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I turned to the next page. Squiggly little men in linen skirts tugged at thick ropes attached to colossal limestone cubes. These cubes were dragged across a battalion of spinning logs, up a dirt ledge, and onto a plateau. There, the droll laborers hoisted the blocks one on top of another, cheerfully constructing Khufu, the chief of all the Great Pyramids, the chief of all pyramids frankly; the Aztec pyramids pale in comparison. I was disappointed by the author’s casual representation of Egyptian life. The book was supposed to be “kid friendly”, like an educational comic strip, but achieved only belittling the era. Those squiggly little men had worked for most of their lives cutting deep into flawless stone with copper chisels, wooden mallets and wedges, dragging the blocks from the quarry to the west bank of the Nile, and then returning to the quarry to chip some more. The illustrator was obviously lazy, only drawing in five men per two and a half ton block. He gave them loafy noses and round, bloated bellies; sweat danced in droplets around their faces. They were anatomically incorrect and physically impossible, yet, I copied every fact I could extricate with careful round letters onto my green note cards and filed them away in a box labeled “EGYPT”. It is imperative, and was even in third grade, that I know everything about this culture. Each new detail brings me closer to the Nile’s fertile banks, the ruddy waters, and the slow, well-oiled rituals carried out in every earthen home and Great Pyramid; Ancient Egypt crumbled centuries ago, and I am desperately trying to rebuild it.
It must have been during an early wander through the Boston Museum of Fine Arts that I discovered “EGYPT”. I would insist on a visit every time we were in the area with my grandparents. I also insisted on the Basketball Hall of Fame every time we went through Springfield, but that was for a very specific kind of chocolate that was not sold elsewhere. No, the Museum was much more to my liking, despite the lack of chocolate and tall men.
My Nonna would fold a metal admission pin over my jacket lapel as I grabbed a lacquered map and scanned the layout of rooms. Ancient Greece would lead to Rome and Rome to the Christians, the Christians to Medieval. Egypt had many rooms to itself. Their walls had been painted in eggshell and taupe and the dark Graywacke figures stood soulfully against the muted colors. Nonna would always point to her favorites. “See the woman with her arm around her husband’s waist? That’s the most beautiful.” I peered up at the adjoined black statues; their faces were unlined and promising, their bodies powerful. I adored the dulcet simplicity of each curve and the care with which the Queen held her Pharaoh. Why had my teacher deemed these forms “rigid”? I suppose in a textbook the piercing symmetry and linear persuasions cannot be softened by the natural light of a museum, and any undulation is immediately stifled by bad printing. Nonna and I agreed that it looked as though the couple had just taken a breath of pleasant surprise. Their gazes were not blank, but optimistic. “And there was so much to be optimistic about!” she exclaimed; Egypt was always on the brink of something wildly exceptional.
I then would lead her into the tombs. These boxy, dimly lit rooms were tiled with plaques of hieroglyphics from the Valley of the Kings. I liked to run my fingers over the plexiglass covering the stone, trying to decipher the symbols. Often there would be others doing the same thing, but I would move skeptically past them, confident that they were not nearly as knowledgeable as I. Well read in Hieroglyphics: from A-Z and Fun with Hieroglyphics, I considered myself a true scholar. I would relay any hidden messages to Nonna who would in turn nod and coo. As we exited the tombs I would say, “Nonna, did you know that the thing that made reading hieroglyphics possible was called the Rosetta Stone?” The name almost made it my stone; this chunk of rock with translations in Greek and Egyptian script was an indisputable link between the ancient world and I.
In the gift shop, I would lean over the glass jewelry cases to study their Egypt induced wares. I put my hands only on the metal framework; I wanted to see the displays in their entirety, not clouded by my fingerprints. Oh how I longed to wear little gold trinkets on my ears as the Egyptians did, a collar plated in lapis lazuli and carnelian at my throat, perfect with its vintage flaws. Sadly, all the cases held were lame reproductions of their originals. The gems were cut with boring precision and polished to a hoaxy shine and the gold lacked the buttery depth of authentic mummy’s metal. I felt as though the only way I’d ever experience Egypt’s candid opulence was to travel there myself, an almost impossible feat seeing my family was comprised of Sicilians dead set on a pilgrimage to the mother land before any other sort of venture. Instead of overpriced pretentious bling, I went for a tiny ankh charm to put in my pocket. The symbol, a skirt wearing stick figure with its arms outstretched, was to ensure eternal life.
