LUXOR: The Mystery of Chicago House

Absolutely and utterly wiped from my weeks in the sand, I slept late until the last few moments before the breakfast room shuttered. It was still decadent exhaustion, that luxurious ache from an excess of good living, but it was tiring. I needed a day to recover, but I don’t know how to relax, and I’d have time enough when I was flying back over the Atlantic Ocean in a day or so. The thought of leaving, the idea that I wouldn’t be able to wake up every morning in a king bed in a palace surrounded by fresh flowers was a real irritant to my psyche.

So, with some melancholy, I threw my hair up, tossed something on, and entered the salon for Lady Grey Tea and too many grapes. I really need to start eating grapes more regularly at home. I don’t buy them all that often. I do get a regular supply of grapes in my diet, but that comes more from a liquid variety… And it was lovely as it always is, my bowl of grapes, my plate of cheeses, my abundant cups of tea. It’s lovely to eat lovely things off of lovely china. I didn’t stuff myself, though, because I had my luncheon with Hassan in a couple hours.

I halfheartedly attempted to pack, but wound up just putting all of my dirty clothes in a bag for the staff to wash instead. I was used to washing them myself in the sink, but I would save myself the effort, and it would be decadent to have clothes washed properly for the first time in a long while. I’m a master of washing my clothes in the sink, reader. I take inordinate pleasure in washing my shirts and socks and unmentionables and then drying them in minutes in the blazing Egyptian sun. But I wasn’t in the mood. I was already homesick for the crumbling old hotel and the dirty city and the raucous traffic and the clomping donkeys and the people and the food and the weather and the sun and the feeling of being there. I would miss it — and I do miss it — with such intensity that it’s unfathomable. Luxor is like a lover that I will never be over.

I met Hassan along the Corniche, the vendors that tried to halfheartedly woo me onto their felucchas by calling me Obama and offering me hashish didn’t even bother today because my friend was there waiting for me. He was all smiles and we had a very pleasant conversation on the way down to the boat. He led me down onto a lower level that I never knew existed. Luxor is full of unexpected twists and turns that you won’t see unless you wander. I need to wander already more than I already do. There are coffee shops and book shops and a little cafe where you could sit under an umbrella. At one time, it was probably a decadent place where travelers watched the steamers go down or up the Nile. Now there was nothing but shuttered storefronts and dozing cats. There was a souvenir shop that nobly fought on, defying all odds, refusing to shut down even when there was no market, few tourists, and next to no money. I felt oddly enamored of that shop. I meant to stop in but I never did.

Hassan’s boat was at the ready and we sped off at once, dangerously close to the beloved ferry for a moment, children hung like monkeys  from the metal bars and waved to me with their free hands. It was utterly beautiful. And even though I was just being sappy and overly sentimental thanks to the nearness of my departure, I didn’t want to ever forget the sight and the cries of, “Salaam!” as we made our way down the river.

My explorations on the West Bank were lame on this trip, and I intend to do much better the next time I’m in Egypt. I think I may even stay over there. I don’t know if I will be this wild, though, because I don’t think I’ll be able to resist the Winter Palace. It was wonderful to speed through the streets with Hassan and look at the shops and homes of people who aren’t in the popular locations that I frequented more often.

Hassan’s residence was lovely, and felt more European than Egyptian. He appreciated my compliments, and I appreciated the aesthetics. Instead of the usual gray or brown brick house, his is stuccoed and whitewashed. The windows have bars around them in a Spanish style. The roof is finished, unlike so many other structures in that county. I understand why they leave the top unfinished, but I can’t figure out why so many people do it. Rebar reaches for the sky in the hopes that money will flood in and the funds for construction will allow yet another level to join the building. Hassan was much more thoughtful. “Why would I need more space? I already have plenty.” This foresight allowed his home to be lovelier than it already was.

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The garden was fabulous as well. Instead of cucumbers and onions and a wandering chicken, it was almost formal. There was a gravel path with fruit trees, a fountain, and vines that clung to the garden walls. There was a beautiful pergola with a heavy table waiting for me.

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Hassan went into the garden and grabbed a handful of fresh mint. He thrust this into a glass and then poured steaming hot green tea on top before handing it to me. Reader, that was absolutely fabulous. You all know how I’m a ho for mint tea, right? Well if you didn’t, know that I am. It was lovely. We sat and chatted while his mother prepared luncheon inside the kitchen. I could hear the knife chopping and things sizzling.

