Al-Abyaad - The White One
They say pride goeth before a fall, but sometimes it goes without anyone hitting the ground at all.
By the time I was into the second half of my year abroad in Cairo, I was comfortable enough to go out and see or do most anything on my own. My true passion still lay at the Pyramids. I knew just where to find the right minibus buried deep within the lines of identical buses parked out in front of the Mugamma (government building) to make my journey out the long stretch of Al-Haram (the pyramid) road. Locals wouldn’t move more than a few steps in my direction before recognizing me as one of Naguib’s “clients,” turning away in disappointment. The feeling of being left alone was freedom incarnate. I walked unhindered through the stables until reaching Naguib’s line of horses. Whether he was there or at his home, about two miles into the village, I was treated to a fine horse and free rein.
As I approached the Pyramids one fine Saturday, Naguib was there and waiting for me. He spoke only Arabic to me now.
“Good.” He said as I reached him. “I have a new horse, and I haven’t decided if he is safe for tourists to ride.” He gestured towards a beautiful, white Arabian prancing on the end of his stable line. “Take him out and tell me what you think.”
When I was eleven years old, my best and only friend within miles was a twelve year-old boy named Timothy. Our families lived one mile apart, and miles from anyone else, in the wilderness of central Kentucky. Tim and I rode our ponies or walked on foot along lost country lanes for miles on end, through gates that belonged to neighbors we did not know, and old family cemeteries whose residents had died more than a century before us. We would get hopelessly lost and climb to the top of the tallest pine tree to see which direction would get us back to where we started. We were always looking for excitement, and frequently dared each other to do incredibly intelligent things, like take turns stepping out onto the ice forming over the fast-running creeks in the winter to see how strong it was, or see who could run faster: us, or the angry Angus cows we found one day grazing in an open field. I never learned how not to do stupid things, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t learn how to recognize a dare. Naguib had laid it down.
Occasionally, I would come across women riding in the desert or town around the Pyramids, but it was rare, and it was always another American or European woman. Saw plenty of Egyptian women in the countryside riding donkeys to and from the fields; and in the city, it was not unusual to see an occasional girl on a bicycle, but Egyptian women rode horses about as much as American women played professional football. There were no laws against it—they just didn’t. Judging from the looks of some who greeted me during my rides, there were now a few more of them thinking about it—along with a vast majority still thinking, “There goes that ridiculous American woman again.” Regardless of their opinions, they were always kind enough to smile and call out a pleasant greeting. Can’t say that I would do the same watching foreign tourists riding through my front or back yard every day.
The Arabs who made their living from outfitting tourists at the foot of the Great Pyramids had no problem with foreign women riding their horses. Women paid as well as men did, almost always went easier on their horses, and worked wonders as free advertisement (and bragging rights, I suppose) as they rode their well-identified mounts in and out of groups from the other stables. When I first started riding Naguib’s horses, the saddle I ended up with was typically a very old one, its surface polished as smooth as butter and hard as rock from years of use. After a few months, he began to give me one of his brightly colored wool or felt covered saddles. I frequently rode in a large navy blue saddle lined with red and white piping. After riding in it once, I never went back to leather. It was like riding on a seat made of Velcro. No matter how much the horse darted or ran, I was secure. Screw balance—just attach me to the horse and I’ll take it from there.
Naguib had just asked me—a woman, no less—to take his best new horse for a test ride before Allah and all of his followers. But of course, I said yes. What a tremendously well-considered plan, I thought to myself. I started wondering why it seemed that the paddock area was more crowded than usual with camel and horse vendors. Suddenly it seemed as though every Arab that ever owned something with four-legs worth renting was there that day. Later I hoped Naguib had been clever enough to actually sell tickets to the event that was to follow.
Naguib’s loyal nephews tacked up the white gelding for me, wisely choosing one of the Velcro saddles. As they led him out for me to mount, Naguib thought to ask, “Alright with this?”
