Ode to Rashida

Photo pending better wifi.

Photo pending better wifi.

It’s sensory overload.  I can’t even take it all in, let alone write it all down.  There’s the baroque furniture in my Giza suite, painted gold woodwork, purple, yellow and red patterned fabric.  There’s the twenty foot high wall across the street from this home, built after the revolution, what we call the Arab Spring, to keep the inhabitants safe.  There’s the regal ginger priestess Katy who is housing me in my first week here.  There’s the plumbing that allows no toilet paper, ever.  There’s the normalcy of Islam, multiple wives living on different flats for one husband who occupies the entire building.  There’s the attention I’ve gotten on the streets, part flirt, mostly sales pitch.  There’s the wash of joy that comes across my body each time I look out from the patio, and see the Great Pyramids, late age wonders from a world 10,000 years ago. 

The Ancient Mysteries of Egypt have pulled countless people here, and I’m one of them.  But the esoteric, the magic, is in everything.  It’s far more apparent than just in the old world. 

This first week I’m staying with Katy Noura Butler, a priestess of these ancient mysteries, among others.  It’s too early to get into the teachings, but her home, where I’m staying, has offered me far more than this esoteric insight already.  I have been learning about Islam, about culture, about what it’s like to live here now.  I could have just hopped from one hotel to the next, and I will soon, but I’m so happy to be her guest, to be her student. 

In this place, sun, sand, and the monuments between, I can’t avoid my shadow.  I also, however, am allowing it to be.  Some of the very things that enthrall me here at first repelled me.  

One of those things is the animals.  I chose my little poodle Hoopla because she is hypoallergenic.  In my life, I’ve often had to load up on Benadryl to visit friends whose homes have cats or dogs.  I grew up with them, but I also grew up attaching myself to an albuterol nebulizer three times a day until adolescence.  I like animals, but I’ve felt that my body might not.  Here in Egypt, they are everywhere.  The highway, a laneless roadway as wide as four cars, includes cars, motorcycles, people walking or waiting for busses, horse carriages filled high with boxes or vegetables.  Trash heaps on the quieter roadsides serve as gathering places for hungry dogs, rams, and a few cats.

Before I came, Katy asked if I could bring cat biscuits.  I thought I’d walk into a home with a cat or maybe two.  But when I arrived in her house, the theme continued. I found more animals than I could count.  The thought did arrive that this could be an issue, I could spend the next week sneezing and wheezing through my stay.  But in my excitement and openness, it floated by like a solitary cloud in this clear sky.  I am beginning to wonder if my allergies are all just farce.

Katy lives with her husband in a four apartment building, with two flats for visitors and students, and a flat on the bottom for servants and shared family.  The rooftop terrace boasts a view of the Pyramids that stops time.  Every time I climb the outdoor stairs, I feel something elemental expand in me.  The terrace is covered, and lined with mature potted greenery, the setup includes a dinner table, colorful night lights, and velour covered furniture.  So far, it’s where we’ve gathered most often. 

But in addition to the human family who live here, there is a robust animal family.  The first to greet me was Nina, the german shephard, and then Hati, the rescued desert dog.  And then, the tiny cats started to appear.  I don’t know how many there are, and I haven’t learned their names.  Staring from the terrace out to the Sphynx, it’s easy to see how important cats are here.  The species originated in Egypt, and hold a more sacred role than any dogs.  Katy’s house cats are half the size of the house cats I’ve seen.  I made sure to hand her my bag of Target cat treats, a sad offering for such a rich feline community.  But as with much travel, I didn’t know what I was walking into. 

For example, the crown jewel of this domestic zoo is Rashida, the middle eastern long tailed sheep.  Yes, a sheep.  As usual, my first concern was that I might be allergic.  And as the pattern continues, I have found myself to be fine around her.  I was flabbergasted when I first saw her inside, and I was worried that she was deformed.  A long tailed sheep, it turns out, is not just long tailed, but more like long-bottomed.  The brown and white hair covers her coat, but there is a soft underside to her protruding rump.  Katy informed me shortly that this was a common breed here, the long “tail” is similar to camel’s humps, and helps them stay hydrated in the heat.  In addition, this breed is smarter than most.  I don’t know what other sheep are like, but I saw her kindness and curiosity.  With as little exposure as I’ve had to sheep, a few petting zoos in youth, and the roadsides along my many drives, I had little to compare her to. But this turned out to be the best thing.  Now, I’m enamored of her.  Rashida follows Katy everywhere, and when I’m in her company, she comes up to my face stares at me, and rests her head on my lap.  She loves to sit cuddled up on couches with the other animals.  After the german shepherd Nina injured her paw in a fight yesterday, Rashida wouldn’t leave her side.  When we’re on the terrace, she often tries to munch on the jasmine or basil, and Katy rushes after her shouting Naughty!  It just makes me laugh.  She is amazing.

As I write now from the rooftop terrace, behind the sound of wind and car horns, roosters crow, dogs yelp, and sheep baa from roof decks nearby.  It’s nothing I predicted, so I couldn’t forsee how I’d respond.  I panicked, as I normally would, to be so close to these animals.  Allergies are no joke, and I have hated it when people say “it’s all in your mind.”  But, somehow here, I haven’t had any issues.  This is one of the gifts of being here, that something dark in me has had light shed on it.  If I had known the domestic animal count, I may not have come.  But because I didn’t know, I didn’t have time to build up a resistance.  And in fact, I have cherished these animals.  And every time I see Rashida, with the ribbon tied around her head, I feel giddy.

It is so different here, the sounds, the smells, the tastes.  In my life I’ve seen myself recoil against the unfamiliar, to protect myself from the very growth I need.  But that’s not why I’m here.  This is the desert, and the wide high sky doesn’t allow much room to hide.  Why not let these animals love me?  That’s the best thing they have to offer.  If I avoid your shadow self, I’ll never see who I am.  Pedestrian as this concept is, it’s so much of why I’m here, staying in a home full of sweet animals and human kindness.  These are the gifts we don't predict, things like Rashida resting on the rug in the sun, keeping me company. 

Alexandra RobertiComment