Exhausted, I sat blank-staring at the porcelain Egyptian toilet. If we were confidants and foes, I will never know. The gurgles and whisperings I heard from behind my eyelids, as I rested my head against the wall, trying to perspire (not ex), could have been sweet nothings or jeers.
Sphinx! Our language was not the same; splashes to drops, English to Arabic—anyway you cut it we would never understand each other, though that didn’t seem to stop me.
I only knew a few words of Arabic. One two ten, potato, whore, water. Some I learned from my friends; others on the street.
Looking back, I remember with awe how weak I was. A flight of stairs made the Hydra look tame. I felt like I had just been born or just died.
Water was there when I was born. I pulsed out of my mother’s womb, straight into the heart of the water. Fitting then that Mia, water, was the reason for my state. I missed it. My body had simultaneously aged and regressed. Hands of parched parchment paper attached to a lizard’s lethargic body. At times the world spun, too hot yet still revolving. I got goose bumps in the hottest weather and longed for the comforts of popping sweat.
One day amid the whirlwind of sightseeing our host took us to see the blue mosque in Cairo. I was wearing jean capris and a rust-rose shirt; as usual, I felt over-exposed and indecent.
The attendants of the mosque must have agreed because I was given a potato sack of a cover up. Turquoise—green? It covered me wrist to ankle. Neck, width, length and breast. It was coarse but comforting. Maybe I felt it paid my dues, cleared my debts for being so obviously foreign.
Did you know that the first Christians in Egypt took pick and hammer to the lovingly carved forms of Isis, Osiris, and any deity they could reach? (Tools of creation turned to obliteration, how sad, how trite, how depressingly, tragically, commonly passé and clichéd. You’d think we would have come up with a different tragedy since the birth of the world but I guess the oldest ironies are, indeed, the best.) Eventually realizing the only reaction provoked was rage, they moved onto a more subtle, insidious kind of trespass. No longer destruction, but forgetfulness they relied on. Good pilgrims painted saints over gods. Inside the mural, as the last coat of varnish was brushed on, did Ra’s face contort in anger or in shame?
The sunning was stomping down—proof that it never did stop raining fire in Egypt. I was, as usual, thirsty. I stepped inside the second larger mosque and I was immersed.
Here the first fresh breeze of morning met the twilight’s gloom and softly ringing stars. In a mosque one’s eyes are inevitably drawn upward: the curves and peaks of the ceiling irrigate the flow of your attention to the lush planes of golden lettering (the alphabet: pure visual poetry) and the enlivening blue pressing down behind it—a kind giant’s cape, draped atop the beams and the arches. But as my eye moved up to caress the curves of the ceiling, it snagged on the concentric circles of glass lanterns, strewn about the space (a lit candle in each one). I didn’t know whether to picture them from above or below. Were they the tracks of planets planned out, swaying in the universe’s first (poetic) breath? Or were they the ripples made as God moved upon the face of the water?
The call to prayer rose around us. The echoes harmonized with the dust moats in the sunlight and the present voice (the past 1000 years singing all again). I felt like a man 100 thousand miles from home who stumbles through a strange door and finds himself in front of his own re-upholstered couch. I’ve been looking for you.
There is no reason that a mosque should move me so. Not Egyptian, hardly religious. In Mei, Sophia and Mia I see god. In the cool blue shoals of the mosque, in the call and the dust I glimpsed the universal face folding past. In the touch of crystal on crystal, I heard echoes of first laughter. It moved through everyone and everything apiece. My smelly shoes (in hand, not a pied), the dust, and the Mu'adhdhin; like lights waves through space; connecting us all through refraction and frequency—heart to heart.
Chelsea Gandy grew up on Maui and moved to upstate New York. She is currently attending Warren Wilson College, where she is a junior.