Poetry Porch: Prose

Christmas in Cairo 
by Joyce Wilson

We passed through the glass doors beneath the red exit sign and stood on the brink of the city in the pea-green darkness. I hailed a bearded man in a dark suit who professed to speak English but had trouble understanding us. "Taxi! Taxi?" I called to him, only to watch him shrug and wander away. My mother and I were often thrown together like this, I thought. A couple abandoned against the elements. Since my fatherís death, I found myself on my own with my mother repeatedly, even though by now she had remarried, and I was married with a daughter of my own. 
       The initiative for this trip to Egypt had originated with her. She proposed combining work (at a conference on the environment) with pleasure (sightseeing on the Nile), and she invited me to join her. Our underlying agenda was a special journey in memory of the deceased: my father had often claimed that Cairo had been his favorite city.
        Soon three men approached us from out of nowhere. The first introduced himself as a driver. I looked over his shoulder at the bearded man who had ignored us before; now he was smiling and nodding. Ah, I thought, he understood after all. The taxi driver handed our baggage over to the other two men in long robes, and my heart sank as I watched us heave all our belongings for the trip into the trunk of the cab. Thousands of miles from home, I mused, and at the mercy of the male preconception that women need an entourage of assistants. 
        The taxi carried us through the streets of the city under the cover of a thick velvet darkness. I grasped the belly of my hand bag and breathed a sigh of relief once I felt the hard edge of the book inside. I had imagined it on the plane, left behind and forgotten. The volume of Egyptian folklore described the darkness as the arched body of the goddess Nut, her feet at one edge of the horizon and her hands at the other, who bent over the land and swallowed the sun every evening, causing night, only to give birth to it again every morning, creating day. I was not consoled by the continuity of this myth. The reference to pregnancy was enough to awaken pangs of anxiety in my mind, where birth, separation, and death were all wrenching passages to recall from beginning to end, leaving the individual battered and spent at every step of the way.
        Traveling with my mother in a foreign country, I sometimes felt like a climber clinging white-knuckled to the side of a cliff. It seemed that old distances were widening between us, requiring new ground rules to maintain comfortable intimacies. In the back of the taxi, my mother sat upright like a formidable queen. Her white hair and pale features, her skin that was seldom tanned in her later years, glowed with a luminous beauty. She was clearly in command of her own life. Her gray eyes beneath pale lashes were fixed on the next frontier. She would ride with composure to the gallows, I thought wryly. 
        "Who was Semiramis?" My mother asked the cab driver. He turned and regarded us. 
        "A goddess," he said simply. Later he broke the silence to announce, "There is the local mosque." We turned our heads and strained our necks to see the place of worship, visible through the window for a matter of seconds as we flew through the city.
        Climbing out of the taxi at the Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel, we argued about who would give how much to tip the driver before we pushed our luggage through the heavy doors. I couldnít help but notice that my mother was the vision of health. Attractive and capable and headstrong as ever, she insisted on carrying her own bags, pulling the larger one on its own tiny wheels that tripped and jumped and rocked off balance at every change in the floorís surface. Yet her self-assurance, displayed as she announced our arrival to the impeccably dressed man behind the hotel desk, seemed tinged with an unfamiliar frailty. I saw it in the manís eyes, kind behind his glasses, and I felt it in my own throat.

        Once our duties at the conference had ended, my mother and I were free for twenty-four hours to explore the city before joining our party of Americans on the Nile, where an old steamer would take us sightseeing to Upper Egypt and back. We set out on our own for the Egyptian Museum right after breakfast. As we walked past the life-sized figure of Santa Claus astride a camel in the hotel lobby and moved beyond range of the Christmas jingles broadcast continually over the intercom, I was plagued with speculations. Aside from her advancing age, my motherís self-confidence caused me to clench my jaw. In this exotic city, my mother was beautiful in an unadorned way. She was a vibrant woman in the prime of life who expressed her delight overtly; yet, in this city of fundamentalists, her manner would be seen as irreverent, even immoral. That was what worried me.
        I scanned the face of the maitre díhotel for signs of disapproval. He warned us about the traffic, summarizing all accounts we had heard about the Egyptian style of driving: lots of instinct, no rules, few traffic lights, the exhilaration of manning the steering wheel. At first I found the chaos on the city street amusing. But after standing on the street corner for minutes while an unmitigated stream of traffic flowed by, I reconsidered my motherís health, her age, and a daughterís duty, and thought that perhaps we should put this excursion off till after lunch.
        "Donít cross there," a man warned us. "Follow me. Down this way. Here, let me take your hand."
        He was about five foot five, with dark brown skin and a physique based on roundness. His head seemed perfectly round, his torso a protruding globe. He wore a light gray wool suit. His shoes resembled flat mules, triangular toed and backless like slippers, making him scuffle when he walked. His arms moved with a buoyant energy.
        I saw with horror that my mother was quite taken with him. She responded amiably while I tagged along behind, sinking into a meditation on suspicion. He said he was from Nubia, in upper Egypt, raised in a family of nine children. But now, married himself, he had only five children. "Five is enough," he said. "Any more is too much. Too expensive." He rubbed his thumb against his fore fingers. My mother remarked that she had two daughters, one of them at her side.