Puulleeease, I told him. I could ride this horse with my hands tied behind my back. “I know you could,” he smiled. With one nephew holding the horse’s head and the other holding the stirrup on the opposing side to steady the saddle, I swung onto his back. I hadn’t asked the horse’s name, and I turned my head towards Naguib, who happened to be smiling. I was just realizing that was the first time I had ever seen Naguib smile when the horse exploded beneath me. I decided there would be time to think about names later.
I don’t remember anyone putting a rigging rope on this horse but they might as well have. That horse kicked out, reared up, twisted sideways, and did just about everything except walk in a straight line. Looked like we would make some pretty good time on this ride. Faces of smiling, waving men raced by in a blur as the horse did everything in his power to get rid of that damn American on his back. With an audience of what seemed like a hundred Arab men watching me enjoy the ride of my life, I could have died of a heart attack right there in the saddle and I would not have released my grip on that horse. Hitting the sand in front of those men was simply not an option.
So we rodeoed on for about fifty yards, until my horse decided another tactic was going to be needed to rid himself of me. By this time we had nearly reached the long narrow alley running between the Mena House golf course and the Pyramid of Cheops, it was starting to look alarmingly like one of those long rodeo chutes they used to send the steers down before the cowboys tackled them. Not sure when I had time to think about all this. The horse saw the alley and acted as though someone had dropped a flag. For an instant, all four of his feet actually hovered near the ground at one time, and then he began a gallop where no more than one hoof touched the sand at any given moment. There was one very clear thought in my head at this juncture. The alley ended in a hundred yards or so, and as it did so it was capped by a tall iron cross bar that reached from one side of the alley to the other. Now how tall was that bar? I tried to remember. I seemed to have distinct memories of ducking beneath it as we rode into the adjoining village on more serene outings.
No time to wonder, because it was in sight before I knew it. Not as high as I remembered, but probably high enough. People rode camels underneath it, right?
Sure. Still moving at what seemed like forty miles an hour and not sensing his easing up anytime soon, I leaned my upper body down across the gelding’s white neck and decided this was as good a time as any to imagine I was racing the Black Stallion bareback across the sands of a deserted island. And if those turned out to be my last thoughts, they would at least be pleasant ones.
We made it under the bar without coming even close. Funny how things like big iron bars look so much more menacing at forty miles an hour. No time to feel relieved, because now that we were out of the paddock and through the alley, we had reached the small village stretched out at the foot of the Pyramids. Villages had people in them. Those people frequently walked along the narrow streets we typically rode through at much slower, more considerate speeds. I lifted my eyes from the mane still whipping my face and instantly forgot about the iron bar.
The first brick building one encountered upon exiting the stable alley was that of a small grocery vendor. At the front of his building were three large stone steps, large enough to comfortably support their equally large owner, who enjoyed greeting customers and neighbors from his seat on those stairs. As usual, he was reclining on the second step. What was less expected was the donkey and cart that had backed up to those steps in order for its owner to unload some kind of vegetable I could not possibly identify at the speed at which I was moving. The exact nature of the vegetables didn’t seem as important as the fact that the entire path in front of us was blocked off by the cart that carried them. I felt a wave of surprise wash through my horse, whose inertia was clearly at odds with this disturbing scenario. Due to the slight angle as the alley met the village, we had not had a chance to plan a course of action, because we could not see them until we were almost on top of them.
It’s not that I didn’t think about trying to stop. I had, in fact, been thinking of stopping for some time now. At this point, however, our stopping distance greatly outmatched the distance between the cart and us. How do you like it, I telepathed to the horse, now we’re both going to die. He didn’t like it. I felt his speed increase as we veered ever so slightly towards the old man on the stoop. Taking in the entire picture, it was the lowest point. Low was a very relative term, in this case.
As we reached the steps, the old man leaned back and the vegetable vendor fell back against his cart. I do not remember any particular reaction on the part of the donkey. In one fluid movement, my horse and I went into the air and cleared the steps, the storeowner, and the back end of the donkey’s cart. I had made it this far, and somehow I made it to the other side with him.
Then, as if to see what he had actually just accomplished, the horse pulled up with absolutely no input from me and spun on his heels to face the two breathless men. I took a breath myself for the first time in several minutes, and realized at the same moment that the horse’s most recent action—i.e., his stopping—made it look as if I had complete control over his every move. The storeowner, who was the first among us to reclaim the ability to speak, summoned the energy to shake a fist at me. His angry Arabic came through loud and clear.
