Egypt, a fantasy: Serbian American writer Vladimir Pištalo on his encounters on the Nile

Vladimir Pištalo, Tuesday 29 Jun 2021

Renowned writer and the winner of the NIN Award for novel of the year (2008) Vladimir Pištalo writes for Ahram Online about his special connection with Egypt

I often visit the Egyptian Pavilion at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The images of Ancient Egypt have been engraved in my mind since I was a child. Statues of the lion-headed Sekhmet put up against the wall. Sekhmet, the warrior goddess, led the pharaohs to battle and protected them in the afterlife. Her breath created the desert. Sekhmet resembles my grandmother, Olga Vuković. Do you know where the Sun rests? In the eyes of the lionesses. My grandmother had yellow, lion eyes, too. I called her Doda.

My grandfather, a test pilot, Aleksandar Vuković, lived in that same Egypt in the 1940s. He fought in the infantry at Al-Alamein. He didn’t understand English. He grew to love the Arabs. There is a picture with his cat-like eyes glowing above his galabia.

In fact, Egypt is full of beautiful mystical concepts and images. The scarab, or the dung beetle, came out through the nares of Osiris, buried in Abydos. The scarab’s two wings symbolise the night eye and the day eye. It is the only creature without “higher consciousness” that finds direction using the stars. It can pull up to 1000 times its own weight and is the strongest being in the world. As the face of the god Khepri, it pushes the sun disk across the sky.

I am contemplating the beautiful Nut, showered with stars. Arched over the world, she sheltered and protected it. Nut is the frontier between the powers of chaos and those of order. At night, she swallows the sun. In the morning, she gives birth to it.

Thomas Mann wrote that in Egypt, babies start babbling about death upon their birth. Egyptian wall paintings, however, exude a love of nature. They depict cows and dates, and many different fish, ducks, ibises, and frogs, and papyrus... Painted with affection, they all swarm in some sort of Nile paradise. Egyptians cherished everything that flourished under the all-seeing eye of Horus. They refused to part from the illuminated world. Therefore, we are not discussing a civilisation of death, but rather a civilisation of endless life.

Thirty dynasties within three empires. Furniture decorated with the mother-of-pearl. Gloves of henna. A small Coptic cross tattooed on the wrist. Al-Azhar University. Apple flavored shisha and coffee with cardamom. Dates in milk. Boris Karloff in The Mummy. Nilometers. Confrontations of the European tomb robbers in the nineteenth century. Egyptian abbots. Mary of Egypt, buried by a lion. Teahouses where waiters with scarabs under their tongues serve candied scorpions. Landscapes wiped out by a flash of light.

In Ancient Egypt, makeup was worn by both men and women. The boomerangs whistled, attracting wild geese. The shrieking of dog-headed baboons saluted the Sun, which had various names depending on the part of the day.

Egypt isn’t merely a fantasy, but memories as well. Egypt is also Cairo, the limitless city I see from the plane while drifting above it.

High up in the sky, the houses resembled beer caps. Cars looked like beads. The Nile seemed like the Danube. One brown neighborhood after another. The buildings unfinished yet populated. The roofs posed as storage for all kinds of things.

I’ve never seen traffic more hectic, as if people drove with the intention to kill. I am befuddled as to how I managed to stay alive. I strolled the bazaars where Naguib Mahfouz used to listen to his stories. Highways were emerging between the minarets. Television antennas were sticking out from the graves in the City of the Dead. I stared at the wondrous balconies, high cut gates, shops selling galabias, bread, coffee pots, scarabs, boxes with inlaid mother-of-pearl, sandals...  I smoked hookah on a boat sailing the Nile and fell in love with chicken with cumin. The ruins of Cairo reminded me of Havana, only these actually were more ancient.

Ibn Khaldun said that the ordinary man is not capable of seeing what he can imagine. In Cairo, to the contrary, one can see more than he can imagine.

I always wanted to come to Giza… The pyramids were purple in the shade, but outside they were as bright as the sun. The shadows were gloomy, though everlasting. I felt lightheaded — not from the heat, but from the glare.

