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Excerpt from River of Stars
by Katrina Valenzuela
Ritual of Awakening. Giza, Egypt
Do you know that Egypt is a copy of Heaven and the Temple of the whole world?
It could be a tomb. My hotel room was so dark and silent as I lay savoring the stillness, reviewing the night’s journeys. Which was dream, which reality? It must be almost time for the second muezzin call to prayer, that sound that permeates even the tombs with its haunting, mesmerizing cry.
A light tapping startles me and I rise, pulling on the enormous white terrycloth robe that trails on the floor behind me.
“Made special for Americans,” Samia from housekeeping had told me with pride. “You’re not American. Americans, they are all tall and big,” she had insisted, spreading her arms to describe rotund Americans as if the point was not clear.
I open the heavy wooden door to find Tareq balancing the fragrant tray which bears my breakfast. Stepping inside, he stands tall and statue-still and waits for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, exaggerating his difficulty. His magnificent classic features barely visible, he could be a Pharaoh stepping out of the shadowy past.
“Please, Miss Katrina, could you let some light in so I can move?”
“Tayib, okay. Wait while I open the drapes.” I relent and drag my white train across the carpeted floor and remove just one clothespin, allowing precisely two inches of sunlight to enter, just enough for Tareq to make his way across the room and set down the heavy tray.
“Shukren ya Sitti, Thank you.” He surveys the room with a frown. His dark eyes light upon the opened book and the map, and he shakes his head.
“Back to pyramids again today? No make shopping at Khan el Khalili? I worry for you, Miss Katrina, why can you not relax, do easy things? I think maybe you’re not a normal woman.”
“This is normal, Tareq, normal for me,” I reply. He smiles as I hand him five pounds extra for his extreme good nature in enduring me every morning.
Awakening rituals must be performed in a certain order; this is made clear in the Book of the Dead, more accurately translated as ‘The Transformation into The Light.’ A worn copy lies on my nightstand, transliterated in Arabic and English.
The scent of tamarind hangs heavy in the room. The tantalizing array of fruits beginning to spread their sticky ripeness over the sides of the silver tray onto the garlands of late summer jasmine I wore last night. Today I will perform the ‘Ritual of the Eating of the Fruits’, I determine, but with great care so as not to invoke again the dreaded mummy tummy.
After careful washing with bleach, I will remove the peels and dissect each fragrant, ripened fruit. On second thought, I had better wait until evening, just in case, since today will be a long day beneath the desert.
I open the outer and then the inner drapes, carefully moving aside the intricately carved mashrabeyya shutters. I turn the handle of the old casement window and it creaks with age to reveal the dazzling world outside. The sight of the Pyramids takes my breath every time, and the nearness and beauty of them is almost too powerful to bear.
The morning air carries a rich bouquet of scent and sound, along with a fine dust that dances into the room on rays of sunlight. The clip-clop of hooves, the braying of donkeys, shouting of vendors, honking of horns, blaring of Arabic music, the scrawny desert dogs barking, all heading in a great colorful parade up the curving road to the Giza Plateau.
Pulling table and chair closer to the window, I turn to the tray and slowly open the thick white linen napkin, revealing a basket of fresh pastries and ‘aish baladi’, local bread. The Al-Ahram with its stylized red pyramids logo lies folded on the tray, waiting to shatter the magic of this moment with world news. ‘World Leaders Convene in Cairo to Discuss Hijacking’. No, I will ignore the newspaper as if it is an unrecognizable object from another world.
I toss the Al-Ahram to the floor. Focusing instead on the perfectly designed, square, silver teapot, I carefully lift its solid weight and pour with both hands, inhaling the steam of strong, black tea. I then sit back in the ornately carved, red velvet chair to gaze at the Pyramids, praising God that I am alive in this moment.
Omar’s stable across the street is chaos. Busloads of tourists are descending, demanding camels or Arabian stallions immediately as if they have urgent business meetings to attend across town. American women in bright and too-revealing polyester attire, giddy with excitement, bravely climb up on the high saddles as the camel heaves and pitches back and forward to struggle to its feet.
“Yalla, yalla! Let me help you,” the camel guide calls out, lovingly cupping and pushing up on the derriere of a woman who hangs sideways on the beast.
Mute husbands stand aside in jogging suits, holding wives’ purses and cameras, as they watch handsome stable hands in loose-flowing gallabeyas coax the women onto camels. They seem wary of releasing their wives into the looming desert, but there is no stopping the women now.
Camel for you too, sir. No miss the fun. Two for one!” A few of the husbands are pushed forward by their friends, hoisted and cajoled against their protests, and off they go.
The travelers at last fall into line as a caravan, laughing and taking photos of one another, evidence for someone at home that they did, in fact, ride a camel to the pyramids.
It is day one of their tour and the cliché is already documented on Kodak film. By the time they return to Giza, in two weeks, for their final stay at The Mena House they will be forever changed. Some for better, some for worse, depending on whether they are willing to surrender to the enduring, maddening mystery that is Egypt.
Photographs courtesy of Katrina Valenzuela
Teacher. Mentor. Writer
Egyptian Dance & Culture
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