Because I Said So Excerpt

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From Because I Said So:
33 Mothers Write About Children, Sex, Men,
Aging, Faith, Race & Themselves

Excerpt from “Mother of the World”
By Kate Moses

1. Mother of the World
I arrived at three o’clock in the morning, but even then Cairo’s notoriously polluted air was thick with lingering heat. Though the city’s lights glittered against the desert’s distant darkness, it was far too early to go to my hotel. As we drove on empty highways, the taxi driver, who spoke some English, said he would take me to a café where I could have tea and wait. “In Cairo, you will be treated as a man,” he reassured me.  I had heard this before: western women are typically relegated to the status of “honorary men.”  I wasn’t convinced; being treated as sexually invisible seemed closer to the truth.

Left on a corner with my luggage, dressed in modest, baggy clothing, I was at the edge of the labyrinthine Khan al-Khalili, a fourteenth-century neighborhood famous for its historic, bustling market sprawling over a square mile of medieval streets and alleyways. Beyond the corner sidewalk café, the thousand-year-old al-Azhar university and the al-Husayn mosque — holiest of all in Cairo — rose behind walls on either side. Even that early, many people were wandering about, mostly men but also some women and children. The women I saw sat in family groups at the café, veils carefully pinned close to their heads as they sipped spicy, fragrant Egyptian coffee or hot, scarlet tea – karkaday, made from steeped hibiscus flowers — while the men smoked flavored tobacco from sheeshas, ornate, brass-fitted water pipes. Or they strolled slowly with their families through the crowds, mildly looking around, sleeping babies draped limply over their shoulders.

Pulling my suitcase along as discreetly as I could, I turned down an alley lined with market stalls, lights blazing. There were tourist-trap bazaars crammed with faux-Egyptiana and gaudy belly dancing outfits alongside craftsman’s shops selling hand-embroidered tribal tents and rugs woven of camel hair. There were huge rush baskets brimming with spices, donkey carts loaded with burlap sacks of roasted nuts, tired salesmen with piles of cheap plastic toys laid out on blankets in the street. I looked at everything and everyone surreptitiously, obliquely, not wanting to make eye contact, not wanting to be noticed. I felt a tug behind me, and heard laughter. I turned around: a group of beggar children, barefoot and wearing shreds of clothing, were skipping away, giggling, having just touched my uncovered hair.  Behind them was a man with no legs, only bare, black-encrusted feet, using his hands to walk. Along the sacred mosque’s high crenulated wall, a merchant had stacked cages of restless, hissing wild animals, their tails brushing the wire bars, and on top of the cages, dead animals — taxidermied, grimacing creatures I couldn’t identify, their glass eyes soulless.

I hurried back to the corner where the taxi had dropped me. I sat at one of the café tables surrounded by men smoking sheesha, the sickeningly sweet smoke from their apple-scented tobacco making me dizzy and ill. For the first time I admitted to myself that this trip might be fruitless, a bad idea. I’d never before in my life gone anywhere alone, ever. I had always managed to bypass any chance I’d ever had to move independently through the world; the truth is that my identity had always been largely dependent on others — my parents, my family, my friends, ultimately my husband and my children, motherhood being my selfhood’s galvanizing force. I felt confident and solid as long as I was the caretaker or the mother, the provider of comfort or the solver of problems. During the spring of 2004, though, my self had become someone I found unreliable.

A few days before Christmas, at the age of forty-one, I lost my third baby.

Five weeks later, a dear friend was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. She is the fourth of my beloved, trusted friends – all women, all mothers – to face a cancer diagnosis in three years.

Now in summer, trying to remember the Arabic words the taxi driver had taught me, awkwardly ordering another scalding cup of mint tea when my last one had cooled, I was not entirely sure I was up to this. For months I’d lived as if skinless, utterly vulnerable. Overwhelmed by human frailties, especially my own, I didn’t know what to do, but I had to do something. I came to Egypt to see a painting, a portrait of a woman whose face haunted and consoled me.

With each sip of tea, my fingers trembling around the glass, I tried to coax myself back from the ledge of panic. I tried to focus on something I’d read in a novel by Egypt’s Nobel laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, who had grown up in this neighborhood. Mahfouz wrote several of his books in the “Closed Treasure Room” at el-Fishawi’s café, a Khan al-Khalili institution for hundreds of years.  The line I remembered was one I loved for its ambiguity, its multiple layers of meaning and possibility: Cairo, wrote Mahfouz, was “like meeting one’s beloved in old age”. It was almost a riddle.  Did “meeting” mean for the first time, or after a lifetime’s separation? Is it the beloved or the lover who is old? Or both? In my head, I mentally fingered the variable answers.

