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

When you grow up with a depressed mother, as i did, memories of the fleeting moments when she was happy start to take on the gossamer hues of a fairy tale. This is especially true for me because:

1. I myself am now a frenetic working mom of two tween girls, barely able to remember what I had for breakfast.

2. My mother has been gone now for—could it be?—nearly three decades. A German immigrant to Southern California, she died 17 years ago from the early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosed 10 years earlier, when she was 59. I have been without her for so long—facing alone such adult milestones as starting a career, getting married, buying a house and having children—that it seems even the existence of Gisela Loh before dementia is a bedtime story I tell myself.

3. Where my mother was happy was in Egypt.

Or so says my older sister, Tatjana, who, unlike me, remembers every detail, clearly, vividly, accurately. She is the rigorously organized keeper of everything: old family photo albums, handwritten letters tied in faded ribbon, ornate velvet pillows from our grandmother’s circa-1940s house near Frankfurt, keys to safe-deposit boxes that store incongruous objects such as our “silver collections.” That’s right; whereas at each birthday my brother received cash, at ours my sister and I received silver, from standard place settings to obscure weapons like asparagus tongs, presumably to be used as ammo for—don’t laugh, even though my daughters do—our dowries.

“Don’t you remember that first night in our villa in Maadi,” Tatjana asks me, “when Mama ran from room to room, throwing open all the doors and windows? She was so, so happy!” We’re sorting through some of our mother’s several-decades-old Egyptian souvenirs for distribution among the kids. “Never mind that we woke up the next day with 60 mosquito bites per arm,” I reply. “I have to say, even then Egypt felt like a dream.”

This was due not just to the exotic locale but also to the sudden luxury and harmony of our family life. In Southern California, our Chinese engineer father worked in the aerospace industry, and we lived in a suburban tract house. Unhappily married, my parents would stand in the cold, dark kitchen—where my dad often ate out of pots on the stove, as if he were in a lab—while they fought about money. In 1969, however, my father got a two-year teaching job at the American University in Cairo, and our family entered a life of academic gentility. Overnight we had a two-story villa just outside Cairo, with terraces and verandas spilling over with bougainvillea. We had a cook and two gardeners whose sole job it was to tend our parklike backyard, ringed by 200 rosebushes. Cairo then was an international city bustling with culture, and thanks to my mother’s command of languages (she spoke English, German and French and soon learned Arabic), our at-home tutors in the arts were prima ballerinas from the Cairo Ballet, flame-haired Russian Kirov ballet mistresses, Italian maestros. We went to school with the children of oil barons and ambassadors. There were ballet premieres and dinner parties and even the donning of tennis whites at the private Maadi Tennis Club.

“Ooh, wouldn’t it be fun to go back there?” my sister asks, waggling a hand-stitched camel from my mother’s collection. “Aren’t you curious to see Cairo again? Maybe just the two of us should go!” I laugh and say no. It can’t possibly work. Tatjana has a husband to leave behind, I’m divorced with two children, the idea is madcap, the scheduling impossible.

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.

As the taxi crawls through a slow-moving current of continually honking cars, we can’t stop gazing out our windows at the vast, rolling megalopolis, eerily lit up even at night. Cairo looks both the same and not the same to me. Some cars appear to be new, but a surprising number are just as beat-up as the ones I remember, with rusty Egyptian plates. Some of the billboards look Western and even have words in English (many, many cell phone ads), but down on the streets, the buildings and storefronts that were sooty and antiquated in 1969 appear still to be sooty and antiquated. We see hundreds and hundreds of apartment buildings that are either going up or being torn down. It’s impossible to tell.

But the smell of the place is the same, a musky aroma that I can describe only as a combination of green oranges, roasted pistachios, rotting trash and diesel. It speaks of night markets and food vendors and hookah smokers playing checkers under hanging kerosene lamps.

For the next few days, though, that Cairo smell is one of the rare familiar experiences I encounter. I can’t seem to find my footing in this city. Instead of being nestled in the suburb of Maadi, as in our childhood (we decided to save our old home for our last day), we are in the mini fortress of a Marriott protected by bomb-sniffing dogs and enclosing not just the Omar Khayyam Casino but also an American steakhouse, a Tuscan ristorante, a British pub and, weirdest of all, a “Roy’s Country Kitchen.” Buzzing around the casino’s slot machines are Egyptian women dressed more gaudily than I’ve seen patrons in Vegas dressed: We’re talking off-the-shoulder minidresses, six-inch heels. Now floats by a woman in a burka—that’s a full black burka, with only a slit for the eyes—but even she is sporting painted orange toenails and a sparkly Gucci purse.

