DJESER DJESERU (SPLENDOR OF SPLENDORS)
At Luxor’s airport, Patty panics about corrupt taxi drivers until she sees a man holding a Thomas Cook sign with her name. Tufts of black chest hair poke out from his thin dress shirt. The right amount: manly but not apelike. She greets him with a simple “sabah” instead of the full hissing/gargling of “sabah el-kheir,” a sound that must be similar to a snake choking on a sock.
He shakes her hand like a Westerner instead of kissing her cheek like an Egyptian. “I am Hossam. Nice to meet you, Batty.” Just like the seminarians, unable to say Ps. He leads her to his white Peugeot in his flat leather sandals, the type that don’t give support or protection.
Patty heads for the back of Hossam’s car, but he says, “Sit up front. Keep me company.”
She doesn’t have to keep playing the part of consecrated virgin, as the seminarians called her. During her two months of teaching English at the Coptic Catholic seminary, she kept her divorce and former married status tucked away. But she is in Luxor now, on vacation after all, eager to play the part of tourist, and a tourist wouldn’t know better.
Patty moves to unroll her window, but no knob. The heat begins in her head and then flows over her chest. She dabs the sweat off with a bandana. Forty-five and already suffering from menopause. The end of her marriage and reproductive life happened the same summer. Patty eyes the air-conditioning switch and then, miraculously, Hossam turns it on. Her first car in Egypt with working airconditioning and a driver willing to use it; the rest swear it makes them sick.
Hossam says, “You are a good woman, I can tell.” She asks how. He says, “Your clothes are respectful.”
“You can hardly tell that from clothes.” Patty’s tank top clings to her stomach, hidden beneath her long-sleeved cotton top, part of her conservative clothing arsenal.
He raises an eyebrow. “You are not good?”
“Oh, I’m good.” And she laughs at how ludicrous she sounds. Her sexual experience is limited to one man before her marriage, an unfortunate effect of her Catholic upbringing and inability to have sex without attachment. Those two men in her past work out to one man every thirteen adult years.
Hossam glances at the ring on her left hand. “You have husband?” Patty explains that she wears it to keep men from bothering her. Sexual harassment has no age restrictions in Egypt, and the attention both thrills and disgusts her. Her real wedding ring is tucked in her underwear drawer at her house in San Diego. When she returns, her ex-husband will still be living in a downtown loft with the Brazilian, who is about to pop out his spawn. He probably married her by now, but Patty stopped reading his emails weeks ago.
“You are very pretty not to be married.”
Patty scans Hossam’s wrist, no cross tattoo. She asks, “Are you
“We all believe in Abraham’s God.”
At least his religion accepts divorce. She admits, “My husband left me.” She feels lighter sharing that information. The seminarians and priests would have asked too many questions that require complex answers, not simple parsed-out English.
Hossam asks, “Any children?”
Patty shakes her head and rests a hand against her flat stomach.
“You don’t want children?”
“Of course I do, but my husband didn’t.”
“Husband bad man. Against will of God to deny children. Purpose of marriage is children.” Hossam gives her a grazing look, unusual for an Egyptian man introduced to a woman. Patty likes it. He says, “You must have married young. My mother married when she was fifteen.”
“Something like that.” Patty believed that within her first year of marriage she would have a child like her mother did. Patty wanted three, a good number. She keeps mum about the new phase in her life. She hasn’t told her mother and sisters yet, unwilling to feel like a failure now that the fires of menopause have scorched her eggs and left behind a barren desert. Patty should have at least had a daughter, some companionship insurance. She could have been in college by now. An art major, or some sort of degree that would cause Patty to worry that her daughter wouldn’t be able to find a job, but would help with traveling. She would know different dynasties, art periods, and symbolism. She might even fall in love with a handsome young Egyptian man and become fluent in Arabic.
To steer the conversation away from her, Patty asks, “Do you have children?”
“A boy. Fever kill him. Then wife leave.”
“Asif,” Patty trips over her answer and adds, “asif gedan.” But Egyptians don’t say “sorry” when hearing bad news. They say something about God and praying, like most Egyptian sayings, whether the person is Christian or Muslim. Patty learned a curse that translates to “may God destroy your house.”
Hossam says, “Insha ’Allah will give me pretty, good wife again.”
“I’m sure He will.”
Along the road is a Mubarak billboard, the thirteenth one that Patty has seen. Outdated pictures of him in a wide-lapel suit and sideburns are planted all over Egypt. Patty has a set of photographs of herself standing beneath Mubarak billboards, but after a month the novelty turned into an annoyance. She resents the all-seeing, judging Mubarak clinging to his youthful image and power. Twenty-seven years under emergency rule should be enough for anyone.
