Once you hear the blast of gunfire, you will always recognize the way the blasts slice through the air. When you dream of a child running into your arms, you will always recall the moment when her small body melts into yours, her small arms curl around your neck, and your arms fall over her like a blanket, clinging to all the warmth inside. Once you photograph the Nile, you understand how it is that this great river never fails to flood its banks.

Hundreds of people scream and fall as the first shots slice into the air. She is lost from her parents and yelling and turning as people dive to the ground around her. I leave my camera bag on the dirt and run toward her, holding my arms out. She runs into them, and I charge forward, clinging to her, pushing both our bodies down behind a short block wall. All I can think is shelter her. Find shelter. On the other side of the wall, a tour bus stops in the distance. We tremble behind sandstone blocks. I cannot determine the directions of the shots. In Egypt, there is so much sky.

The first shots crack around the temple, then desert silence. Across the path, a woman selling hats freezes in gesture. It all happens so fast. It all happens so slow.

 

LUXOR, Egypt. November 17, 1997. Gunmen burst into the courtyard
of Hatshepsut's Temple this morning and battled police for more than
three hours. Egypt's government believes at least 70 people dead, ten
Egyptians. The Swiss Foreign Ministry reports 20 Swiss tourists missing.
Several British tourists are also missing. An American woman, said to
have been photographing the 3,400 year temple, is presumed dead.

 

Later it will occur to me that a good photographer would have never left her camera. I have never wanted to be a journalist. I have always wanted to be a mother. She says Arretez! into the air, toward the blasts. I loosen the girl's grip on my waist, but continue to hold her tight. Blasts come again and again and again and I can no longer see. Sand and dirt rise around us and her arretezs become whispers. She hears my fear.

She cries into my shirt and I know nothing to say that can calm her; no way to explain bullets and hostility. Sometimes our hearts might break down, but they just break open. She is four, maybe five, wearing a blue dress and Elmo sneakers. Her beautiful brown hair has fallen out of a ponytail. Her parents must be near. Even in this terror I envy them. This is how the doctor described me: My womb is a hostile environment.

Over the shots I hear a man's voice yell Mimi! Attention, Mimi! Then a woman's voice, crying, yells the same. Maman, she screams, and I hear her mother's cry. "I have your daughter in my arms" I yell. "We're safe," I say. For now, I think. I try to calm my mind enough to say this in French, to yell it out so her parents understand. We are laying on the ground, Mimi half under my chest, my arms around her. I can see nothing through clouds of smoke and sand. "Thank you," the woman yells in English. Bless you, she sobs. I do not run toward their voices, and they do not run to mine. We lie in the sand knowing we may not outrun death.

It seems amazing, the things that dart into your mind when death startles everything around you. On safari, travelers learn the gestation periods of animals. For the zebra it is twelve months, sixteen for the white rhino, three for the lion, three and a half for the leopard, fourteen for a giraffe. For the elephant it is nearly two years--twenty-two months to be exact. Six months for baboons. The nine months that I could not give to forming a life, I try to give to discovering Africa.

I want to learn the rules of the wild. I want to accept my limitations. Baboons have a highly developed social structure. Last night there was an old moon, a waning moon. I am a non-breeder. I am the tip of the branch on the tree of my ancestry. Travelers take well water to the Nile. How strange it is to be held in awe by a river, and forbidden to drink its water.

Before the blast, an English-speaking guide told his group "The name Hatshepsut means she whom..." And it sounded like he said, "a moon embraces..." But it must have been Ahmose embraces. Ahmose is the mother of Hatshepsut, and also ruled Egypt. But I like it the way I heard it--she whom a moon embraces. Native Americans believed the moon was a single woman living near the sun. The block we hide behind is like the stones that built this temple.

A piece of earth shatters nearby and we hold our heads down. "It's okay," I tell her. "We'll be fine," I lie. I remember a poem that calls the moon and asks it to pity the writer and drench her in loneliness. I assumed she was lonely without a man, but no. The poem meant lonely without child. When I was little I announced to my mother that I would run away to Egypt. "Egypt," she laughed. "Do you know what they do to girls in Egypt? In Egypt, girls are nothing." And en route to Africa, it hit me. As a young girl planning my future, I wanted to run away to the past. And what I can't think about, and what I can't stop thinking, is that I will die here in the past.

