spot in her chest told her it was important to her that she make up with Ahmed. Knowing she would spend her last weekend in Egypt with him loosened the knot and brought a smile to her lips.
His own smile went wide. “We will visit Alexandria and the pyramids and the Cairo bazaar at night. You will love it.”
She was sure she would. She had not forgotten his strange behavior at the temple of Luxor, but it was nothing compared to the light in his eyes and the way he could discuss hieroglyphs. There was a trip to Cairo to look forward to.
My son says it was a fainting spell in the Temple of Hatshepsut which brought him and this American woman together; this woman who doesn’t cover her hair, this woman who doesn’t understand. I had thought to keep her away by making her understand the misunderstandings; instead, I have thrown them together.
I have made a very grave mistake.
Alexandria was dirty, and the stunningly blue water of the Mediterranean stank from all the pollution. The small group that had booked the tour from Luxor, all students strapped for funds like herself, trailed behind Ahmed as they left the Roman amphitheater and walked the few blocks to the sea front, the old Canopic Way. Most of them looked as tired as Haley felt — the sleeping conditions in the bus for the nine hundred kilometer drive had not exactly been ideal — but they were young, and they still had Cairo and the pyramids to look forward to.
“Next to us is the Cecil Hotel,” Ahmed said. “A historic hotel from 1930 where Winston Churchill stayed, as well as many writers and artists. And there is the Metropole, an older hotel from 1902.”
Haley began to feel dizzy, and the buildings around her shifted and changed from hotels from a bygone era to another era entirely. No, not again. In the harbor stood a majestic lighthouse, massive and square, and the part of her that was still Haley, in her own body, in her own world, knew she was looking at the lighthouse of Pharos, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
She was driving the chariot away from the lyceum to the palace of Orestes to discuss with him what was to be done about the private militia of Archbishop Cyrus. As she was nearing the double obelisks of the Caesareum, a mob appeared from the side streets.
A very organized mob. So her time had come.
They screamed the words she was used to hearing — pagan, unbeliever, soothsayer, mathematician — but they attacked her chariot like soldiers, stopping the horses, dragging her out, carrying her to the nearby Caesareum kicking and clawing. Once inside the converted church, built by Cleopatra as a temple dedicated to her lover, they ripped the clothes from her body. While one of them raped her and then another, the rest kicked her and beat her. She could feel the blood run between her legs, run from the wounds in her head and her sides, and she began to wish they would finish the job, if only that would make the pain stop. Then the rapists decided they’d had enough fun, and the first stones began to rain around her head.
They beat her with tiles until she bled to death on the floor of the church, and then, like animals, they ripped her body apart, bearing the bloody pieces as trophies into the streets of Alexandria.
The city would be Christian now.
Haley awoke on the street in front of the quaint hotels, her head bedded on Ahmed’s lap and one of the other members of the tour group, Steve, wiping her face with the damp corner of his T-shirt.
She struggled to sit up, but Steve pushed her back. “Easy. A fainting spell in March in Egypt is nothing to laugh at.”
Haley shook her head, trying to clear away the dregs of death. If only it were that easy. Why another hallucination, here, now? She’d been wearing her hat, the hat that had been protecting her for over a week. Besides, it was cooler here in Alexandria. Was it the stench? Was it images of massacres she’d read about over the years come to haunt her? But how could they be so real?
She closed her eyes to keep the tears back and wondered what the doctor would tell her this time. Maybe a bigger hat.
My son thinks he loves her, but he does not understand either, does not realize that the hair she flaunts without a veil would mean something very different to him if she were his. Now, it is exotic, tantalizing, a symbol of her sexuality.
But he would not like it if it was for all the world to see when it was meant only for him.