Hossam asks, “You like Luxor?”
Cruise ships with names like Nile Goddess and Alexander the Great crowd the river’s banks. Westerners and Egyptians walk along the Nile’s elegant corniche. For this one week, Patty wants to shed her layers and join the other Western women in their sundresses and shorts. After this trip, Patty will visit her favorite seminarian and his family in his village, where she will redon her conservative clothes and careful behavior, and sleep on another rock-hard mattress and rectangular pillow in another hot room while his family squashes together to make room for her.
Hossam pulls up to the Iberotel. Patty suffered biting ants, beans for breakfast, and no air-conditioning at the seminary. But the Iberotel’s brochure promises a pool that floats on a barge in the Nile, omelet station, soft pillows, and “il-hamdu lillah,” air-conditioning. Patty visualizes lounging next to the pool, unfortunately in her conservative, skirted swimming suit, the one she wore to the Red Sea with the seminarians, but better than the alternative of the burqini or wading in full-veiled clothing. Also in Patty’s suitcase is a red sundress that she brought, just in case.
Cramped shops selling hieroglyphic rulers and evil-eye necklaces flank the hotel’s skinny marble entrance. The bellboy, an older man with a hunched back, takes her suitcase from the trunk. Patty pulls out her wallet to tip him when a man in a Bob Marley T-shirt asks, “Want a felucca ride?” Another man with a silvery beard suggests a ride in his buggy and then points to his horse, “He is strong and good.” A woman wearing mesmerizing green eye shadow descends on Patty and says, “Madame should come for sugaring. It’s better than waxing, less painful. Makes skin nice and smooth, good for touching.” She rubs her forearm as evidence. The hawkers pin Patty next to the Peugeot. She clutches her wallet to her chest. Arabic explodes around her.
Hossam starts yelling, probably bringing shame into it—the magic word to use against all Egyptian men. The people start to disband and Hossam apologizes for their impolite behavior.
A man in a gray galabaiya, a traditional robe that looks like a bland muumuu, walks by and leers, “Want an Egyptian husband?”
“Fil mish mish,” Patty replies. She doesn’t understand how “fil mish mish” translates to “in your dreams” when mish mish is an apricot.
Hossam claps his hands and grins. “Ah, you Egyptian woman. Fil mish mish. Very good.”
His lips might taste like the salty Mediterranean Sea. Patty imagines him as someone ancient, one of St. Mark’s descendants before St. Augustine infected the Church with his views on sex, before the Catholic Church even existed, a time when most Egyptians were Christians in defiance of Rome. But Hossam is Muslim, part of another culture, another conquest. It must be impossible to have a singular identity when your country has been repeatedly conquered. The abrasive desert where Persian armies disappeared in sandstorms kept Egyptians huddled to the one water source that flows south to north, bringing people to Egypt, but rarely out of it. Even Cleopatra was Greek.
First on Patty’s list is Hatshepsut’s Temple, site of Egypt’s first female pharaoh, whose reign, like Patty’s marriage, lasted for twenty-one years. The sun beats down on the dusty earth. Hossam wears a red baseball cap with an awkwardly stitched NY, as if someone unsure of English letters had created it. His mustache shades his thick lips, unlike her ex’s spotty facial hair.
Patty gives Hossam four hundred pounds, eighty dollars, and says, “For tickets today.” She was told to sneak money to her guide, because it’s shameful for a woman to pay.
Hossam hands her tickets at the entrance and says, “I wait.”
“You’re not going with me?”
He tsk-tsks her. “I driver, not guide. Other sites, yes. But this one is too important.”
“I thought you were a driver and a guide.”
“No one is a driver and a guide.”
“Come with me. I’ll pay you to be my guide.”
“They think I take business from guides. They ask for license. Just driver. I study engineering, not tourism.”
“You went to college?”
“University. My friend Mahmoud,” Hossam waves at another mustached man standing next to another white Peugeot, “is a social worker. No jobs in Egypt. Some go to Gulf to work.” Hossam hands her a bottle of water and adds, “Be careful. Wear your hat. Take care of your pretty white skin.”
Hossam returns to his car, about to become a roasting tin can. The temple is a three-level structure carved out of the base of a limestone cliff, looking ’70s modernist in its simplicity. Patty gets on the shuttle and hands over her ticket that cost twenty-five pfisters, five cents. Everyone has to be paid and tipped, even for distances that would take a ten-minute walk. At the airport, a man’s job was to push the button to lift the parking arm.
