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.
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.
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.
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.
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Drinking the beer, long out of date;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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Four times a year it rains, they said.
Okay, well maybe twelve.
When it rains in Cairo,
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.
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.