Monday, November 17, 2014

Enchanting Egypt

Elation for Egypt!

Whenever I leave a country that I have visited, I take it home in my pocket--meaning I read about it in current events and devour novels from authors who write about it.  I try to keep in touch with people who I might have met.  I might even attempt some recipes to bring the wafts of smell and sense of place that I felt there--a place that changed my opinions or sensitivities.   Truthfully, that country seeps into my skin, and becomes a part of me, and I am never the same again because of those direct experiences--particularly after meeting people whose lives intersected my own. That's what happened when we went to Egypt for our Eid vacation a month ago....

One of the huge assets about being an expat is the ready opportunity to travel-- to go places you never imagined you would visit.   Also, to make it even more enticing, students get some extended holidays off from school that we certainly did not receive in St. Louis, MO, USA.   Like us, most of the expat population at Eid were exiting the country for holiday excursions.  Since we dwell on this small peninsula off the coast of Saudia Arabia, it was the perfect time to escape the lingering summer heat.
So much wonder to think upon when you see the pyramids....
Typical of us Shums, we had not made any definite plans or bought any tickets for the Eid break--that was only about three weeks away.  To be fair, we had just barely arrived and unpacked in our new home in Qatar--plus started at new schools.   But there were two looming questions: where were we going for the Eid break and when would we buy the tickets?
Now I am glad I came!

We finally decided on Egypt since my husband grew up ravenously reading about ancient civilizations and archaeology and my son wanted to see the pyramids. Frankly, there were not many other local options.   Egypt was definitely not on my agenda.  I wanted to escape the burning sun, and see some lush, green forests--perhaps even feel some moisture?  

However, as is often the case, this new place and peoples began to penetrate my affections on the very first day; a whole unknown world opened up.  I became entranced with Egypt--the place that scriptures, literature, expeditions, crusades, wars have been intertwined with for millenniums. Amongst the noisy, bustling, even cacophonous crowds in Cairo, and the peaceful villages along the Nile, this place pulled at my heart.  I have to admit I even felt at home.

Some of my cherished memories include: misty images of the Nile River meandering through the fields at the date harvest, palm trees swaying breezily as a fiery red sun set over the dusty horizon, the spectacular iconic pyramids, the Red Sea in all its panoramic azure beauty, and the thousands of minarets (of many various styles--for another post)  intermingled all over the city with high rise buildings.  But what captivated me were the people.  Anyone can read books and articles about Egypt, but I want to capture a few profiles of real Egyptian people of our travels who live there now, not centuries ago.   They are people who obviously are struggling, but do it with immeasurable grace, humor, determination, and faith.  In a couple of minutes or hours, they became our friends.   Here are just a few:

There was a young, handsome, religious taxi driver named Makmud (about age 32) who was my favorite person we met in Egypt.  I can't find his picture.  He was our taxi driver for several days when we went to the Red Sea and Alexandria so we had time to talk.  His English was adequate, he had gone to college, and was expecting his third child.  His father had died when he was young so he took care of his mother in a seven story walk-up apartment.

When it was time to pick a wife, he asked his mom to arrange it for him because he was in India working.  His mom found a beautiful girl, he said, and she knew this young woman would make a wonderful wife.  His mom and wife called a few times on our drive--checking up on him.  He didn't seem to mind, and said his favorite thing to do was to go home and talk about his day with his wife. He drove us by his apartment, and we could see it was a very humble dwelling, but there was so much love, devotion, and kindness evident in his phone calls and family stories.
Here is another Makmud, an Egyptologist and our tour guide.  He told us that Egyptians prefer to see the glass half full, even with the struggles they have been going through.  When the water shuts down in their homes, they go to the mosques for clean water.   He said, "The mosques always provide for us in the neighborhood."  

See the horns the boys are carrying?  I will tell you that I have never heard such loud noise to celebrate Eid and National Egypt Day, which was on October 6.  One British diplomat we met said, "I needed earplugs for my earplugs."  Our tour guide said, "When Egyptians are loud, that means we are happy."