Patty tries to read her guidebook on the first terrace of the temple, but one of the guards grabs her arm and says, “Madame, here. Look here.” He lifts up a red rope to let her into a cordoned-off area. She backs away, unwilling to damage thousands of years of history for her own gratification. He sticks his hand out, palm up, and flexes his fingers repeatedly, as if to say, “gimmee gimmee.”
Guides lead Italian and Spanish tour groups unmolested, but each part of the temple lands Patty into a section of baksheesh-seeking men who are supposed to guard the sites but instead subsidize their measly pay by opening restricted areas. Clusters of guides hang out in the front, but they look shifty. Hossam should have entered the temple with her, even if he would have broken some driver/guide rule. After all, she’s paying.
Patty hears a slip of English, blessed English. A short Egyptian guide leads a British man with bursts of red in his hair along the temple’s lower terrace. Patty lags behind. Her water bottle is dangerously low. She should have brought a Camelbak like her ex suggested.
The guide points out the gaps where Hatshepsut’s images and cartouches were chiseled off the temple’s limestone walls. Many of her statues were torn down and smashed or disfigured before being buried in a pit, and the official history was rewritten without her. Still, in some places, especially ones outside the line of sight, her image remains.
Patty asks, “How could they erase her like that?”
The Brit turns around. “Quite fantastic, don’t you think?”
Patty says, “If her reign had been filled with wars and economic disaster, they would have left her image up so everyone would remember a failed female pharaoh.”
The guide says, “That’s just an opinion,” then turns his back to Patty.
The men walk up to the middle terrace. Patty follows. The guide keeps looking back and begins to walk faster. But the Brit stops and asks, “Are you here alone?”
Patty nods, hoping she doesn’t appear too pathetic.
“Brave to be wandering here without a guide, especially as a woman.”
“Or dumb. I hired a driver but not a guide.”
“I did the opposite. I figured I could walk, but not read my guidebook and fend off these hooligans.”
Patty introduces herself and learns the Brit’s name is Edmond.
The guide points to Edmond and says, “I call him Khwaga. It’s a better fit.” The Egyptian equivalent of gringo.
She asks him, “Esmak eh?” Proud that she knows how to ask ‘what’s your name?’
“Ashraf.” He has the familiar cross tattoo on his wrist. But unlike the seminarians, he doesn’t have a mustache.
Patty asks, “Are you Coptic Catholic?”
Ashraf wags his finger. “No no. Coptic Orthodox.”
Pope Shenouda declared that a Coptic Orthodox woman would be better off marrying a Muslim man than a Coptic Catholic, the ultimate insult. The seminarians complained about the pope betraying his Christian brothers and Patty reminded them they follow the pope in Rome, not the one in Alexandria. Still, rejection from a minority must be humiliating, like wandering around a Middle Eastern country alone as a divorced, childless, barren, middle-aged woman.
Edmond says, “Please join us. We wouldn’t be gentlemen if we left you alone in the desert fighting off baksheesh-seeking men.”
Ashraf stiffens until Patty announces, “I’ll pay too.”
He leads the tour again, slowing down, answering questions, hoping for a larger tip. Ashraf says, “Hatshepsut called this place Djeser Djeseru, Splendor of Splendors. It also translates to Holiest of Holies. Splendor and holy can have the same meaning.”
Edmond looks at the topless men in kilts carved into the temple wall and says, “Back then they knew how to dress in this infernal heat.”
Ashraf points to a cow with a sun disc between its horns. The cow smiles coyly, as if it is the original Mona Lisa. He says, “The Goddess Hathor symbolizes love, sexuality, and motherhood. Egyptians believe no woman is truly a woman until she has a child.”
Patty’s body probably reeks of infertility, a smell she imagines as a musty basement. She dabs her forehead. “Why does she have to be a cow? Rabbits are known for their fertility.”
Edmond says, “But cows are mighty. A rabbit goddess could be squashed.”
At the center of the middle terrace Ashraf announces, “This is where they died.”
His English slips and his “tourists” sounds like “terrorists.” “Government calls it ‘the accident.’ Ten years ago, terrorists dressed like security and killed sixty-three people. They still remember that day.” Ashraf points to men waiting on the cliffs, ready to offer donkey and camel rides to tourists hiking from the Valley of the Kings over to Hatshepsut’s Temple.