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My birthday was celebrated more often in Luxor than it ever has been in America.

Soon, too much food came out and the table was laden with grain salad, fried eggplant, French fries, a massive slab of fresh cheese, and omelettes. I served myself a laden plate and then another. And then a bit more. It was absolutely fabulous and everything was fresh.

Hassan and I talked about many things, about the construction style of his house, about his European friends that had paid him to add an apartment to the house for them, about the culture, about the people who were his neighbors, about his hopes and his dreams, and about how he was an arm wrestling champion.

Now, reader, how many of you can say that you arm wrestled with Upper Egypt’s arm wrestling champion? Any of you? I didn’t think so, but I have, and that is a singularly silly thing to have experienced. Hassan showed me a standard arm wrestling stand with pads and a place to grip. He asked if I wanted to have a go, and why not you know? So I did and he beat me handily. It was cute. He’s a very nice man. I look forward to seeing him again on my next trip.

As we drove back to the boat, I noticed there was a crumbling wall surrounding a sandy plain filled with piled rocks. I asked about it, and was intrigued to hear that it was a Muslim cemetery. Hassan pulled up and let me look, I didn’t enter because I wasn’t aware of the proper etiquette. I don’t ever want to be seen as a bumbling Westerner, brazenly insulting the people. I can’t stand tourists like that. That’s why I make local friends and do things with them. I don’t always want to be a tourist. I travel to learn how life is around the world. It gives me a better understanding of how the world works. That was a lot of words for a little story, wasn’t it?

At the dock, Hassan presented me with little gifts that his family had made. One was a bookmark with the emblem of their company, another was a little clay figurine that was made by local craftsman, and most adorably was a tiny notebook that had a cross-stitched image of the funerary mask of Tutankhamen glued on the cover. Hassan mentioned that he had seen me often scribbling away in my Moleskine journal. I thought that was so sweet of him. He’s a thoughtful gentleman. I’ll miss him, too. I do miss him.

Back at the Winter Palace the flowers were all new, and my heart felt lighter than it had already felt. I felt blessed and cared for, and I was quite heartbroken at the same time that I would be on my way out the next day. It was inconceivable that I was already leaving. It felt simultaneously as if I had lived in Luxor my entire life and like I had landed minutes ago. I didn’t want to go. I want to be there now typing this to you, telling you of the lazy adventures I have in my new slow life in Luxor. I will do this someday, of that I have little doubt. But that isn’t for now, and it isn’t for several years. That villa that I mention isn’t a joke. I really will have it. I may never have the apartment in Paris, and I may never have the place in West Hollywood, and I may never have a brick Victorian on the banks of the Mississippi, but I will have a house in Luxor. I will absolutely have robes and tea and a camel named Bertha and simple furniture and a fountain and gentle music. I will. I know I will.

I began to think of all there was to do on my next venture into Egypt. I thought about hot air balloons, the scarcely-seen temples that Abdul had told me about, the village of the workmen on the West Bank, the ruins of Amarna, the great city of Alexandria along the Mediterranean, and then of all the glories of Meroe that are in Sudan. Someday…someday…someday. Life is very long, reader, but it goes by in a flash.

A memory flashed in my mind of the guidebook I had bought to the Luxor Museum. In the back was curious map that had done by hand and not to scale.

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Along the Corniche, further down the Nile than I had yet wandered, was a little marker that was labeled Chicago House. My mind was a whir at once. This is kind of a legendary location to me, for I cannot find it. None of the locals knows what I’m talking about whenever I mention it. But it’s very real. I’ve seen images of the interior, I’ve been on its website. The Chicago House is the research center in Egypt for the University of Chicago. This storied university is terribly important in the history of Egyptology, and I have every expectation to take some kind of class there someday. UCLA is where I’ll study the ancient dead, I’m sure, for I need the sun and the palms and the sea and Potato Chips Deli, but the reputation of the University of Chicago is intoxicating.

So, I determined that I would spend the rest of my afternoon sleuthing.

I cleaned myself up and set off down the road. The donkey boys smiled, the hashish men peddled their wares, boatmen begged me to join them on a cruise down the Nile, and finally I broke free of the hubbub around the Luxor Museum.

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Oddly, this area was beautifully landscaped and finely decorated. It felt almost like Nice, and I found that peculiar. The Corniche here was more like a European city with level grounds, lights that actually functioned — a rarity — benches, the occasional fountain, stairs that were well maintained, booths that would have people selling sweets and drinks at times when there were actually tourists and locals to come and mill about. There was nobody today.

