08 Sep The Egyptian Guide
I first met the author of The Egyptian Guide at a conference a couple of years ago, where we chatted about writing. Evelyn had, I learned, been particularly struck by the similarity between the themes in my novels, especially I Am Margaret and Someday, and Evelyn’s own work-in-progress. In a spirit of solidarity with a kindred Catholic author, I agreed to read Evelyn’s book when it was finished, and (when I had almost forgotten about the whole thing!) I had a nice surprise when it finally pinged into my inbox.
It turned out to be worth the wait. Evelyn has produced a novel that is reflective, meditative, lyrical, and bursting with the most beautiful metaphors about faith. Yes, it deals with those same pressing issues of our times that drive me to write – aggressive secularism, religious oppression, radical Islam – but in a way very different from my own writing, though most effective.
The Egyptian Guide takes the reader along on Clara’s journey of faith and self-discovery, providing a whistle-stop tour of the joys and wonders of the Catholic faith along the way, challenging us to reflect on a whole range of issues, right through from the material, to the spiritual. And indeed, to reflect on the connection between the material and the spiritual, especially with regard to the sanctity of human life. It is a book that will speak to you personally. I was particularly delighted by the appearance of St. Margaret Clitherow, the Pearl of York, whom I consider to be a Patroness of, and inspiration for, my own work. But each reader will find his or her own points of reflection.
The journey is not all contemplation: there’s action, and there’s certainly sacrifice. As well as being an enchanting meditation on the beauties of Catholicism, The Egyptian Guide delivers a powerful, and timely, warning about those twin threats: Aggressive Secularism and Radical Islam, both of which are trying so hard to crush the Church.
Hence it is not only ‘old’ saints that we meet in The Egyptian Guide. The ‘new,’ fictional saints Evelyn Oliver gives us are so vivid and wonderful that after finishing the book I occasionally found myself on the point of asking for their prayers – only to recollect that they are, well, fictional! Of course, at the moment, similar new martyrs are surely arriving in heaven on a regular basis. We may never know some of them until we (Lord willing) arrive there ourselves; others, we may know on earth in due course, once the wheels of canonisation have finished their careful revolutions. And so parts of this book feel like a compelling glimpse of things to come, a warning of the strife that could be approaching, but still it is a tale of hope, and glory.
Ultimately, one of the greatest challenges Clara faces in The Egyptian Guide, probably the greatest challenge, is exactly that faced by my own heroines, Margo in I Am Margaret and Ruth in Someday: ‘Would I die for my faith?’ This is a question that has been of vital importance for Christians ever since the earliest days of the Church, though at different times and in different places it has had more or less relevance to Christians’ everyday lives. Alas, we are again living in a time when, though we may well hope never to have to give proof of our answer, it is no longer unthinkable that we might. And that is the single most challenging message in The Egyptian Guide – that Clara could be any one of us, some day very soon.
“They have deceived my people, saying: Peace, and there is no peace.”
In memory of Mark
Who last slept in The Moon;
Upon whose youthful smile
The sun shall never set.
28 March 2018
The Nile is covered with them. Seen from the aircraft, they look like baskets.
Barges, though, that’s what they are. As we prepare for landing, I discern troops through my porthole – probably a hundred on each vessel. Not only infantry, but vehicles, are ferried across the water.
After alighting on the West Bank, the hovercrafts return empty to fetch another load of soldiers. This to and fro has been going on all day, apparently.
It looks quite spectacular, seen from above. A pity that the new bridge isn’t complete. But armies are converging on Casablanca and can’t delay.
According to the report, most of Cairo is still a vast swamp.
Daily, an evil crop of bones surfaces from the stinky mud. They soon disintegrate in the damp air, or are eaten by animals. Giza is slightly more salubrious, hence our descent onto it at this very minute.
To think that we took off from Kiev less than an hour ago. Officials and more troops are lined up on the tarmac. Like a gigantic drone, AN Force One performs a smooth vertical landing and we disembark.
I haven’t been back here for a quarter of a century.
What will it feel like?
I have long forgotten what sentiments are. Over twenty years of war – spent helping children in dire straits – haven’t left me time or energy to listen to my inner self. I don’t even know if, having just turned fifty-one, I am an old woman.