After Patty mailed the divorce papers and announced her travel plans, her ex sent articles about tourists attacked in Egypt. A mother covered her daughter with her body to protect her, but they both died. Patty imagines being pinned between the pillars as security guards fired into the group of tourists. She almost expects someone to come running down the cliff and end her life. What would her ex do when he received the news? Would he name his baby after her? Patty rubs her flat belly, wondering if she had a daughter if she would have sacrificed herself too. Each year she told herself that her ex would change his mind, that all men at some point want to have children, although she believed it a little less each time, especially when he called children “small people with needs.”
Edmond touches her arm. “Don’t worry. That was the last major attack here. Just stay out of Sharm el-Sheikh.”
Ashraf points behind one of the main temple doors and says, “Senenmut designed and built this temple, as well as Luxor and Karnak. Many people believe he was Hatshepsut’s lover. He was too low in society to marry her, so he ruled through her bed. In her tomb, men carved sex acts between them. He did great things for Egypt.” Patty’s shoulders tense. “She didn’t need a man. She made herself one.” She points to the statue’s slender arms and rounded breasts, which contrast with the pointy beard. Maybe some of Hatshepsut’s powers will seep into Patty through the three-thousand-year-old sandstone. Hatshepsut didn’t bear a son, but instead of being relegated to a favored second wife after her husband’s death, she made herself co-regent for her stepson and took power. She was too busy bringing prosperity to her people to cry over dried up eggs and whether a man wanted her or not.
Patty asks Ashraf if he lives in Luxor.
He frowns. “No, no. Cairo. It’s a much better city.”
“But Luxor is cleaner than Cairo, and prettier.”
“Yes, but it’s boring. Not for tourism, of course. There are many wonderful sights and tourists who love them, but Cairo is for Egyptians.”
Traffic laws seem to exist in Luxor and there are fewer donkey pullcarts along the road than in Cairo. Trash is properly concealed instead of piled along roads or in massive roadside dumps. The sky looks wider and bluer without high-rises blocking it. So different from Cairo’s overloaded city, where iron rods poke out of incomplete concrete buildings, waiting for the next level that won’t come, where people live on roofs with goats and no ceilings because its owners are skirting the tax laws. Luxor is a tourist mecca, too important for the government to allow its skyline to be marred with incomplete buildings. The land of the dead attracts plenty of the living.
At the end of their tour, Edmond mentions he is also staying at the Iberotel. Patty asks Ashraf if he is a guest there too. His face darkens. Edmond explains, “We can’t stay at the same place. The nice hotels worry about prostitution. They see a Western and Egyptian man together, and they assume.”
Edmond and Ashraf stand close together, their bodies loose and comfortable. Men hold hands with their male friends in Egypt and kiss their cheeks. Affection within the same sex is allowed in public, and Patty admires that. Still, they look too comfortable. Patty says, “But homosexuality is illegal here.”
Ashraf wags his finger. “You should not use that word. That’s worse than cursing someone’s mother.”
Edmond smiles. “Sometimes things are more accessible because they’re taboo.” He explains that in Egypt, if a man is the giver, he’s not considered homosexual. Some see it as a way for men to satisfy their desires until they can afford to marry, which may take years or never happen. But these poor men have sex drives and good women remain virgins until marriage to maintain their family’s honor. What’s a man to do?
Ashraf adds, “Our government makes us scrounge from tourists.” He glances at Edmond and adds, “Too many poor people and too many khawagaat.”
“Please, I just cut hair.”
Edmond’s skin is turning pink. He should have worn a hat. Ashraf suggests waiting at a restaurant until the temperature cools, then walking back to the ferry landing where boats take people from the west, the land of the dead, to the east, the land of the living. Patty offers them a ride with her and Hossam.
They walk the gauntlet of aggressive shopkeepers when Hossam appears from one of the stalls with a sealed bottle of relatively cold water. “You must drink,” he says and hands the bottle to Patty. She gulps it. He gives a polite hello to Edmond and Ashraf, and ma feesh mushkila, no problem, about giving them a ride. Hossam grabs Patty’s hand and leads her through the shopkeeper onslaught. His hand is surprisingly soft. Most Egyptian husbands and wives don’t hold hands or touch each other in public.
She says, “Hatshepsut was a smart woman.”
“She was good leader. Women wise, not snake. Many men think woman has two face, cause of sin and evil in world. They forget woman is the mother, the sister, the friend, source of love and emotions.”
