Egypt: Body and Soul by Evelyn White

SISTERS AND BROTHERS of all races who want to experience the full force of the achievements of people of color should make a visit to Egypt a top priority. It’s impossible to believe the negative stereotypes American society perpetuates about the aspirations and abilities of blacks after seeing the great civilization the Egyptians developed centuries ago.

It’s impossible to believe the negative stereotypes American society perpetuates about the aspirations and abilities of blacks after seeing the great civilization the Egyptians developed centuries ago. People of color have a grand and glorious heritage that has been systematically kept from us for far too long. In Egypt, black accomplishments are reflected in architecture, books, art, song, science, and agriculture. At every turn, there is something to remind one that African Americans are descendants of some of the most brilliant and sophisticated people that ever walked the earth. As the late black writer James Baldwin said, Our crown has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear it. I’m here to tell you that they’re wearing it big time on the shores of the Nile. My two-week visit to Egypt was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. As a child growing up in Gary, Indiana, I was always fascinated by the storybook images I saw of the Pyramids. Stylized drawings of Egyptians with their hands pointed in opposite directions never failed to catch my eye. A word and phonics addict, I was enchanted by the secret codes and language waiting to be revealed in hieroglyphics. While living in Seattle during the late 1970s, I got up one morning before dawn to stand in line with thousands of people hoping to gain entry to the local museum’s exhibition of treasures from the tomb of King Tutankhamen. This little brother was bad, I thought to myself as I slowly walked past one dazzling gold display after another. He was something else. My decision to visit Egypt was sealed by my friend Candace, who has lived in Spain for nearly two decades and traveled widely. When I asked her to name the most memorable country of all she has visited, she said Egypt without hesitation. I was on my way. Even for seasoned travelers, Egypt can be difficult to manage because of unfamiliar customs, delays with transportation, the heat, and language (Arabic) barriers. I took an organized tour and strongly recommend this approach for first-time visitors. I felt it best to leave the details to travel industry experts who understood Egyptian culture better than I. Most tours are designed to ensure that a traveler cruises the Nile and visits the Pyramids, the Sphinx, the Cairo Museum, the Valley of the Kings (where King Tut’s treasures were found), and several other magnificent temples.

The first thing I noticed upon arrival in Cairo was the thick smog that envelopes the city. Stringent environmental regulations and pollution controls are simply not a priority in a country that is still primarily agriculturally based. The air quality in Cairo is disheartening, but apparently (unlike Mexico City) has not yet been deemed an immediate health hazard. The air in Cairo is cleansed somewhat by the majestic Nile River that dissects the city, as it does all of Egypt. Bringing forth fertile land, food, and power, the Nile is considered the Mother of Egypt. Seven and a half miles outside of Cairo, in the suburb of Giza, are the towering Pyramids. I first saw them out of the corner of my left eye as the tour bus rambled down the road. They span the horizon, appearing larger and more impressive than any photo could ever depict. As we drove closer, I realized that I was actually in the storybook picture that had bedazzled me as a child the image that had maintained its black allure and power, even as it was juxtaposed against those of German shepherds snarling at black children, the mule-drawn cart bearing the body of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other horrific images from my youth. When I stepped out of the bus in front of a caravan of camels sprawled lazily on the desert sand, my jaw dropped and tears formed in my eyes. I could hear the voice of Aretha wailing, as she does on her album Amazing Grace about the rocky road on her way home.

The Pyramids (the tombs of the pharaohs Cheops, Chephren, and Mycerinus) were erected as royal burial grounds and are the star attractions of Egyptian tourism. Nearby, guarding the Pyramids, sits the enigmatic Sphinx, sculpted in the shape of a lion with a human head wearing a headdress. Unlike the massive structures it watches over, the Sphinx is actually much smaller than its picture postcard images. Despite the throngs of camera-clicking tourists who flock to the site, the Pyramids and the Sphinx retain a regal dignity that has left people breathless for centuries. For me, seeing and touching the time-honored structures, reinforced my belief that any obstacle can be overcome, no matter how formidable. The Pyramids and the Sphinx are living proof that people of color have accomplished great feats. Surely we can conquer drug addiction, teen pregnancy, unemployment, spiritual despair, ruthless politicians, and the other contemporary ills we face.

After several days in Cairo (during which I stumbled upon a festive Egyptian wedding), my group flew to Luxor to board a ship that cruised the Nile. In the heart of Upper Egypt, Luxor is the site of Thebes, the hundred-gated city immortalized by Homer. Among its many treasures is the divine city of Karnak, a temple of stones, statues, and obelisks that covers more than forty acres. Down the road a bit is the temple of Luxor, which, experts say, the Egyptians used only to commemorate New Year’s with a raucous celebration. The temple of Luxor is also the site where soprano Leontyne Price once performed her signature opera Aida. It was sheer bliss to imagine her singing in the midst of these sensuous ruins on the bank of the Nile.

