With the recent Palm Sunday bombings, Egypt has been on my mind a lot lately. I have been there numerous times and every single one of my trips was a joy. I have met amazing people and was always treated with kindness and respect. My heart breaks for the friends and families of those killed in the attacks, as well as all Egyptians who are in mourning for their country. Especially given that ISIS has claimed credit for the attacks and says they were done in the name of religion, or more so how they define religion. Egypt is a place where Coptic Christians and Muslims live together, often with mosques and churches near to one another, both being important centers. Yes, the country is majority Muslim, but Christianity is also a big part of Egypt’s history, and present. When an Egyptian friend of mine recently moved to the US, his wife was worried about the Islamophobia and bigotry we have in our country. My friend couldn’t quite grasp the possibility because to him, growing up in Egypt, he always loved and respected his Christian brothers and sisters the same as his Muslim ones. Why would anyone hate another person because they had different religious beliefs, but worshiped the same God?
During my first season at Wadi Gawasis, the same one where I met my friend Hammad whom I talked about in an earlier post, I remember having conversations about Christianity vs. Islam. Or, sometimes I guess they were simply cultural discussions in general that don’t have to be religiously based, but a lot of conversations of East vs. West often delve into religion, or at least people think that way. Let me give you an example. The local Egyptian workers we hired, who were devout Muslims, did not drink alcohol, but damn they smoked like chimneys! Cigarettes everywhere. I about went hoarse yelling at the guys to stop throwing cigarette butts in my trench – excavating them later is not fun, and confusing because it really throws off the context of your artifacts until you realize Mahmoud was on a smoke break recently and it wasn’t that either your ancient context has been compromised, or cigarettes have been around a lot longer than we know. We would go back and forth debating which one was worse – drinking or smoking. They always told me alcohol because the Quran said not to drink it, but it didn’t say anything about smoking. In defense here, the evils of cigarette smoke weren’t really known 1400 years ago at the advent of Islam. Anyway. Some of the debates where it was part cultural and part religious would revolve around things like dating or women’s roles. The guys were always appalled that I, a young woman in my 20’s (I’m flash-backing about a decade here for this post) lived in an apartment alone taking care of myself. Young women don’t live alone. You live with your family until you meet your husband, then move out with him or with his family. They were in shock I had my own place and refused to believe it. Now, caveat here, this is not how all of Egypt is – the men I worked with were from a small village where life was still quite conservative. As a follow-up, being a single unmarried woman living alone, they asked me if I was a nun. Thanks guys. She must be a nun if she isn’t living with family or a husband. I told them No, I was not a nun, I just lived alone and that was common for women in America. Follow-up question, if you are not a nun, then are you a… “belly dancer?” Seriously?! I understood their connotation there quite well despite the language barrier. Double thanks guys. Those are my only options – nun or “belly dancer” because I live alone?! I politely let them know that I was neither a nun nor was I a “belly dancer.” They just shook their heads and waved off my nonsense and went back to hauling dirt.
One day in the field we were working through some really difficult sediments, i.e. soil and sand and pebbles and whatever else nature had placed in the seven-layer dip of dirt that was my excavation trench. The guys and I were digging down and suddenly hit something that was rock solid. It was impossible to get through! We ended up having to get picks and slowly chop away at it which was incredibly slow. What was this? Salt. Over thousands of years, various types of sediments and materials build up. Salt is a naturally occurring element and when not in tiny grated form on your dining table, is it rock solid and incredibly hard. It was worse than cement. I was in an area that used to be an ancient harbor with a wadi (valley) on one side and the ocean on the other. Over time, as the harbor receded, the salt water dried up and also salt leeched upward from deposits below. Then, sand piled on top of that, creating a hidden salt cement layer for me to find thousands of years later. As we worked our way through the salt with picks, the workers began to get tired and were more poking than picking. I really wanted to get through it by the end of the day, and was annoyed at their laziness, which in reality probably wasn’t laziness but simply exhaustion working in 100-degree heat, so I decided to take on the salt myself. It was awful. For those of you who live in cold climates, imagine trying to shovel a few feet of snow and finding a surprise ice freeze layer on top of the sidewalk when you are so close to being done. And you have no idea how to get through it because when you tried using your shovel, the ice shattered the plastic shovel head and you wished you’d paid for the premium one at Home Depot when they went on sale the spring before. I digress.
