Azza and I are very tired today. Last night, around 10 p.m., we returned from a week-long road trip across a good portion of Egypt. We made this journey—a bumpy and sandy one—in a tough-as-nails Jeep Grand Cherokee owned and driven by Magdy, my wife’s oldest brother. Accompanying us was Basma, Magdy’s wife, Zeineb, Azza’s mother, and “Mehdu”—short for Mohamed—Zeineb’s youngest grandson.
The purpose of the trip was twofold: have a Spring Break adventure and visit a number of Azza’s uncles, aunts, and cousins, a sweet bunch of country folk who reside in an area of southwestern Egypt known as the Dahkla Oasis. To get a sense of where we went, find El Kharga on the map (see below) and then go west from there until you come to a place called El Qasr. That’s about where we ended up. The village we actually stayed in is not depicted. It’s called Ain El Oda.
If you’re into distances and that sort of thing, that’s a thousand miles, round-trip, across potholed highways that occasionally disappeared due to the creeping encroachment of mountain-sized sand dunes. In fact, portions of our sojourn could realistically be described as “off road.”
I envision this blog being the first in a series about the trip. What I did in Ain El Oda, and its environs, and the people I met there. My impressions. That sort of thing.
I’d like to do this first one on a woman named Khadra, one of Azza’s great-aunts.
I first met Khadra on her bed in the room where she slept, a dark space, made of Egypt’s version of adobe, with a dirt floor underneath our feet. The ceiling consisted of raw timber rafters and more mud. The bed was pushed up against one of the walls and the door was standing wide open, allowing flies to freely enter and exit. Semiha, one of Khadra’s daughters, was visiting her mother when we arrived. Of course, we all greeted one another in typical Egyptian fashion—a kiss applied to one side of the face and then the other, alternating like that until three or four smooches had found their mark.
There were no chairs so we simply sat on the bed itself. Khadra was wearing mourning black—Azza later explained that she’d dressed herself in this color nine years earlier, at the loss of a close member of the family, and just about the time she was ready to return to her regular attire, one of her sons died. Those traumas had been enough to cause her to grieve in perpetuity. Before the end of that initial visit, I asked Azza to ask Khadra how old she was. Khadra thought for a moment and then shrugged her shoulders. She wasn’t for sure. Eighty something, she guessed.
I immediately felt a strong kinship with Khadra. She talked about her physical ailments but never seemed to dwell on them. She had this marvelous way of suddenly turning toward me and looking me straight in the eyes before sending countrified Arabic my way. Of course, I wasn’t able to understand most of what she said, but Azza kept translating. Her utterances often had something to do with how happy she was to meet me and how glad she was Azza and I had gotten married.
In the evenings we made sure to return to Khadra’s place for a bit of socializing. After dark she’d leave her bed and go to the “sitting room,” a space that included a small television which she completely ignored. Instead, she would busy herself by talking with the ten or so visitors who’d come to say hello.
At one point, I told Azza to tell her great-aunt that she reminded me of my maternal grandmother, a woman I’m sure I’ll eventually blog about. As soon as she heard that, Khadra smiled and her face lit up. I’d given her such a compliment that she insisted I allow her to give me a kiss. Of course, I immediately obliged. Luckily, Azza had her camera at the ready and was thus able to digitally capture the moment.