He’s probably saying it for a larger baksheesh, but it’s worth it to hear feminist words emerge from an Egyptian man’s mouth. Some of the seminarians would say woman is the temptress for men, the reason for original sin. Others seemed too interested in women. One night after dinner, Patty’s favorite seminarian invited her on their usual walk. He bought her the requisite drink, a pineapple Fanta, despite her preference for water, which he deemed not special enough.
He asked how could he become a celibate priest when he doesn’t know what he is giving up, but then stopped and said, “Aye, but I forget. You are the consecrated virgin.” She almost told him about sex and her ex-husband. Instead, Patty hugged him. His hand grazed the side of her breast. He gave her a suggestive look and she knew he was hoping she would sleep with him. And she felt gratitude. This young man, boy really, was twenty years her junior and wanted her. She imagined sneaking him into her room, but hers was situated between the other female teachers; the section the seminarians dubbed the haremlik. She dismissed it as a silly, momentary thought. Still, she couldn’t help but look at the seminarians’ young bodies and think they were the type of men for her—nice and brown with just the right amount of facial hair.
Hossam strokes Patty’s index finger. Because of sexuality taboos, Egypt feels a little more romantic. Each glance, each movement, carries more meaning and intention.
At the car, Patty heads for the front seat when Ashraf says, “No, no. Disreputable women sit in front. Good women sit in back. It’s not right to be next to a man unless he is your husband.”
Away from the seminary two days and she’s already the bad woman in Egypt. She slides into the back. Hossam blasts the air-conditioning. It cools her skin as another rush of heat starts from her head. She mops her forehead with her bandana, hoping the men don’t notice.
They cross the bridge to the eastern side and Edmond asks why she’s traveling alone. She tells the tired story about her ex-husband. He says, “The bastard.” She loves his immediate allegiance. She asks how he knows Ashraf. Edmond is a hairdresser who travels to Egypt once a month. He has wealthy oil clients and likes to spend his free time soaking up the sun and sights. Ashraf is the nephew of one of his top clients, and a licensed tour guide. Edmond helps Ashraf with his English and Ashraf helps Edmond make the most of his trips. Life is much cheaper, and more pleasurable, in Luxor than in England.
Patty asks Ashraf, “Have you been to England?”
“I will.” No insha ’Allah. The first Egyptian man she met who doesn’t make his future plans dependent on God.
Edmond asks, “Any interest in joining forces? My tour guide for your driver? You can play the part of my wife. We could be downright respectable and have two children at university.”
Ashraf says, as if to prove his worth, “Luxor’s name in Arabic is El-Qosor. It means the palaces.” The baksheesh she gave him must have been big.
Patty asks Hossam if it would be okay with him.
“If it makes you happy. Ente mab sota?”
Patty agrees, relieved not to be traveling alone. But outside the Iberotel, Hossam watches as Edmond walks inside and asks, “Can you trust him? He might have bad ideas.” Patty assures Hossam that she is not Edmond’s type.
During their second round of drinks at the Iberotel’s lounge that night, Edmond tells Patty, “Well-done with Hossam. I like the gruff, manly type.” Patty protests, but Edmond insists, “You’re a dream come true for many Egyptian men. You’re well-preserved.”
Patty raises her glass. “Thanks to power walking and yoga.” Hossam could be a possibility. Someone she wouldn’t have to see again. She says, “He studied engineering. Such a waste that he shuttles people around.”
“It’s best to focus on the sights.”
“Are you going to help Ashraf move to England?”
Edmond glances at his scotch. “I pay him plenty. In a few years he’ll be able to marry. That’s what they all want.”
Before falling asleep that night, Patty prays to Hatshepsut, thanking her for the gift of companionship.
The next few days Hossam, Edmond, Patty, and Ashraf take turns playing photographer, memorializing themselves at the various sites of the dead. Each morning Patty gives Hossam money for the day. He buys her water and food, and doesn’t give change.
At the Tombs of the Nobles they walk among closed graves, littered with dust and rocks. Squat concrete houses blend into the limestone hillsides above. Hossam searches for someone to open the tombs while Patty, Edmond, and Ashraf take refuge from the sun under a storefront’s abandoned canopy. Their newest guide insists he lead the tour. He makes a show of pointing out each loose rock and step, but in the Tomb of Userhat he holds up a jagged mirror to illuminate the artwork with reflected sunlight, just like the ancients did, and temporarily blinds Patty. Hossam steadies her and lectures the man about his carelessness. After that, Ashraf resumes the lead, making a show of correcting the man on time periods. Hossam holds Patty’s hand to ensure her safety. In the tomb of Ramose, Hossam looks at the image of swaying mourners and begins to sing, a throaty type of warbling that sounds thousands of years old. Patty leans against him.
