The Great Pyramids of Giza are less than a quarter of a mile from the Mena House. It’s only a short walk and already we are in the towering shadow of Khufu, known as the greatest of the three Egyptian pyramids in Cairo. Nearby, milling about are camels and donkeys, dotting the landscape with tufts of grey and brown. The odors are strong, but comforting and bring a faint smile across my face as I’m reminded of my dad’s old musty barn back home. In the distance, sleepy Arabs wrapped up cocoon-like in brightly colored cotton robes, unravel and come alive. Tradesmen begin to meticulously unfold their blankets and lay them out against the desert sand. They remind me of ancient display cases as they carefully position their trinkets and souvenirs out for bargain hunters dressed as prospective tourists.
Just beyond the edge of the vast emptiness of the dunes, the sun creeps along the horizon. Soon it will be scorching and too hot to climb, so like desert mice we scurry along. Almost there, we cautiously approach, vigilantly looking, craning our necks to the right, then to the left; like naughty children looking for their mother before stealing from the forbidden cookie jar. Ah, the luck of the gods is with us, there are no guards this morning. Unexpectedly, Jerry shouts “Let’s go!”
But like trained hunting falcons spotting prey from a secretive perch, two armed guards suddenly come rushing towards us yelling in Arabic with arms flailing. They’re coarse and powerful looking. Their military uniforms are gritty, their faces unshaven. Supplying their courage are machine guns strapped across their chests. Unsure of their intentions, I play possum and freeze. I know that as a woman in the Middle East I must avert my eyes and say nothing. For this moment, I must be nothing. The guards are speaking too fast; I can’t make out what is being said. They are speaking to Jerry and Ray; it’s as though I do not exist. Ray takes the lead, his Arabic is eloquent, his command of the language, flawless. But I don’t think it’s helping. The guards are becoming irritated and are now making aggressive gestures. I keep my eyes cast downward; I can see their boots caked with sand and that their machine guns are now raised towards us.
With my head bowed I suddenly feel very conspicuous about wearing shorts and that my legs and arms are exposed. My mind is reeling. I should have worn pants and long sleeves, it’s just as Khalil said, I don’t think things through clearly. I am being disrespectful. My stomach feels sick; my legs are weak as willows.Why did I decide to do this? What am I doing here with these two strangers? Proverbially, my life flashes in front of me, my mind yells out, “Khalil, where are you? I need you here to keep me safe.” Now one of the guards is shouting at Ray. I can see the guns. They’re grimy and rusty, but never the less deadly. Am I going to die, is it possible? I feel frozen in time. I shouldn’t be here. What was I thinking?
Suddenly, my mind flashes back to a safer and quieter time only a few hours ago, before the sun dared to meet the horizon.
As the elevator doors open, I glance at my watch. It’s just a wee bit after 5:00. I have plenty of time, I think to myself. I step out and find the hotel lobby quiet in the early morning light, nothing like the chaotic bustle that enlivened it last night when we checked in. Right now the hotel feels as if a magic spell of sleep were cast upon it. The foyer is dim, but perfectly lit with spotlights meticulously positioned to provide back lighting for the luxurious interior making it an enchanted, palatial hotel. For a moment I just stand there soaking up the history, the romance. In one corner of the lobby, an old Arab with a long trailing white beard, sits smoking a sheesha—you know, a hubbly bubbly. Hanging on the walls are thickly piled Persian and Egyptian carpets. The furniture is exquisitely handcrafted, remnants of an era when this hotel served as hunting lodge for kings and emperors, as they crossed through North Africa. To think for the next few days, I will be a part of the history at the Mena House with its beauty only shadowed by its neighbor to the west, the Great Egyptian Pyramids and the ancient mystery of the Sphinx.
Before walking off, I stand a minute longer and think about this past year since I first moved to the Middle East. I wonder what Egyptian goddess has cast a spell on my life? Me, Evelyn Mace Brandt, from small town USA, working as the American Tour Liaison for Alia, the Royal Jordanian Airlines. My home now in Amman, Jordan. I feel like a character in some romance novel I’ve read, where the heroine is an exotic tall blonde with stunning taste. Ok, well, leave out the exotic and the stunning part, but still my life in Amman is a dream come true. I smile to myself and walk off, but my mind continues to wander, wondering what fantastic adventure is next to cross my path.