Haley was almost afraid to go to the pyramids the next morning to see the sunrise, but nothing out of the ordinary happened, and the experience had been sublime. She had slept well in their grungy hotel outside of Cairo, recovering from the hallucination of death as Hypatia as well as the long drive. The sphinx and the pyramids beyond were everything she had ever dreamed they would be, the Egypt she had long loved and come here for, with its dust and its sand and its blue, blue sky, its strangeness and familiarity, the donkeys and camels and the men in their galabia, the monuments she had read about but never seen.
Cairo had a much more Western flair than Luxor, and Haley found herself strangely relieved. She loved Egypt, didn’t she? But she also loved the comforts of home, enjoyed not being accosted with demands for bakshish at every step, enjoyed being able to wear her hair loose without fearing that men saw it as an invitation.
In the afternoon, they went to the Egyptian Museum. As they were crossing the parking lot, Haley felt the onset of another vision, and she grabbed Steve’s elbow in panic.
The bus was burning, a white bus with yellow, green and blue stripes and the words “Spring Tours” on the side, while shots were fired at the screaming people inside. To the music of panic and pain, the scene began to mesh with images of treasure taken from Tutankhamun’s tomb, with the death of Lord Carnarvon and members of the expedition. Then, for the first time, a voice began to speak out of the dizzying hallucination, the palimpsest of impossible images.
“It is the power of the land and its traditions, a power you deny. The clash of cultures is too big for you, your idealism too small for it. Tribe against tribe, nation against nation, religion against religion, it has been going on for millennia.”
The voice faded away, and with it the bus and the screams and the Valley of Kings superimposed over the parking lot. Instead, she was at a bazaar and it was no longer Steve with his arm around her shoulders, it was a strange Egyptian, teasing Ahmed with talk of camels, bargaining for her, refusing to let her go, while Ahmed started forward, fists clenched.
A vision of violence now, here, with her playing a role, the possibility of blood that was more than a hallucination.
And then it was no longer the bazaar, and the man was another, running a hand down her hair, under it, lifting it, placing a kiss on the back of her neck, both arms around her waist in front. Ahmed’s eyes were full of anger.
Anger at her.
He wrenched her out of the other man’s embrace and slapped her with the back of his hand. She could taste blood in her mouth. Tears started in her eyes, and she stared at him in disbelief, raising a hand to her aching cheek.
Haley came to with her cheek still cradled in her hand, tears streaming down her face, and the small tour group huddled around her.
“Come, Haley,” Ahmed said, taking her elbow, and she winced away from his touch.
She tried to cover her unconscious reaction by shaking her head and standing. “I know, I know, I’ll go to the doctor again,” she said before he could ask.
Would Ahmed really react like he had in her waking nightmare? Or was it just her own subconscious fear of this country taking over? She suddenly realized she wasn’t going to wait to find out.
And she wasn’t going to the bazaar tonight.
The onion in my hand is white, round, smooth, harmless. Underneath, it is strong, sharp; potent enough to bring tears to the eyes.
It is like the sacred writing she studies — what things appear to be on the outside are just as important as what they hide. What things mean is a part of what they don’t mean.
Haley gazed out the window at the dingy airport of Luxor as her plane taxied for take-off, stared at the dust and palm trees and blue sky beyond. Ahmed had brought her to the airport. They had promised to write, to stay in touch, but it was a lie. Perhaps she should have broken it off before she left, but she was scared — scared of seeing him react the way he had in her dream.
After the trip to Cairo, the doctor had once again found nothing wrong with her. He had only shaken his head and told her to drink more water.
Somehow, she wasn’t surprised. There was something much more foreign about Egypt, about Ahmed, than she had ever imagined before she came, so many riddles she couldn’t get her mind around.
She had seen and done so much in four short weeks, had lived through at least a lifetime. It was time to go.
Then why was she crying?
Somewhere, I see a dog that is not sitting forlorn in the dust next to a prone figure with long, dark hair. The dog nudges the unmoving body and whimpers; or it would have whimpered had the body been there. Instead, it nudges the pile of garbage behind the stall of the street vendor.
It is good so.
Spread the word!