Luxor is also the starting point for visits to the nearly one hundred tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. Dug into hillsides are the cavernous tombs where the mummies of pharaohs once lay and the temples in which they stored the treasures they would need to survive in the afterlife. From floor to ceiling, the tombs are graced with shimmering blue and emerald green hieroglyphics that tell the story of each pharaoh’s victories and defeats. The tombs helped me, a product of America’s death-fearing and denying culture gain a new perspective on life. According to the ancient Egyptians, life never ended, but rather continued into eternity. They greeted death not with sorrow, but rather with a joyous acceptance and anticipation of experiencing an even better afterlife. In fact, the legendary Queen-Pharaoh Hatshepshut was so exhilarated by the prospect of death that she ordered a mortuary temple to be built especially for her embalming. The huge split-level necropolis is built into the side of a mountain top in the Valley of the Queens and is heralded as one of the most spectacular architectural achievements in the world.

From Luxor, the deluxe cruise ship would sail to temple sites at Esna, Edfu, and Kom Ombo before arriving in Aswan. After visiting the Valley of the Queens, our group was dropped off in the commercial waterfront of Luxor, not far from where the ship was docked. We were directed to make our way back to the boat for lunch, after which, we were scheduled to depart for Esna.

Until one’s body clock adjusts, the combination of early morning outings and (in my view) the mystical impact of Egypt can leave a first-time visitor disoriented and dazed. I believe that African Americans are especially susceptible to this phenomenon because of the ways in which the splendor and power of Egypt contradicts the denigrating messages we’ve internalized about our roots. That’s exactly what happened to me in Luxor.

Overwhelmed by my experiences at the tombs, I spaced out. I meandered along the waterfront, walking in and out of shops for who knows how long before coming out of my stupor and heading back to the boat. As I approached the dock, I could see a huge cruise ship moving down the Nile. My stomach sank. I knew instinctively that it was the Ramses the boat I was supposed to be on. There were several men on the dock, coiling ropes, oiling wenches, and tending to other nautical chores. I ran toward them, hoping they’d tell me it was the Prince Ra-hetep or the Khufu sailing away, not the Ramses. No such luck. Stunned, I stood on the dock, gazing out at the water as the ship moved steadily toward the horizon. I can’t believe it, I said to myself. I’ve really and truly missed the boat.

Luckily, I’d made a point of memorizing the ship’s itinerary and knew for sure that the next stop would be Esna. Lesson learned: When traveling with an organized tour, be sure to know your group’s daily destinations. Don’t count on the guides to fill you in on all the details. Travelers can easily get separated from their guides. Don’t I know it.

I had my passport, driver’s license, and plenty of cash in my backpack. I had noticed, during the trip, that folks in the group often divvied up their personal belongings with partners or friends. One person would place, say, the water bottles, wallets, cabin room keys, etc. of both travelers in one pack. Then they would trade-off carrying the bag. This was done, I’m sure, so that each person would be periodically unencumbered during often strenuous days. Although I was traveling with a dear friend, we’d decided to maintain control over our own money and personal documents. Lesson learned: Never leave money, passport, plane tickets, or other valuables in the care of a traveling companion. Graciously decline to be responsible for another traveler’s belongings.

Working also to my advantage was the decade I’d spent working at a major metropolitan newspaper. As a reporter, I’d covered riots, explosions, murders, earthquakes, conventions, etc., in cities both large and small. I was accustomed to finding myself in unfamiliar situations that demanded my full concentration. Thus, when it sunk in that the Ramses was not going to make a U-turn and retrieve me, I shifted immediately into reporter mode. My assignment was to meet the ship in Esna without getting raped, robbed, or killed.

My concern about safety was not particular to being black or the fact that I was traveling in Egypt. Common sense dictates that safety should be of paramount importance to any female, anywhere, anytime. In this case, I knew that I’d thrown myself into a crisis situation and was therefore more vulnerable to making hasty decisions. So, as I turned from the dock and walked toward a row of about a dozen taxis, I offered a silent prayer to the Gods asking them to help me choose a driver who would deliver me to Esna in one piece. His name was Aesop.

What I remember most about Aesop is that he was wearing a tan, crisply ironed, full-length jelaba, or shirtdress, that contrasted beautifully with his cocoa-brown skin. Indeed, I’m sure I was drawn to Aesop because he exuded a cool, calm, serenity in what was by then, brain-broiling midday heat. There was not a bead of sweat on his body. Discreetly flashing a $20 bill, I asked Aesop if he’d take me to Esna. He looked around nervously, as if trying, mentally, to fend off other taxi drivers who might have swooped upon me for the fare. Having vibed away the competition, he gently hustled me into the cab. Lesson learned: When in a tight spot abroad, let your greenbacks do the talking.