When their foursome begins to leave a group of boys come running out with trails of postcard collections flapping behind them. Hossam buys Patty two sets. Instead of the standard Egyptian nom bad el dohr, an afternoon nap, Patty, Edmond, Ashraf, and Hossam plunge into the next places on their list. Hossam carries Patty’s water and sunblock. His eyes flick over her, watching for signs of amusement or exhaustion, but looks away whenever she dabs her forehead with her bandana. Each day he wears his faded black chinos. Good Egyptian cotton is exported; the dregs are left for its people. Patty wishes she had a pair of nice linen pants to give him.
In Deir el-Medina, the Workers’ Village, Hossam walks ahead and advises Patty when to watch her step. He offers his hand for steep descents. Most ancient Egyptians lived on the east side of the Nile, where the sun rises and life begins, but the men who created the royal tombs and artwork in the Valley of the Kings were sentenced to live and die here with their families to keep the tomb locations secret. Every two weeks they received supplies of wheat, beer, onions, dried meat and fish, equal to the price of a bull. In their free time, the workers created their own tombs and artwork, scenes of family life and lovemaking. Hossam holds Patty’s hand and says, “This is greater than any royal tomb.” She squeezes in agreement and stares straight ahead at the scene of a husband and wife in supplication to Nut, the tree goddess, while their bountiful children stand behind them.
Patty takes a picture of a shrub with bright pink flowers. Hossam asks her what is so special. She says, “There are flowers growing in the desert.”
He kisses her hand. “Many things bloom in the desert.” Her hand warms beneath his lips.
Ashraf takes her aside and warns, “He is a driver and a Muslim. Be careful about encouraging him.”
But Patty likes the way Hossam looks at her as if she is special, not a lower-paid second-grade teacher. She spent too many years craning her neck up at her college professor husband, forgetting that at one time they had been equal college students, even forgetting that she supported them while he studied for his master’s and then PhD.
At the Colossi of Memnon, Ashraf stays inside the car blasting the air conditioner while Patty, Hossam, and Edmond wander around the gigantic, faceless statues. Edmond jokes about what other type of colossi the statues must have had. A young policeman leans against the giant statue’s toes and his rifle is slouched across his chest as uselessly as a beauty pageant sash. Hossam talks to him but keeps watch over Patty. A little girl follows her selling handmade dolls with vacant eyes for five pounds. Hossam buys two for forty pounds. He shoves the scrawny straw dolls into Patty’s hand and then grabs her camera. As if on cue, the girl latches on to Patty’s thigh. On their way out, the young policeman points to a blond European couple kissing. The woman’s shorts barely cover the tops of her pasty thighs. The policeman asks Patty, “Why do Westerners like to make sex in front of us?”
Each night Patty and Hossam part ways with Edmond and Ashraf. Hossam hires private feluccas to ride down the black Nile lit by the moon, and to take Patty across to the western side, where the Thebes necropolis waits and where Hossam lives. At the different local restaurants, Patty feels like he is splurging on her, then remembers the large amount of money she hands him each morning and the change he doesn’t give her. Each night ends on the Sheraton hotel’s rooftop bar, where Hossam drinks at least three beers, odd for a Muslim man.
On the fifth night, Hossam takes Patty to Sofra, a restaurant in the backstreets of Luxor. It’s filled with foreigners and carved wooden furniture, inlaid with hundreds of iridescent mother-of-pearl pieces. Hossam and Patty sit on the rooftop terrace, the night still heavy with heat from the day. Patty wears her just-in-case red sundress, feeling naked without sleeves, but sexy too. Hossam tells her, “You look like the goddess Isis.” He offers her a gift: an ankh pendant, a sign of everlasting life. He clasps the chain around her neck. His breath caresses her shoulders. Patty rubs the ankh, feeling part of something ancient, enjoying the surprise even though she gave him five hundred pounds that morning. He orders their meal and a sheesha, flavored apple. The waiter sets the tall water pipe in front of Hossam, the spiraled glass a delicious ruby red. It feels decadent to smoke before eating, and careless too.
Patty clasps her lips around the reed’s plastic end. She sucks in, but nothing happens.
Hossam says, “You try too hard. Look like you play flute.”
She relaxes and the smoke glides through her mouth and out her nose like a dragon.
Hossam smiles. “You pro.”
