I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818
Dusty alleys flank the crooked baked mud streets and clouds moil up the sides of crumbling buildings stained the color of time. In gaps between structures the Sinai sits in long open stretches of desert plain. Brilliant white cobbled with stone ruins. Hyperbright then dulled with the wind when the dust sweeps over the walls and the faces of children and then lingers, moils, directionless, everywhere.
Desertcolored buildings rim the highway leading to the Gaza district, half-finished cavernous things with open walls at the top stories and clothes hung out to dry across the maze of windows beneath. Jagged spires of stone jut out from the tops of the buildings, roofless, gapped with pocks, sand gusting off them like a wilting cloud shrinking as it moves across the sky.
Here, we finish nothing, Hussama says from the corner of his mouth, looking to me in the backseat. He is an Egyptologist who studied history and mummification at the University of Cairo and who runs a guide business with his father. His head is framed by desert and desertcolored castles and halfcastles through the front window of the van. Once we finish it we must pay the taxes on it. So nothing is ever finished.
Razor points of silver lend our guide both dignity and authority yet he speaks with a fealty to kindness, almost a fidelity to fidelity. There is the sense of being in the presence of an usurped prince who is owed something by the commonwealth. A quiet regality surrounds him, encircles him. It is biding patiently but kindly only for now, a portentous satellite seething like so much unsettled dust.
Around the bend, through the spires of crumbling towers, the Pyramids of Giza arch into view.
I have eleven hours in Egypt before our connecting flight to Dar es Salaam departs. It has been ten weeks since the anti-Morsi riots ended in the President being deposed and the military taking control of the country. Extremist elements of the President’s party, the Muslim Brotherhood, have responded with bombings in Cairo and all out war in the anarchic Sinai Peninsula. Moderate elements have responded with marches and sit-ins. Both are being exterminated by an anxious military all too aware of its precarious hold on power. The worst of the destruction seems to have receded; violence suspires like ocean tides, and in the weeks after the latest outburst there will be a smaller one perhaps, but not a larger one, and not a civil war. I am told by anyone who talks that there is no more revolution to be done.
Back when we used to get white tourists, Hussama says, they always ask me, what is the real Egypt? Like they don’t believe me what I am showing them. Like this maybe is not reality. Or like maybe they don’t believe their own eyes, eh? Ha! What is the real Egypt? they say.
In dreams or museums there is the shade of a place but it is never real. From artifacts and hearsay and passing headlines and imagination we cobble a vision of what should be. A crumbling shanty of a picture, it’s edifice emaciated beneath the sting of truth in the harsh Saharan wind.
The mutating, scorched surface of Cairo invites rumor, superstition, fantasy, mysticism. It asks the question itself, what is Egypt?
Egypt is a crowded railcar with death lurking around the corner for the last one out, Hussama says, glancing to the rearview mirror.
It seems an incomplete picture. I want something to put my finger on, a thing concrete to which to say, This is Egypt. I search in the passing alleys for the thing. The way the men squat about crates in a dusty portico storefront before a dozen caged chickens. The way the tightly held streets seem to suspire like an internal organ, like a set of dustbound lungs straddling the boulevard. The motorcycle that goes up along the sidewalk to pass not only the van but the other motorcycle that has already gone up on the sidewalk to pass the van but is not doing it quickly enough. The pedestrians and shopkeeps who do not look alarmed and move with no haste to avoid the traffic but who almost seem to look the other way, as though danger were not only tiring but irrelevant and they had no volition over their ultimate fate if this be it. Or it is perhaps all of this, all of the maze of Cairo that draws ever tighter not as you progress but as you stay, as if there is some force that multiplies the physical mass of bodies and starving cats and makeshift chicken coups and Sinai-caked structures the longer you linger. The horizon is trimmed at every turn, dimmed, cut in half by a minaret at one turn and a line of laundry across two buildings at the next. For with each turn or each passing minute there is less of the distance ahead and the world without, as though the future were receding with attenuated time.
