LUXOR: Queen Nefertari, the Sacrifice, and Me

Reader, so many things happened today. So many strange and unexpected and veritably miraculous occurrences came to pass that I can hardly believe it was real. It was like that surreal day when I bumped into His Royal Majesty Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, and then shook hands and spoke with earthbound angel, Dame Angela Lansbury. Good Lord that was a day. What a wonderful life I’ve had. I mean that with complete sincerity. I reflect often on the absurdity of it all. Why on earth should I, who comes from nothing, comes from nowhere, be allowed to do so much? Life can be such a blessed gift if you take advantage of it, so when I’m blue or downtrodden or just not feeling myself, I remember Dame Angela’s hand in mine, bowing slightly at Prince Charles, posing with Dita von Teese, crawling through the Great Pyramid, running after Jared Leto in Paris, watching the Queen of England ride past me in a horse drawn carriage, waking up in the Chateau Marmont, hearing Nathan Lane ask if I had an ambition to act, or agitatedly dancing with Tyra Banks. It’s been a weird time for me. Some days in our lives are just more magnificent than others, and for me, August 6, 2016, was one for the record books. In fact, there may just be chapters about the ramifications of the things I saw in the biographies written about me long after I die. (Which I never will, mind you.)

After I tidied up, left tips for flowers under the vases, and gorged myself stupid on breakfast, I hurried over to the bank. It’s always a strange experience to request the equivalent of maybe forty American dollars and get a wad of Egyptian pounds so thick that they don’t fit in your wallet. It’s intensely humbling to be richer than everybody you meet on the street — but not really rich at all back home. It’s a weird thing that you have to experience in person to make sense of. Even now, when I tell people about Egypt, I don’t think they fully grasp just how cheap it is to be there. I could have stayed at a much more reasonable hotel and ate local food every day and stayed for months and months and months with the money I had budgeted for two weeks. It’s silly.

I told Hassan that I would meet him on the West Bank for some driving, chatting, and beer, so I made my way down the Corniche to the ferry’s launching site, gave the old man my coin, and grabbed a seat in the sun. I love that ferry more than is really reasonable. I found it the most relaxing thing in all the world, and when I go back, I’m going to give the owner one hundred pounds again and spend the day drifting from one dock to the next. I can think of nothing dreamier than spending hours on the Nile. Every time I’m on board, I am so charmed to be amongst the locals. They rarely try to sell me anything, these aren’t people in the tourist trade, they are just living their lives. How absolutely marvelous it is to be with them, sitting in the shade, listening to them, watching them. I learned a lot about how to be an Egyptian on that ferry. I mean, I wasn’t offered any kind of life lessons on board, it was like an osmosis of how to sit, how to smoke, how to talk, how to hold your body. It was fabulous.

Hassan was nothing but smiles when I got off the boat and gave me a fond handshake. He was already rambling a million miles an hour as we made our way to his ramshackle car and drove to the ticket office. He wanted all my advice on laptops today. He wants to learn how to get on the internet so that he can send emails and try to do some business online. Hassan has a number of properties — I eventually saw them all, even a dusty paddock in a distant village to meet his horses — and he thinks he could be a fabulous real estate manager. I don’t doubt that he could. He’s a charming, honest man. He also wants to get a second wife. In retrospect, this is tragic, but when I was in Egypt, I couldn’t have known the things I learned after I left. Then, I thought it was just part of the culture. And it certainly is. Egyptians don’t have an issue with polygamy, as long as it’s more than one wife and not more than one husband. I’m told they’re allowed to have up to four wives, but few do because of the expense of so many people to care for and the inevitable mouths to feed and nurture.

