LUXOR: The Best of All Birthdays

A year ago in Turin I decided that for the rest of my life, I would celebrate my birthday someplace unique and delightful. If it was a new city that was good, if it was luxurious, that was even better. It was a treat to take myself to the Museo Egizio and to dinner and just revel in my own company all day as I turned twenty-six. So, when I planned for the next summer, I made sure that my birthday was in Luxor.

I don’t mind aging so much. I joke about it frequently, but I feel as if I was “eighty before I was eighteen.” I was a grumpy old man for the majority of my life. I didn’t do anything terribly exciting or socialize or have a dozen boyfriends or wake up on a riverbank with no memory of getting there. Honestly, I can’t say that I regret that, but there are times when I wonder what I missed out on during the course of my tame youth. I feel younger now than I did back then. I still haven’t woken up on a riverbank, but that’s just fine. I have woken up in five star hotels, so that’s better.

Many people complain about the years going by. And they do flash by at an absurdly quick trot, but I have come to love living so much that I don’t mind. It’s such a treat to be breathing and have opportunities. Even on days when the world seems bleak, at least we have a life, and I think that’s tremendous. I often have a quote from Malalai of Maiwand in the back of my mind that keeps me positive and joyful, “It is better to live like a lion for one day than to live like a slave for a hundred years.” I’m well aware that I don’t live like a lion. I live far more like a kitten. But ever since my Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis, I don’t mind the world so much. I had a point…where did it go? It must be my advancing years.

Anyway, I didn’t mind waking up and finding myself twenty-seven. I had missed the opportunity to post a moody post about the passing of years at Egyptian midnight on Facebook. But I didn’t mind too much. I made a little comment about how being in Egypt was the greatest birthday gift of all, and then I went down to breakfast. Little did I know what a good and marvelous day I had ahead of me.

At breakfast, I was again inspired by Sennefer’s gorgeous tomb in the Valley of the Nobles and I veritably gorged on purple grapes. They were intensely sweet and good and I wondered where the vineyards in Egypt were. I wouldn’t mind having a couple at my camel and crocodile hotel on the West Bank one day when I retire in a few years…it had better be a few. Oh wouldn’t that be grand, reader? I’d have a two level villa with an open courtyard in the middle with a dipping pool and plenty of palms. There would be cloisters to sit and admire the view in the shade. Outside would be camel stables and a pool for the crocodiles. And then out in the back would be a small vineyard for table grapes. How delightful it will all be! There will be views of the Nile and of the Theban mountains and it would be just fabulous.

My grape-fueled reveries were abruptly cut short when my phone began to ring. This was extraordinary as I had a new SIM card with a number that nobody knew and it wasn’t my family calling via FaceTime.

“Hello?” I said, worriedly, wondering how ISIL might have gotten ahold of me.

“Bin-ya-meen?”

“Aiwa.” I replied warily.

“Hey Leo Bro!” Abdul said happily.

Relief flooded through my body. We chatted for a few minutes and it was tremendously sweet. After the call was finished, I was so happy that he had thought to call me, that he had even figured out what my number was. I suppose he called Hassan to get it. Isn’t that the most charming thing?

And then Hillary Clinton emailed me:

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Finishing breakfast, I made my way into the lobby to sit in the overworked furniture, past its prime, but deliciously derelict. I was lost in some line of thought, some rhapsody over Eighteenth Dynasty matrilineal succession to the throne, I think, when the kindly guest services woman came over to me.

“Oh dear,” I thought, “my card must have been declined. How awkward.”

“Mr. Phillips?”

“Yes.”

She smiled. “I just wanted to make sure your stay was well with us, and from myself and every person at the Winter Palace, we want to wish you a happy birthday.”

I believe I choked back a sob. It was too kind. Too fabulous. I was truly touched by this. I mean, let’s be honest, their computer probably notified them since I had joined some Sofitel newsletter that required my birthday, but it was still such a remarkably kind and special thing. I felt like the most important man in Luxor.

