Covered in sun screen and wearing a blue and khaki hat for shade as Luxor’s antiquities stood before us in the 100 degree desert sun, I was ready. As a person whose education was sketchy, this was such a thrilling opportunity. Nothing could be better than learning about the world in a hands-on way with Ayman, a professional Egyptologist from Sahra Saeeda’s Journey Through Egypt level 4 tour. As Ayman was sharing Luxor Temple, Karnak Temple, and the Abu Haggag Mosque with us which was built smack on top of a pharonic temple, I was amazed by the over 3000 years of fascinating history. I, along with a group of awesome women, was having a wonderful day as it was and then something happened that had not happened before on this tour.
As Ayman was pointing behind us to a door header we’d just come through explaining some of the hieroglyphic significance, the sound of people making music caught our attention. On our right in a shaded area, a woman sat playing a hand drum. A group of women and children were seated around her singing. All of this seemed to be happening under the guidance of an older woman who was standing up and clapping. Our group’s intention was certainly to pass respectfully but I think the older woman playing the drum may have caused us to hesitate. The drum is the woman’s instrument in Egypt unlike in America where it’s mostly men who play drum. It’s simply awesome to see a woman playing. We were probably also drawn by the kids. We undoubtedly smiled as we tried to keep walking but we indicated that the music was making us feel happy. Kanina even recalls softly flicking her fingers in the air.
The next thing I can remember is that my feet were straying off of our walkway and taking me toward this group. I did not want to dishonor Ayman’s itinerary yet as I/we were showing warmth and curiosity this group seemed to delight in our interest. The women were on their feet and gesturing and inviting us to join them. It was a tentative first few steps and smiles and then, in a flash, a party was rolling.
All of a sudden the drummer began giving it her all and seemed to be inciting a happy riot from everyone else. Every child and woman was on their feet. Faces closed in on all sides of me. I was trapped by smiling, clapping, drumming, and singing. I tried to join in the call and response vocals as best I could. One woman seemed to recognize my sincere attempts to sing the response correctly. She kept saying “I love you” in English to me as I tried to sing along. One woman who had exactly one tooth placed her face about 10 inches from mine and let out a smiling zaghareet with her tongue moving from side to side. It was an awesome shock and my face was bursting from smiling. My hat fell off at one point and the woman who kept saying she loved me put it on her head.
At that point, as my hat made it’s way to another head, this amazing connection happening between women’s groups was too much to take. I felt the need to capture the moment but I was not going to pull out my phone for fear of trivializing and falling out of the moment. I pushed the need aside but then I noticed the cameras of our hostesses were coming out. Their group was photographing our group. When we then pulled our phones out the party seemed to go totally off the hook. We all clearly wanted the world to know that we were two groups of women who did not share a language yet we were dancing, clapping, and sharing songs. The culture we shared of love was bigger than the obstacles of language and we were all pretty darned proud of ourselves.
I have a few fantastic and meaningful photos. One of Erika, assistant to Sahra, shows her in full dance mode with another woman behind me. Both of their sets of hands were clutched high in the air as they were dancing eye to eye and smiling. I have video of the drumming woman giving a total show for the camera to my delight. What a gift she gave me/us.
At a certain point I was literally crying an ugly cry, while smiling, and singing words I did not know, and dancing, all at once. A few of the women whom I’d just met were laughing at me while wiping my tears while singing at me. It’s hard to describe such a moment but I will cherish it in my heart forever.
We did not want to extricate ourselves but we knew we had to move along. The last few selfie pics seemed to pave the way and signal that it was time for us to go. Everyone was waving and smiling at each other as we began to step back into Ayman’s tour. As we tried to focus on the Ramses statues, the hieroglyphics, and the facts at hand, we keep looking at each other and asking with our eyes, “What just happened”? – one asks this a lot in Egypt. It seemed that all the way down the stairs we were tapped for photos, loving gestures, and goodbye waves. The children and the people we’d connected with seemed to be with us everywhere. They are still in my heart until this moment.
As I tell this story, it’s important to state that being totally moved to tears by receiving love in Egypt is part of the wonder I experienced the first time I traveled to Egypt also. In Luxor, this time, though, people literally shouted out to us, “Welcome” and “I love you” as we walked the streets. Receiving this warmth is still is very emotional because, at it’s core, it defies the message of fear and shame we are often fed. If Americans are hated, deserving of hatred, to live in fear of retribution for our ills, I did not and do not feel this message from the Egyptians. On the contrary, people reach out to give love with their eyes, gestures, music, dance steps, and with words they know in English.
Receiving this love is moving but also moving is to realize one’s own outgoing efforts to give warmth and love in spite of the language barrier. It’s an incredible experience to feel one’s face working to create smiles and expressions to convey warmth, sparkle, approval, curiosity, kindness, comfort, and more. To see one’s own hands reach, open, flick, snap, clap, touch, and gesture in countless ways to express thoughts and feelings is such a gift. It’s a deep privilege to feel the brain strain to learn and find the key vocabulary words to speak or sing, or the dance steps to share. All of these, plus leaving a blue and khaki hat behind, can be part of the heart’s way of saying “We see you and we love you, too”, and “Please, don’t forget us either”.
(With gratitude to Sahra for her amazing Journey Through Egypt tour and staff.)