The van comes to the Pyramid gates. Donkeys bay at the foot traffic and a great commotion whorls up from a group of boys herding them. They hold long swaths of palm fronds and are whipping the van windows and animals alternately. Dust rises from their flanks where they are hit; their wild eyes press close against the window sash. Suddenly sensing the danger I reach out to close the window shade but I am too late. One of the boys sees a white arm and the van is quickly surrounded. Fists pound the doors and pull at the handles and one of the boys goes as far as to mount the hood and yell at the driver with his face pressed against the windshield. I think of the Embassy handbook for Cairo and how it warned of the transience of crowds and in fact all gatherings and how the raised ire or even the wrong exchange of glances in the wrong place can become so much kindling for an inferno. Hussama turns back, all bemused regality, as if goading and daring me to judge his subjects.
I’m not sure what you call them in America, says Hussama. But these boys – these are just street touts. They want to put you on a camel and take you far out in the desert and take a lot of money from you.
I don’t know if we have them in America, I say.
We will spare you, then, he hisses, with canine smile and eyes invisible behind sunglasses, slipping out the door.
Hussama disperses the boys with handshakes and a few threatening shouts. His authority is evident; within moments, the touts move away and scramble down the line to the rickshaws behind us. Across the road two old women sit polishing what look to be ornate pots. They watch without expression.
A group of salesmen with wares strung about their necks and cinched to their waists approach the van. They wave toy pyramids and red and green scarves in their hands. Their skin is golden and sweatless in the high sunlight and they have the frantic eyes of children fighting for a final piece of cake. Before they reach the car the driver goes out and waylays them in the road. They push by him and come for the open van door before a sharp bark from Huassama stops them like dogs hitting the end of a line they were hobbled to.
With the driver and Hussama back inside we proceed to the gate where a small cadre of men in military garb with machine guns across their chest converse hostilely with Hussama. One extends his head inside the van and speaks in English.
Passport, he says.
There is more animated Arabic jousting, but in a different dialect. The soldier laughs. Hussama claps his back and we drive through the gates.
What was the that about? I ask.
Hussama shrugs, then laughs.
Who knows? he says.
We come around a short bend in the road. The van shaking and groaning on the rocky escarpment, the dust rising on either side of the van, the sweat dripping off my elbow onto the sandy floor, the light from the sun seeming to sit in my temples, moiling, pulsing. The pyramids come into view, the tops smoking with gusted sand like dinnertime chimneys against the white sky.
Get out here, Hussama says. Leave all your things.
We hike out across the desert. In its strivings at the eternal the Great Pyramid of Giza succumbs slowly to the effluvia of its day. Trash moils at its base in tiny whippoorwills like dried bones at the foot of the ruins of an ancient ship. Touts promenade its grounds and thieves wait like a deep breath to exhale without impunity. It is humanity merely whispering into the timeless desert suspirations, it is a playful grasping at the forever.
When the wind whips up strongly enough the Pyramid seems to melt into the air and even the ancient laid bricks themselves seem an allusion gusted up by the simooms and heat and sun that does not blink and some other dimly cloaked force too to which all monuments since the dawn of time owe their infamy.
The Egyptologist delivers us to the foot of the The Great Pyramid of Giza, the largest pyramid. In its narrow shadow he tells of its genesis, its genius. Of the lore and yarns spun by the generations puzzling over its creation. The ancients built on a slope. They brought farm animals with the strength of twenty men to haul the massive blocks into place. Slaves whipped straining beasts who perished quickly in the North African sun. Slaves in turn were beat and deprived of water until they too died in the North African sun. Slavedrivers mounted pillars, mounted carts, hawkish architects of a wonder of the world. In visions their torsional shadows marching under granite loads, the long angry sound of a dusty whipsnap, appear as out of the corner of the sun. We look up the parched slant of stone. Without history you have no understanding of its feat, Hussama says. Go up and take a look. Don’t climb on the rocks outside of the staircase. And do not talk to any Egyptians.