I hear the elevator doors behind me open. I turn to see who else is up at this early hour. It’s Khalil. I quicken my pace and hope he doesn’t see me.
The coffee shop also looks quiet and sleepy. But chains of cigarette smoke circling above several tables give evidence of other early risers. I spot an empty booth and slide in. Just as quickly as I am seated, the waiter appears. “Good morning.” He greets me in crisp, perfect English.
I respond in my best Arabic, “Sabah el Khair.”
Unimpressed, again in English he replies, “Would you like coffee?”
“Aywa, Americania ahwa, minfadlak.” Like a child reciting the alphabet song to a parent, I smile; waiting for a response; but the waiter remains expressionless, then turns away with my order.
As he walks off, I see Khalil enter the café and approach the waiter. Although inaudible, I hear them as they briefly speak in Arabic. Khalil then comes over to the table and without a word, flips his hand in a waving motion, wanting me to move over to make room for him. Ohh, it makes me so mad when he imposes himself on others without asking, acting as if he is some dominant rooster clucking about what he thinks is his hen house. He sees my scowl. Quickly he pulls out his cigarettes to offer me one. “Care for a fag?” he asks.
“Khalil, you know I despise that word, but anyway, what are you doing up so early, are you going back to Amman already?”
“Righto,” he answers. “My meeting was last night, so I am booked on the first flight back.”
As is customary throughout the Middle East, I accept his cigarette; he lights mine first, then his own. Smoking is a very important aspect of Middle Eastern life and a “good brand” of cigarettes is a sign of status.
Khalil only smokes Dunhill, a very select brand of English tobacco and difficult to find in the Middle East. For an Arab, Khalil is considered tall. He has a quick wit and the good looks of a secret agent. He was educated in London. His accent is brisk, like a frosty October morning. Regrettably, however, he wears arrogance like a family crest; so I suppose I’m not really surprised as he blurts out, “Don’t tell me that you are going to follow through with that daft climbing plan you told me about. I mean you’re not really going to wander about Cairo with those two American chaps that you only just met yesterday on the flight are you?”
“Yes, Khalil. You can plainly see that my backpack is packed and I am ready to go. I am just waiting for them to come down now.” My smile is smug.
“Really, you Americans with your cowboy mentality, never calculating the risks and always thinking that you own the world. Well, you don’t. Have you even stopped to think what an Arab would think about your plan? Do you even ever stop to think?” Without taking a breath, he continues to lecture me, going on about what an irresponsible “wanderer” I am and how disrespectful I am being. Almost exasperated, at last he says, “Really, Macey, I implore you to rethink this rubbish before you become a tragic news item.”
By now I’m a kettle about to boil over, but I have already decided that his arrogance will not dampen my spirits or change my plans. I will be climbing the Great Egyptian Pyramids and today will be the day. With a smirk I say, “Khalil, your concern for my welfare is very endearing, but my mind is made up and you know how determined Americans can be.”
“Macey, look at you, you are acting like a common tourist, which is so below you. It hurts me to see you this way.”
“Well, it isn’t my intention to hurt you. But Khalil, today I want to be a tourist. I have daydreamed about this destination for months now and nothing you say will change my mind.”
Khalil interrupts, “Macey, you must stop and think. There are armed guards posted at the base of the Pyramids. They won’t let you pass, you know that.”
Being stubborn, I innocently reply, “I know no such thing.”
In his last good-natured effort of true concern, he says, “It’s settled then; I will change my schedule and cancel my flight back. Cairo will mean much more to you if you explore it with someone you know and not those vagabonds.” He continues, “ I will hire a professional guide. We will shop until we drop, as you say. Anyway, you will be happier.”
In my stubbornness, with a sneer I reply, “No, Khalil, you are confused, you will be happier that way, not me.”