I was staring at the sphinx as if I were about to realise something. Its mournful dire eyes revealed agony and intensity. The facial expression was menacingly serene. The camel behind me grunted and sneered, then knelt down. It was growling as if it were rinsing its throat, roaring, and snarling, leaving behind droppings like olives. It was half-serpent, half-girl, a sea monster transformed into a horse. It seemed to me that the Sphinx wasn’t stranger a creature than a camel.

I gazed at the Fatimid-Ayyubid-Mamluk city with a thousand minarets. The light was flickering. Everything was melding together. And everything was smiling. I recalled the names of Allah.

I walked into the Egyptian Museum, a red building with a dome. It was exuberant. Mummies exposed their teeth through a convulsed, miniscule smirk. The sarcophagi were as big as ships. The brown dwarf Seneb sat beside his white wife. The lions on the Narmer Palette had giraffe-like necks. I visited Tutankhamun’s chambers. I’d never before seen that amount of gold, aside from the movie Mackenna’s Gold. I was particularly impressed by the pharaoh’s sandals. Howard Carter brought Dučić into the tomb of Tutankhamun. Inside the tomb, the poet felt like Columbus.

Cairo’s night was endless. Music came from all directions. At midnight, boys played ball in a bare park. Families sat on blankets on the bridge over the Nile. Cold air and sleep were awaiting.

I asked the taxi driver to take me to Mena House, the old hotel next to the pyramids, where Churchill and the Prince of Wales stayed. As if it were Sarajevo City Hall — as if the hotel had been built in Miami.

I visited the South. It was scorching hot. The plain was faded by the sun. The shade was more valuable than any kind of insight. The Temple of Hatshepsut could have even impressed Frank Lloyd Wright with its geometric modernity. I noticed Rimbaud’s signature in a temple in Luxor. I saw the effaced Colossi of Memnon. I came to the Valley of the Kings with a sour stomach that I had treated with coal.

I sat on the deck, inhaling the scent of the Nile River. The sun was turning into bronze dust. I was gazing at the fog and the powder of the distance, there, across the undisturbed water. The names of the boats were: Crown Jewel, Crown Emperor, Sunray, Mirage… A horse by the name of Azer pulled my carriage around the town of Esna. In the middle of the town, there was a temple dug into the ground, dedicated to the Divine Potter, the ram-headed Khnum. The temple was shrouded and perfectly preserved, with an abundance of birds around. We sailed out once again. Cows and frowzy palm trees went past us one after the other. Domes and castles, mudbrick settlements, everything drifted. I spat into the holy River Nile. I sputtered onto Heraclitus’ evanescence. We docked. We sailed away.

I remembered the black and white photos of Tito and Nasser, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the Aswan Dam. I bought spices from the stands on Aswan Street under naked light bulbs. The Sphinx was on the 100-pound note, the Scriber on the 200-pound one. I bought expensive fragrant saffron. Afterwards, I found tiny bugs in it.

That same year, the Olympic flame allegedly came to Africa for the first time. It was paraded through the streets crowded with people, mostly men. The flame had already passed by the time I walked out on the street with my redheaded cousin. The busses, vans, cafes, all packed with men — entire stadiums so to speak, shouted and hissed after her. Lidia proudly perked up, smiling in triumph:

Two of my books, ‘Tesla: A Portrait with Masks’ and ‘Millennium in Belgrade’, have recently been published in Cairo. Agora Publishing House has just published the ‘Tales of Yusuf Tadrus’, a novel by Adel Esmat, the Egyptian author who won the Mahfouz Medal for literature.

I spoke to my American students about the resemblance between Mahfouz and Ivo Andrić regarding their quiet narrative tone and belief in wisdom that connect them. We analysed ‘Midaq Alley’ and its Mexican film adaptation. We watched interviews with Mahfouz and discussed Saniya Afify — who wants to get married — and Hamida, who’s behind is a dome of perfect femininity. Mr. Kirsha’s weakness for hashish and boys, the pious Radwan Hussainy, the terrifying Zaita — who makes cripples — and the unfortunate affectionate Abbas, whom the British soldiers beat to death. As well as of the colonialism in the background of the story.

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