And yet, on hearing the official anthem of the Anastasis being played by the military, I feel something quiver inside my chest.
The worst is behind us, that music proclaims. Peace is spreading, after decades of horrors, which thick history books will find it hard to summarize.
The Regent is now giving his speech, but I’m distracted. The question asked onboard by that Education Official stirred something in my mind. When did the war begin?
When you are in it up to your neck, you don’t have the luxury of reflecting on war. You don’t care when it started, because you’re desperate to see it end. Now that things are settling down, experts mean to tell us how it all happened. I wish them well.
Obviously, the catalyst was the Flood. When S.I. – that is, “Scimitars of Islam,” as they were called – blew up the Aswan Dam, causing nine million innocents to drown within three days, along the Nile Valley, they knew they were triggering a chain reaction.
They forged evidence to incriminate the Copts. The utter devastation fuelled the need for a scapegoat. Despite the fact that most Christians in Egypt had died with the Muslims, churches were burned all across the country – or whatever remained of it.
Music is playing again.
The Regent is now decorating wounded soldiers.
According to the programme, in a few minutes we will walk to the Pyramids, or rather, to where they used to stand.
Fatimah is waving at me. To think she was about my age when we first met. She doesn’t look seventy-four. Without her, I wouldn’t be here.
As I was saying, religious violence rapidly spread across Africa and other continents, even in countries where Muslims were not the majority of the population.
S.I. had managed to unite hundreds of budding radical groups, from England to the Philippines, and from Nigeria to Sweden. At their signal – and the Flood was quite a signal – mini insurrections occurred, targeting Christian buildings and communities.
Merciless hackers hijacked vital networks such as health services, banks and even the army. National governments declared martial law. Democracies were destabilised. But it wouldn’t have ended up in a global conflict, in my opinion, had powerful secularists not taken advantage of the chaos.
First, they allowed radical Islam to “retaliate” against Christians. Mainstream media denounced “Islamophobia” while failing to expose the jihadists’ lies holding the Copts responsible for the Flood.
Then, they feigned to wonder at the anarchy they’d allowed to prosper, and affirmed that the only solution was to crack down on all religion, whether Muslim, Christian or other.
It eventually prompted a three way war: Jihadists aggressing Christians; Christians engaging in legitimate defence; and secularists trying to crush both. They would have won. Until…
No one saw it coming: the conversion of Russia – well over a century after it was announced in Portugal! China did not follow Russia (as yet), but soon adopted a policy of benevolent neutrality towards Catholicism, which was enough to bring further millions of convert Chinese to the Church.
But I am late.
Fatimah just sent a member of staff to escort me to the car park.
I must follow the delegation.
The memorial service at the (crumbled) Pyramids lasted only twenty minutes. Everybody’s gone now, while I lag behind. The main ceremony will take place tomorrow afternoon, on Flood Day.
I told my colleagues that I would meet them in an hour at the residence.
I need to be alone, for a change.
The missing nose of the Giza Sphinx has nothing to do with S.I., we were just told. If there is one single destruction of which they are innocent, that is it. Napoleon blew it up (not proven) long before S.I. existed; then he spread war all across Europe (proven).
As to the Sphinx itself, S.I. destroyed it, of course, with much publicity at the time.
It occurred soon after the Flood, once they’d seized power. The Pyramids followed the Sphinx, as well as any temple still standing. In fact, little is left from the wonders which, for centuries, fascinated tourists, artists and scientists all along the Nile Valley.
The debate of the day in Cairo is whether the Sphinx should be rebuilt with its nose or without! One would think that, after over twenty years of oppression,
Egypt would have more urgent issues to consider.
In fairness, the situation is well in hand.
The Interim Government has solved the water shortage; food is available again; the wounded and orphans are properly cared for; even the Internet is now accessible (when there is electricity).
I admit that the Sphinx is a symbol.
It represents Egypt’s glorious past.
Rebuilding it would cost comparatively little and would enthuse the population with hope, connecting the survivors with their personal and national history. Hope is in the air, in and outside Egypt – and icons will fan it into flame.
I advised against the nose, however.
Our scars tell who we are.