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The first stop of the day was a place that I had never before visited. And there is always so much to do here. When I retire to Egypt for my health, I will never see all of it — and there is still so much waiting in the sands that we know absolutely nothing of! Anyway, we were off to the Valley of the Queens so that I could see the tombs of the royal ladies and princes of ancient Egypt and glare at the entrance of Nefertari’s tomb, which is shuttered to the public. Hers is one of the most spectacular tombs ever discovered, and I have pored over images of it. Every surface is covered in fine paintings, and the wife of Ramses II succeeded her husband’s tomb by far. But, unless you have a couple thousand dollars and a favor owed to you from the government, you probably are not getting in. There are allegations that it is being opened again as a draw for tourists. It will cost roughly a hundred American dollars, which is a bargain! But this had not yet come to pass while I was in Luxor.

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The pictures in the tombs aren’t mine, as photography is strictly off limits.

The first tomb that I descended into was that of Prince Amenherkhepshef, the son of Ramses III, who didn’t make it very long in life. He was never buried in this tomb, so many scholars aren’t sure what ever became of him. Perhaps the prince thought he was going to be king when his father died so he started excavations of another tomb, but this seems unlikely as good old Ramses had handfuls of older sons to put on the throne upon his death. There is no reason that this particular one should have ever ascended to rule the Black Land. But what was more important was the gorgeous paintings that covered the tomb walls. They were particularly fine, and I was absolutely charmed by the depictions of Anubis. The walls didn’t have a yellow tint at all, like the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, so I wonder if there was a different kind of paint or restoration technique used here.

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Queen Titi’s tomb was next, and though it has been considerably damaged over the centuries by tomb robbers, reuse, and the villains of the antiquities trade, it still showcases some beautiful imagery. The paintings of the queen that remained were absolutely lovely, and I was happy to find nice depictions of my two favorite gods: Sobek and Sekhmet. The crocodile-headed god has fascinated me for the longest time because I couldn’t ever understand his purpose. He had many roles over the millennia, but there does not appear to be any consensus on what his main job was. Mainly Sobek is a representative of the Nile and a protector. I would certainly like a crocodile for a protector, wouldn’t you? Sekhmet is much better understood. She is a protectress and devourer of humans. In one legend, she goes on a bloody rampage against mankind, and the gods have to hold a council of war to stop her before she wipes out humanity. To stop her, they fill a lake with beer and dye it red. Sekhmet is tricked into believing that this is a lake of blood, and so she laps it up, gets drunk, falls asleep, and forgets all about killing off the human race. Isn’t that charming?

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I was particularly delighted by the final tomb open in the Valley for Khaemwaset. The colors were fabulous, and the background appeared to be a pale buttercream like my stairwell back home. I chuckled merrily over this, gazing at the beautiful paintings and intricate hieroglyphs. It was fabulous, but something much more fabulous happened. It was probably a combination of economic desperation and appreciation for my Egyptological sensitivities. I pay baksheesh to the guards when I enter most tombs so that they will leave me in peace whilst I appreciate the hieroglyphs and carvings and sarcophagi. It works almost every time, but there are always instances of it not. Once in a while the guard will be so intent on giving me a tour — so that I will give more — that no amount of tipping will help. I thought that this is what was happening here, so I didn’t pay a great amount of attention to the guard.

Then my ears perked up. “Excuse me, what?”

He nodded rapidly, and repeated what I thought I had heard, “You wish to see Nefertari?”

This, reader, was an interesting proposition. As I told you earlier, such a thing is not legal or possible — but there is no such thing as illegal or impossible in Egypt since a bit of baksheesh can get you almost anything you want. It’s corruption at the worst, but it can be endlessly useful. I was ready and willing to pay, but I knew that I had a long battle ahead of me.

“I cannot afford Nefertari, my friend.”

He nodded. “You rich American. You give me five hundred.”

I chortled. “I am not made of gold.”

He chortled back. “Egyptian?”

“Five hundred Egyptian pounds? No no no.”

This back and forth went on for many minutes. We sat on the floor of the tomb, which I thought was wonderfully atmospheric and debated the price. When he finally told me that he couldn’t let me inside the tomb itself, I finally had the upper hand since I would be paying for no more than a cursory glance inside the entryway.

