Postcards from Egypt

ISIS HOTEL

Thumbing the ancient elevator button

my driver summons the deity of ascension

who rumbles us up to the 14th floor lobby,

a world of massive brocade chairs and wobbly

wooden tables, populated by joking men

who take my measure in Arabic, take my

payment in Egyptian pounds, and offer me a room

filled with plastic flowers and the scent of ginger.


PHILAE TEMPLE

Scarred by time and new religion

the temple turns to show biz,

beguiling tourists with cash in hand

giving voices to the night’s deep shadows

as boats without running lights

glide by on a cloud  of diesel exhaust


MCDONALD’S IN LUXOR

For the price of a McSlurry, we find

simple pleasure in the familiarity of

clean rest rooms, free internet, and

the taste of something that kindles a

memory of chocolate, but the laughing

red and yellow clown makes me think

I’ve been had.


EGYPTIAN HORSES

Beasts of burden, small and precious,

did they descend from the fierce steeds

of Pharaoh’s chariot? Or simply the models

for the instant antiques, being sculpted

from ancient Egyptian dust

on every sidewalk in Cairo.


MEMPHIS, EGYPT

Careening through Memphis,

I feel like I’m in a movie mash-up:

part Bubba Hotep, part Toad’s Wild Ride.

As my driver hits the gas, and we fly by,

my camera finds a lone white donkey

who seems to give me a sidelong glance.


BUYING A CAMERA IN ASWAN

I never had to work so hard

to buy something

in a land where haggling is the rule

in a shop where the price was set,

the paradox obscured by the sight

of three black-burka’d Nubian women

wresting a washing machine

out the front door.


STALKING TOURISTS

Their photos show them in a jaunty stance

a pyramid in the base of their hand

finger pinching the nose of the Sphinx.

Mine show them posing, just a bit off kilter,

striking a pose made sensible

only by geography

 

TWO PHOTOS I DIDN’T TAKE

Two burkha’a women, one crossing a busy

Cairo street with a Hello Kitty balloon held

a lot; the other walking down the stairs of

Amenhotep’s temple, video camera held up

to her barely visible eyes.


WAYS TO GET SICK ON VACATION

Drinking the water, disguised as Tang;

Drinking the beer, long out of date;

Eating the food;

Breathing the air;

Forgetting your meds;

Riding in a car, a van, a train, a boat.

Standing quietly, doing nothing at all.


MUSLIM LINGERIE SHOP

Drawn in by a window of orange gowns,

we soon make friends with the Lebanese clerk

who shows us her glamour shot, her life unveiled,

then leads us downstairs where the good stuff is:

red lace body stockings, laced with a strategy

of slits and opening, peek-a-boo nighties,

unimaginable ways to unimagined skin.

 

MONUMENTAL GRAFFITI

Early Christians were among to first to discover how

easily ancient temples along the Nile could be converted

with chisel and knife. Images obliterated, names changed.

Napoleon’s legions overlaid their greetings in French

followed by any number of European names and dates.

Victorian Americans joined in as well, carving their home

ports into the feet of colossi. And I, knowing I trod where

ancestors had visited 100 years earlier, I was just relieved

not to see my family name visible among all the rest.

 

CLEOPATRA

“You look like Cleopatra,”

the street-hawkers called out again and again

to our Suzanne, lusting for

her eyes, her skin, and her hair.

Later, in the museum, we hear the myth

that Cleo herself was never a looker,

but we don’t believe it:

We’ve seen Cleopatra in the eyes of the hawkers.

We’ve seen our Suzanne.


DESERT RUN

Expatriates outside of Cairo, we gather in the desert

ready to walk or run the ridges, invoking odd rituals,

baptisms with beer, sunglasses, and broad-brimmed hats;

everyone sharing a massive multi-lingual joke.

 

TRAVEL BY CAMEL

The camels in Giza were high style,

tricked out. I’d ride one of those

any day of the week, feel like a

queen, the ride never too long or wild enough.

The camels at the Nubian Village

far south up the Nile, now those were beasts

of a different canter, ungainly, fly-ridden,

exhausted, and humble.

Riding with reins clenched, we ascended

the hillside too close to each other,

a managed slow stampede, held in check

by cheeky boys who walked up to the top

and then galloped back down with a yelp.

 

FELUCCA AT NIGHT

No wind, no breeze, just heat

and the slightest sound of water

lapping the edge of the boat’s weathered hull

floating out in the River Nile, our conversation

wrapped in a gentle scarf of city’s night music,

a group of travelers, far from home.

