Remembrance of Things Past in Egypt

For every traveler, Egypt is a trip back to the ancient world. But for Sandra Tsing Loh it was also a journey into a more recent past — the last time she remembers her mother and father being happy together. As she and her sister explore Cairo and beyond, what they really hope to see is a vision of their childhood

by Sandra Tsing Loh
egyptian pyramids image
Photograph: Harf Zimmerman

But the evening wends on and somehow (I had too much Chardonnay to recall exactly how) my sister Scheherazades me. It’s not just that we are in our fifties now and must have something like a million air miles between us (“Which you can’t take with you,” she reminds me). Don’t I remember the Cairo Opera House, with all the gold leaf and crushed red velvet? Or Cairo American College, the school we attended, which was housed in a sultan’s palace, with sunken alabaster tubs? Or the cruise we took up the Nile to see the temples at Abu Simbel? “A cruise, we could take a cruise!” she exclaims. “And on the Nile,” she adds softly, alluding to the contents of yet another of her carefully cataloged boxes, “we can throw in Mama’s ashes.”

In that moment I can visualize it: the Emma Thompson/Judi Dench/Merchant Ivory movie moment. I see the winding river, the burnished sunset, my sister and me in white muslin gowns on a felucca with a fluttering sail, weeping as we gift my mother to the Egyptian winds. I see beauty. I see remembrance. I see healing.

Our first steps outside Cairo International Airport are neither beautiful nor memorable, nor in any way healing. Yes, Tatjana has prepped extensively for this trip, as is her Leo-meets-Excel-spreadsheet wont. We are arriving in late September, when the summer heat is fading, on an eight-day, planned-almost-to-the-minute itinerary that will take us from Cairo to Aswan to Luxor and back. Surefooted in her trek shoes and backpack, my sister is ready with Arabic phrases, Egyptian currency and culturally appropriate dress. Given that we are two American women in a conservative Islamic culture, she has decreed that we have our arms and legs covered in loose-fitting clothing—no short skirts, no shorts and no denim—so as not to signal Western disrespect.

Not even a spasm of last-minute political unrest has thrown her. A week before our trip, when 2,000 Egyptian protesters destroyed an American flag in front of the U.S. embassy in Cairo (in response to a U.S.-produced film attacking the Prophet Muhammad), I had panicked.

“I checked the State Department website an hour ago,” Tatjana told me soothingly, “and good news! While the U.S. has issued travel warnings on Lebanon, Tunisia, Sudan, Algeria, Libya, South Sudan, Syria and Iraq, it hasn’t on Egypt. So we’re fine! Besides, when we were there 40 years ago, Nasser died and there were air raids and people were hurling themselves off buildings. If you just stay away from the hot spots, you’re fine.”

But upon entry into Cairo, I realize I really have not mentally prepared for a place that has become so foreign to me. The layout of the hotel’s various giant, glittering towers confuses me; I have become way too used to a minibar that makes sense, electrical outlets that look familiar and a Starbucks in the hotel. It is amazing how unglued I can become over my confusion about how to get that first cup of morning joe.

I have had such a romantic notion about this trip—that it will be immediately magical. You know, that moment when you feel transported out of your regular life and into the living dream of another place. But the simple logistics of getting around Cairo are tricky. In this city of 17 million people but no stoplights, the taxis have to be bartered for, the traffic is bumper to bumper, and our map is a maze of Arabic words.

First published in the May 2013 issue

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