Tuesday 6 October 2020

Chapter 2 - London, Sunday 1 July, 1990

Silly, perhaps, but rather touching too.  And I didn't nag you about the book, did I?  I don't know where you get this idea that I resented you spending money on yourself: on the contrary it was always you who was so obsessed with money and saving.  I've offered many times to go back to work, but you've always taken it as some grave insult:  you and your male pride, I suppose.  And as for saving, well, since we agreed that it was too soon to think of a family, I don't see why we couldn't have spent some of it on ourselves occasionally.  Except, of course, for your eternal book.  But I won't say anymore of that for now.  I want to describe the things that happened to me that day.

I awoke feeling rather strange.  Perhaps it was the travel, something I ate, perhaps what that woman had said.  Anyway, you didn't comment, though I am pleased to find now that you did at least notice something had happened the night before.

I am afraid I can't share your enthusiasm for the Egyptian Museum.  It was big and dark inside, and it seemed obsessed with death.  The idea of having dead people, dead babies, in cases for us to 'gawp at' as you put it, is horrible.  And yes, many of the items from Tutankhamun's tombs were beautiful, and the story of its discovery is certainly extraordinary, but I liked your extra piece of information about Carter's theft.  I suppose that's what I feel about all archaeologists, not that I've ever met any, so it's a bit unfair.  But it seems to me that they have this unhealthy obsession with the past, with digging around in graves, finding bodies.  I don't know, perhaps I'm being ridiculous.  But I found the museum oppressive and depressing.  It was also so big, that I found everything swimming before my eyes and mind: you can have too much of a good thing, you know.

Anyway, it was a relief to sit down in the café, to sit and watch the people milling around outside.  Not doing anything in particular, just being themselves, doing ordinary things.  I think that you are being rather hard on tourists.  After all, you were leading a group of them, and I seem to recall that your book is designed for tourists.  Or are your readers going to be different?  But surely that's the problem with being a tourist: you can't be different, just being a tourist of whatever kind puts this barrier between you and what you come to visit.  And just being there, being a tourist is bound to change what you're looking at, if only because the people who live there will act differently simply because you are there.  The only way to really see a place is to be a part of it, in which case it is home, not somewhere you travel to for that extra bit of exotic excitement.  So perhaps the secret is finding whatever it is you are looking for at home?  Anyway, that was why I decided to stay in the café rather than follow you around again.  I'd seen enough of death and mummies for one day.

I don't know how long I'd been sitting there, not thinking about anything in particular, just letting my mind relax, staring out at the lovely gardens below, watching all the people come and go, the young people with their backpacks sitting by the fountains, when I became aware of someone standing beside me.  I looked up and saw him: tall, dark, strikingly handsome, mid-thirties, immaculately dressed in a light blazer, white shirt and striped tie, the creases of his cream-coloured trousers crisp, his shoes perfectly polished.

"Forgive me for intruding on your reverie, madam, but would you mind possibly if I sat here?"  He gestured at the vacant seat at my table with his free hand.  In the other he held a folded newspaper.

"N-no, of, uh, course not," I said, but with an action that was born almost reflexively of my Englishness, my eyes quickly scanned the room to check that there were indeed no seats elsewhere.  I tried to cover my gaucheness with a simpering smile.  'God! he must think I'm a typical stupid tourist' I thought to myself with annoyance.  But he simply bowed very slightly, with a tilt of the head, gracefully turning both movements into a prelude to the act of sitting down. He put the newspaper on to the table in front of him.

"How are you enjoying our country and its relics?" he asked with a naturalness that comes from perfect manners and perfect self-assurance, neither inquisitive nor perfunctory.

"I'm afraid that I've seen so little of it yet.  We, the group I came with, that is, only arrived last night."

"Yes, the Egyptian Museum is a good place to start", he said, almost as if answering a question he himself had posed.  "Today our great country is sadly reduced; it is a salutary experience to enter this memorial to our glorious past.  And yet that past is not wholly dead, and there will come a day....", he concluded, narrowing his eyes as he looked out through the windows into the distance, again as if speaking to himself.