 

NIGHT TRAIN

By the time we boarded and found our tourist compartments

Alexandria was already a fading memory

a vague one for me,

already on my second full day of living in a body

focused entirely on pleasing a belly set on displeasure.

The rocking of the train lulled me to sleep,

a treasure of dreaming. In my medicated haze,

we might well have been on the Orient Express.


CAIRO ROOF TOPS

On a roof top in Cairo, my host

tortures garbage, coercing its essence

through sun-hardened tubing, until it escapes for

no more than a second before the strike of

a match sends it back to the sky as blue flame.

Gazing down at this magic, urban goats chew

without interest, working on a simpler

conversion, their own.


TRAFFIC

On the highways along the Nile, traffic

lights are only a suggestion, rarely followed,

horns signaling nothing more than intent

to take join the flow of endless traffic,

as if there were a choice.

 

MY EGYPTIAN DRIVER

At the Step Pyramid, my driver

again makes his only English joke:

“Good-bye. See you tomorrow.”

and then does not actually leave

but goes back to work on another

suduko, or maybe a nap in which

he dreams of a day riding

in another Town Car, drowsing

happily, stretched out in the back.

 

BAKEESH

Bakeesh! Bakeesh! Bakeesh!

The first word I learn in Arabic

is the last word I hear at the Cairo airport

as I struggle with luggage, struggle with language,

opening a door, finishing a meal,

I see the open hand, seeking a tip.

Bakeesh! Bakeesh! Bakeesh!

 

RED PYRAMID

I descent 65 meters into the empty

silent tomb: No crowds, no jostling, no words

until I hear a cheery Aussie accent,

see a welcoming smile, and find a

seeker who had found her soul

deep in Dashur, under tons of rock.

We chat, I leave. She wraps

solitude around her,

perhaps already knowing

a bus load of tourists

is about to arrive.

 

SAKKARA TOMBS

My ticket to the tombs includes a

one-man show, a guide with an audience

of only me, and the skill to leave his script

for another day. Instead we walk

like old friends, heads together,

examining the past, answering

and asking all the right

questions, one at a time.

 

BBC

Coldest winter in 30 years, I bundle up

on Emma’s couch and watch the BBC

on her telly, feeding my imagination with

well-told tales of Egypts past, parlayed

in a British accent, assured that what I

arrive at last, it will be a very classy place.

 

LUXOR ATM

In Luxor, as I wait at the ATM —

another ritual of a Nile-side tour,

a familiar and simple aspect of home —

an Amazon woman with a  spy-movie accent

wrenches me from my  drifting thoughts,

claiming my spot by prior psychic right.

The trace of madness in her eyes

reminds me that I most assuredly must

already have all the cash that I need.

 

EGYPTIAN MUSEUM

Perhaps it should be in a museum of museums.

Oh! this is what museums used to look like with

hand-written cards and thumb tacks

pushed into the stories of trickery and deceit.

And I never did find Nefertiti’s bust, perhaps

too covered with dust.

 

MY FELUCCA

“I want to drive the boat,” I joke,

having envied the light stand of the helmsman

balancing on the tiller, a ballet of navigation.

The captain hesitates, then smiles,

gives me the thumbs us, and I –

for a moment – become one of the few

who can say, “I sailed on the Nile.”

My heart still soars.


TOURIST

The problem with being a tourist in Egypt

is simple: You are a tourist in Egypt,  a mark

You might as well be wearing a flashing light.

In a souk, though, I meet two English gentlewomen,

who laugh at my sandals and scum-splattered feet,

and — telling the shopkeep that they live in Cairo —

they turn and offer to sell him to me.

 

DONKEYS

So many think of camels in Egypt

but for me the donkeys are the ones who remain

still trotting in my homebound dreams,

too small for their riders,

feet clipping in an impossible blur.

I  know their secret, yes, I think I do:

I  saw one in line at a Giza gas station.


EGYPTIAN RAIN

Four times a year it rains, they said.

Okay, well maybe twelve.

No matter.

When it rains in Cairo,

everything stops,

knee-deep in mystery,

blinded by the skies,

downright biblical. And still,

only a taste of what life was like

when the banks of the Nile

ruled the known world.


PRAYER

Our tour boat settled into its berth for the night

just as the call to prayer began along the Nile

one tower and then another

no two ever the same in word or tone or sound

but always just enough of an echo to make it clear

that the fabric of the prayer would never end.

 

VERY LARGE TAXI

Outside the Cairo Tower, the

tea-sipping driver is not easily put off

by seven lost tourists seeking a van.

“Very large taxi,” he assures us with pride

then sardines us into what can only have been

your mother’s Vista Cruiser, covered in

tapestry and beads, incense, and memories.