Cairo itself embodies contradiction, a city widely acknowledged as bewildering, seductive, filthy, operatic, vast, decadent, glorious. The prehistoric mythology of the ancient Egyptians says that life began at the spot that is now Cairo, born out of universal nothingness by the creator god, a radiant orb whose tears became mankind – though Cairo is known in Arabic as Misr um al-dunya,  “Mother of the World.”   The creator god’s wife was the resourceful goddess Mut, protectress of the innocent, righter of wrongs, and patroness of women, especially mothers. The hieroglyphic form of the word mut is the huge, powerful vulture of the African desert. In Egyptian, mut means both “mother” and “death.”

From my sidewalk table at the café I watched the sky, deep indigo when I arrived, but now, with the sun’s rising light bleeding up through the shadows, bringing the minarets and the domes before me into high, gilded relief. At five o’clock, the recorded voices of the muezzins broke the morning’s relative silence as loudspeakers came on at mosques all over the city, calling the faithful to prayers.

2. The Fayum Portraits
Her name was Demos, a word meaning the people; she was twenty-four years old. She lived and died in Egypt in the first century A.D. Her portrait was painted to decorate her mummified body after her death, for two reasons: to give her ka, her life force, a  symbolic portal into eternity; and to give her  loved ones a tangible focus for their grief. The mummy of the baby girl found with her was almost certainly her daughter. Both had died shortly after their portraits were painted. A scarlet ribbon edged in gold had been laid across Demos’ mummified breast by the people who loved her; written in Greek, the common language of her time, was her name, her age, and a single phrase: always to be remembered.

Despite my letters and emails and calls, the Egyptian Museum had never confirmed that the portraits of Demos and her baby, two of the masterpieces in the museum’s collection of so-called Fayum portraits, would be on display when I arrived. The portraits had been restored, then shown in a special exhibit at another Cairo venue a year before; since then, they had disappeared.

The thousand or so Fayum portraits scattered through museums around the world are the only significant body of painting to survive from classical antiquity. Most of them were found in the late eighteenth century in Egypt’s Fayum oasis region, unearthed in Roman-era cemeteries where they had been buried in shallow, sand graves, the thin wood panels and wax encaustic medium of the fragile portraits preserved thanks to Egypt’s dry climate and burial customs. Amazingly, the colors and luminosity of the portraits are said to be just as fresh today as they were in the first four centuries A.D., when they were created as memorials to capture the unique individuality of their subjects.

Most of the portraits were painted quickly from life and displayed in the home until the subject’s death; the portrait was then removed from its frame, cut down, and affixed to the mummified body, a pictorial representation of the deceased meant to ensure their body’s journey from life to immortality, in keeping with the highly ritualized Egyptian religious beliefs. A majority of the portraits are of people in what we would consider the early stages of life; some have the hunted look of illness, their skin sallow or their eyes sunken in dark circles, or their faces disfigured by unknowable maladies. Since life expectancy during Egypt’s Greco-Roman period was dismal for children and only about thirty years for women – childbearing being a commonly lethal risk – most of the portraits were painted in anticipation of an expected death.

The Greek painter and art historian Euphrosyne Doxiadis, who spent ten years documenting the portraits, has called them “great monuments to mourning.” I came across Doxiadis’  book when I was also in mourning – for my baby, my friends’ uncertain futures, the competent, effective self I used to trust.  I needed distraction and solace. The immediacy of the portraits, the candor and elegiac dignity of their moving, numinous faces, was mesmerizing. They were paintings of the long-dead, but they continued, as André Malraux wrote, to “glow with the flame of eternal life.” They were as vivid, as life-affirming, as anything I’d ever seen – as the faces of my children.

There were faces more breathtaking, more beautiful than Demos’s. There were handsome, shirtless young men going off to join the Roman army, their loved ones knowing they would likely never return. There were women whose dazzling portraits were embellished with gold leaf.  But humble Demos immediately possessed me. She looks back at the artist from the slightest angle, over her left shoulder, her face girlishly rounded, its youthful softness betraying her age despite the intricate styling of her dark hair.  Her lips are slightly parted, as if she were about to speak, but hesitates. Demos’s  somber-faced baby, who shares her dark, questioning eyes and poignantly tender  double chin, is impossible to mistake as anyone but Demos’s child.

Even as I studied the book of Fayum portraits last spring, as I explained how and why they were painted to my patient family and friends, feeling a little more animated, a little less ground away by grief, I didn’t know how to articulate what I saw. How was it that Demos, confronting the end of her life, was luring me away from of my own despair? It was my husband who suggested I go to Egypt to see her. I had a long-standing business commitment in London in June; I could extend my trip by a few days. It would be good for me, he said, speaking to me in the low, calming tones one would use on a frightened animal or a child. I didn’t know whether it was crazy for me to go, or not to. Within a week I’d bought my plane tickets. . . .