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I was charmed by the spot and by the palm trees that grew in profusion. I regretted that I didn’t have months more to explore the depths of Luxor. It’s hardly the biggest city in the world, but there is so much that I haven’t seen. I haven’t even gone to the souk, and I find that peculiar in the extreme. I mentioned earlier a number of places I haven’t seen and things I haven’t done, so I won’t drone on. I’m just shocked by the variety and diversity of experiences to be had in Luxor. If I’m able, the next time I’m here, I want to stay for at least a month. I may not stay in the Winter Palace for the entirety, I’d rather like to rent an apartment and live like a local. Maybe I’ll even pick up a bit of Arabic.

Speaking of Arabic, I was very frustrated. The local community college at home offers courses in Arabic, but irksomely, there are none planned for the foreseeable future. What a nuisance. I’d love to learn that guttural and beautiful language. I just love languages so much. I’m currently studying German and Spanish and Hungarian. It’s endlessly frustrating, and endlessly rewarding. I’ll never be fluent in Hungarian, but what fun it has been to struggle through. One of these beautiful days, I dream, DuoLingo, will offer lessons in Arabic. It shall be one of the most glorious days of my life. They just introduced Japanese, and I am very tempted to begin once I have more free time this summer. I only know one phrase in Japanese, and that’s, “I don’t speak Japanese.”

I followed the map that I had sketched and examined the clues that I had found for the location of Chicago House, and after a great long while, I made it to the spot where it should be. I saw a sign for Karnak in the distance, so I knew that I had to be in the right locale, but still, there was no Chicago House to be seen. I really didn’t even know what the exterior looked like, but I had assumed there would be a marking of some kind. I had no great intentions of going in or talking to anybody, I just wanted to see the building and smile at the satisfaction of having solved a personal mystery.

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Finally, after much surely suspicious looking sleuthing, I determined the gates of what I believed had to be Chicago House, snapped a few photos, and headed back down the long path alongside the Nile, intent on getting a monstrously large latte and reading Death on the Nile.

Along the way, probably due to my bizarre behaviors, an armed guard watched me with uncomfortable intensity. At one point, I noticed a machine gun pointed in my general direction which was distinctly unsettling, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve looked down the barrel of an automatic weapon, so I can’t say that I was particularly terrified of being shot. (Don’t I sound brave and dashing?) It didn’t happen the first time, do why on earth would it happen now?

The walk was long and hot, but as ever, I didn’t mind, and soon I was at the hectic spot where several busy Luxor roads come together around the ancient temple. I darted my way through honking microbuses, shouts of donkey drivers, and the excited squeals of children crossing with me. I noticed another coffee shop called Cafe Latte, and I made the regrettable decision to patronize their shop. The coffee was sickly sweet and the staff was less than courteous, so I wasn’t thrilled, but I was still in Egypt.

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After a few chapters of my book, I decided to head back to the Winter Palace to my balcony so that I could watch the Egyptian sunset for the last time. I didn’t know when again I’d be here. I knew with complete confidence that I would return, but I knew that it could be years. Life was beginning to speed up back in America. I would soon be back at work and school and I would be earning my first degree in a matter of months. After that, it would only get busier with another degree to figure out, schedule, and pay for. Egypt might be only a dull glow on the horizon for too long. I’m not at all happy at the prospect of that.

I had a bit of time, so I sauntered down the Corniche, drinking in every single detail, burning it into my memory.

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Up on the balcony, I stretched out, sipped cold water, and looked out on the West Bank. I could discern roughly where Hassan’s home was, and I hoped that he was watching the sunset from his unfinished roof. Farther to the right, I picked out the rough location of my other Hassan’s home and hoped that he was sitting in his garden with his wife, arm wrestling his son, and sipping something refreshing. And over to my left, on this same bank, I hoped that Mina and Debbie were happily oblivious to the sinking sun, getting ready for another dinner service for the evening.

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And at that moment, with the great sun growing rapidly in size as it sank to the horizon, I felt a strange new sensation. It wasn’t joy, and it was hardly tragedy, it was the most beautiful contentment. Luxor is the same as it ever was and ever will be, and I’m lucky enough to see it and love it. I’m blessed to have seen the heavens choked with sand and to have the sun reflect stupendously on every tiny grain in an inferno for a sunset. And I was blessed to have these beautiful souls in my life.

