[First post in this Novel: Dedication]
[Previous post in this Novel: Chapter 5.1]

Jesse and Clorice made sure no one was around, stripped down to their skivvies, and plunged into the pool, relaxing in hedonistic pleasure as the pumping hot water washed off the dust which seemed to clog every pore after their long drive from Assiut. Jesse took a bottle of Crabtree and Evelyn bubble bath – Clorice did not even ask why he had this – and poured it around the hole where the water was gushing out. Rainbow-colored lily of the valley-scented suds formed and flowed through the aqueduct, eventually out onto the farmer’s field. There was something magical about the moon’s rays shining on a Saharan grain field full of aqueduct bubbles.

After bathing, they dried themselves off and dressed. Jesse took his rugged hand and gently placed it under Clorice’s chin, tilted her head upwards, and planted a tentative kiss on her slightly parted lips. After years of flirting at conferences, this kiss was long overdue. Clorice liked it very much – and kissed him right back, although a little less tentatively.

Instead of going back to the base camp, Jesse drove to the hand-made mud-brick home of a local family. Possibly the inspiration for Hassan Fathy‘s internationally acclaimed book Architecture for the Poor, whose designs have been adopted by such needy peoples as Arizona nouveau-riche, the mud-brick homes in the oasis were works of art, blending like geological formations into their natural settings. A series of interconnecting rooms which resembled individual cottages, each with its own door, were built around a broad central courtyard.

The rooms were cool and spacious, and the houses grew with the family. The largest of the rooms, the family living space, consisted of one large chamber on the main floor, with walls plastered in smooth golden-colored mud clay and painted in white and vivid blue-green shades of Egyptian faience. The floor was swept and sprinkled with fresh sand daily. The local home decorators had pragmatically decided that if you cannot keep the sand out, use it as a “feature”. It also reduced foot callus build-up. The main room contained an old black and white T.V., which when turned on, produced a small grey dot in the mid-dle of the black screen which then formed horizontal and then vertical lines which magically trans-formed into a moving picture as the T.V. warmed up. Ubiquitous woven mats covered the floor. One aluminum pot used for cooking, carrying water and washing was placed beside the door. In the middle of the central room, a beautiful round-shaped bone inlaid wood table, and a fireplace fuelled by donkey dung shared the focus of the room.

A mud-brick staircase led upstairs to a balcony with a mud-brick oven and a dove-cote, home to the family’s pigeons. Pigeons were eaten on special occasions and served on a huge hand-pounded and intricately etched metal tray which covered the entire table. Jesse and Clorice’s visit must have been expected, for such a spread awaited them as they came in.

Jesse introduced Clorice to the family’s patriarch, Ahmed, who Clorice later found out was also the P.R.I.K.s’ head field crewman for the Temple of Hathor Team, and announced that she would be helping with the evening’s lesson. Jesse had spent the last five years as co-ordinator/site director of the Kharga expedition, and during this time he had gathered around him a following of bright young local children to whom he taught English in the evenings, unbeknownst to the rest of the P.R.I.K.s. Jesse brought Clorice into his circle of local friends and voluntold her as an English teacher.

Clorice found herself surrounded by about a dozen boys who ranged in ages from about two to sixteen. Before she started she insisted that the girls, who were shyly peeking their heads through the door, join in or she would not begin. After much coaxing from the boys, the girls timidly entered the room. Clorice decided to teach them the names of body parts and clothes. She began, in her most excited voice, by naming one of her body parts, then, naming the same part on the youngest child in the group. She then asked each child in turn, first a girl then a boy, the name of the part. After going over a few parts she started asking for part names at random, at breakneck speed. She taught them that all-time North American classic song “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes – and Bellybuttons,” which they picked up very quickly. By the end of the evening she had the kids singing and stomping, raising dust, in the poorly lit mud-brick room. The faces of these children, alive, intelligent, happy, and so excited to learn, formed a memory she knew she would cherish to her grave.

[Continue reading: Chapter 5.3]


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