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I sat on my balcony or awhile, looking out on the hills, listening to the snapping of the flags in the wind, trying to understand the opening words of the call to prayer, and then taking my iconic annual birthday–balcony–oops I’m not a model–the camera just went off picture:

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I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with myself or how to treat myself to my birthday. Most people celebrate with friends and have a party or a gathering of some kind to celebrate. I decided I should do the same thing. I’d go back to the Lantern and order cake and hum “Happy Birthday” to myself and smile broadly and I would be very happy. I don’t think there’s anything sad about celebrating alone or going to dinner alone or to the movies alone or to a play alone. There are so many people that limit their lives by being too ashamed by their solitary condition to enjoy life. I’ve never been like that ever. I’m glad for it.

So, I decided to set off to the West Bank and track down Hassan and have a birthday beer at the Rassoul cafe near the Valley of the Nobles. I thought that would suit me right down to the ground, so I gathered my supplies and grabbed a couple coins for the ferry.

I sauntered down the Corniche and was nodded at by the sedentary man who sits in the shade beside the ferry dock. We’re on nodding terms now. I took a seat in the sun on the upper deck and we were soon chugging across the Nile. Like I tell you every single time I ever take that ferry, it was wonderful. It was the very height of marvelous. I want to live on that ferry. (I wonder if there are still houseboats to rent, those glorious dahabiyas that used to sail to Sudan from Cairo that the Victorian travelers would rent and sail for weeks, languishing deliciously on the decks in the sun, smoking a lazy cigar as the yellow scenery past by, digging and drawing and exploring and having a grand old time? They do! I must book passage one of these times.)

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Hassan wasn’t at the riverbank today, so I assumed he was out with somebody else or stayed home. This didn’t concern me. I could direct any taxi there, but I wanted to walk. I crave walking when I’m abroad. I want to explore every new street by foot, make a mental map of every avenue and every shop along the way. I want to intimately know where I am. I do this everywhere I travel since I finished at Le Cordon Bleu many moons ago. I didn’t do that in Paris, and I would take the Metro absolutely everywhere. I didn’t realize how many marvelous and wonderful things I was missing out on by not venturing out. I felt sick when I realized that I had wasted months of my life without trying new chocolate shops and missing out on broken statues and that I would never know the ladies at the bakery a block away. I won’t ever make that mistake again. So, in Luxor, I decided to walk to Hassan’s. It was a flawless decision.

I was accompanied by a man named Tarek, who speaks to me every time he sees me. He has the most beautiful skin, and he doesn’t know what no means. He sails a felluca, which I never have much of an interest in, and each time he practically begs me to get on board. I charmingly deny, but he’s persistent. He walked with me through the calmer West Bank until he finally parted to go to his home. He’s a nice man, but I really don’t want to go off down the river with a stranger. It simply does not appeal to me.

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Finally I was on my own, which as you know, I relish in. I popped into a shop for water and bought a Coca Cola instead and thought of my Coptic Cairene friend, Rafik. It was too sweet, but it was awfully refreshing, and it basically cost nothing. Much more than the nothing the water cost, but worth it. The proprietor looked absolutely gobsmacked that I was there.

There were Internet cafes and a dress shop and a dilapidated store that sold the most incredibly lovely pieces of stone. I wanted to buy and build my villa immediately so that I could fill it with gorgeous marble slabs. As the city thinned and the countryside grew, I was captivated by the scenery. I’ve made mention of it many times in these posts on Egypt, but I never can get over just how beautiful and removed it is from how we think it looks. Egypt can be scorching hot and the desert is desolate, but the flora and fauna is stunning. The roads were lined in absurdly green grass, purple flowers that grew in massive clusters and clung to any surface festooned in a cacophony of color, palms reached up for the sky, sugarcane grew in the fields, yellow and green, big white birds swooped merrily about, men on donkeys trotted by offering bemused smiles, and highlighting it all was the glorious sun.

After the first row of fields, the shops of Hassan’s village appeared, and lost in a revery at the wonders of the world, I stopped, startled, as a group of people began waving the arms and shouting.

“BIN!”

Lo and behold it was Hassan and his wife and a couple of the girls out on the town. Hassan’s wife was getting a checkup for her pregnancy, and they were all smiles when I came up to the car. Hassan embraced me with a friendly hug and his wife with a kindly shake of the hand. Immediately, room was made for me in the front of the car and we were driving the dusty path back to the family’s home.