This trip to Egypt, this blissful foray into the desert was not a trip as usual, this was a homecoming in a way I never expected. It’s still a shock to understand it, to write it, to share it with you, but Luxor is my home. I say that so often that it has become meaningless for you, but for me, it’s the god’s truth. Luxor connects with me in an almost spiritual way. I’m myself in Los Angeles, and I could live in Paris until the world ends, but Luxor completes me. I pray and I hope that you all find a place like this, a strange spot on the globe that welcomes you home like a long lost son. It doesn’t make any sense, does it? Does life ever?

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And then the last trace of light was gone and darkness reigned over the desert, and I sighed softly to myself. Tomorrow would be the dawn of a great new adventure — I was off to Asia! — but I would miss this dusty city with passion. I miss it more each day. I think back on her streets and shops and donkeys and people and smells and sights and lights all the time. A huge chunk of myself is missing, and it wasn’t before this trip. I left it in Luxor.

Debbie greeted me with a kiss and Mina greeted me with a fierce handshake, and I hoped those two wonderful creatures didn’t see my bloodshot eyes, red from ridiculous crying. My usual seat was waiting for me with a little sign that said reserved, and I about lost it. I was one of her regulars now, and my heart quite broke that I wouldn’t be here tomorrow night. I wouldn’t celebrate Christmas with the expats. I wouldn’t be here for Sunday brunch. I wouldn’t be here for years potentially.

Debbie’s lentil soup had never been richer or more delicious. Her hair has never been in a tighter beehive. Her stilettos were never so tall as they were that night. I looked on all the other guests, those wonderful strangers I never knew, with such love. We all knew each other by face, but hardly by name. Perhaps if I’m lucky enough to retire here, to just give it all up and be an Egyptian, I’ll know them better. But for now, I can only rely on Debbie and her willingness to discuss everything.

The meal and the pie and the gin were all triumphs. And Debbie knew this was the end, and came to say goodbye. I kept it together remarkably well. She told me how to contact her, and told me to message her the moment I became ill and wanted to make the move to Luxor. She was ready and willing to help me. I might have cried a bit then. Mina made a fine speech and I hugged him, and he appeared shocked and inordinately pleased. I loved these people. Even Debbie’s husband came up from the kitchen to wish me farewell. It was all too kind. And outside, the mother cat who came up to me my first night was there with her kittens who had their eyes open now. I know she can’t have known, but I swear she was saying goodbye too. I presented her with a French fry and she was in ecstasy.

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I took the busy way back. I wanted one more walk through the raucous streets with the wonderful people who had grown accustomed to my face. I thought of the next time and the next and the next. I will never stop going to Luxor. No terrorist will stop me. I’d rather die in Luxor than never come back.

Across the street from the Winter Palace, I stood along the railing of the Corniche and looked at the moon and the lights reflecting on the Nile. That mighty river, that lifeblood of so many nations, those majestic and alluring waters that had captivated me since the days of my youth, lapped below me.

Nobody bothered me as I stood there. All the touts knew me and knew I had my people. They were nothing but friends and strangers now. I was no longer a source of revenue. I was just a man. I was just Ben standing beside the Nile. I really don’t know how long I was there, but as I did, my life began to pass by in my memories. I was back at Egyptian Treasures with my dad and Donald, talking about Cairo and dreaming of treasure. I was on an ancient computer in elementary school furiously printing pages from the Theban Mapping Project. I was in Barnes and Noble buying discounted books. I was in the Louvre staring at hieroglyphs. I was screaming at textbooks. I was dreaming of the future. I was back on a rooftop in Giza with Lady M. I was wandering through temples with Abdul. I was breaking the Ramadan fast at the Khan el-Khalili. I was dreaming of digging. I was in raptures at the thought of the basements of the Egyptian Museum. I was drinking Stella again with Hassan. I was back by the Nile. And I was an Egyptian through and through.

This is what my life had been leading up to. This trip cemented everything I had always known about myself. I need never flounder. I’m an Egyptian. I’m a student of history. I’m a lover of crumbling bodies and dead languages. I’m a friend to Muslims and Copts and Christians. I’m a camel fanatic. I’m a temple ho. I’m Ben.

The river rushed by below, and again, and even though I had no more tears to cry, some tears joined the world’s second longest river and made their way down toward Alexandria and then into the Mediterranean, and then perhaps Madame Betty in Villefranche would stand in the port and unknowingly walk through my happy tears.

But for now I was in Egypt. I had more hours to relish in that.

And tomorrow I would leave. But Egypt was coming with me.

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