A mother must have some heroic qualities about herself, and she must release them at the right moment. There seems no way to prepare for this. A woman must find her own way; be strong, then act. Queen Hatshepsut had one child, a daughter. Her successor deleted their names from all documents and ceremonies. Hatshepsut spent most of her life trying to prove her rule God-given. She cross-dressed lavishly; she wore ceremonial beards. Shots sound from all directions, random places.

Pregnant mothers automatically stroke their bellies, practicing for when the baby is born, or trying to send energy, or trying to take away fear. "Welcome in Egypt," people call at the airport. Outside the airport you see bicycles everywhere, with little bells. Men eat dates and figs from brown paper bags. Temples are tombs. The little girl in my arms will not stop crying and I would never tell her to.

It's true that terror jumbles thoughts together. I am not ready to fall away and die. As a teenager, fighting with my mother, I would say "I will never do this to my daughter." To which my mother would laugh and say "You will never have a daughter. You are too selfish and lazy to be a mother." In front of this temple, I thought of the child I wanted to have, and not the men with whom I tried.

Textbooks make Egyptians white, but really they are the most beautiful shade of brown. My hunger to love is not always attractive. I was pregnant for two months, then three. Camels are fed dates. "It's okay," I keep telling Mimi. I don't know what else to say. The obvious; I'd do anything to keep you alive.

I think they must tire soon, of the shooting back and forth, but I have no experience to back this up. They must run out of bullets or something. Something. Mimi stops trembling but continues to cry, and I try to look at my watch--they have been shooting so long--but I don't want my arm to leave her body. I hold her and protect her and wish she was my own, even in this. "Je m'appelle Deena," I tell her. "As soon as it is safe, we will find your maman."

Enshahallah, I say. It is the first Arabic word I learned. God willing. Dust and heat and fear burn up my sides. "Let's think about pyramids," I whisper to her. "How grand they are." So close to death, and I know I could hold this child forever.

When this is over, I will call my best friend; tell her that I am alive. If the gunfire here has been reported, Leigh will have heard it from Richard, her fiancé, who works at CNN. She will have called my hotel room in Cairo. She will have called my mother, then our friends, and will have driven a semi-circle on Atlanta's I-285 to hold vigil in Richard's office, to get the news as it comes through. Leigh will know more of the event that I do, here in the danger of it. She will think that the world is too big and too small at the same time. She knows how my life works; that somehow, I will have been in the thick of it. She will assume the worst.

Leigh and I grew up with stories of mummy curses, and legends of discovering ruins. I let myself notice, only for a moment, the heat of the sun and the guns; the ground burning. In Africa, the sun drops itself like a weight. Mimi's heart beats strong; it pounds into my shoulder. "How grand they are, Mimi." She nods gently. "Yes," I say. The pyramids are wondrous, like the beats of her heart.

We do not rise from the ground until others do; until there are medics aboard the nearby tour bus. Until we hear her parents voices again. I stand slowly, with Mimi in my arms, and wipe the dirt from her face. Her face is streaked red and we both take deep, tiring breaths. I turn away from the tour bus, so that she won't see the blood stained on its side. A man and a woman run toward us. Mimi! Mimi! She jumps away and runs into her mother's arms. Mimi's mother lifts her and her arms curl around her mother's neck.

Their chests melt together. Mimi's father, tall and brown, pulls me into his arms, crying, saying over and over, merci. Merci, merci. Medics run past looking for the wounded. He tells me that maybe I have saved his daughter, and I want to tell him that maybe she has saved me. At the time I am too shook-up to know that I will always feel the way she held onto me. The sand will always be in our hair, the ringing always in our ears.

 
     
     

 

 

 "Luxor" © 2002 by Stacy Bierlein
 
     
 

 Original Graphic, "Raw," © 2002 by Emmanuela Copal de León
 

 

   
 

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