We can’t ignore them, even if they remind us of sufferings unspeakable.
Like everybody, I lost almost everything. Now standing alone on Cairo’s West Bank, I look in the mud at the scattered blocks, remains of what used to be the Giza Sphinx.
I once stood there, long ago, before the war; before the Flood.
A twenty-four-year-old young woman, I danced between its colossal paws, challenging the monster to jump on me, since the man I loved disregarded me. I wish I’d known then, that the statue was called “Abū al-Haul – The Father-of-Dread”.
I was vain, possibly sinful, although not as bad as, say, Don Giovanni. (When was Mozart last played on this planet, I wonder?) Like in the opera, though, the statue moved and answered.
The beast of stone leapt upon my beloved.
Then upon my soul.
No wonder it’s gone from its pedestal. Over the past twenty-five years, that monster has run wild all over the world, shredding peace, destroying peoples, desecrating hearts. Hatred gone viral.
Why rebuild the Sphinx at all, actually?
I told my Personal Assistant that I preferred to walk.
A privilege of Anastasis officials, my security drone is hovering ahead of me, like a pet. It doesn’t bark, but it will beep and fire laser beams if it detects hostiles, whether landmines, crocodiles or runaway S.I.’s.
Will it warn me if dangerous memories pop up?
There is mud everywhere, with items emerging from it, which I try not to look at (I couldn’t help notice a jaw near that teddy bear, though).
I wonder: was it fair of me to elude the question of the man on the plane? How could he know about Operation Omen? Even I had forgotten the name. He suggested that historians would identify it as the true beginning of the war.
I am tired, and the mud smells awful on either side of the track. But what a pleasant sensation to press my soles against Egyptian soil again after so many years.
In but five minutes, I will be at the residence.
Perhaps I can skip the formal dinner and just go to bed. The government requisitioned all the former hotels in Giza (those still standing). Thousands of tourists used to visit here every day, before the war.
Little did they know what was coming.
Or did they? Did we?
What is pre-war?
You can only define it in retrospect. Until war is declared, by definition, you can’t be sure it will break out. If you have any sense, you hope it won’t. If you are stupid, you take peace for granted.
I was stupid.
Most of us were. We paid the highest price for our irresponsibility. Of course, war was never formally declared, until late in the conflict. Had it not started much earlier than the Flood, though?
Was it not raging while most of us were having fun? Simply, we said the victims were too small to count as human. We denied them personhood. We treated them like wheat grains or vermin.
Those are objectively not human. This is why nobody calls a harvest or a cleansing a war. When disposed of according to our interests, we don’t call wheat grains prisoners, or dead rats casualties.
A war is against other persons, isn’t it? Deny your enemy personhood, and both enemy and war disappear, magically.
You are still killing people, but you don’t realise, because it is called entertainment (Colosseum, Roman Empire), management (Germany, Third Reich) or healthcare (pre-Flood Global Order).
In reality, then, peace had ended long before the Flood.
If my expert asks me again tomorrow, I will suggest that the war started in Soviet Russia with the Semashko Decree, on 18 November 1920. But some might imagine an even earlier genesis, in the Garden of Eden.
My drone beeps!
But this is a safe beep, merely announcing that we have arrived at our destination.
Indeed, the residence is right over there, behind those few surviving palm trees.
So, where was I?
Yes, to think that Russia converted…
Orthodox churches did not come back to Rome though, since Rome was no more – but to the Successor of Peter, strategically exiled in Ivory Coast.
What had started as a sporadic resistance inspired by the Church on several continents soon muscled up with Russian backing. Based in Kiev, it became the Anastasis – or the AN – a confederation of sovereign states, which replaced the collapsed UN.
On reaching the building, something in the Anastasis flag teases at my memory. I don’t know what in particular: not the five red stars circling around the Face; not the closed eyelids; not the beard either.
Sometimes, things become so familiar that one doesn’t pay attention anymore. I have seen this emblem everywhere for years, on every official document and vehicle, and again on the badges of the sentries by the entrance door.
Dear boys – I could be their mother. My children…
I have a snack in my suite rather than downstairs with all the brass.
I feel weary and introspective.
