A Man and a Dog

Part 2 of the Egypt report. Part 1 here.

I am writing this story down for you because if I try to tell you in person, I won’t find the right words and I’ll cry. It’s kind of an awkward story in an emotionally confusing sort of way, but it’s a story I like from our trip just the same.

We hired Hasan, who we had met at the hotel’s New Year’s Eve party, to drive us an hour north to Dendera to visit the temple of Hathor one morning. Hathor is the goddess of many things, including drunkenness and pleasure, so of course Slava & I had to go. It’s also a temple that is in unusually good shape, retaining its roof after nearly 2,000 years of being buried in the desert sand.

Hasan was a little flirty with me on NYE, which maybe annoyed Slava, but he seemed like a good (and funny!) guy. Also, he was a driver for some regulars at the hotel, including the manager, so I trusted him. Which was good, since when we started out, Slava & I had to hide in the back of the van because we were taking a road that was verboten for tourists, but after 15 minutes or so we were able to move to the front. Hasan was a good and careful driver, something kind of rare in Egypt, and his van was new and had seat belts. We drove out of town, keeping the Nile on our right, and Hasan pointed out some sights.

The scenery got pretty desolate – it looked like we were driving through a big gravelly construction site full of rubble most of the time. Up ahead a dead white dog lay in the road. Hasan pulled over and stopped. He came around and opened my door and pulled a towel out from under my seat, went out to the dog and pulled it to the side of the road. He spend a few moments covering it with stones, and then came back to the van.

I was overcome with emotion and started tearing up. He said, “Don’t worry, it will only add five minute to our trip.” I said something like “No, no, it’s OK – thank you for doing that.” I tried to stop the tears, but no luck. He started driving again and looked over at me in the passenger seat and said “Lisa, are you crying?” (my name has been changed – fair enough since I was probably saying his name wrong too). I failed to explain why this had moved me so much. He gave me tissues & explained himself eloquently, but I forget exactly what he said. He didn’t want the dog to get flattened by cars, life is precious, we need to respect it, something like that. Then he poked me in the ribs and said, “Remember when we were dancing at the party? You are a very good dancer!” (Lies!) He made some jokes to cheer me up, which sort of worked. I’m happy to know this technique is universal.

I dried my tears, but the underlying emotion remained. We got closer to our destination & Hasan pointed out the back of the temple as we slowly drove through a back street lined with mountains of trash and rubble & filled with potholes. He said to me, “Lisa, you are going to the temple of Hathor. She is the goddess of love and life and you must feel better. Do not let any more water fall out of your eyes.” How is that that people whose first language is not English so often use it to such better effect than those of us who call it our mother tongue? Slava can really turn a phrase, too.

As we approached, he told us he would tell the guards we were Russian so they wouldn’t ruin our trip by following us around, as they like to do with Americans. Only half untrue, after all. He pointed out the café where he would wait for us, drink some tea, smoke some sheesha, and drink a lemon juice for me. I’m not sure what that means, but I guess it is something you do to make people feel better.

The temple was great and I didn’t cry. Slava and I spent two hours or so walking around. I shot some super 8 and we took some pix and ran into a few other tourists, mostly Germans.

Hasan picked us up and the van smelled pleasantly and comfortingly of an afternoon beer. He said he’d had half a lemon juice for me. We saw more roadkill dogs along the side of the road on the way back, but he didn’t stop. None of them were in danger of getting run over, and he probably didn’t want me to cry again. He told us some stories about himself – his time in the army (required service), how he became a driver, his family – seven siblings, two sisters dead, one from cholera, the other from a scorpion bite! He said he wanted to take us to a belly-dancing club that night, which Slava & I tried to say no to, but he wasn’t having it. He said he’d pick us up after dinner, and he did.

The club wasn’t sleazy, fortunately, but it was pretty loud. Nevertheless, I was glad we were there. I think Hasan spent half what we’d paid him that morning to get us all in. We sat at the back, Hasan smoked a hookah and ordered us a bottle of red wine that I didn’t really want to drink, so I had just a glass. Slava didn’t really want to drink it either, but also didn’t want our driver to drink it all! Hasan asked about my wrist tattoo, which seemed to me a very irrelevant story in Egypt, but I told him anyway.

Then he said, “Liz, I just have one more question for you – why did you cry in the van today?” Naturally I started crying again and he said, “Don’t cry, I don’t have any tissues here!” Sometimes I just can’t keep it together. I still didn’t do a very good job of explaining myself. I said something like, I love animals and I would have done the same thing if I were driving. I wanted to say more but just couldn’t find the words & I was crying & it was so weird to be having this emotional experience with someone I didn’t really know. He said he loved animals too, just ask the hotel manager (as if I needed proof!) and he didn’t like to seem them disrespected. And that life is precious and we need to enjoy it.

Jeeze, even writing this story down is making me cry. WHY SO EMO, LIZ? Well, I’ll try to put my feelings into words once and for all, even if Hasan will never read this.

Egypt is both a great and a terrible place for animal lovers. There are animals everywhere, which is great, and many of them are working animals, which is kind of a time machine for us Westerners, but they are not all well taken care of, which is not great. There are homeless cats and dogs everywhere, and half of them are nursing mothers eating out of the trash. We did see and hear about a few pet cats and dogs (Hasan himself has a cat), which was encouraging, but mostly we encountered street animals. Slava & I befriended a stray cat at the hotel who was small, like my little-faced cat back home, Miss Honey. We wanted to take her home with us.

Roadkill makes me sad, and when the victims are cats or dogs, it is the worst. I cry at the drop of a hat anyway, and if I see a dead cat, forget it. Break out the hankies.

Seeing someone stop and move a dead animal out of the road and then build a little cairn around it would have made me cry no matter what, but for it to be done in such an un-selfconscious way by a new acquaintance in Egypt was just too much. I felt like it gave me a glimpse into Hasan’s heart, something I wasn’t expecting. This action of moving the animal and burying it was something that came very naturally to him. If it had been me, of course I would have cried a little bit, but he had more of an undertaker’s demeanor – it was something that had to be done, and something that should be taken seriously, but nothing to get upset about. We all die, after all. Hasan drives for a living, and he must perform this ritual often. We spent some more time with Hasan, and I never saw him look uncomfortable, not even when I was crying for some inexplicable reason in his van. He is a man who is comfortable in his own skin, to say the least. As someone who often feels awkward around strangers, I appreciated this.

So, how to finish this story? I had a number of unexpectedly emotional responses to our visit to Egypt. It’s a really special place. They say if you drink from The Nile, you will return. I think I must have had some tea made of Nile water because I was thinking about returning before we had even left. I hope to meet Hasan again, and when I do, he will probably ask me about that time in the van. Maybe I’ll be able to keep it together long enough to give a better explanation, but I doubt it.

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