Several happy hours were spent in one of Hassan’s sparsely populated rooms sipping mango juice and tea and smoking too many Cleopatra cigarettes. It’s lucky that I’m a natural smoker. Never coughed once. I find this weird. I wonder if I was a cigarette fiend in a past life and just remember instinctively? I’m convinced that’s a thing. It was absolutely lovely. We chatted about next to everything, toured the levels, he told me that my destiny was to be in Luxor, working in the sand and living in a house like this. That suited me just fine.

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My days were tragically drawing to a close, and I wasn’t sure when I would again see Hassan again. The next day I would be off to Esna and the day after the day after that, I’d be heading to the airport and back home. This could very well be the last time I saw them all, so I had to have a picture with them all. I’m very glad that I did this. If you’ve read my other blog posts, you may have read that Hassan’s wife died shortly after giving birth to a daughter. It turns out that she was quite unwell, but Hassan never made mention of this. He only mentioned that his daughters wanted to be doctors that specialized in cancer, so I have to assume, using my Jessica Fletcher skills, that she was suffering from cancer. She passed away at a research hospital that specializes in HIV treatment, so there are a number of issues that could have caused her untimely death. But back in that wonderful house, there was nothing but happiness. In fact, that is one of the happiest places I had ever been. I hope my villa in Luxor is somewhat like this.

After far too much tea and an absurd number of cigarettes, we decided to go to the cafe and sip Stella.

IMG_3709.jpgWe had a lengthy conversation about the role of women in Egyptian society. Of course this was a rather one-sided argument as we were both men, but it was still interesting to get his perspective on what was proper. Hassan doesn’t mind if women go about with their heads uncovered, but he doesn’t have any issue if his children or wife want to. He says that they don’t always wear headscarves, but to look proper they certainly do. For example, before taking the family photo earlier, his wife had gone to fetch a headscarf and wind it around. This is just like us putting on a jacket for dinner, saying thank you, or removing shoes in a mosque. It’s just manners and proper behavior. I was glad to get this perspective.

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Hassan wanted to show me his stable and his other properties, and being the curious felaheen that I had become, I agreed. He showed me his first home, which was in the most charming village a bit farther away. It felt so removed from Luxor and it’s old-fashioned modern amenities. Dusty roads and donkeys and it was absolutely divine. The people looked at me with curiosity as they do, but they were gracious and welcoming. Hassan’s old house was a hovel in comparison to the one he lives in now, but I still see myself living there in exceptional contentment.

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The stables weren’t stables so much as a rather dusty paddock between two crumbling mud brick buildings that housed two horses and a palm tree. Hassan opened the door, and two lovely horses trotted over. The older one was named Princessa and she was the mother to the colt, Prince. Both were exceedingly tame and friendly and were happy to nuzzle my hands. They were darling, and it was such a treat to feed them little bits of sugarcane and chat about Hassan’s dreams of having great numbers of horses and leading tours around Luxor. He grimaced at my suggestion of a camel ranch. For whatever reason, the camel is not as beloved in Luxor as it is in Cairo or Aswan. I can’t understand this. It’s unfathomable to me. There is nothing lovelier than the moody camel. They’re sassy and grumpy and disgusting. I adore them. You all know about my dreams of a camel ranch, right? I just wrote about it. The villa with the crocodile pool, cloister, vineyard, and guest rooms? Of course you do. You’re all invited, of course.

After a walk through town and more chatter, Hassan drove me back to the ferry. I told him that there was a good chance that this would be my last free moment on the West Bank and that I probably wouldn’t see him again until my next visit to Egypt. I hoped it would be soon. We hugged and parted on the best of terms. I truly feel like he and his entire family are a part of my family. They were special to me and made my trip to Luxor more meaningful than it would have been. I had people who cared about me and people I, in turn, cared about, too. It made my trip so much better and made Egypt more than dusty old bones and hieroglyphs. I love Egypt for a million more reasons because of Hassan. I love the people and the culture and Arabic and Stella Artois. I love lazy afternoons and tradition. I love aimlessly driving through the desert and I like talking about nonsense. He was such a treat for me and I will never forget the hospitality shown to me by the Jabber family.

Along the Corniche was a vendor of nuts and sweets and popcorn. I bought two bags of unsalted popcorn. It was quite awful. I loved every bite of it as I walked down the Nile with a smile on my face as the warm breeze tousled my hair. Have I ever been happier? I really don’t think so.

It had already been a stupendous birthday, so I was a little annoyed when I arrived back at the Winter Palace and found my room’s door ajar. “Oh great,” I muttered, “I’m being robbed!”

