“Come home at once—and come alone.”
Ihab and my secret travel plans to Upper Egypt—Sharm Al Sheikh, Luxor and Aswan—had been discovered. Tracked down by a runner in the military, the plans for our last few days came to a slamming halt. Ihab had disclosed our general whereabouts to his brothers in case of family emergency. Being the eldest son, Ihab couldn’t drop his ingrained sense of duty toward them. Though his parents didn’t know he was traveling with me, his brothers did. And somehow, they had disclosed this fact to his uncle, a General in the army. I imagine it took only a few questions and a few well-placed calls to locate us.
Now his military career hung in the balance.
All because we broke a rule. This rule forbid all Egyptian military personnel from socializing with non-Egyptians. In other words, foreigners. Like me. That really meant no personal, one-on-one socializing. Sanctioned socializing was permitted between military officials and the entire diplomatic teaching team on formal occasions.
But foreign teams worked among the military. Did they think no one would ever develop ties or fall in love? As Ihab explained it, this rule originated with the British who used beautiful women to trick the military into revealing pertinent information. The women created clandestine liaisons with Egyptian military for the sole purpose of obtaining secrets during the period of history when Britain and Egypt fought for control.
“It’s old and outdated but sorry to say, this rule still exists. So what can we poor officers do? We must be careful and behave ourselves. We should never promise to help our American teachers here at MODLI.” Ihab feigned seriousness.
Of course, a disciplined career officer would never pursue this temptation in any era. Ihab was far from disciplined then. The side I saw was that of a daring, cheerful, smooth-talking, somewhat clumsy Captain who obeyed some of the rules, perhaps to a fault, but only when it suited him.
I stood in the darkness watching Ihab’s train chug out of the depot in Aswan. On that sultry evening, I crossed my arms, staring into the moonlight—the same moon which prompted Ihab to whisper just a night earlier how much I looked like the fourteenth moon, a big compliment—and wondered how our relationship had become so complicated.
Could he really be facing prison? Court martial? Or would Ihab with his maverick charm escape with a reprimand? What action would his uncle take?
Lost in thought, I set off for my room. I had an early morning. Even in Ihab’s haste to get home, he had arranged for me to take two tours in the subsequent days before my own return to Cairo. The next morning I would rise even before the sun did, meet my tour guide and travel to Nasser Lake. There, the guide would row across it and take me on a one-man tour to temples in Abu Simbel.
These twin massive rock temples were built by Pharaoh Ramses II in the 13th century BC as a tribute to himself and his queen, Nefertari, after winning a certain battle. It is a world-famous site and one of the most famous in Egypt. Now it was a-tour-for-one. A lump came to my throat. We had talked about this tour during the entire trip.
A few days earlier, Ihab had teased me, “Do you know what Nefertari means?”
“Go ahead. I know you are dying to tell me.”
Ihab laughed, took hold of my hand and guided me over some rough terrain. “Beautiful companion,” he murmured, squeezing my hand. “Queen Nefertari was one of the most famous queens next to Cleopatra, Nefertiti and Hapshepsut.”
“Who’s the last one? Was Nefertiti the queen depicted on the papyrus you gave me?”
“Good memory! That was shortly after you arrived. Anyway, you saw her tomb already in the Valley of the Queens. It is the biggest in all of Egypt. Ramses also called her ‘the one for whom the sun shines.’
“Ihab! No way!”
“Yes, I know you have ‘a thing’ about the sun. That’s why I mentioned this fact. You love the sun. You are ’the one for whom the sun shines’ too.”
Ihab took his role as tour guide very seriously. He read pamphlets voraciously. He had a big interest in anything Egyptian, as most Egyptians do. I had seen him don this hat frequently over the six months I spent in Egypt. I couldn’t remember many facts but I recalled names. The rest of the information went over my head. The temples all blurred together and by now I was all-templed out. I mostly wanted to go to Abu Simbel because of Ihab. When he decided to go back to Cairo, I tried to cancel but he refused to do it. “No, no. Take the tour and tell me all about it.”
I met my guide, a local man, his head wrapped in a loose white cotton garb in the Upper Egyptian tradition, which he took off by the time we arrived. When we reached Nasser Lake, he motioned for me to get in the rowboat. He silently guided it over the smooth lake. I pulled the sleeves down over my hands to warm up in the early morning chill. My guide and I were the sole occupants in the lake. As the rowboat glided over the glassy dark water , my mind wandered back to Ihab’s situation. I could hear the birds cry overhead, making our journey seem mournful.
