Like countless others before me, I first fell in love with the Middle East through the romance of the desert. I had never thought much about the region until I saw the mini-series made of Frank Herbert’s Dune (fictional though it was) when I was about 12, and my first real exploit abroad on my own was to work on an archaeological site in a Jordanian village so tiny it could be crossed through in about one minute in a car. I can never resist the pull of the wind whistling across the sand, cooing birds in early sun-kissed mornings, and the general silence and peace you can find there.
So, when offered the chance to visit the desert on horseback, (the main hobby of my life until college interrupted) I pounced. One of my old roommates had been several times before, and generously invited me along with his friends from the French Institute.
We traveled out of Cairo to the town of Saqqara, which I have visited previously, and then on to a tiny village branching off. The family who runs the business has a small but lovely villa there where we were treated to tea and shade while we waited for our mounts. When they arrived en masse, we approached and selected (or were given) our trusty steeds.
People say the olfactory sense is the most primitive we have, and so it’s difficult to describe a smell as anything but itself. So for those of you who are unfamiliar with the warm musk of a horse’s fur… I cannot describe it to you. But to me it’s a smell I have grown up with that takes me home, and yesterday I was itching to ride. I breathed in deep, and hopped on.
I had been warned that these horses weren’t traditionally trained… that was an understatement. What they are is half-untamed, willing to carry a rider but single-minded and strong-willed. They are small and wiry, with hardened muscles and a ferocious energy no master can tame…a deliciously fitting metaphor for the tumultuous nature of life (and people) in Egypt itself.
My horse’s name was Shams, which is Arabic for “sun”. She was a tiny thing, and at first had me fooled into thinking her docile and sleepy. She was reluctant to leave the villa, even with the others moving out in front of her. Not knowing what cues she was trained to be receptive to, I was at a loss of how to move her along–a serious embarrassment to someone who has been riding for almost twenty years.
But then some of the others coaxed their horses into a canter, and like a firecracker exploding out of its shell, we were off at full speed.
I can honestly say it is a damn good thing I have been riding so long, or I would have toppled onto the rocky, jagged sand beneath us. I gave her no cue, nor she to me, so for a moment it was all I could do to hang on. And Shams didn’t care–in fact, she gathered herself up and plunged forward even faster, racing by every other horse into the open desert, sun beating down on us both.
If you aren’t an equestrian, you probably think we all gallop around all the time.
I’ve never galloped before. The only thing I can compare it to is skydiving–you’re moving so fast and the experience is so intense your mind really can’t even process it wholly. I just remember the scenery flying by me and my lips and mouth drying out from the ferocity of the wind. When Shams finally slowed down and other horses caught up, I found that I was the one out of breath–both from exhilaration and the energy needed to stay on. She was born and bred to tear across those sands.
I was going to be floored by that sensation multiple times during the ride. I soon learned that Shams had no regard whatsoever for my wishes of speed or, for that matter, direction–but she was very herd-oriented, so if someone else could coerce their mount to go somewhere at some speed, we were very likely to do the same.
Truly my only real problems were that I was in a saddle far too small for me, which also had some torn bits of leather, (I have huge bruises and shredded jeans to prove it) and that I made the mistake of bringing my bag/camera. I thought I would get some gorgeous shots, but the reality was the ride was WAY too unpredictable to pull out the camera except at two stopping points, and the bag itself was throwing my balance so far off I basically rode one-handed and had to use the other to grasp the saddle to even things out.
As long as we stayed on a general course, we had the freedom to veer about as we chose. I followed some of the more aggressive riders up to some ruins not far from the Step Pyramid, where a local man invited us in for tea (not uncommon) and to see the ruins below his home. We hesitated, not because we were suspicious, but rather because we knew that such an invitation was, as with many things in Cairo, actually an invitation to pay the man baksheesh, or the bribe/ “tourism” fee for unsanctioned visits to these sites. In the end the group decided to go ahead with it, however, so we had a brief break and I was able to take a few photos of beautiful carvings.
We remounted for the last leg of our journey back to the villa, racing and walking in turns, and upon our arrival the family and workers greeted us and made swift work of taking our horses back to their stables while we were ushered in to rest and await a meal.
No Arab has ever disappointed me in matters of generosity, particularly those from more rural areas, and neither did this family. They brought us two ENORMOUS platters of immensely flavorful tomatoes, cucumbers, romaine lettuce, cheese, and breads. I thought it was an excessive amount until I tasted the fresh-made cheese…and couldn’t stop myself from devouring as much of it all as possible. Everyone else seemed to be suffering the same temporary insanity, and we cleaned house. Afterwards we sat for a while as the sun set and a breeze drifted through the palm trees all around us. I alternated listening to the bubbling laughter of French conversation and the quiet, measured Arabic dialogue with our guide.
Our ride back saw all seven of us crammed into one station wagon, but I was so in awe and bliss from the day I barely noticed the discomfort, and walked home from Tahrir in a surreal daze.
Sorry guys, I’m afraid I waxed a bit poetic (and long) on this one. But this is one I wanted to write for me. To remember.