I couldn’t believe it when I gave him a low price and he readily accepted it. For fifty Egyptian pounds, I was going to be covertly given a glimpse of an intensely off limits site. It would be worth the price, even just for the story. And the price was silly, reader. Do you know how much fifty Egyptian pounds was in United States dollars back then? Like…a little over five dollars. For the price of a cocktail in a bad bar, I was going to be shown a bit of the tomb of Ramses the Great’s beloved wife. I was giddy.

And you know I love doing things like this that aren’t strictly allowed, so I had the time of my life watching the guard take me to the tomb, looking every which way to make sure that he wasn’t being spied on because if he was, I have no doubt that he would have to either scratch our deal or split it with the person who saw him, and then my baksheesh would invariably need to be inflated. It was all very exciting, and once we were at the entrance of Nefertari’s tomb, we scurried down the passageway so that we would be protected from sight. He was as giddy as I was.

Reader, I was delighted. What a treat it was to be here in this very exclusive stairwell. I felt quite like Hyacinth Bucket on the QE2. If that means nothing to you, then you need to watch this episode of Keeping Up Appearances:

Forgive the quality, this is the only online version I could find for you.

Hyacinth is literally me. She is one of the fictional characters that made a profound impact on my personality. Late last year, people on social media were listing the three characters that were most like them or that they related to. Hyacinth would certainly be one of mine. (The others would be Patsy Stone from Absolutely Fabulous and Evelyn Carter from The Mummy). 

But back to Egypt, dear reader. The guide wasn’t able to open the door for me, which I totally understood for only fifty Egyptian pounds, but he was able to switch on the lights and open a window in the gate. Before I poked my head in, he hurried forward to do it himself. And it was rather adorable to see this poor guard so enthusiastic. I mean, yes, he was getting my money illegally, but bless him.

When he finally stepped aside, he cheerfully ushered me to the portal window that gave a decent glimpse of the interior. I felt very much like Howard Carter in that moment, poking a candle through a tiny hole in the plaster door of Tutankhamen’s tomb, the flickering light illuminating the marvels found within. When asked what he saw, he replied reverently in a breathless voice, “Wonderful things.” The moment I saw the beautifully preserved paintings on the tomb wall, I felt surely similar to Carter in that moment. The lights didn’t flicker, of course, and they were wonderfully steady, but the sensation of seeing something so ancient, so perfect, and so restricted was absolutely intoxicating.

The colors were riotous and beautiful and put many tombs in the Valley of the Kings to shame. Poor Tutankhamen didn’t have anything nearly so beautiful, and his tomb is paltry and pathetic in comparison to the grandeur allotted others pharaohs. On his burial chamber walls are hastily painted baboons and hieroglyphs, but they are lame in comparison to Nefertari. This gives credence to the belief that Tut’s tomb was not really meant for him, or it was just the beginning of a much bigger tomb that never came to be. I’m not certain I am a believer in the theory that was widespread last year that Tut’s tomb was merely the entrance of Nefertiti’s tomb. There is good science done, and there very well could be an empty chamber in the tomb, but it doesn’t make irrefutable sense to have the space be the burial chamber of Nefertiti. To me, it makes a lot more sense for it to be the incomplete tomb of the pharaoh that Carter’s diggers found inside. I would not be terribly surprised to find that there are incomplete chambers, why shouldn’t there be if he died unexpectedly? But Nefertiti…no.

Anyway, I couldn’t explore the beautiful depths of the tomb as I dreamed of when I flipped through the pages of my books in my Egyptological library. Someday I will go in, someday I will see every painting with my own eyes, some blessed day.

But then it was time to go, and I paid the guard his well-earned baksheesh, and wandered though the little Valley for a spell before heading back to the entrance where I had left Hassan with the ticket seller to fahddle.

I accepted a cup of the intensely sweet tea Hassan and the guard offered me and tried not to think about sanitation or the impurities of the water. And I never did become ill because of water, reader, which raised many questions in my mind. When I inevitably retire to Luxor for the winters, because nothing makes more sense in the world to me, I wonder how long it would take me to acclimate to the local water? Would I have to start with a quarter cup, and then add a bit more each day until I was able to process the stuff? Do the locals drink it at home, or is it bottled? I have so many water questions, and I’m sure that you don’t care two bits about water quality in the third world, but I become fascinated with the strangest things.