“You want an incident with the police?”
Just when I thought things were starting to look up. Always the quick thinker, I blurted out “Not today, thank you!” and spun the horse away from the scene of the crime and on through the village at a much more conservative pace.
This is where any well-adjusted individual would have gotten off her ride and walked him back to the stable to hand him over to the one who clearly intended to murder her just moments before. Not being any sort of adjusted at all, and finding the horse now to be perfectly agreeable, I decided we might as well finish our ride. It wasn’t like we hadn’t earned it. We made our way through the village and the old cemeteries on their outskirts, until finally we were out in the open desert overlooking all three Pyramids. At our feet lay miles of empty desert. This was usually where I let my horse go, but in this case, my horse had already gone. Dropping the reins on his neck, we stayed there for several minutes enjoying the air, the space, the quiet. The blessed lack of motion.
An hour or so after leaving the stables with such an air of drama, the white gelding and I walked sedately back through the village. The vegetable vendor had gone (no doubt in search of a safer parking space) but the storeowner still sat where we had left him. Having had a chance to regain his wits, his face grew red at the sight of us and the fist went into the air once again.
“I mean it! The police!”
I made it clear that I believed him, gave him my sincere and long overdue apology, and bade him good evening. He was still yelling at me as we passed under the iron bar separating us from the stables.
We walked past a sea of faces I more or less recognized from before, and I took the opportunity to nod in greeting at one or two of them. Naguib materialized as we rode up to his stables and asked, expressionless, “So how is he?”
“This is a fine horse,” I told him. “Please have him ready for me next weekend when I return.” I dismounted, paid Naguib a few bills I found crumpled in my pocket, and walked out to the street in search of a taxi. It took every ounce of strength I had not to limp. The pain in my legs and back upon landing on the ground were previously inconceivable. I had every intention of keeping that information to myself, still being on display for all the vendors to see. Only once safely inside a taxi did I crumple in the back seat. The driver kept a careful eye on me as he delivered me carefully, blessedly, at my front step.
The next morning when I woke up, a strange thing had happened. At some point during the night I had become paralyzed from the neck down. As I blinked helplessly at my Siamese kitten Cocoa standing on my chest, she cried for me to get up and open her morning tuna. I would have cried, too, but I lacked the appropriate muscle control. I was not about to call for help from my sleeping roommate, but I could not lie there all day. We had just been lectured at the university—where I had just entered a new scholarship program—about recognizing the honor we had been awarded by being allowed into this prestigious program. In short, show up or go home. Home was further than I could even imagine, especially given that I had no idea how I was going to get myself into the bathroom.
As I wiggled some blood into each extremity, feelings—most notably those reminiscent of serious pain—began to return. Cocoa made the very astute observation that I had done one helluva job of throwing out my back. Eventually, I was able to roll like a log onto my side and more or less fall off the bed onto my hands and knees. Though not entirely comfortable, it seemed functional. In this delicate fashion, I made my way to the bathroom. Thank Allah, my roommate, who would have enjoyed this immensely, was a sound sleeper, and my cats were my only witnesses.
A steaming hot shower—another valuable asset in this apartment where we had a propane-powered water heater right there on the bathroom wall—did much to melt the block of muscles that had, once upon a time, comprised a more or less healthy back.
I managed to catch a taxi and limp in for the one lecture I had scheduled that day and eased my broken body into the straight-backed wooden chair that I recognized clearly from the Catholic school I attended as a child. Two-and-a-half hours later, class was dismissed. I fussed with my papers as the rest of the class made their way out of the room, and nodded to the professors as they gathered their glasses of tea and coffee and moved into the hallway. Looking sideways at a new friend who had remained behind out of curiosity, I explained that I would have to be cut out of the chair. Jennifer laughed and helped remove me from my small wooden prison. She asked me what I had done over the weekend to end up like this.
I stood as straight as one could with one’s spine broken in several places, smiled, and proudly replied, “I did not fall off.”