        He exclaimed, "Really? And you are so young! I thought you must be sisters!"
        "With my white hair?" my mother laughed. "Iím almost sixty-eight."
        "Sixty-eight! No! It could not be true! This one is the youngest? The oldest! You both are so young!" He then offered two camels and four goats for my hand in marriage. "Just joking," he said.
        When we told him we were on our way to the museum, he looked at his watch and said, "So early? It does not open till eleven. Donít you know that Tuesdays and Fridays are holy days? Everything is closed in the early mornings for prayer." I was perplexed and wondered why no one at the hotel had told us of this.
        He showed us how to cross the center of Cairo underground, safely away from cars. As we walked with him, or rather, followed him, he asked us where we were from, what we did. He drew a quick breath at my motherís response. "Institute!" he said. He himself was a manager of a shop owned by his father. They grew flowers, dahlias and lotus, then made scents from them.
        As soon as I realized that we were being escorted to his shop, I stopped in my tracks and said we werenít interested. But my mother deferred to him. "These experiences donít come along everyday," she whispered to me over her shoulder. "I think we should follow through." She walked quickly behind the jubilant man. My concerns about my mother were replaced by a new foreboding.
        Turning off the main square into a short alley, we entered the shop. The experience had all the magic and charm of passing through a threshold between different worlds. I was sure I could hear tinkling cymbals and feel the lifting of veils as we walked into a room of mirrors and glass shelving, displaying a menagerie of small colorful bottles. Some were like small flasks, with long necks and broad bowls; others were cylindrical and decorated with hand painted flowers and curlicues. We met the father and proprietor of the shop, a man bigger and taller than his son. His hair, kinky and gray, was receding and revealed an oblong callous on his forehead from regular worship at the mosque.
        We sat on a broad misshapen sofa and drank small glasses of sugary mint tea. The son set out litre bottles full of yellowish and murky green oil. "These never change color," he said, opening a phial and then spreading the liquid on our wrists with a glass pipette. "This one is from lotus blossoms, this from the jasmine. Here is one called Christmas night," he said smiling to me. "It will make your husband love you!"
        Soon he was readying to measure the scents into bottles; I suggested the smallest ones. "How many would you like? Six? This size usually costs twenty pounds," he said. "But I will give you a good price."
        I knew my mother seldom wore perfume at all. I offered, "Three for twenty." His face fell. "You have a good daughter, madame." He sighed. "For three? But one is worth twenty."
        Soon prices were flying back and forth, and we were settling on four kinds of scents, measured into bottles with delicate glass stoppers and wrapped in cotton for the journey home. We also chose six paintings individually designed on genuine papyrus leaves, crushed into a small wad and then released to show our authenticity, and a hematite necklace. I was nearly enjoying a position of privilege, choosing and discarding, except for a sinking feeling at the pit of my stomach. My heart gave when I saw my mother produce her credit card. We spent over two hundred pounds on trifles.
        I thought my mother must be losing her mind. She never approved of acquiring things. Normally she displayed a Quakerís deep-seated resistance to purchasing anything beyond bare necessities. But now in Cairo she was cutting loose. I took another look at her and saw a vivacious woman with a flushed face, exclaiming and laughing, really enjoying herself. I had never known my mother to indulge in such pleasure.
        "I have a son in San Francisco," said our Nubian friend, who now guided us to the underground passageway that would lead us to the museum. "When I come to America, I will come to your house, and you can make me a cup of coffee."
        We parted in a flurry of smiles and niceties. His parting words of advice: donít buy the papyrus on the streets, donít buy the green bananas, and donít pay for a guide at the museum entrance.
        We proceeded to the museum through the clean well-traveled underground thoroughfare. We seemed to be the only women out and about in a city populated by men.
        It wasnít long before we realized that of course, the museum had been open for hours and it was not yet eleven oíclock. Once inside we were quickly exhausted after a quick solitary run-through of King Tutís tomb and the mummies. Returning to the courtyard, the low angle of the winter sun bore into our eyes, nearly blinding our sight.
        On the way back, we did not use the underground. I was sure I could see the hotel above the other buildings and made my way through the parking lot straight for it. Every hawker descended on my mother. Something about her, her looks, her manner, her reluctance to be rude, her eagerness to take up the rope whenever conversation went slack, egged them on. I was shocked to see something I had never detected before in my mother, her eagerness to be liked. I found myself shouting at the Egyptians as I wanted to shout at my mother, "No! No!" A thousand times no. I had become the elder, my mother the younger.
        A slim man with a black mustache asked if we were staying at the Hotel Intercontinental. "Iíve seen you there," he said. "I work in the arcade. And Iím on my way now. Can I escort you?"
       He asked what we had bought. Scents and papyrus, the women said. How much for the scents? he asked. "And the papyrus?" 
        He grew stern and said we had paid much too much. "You can get six of those for ten pounds," he said. And we had spent, how much? One hundred? He said he owned a jewelry shop nearby; would we like to come look at some silver? Our spirits low, we easily dismissed him. 