My room is in the same wing as the chapel. But God and I aren’t on speaking terms. Nothing personal; I simply think that, over the past two decades, we both have been very busy.
After my conversion twenty-seven years ago, I would see His hand everywhere. If it rained, I gave Him thanks; if it bloomed, I gave Him thanks. It was childish of me and surely annoying for my friends.
I felt like a dry sponge suddenly immersed in water or in wine. I absorbed Bible verses, I sucked catechism definitions and imbibed all that I could find or read about Catholicism. To me prayer was never a duty, but a recreation. I meant to tell every soul about Christ, and hammered my joy and my optimism on all, regardless of their inner pace and secret wounds.
It couldn’t last, could it?
Through my window, I catch a last glimpse of sunset.
But I don’t need the light switched on. I have got used to dimness – or, is it dhimmitude?
After the Flood, my faith was tried in so many ways, my strengths seemed so bitterly wasted and my prayers were kept unanswered for so long that I assumed God had relocated. Like the Pope who flew to Yamoussoukro when Rome fell.
After all, there must be many nicer galaxies than ours to which God might shift His attention. When did I stop believing – not in His existence, but in His care of us?
The little saint I once visited in Normandy captured my mood when she wrote: “I get tired of the darkness all around me. The darkness itself seems to borrow, from the sinners who live in it, the gift of speech.
I hear its mocking accents: ‘It’s all a dream, this talk of a heavenly country, of a God who made it all, who is to be your possession in eternity!
All right, go on longing for death! But death will make nonsense of your hopes; it will only mean a night darker than ever, the night of mere non-existence!’”
Why keep this scrap in my wallet?
I must have written down this quote a long time ago. Can it count as a prayer? I know it by heart.
In that context, attending the First Mass tomorrow leaves me quite indifferent.
I’m glad for Fran… – for Fr. Yusuf. (I can’t get used to calling him that.) The first priest ordained in Cairo since the liberation will offer Mass for the first time. It’s an achievement for him and for the Bishop, after so much suffering. They turned a former prison into a seminary, he told me.
I will be polite with God. But I hope He won’t mind if I don’t stay very long after the ceremony.
In fact, I’d rather leave Cairo tomorrow afternoon.
There is work to be done. It’s no secret that all must gather in Casablanca for the next decisive step in this war. Africa and Asia are liberated. But most of Europe is still occupied – and what of America? Doesn’t Casablanca mean White House? In which case, I bet the ships won’t aim for Lisbon but, via Cuba, for Washington.
While I’m here, the only question I find relevant is my responsibility in the war. Is there anything I could have done to prevent its outbreak, or at least to lessen its impact?
I lived in Egypt nearly two years, which I counted as the happiest in my life. And yet, when the horror begun, I was caught off guards.
These twenty-four hours in Cairo may be like a porthole through which I glance at what I used to be.
A young convert; a woman in love; a professional; a dancer; a bit of a thinker at times; a swimmer; a nun? – and eventually a…
No, this is too painful.
Why did the fairytale end so wickedly?
I feel like Captain Nemo, the submariner in the sci-fi story: after twenty thousand leagues under the sea, could I breathe the air of happiness past? Would my lungs and brains bear it? Could I ever meet up with the young and happy woman I once was, up on the surface?
Would we recognise each other?
If I look at her across the estuary of life and the gulf of war, if I try and remember how she felt, what she wore and how she spoke, it will be through my older lenses. I will project on her my broader experience, and my jadedness.
Can I resurrect her?
Can she help me carry my heavy present, and live through whatever sort of future is left for me?
Clara Cumberhart, where are you?
Where are we?
You, so candid, playful, fragile and yet empowered by a Love not of this world.
Through this porthole, will you let me see your face again, the lovely face that was mine before my soul withered?
Oh no! I thought those were bombs again.
Why set off fireworks now?
I look at them through my window.
Yes, of course, victory.
I hope it will end soon, because I want to sleep, and tomorrow will be another busy day
Out of Africa, and stranded in Europe!
I arrived safely from Cairo, only to find my connecting flight to Houston cancelled. So, here I am, trapped in glittering Paris-Orly Airport (like in the treasure cave of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves), awaiting information which, we are told, will be displayed within two hours.