We ascend. At our foot an assemblage of touts are kept at fretful bay by the Egyptologist. Around the base of the pyramid a dozen or so other cameratoting figures mingle. Japanese, Saudi, a European. Their convivial grins seem plastic, and hollow. Together we laugh in the face of an imagined danger that suddenly we have realized is real. For a moment there is a sense of membership in a delusionally enlightened club. Those spare culturally enlightened, oblivious to the journalistic fear mongering driving away tourists, imbued with self assured excesses of street savvy. Halfway up the pyramid where the steps end Cairo lays below in smoggy periphery. If danger is a picture it is this. The men walk the smoggy narrow shoulder of the highway with their loads, inches from highway traffic and shielding kicked up gravel from their eyes. Far off but filled with desert portent the mosques blare out their call to prayer. I look up to the top of the Pyramid.
Alone with her. There is a careful serenity. As on stopping at a war memorial, flying over a national park. The reality of enchanted history and bloodshed looming beneath you and behind you and with focus and silence you feel the disturbed wraiths of its nature raging against history. Behind our backs our fingers clasp the grisly stone, hidden from sight. There is a sense of making a peace with a part of the world that can never be known as real until seen. That thing conjured of dreams and museums and visions from books is proved but a hypothetical, a placeholder Egypt, like plastic fruit at an open house.
A hard and birdlike man appears below us burdened down by countless trinkets, postcards, paintings, pencils, old boots, scarves, a satchel stuffed with khangas and multicolored headdresses and toy pyramids hooked on a rope dangling about his neck, plastic rubies and Egyptian flag condoms spilling indecorously from his pockets. Sunbeaten, mawkish, smacking gums peopled with scant black teeth, he cobbles together a package as we move to hurry by.
All for ten dollar, he says. Special for you, all for only five dollar, a special deal I make for you…
The Egyptologist is calling from below but I do not hear him. I move quickly away but the visage reappears, skittering by my side, a nimble birdclaw dance on the narrow stone steps.
It’s free, a voice suddenly in my ear, harsh, prickly,. The feel of a moustache mouthing words in a language older than pyramids. Free. A gift from Egypt to you and your wife. From my family, from my dying starving family…
A headdress is on my head, ornaments shoved into my pockets. Please, just a dollar, a dollar for all of it, just one…
Meeting his eyes, swimming dark flies in a vast emptiness, I feel no less complicit in his fate.
On the ground the monarchist novitiate Egyptologist frowns with accusatory ingratiation. The toothless of the Pyramid steps is not of the chosen folds. Seething quietly, sunglassed eyes cocked diffidently:
Unbelievable, he says. How much did you give him?
Nothing, I say, and he shakes his proud head, levels a wilting stare at the shrinking figure up on the Pyramid, weighed by his wares, seeming to recede back into the shadow of the history he came from.
Away and across the baked sand the desert silences between pyramids swallow out the distant rush of the city and the sharp sibilance of tourists and touts. Dried clay and pebbles crunch underfoot and the brilliant aqua blue of an Almond Joy wrapper explores the deep beige expanse in the hot wind.
I try to bring the feel of the mummified king and his queen we see in the tombs with me back to the van. I look for a source for that urge to immortality or to eternal veneration in the air about me. Ahead Hussama drives us on stoically. I am not convinced the Prince Regent is heir to that spirit but nor am I convinced that he is not. In his enigma his bloodlines are artifacts, descended of the ornate mystery scrawled into timeless rock.
But I try to bring and keep the feel of the Pyramid and its tombs with me as we ride. It is impossible to think of the coiffed girl queen who by custom or volition or love or conscription commissioned the tomb that would be studied and visited and known around the world for millennia.
But it is no good, I cannot hold it. Dizzy, the Saharan sun obliterates it, leaving me dripping with sweat, thirsty, staring at the same blinding sand the girl did three thousand years ago.
We come to the Great Sphinx. Outside the gates Hussama buys me tiny bottles of cold water from a man in a dark afghan sitting on a cooler. The man does not look at us. The water is very cold and finished in one sip.
A little ways inside the gate we enter a cavernous open air structure with high limestone walls. The corridor is narrow and winding and we press up closely against the scattered few tourists bunched together at a dead end. The crowd clears after a moment and Hussama motions us forth.