A familiar buzz settles in, reminding her of when she would smoke pot with her ex. Patty’s head floats. She asks, “What type of engineering did you study?”
“Electric. Egypt’s electricity is very bad. I want to help my village, but I do not have government friends or money for baksheesh. But I
have a car and license, so driver is good.”
“Why don’t you become a tour guide?”
He taps his chest. “Too old for school. Too much money. People need drivers.”
The candle flickers on the table. She puts her hand on Hossam’s knee, a bold move, especially in a public setting. His thigh tenses beneath the thin cotton. “What I really want to know is, how does ‘mish mish’ translate to ‘your dreams’ when it means apricot?”
Hossam scoots a little closer. “Sweets are important because we have them so little. They are special and rare, like you.”
Through the restaurant’s speakers, a woman’s throaty voice sings in Arabic. The melody makes Patty feel as if a beautiful moment is happening and ending at the same time.
She says, “I love this song,” and fixes her eyes on Hossam.
He leans in. “This song by Fairuz. Beautiful Lebanese singer. She sings: Visit me once a year, just don’t forget me, I fear that love would come in a glimpse and go.” His words sound smooth and big for him, rehearsed even, but, Patty tells herself, sincerity isn’t necessary for romance.
Around the room other foreign women breathe in sheesha or eat a decadent meal, some with their boyfriends or husbands, others with Egyptians, but they fade into the dark lighting and it feels like it is just Patty and Hossam.
His hand brushes along her bicep. The hairs on her arms stand on end. He says, “First time I saw you, I feel I know you before, from years ago. You are the moon.” The compliment rests on her shoulders. To say a woman is the moon means she is the embodiment of perfect beauty and femininity.
Patty recites a silent prayer to Hatshepsut that she doesn’t embarrass herself, then says, “If anything happens, it won’t mean anything.”
He says, “I know this.” The desert inside her stirs, turning into something lush and filled with splendor.
Patty says, “It doesn’t mean anything,” a couple more times as they walk back to Hossam’s apartment, a slinky bounce to her step, as if she is wearing high heels instead of flat sandals. She says it once again when she steps inside his concrete walls, bare except for a poster of a red racing car. She says it once again when she sees an inferior Egyptian condom in Hossam’s hand and wonders why he has one anyway. But, she reminds herself, he is Muslim and he probably hasn’t slept with anyone other than his wife and he thinks she’s beautiful and this is just a fling.
Patty wants to rest, but Hossam’s twin bed doesn’t have the space or the spring. So few things are soft in Egypt, no wonder people spend most of their time socializing along the Nile’s corniche, next to the water and away from their concrete homes. At Patty’s house in San Diego, and it is her house now thanks to the divorce settlement, she has rooms she forgets to use, a plush sectional, and sheets with a twelve hundred thread count. Her ex declared traveling too much of a hassle and spent their extra savings on a home theater, an outdoor living room with a privacy fence, and a king-sized mattress adjustable on each side so that they wouldn’t have to agree on the firmness. A home so comfortable he couldn’t feel comfortable anywhere else. The Brazilian’s loft better be minimalist, with uncomfortable boxy furniture.
Patty calculates a way to return to the Iberotel when Hossam suggests they go for a drink. On the Sheraton’s rooftop, he finishes a whiskey and then announces, “Insha ’Allah, you will marry and have children with me.”
Patty laughs, but he stares at her. She thinks of his cheap cotton clothes, his car’s window handle without the knob. If she married him, she would have the power.
He leans forward and says, “I can give you children. I am a better man than your husband.”
“I’m too old to have children.”
“No no, not too old. Beautiful woman.”
“How old do you think I am?”
His face falls and he looks at her more closely. She asks him how old he is.
“Thirty-three.” His eyes look yellow and his nose red and lumpy.
He announces, “We adopt.”
That word has lurked inside Patty’s mind since she learned about the Brazilian’s pregnancy. Hossam probably would be a good father.
Her mother and sisters would forgive the Muslim detail for a baby. Patty states the obvious. “I’ve known you for five days.”
“I tell you my hard stories. Now time to share life with me. We can live abroad. Egypt no good.” He tells her again about his wife leaving him and his dead daughter. But didn’t he say dead son before?
Hossam clutches her hand. “It’s hard life alone. A woman should have a man take care of her. I can be a good American man.”
Patty forces herself to ask, “How old is your mother?”
He looks down at his whiskey. “Fifty-three.”