If I did die and the potency of the amulet was not as advertised, at least a mortician would find it pressed against my leg, swimming in the cotton ear of my jeans. Surely then the funerary industry, an honorable institution, would intuit my wishes. My limp body would be washed gently in palm wine and my vital organs removed from a slit in my side. Each bloody structure would be dried in natron and canned like a jelly for later use in the afterlife. Long strips of cloth, undoubtedly from that gorgeous fabric store on Main Street that my mum and I liked to skulk about in, would be wrapped around my dried carcass. Finally, every last desiccated bit of me would be submerged in a tomb, deep under Wall Street, McDonalds, and Cher, a Coptic bunker to rest my ragged Ka. If I didn’t die, well then I spent four bucks on eternal life, plenty of time to travel to Egypt.
A week at summer camp gave me time to pay adequate homage to my love. The focus of the camp was puppet-making, but the two coordinators, Carla and Carla, were pot-smoking hippies who didn’t have the brain capacity to actually care what we did as long as it was creative. While the other children made doofy hand puppets from socks and googly eyes, I wrote an equally doofy song. Of course at the time, my lyrics were profound.
Special Egyptian Cats
In a sandy sandy dessert
All the cats peer amid
Ah ah ah. Ah ah ah. Special Egyptian Cats.
They slink along the Nile
And drink Pharho(sp?) Style.
They pray to the goddess of cats
As an offering they give her rats.
They chase cats but never rats
They hurt their tails but they never fail
Because they eat rats and not bats.
As the week went by, Carla, or Carla, copied it verbatim onto a folded piece of notebook paper. I must have been rushed for time at the end because my stoned teacher’s spelling errors still stand uncorrected and the final stanza was written quickly in pink marker and really has nothing to do with Egypt and everything to do with the diet and doings of a truly “special” cat. Still, the piece took the duration of the camp to write and was circulated around my family, gleaning praise from every Mediterranean mouth that had probably also chuckled at the song’s naïve content. Thus, it was an instant hit and for a time, I carried it in my pocket next to my ankh, an emblem of sacrificed time and puppet.
During the dullest of lectures or the slow, plodding activity of classmates, I sink my feet into Sahara sands. Sultry Jasmine scents are sobered by nearby Neroli and the river breeze tickles tan skins with papyrus reeds and loose linens. Hippopotami float placidly down stream, revealing only noses and peewee ears to Wadjet’s scalding sun-disc. From Alexandria’s libraries to Thebes’ coarse markets, Egypt was progressing. With exacting, kohl rimmed eyes and perfumed bodies, Egyptians moved their country forward, following female rulers, revering animals as sacred, and feasting without guilt. Life was shot with precious, venomous excitement. I hate returning to my desk with a, “What was that?” when my teacher asks me a question, or being told that I should, “Maybe focus on another topic for this project, Rosa. We’ve really heard enough about Nefertiti.”
Green note cards, ballads bursting with vermin, and a constant poke in my thigh, leave me aching for fruition. But, despite my obsessive fact finding, classroom reveries will have to satiate my longings. The Pyramids might loiter around for ages, but Ancient Egypt’s essence is lost. In its place is Cairo: a festering infection on the Earth’s surface. There, unfortunate beggars and complaining camels suffocate under a thick shroud of pollution and vulgar language. Vehicles and corporate sponsors move quickly and without mercy, ripping through a population of sixteen million, and beauty is exploited or covered in filth from unclean streets. There is no need for me to travel there. I would rather content myself with my museums and books, even if they are filled with squiggly little men, as most museums and books are, than see the new Egypt, stifled by modernity.