After a chat with the guards, Hassan and I sped off for the Valley of the Nobles, which was something I was glad to see, but not something that I was exceptionally eager about. I mean, what could possibly be so special about the tombs of government officials? They surely wouldn’t compare to the splendor of Horemheb’s tomb or the paintings found inside of Nefertari’s sepulcher. Abdul had rhapsodized endlessly about them on our return from the temples the other day, so I took his advice and decided I had to see it.

But first, Hassan and I stopped for Stella Artois and Cleopatra cigarettes and a couple hours on a rooftop in a remote village to talk and talk and talk.

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I’ve never talked so much in my life. Hassan was hungry for stories of life and the world. He loved to ramble on and on endlessly about life in Egypt, the horrors found outside the borders of the country, and the mythological war successes of Tuthmoses III. I was intrigued by this, because the way he speaks is very similar to the ancient Egyptians. They were absolutely enamored of their homeland, and should they die in battle, the living soldiers would make sure they returned the corpses to Khemet, the Black Land, so that their souls would be at peace. There was, to them, and to the modern Egyptian, no finer place to be or to live or to die. This perpetuation of an ancient belief was a great curiosity to me. Hassan and all the others I spoke to were aware of the cultural, social, and economic troubles that plague the nation, and they will go on at length about political corruption, but they don’t want to be anywhere else. Until I was there, I didn’t fully grasp this. Egypt is a beautiful place to live your life. I want to be an Egyptian. I feel like I am one.

One thing that happens with people who truly appreciate you, who truly want little more than to be in your company, is comfortable silence. With good friends, you can sit and say nothing for hours and hours because you don’t need to. I felt like this with Hassan. And as we sat on the roof, sipping the beer that quickly went warm in the desert heat, staring off into the rocky hills that were riddled with robbed tombs, I was distinctly at peace.

“You and I are family,” Hassan said unexpectedly, “like my brother.”

I beamed.

“What is mine is yours. You now have two homes, Ben. One in America and one in Egypt.”

And reader, I barely held it together. It was such a sweet and honest thing. In the past, if I hadn’t known Egypt better or if Hassan had just said it the first day we met, I would have thought this was some throwaway phrase, something glib to gain loyalty from tourists. But it wasn’t. As he said it, it was real, and I knew it was real. And, reader, I do feel like Hassan is my brother. That’s crazy, I know, but isn’t life just wild?

After finishing our beer, we went over to the Valley of the Nobles.

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I had a few tickets for the various tombs that I had selected at random at the Ticket Office, and followed the terrible maps toward the first tomb, that of Sennefer. Reader, in my nearly three decades of life, I have probably seen an image from every tomb and every temple in Egypt. I can recall vague descriptions of most in my mind, and when I refresh my memory, the details come rushing back. I knew that there was a tomb in the valley that had paintings of grapevines. I have seen photographs a hundred times. So when I descended into the first tomb, I expected next to nothing. That is not what I found at all.

The descent itself was extraordinary, and I swear to you, a brisk, cool breeze emanated from the depths of the tomb. This peculiarity was refreshing and excited me. You always read about an ancient breeze coming out of pyramids and tombs when they are opened up for the first time after thousands of years. I always thought this was a bunch of baloney, but perhaps there is something to it.

After ducking down to enter the tomb, I was struck dumb. Such a thing rarely happens to me. I am in love with the world, but it rarely stuns me. Reader, I was stunned at the tomb of Sennefer. In front of me were two columns with beautiful paintings of a recumbent Anubis, guarding the entry to the burial chamber of Sennefer and his wife. But more extraordinary than the beauty of these figures was the painted depictions of ripe black grapes hanging in luscious clusters from vines that covered the ceiling of the tomb. The wall depictions were amazing and the 18th Dynasty hieroglyphs were stunning, but I could not get enough of those grapes. I wanted to go back to the ancient world again for the billionth time so that I could see the vineyards of Sennefer, the gardens that he maintained for the pharaoh, the gorgeous villa where he lived his days in the glory years of Amenhotep II.