Why did I stupidly dump my fashion magazines in the recycling bin when walking out of the plane!
Only two hours…
It doesn’t leave me enough time to venture downtown to the Champs-Elysées – and make Kitty and Raúl very jealous with an Eiffel Tower selfie (they deserve to be teased for letting me down)!
Like they say in the film: “We’ll always have Paris.” As Kitty’s Maid of Honour, I should have suggested they came here on honeymoon. But it’s a long way from Texas (and she couldn’t fly, in her condition).
Thankfully, the wonderful Egyptian temples in Medinet Habu and Karnak are still vivid in my memory. And to be honest, not only the monuments, but also some of the inhabitants.
One inhabitant in particular?
Okay, I admit that I can’t stop thinking of Azim.
But why on earth did he come and hug me just when it was too late! I can’t believe that it was only five hours ago – or just three, with the time change?
I wish it were now.
I must try to forget.
The pictures on my phone are fascinating. Not this one with Azim at the Pyramids! Deleted. I looked awful on it. Unlike this Canadian family, handsome friends of his: what a cute little girl! She held my hand.
(An innocent hand, that one, not like the Gypsy fraud who charged me fifty Egyptian pounds to read my palm and swore that I “would soon find the great love!” My foot!)
More pyramids. A sphinx… Temple. Temple again. Who can believe that a civilisation designed those buildings with such skill and refinement, and more than thirty-five centuries ago? For what again? For worship. Well, that has ceased.
But all along the Nile, the buildings still stand, for the joy of tourists – and for the prosperity of travel agents, including my boss (note: remember to mention the Aswan accommodation offer to confirm our better prospects in the South).
Prospects, did I say?
I can’t resist taking Azim’s letter out of my bag. Several times on the plane I started reading it, and stopped.
To Clara, my beloved sister.
This letter, which I hope to hide in your bag before you take off, is my confession to you. Actually, it contains several confessions; and an invitation. I will start by confessing this.
This night is the most beautiful in my life, because I was with the person whom I have come to love more deeply than I had ever thought possible. I have only known her six days and I feel as if I had grown up with her. We had a drink on the terrace in the quiet of the evening.
The air was loaded with deep smells from the Nile, and the sky had put on brighter lights for the occasion. Red Moon Hotel boasts of five-star rating – but one only dazzled me. She wore a blue silk blouse and a beige skirt smoothed around her knees.
I wondered if her appearance in my interior firmament signalled an event of immense importance. Was she the heraldess of supreme joys? Was love imminently to be born in our hearts? Dearest Clara, this letter will explain.
Meanwhile, I will ever cherish this expression of your trust, when you pulled up your sleeve and unbuckled your leather watch band, allowing me to see the thin scar running across your wrist.
My beloved, my beautiful friend, the sight of this line pierced my soul. How could a young woman like you, so lavishly adorned by Almighty God both in body and soul, want to take her own life?
You said it was many years ago. I wished to fly across time and oceans and reach you just before the blade dared to touch your milky skin. I would have thrown my throat between knife and artery. Better, I would have arrived earlier, before any trial should have upset your treasured soul.
O God of our fathers, let all my blood be spilled rather than one of her eyelashes fall to the ground! And yet, Eternal One, You are the One who watches over us, even in our darkest hours. If only You once wished to use me for her fulfilment, in whatever degree or capacity, I would be the happiest man.
Then I did what under Sharia law should have cost me a hand: I stole – our first touch – and I assumed our last. If the penalty increases according to the value attached to the stolen good, I would have lost more than one hand indeed, but both – and feet and head (as to my heart, it wasn’t mine to lose)!
My lips fell on that hated line drawn across a cherished limb, wishing to erase with a kiss the assault of the steel.
In that, they failed.
But not in the reward they earned for my eyes: a tear from yours falling upon my hand; and a smile opening across your brightening face a laughing “scar” that I wish would never heal again.
O mouth of my delight; O teeth, O tongue, O lips: what music you play to my ears as I rise and take my leave! Is sanity retained when a man loves his pains? Your voice, bidding farewell, is a kiss to my ears and a pang in my heart.
I stop reading.
His letter upsets me more than it thrills me.
Are these not mere words? What proves them true, Azim?