There is a long rectangular metal grate on the ground covering a hole that drops fifteen feet into the earth and where a menagerie of multicolored bills and coins glistens. A corner of sunlight cuts through the shadows of the high walls and reflects the bars on the floor like a golden harp.
Why did the ancient Egyptians mummify their dead? Hussama asks, striding in front of us theatrically. Do you know? Guess? No? Ah, an American guess?
Bodies of the mummified in ancient Egypt were sent to their resting place with all kinds of jewels, precious treasures, gold, silver, handcarved things, very special things, you see. This was to guide them through the land of the dead. But due to the horrible poverty grave robbers were everywhere. As soon as a new sarcophagus or tomb was built it would be raided and all the jewels stolen.
A mummified body is carefully preserved through a long process. It decomposes so slowly. As it enters mummification it still draws jackals, who nibble at the shreds of the dressings. But in fact, research has shown that jackals were usually unable to ever eat mummified bodies. In fact, their saliva contains enzymes that aid in the preservation of the mummy. And jackals are much feared in Egypt. When a grave robber sees them, he runs away. So you see that jackals not only help preserve the mummies. They chase away the grave robbers.
So I leave it to you – why did the ancient Egyptians mummify their dead?
From the cavernous depths of the hole below comes the echo of my quarter and pennies hitting the change.
An American coin for an American wish, Hussama says, and I look at him.
I want to understand more about why Napoleon’s soldiers ripped off the nose of the Sphinx; rather, I would like to think about it, to see again the sands shift in my mind’s eye to the specter of the French camp on the Nile in 1798.
And if you would like, Hussama says, this boy here will take your picture for you, and show you how to do funny poses, like crouch with the Sphinx pose, or if you like to have a picture kissing the Sphinx, holding the ears, this boy will show you how to do that.
He turns expectantly to me.
Okay, I say.
Give him 10 or 15 dollars. No more than 15.
Well. That’s okay.
No thank you.
There persists a languid languorous assurance in his sunglassed eye. As if all has already been determined and variance from course is but one more American folly. His expression appears to one contenting itself to humor a child.
Monarchical, bemused, he feigns to demure. In the comedy of his smirk, his two words, is the unutterable prevailing attitude uttering your lives are in my hands and have been since the moment you stepped out of the airport onto Egyptian soil and when I tell you to pay you pay.
No, I say firmly, blacklined, sweat melting a thick circle on my shirtfront, gathering at the collar.
Forgive me, he says, and now he is demurring in truth, bowing, still monarchical, still bemused, sunglass staring, none of the confidence gone. His words seething like a false tide. Outwardly malleable. No one knows the throes of honesty the way a liar does.
They take more than our buildings, he says. Our streets, our safeties. The Muslim Brotherhood terrorists. They take the magic of Egypt and crush it like unfinished papyrus in the fists. You even who do come are so afraid, very afraid. But really you do not need to be.
Do forgive me, he is saying again, his eyes still on her as we walk. You see, I must try. These people, my people, they do not get very much anymore. You see, you know. You understand. You see. There are no visitors It is the fault of the Muslim Brotherhood terrorists. I have to try, guys. I’m sorry, guys.
Like with beaches and mountains mankind has come to the brink and largely the brink only of the Sinai Desert. It occupies the liminal spaces, brushing fire, pressing bloodshot weakened eyes against windowpanes that don’t really exist. Melville wrote of that insular isle of Manhattanoes, lost in ocean reveries. Standing there and peering beyond Giza and into the Sinai is not to peer past an eternal monument and into the desert but rather to peer into an eternity itself. Life is still, shimmering in the dry heat.The seething flanks of the camel breathe dust in the scorpion light.
Later, in the car, sweating. Cairo seethes in the slit of the van windows. Crunching its essence in my molars. One arm sunburnt from where the rays came through the window at the bottom of the curtain. It is not the sort of light I have ever known, the colorless beige, and with it the scent of dusty markets and moiling humanity. Arabic beige, evocative of empty yards deep in lost alleyways so far from nature that it seems like it could not even be borne of the sun. That it is instead some sourceless mysticism that lays its glare on turbaned places.
