It happened in the desert near the pyramids of Giza, Egypt. I could see the pyramids in silhouette not too far in the distance and I remember hearing the grains of sand whisper to each other and the sound of hooves beating the ground. It was just my horse, the desert, and me—and it was the first and last time I lived in the moment.
I arrived that summer night with my sister Marwa and my Egyptian cousins in a Honda Civic and a Volkswagen Beetle, which we later traded for horses—hesitantly at first because all the horses we had seen looked as if they could barely support themselves. Our guide Abdu, a short, stocky man dressed in the traditional galebeya with a mouth decorated with only two teeth, promised us the ride of our lives with the strongest of horses. He disappeared behind a shack down a dusty road and reemerged followed by six of the most beautiful horses I had ever seen. These were unlike the horses pulling carts on the streets of Cairo. They were true Arabian horses with tight char-black velvet skin, long thick hair and muscles protruding from every part of their bodies. Marwa and I, however, could only drool at the sight of them. We had promised our concerned mother that we would play it safe, so we rode a camel instead.
We realized our mistake right away. The boys shot out into the desert with their horses, screaming and howling, leaving us behind with our sluggish camel and the two young boys who had to guide it through the darkness. They whispered to themselves about why anyone would choose to ride a camel, and it was obviously meant for us to hear. They were right. The journey was only worthwhile riding on the back of a speeding horse, not on a two-humped camel; which, we learned, did not necessarily mean it was made for two people. Nevertheless, Marwa and I made the best of it. As we trotted along at about five miles an hour, we took the time to admire our surroundings. The sky was a magnificent dark blue and glowed with the white light of the stars that peppered it. Silence surrounded us, except for the distant thud of horse hooves against the sand and the howls of the people riding them. The air was cool, a refreshing change from the daytime heat that had burned our skin only hours before.
We eventually caught up with the boys who had stopped on top of a small hill to admire the view. It was like having a dream you were afraid would end too quickly. The hill overlooked the city of Giza and I felt like I was looking out into the ocean, and that the lights of the city were just a reflection of the stars in the sky. The boys were all panting as if they had done the running and not the horses. I wanted in and so did Marwa so we begged our cousins to switch with us. The horses had tired them out anyway, so they agreed.
I had barely grasped the reins when my horse went flying. Everyone called after me, but my horse and I had a special connection. He understood that I wanted nothing more than to get away from the past, my insecurities, my tedious life; away from everything. He was taking me to that place where I could simply forget and just live for once, but we had to hurry, Abdu’s horse was catching up with us and he would try to hold us back. His horse pulled up beside mine, and for the first time I saw a serious expression plastered on Abdu’s normally cheery face. “Pull the reins!” he yelled. I smiled at the sight of him; his short stumpy legs in a horizontal line flapping up and down. I pressed my heels slightly more into the ribs of my horse and we sped away. The cool air smacked me in the face; I felt it go through my eyes, nose and ears. I tasted the sand in my mouth as it kicked up all around me, and felt the goosebumps creeping up my arms and legs. I couldn’t tell whether I was hearing the sound of my heart thumping in my ears or the horse’s hooves beating against the desert sand. I was sure that soon the ground beneath us would crack open because of how hard his hoof touched upon it, or that any moment I would be thrown off.Finally, my horse came to a slow stop without my having pulled the reins. He began trotting in a circle giving me a full 360-degree view of the desert. I understood what he was telling me. My entire life I had either dwelled in the past or wearily anticipated the future. My biggest fear was growing old, yet I had never learned to live in the present. But, there in the desert that night, with the dark blue sky, the full moon, the stars and the incessant whispering of the sand, it was just my horse and me with no regard for space or time. My mind was for once a blank. All I could do was listen in the darkness taking slow deep breaths. I was alive and aware of it. I saw the rest of the group coming towards me. I shut my eyes tight and pierced my horse’s stomach with my heels waiting to get away once more, but he did not move. The past was too far a distance that not even my Arabian horse could reach. The moment had come and passed, and I understood it would seldom return.
Two years have passed since that experience in the desert, and back in Egypt on one particularly long summer night I sat with my cousins, lounging lazily in our youth giggling and gossiping. Our parents later joined us to reminisce about their own youth, their talk filled with a nostalgia that made my heart swell and my breath short. My aunt brought out an old photo album congested with black and white photos of our parents in the prime of their youth. They bragged about how fashionable and “hip” they once were. My mother’s eyes fixed on one photo in particular. It was a picture taken with her cousin before the start of their first year in college. She is propped up against a fence wearing a fitted skirt reaching just below her knee and a slimming blouse. Her face is beaming and her smile shows that she is aware of her beauty. Her cousin is leaning against her; she is also beautiful but terrifyingly shy of it. Against the backdrop of my cousins’ chatter, I watched as my mother examined the photo. She bit her lip and squinted her eyes as she tried to recognize herself and suddenly the tears began to drop slowly from her eyes in the way that water drips from a faucet that’s not properly closed. I tried not to get caught up in the moment. I closed my eyes and thought of that night in the desert. I began to taste the sand in my mouth but the nostalgia was too much for me, so I ran outside shutting the door behind me, and waited anxiously for my Arabian horse to appear and take me away. He never came and I was left there, bent over, my hands on my knees trying to catch my breath at the life that’s not quite running past me, but skipping with girlish delight.
image: Dheny Patungka (Creative Commons BY-NC)