This time it was me who broke the silence between us:

"You speak such perfect English."

"You are too kind.  I am only too conscious that I am rather out of practice, particularly as regards the more modern idioms.  They do change so fast, I find."

"Did you learn here, or....?"

"No, in England actually."

"Oh, really?" I said, continuing to curse myself for the inane answers I was making.  Why couldn't I say something witty?  And why did I want to so much...?

"Yes.  As a matter of fact, I went to school in England."

"Whereabouts?"  He turned and looked at me.  He could see that I was genuinely interested, and, satisfied apparently, sat back in his chair.  He was in profile to me as he gazed out to the gardens, his hands joined together lightly at the fingertips, tapping them slightly, and lifting them occasionally to touch his lips.

"I went to Eton and then to Oxford," he said simply.

"I see.  You seem to have learnt a fine English reticence along with your excellent English accent.  And that's not a criticism."

For the first time, he smiled at my words.  

"Indeed, from an English lady, it is perhaps even a compliment?"

"Perhaps it is," I said, smiling back.  "Why did you study in England, I mean, were there particular reasons?"  I felt that I was floundering again, crossing some unspoken boundary.

"My father," he hesitated slightly, choosing his words carefully, "was a traditionalist, but he was also far-sighted.  He knew that the future lay not with our language, nor with theirs, but with English.  He wanted me to become fluent in it, to be able to deal with those who wielded the power in the world today, for they invariably speak English, if not as a mother tongue.  I went to Oxford, but I'm sorry, I must be boring you."

"No, please," I said, "I'm interested."  And I was.  But I also felt obscurely guilty.  "Please go on, Mr...?"

"Call me Omar, please.  In this one respect I fear I must ask your forbearance if I do not follow proper English form."

"Certainly, Omar. And please call me Janet."

"Janet, yes..." he said in rather curious manner, as if I had simply confirmed something he suspected or even knew.  "I went to Oxford, then, to study at the school of the great Professor Gardiner, the world's greatest authority on the ancient language."

"So you can read all the hieroglyphics?"

"No, no, far from it.  Only a small part of them, alas.  Unfortunately much remains to be done in understanding some of the deeper texts that have come down to us."

"Is this what you do then, Omar, for a living, a teacher, professor, I mean?"

"I hope that I both teach and profess.  But, forgive me, I am playing with words.  No, this is purely a hobby now.  Mostly I am a rather boring businessman."

"What sort of business?  Or am I intruding?" I asked.

"No, Janet, please do not even think that.  No, but it is hard to describe.  I buy and sell many things, sometimes selling before I have bought.  I suppose it is simplest to say that ultimately the commodity in which I traffic is power, as all men do."  He smiled slightly at the thought.

"That sounds rather sinister, " I said, meaning it as a joke.  But a shadow passed across his face.

"Sinister?  Please, do not say such things."

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean...."

"No, forgive me, dear Janet, that was a stupid thing for me to say.  Of course not, of course.  But in this country, words have a weight to them, and the floors will catch them...."

There was a slight pause as we both seemed to think over some of things that had been said.  Again, it was me who spoke first.

"Talking of words, what exactly did you mean when you said 'the future lay not with our language, nor with theirs?'?  Have I misunderstood something?"

"Ah, no, Janet, so you have understood well.  No, I will tell you because, frankly, I trust you.  As a businessman I often have to judge people on little, to decide on a moment whether I will work with or against them.  And I can tell you, in all honesty, that I have no hesitation in trusting you, no hesitation at all."  And yet he did hesitate then, but only to turn to me one of his powerful, magnetic smiles that I would come to know so well.

"Well, then, it is true, I have said 'our language' and 'their language.'  You must know that although an Egyptian to the blood and bone, I am not, and never will be, an Arab.  No, I," he paused again slightly, to emphasise the point, "I am a Copt."

"I am afraid that like many Britons, my knowledge of geography or whatever, is not very good."