Since it was Eid, women were selling flowers everywhere so people could take them to their ancestor's graves.

My boys talking to some kids about sports.  Tourists are not as ubiquitous as they used to be in Egypt, and we were sought out many times to talk and pose for pictures.

We stumbled upon this woman named Maie, and she taught me how to make flat bread.

On a Nile River cruise one night when much of Cairo was blasting music, dancing on boats, blowing horns, and celebrating the week of Eid, we met a group of Indian Christian pilgrims on the deck.  They were on their way to Jerusalem the next day.  This is a picture of a family from the southern part, Karola, the section where most of the Christians live in India.  They had saved a long time to be in this group with people who shared their same faith. The group's Christian songs in Hindi inspired us for days.  After being with them for a few minutes, we were invited to India.

This is a picture outside the new Alexandria Library, about two hours from Cairo.  The first Mime School in Egypt was established recently, and these are some of the students performing outside the library.  Egyptians, we found, are extremely fun loving, affectionate (they always kiss you on both cheeks), and witty.  They prefer to not see life too seriously--having fun along the way.  For this reason, we felt at home--even when we were the only tourists around, which was most of the time!

This is a guard at the Roman Amphitheatre in Alexandria, Egypt.  E. (my son with autism) was climbing on a wall, and the guard got a little nervous for his safety.  He came down, and lovingly steered him away, even with only speaking a few words of English--no anger, just love.

At the Red Sea Resort where we were for one day,  Latifa led exercise classes, and ran the spa.  Her boot camp was fun, even though she could only drum up a few middle school  girls and me to come.  She lives near Giza, and she said the view out her bedroom window is... the pyramids.  She is 31, and lost both her parents in an automobile crash when she was in her early 20's.  Auto accidents are the leading cause of death in Egypt.  She is resilient, funny, and motivating.  She kissed the top of my forehead when we were done with boot camp.

These are cousins who run a family perfume business that started about 100 years ago.  He told us about his great-grandfather who began harvesting flowers to make perfume.  You can see the beautiful glass bottles in the background.  Since I like to mix spices together, I thought it sounded like a delightful business--to tend lavender fields, and smell lotus, roses, hibiscus, and other flowers all day.  They were very proud of the business their ancestor had started, and showed us old family photos of the flower fields.

Here is pictured a woman who has lived in Africa for several years, and hails from Alabama, US.  Her work is with human trafficking.  She has done much to alleviate this abdominal problem in our world in Africa and Asia.  My son said he could have talked to her all night about her experiences.

My sons had more photo ops than they would ever have imagined.  

Families were fishing, swimming, and picnicing on the week of Eid.

While the apple harvest is going on in Europe and North America, the Middle East is harvesting dates.  They are burning the branches that hold the clusters of the dates.

Maie is a 16 year old girl with Down's Syndrome who was walking around at Eid with her family.  Since one of my best friends has Down's Syndrome, we started talking, and became friends.
Sometimes I feel a little bit like Bilbo Baggins (probably no one believes this) in The Hobbit when Gandolf asks him to go on an adventure.  Bilbo replies,  "We are plain, quiet folk and have no use for adventures.  Nasty, disturbing uncomfortable things!  Makes you late for dinner!  I can't think what anybody sees in them."  But every time I accept the "adventure invitation," I am always surprised at how much I gain by meeting new people.  On this trip, the Egyptian people became more beloved than the pyramids.  I felt my heart enlargen, and the world shrunk a little more.... 

It always reminds me of the C. S. Lewis quote: 

"There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously - no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”



  1. You are the most amazing woman!--I have thought that since I first met you in Wien with Annalise. I love reading about your life! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

  2. OH, these dear people. How lucky to meet them and get to know them and what a blessing for them to get to know you and your family. I love life's intersections! Thanks for sharing