Suddenly, the tour guide let go of the oars and indicated that I should row for awhile. I’d never rowed a boat in my life. But it was clear that we would not go forward if I didn’t do my part. I am sure that this all happened because I was a female traveling alone. I picked up the paddles and rowed for half an hour.
I don’t remember much about that place or the rest of that day. I must have returned and went to bed early. But before that, I had to call Ihab. “Call me and I will tell you how I am if I can.”
I hurried to the old, dusty phone exchange. I gave Ihab’s city code and home phone number to a man in charge of doing the calling, and he handed me a slip of paper, indicating I was to wait until he called the number on my paper. I looked at all the people already waiting and knew I’d better get comfortable. After finally making the connection, the man called my wait-number over a PA system. He spoke a mixture of Arabic and English. “Miss Ammy…callling party in Cairo… Room telateen.”
I entered a small booth to speak to Ihab. As usual in this telephone set-up, we had a poor connection, filled with static, but this was the only way to make a long-distance phone call in Egypt’s pre-cell phone era. I’m sure it still operates that way in Egypt’s villages today.
Ihab sounded breathless, as if he had been waiting. “I’m okay,” he reassured me, “Will explain more when you get back to Cairo. Can you call again tomorrow night?”
“Ihab?” I desperately wanted details, more proof, something other than the skeletal fragments he offered up at that moment.
“Did you go to Abu Simbel?”
“Yes, but Ihab—”
“Good. Go on the tour to the Nubian Village tomorrow. Call me at the same time.” The phone went dead.
Obviously, Ihab couldn’t talk. And he took my call. But what happened?
The phone call lasted about sixty seconds. Stunned, I hung onto the ancient black rotary phone handle until another man waiting for the booth rapped sharply on the door and motioned for me to get out. As I exited the booth, I saw the lines curled around the building. I pushed my way through the crowd, afraid to be swallowed up in the masses. All round me, men surged forward as their numbers came up on the PA system. I didn’t see a single woman by herself.
The next morning, I took a faluka ride on the Nile River around Aswan, not far from a Nubian village. Ihab had arranged for the tour guide to pick me up at the hotel. The young Nubian guide seemed extremely accommodating when speaking to Ihab. Again, I was on a one-man tour. Or should I say one-woman tour? Because I felt very self-conscious at the hands of this driver. Now that he was taking me around, he seemed to have adopted quite a flirtatious manner.
I kept my distance and to be safe, mentioned Ihab’s name often. The guide’s eyes lingered on me just enough to make me uncomfortable. I blew a stray hair off my forehead as the sun shone high in the blue sky and beat relentlessly down on us. I enjoyed a sudden small breeze when it came. This seemed to cause the guide to become more familiar with me. He reached into the dirty river and filled up a Baraka bottle and handed it to me. “You know what said about Nile River, ‘If you drink from it once, you will enjoy. If you drink again, you will come to Egypt again and again.’ Do you ever tasted this special Nile water?”
“Yes, I’ve had it before.” Ihab had teased me about that on other faluka rides along the Nile in Cairo. It had been romantic and of course, I’d taken large, satisfying gulps showing Ihab my desire to return to Egypt–and to him.
Would I find myself in Egypt ever again? Why had Ihab seemed so mysterious and curt back in Cairo?
We stayed in the same spot on the river for some time. I looked at my watch. “How long does this tour last?”
“We have now problem with faluka. We needs go my village and fix.”
“What! What problem?”
“Big sail problem. No fix here. We go my village now.”
“Into the village?”
My young, now very nubile Nubian guide lifted a hand to help me off the faluka. Before I could stop him, he stole a kiss right on my lips. I stepped back and glared. “Stop that! I don’t even know you.” I made a show of wiping off the kiss to regain some respect. The guide only grinned and placed me on a camel to ride into his village. The sand felt gritty and the sun too hot as he slowly guided the camel away from the Nile basin.
Ihab would have had a fit if he knew the liberties this cheeky guide took with me. And what was going on with theboat supposedly breaking down and having to come back to the Nubian Village to repair it? It was Friday, part of the weekend. What business could repair it? This was not typical at all. I was certain this was a trumped up accident that had to do with me being alone on this tour…but why?
The one man who knew Egyptian culture best had disappeared back to Cairo. If he had been here, it would have been just one more delightful misadventure. No use wondering. Ihab couldn’t help me from so far away.
Maybe he couldn’t even help himself…