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I wandered around the columns again and again, and I felt a little tear run down my cheek, but I didn’t feel at all foolish. I am very rarely touched by art, I appreciate it just fine, but it rarely strikes a deeply emotional chord in me. For whatever reason, those grapes moved me. And I decided then and there that I was going to up my intake of grapes on the breakfast buffet at the Winter Palace, which was a fabulous idea as I later discovered.

After a careful examination of every square inch, I made my way into the next tomb on my ticket queue, the tomb of Rekmire.

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This one was not so beautiful as Sennefer, but the scope of it was impressive. The ceilings went up and up and up. And, reader, if I had never seen the tomb of Sennefer, I would have been blown away, but after seeing all those magical grapevines twirling and whirling around the ceilings of that burial spot, Rekmire couldn’t blow me away. This tomb has a rather famous painting that shows the way Egyptians used perspective in the ancient times. This is an artistic development of the Renaissance, so I suppose it shows the lack of perspective in the ancient times and how the artisans were forced to depict their world. Instead of a forced perspective to make depictions of a pool look three dimensional, they just drew trees and other plants around a rectangle.

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The tomb of Ramose, though considerably damaged in antiquity, is another surprising tomb. When it was first completed, I’m sure that it would have been every bit as remarkable as the more traditional tombs in the Valley of the Kings. This one has the most remarkably lovely columns inside, that are done in the fashion of larger temples. I had never before seen this done inside the Earth itself, so I was charmed by the squat columns. But even more than that, the art delighted me. You see, reader, Ramose was a vizier during the reign of Amenhotep III and his successor who later rebranded himself as Akhenaten, the infamous pharaoh. Because he lived in a time of such flux, the art itself was radically unique. For thousands of years, Egyptian art remained the way it always was. Of course there were small fluctuations in subjects and rendering, but when Akhenaten came to power, he threw everything out the window. Depictions became more naturalistic and emotional. Instead of the regal formality of the gods, now the king and his family were shown in a realistic fashion. So, the blending of new and old artistic styles was a treat to see.

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Mena and Nakht were the last two tombs that I had to see, and I had some difficulty in seeing them. It wasn’t yet closing time, but the guardian was nowhere to be found in the sandy wasteland of the Valley. I wandered around aimlessly, hollering at the wind. Finally, a man appeared, and my horrific Arabic and gestures somehow managed to tell him what I wanted. He kindly dashed off to find the guardian, and after leaving me in the blissful Egyptian silence, I heard the backfire of a motorcycle and suddenly the guardian appeared and mumbled apologies. I gave him the requisite baksheesh and soon was in the final two tombs. They were lovely, but reader, nothing could compare to Sennefer.

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Still, I was utterly content and totally charmed as I made my way back to Hassan and the car. I was ever so happy that I followed Abdul’s advice and went into the Valley of the Nobles. If you are a tourist going to Luxor for the first time, this is a site you must see! I mean, reader, the Valley of the Kings is iconic for the obvious reasons, and the Valley of the Queens is phenomenal if Nefertari’s tomb is open to the public when you’re there (or you’re comfortable enough with bribing the guards), but the Nobles’ Valley is exceptional. It shows such an incredible amount of realism and it showcases a stunning departure from the king’s tombs. Instead of being laser focused on the gods and the traditional imagery depicting the journey to the beyond, we see charming touches of what life was really like in ancient Egypt.