In the meantime, while I was pick axing my way through the salt, and at the same time contemplating if this is what the ancient Egyptians did to break up natural occurring natron (a type of salt) they used to mummify people, the Reis (Headman) was standing by watching and monitoring. Sef was probably in his late 50’s to early 60’s (I have no idea really, I can’t tell people’s ages very well – for all I know he was 40 but smoked a lot) and had worked on archaeology digs most of his life. He had photos of himself with famous Egyptologists going back decades. He would point to the directors and the photos and then tell me that was Dr. Bob. I had no idea who Dr. Bob was, but I nodded in admiration. By this point in his life, Sef was in charge of the other Qufti workers and managed everyone. This was a huge help for us because the men respected and listened to their boss. Back to the salt. Sef took notice of me doing so much hard labor and came over to see why I was showing up his workers, many of whom were his family members, sons, nephews, cousins, etc. By then I was dying and my muscles hurt so much. When he got over to my square, he asked me why I was working so much more than the guys. At the time, I was so tired, and hot, and frustrated both at the workers and nature in general for doing this to me, I ended up angrily mumbling incomprehensible curses through gritted teeth while continuing to smash salt, which was probably becoming a bit humorous to watch as my exhaustion kicked in. He looked at me for a minute, tilted his head, and started laughing. I, taken aback by that as I was so super serious about my manual labor, was insulted at first, but then looked at the workers watching me and smiling, and I softened. I put my pick axe down, wiped the sweat from my face, and shrugged my shoulders to Sef. In regards to how hard I was working, he looked at me with that big toothy grin, patted me on the shoulder and said “Inti, la Amrikee. Inti Islami!” You are not American. You are Islamic! Wow. That was a HUGE compliment. Sef was letting me in, telling me I was welcome and part of his Egypt. I was accepted and respected. It meant a lot. Having often been stared at for my white face which stood out against most of Egypt and not knowing Arabic, I often felt like an outsider visiting and observing another world. Like the anthropologist sitting outside the tribe watching and wishing to be included. When I work on digs, I want to be thought of as the same as the people I work with. Not some snotty entitled white girl from Amreeka touring the Middle East. I’m there to work. I’m there because I love it. I’m there because archaeological mysteries + dirt = my happy place. Sometimes it’s hard to find common ground and to earn the respect of the locals. It takes time. But it’s sooo worth it. People are people. And I just want to be a people too. From that day on Sef treated me differently and our relationship became a lot more jovial. The following seasons when I went back, he greeted me with a huge smile and arms extended for a big hug. And in the field, hey, the Reis had my back and looked out for me. He made sure my guys were working hard and staying in line, and more importantly listening to me.
During one of the dig seasons, Sef told me he’d find me a nice husband in the village so I could stay in Egypt forever. I felt honored he thought I would be a good fit for the village, although I’m not really big on people finding me husbands so I didn’t love that aspect of it, which seems to happen often – see previous post about my buddy Khaled trying to barter a dowry for me in Syria. Sef said I had too many earrings for an Egyptian husband so I’d have to take some out but the number was negotiable. Not negotiable Sef. I told him I loved visiting Egypt but that I missed my home and my family. Sef told me my family should all move to Egypt with me and then I wouldn’t have to miss them and they would also be happy here. Problem solved! His pride and love of country was very endearing. And when I said I’d have to think about it, he looked at me in utter astonishment – to him, Egypt was the most wonderful place in the world. He couldn’t fathom how anyone would not want to live there and call this amazing country their home.
(top photo: left to right, one of the other archaeologists Dixie, the Reis Sef, and Me)