My rebuke does not even seem to faze him. He adjusts his seat and sips his coffee. I had not even realized that the coffee had been placed on our table. I take a drink. It’s hot and strong. The aroma fills my head with calm. With a deep breath, I wiggle back in the booth just a little and quietly think about what he’s just said. Yes, I do look like a tourist, but why not? I’m dressed as any American would be, in tennis shoes and shorts with my fanny pack strapped to my waist. Next to me, my backpack and camera patiently sit on the table, ready for action. “There is a plan you know.” I say in a small whinny voice.
He cuts me off, “Macey you have never made a plan or been prepared for anything since you first came to the Middle East, or before that. You are selfish and have only ever thought about …” He stops short. He sees the hurt in my eyes, and he knows that he has now said too much, gone too far… as he has many times before.
“And what about Raina?” I ask without sounding defeated.
Just then, Jerry and Ray walk up. “Hey, good morning, you guys!” says Jerry in his chipper American tone. “We came down for coffee and to grab a quick bite before setting off. Can we join you?”
Khalil quickly reaches in his pocket, then stretches out his open hand. I immediately recognize the small waxy envelope about the size of a postage stamp. “Here, take this,” he says, as he reaches across the table.
“Oh, are we interrupting something?” asks Jerry.
“No of course not,” I say, “Slide in. There’s plenty of room. Khalil, you remember meeting John and Ray.”
Khalil looks up and glares briefly like a child having to share a favorite toy, but then nods appropriately.
“You guys remember meeting Khalil yesterday on the plane?”
Jerry, obviously the one more sure of himself, says, “Oh, sure, good to see you again. You know Khalil, you also are invited to sightsee with us today if you want.”
Khalil manages half a smile and says, “Thanks, but I am off. Back to Amman this morning already. Nose to the grind stone, as you Yanks say.”
Neither Jerry nor Ray makes a remark. The waiter arrives to take their order.
Khalil continues, but in the background ever so faintly through the thick stone walls of the hotel is the call to morning prayer. Five times each day Muslims are called to prayer. It’s a beautiful ritual, but life at our little table is not altered.
“So, I understand the three of you are planning to climb the Great Pyramid of Khufu, is that really still on?” Before anyone could respond, Khalil interjects, “You know that climbing has been forbidden now for several years, and the base is guarded with armed soldiers. You could be shot.”
Already Jerry sees that to argue with Khalil would be pointless. He simply says, “Yes, I see that’s the case, but we will give it the ol’ American one-two try, you know?”
The sound of morning prayer ends. Khalil lights another cigarette, the waiter brings breakfast and refills our coffees.The aroma is soothing and calms the table. Jerry and Ray eat in silence, Khalil looks away and I avoid everyone by pretending to be preoccupied with adjustments to my camera.
“One last sip of coffee, Macey, and then we better get going. We want to start our climb before this August sun is up too high. Last chance, old man,” mimics Jerry, as he signals to Khalil.
Khalil gets up to leave but first takes a roll of Egyptian dinars out of his pocket. He counts, then very deliberately lays them on the table and turns to leave, then turns again toward the table. “Breakfast is on me,” his tone is crisply demeaning. He then looks intently at me and says, “Macey, I implore you. Please be careful.” He strides out before anyone can comment.
I shrug my shoulders, “Oh, don’t worry you guys. That’s just his way. Let’s get out of here!“ I pick up my backpack and camera and start to walk out. The boys are on my heels.
Out in the lobby there is now a feeling of morning busyness. Businessmen are checking in and out at the front desk. Some are dressed in business suits and some in the relaxed traditional Arab galabiyya. The travel desk is occupied now with an attendant who’s talking on the phone while thumbing through brochures. The bellman stands at the front podium, checking in luggage and looking very official. The old Arab that was smoking before, now walks about serving Turkish coffee to a few guests; the smell is sweet and the aroma fills the room like incense. Although the music is barely audible, it’s distinctly Arabic. Conspicuously missing from this scene are any women. Sometimes it’s kind of eerie being the only woman, but certainly not unusual.
As we walk out the front door, the early morning heat hits us immediately. It’s like looking into a kiln, it’s so intense. Just then a man rushes up, “Taxi, taxi?” In broken English he says, “I go where you go.”
