The ancient plane rattled wildly as we took off. I averted my eyes from the quaking wing outside my window and began deep-breathing exercises. My mother gazed serenely at the expanding terrain below, which was rocky and barren, except for a shrinking strip of green along the Nile. Two hours later, the plane was descending into the petroleum-smudged brown egg of Cairo. As planes sometimes do on descent, we seemed to pause in midair. The sky was clear, but the wind was fierce. Suddenly overcome with mortal dread, I reached my hand over the divider to my mother’s wrist. Soft, dry, cool. I clamped down hard. She turned away from the window and, recognizing in my terror what she had somehow discarded, her beatitude turned to amusement.
One-Way Ticket to Iraq
For a few months after our trip, my mother was a changed woman. She fearlessly boarded a Chicago-bound flight delayed by weather and reported feeling no anxiety as she bounced westward over tornado systems. "Oh, I really want to travel more," she’d say.
But once back in Chicago, the city of her grown children and retired colleagues, the globe-trotting character soon settled into the armchair in front of Al Jazeera. She watches television, absorbing scenes of gore from her native land. What of that woman drawing crowds on an Arab street and feeling so energized that the ache in her knees was barely a distraction? That was my mother, yes, but it was also a woman in a time machine, a woman whom I have had the privilege of seeing once and most likely never will again.
Although she did tell me recently that there is a one-way ticket she’d like to have: She wants to go back to Iraq. It’s unfathomable to me, a lunatic idea. "You’ll get killed," I tell her for conversation’s sake.
"I don’t care," she says. "I just want to go there and disappear."
I don’t have the heart to point out the irony to her, that the woman who never wore a veil and refused to be invisible when she lived there now wants to use the country of her birth to help her disappear.
It’s not that she really wants to live in Iraq, but that she remembers a life that existed there before despair set in. Our trip to Egypt momentarily rekindled a flicker of what she misses. There is a Borges poem about life being ultimately a shipwreck, and I think about that when I consider my mother: She traveled around the globe to get where she is, but today, beached and unable to continue, her mind is filled with literal images of the wreckage of home.
Nina Burleigh’s new book, Mirage: Napoleon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt, will be published by HarperCollins next year.
Originally published in MORE magazine, October 2006.