        "Taken for a ride!" My mother said as we entered the dim interior of the lobby. "Fed a line. And we fell for it. The museum open at eleven, papyrus for ten pounds a piece, scents for I donít know how much!"
        In the hotel room, as I took the perfumes out of the paper wrapping, I felt slightly nauseated. The heavy, cloying smell that once seemed so weighted with exoticism was overwhelming. 
        "Itís the hypocrisy I canít stand," My mother said. "All that baloney about us being sisters. Itís such a line. Meaningless."
        I consoled my mother by considering a number of viewpoints, none terribly convincing. We had experienced an initiation into a foreign culture; we made a connection with a man who might contact us once we returned to the States; we had acquired personal objects that might take on more meaning with time. We have to conclude, I said, as Paul Fussell has, that, this being the end of the twentieth century, we are not explorers in an undiscovered land but tourists on a shopping spree.
       "Itís all meaningless," My mother sighed. Suddenly she stood in front of me and looked into my eyes as through the frame of a glass. "Tell me what you think," she queried me. "About your father. Do you really believe that he is close to us, even after death?"
        The question was so direct, it left me speechless. "Well, yes," I said. "Or rather, no. I do feel his presence sometimes, but I donít believe I know where he is. I envision a space---" I was stumbling. "I pray to envision the space where he is very clearly."
        "Itís garbage," my mother was saying. "Heís not anywhere. There is no life after death. I have known that since Sunday school, when I decided never to go back. And I never did."
        She was pouting. Nearly seventy, my mother seemed on the verge of puberty. I took a hard look into the future. Eventually, I know I will have to take charge, but when? I wanted suddenly to secure my motherís protection. Isnít dying like passing into a different culture? You surprise a hunger in yourself. As your ability to reason dissolves, your last thoughts will be, "No, I never suspected that it would be like this. Surely someone should have told me" and you relinquish the familiar for a sudden entry, like a compulsion.
        "Still, I believe there is a reincarnation," my mother was saying. "Iím sure we come back as the air we breathe!" She smiled at me like a child.
       But I want to be there, I thought with a sudden vehemence. I want to be the one to escort my mother to the other side. No one else will understand her well enough. Understand what? I nearly laughed out loud at my own thoughts. I could see how necessary it would be to plead my motherís special case at the gates after death. Still, I, could do it. I have the tenacity and forbearance to see my mother through to the "right place." I can shut my eyes and imagine her into a heaven of cool grasses and quiet plentiful streams.
        At the Citadel, we walked through the carpeted theater of the mosque with a female guide, an attractive young woman with long dark hair. I listened to her description of the practice of wearing the veil, the attitudes pro and con, and couldnít stop myself from pursuing the issue. Was the reasoning to hide the lower half of the face or the whole of the hair? How did this guide feel about it? Was it only a religious practice? From what I had seen of Egyptian men, I felt like throwing one on myself for a sense of protection, distance, and respect while traveling in the Middle East. The more I wanted to know from this woman, the more irritated I could see her become. Soon her brow was knotted with disapproval and she looked over my head and beyond my gaze to take her attentions away from what had become an imposing interrogation. I had been trying to make her understand that I had read about the controversy of the veil, that I knew what the topic was all about, but I was losing ground. Soon, my mother was approaching and I held my breath, dreading what would happen if she joined us.
        I hoped nothing would be said that I would have to explain or retract; I stared at the dust coating the floor under my feet as I heard my mother asking about weather in the summer. "Wind," the woman replied, smiling. "Horrible storms from the desert bring in oceans of dust."
        "Ah, the dust," my mother said. "And who cleans all the dust in a cathedral like this?"
        The woman laughed. "Yes, that is quite a job! It takes many workers, men and women. There is no end to all the dust in Egypt!"
        My mother laughed along. I was incredulous. What a coup! My mother was discussing housekeeping, the activity she avoided adamantly for most of her waking life (although she sometimes admitted that she did have nightmares about it). The truth is, I mused, that I have been compensating for her aversion to housework since I was seven. And so has  my sister Anne. Our mother often chided us, her conscientious daughters, for succumbing to the tyranny of the housekeeper, whose goal in life is a perfectly clean house that no one wants to live in. Still, if I learned anything from my mother, I thought, it was to cultivate warmth and generosity in the face of overwhelming chaos, domestic and otherwise. There is no housekeeper you can pay, and no service you can hire, who will provide a genuine hospitality, my mother would say. Just as no known professional can provide the attention of a loving, worrying mother, a love as broad as the expanse of a warm blanket and narrow as the piercing vision of a hawk.
        I looked at my mother standing alongside the Egyptian female guide; she resembled a sage from another epoch. The smooth plateaus between the wrinkles of her tanned skin glowed like the worn alabaster columns that supported the dome above us, a forehead worn smooth after centuries of exposure to weather and living. Certainly she was in her element here. I took another look. I could see the guide was quite taken with this woman, my mother, the wise American grandmother.

(Copyright © 1998 by Joyce Wilson.)
First appeared in Travelers' Tales: A Mother's World, 1998.
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