Now, reader, I always go on and on about how awful a pioneer I would make, and keep up with me because I have a point. I would not like to live in the past. I love it and worship it, but I cherish modern conveniences. But I think I would have been a fabulous ancient Egyptian. And we will get to that in due time. But first pioneers. I talk about my failure to be a good pioneer a lot. Whenever the power goes out at home, which it does a few times a year thanks to the weather — since Iowa has the most ridiculous climate in the world with frequent tornadoes, oceans falling out of the sky, ice storms, blizzards, scorching droughts, and wind that can pick you up and take you to Oz. So, I’m familiar with not having power, and it is awful every single time. And when it goes out, I chortle to myself thinking how romantic it’ll be to set candles around the house, and to nibble on cheese and red wine, and to curl up with my cats and a good book. It sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Well, reader, it is not. I scream about my phone’s battery going down, glare at my space heater that refuses to turn on without electricity, wail that I forgot to charge my portable battery, and then remember that the house’s candle stock is down in the creepy basement that acts as a breeding ground for wolf spiders who hate me and want me dead. And I hate having nothing to do. I hate being without my phone when it dies. I would have been the worst pioneer, sulking in my sod house, glaring at cows, ignoring my garden, saving my pennies to hop on the train back to New York or some civilized city.

And I say all of this to say that I think living in ancient Egypt would suit me down to the ground. I would really enjoy being a scribe — which I undoubtedly was in a past life. Unlike pioneers, scribes in ancient Egypt had a wonderful life. They spent their days writing the dictates of the pharaoh, taking records of the royal granary, crafting scrolls, and practicing their symbol making. They would grow fat and plump and earn money and buy a statue and put it in a temple and live forever. Yes, being scribe would suit me, and I knew this was a fact as I was in those tombs of the Nobles. Their lives looked beautiful, and of course, the images in a tomb are idealized, but still, can you imagine how lovely it would be to sit by a reflecting pool in the courtyard of your whitewashed home? There would be tame cats and dogs and fresh fruit and sweet water and luscious shade from the palms. Being an ancient Egyptian would become me completely. Someday, reader. Someday I will have my retirement villa and it will be a glorious blending of Islamic architecture, of ancient Egyptian layouts, of modern conveniences, and of Parisian charm. You’re welcome to visit.

But back to the car. Hassan invited me over for tea and a view of the sunset, which is a treat no matter how often you see it. I was honored, as any traveler in a foreign land should be, to accept his invitation, and I marveled at what a delight this was for him. I’m currently reading a wonderful book called Letters from Egypt by Lady Duff Gordon, who we’ve discussed before. In it, she discovers that same pleasure that the Egyptians feel when you enter their homes. You are an honored guest, and in their culture, having you visit is just as pleasurable as if you brought a gift. It’s wonderful. And so Hassan was pleased and his wife was all smiles as she hustled into the kitchen, barking orders to the children with love. It wasn’t long before the tea was poured and the cigarettes were lit and we were chatting away in one of the many empty rooms in his large house. I was taken away, as I was every time, by the unlikeliness of my being there with a friend. I came to Egypt for the dead, but what a treat it was to know the living, like little Mahmoud who was glued to my side.

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When it was time for sunset, the children and their mother hurried to one of the windows that were free of glass.

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The hills were glowing as the sun sank into the horizon, and it was magical. And the kids weren’t doing this for my viewing pleasure, they truly relished watching the sunset. It was bucolic and ancient and mysterious in some way, and as one of the family, I watched with complete satisfaction.

Hassan wondered if I wanted to stroll through the village, which of course I did. I would never turn down the opportunity to investigate the modern culture! So he and I and Mahmoud set out for a leisurely stroll. I was quickly aware that Hassan was showing me off to the villagers, which was perfectly fine by me. I had read accounts of similar events going back hundreds of years. The locals are utterly hospitable and they were happy to say, “Marhaba!” This is one of the first words I ever learned when I was in Egypt back in Cairo, and it means welcome. Everybody says it, and it’s lovely to have it said by a toothless old man.

Mahmoud was pointing things out and babbling away in Arabic and Hassan was lazily taking drags off his cigarette and nodding at the villagers and it was lovely and relaxing and I didn’t mind at all that darkness was creeping up. This was going to be one of those strange memories I would treasure forever. And then things became quite different.