The Prince Regent takes me to ride a camel at the edge of the desert away from the crowds of the Pyramids. We come to a small encampment with many turbaned men sitting by umbrellas drinking juice with Arak or soda with Arak. Arak is a dark Arabic liquor sold in ornate bottles and when the bottles run out they are refilled with a gasoline-smelling approximation of moonshine and resold at cost.
When we return from the ride the crowd has doubled. All are dressed in desert garb and shawls and make loud jokes in Arabic that grow quieter as we approach. A few gather up tenuous folds of trinkets and rush forward with proffered gifts and upturned palms. Hussama spits in Arabic and they retract.
He leads us past our van and below a sand ridge to where a different group waits. We understand that this group is the elect group of beggars. These are the good touts, he says. He says they have a product of very high quality and will offer the most competitive price and that we cannot go wrong with their services. From within the folds of his trinkets, without knowing it, one of the men is offering me Arak.
The men speak in a shyer pitch, humbler. They do not look me in the eye but appear to watch from the ocular of their upturned palms only, their dusty upturned palms with cracked and bleeding Saharan skin rising slowly upwards to our faces as if emblematic of their own aspiring rises to riches or respectability or American-ness or even Hussama-ness.
I’m sorry, I say. I’m very sorry. I give the same explanation. That I do not have money to give. That what money I have is to keep me fed and sheltered until I get to where I am going and there is hardly a cent more. And the two watching my words, not hearing, uncomprehending, watching with grim and humble melancholy from the orb of the upturned palm until after a long durance Hussama translates our denial in monosyllabic Arabic. Yet they do not recede. They come with us to the van doors not aggressively but as if unable to believe we will not buy the trinkets.
Hussama closes his door regretfully and the van rumbles away. Through the window the two figures are framed against desert and an outline of pyramid in the distance and in their eye or perhaps in their still-upturned palms there lurks something older than the miracles of Giza, and that which might persist after the Pyramids are gone, too.
Why did the ancient Egyptians mummify their dead? There were many theories. The answer like the answer to all the questions of the day seemed to disappear when I tried to focus on it too hard, like zeroing in on a single crystal of sand in the desert sun, something visible or knowable only as mirage or parlor trick. The call to prayer drifting from speakers posted atop buildings, a supplicant wail, offered not answer or guide but instead seemed to only reinforce the implacable depth of the white desert.
Racing down bumpy backalleys and through marketplaces the van doublehonks at the nowhere wandering Egyptians in tatters, in rags, in Muslim robes, the women in places with all but the slits of their eyes veiled in black dustless cloth and seeming to float over the ground like ennobled ninjas and the butchers and farmers and cornerstand owners plucking out their wares with black hope and defeat and threat to the moiling peasantry. Crowds part without a glance back to the lone vehicle waking the seas. Hussama turns to us and says:
Now you have seen the Pyramids of Giza, ridden the camels of the Sinai, visited the gravesite of Hemon, seen the Great Sphinx with the nose removed by the men of Napoleon, and leanred the making of the papyrus scrolls. Now we go to the airport, Five hours before your flight.
The van sinks into a deep pothole and on gunning it out the curtain rolls back my window. And I see and they can see too but I can see the eyes only. Flashing dustily by like a series of phantom slides on fastforward through a spectrum of destitution. Eyes of hunger and danger, malfeasance, gaunt alertness of pickpockets, touts, would-be guides, worse. I feel myself raise my hand to close the curtain and I try to stop it and it comes closer and I say I am not so very brave in the end and my hand pauses in the cloth while Hussama watches from the back of his burned and royal Mediterranean neck. The van honks twice and from the side window I see a man edging to the roadside with a bloody club and a twitching rooster. Now I shut the curtain.
As we come back onto the highway the Pyramids and the Sinai are visible again through gaps in the half-finished buildings. Slowly the Pyramids slip out of sight and I watch their tips slowly slip below the crumbling spires of a dusty apartment. For the first time I realize that these buildings do not appear to be something that is half-completed but rather something that is falling apart, the aspirations of modernity and antiquity alike slipping back into the desert from which they came.