"No, Janet, you are right, I am wrong.  But it is good that few know the Copts now, at least.  Well then, the name 'copt' is nothing less than the word 'Egypt' itself, worn down through the centuries as various barbarian tongues have mangled and murdered it.  The Copts are the original, pure historical Egyptians.  Our tongue, Coptic, is nothing less than the latest offshoot of the mighty stem of Ancient Egyptian."  He stopped, his face shining with a quiet, fierce pride in his people.

"You mean that your language, Coptic, is a descendant from something spoken, what, five thousand years ago?"

"Well, Janet, if I were playing the pedant, I would point out that all languages must be derived from something spoken five thousand years ago, otherwise they would not have evolved.  But yes, you are of course absolutely right: Coptic is the lineal and direct descendant, as a king today is the descendant from his ancient forebears who give him the power and right to wield it.  Coptic has the longest continuous history, written history, known and transmitted history, of any language in the world."

"Do people still speak it, then?"

"Coptic is the living tongue of the Coptic church, a branch of your own Christian church, which helped keep alive the Coptic tongue when the Arabs stormed across the sands and invaded our lands.  Even today, you can go to Coptic churches, here in Cairo, or out in the wadis, and hear our tongue publicly proclaimed, though with a slightly strange accent, I must say."

"Omar, you speak as if there were others of you who speak this language, as well as the priests."  

"Yes, you have heard my words.  And I would not say these things to many.  But there are isolated villages, deep within the heart of Mother Egypt, where no tongue but Coptic is spoken, a Coptic spoken with a pure and clear accent that is a joy to hear.  And moreover, there are those of us, some quite powerful, I do not say myself, who have remained true to our glorious ancestors, here in Cairo, no villagers us.  We have not submitted to this alien culture, with their alien tongue and their alien god."

"So you're a Christian then, a follower of the Coptic Church?"

Omar smiled again.

"Not exactly, my Janet.  You must understand that in this country it is wise to seem sometimes what you are not.  I do not follow the official Coptic rites, but neither do I believe in Mohammed's god - except when it is expedient to do so.  But I am shocking you with all this apparent cynical dissimulation.  Janet, do not judge me too harshly.  I have begun to reveal things to you which I hope will soon fall into place.  Please trust me as I trust you."

"I do, Omar, I do."  But why?  "Yet I am confused, because you speak as if we were certain to meet again, and as if you have more to tell me."

"Oh yes, my Janet, we will assuredly meet again, and very soon.  And I do indeed have much to tell you, much that is vitally important, and that will change your life, and the lives of millions."  I was about to question him further when his face changed, and reached over for his newspaper.  "But look, here comes your party.  I can say no more.  But rest assured, we will meet again.  May the gods walk with you."  

And with that he abruptly unfolded his newspaper and engrossed himself in its Arabic curlicues.  At almost the same moment, I saw you and the others returning from your second tour of the museum.  As you approached I noticed Omar had now risen and was walking towards you, then past you down the stairs.  As he reached the stairs he seemed to turn and smile at me for a moment, before passing on down to the gardens outside.

"Who was that?" you asked.

"Who?" I asked in return.

"The man at your table?"

"Oh, just somebody who was sitting there."  True, but hardly totally true.  I hardly dare guess how you are taking this news now.  Then, it would simply have been impossible.  Fortunately you lost interest in pursuing the matter further, and we all trooped off to that café you had been talking about.

I must confess that when I got there, I looked around, half expecting to see Omar.  Once I had confirmed that he was not, I withdrew into myself again.  You were arguing with the waiter about something, I vaguely recall.  The rest of our group were reading your notes and their guidebooks, busily mugging up on our trip the next day.  Almost despite myself, I found myself thinking about the things Omar had said, the things he had implied.  And I realised how he had started calling me 'his' Janet, and even his 'dear' Janet.  Perhaps I was just naive, and he was just trying to pick up a lonely western female.  I had heard stories about that sort of thing, but never imagined it would happen to me.  After all, I had a wedding ring on.  And yet it seemed a very odd way to go about it.  I looked forward to our trip to the pyramids the next day with extra interest: would anything happen, I wondered?

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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