But, it’s only a short walk and Jerry brushes by. Ray and I quietly trail behind. The quiet, however, only lasts a few minutes. Now we are out of the safety of the hotel portico. I see the Great Pyramids looming ahead; they are magnificent on the horizon.Their power and history is inescapable. I think how our achievements as a civilization are dwarfed by these magnificent structures. Knowing that they were built some 2500 years ago by slaves under the rule of Egyptian pharaohs who desired these monuments as their eternal resting place, it is an incredible feat of manpower and a miracle of engineering.
The sun creeps up along the edge of the desert sands, like a thief peering over the horizon. “So, Jerry we’re going to climb Khufu?” I knew that we were, but like a child at Christmas wanting to hear how Santa will come, I just wanted to hear the entire plan one more time.
“Yes,” repeats Jerry, “the stones along the edge are perfect for climbing, at least that’s what they tell me.” He shrugs his shoulders and slowly keeps his pace.
That takes me aback. Incredulously I ask, “You mean you’ve never climbed the Pyramids before?” I turn to Ray. “Have you?”
Simultaneously, they answer, “No.”
Both guards now begin to shout at Ray, then turn to shout at Jerry and me. It’s a frightful scene. My mind says, leave, just leave and leave now! Can’t we simply leave? Just then Ray takes a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. Quickly he offers a cigarette to each of the guards—the brand is Marlboros. The shouting stops. Marabolos are the most prestigious of all cigarettes; they are American cigarettes. Of course, as custom dictates, they both accept. Ray lights their cigarettes first and then one for himself. Calm now presides. As Ray continues to talk, he crouches down while lowering his backpack very cautiously to the ground with him. He unzips the bag and very slowly takes out two cartons of Marlboros. He then, just as deliberately, hands them up to each of the guards.Like guilty children, the two guards quickly look from side to side and then grab them. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, a third guard materializes. He appears agitated and is talking in a raised voice to his comrades. The three of them exchange words, then the third guard signals that he also would like cigarettes. Ray, still crouched, takes out another carton and hands it off. This last guard then snatches up the backpack and looks to see what other baksheesh is within, but the pilferage is complete. He then throws down the backpack, grumbles, moves to turn and just as suddenly as he appeared, he evaporates into the vast dunes. The first two guards look at each other, mumble in Arabic, then silently turn away, as to also disappear into the desert.
We are now alone again. Silence is everywhere, save the low roar of the wind blowing across the sands. Finally, I take a breath.
Jerry exclaims, “The journey begins. Let’s climb!” “It is exactly along this side that we will climb,” says Jerry. “I’ll go first Macey. You stay in the middle, and Ray you bring up the rear.”
It is in this single file that we climb as we move along the edge to the top. It’s steep and cumbersome; some of the stones are too tall for my legs to lift up to. When that’s the case, Jerry bends down with his hand for a lift up and Ray gives me a push from the back-it works out beautifully. Before the morning heat takes us over, our ultimate challenge is complete: we have successfully climbed to the top of Khufu, as few Americans ever have, or ever will. As if in flight, we now hover 450 feet up with only the blue sky, like an envelope that keeps us secure from falling. East of us is the Nile twisting its way North to the Mediterranean and to the West is the vastness of the Sahara. It is simply euphoric.
On the plateau below it was dry and dusty, the heat exhausting. But here is different, somehow being lifted into the clouds was exhilarating and I feel regenerated. I go to the edge to peer over, then just to sit down, sort of let my legs dangle off. It’s an incredible sensation that grabs at the pit of my stomach. I then feel the stamp-size envelope in my back pocket. I forgot that I put it there at breakfast. I take it out and open it. It’s a gold charm with an Arabic inscription. I turn to Ray, “Hey, can you read Arabic?” I reach up to hand him the charm.
“Yes, what do you have there, a locket? Oh, a charm. Let’s see, well it’s a prayer from the Koran.” H-m-m, he muses for a minute. “It’s so small it’s difficult to read, but I can make out, it is for the, h-m-m, how do you say, the nomad, no, the wanderer. Yes, it is a prayer requesting Allah to keep the wanderer safe until returning home to the those who wait.”
I take the charm and think of Khalil. I wonder, was it his prayer that has kept me safe, or the Marlboros? I take deep breath, light a cigarette and close my eyes dreaming about another destination.