Saturday, February 12, 2011

Rise Up, Egypt!

A little over two years ago, I traveled to Egypt with my family. I haven't written much at all about that trip, but with the recent events there, now seems like a good time to start.

As is often the case with travel, although we saw many incredible sights - the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx, the Valley of the Kings - I find myself more often reflecting upon two less iconic experiences there.

The first was a visit to the Unfinished Obelisk, in the city of Aswan. We had already visited temple after temple, many of them containing huge, hand-carved obelisks decorated by intricate hieroglyphs. As we approached what our guide had referred to as "the unfinished obelisk," I suppose I was expecting half an obelisk, or perhaps one uncarved, barren of hieroglyphs. But as we walked to the edge of the stone quarry, what we found was an obelisk on its side, only partially carved out of the surrounding rock. It was cracked.

Only then did I truly understand, not just intellectually but emotionally, that real people had carved this obelisk, and all the others we had seen. Probably, some guy was chipping away with the ancient Egyptian version of a hammer and chisel, when pow! he hit a weak spot in the rock, and the crack snaked instantly up the smooth carving, destroying years of collective work. The obelisk was abandoned. How tragic! How frustrating, to put in years of work only for forces beyond your control to instantly take it all away! How very human.

I also often think of another moment in Egypt that occurred at a mosque in Cairo. For days we had heard the Islamic call to prayer, the adhan, ringing through villages, broadcast over loudspeakers, echoing across the waters of the Nile. As we entered the main room of this mosque, there was the muezzin, preparing to make the call. We stood before him as he sang, the familiar yet foreign words echoing off the huge domed ceiling, haunting, beautiful, and full of a reverence identifiable across language and culture. If only we all could see that this, too, is Islam: not scary, not "other," but perfectly recognizable to all of us as an expression of human beauty, ritual, and faith.

If the Unfinished Obelisk removed the temporal distance separating me from the ancient Egyptians, witnessing the call to prayer bridged, at least in part, the cultural distance that had separated me from contemporary ones. I remember that now as I watch them celebrate, in the hope that those people in the streets will soon truly govern themselves, and will keep striving, as we all do, for lives lived boldly in the pursuit of happiness.

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