The River That Flows the Wrong Way
ON THE DAY that I hoped to buy a rowboat in Luxor, Egypt,
I was awakened, as I had been every morning in Luxor, by
a Koranic antiphony drifting from the Islamic boys' school
next door to my hotel. With all the zeal of a Baptist preacher's,
a young boy's amplified voice shrieked repeatedly in Arabic,
"There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his witness!"
and a shrill chorus of his schoolmates howled the words back
at him. I got out of bed and went to the window - at 7:00 a.m.
the glass was already warm as an infant's forehead - and discovered
that during the night many colorful cloth banners
had been strung above the corniche, Luxor's Nilefront boulevard.
In hand-fashioned Arabic characters, the banners read,
"Welcome Mister President of the Government, Muhammad
Hosni Mubarak, the Leader of Our Victorious and Progressive
Destiny." Scores of teenage Egyptian soldiers in black uniforms,
woolen berets, and white plastic spats lined the avenue
in the ninety-eight-degree heat, more or less at attention, rifles
at their sides, evidently awaiting the president's arrival. Profiting
from a police barricade, the usually hectic street was, for
once, mercifully quiet. Across the glittering ribbon of the Nile,
the Temple of Hatshepsut and the Valley of the Kings lay blanketed
in the pink morning light.
I dressed and went downstairs to the lobby, where the hotel manager and two of his employees sat shoulder to shoulder on a couch before a flickering television. All three men wore white turbans and gray gallabiyas, the traditional Egyptian gown, and, in one of the more baffling manifestations of traditional Egyptian fashion, heavy woolen scarves wound around their necks, as if against an arctic wind. No matter the time of day, the lobby of this hotel was always exceptionally dark, and through the gloom the three men looked like consumptives recuperating in a sanatorium. They were watching an American film in which jeering, sweaty-faced Confederate soldiers were busy abusing a group of morose black slaves.
With an apology for interrupting their entertainment, I asked the hotel manager why President Mubarak was coming to Luxor that day. Without looking away from the television the manager replied, "To open new hospital and sex tomb."
I studied his long brown nose, his luxurious black mustache. Surely I had misheard him. "Sorry," I said, "to open a what?"
"Hospital and sex tomb," he said dully, scratching his chin.
The hospital sounded likely enough, but the idea of a "sex" anything being publicly celebrated by the Egyptian president was preposterous. In this Islamic nation, sex, strictly forbidden outside marriage, was not a subject for public discourse or civic celebration. Human flesh, particularly women's, was to be concealed, and though in Egypt the assumption of the veil at puberty was officially a matter of individual choice, many Egyptian women wore the hijab, the veil that fully concealed the head and neck, and a surprising number wore the more forbidding niqab, a drape that covered mouth, nose, forehead, sometimes even eyes. Chaste Egyptian women were reluctant to have their photograph taken, because multiplying and displaying their image in this way was considered unseemly. Before my first trip to Egypt, I had been counseled to keep my arms and legs covered, not to wear shorts, and never to touch a man in any way except to shake hands. I had been endlessly informed by people who had experience in the matter that purity, chastity, and piety were Egypt's prevailing sentiments, and that foreign women who came to Egypt and dressed in a provocative way (there are, in fact, many who do) would be considered promiscuous, unprincipled, fair game for harassment and disrespect.
Copyright © 2007 by Rosemary Mahoney
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