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

We finally steel ourselves to return to Maadi via Luxor. But because the Abu Simbel trip has taken a whole day, we are now going to have only one day in Luxor before we fly back to Cairo. Quel dommage—we are having traveler’s regret. Luxor is the Egyptian city with the greatest wealth of astonishingly preserved temples, and in retrospect (mid-trip) we are feeling as if we spent too much time holed up in our Cairo hotel. No matter—while experts recommend you give Luxor a full week, we shore ourselves up and decide we will bear down and do it in one day. By 8 am we are in the Valley of the Kings and buzz through four extraordinary, mesmerizing and wonderfully fresh-looking underground tombs. Next up is Hatshepsut’s Temple, which beyond its distinctive grand ocean liner–like façade offers relatively little to see within (phew—can cross that one off in an hour!), followed by the mysteriously not-as-famous Ramses II Temple, which is really quite fantastic (it has the giant fallen head that inspired Shelley’s “Ozymandias”). After a quick lunch we are at Karnak Temple, which is mind-blowing in its massiveness—its many football fields’ worth of —cathedral-like wonder is its own planet. Still on fire at 5 pm, we feel we can cram in one more site: Luxor Temple. Entering its grand gated walls is like stepping into a giant’s storybook. As the local muezzin begins his call, the sun sets and the relatively squalid sights of the city (Luxor Temple is smack in the middle of town) melt away. Gradually, the lights come up, casting a haunting glow over Luxor’s lowering colossi, with their eternally calm, sightless stone faces.

When we do get back to Cairo, driving toward where our family home used to be, through rural streets overhung with foliage, I see modern houses and boxy apartment buildings. Nothing resonates. But surely there is something—the sunlight playing on banana leaves, hissing sprinklers, the swoony heat, a curving cul-de-sac?

“Here it is—here is the number,” my sister says ruefully. “I guess if it were here, it should be behind us on our left.” It is of course not there. Our home was earth colored, and this is a white building. But it is of a very recognizable style. The front porch has been enclosed, which makes the entry a different shape than I remember, but as you move your gaze from left to right, you can see it—the same tile roof, the same veranda, the same formal windows that my mother threw open on that first delirious night, and oh, the parklike backyard! The garden!

Tatjana and I begin to weep—tears of sadness, relief and finally joy. To stand before our old villa is to have proof that no matter how long ago it was, our mother once existed. The narrative I’ve always told myself is that my mother was sad and unhappily married. But standing here on this dusty road in Egypt, I now have proof that she was also for a time happy and that however ill matched, my parents did share a love of adventure and travel. She might have had a more contented life if she had married another man, but she would not have had this life, and this life had moments of real magic.

I have also had my first real adventure without my daughters since they were born. I’ve begun reclaiming a self that existed before them. When I navigate the world most days, I operate as a mother, my focus on the clocks, schedules, meals, classes, doctor appointments, clothes, shoes and socks of my children. There is no time to dwell on the spaces in between—to track my own sensory experiences, thoughts and memories. Quite frankly, there is no room to be flummoxed, weepy, indecisive or even still. There is certainly no room to be the perhaps purposefully inept little sister I was until age 18 or to participate in the more hand-to-hand combat of siblings.

First published in the May 2013 issue

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