Off we went. If you’re thinking speedy, sprawling interstate highways, think again. We’re talking back roads, dusty roads, gutted roads, twisted roads, to who knew where? Surely not I, for whom Esna could have just as well been Edinborough for all I knew of its whereabouts. For two hours, Aesop and I rambled through rustic villages and lush Egyptian farmland that I would never have seen had I not missed the boat. Along the way, he explained many of his country’s customs to me with the whimsical pride that I came to know as characteristic of Egyptian people. Delivering me to the site where the Ramses would dock several hours before its scheduled arrival (land travel is much faster than water), Aesop suggested that I visit a nearby temple and purchased an entry ticket for me. As he drove away, I thought about the often fractious relationship between black men and black women, and how in America, we’ve become so far removed from our best selves. My time with Aesop gave a meaning to the word brother that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.

After visiting the temple, I found myself strolling through Esna’s open-air market. I was soon greeted by Nubie, a poor, barefoot Egyptian boy of about ten, who ran to my side and asked, in halting English, if I knew Mike Tyson, Bill Cosby, or Michael Jackson. Quick to shrug off his disappointment when I answered no, Nubie lit a cigarette (quite common among Egyptian boys), and then offered to take me on a carriage ride through town. With the grace and charm of a refined gentleman, Nubie took my arm and led me around the corner where a speckled gray horse, hitched to a black carriage, stood in the sun swatting flies with its tail. Just as we were about to start clip-clopping down the street, a thin boy with a thatch of dark curls, wearing a soiled and tattered jelaba, came running toward us, shouting excitedly. The boy, apparently a friend of Nubie’s, was begging to join us on the ride. With an officious nod, Nubie granted permission, and the boy, all elbows and knees, scampered into the carriage.

With the horse’s hooves tapping out a steady, syncopated beat on the pavement, we rode along Esna’s waterfront. After a while, Nubie pulled the reins and we turned left into a dusty, mazelike neighborhood of whitewashed houses with tightly shuttered windows. Stopped at an intersection, Nubie leaned back and asked if he could take me home to meet his mother. I said sure, and his face lit up like Times Square.

Nubie’s house was a plain, primitive structure crafted out of baked earth. The peeling paint, rickety door, and other signs of poverty were diminished by its coziness and the fact that the temperature inside was a full 20 to 30 degrees cooler than outside. Nubie’s mother, a short, dark-skinned woman dressed in black, responded to Nubie’s Arabic commands by extending her weathered hand to me and then scurrying to the kitchen to make tea. His sister, a girl of about twelve, grabbed a broom made of palm fronds and began sweeping a patch of dirt in front of a battered gold couch she motioned me to sit on.

When the sweet, fragrant, cinnamon tea was ready, Nubie’s mother poured three glasses for me, Nubie, and his friend. I waved my hand toward Nubie’s mother and sister, encouraging them to join us; they both giggled nervously, shaking their heads from side to side. In a flash, my mother wit kicked in and I understood what was happening. Though only about four feet tall, Nubie was clearly the man of the house. And I, the smiling, polite, then thirty-four-year-old black woman from America, was being showcased to Nubie’s mother as a love interest. It was so poignant, I nearly started to cry.

Word must have gotten out about Nubie’s girlfriend because the next thing I knew a stream of neighbors was outside the house. Smoking a cigarette and speaking proudly in Arabic, Nubie opened the shuttered windows and allowed the people to peep in. There was soon a huge crowd gazing lovingly at me, including several women in brightly colored wraps, who were holding babies. These women were especially animated and seemed quite eager to enter the house. After a rapid-fire exchange in front of the window, Nubie went to the door and ushered the women with babies into the living room. One after the other, they came forward with their kicking, cooing infants and held them before me to touch. For this, I needed no translation. The Egyptian mothers clearly considered me a sign of good luck.

I snuggled, nuzzled, bounced, cradled, and rocked a good two dozen babies before realizing that if we didn’t leave soon, I might again miss the boat. I gestured to Nubie (who was now standing about six feet tall), that it was time to go, and after making my farewell to the glowing crowd, we climbed into the carriage and left. As the horse made its way back to the waterfront, with both Nubie and his friend beaming, I reflected on my amazing afternoon. Missed boat, fantastic taxi ride, adorable babies, and ten-year-old Egyptian boyfriend. What a life!

About fifteen minutes after we arrived at the dock, the Ramses pulled in. I waved as cavalierly as I’d walked through the shops in Luxor to friends on the ship who had come out on the deck and were leaning over the railing, looking for me. I wondered how I could possibly thank the gods for such a memorable day. While I knew it was meaningless in terms of the cosmos and my profound sense of gratitude, I handed Nubie a wad of bills before I walked down the gangplank to the Ramses. He took them, kissed me on the cheek, and burst into a smile that is forever etched in my heart. A blazing, magnificent smile that is the body and soul of Egypt.


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