At Luxor’s airport, Patty panics about corrupt taxi drivers until she sees a man holding a Thomas Cook sign with her name. Tufts of black chest hair poke out from his thin dress shirt. The right amount: manly but not apelike. She greets him with a simple “sabah” instead of the full hissing/gargling of “sabah el-kheir,” a sound that must be similar to a snake choking on a sock. He shakes her hand like a Westerner instead of kissing her cheek like an Egyptian. “I am Hossam. Nice to meet you, Batty.” Just like the seminarians, unable to say Ps. He leads her to his white Peugeot in his flat leather sandals, the type that don’t give support or protection. Patty heads for the back of Hossam’s car, but he says, “Sit up front. Keep me company.” She doesn’t have to keep playing the part of consecrated virgin, as the seminarians called her. During her two months of teaching English at the Coptic Catholic seminary, she kept her divorce and former married status tucked away. But she is in Luxor now, on vacation after all, eager to play the part of tourist, and a tourist wouldn’t know better. Patty moves to unroll her window, but no knob. The heat begins in her head and then flows over her chest. She dabs the sweat off with a bandana. Forty-five and already suffering from menopause. The end of her marriage and reproductive life happened the same summer. Patty eyes the air-conditioning switch and then, miraculously, Hossam turns it on. Her first car in Egypt with working airconditioning and a driver willing to use it; the rest swear it makes them sick. Hossam says, “You are a good woman, I can tell.” She asks how. He says, “Your clothes are respectful.” “You can hardly tell that from clothes.” Patty’s tank top clings to her stomach, hidden beneath her long-sleeved cotton top, part of her conservative clothing arsenal. He raises an eyebrow. “You are not good?” “Oh, I’m good.” And she laughs at how ludicrous she sounds. Her sexual experience is limited to one man before her marriage, an unfortunate effect of her Catholic upbringing and inability to have sex without attachment. Those two men in her past work out to one man every thirteen adult years. Hossam glances at the ring on her left hand. “You have husband?” Patty explains that she wears it to keep men from bothering her. Sexual harassment has no age restrictions in Egypt, and the attention both thrills and disgusts her. Her real wedding ring is tucked in her underwear drawer at her house in San Diego. When she returns, her ex-husband will still be living in a downtown loft with the Brazilian, who is about to pop out his spawn. He probably married her by now, but Patty stopped reading his emails weeks ago. “You are very pretty not to be married.” Patty scans Hossam’s wrist, no cross tattoo. She asks, “Are you Muslim?” “We all believe in Abraham’s God.” At least his religion accepts divorce. She admits, “My husband left me.” She feels lighter sharing that information. The seminarians and priests would have asked too many questions that require complex answers, not simple parsed-out English. Hossam asks, “Any children?” Patty shakes her head and rests a hand against her flat stomach. “You don’t want children?” “Of course I do, but my husband didn’t.” “Husband bad man. Against will of God to deny children.
Purpose of marriage is children.” Hossam gives her a grazing look, unusual for an Egyptian man introduced to a woman. Patty likes it. He says, “You must have married young. My mother married when she was fifteen.” “Something like that.” Patty believed that within her first year of marriage she would have a child like her mother did. Patty wanted three, a good number. She keeps mum about the new phase in her life. She hasn’t told her mother and sisters yet, unwilling to feel like a failure now that the fires of menopause have scorched her eggs and left behind a barren desert. Patty should have at least had a daughter, some companionship insurance. She could have been in college by now. An art major, or some sort of degree that would cause Patty to worry that her daughter wouldn’t be able to find a job, but would help with traveling. She would know different dynasties, art periods, and symbolism. She might even fall in love with a handsome young Egyptian man and become fluent in Arabic. To steer the conversation away from her, Patty asks, “Do you have children?” “A boy. Fever kill him. Then wife leave.” “Asif,” Patty trips over her answer and adds, “asif gedan.” But Egyptians don’t say “sorry” when hearing bad news. They say something about God and praying, like most Egyptian sayings, whether the person is Christian or Muslim. Patty learned a curse that translates to “may God destroy your house.” Hossam says, “Insha ’Allah will give me pretty, good wife again.” “I’m sure He will.” Along the road is a Mubarak billboard, the thirteenth one that Patty has seen. Outdated pictures of him in a wide-lapel suit and sideburns are planted all over Egypt. Patty has a set of photographs of herself standing beneath Mubarak billboards, but after a month the novelty turned into an annoyance. She resents the all-seeing, judging Mubarak clinging to his youthful image and power. Twenty-seven years under emergency rule should be enough for anyone. Hossam asks, “You like Luxor?” “It’s beautiful.” Cruise ships with names like Nile Goddess and Alexander the Great crowd the river’s banks. Westerners and Egyptians walk along the Nile’s elegant corniche.
For this one week, Patty wants to shed her layers and join the other Western women in their sundresses and shorts. After this trip, Patty will visit her favorite seminarian and his family in his village, where she will redon her conservative clothes and careful behavior, and sleep on another rock-hard mattress and rectangular pillow in another hot room while his family squashes together to make room for her. Hossam pulls up to the Iberotel. Patty suffered biting ants, beans for breakfast, and no air-conditioning at the seminary. But the Iberotel’s brochure promises a pool that floats on a barge in the Nile, omelet station, soft pillows, and “il-hamdu lillah,” air-conditioning. Patty visualizes lounging next to the pool, unfortunately in her conservative, skirted swimming suit, the one she wore to the Red Sea with the seminarians, but better than the alternative of the burqini or wading in full-veiled clothing. Also in Patty’s suitcase is a red sundress that she brought, just in case. Cramped shops selling hieroglyphic rulers and evil-eye necklaces flank the hotel’s skinny marble entrance. The bellboy, an older man with a hunched back, takes her suitcase from the trunk. Patty pulls out her wallet to tip him when a man in a Bob Marley T-shirt asks, “Want a felucca ride?” Another man with a silvery beard suggests a ride in his buggy and then points to his horse, “He is strong and good.” A woman wearing mesmerizing green eye shadow descends on Patty and says, “Madame should come for sugaring. It’s better than waxing, less painful. Makes skin nice and smooth, good for touching.” She rubs her forearm as evidence. The hawkers pin Patty next to the Peugeot. She clutches her wallet to her chest. Arabic explodes around her. Hossam starts yelling, probably bringing shame into it—the magic word to use against all Egyptian men. The people start to disband and Hossam apologizes for their impolite behavior. A man in a gray galabaiya, a traditional robe that looks like a bland muumuu, walks by and leers, “Want an Egyptian husband?” “Fil mish mish,” Patty replies. She doesn’t understand how “fil mish mish” translates to “in your dreams” when mish mish is an apricot.
Hossam claps his hands and grins. “Ah, you Egyptian woman. Fil
mish mish. Very good.”
His lips might taste like the salty Mediterranean Sea. Patty imagines
him as someone ancient, one of St. Mark’s descendants before
St. Augustine infected the Church with his views on sex, before the
Catholic Church even existed, a time when most Egyptians were
Christians in defiance of Rome. But Hossam is Muslim, part of another
culture, another conquest. It must be impossible to have a singular
identity when your country has been repeatedly conquered.
The abrasive desert where Persian armies disappeared in sandstorms
kept Egyptians huddled to the one water source that flows south to
north, bringing people to Egypt, but rarely out of it. Even Cleopatra
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