Turns out I wasn’t. I was being given a gift.

The staff hadn’t expected me back in the late afternoon hours, they knew me to disappear after breakfast and show back up much late than the other guests…then again there are like two other guests, so they learned my habits well. I wasn’t sure what was happening, I assumed my linens were being swapped and my flower vases being recharged. I saw bunches of flowers on the cart. Well, reader, do you know what they were actually doing? Do you know what those angels were doing to my room? They were decorating it for my birthday.

I choked on a huge sob.

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Here’s a pic of me ugly crying at the kindness of the world.

One of the men was there, gingerly and delicately selecting the perfect petals and the perfect leaves and the perfect stems and then breaking them up so that he could spell out HAPPY BIRTHDAY on top of my bed. He surrounded this with a heart of rose petals. It was the cutest thing I have ever seen. It was the sweetest gesture. It was the best gift. He worked for quite some time, nudging a particular letter into shape until he was completely satisfied. I have seen artists put less care into their compositions. Soon, the entire phrase was spelled out and he turned to me with the biggest smile. After wishing me a happy birthday, he stepped out of the room, and then I burst into happy tears. It was the kindest thing. Could anything be more marvelous?

There was a knocking at the door. What could it be now?

Warily, I opened the door, and I could hardly believe the sight in front of my eyes. There was a trio of staff holding a brass platter with a cake on top.

“It’s your birthday,” one of the men told me.

“Yes it is,” I replied, gobsmacked.

Immediately they burst into a heavily accented rendition of “Happy Birthday” and swept into the room, depositing the tray on my table and lighting the candle on the cake with a flourish. I was immensely moved by this all. As I reflect back on it, I’m still so touched by what they did for me. They made my birthday so damn special. I was so damn special on August 11.

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Reader, you won’t believe what kind of cake it was. I still can’t believe it. I still can’t conceive that it happened to me. Reader, it was a huge slice of opera cake.

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Y’all know how passionate I am about this flawless cake, right? Y’all know how I try it in every Parisian bakery I go? Y’all know how I don’t make them at home because I would gorge myself to a dangerous level if I had an entire opera cake in my house, right? Well, let me tell you, I tucked into that cake and gorged myself to a dangerous level. I’ve rarely been happier. I’ve said that a lot, but I’ve rarely been happier.

It was time to head down to the Lantern to treat myself to my birthday supper. I wasn’t the least bit hungry, but I wasn’t going to miss out on an opportunity to treat myself right. In record time, I was seated at my usual spot and Mina was bringing out the gin. Debbie fussed over me as ever and wished me a happy birthday, which she had remembered from me mentioning it a few days before. Lovely.

Dinner was excellent as I fully expected it to be, and I was so full of cheese and onion tarts and potatoes and cake that I couldn’t order dessert.

“You don’t want pie?” Mina asked, with what looked like genuine concern. I appreciated his dedication to sweets.

“I couldn’t. Thank you.”

He nodded, still looking worried and soon he and Debbie were back.

“No pie for your birthday, love?” Debbie asked.

“I could’t possibly,” I began again.

“Well your drinks are on the house tonight.”

I thanked them both profusely. Free gin and free cake all in one day? And in my favorite city of all time? Could living be easier or more delightful? I don’t think so.

After kissing Debbie on the cheek, Mina shook my hand and made a little speech that I can’t fully remember because it was so unexpectedly sentimental and kind. Here’s a bit of what I can think back on. “We wish you a happy birthday because this is a special day for you, and it is even more special that you shared it with us. I hope that all of your dreams come true, your many dreams, and that you come home again to Luxor all your life.”

I took the dark ways back to the Winter Palace so that I could cry to myself all the way home. How did I get so lucky? Why was I being treated with such immense kindness? I’m sure that many people have been treated well here and treated better and treated like kings, but I felt that night that I was one myself. I loved everybody in Luxor. I loved that wonderful city in the Sahara. I loved Egypt with a passion that was new. It wasn’t the fervor of buried treasure and mummies or hieroglyphs on crumbling walls, it was an immense love for the modern culture and for those lovely people I called friends and for all the strange characters I had yet to befriend.

And then this cat insisted I pet it:

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Never have I ever had a better birthday. I doubt I ever will.

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