You said you loved me, and you ran away!
In pink crocodile?
As a diversion, I just walked to the Louis Vuitton boutique near the bookshop to see their latest phone case, just released. It might fit mine.
But, in pink crocodile? I didn’t see any of that colour crawling down the Nile (only sculpted ones in temples, brownish and harmless). Perhaps I would have, if I’d drunk a bit more. I should have accepted Azim’s cocktail yesterday, but what if his mysterious “Katarina” had heard of it!
Sitting down again, I browse through the picture album on my screen.
I realise that we modern men and women don’t need gods anymore, though we appreciate the zeal and the cultural achievements of long-gone believers.
Ruins are exotic, aren’t they?
Think of the Valley of the Kings, with those amazing tombs! (And an air-conditioned ice-cream shop with genuine Häagen-Dazs on the way out…)
Of course no one manages to remember the names of the strange deities (all jackals, hawks and crocodiles) and even our guides knew little about the meaning of the rituals performed of old.
Actually, Azim seemed more interested in early Christian remains. (Must I really email him that picture of me he asked for yesterday? My dress was nothing very special. Just elegant, not special.)
But those beliefs, those words and gestures surely made sense at the time, and they were taken very seriously. From Pharaoh to the basest slave, all professed the same creed and abided by the prescribed ceremonies.
In fact, it looks as if religion was the heart and soul of the country.
And what a country: an empire rather!
My phone displays reconstructions of temple liturgies with various dignitaries and officials standing in line, while priests of different ranks sing sacred hymns.
Many of those rites, or formulas, were translated from hieroglyphs: formula for the oil-festival-perfume with honey (my favourite); formula for entering the temple; formula for going to the stairway; formula for entering the sanctuary of the deity; formula for incense, etc.
I can’t help it…
My heart itches.
Much as I wish to ignore Azim, I feel compelled to read his letter further.
Where did I leave it?
Well past midnight…
Darling Clara, I had to come back.
I felt so silly, shaking hands with my sun, that is, with you. When all was calm and every light out, I made my way to the garden behind your room. Hiding against the purple bloom of the bougainvillea, I hoped that the wound in my soul would be less visible.
I saw you come through the curtains of your bedroom, barefoot, and kneel upon the grass, your gaze intent upon the moon, nearly full. I saw your shadow land amidst a silvery halo, and feared you would see mine, stretching in the same light.
My unease turned to bliss when I saw that the pace of the moon gradually led your shadow towards mine along the sloppy lawn.
My love left empty the mere muscle beating in my chest, and travelled to my outline spread out on the grass. My heart reached out to every herb and root, as if each one were my hair, my nerves and my fingers.
You were still kneeling in silence, looking to the heavens.
I wished to God that you might be praying. I prayed for you and me.
The moon gently drifted nearer to the river. The shadow of your arm, meanwhile, was touching that of my shoulder. As yours approached, my shadow shivered. The silhouette of your head came to rest on that of my chest, spread flat across the grass.
Over the river still and over this garden, O moon, suspend your dreamy pace!
That our shadows may share the secrets of our hearts.
O Clara beloved, radiant Habibah!
Did my shadow convey to yours my plea and my promise?
Did your shadow report to your heart and your soul?
But the moon knew better, and as it moved further, our two shadows melted into the blooming bush, while our bodies retained their postures far apart.
No two fingers had brushed, God knows; no limb had met living flesh. You rose and left.
And still, a kiss had been exchanged. While you were on your knees, I’d seen you slowly bring to your mouth the scarred wrist, still stripped from its watch, and apply to it your dear lips. As if mine had remained on that wound where they laid an hour earlier, I inhaled your chaste breath.
I gave thanks to the One who had granted our souls such a tender adieu, and went back to my room where my light shone all night.
So utterly insensitive!
He was there all along, then.
So close to me last night, and would not even let me know.
I can’t bear it…
Just when I was begging for love, thinking myself alone in the garden, hoping for him to come and kiss me.
How could such a handsome man behave so selfishly?
Doesn’t he know that Romeo is supposed to climb up to Juliet’s balcony, rather than cowardly remain hidden behind the shrubs?
Enough of him!
Please, someone, show me true love!
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