We try to walk to the Cairo Museum. It’s not far, technically, but the city doesn’t exactly cater to pedestrians. Sidewalks suddenly disappear into traffic lanes, and overpasses, when they occur, are like Escher staircases that spill you out onto the wrong side of a cacophonous eight-lane thoroughfare. I also have to confess that this city, to my eyes, is not a beautiful one. It is so destroyed in parts (some buildings burned in earlier protests have not been repaired, their windows still blackened) and so not verdant that I face each foray into its streets with a bit of dread. And yet, because I hate to blame a city, I blame myself for being a person who has somehow lost the capacity for joy, pleasure and adventure.

To get to the old bazaars at Khan El-Khalili that my mom used to love, we take a 30-minute taxi ride. The old Coptic part of the city features churches and entire blocks that appear carved out of mud. The bazaar provides a welcome sea of color: alleyway after alleyway of ornately decorated bags and dresses and rugs fluttering pennant-like above cunning Pharaonic and animal figures of alabaster and brass and lapis lazuli (or at least a substance that looks like lapis lazuli). Taking comfort in the fact that they are selling exactly the same souvenirs, I buy a mother-of-pearl chessboard, toy camels and gilt hassocks that duplicate the 40-year-old ones we have at home. But the continual haggling in a country where few price lists are ever posted is challenging, as is our quest for familiar landmarks and people. The maestros and ballet mistresses we knew have either died or moved away—to Paris, Berlin, New York. The Cairo Opera House, built of wood, burned down in 1971. “That’s where it was!” my sister says, throwing her arm out toward an apartment building covered with advertisements. “Cool!” I say, with more enthusiasm than I feel. Preliminary quizzing of drivers suggests that back in once-idyllic Maadi, our childhood school has moved to a new location, there is a soccer club instead of a tennis club, and no one can confirm that even the street our house used to be on still exists.

Meanwhile, overheated, dehydrated, peckish and tired, Tatjana and I are starting to wear on each other. As our schedule did not in the end permit a Nile cruise—our less romantic modes of transportation are well-worn cars, short domestic flights and trains—we take a brief sail on a felucca as a consolation prize. But it is not transformative, and we don’t dispatch my mother to the wind in the single cathartic movie throw I had imagined. This is because at every other place we’ve been to, my sister, grinning, has waved a small plastic film canister at me, saying, “Mama loved that place—I threw a pinch of her ashes there.” This horrifies me; it is like seasoning a curry.

Even more ridiculously, my sister and I snap at each other about finances. If her bible, the Lonely Planet guide, says a cab ride should cost 60 pounds, not 70, she doggedly sticks to that number even when drivers protest, loudly. I claim that it’s just $10 versus $12 and life is too short, but then I order a bottle of ordinary California wine at dinner and am aghast when she points out it has cost us $100. Oh, the horror of arguing about money. It’s as if we’ve come to Egypt to revisit not the glories of our childhood but the miseries of our parents’ marriage.

To amp up the tension, we travel to the legendary and spectacular temples at Abu Simbel by police convoy (it wasn’t the luxurious cruise we had imagined). Because of tourist shootings by Islamic extremists in southern Egypt in 1997, the only way visitors are allowed to travel to Abu Simbel is in groups by minibus or with a rented car and driver. That said, it’s kind of a relaxed journey. The driver plays “Gangnam Style” on the radio, and our affable guide chats with us about his studies in the hospitality industry as mile after mile of barren desert flies by.

Sources, including the Guardian, estimate that Egyptian tourism has dropped 30 percent since the Arab Spring uprising began in 2011, so it is no real surprise that there are none of the usual crowds at Abu Simbel. My sister and I stand alone in the shadows under the peaceful stone gazes of the four massive seated statues of Ramses II, carved in 1257 BC out of solid rock. How curious is it that the less-than-200-year-old Cairo Opera House has burned down but Ramses II’s temple is still standing—complete with 300-year-old archaically hand-lettered graffiti scratched into its walls by French and British soldiers? Just beyond the sandy shore, the Nile is placid, blue, enigmatic.

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 fa├žade 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.

However fraught it has been spending this time with my sister—the person in the world who is most familiar to me—I recall the vitality of that connection. We try together to puzzle out our parents. We will never quite know them, but we try to figure them out in pieces, like blind men with an elephant. Will my own daughters try to do that with me? Probably, and whether or not they figure me out, or really “know” me, I can be sure they will grasp at least fleeting glimpses, as I have just done with my own mother’s life.

But that will be for later. Girls again, Tatjana and I ride to the pyramids on camel and on horseback, for which even I have to say we paid too much. Still, the photos that our charming guide insisted on taking were kick-ass, and the stories he told, like those we all tell of Egypt, priceless.

SANDRA TSING LOH is a writer, a performer and the host of a daily radio minute, “The Loh Down on Science.” Her next book, The Bitch Is Back, a humorous take on menopause, will be published by W.W. Norton in spring 2014.

Next: The Sister Pact

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First Published Wed, 2013-05-29 15:06

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