Back around Hassan’s house, we sat for a spell outside, and I was admiring their flock of chickens that roamed about, pecking and scratching at the sand. I remembered all of the various chickens we had on the farm, and I recalled my dislike of the weird birds. Hassan’s wife picked one up and with all the joy in the world, she snapped its neck.

I was, shall we say, a bit dumbstruck. She passed the dead bird to one of her daughters and I tried to forget about what I had seen, but it soon became apparent that I was going to be there for a while and the chicken had a lot to do with it. With shocking rapidity, the bird was being turned by hand on a spit beside the house and the girls were bustling around. As darkness took over, the crackling fire was the main source of illumination out on the dusty road and several of the villagers soon gathered. Perhaps they were lured by the scent of the cooking chicken or maybe Hassan had invited them while we were wandering the tiny village. Regardless, they were all quite happy to say a few words to me in English, oftentimes meaningless, and I was charmed by them.

I don’t recall it happening, but the chicken finished cooking and had been cut into pieces. This was brought out onto a little table laden with fresh bread and stewed okra and rice and other things I couldn’t make out in the darkness. Soon it was clear that they had made a feast for my visit with what they had to offer, and I can’t tell you how touched I was by their generosity. These people didn’t need to do anything for me at all, but they called me family and treated me like an honored guest. It was special.

Hassan waved his hand over the spread with pride and motioned me to begin eating, I’m a vegetarian, so I took ahold of the bread, which truly looked lovely. This was clearly the wrong thing to do, he urged me to eat some chicken. I didn’t gulp nervously or refuse, there are certain strange situations where you have to do things you wouldn’t do otherwise. Like that evening when I was stranded in an Italian ghost town nibbling on pigs in a blanket, this was one of those moments where I partook of a dead animal.

I grabbed a chicken leg off the platter and took a bite. Hassan and his wife were pleased, and once I had taken a bite, the rest of the children and the guests grabbed their fill of food. I was more than happy to share this sacrificial bird with them, they who would enjoy it so much more than I would. But I finished the bit that I had out of the deepest respect. Instead of fowl, I stuffed myself with the bread, which was amazing. I think of it regularly. It was moist and chewy with dense crust and riddled with whole wheat. I have never had bread like that in Egypt before, so I was delighted by it. I would have asked Hassan’s wife for a recipe or where she had purchased it, but my Arabic doesn’t give me enough words to do this! And Hassan would have thought this a silly question. He is a charming man, but he is very traditionally Arab.

As we ate, some of the younger kids sang and danced, and it was such a delightfully weird experience. My cellphone had died hours ago, so I couldn’t capture the night the way I wanted to, but even if it had been fully charged, I don’t think I would have pulled it out. It would have ruined the authenticity of the experience. And I was just too delighted to be a part of what I had read about in travel memoirs. Egypt had not changed much in the years that passed between Lady Duff Gordon and Florence Nightingale and myself. There are differences, of course, many numerous differences, but the heart and soul of Egypt is no different from how it had been centuries ago.

I was so touched by this generous display, and when the people started to dissipate, I muttered my thanks to them all. I’m sure they don’t know what I was thanking them for, but it was special to me. The wonderful weirdness of the night will forever be engraved on my memory.

Hassan took me to the ferry and we parted the very best of friends. I had his phone number now, so I could reach out to him if I needed anything, and I promised that I would return numerous times. And I was sure that I would. How marvelous it was to have these people in my life!

The ferry was gorgeous by night, just as lovely as it was during the day and just as busy. But everybody was more relaxed and there was more laughter and contentment. Luxor was lit up, and the temple was resplendent in soft lighting. The Winter Palace was a beacon of joy and bliss and it was marvelous to be greeted by so many of the staff. They are lovely. I miss them.

I felt a bit guilty about not seeing Debbie and Mina, so I decided to go down to the Lantern for a drink and something light. They were as wonderful as ever, and Debbie told me all about the vegetarian meals she had been dreaming up. Mina hurried over my gin and tonic without my asking, which I felt was the most elegant thing in the world.

I was so happy that I was here. I was at home in this place, this wild country that was most decidedly not my home.

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