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Serendipity

Posted on Facebook on May 18, 2013

One of the first people I met when I joined AUC as a professor three years ago was Salima Ikram. I was immediately captivated by her. I am not sure if it was the passion with which she speaks about her research interest — dog mummification in Ancient Egypt — her beautiful eyes, her Oxonian British accent or the animated way she speaks, using her hands freely. And the more I got to know her, the more captivated I became.

But I always felt there was something uncanny about her, something unsaid, an unasked question, an interrupted thought or a fleeting dream that I am struggling to piece together. I asked her once about her last name as I thought maybe it rang some bell. I know two Ikrams, but it was their first name, not their last name that they shared with Salima’s. She explained that she is the daughter of Khalid Ikram whose book on the Egyptian economy I studied at AUC as an undergraduate. Ah, I thought, this must be it. I knew there must be a connection somewhere. But like a dream that refuses to come together, I soon realized that it could not be her last name.

Then suddenly in all came together yesterday.

Twenty six years ago I was doing my military service as an English language teacher at the Almaza Air Base (named after Laszlo Almasy of Ondatjee’s English Patient). My colleagues (all AUC grads) were so valuable to the success of the language labs that we could take leaves every now and then, not whenever we wanted, of course, but more often than many of our colleagues. Six months into my military service, I decided to ask for a week off. My birthday was coming up and I thought I’d spend it like the previous year in Luxor. My leave was approved and I took the train to Luxor where I checked in at a small shabby hotel that overlooked the Nile. Every morning I’d rent a bike and cross to the West Bank to explore the sites.

On returning to the hotel one night, I had a stroll by the corniche after returning the bike. I was stopped by some tourists who asked me a weird question: would I join them on a falucca ride upriver to Aswan? For some reason they needed an Egyptian to accompany them, maybe for language purposes, I can’t remember. I had a look at the boat and I immediately agreed. I had a few books and a short wave radio, so I knew I won’t get board. The guys looked harmless enough and I somehow trusted them. And what better way to relax than glide on the Nile on board a falucca.

After checking out of the hotel and when I was about to board, a policeman appeared out of nowhere to say that it was illegal for me to join. Do you have a marriage certificate? he asked. No, I am not married, I answered. Then you cannot get on board this boat as there are women in the company. First, I thought he must be joking but then I discovered that he was dead serious. And when I insisted that I hardly knew any of these foreigners, he became even more suspicious of me. He reasoned that the boat in this incident is like any hotel where I could not check in the same room with a woman friend except if we were married. I caught myself before telling him that I don’t know the woman (there was one woman and two men, if I remember correctly), but then changed tactics and started criticizing the law instead. Amazingly, he started explaining the difference between the executive and the judiciary and that as a member of the police force, he was actually of the executive and not the judiciary, when my problem was with the law. I am not a lawmaker, he insisted, you should go and talk to your MP if you are not happy with the law.

Somehow, however, I managed to sneak in and I spent three days in paradise. Amazingly, the woman, her two friends, and I all got together very well. It was the first time for me to swim in the Nile and to drink directly from its water. My books saw me through, and so did the short wave radio on whose waves I learned about the Chernobyl disaster when it occurred.

So how is all this connected to Salima Ikram, and what happened yesterday that put my mind to rest? Well, I was going through some old pics from my student days to locate a pic I knew I had with Lesley Tweddle. And instead I found this pic that shows me on this memorable falucca ride from Luxor to Aswan with none other than Salima Ikram! It turns out that she was the woman the police officer suspected I wanted to take the boat to be with. And I now know why when we met some quarter of a century later I felt I must have known her in an earlier life. Because I did.

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