In the late afternoon we gather in one of the hotel’s lounges for a session, the last we shall have in Egypt. Tomorrow morning the community will part, like the fronds in fireworks, each soaring through a different place in the sky. Some of the group will journey on to countries in Europe; others, will return home to their own countries. Our own group who gathered at Garrison will return there for a final session.
Jean has invited a Muslim woman, Aisha Rafel, a renowned scholar of modern-day Egypt, to speak to us. We have seen few women in our travels throughout Egypt, other than the young girls, wearing the hijab, offering smiling service in the perfume, papyrus and clothing shops. On that dark night when we travelled by horse and buggy through the streets of Luxor to the Temple, we saw clusters of men out walking, conversing, sitting in groups outside houses, but we only glimpsed a few women, swathed in layers of black, in the doorways of their homes.
An intelligent, peaceful presence, dressed with the self-confident ease of a twenty-first century professional, Aisha incarnates what she tells us of the Egyptian woman. I wonder at her words, for she speaks of holding within her memory an ancient culture where a woman might rule as Pharaoh. (I think of the tomb in the Valley of Kings, where we experienced the resonant trembling as we sang, where I felt the presence of the feminine holy. It was dedicated to Queen Tausret, a woman who ruled as pharaoh in the nineteenth dynasty. I think of Hatshepsut, of Cleopatra . . .)
Yet the Egyptian woman, Aisha tells us, also holds the reality of the Ottoman culture that followed, an Arab culture that had a very different concept of woman. In her calm wise presence, in her words, I see no trace of rebellion, of anger, of resentment.
This is a woman who knows who she is, and where her strength resides.
Briefly, she speaks of her work, her writing, which is focussed on seeking interfaith understanding among the Muslims and Coptic Christians of Egypt. Aisha’s goal is a unity where all are seen as one, and a diversity that respects difference. “This is all we write about,” she says.
After Aisha leaves, Jean offers some concluding thoughts on our own journey into the still-breathing spirit of a culture that stretches back more than five thousand years. “Here you have come home to durative Egypt,” Jean tells us, “an archetypal reality, a quality of mind and presence that continues in the midst of punctual time.” This is an enduring reality that contributes to a rising spirituality. Everybody borrowed from ancient Egypt, “the source-place of spirituality, sensitivity, sensibility.”
“Did things happen for you here?” Jean asks us. “The human essence is being remembered through personal dramatization of the human psyche, a sense of picking up memory . . . I was here before. Take home the sense of the mystery that you received here, that really is implicit in you: things are as they seem and they are not. There is within you a coded reality. Egypt will never desert you.”
Our last day in Egypt is swallowed by night. Like exotic flowers that bloom only in darkness, we gather in the lobby of the Mena House, a flaring forth of colour, the women in shawls, flowered dresses, or long skirts, the men in loose brightly patterned tunics over trousers. Mohamed refuses to tell us where we are going for dinner, promising a surprise.
In the restaurant, somewhere in downtown Cairo, we find places at long tables that extend in vertical lines outwards from a large stage. The food is Egyptian, served on platters, plentiful and delicious. Eggplant slices to dip in hummus, warm soft flatbreads, roasted lamb and chicken, bowls of rice. We eat hungrily, wanting to take inside of us as much of Egypt as we can . . .
After we are sated with food, the performance begins. A man comes onto the stage dressed all in white, loose trousers, flowing tunic top. His dark luminous eyes, copper skin, raven wings of hair remind me of someone, of something . . . I realize he looks like a gypsy. Suddenly I understand the source of the generic name. He looks at us, his eyes full of joy. He begins a dance, accompanied by a singer, and four other men who play flutes, drums, other ancient sounding instruments. Slowly the dancer moves, circles, twirls . . . his eyes closed, his concentration rapt. He is dancing into ecstasy.
We are watching a Sufi dancer, a whirling dervish. It is spell-binding. We lose track of time, drawn into the majesty, into the beauty, into the other-place of the dance. Several young boys come onstage, wearing rainbow-hued tunics over their white robes. They enter into the dance and as the music swells, their colourful over-skirts twirl, lift up and over, becoming flying tents.
Watching, I am again in the King’s Chamber, and the feelings of that time arise within me, return in full force. The utter emptiness I felt, the sense of not being wanted, of being overlooked.
These emotions take over, filling my inner space.
Suddenly I recall a session in Mystery School at Garrison. Peg was speaking to us about Michael Singer’s book The Untethered Soul, about how there is within us a truer deeper self that is untouched by the pain of passing emotion. I try to recall the teaching, try to summon that untethered soul within me. As the overskirts twirl, lift, fly, my own soul uncertain, shy, eager, follows.
As the colourful tents are released into the air, some part of me is set free, an “I” who looks down upon that brooding presence in the King’s Chamber, knows that she is part of me, but not the deepest part of my soul. Slowly, slowly the pain clears. Slowly the happiness sidles in, and with it the hope that my prayers have been heard, my prayers that the Crocodile god Sobek would devour the darkness in me that prevents my loving freely, my prayers for the healing of the wounds of love that have been with me all my life. My senses, thoughts, feelings lift with
the music, the colour, the dance, transforming themselves into peace and recovered joy.
(from Called to Egypt on the Back of the Wind by Anne Kathleen McLaughlin Borealis Press Ottawa, Canada 2013) to order online go to: http://borealispress.com