Patty’s widowed mother often complains that men her age either want a nurse or a purse. Patty looks at Hossam’s thin sandals and says, “I don’t want to pay for you.”
He protests, but she stands and says, “I no longer need your services.”
She has a shawl in her purse, but she leaves her shoulders bare as she waves down a taxi. A black-and-white one pulls over, the ones notorious for overcharging. The young driver whistles and begins telling her how pretty she is. She shames him, asking if he would talk to an Egyptian woman this way. At the Iberotel, she rejects his inflated fare and haggles for a fair rate.
At the front desk, she leaves a message for Edmond that she isn’t feeling well. She sleeps late, then spends the rest of the day next to the pool in her skirted black swimming suit, which the seminarians called a bikini, their name for any Western swimwear. The European bikini women lounging around the Iberotel pool would blow their seminarian eyes out. Patty sips piña coladas, margaritas, and every other fruity alcoholic concoction she can think to order from the full Western bar. On their honeymoon, she and her ex stayed at a hotel like this in Hawaii. She was young and firm in her bikini, and was served alcoholic drinks in pineapples. She saw a future for them like the beach, spread out and seemingly infinite.
Her mobile fills with missed calls from Hossam and Edmond. Patty is ordering a banana daiquiri when she spots a leathery, midfifties Italian woman next to a much younger Egyptian man two beach chairs down. He slathers baby oil onto her hardened back. Her skin would fit in at the Khan el-Khalili’s leather souq. She turns to him, glistening, but he retreats to his laptop.
Edmond and Ashraf appear next to Patty’s lounge chair. Edmond says, “Where’s your eye candy? I expected him to be feeding you grapes.”
Patty bites into her pineapple slice and imagines Hossam staking out the ferry landing, waiting like a man afraid of missing his last ship out.
Edmond asks, “What does he want? Some clothes? Shoes? An apartment? Things are cheap here. Probably not as expensive as you think.”
The pineapple lodges in her throat. “Marriage.”
Edmond laughs. “Now that’s greedy.”
“He’s thirty-three. Can you believe that?”
“It’s a hard life here.” Edmond pats Ashraf’s leg. “No offense.”
“That’s why you will take me to England. I must live abroad.”
The leathery Italian cajoles her younger Egyptian cohort with words like mi amor and per favore. From Hatshepsut’s temple to Sofra restaurant, women like her waited in the background, with their dyed hair and fancy sunglasses. Their laughs and smiles were too big, they touched the young men’s arms too much, and they leaned in too close, hoping for the same second act men get. Those women Patty chose not to see because she was doing the same thing. Hers and Hossam’s connection was an illusion, like an oasis in the desert.
Edmond takes Patty’s hand. “It’s time for you to rejoin the living.”
Ashraf says, “Hossam is just a driver. Not important for a good Christian woman like you.” He glances at her empty daiquiri glass and adds, “He drinks too much, especially for a Muslim.”
“What about you?”
“I smoke hubble bubble. It’s from nature. A gift from God.” Ashraf taps his shirt pocket. “Want some hashish?”
Edmond says, “Brilliant idea.”
Ashraf leads them down to the pier and then sits on a rock next to the Nile, tucked against the corniche, out of sight. The granite pokes Patty’s rear end as she sucks the hashish in. The police might come, but she could probably mollify them with baksheesh too.
Afterward, Edmond and Ashraf lead her deep into the eastern side of Luxor. The city looks like it’s floating in a fog. They order at a falafel stand when a burst of trilling interrupts from the opposing sidewalk. People form a protective circle around a groom and his bride in a Western wedding dress. The women welcome the newlyweds with their ululations, that ancient Arabic sound of female joy or grief that reminds Patty of Indians in old Western films.
Ashraf says, “Arabic word ‘farah’ means wedding, but also joy and merriment. We all hope for a wife and children. Someday I will have this, but in a better place, far away.”
She admires the newlyweds’ simple pleasure, happy to be marrying one another, not worrying about careers or accomplishments or children. They radiate the young’s innocence and happiness, before love is convoluted with too many needs and wants. Whatever else happened in their story, Patty and her ex had been that way once.
Edmond says, “Thank God that’s not for us. Can you imagine one person the rest of your life?”
He wraps his arm around her waist. She rests her head on his shoulder. If Hatshepsut could return to glory in Egypt after being carved out of history, then Patty can find her way too.
Ashraf and Edmond walk ahead on the high sidewalk, built steep to protect pedestrians from erratic drivers. Patty lunges up to follow and the women’s trilling cries of joy trail behind her.