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A Paraoh Stole My Wallet

“Let’s go to the train station to see what we can do,” said Issem glumly.

It took but a moment to realise that our carefully planned holiday was on the brink of ruin – a hollow sensation in the trouser pocket where once it bulged with the security of a wallet. Only 30 minutes ago, I had disembarked from the night train from Cairo to Luxor, swum past a swarm of touts canvassing for accommodation, and arrived, I thought, unmolested at the hotel.

Get back a lost wallet from a train that was then speeding towards a destination more than 200 km away? I smiled at myself. Besides, what if it was not lost on the train?

“How do you think you lost it?” asked Issem in the most rational and calculated way, as though investigating an archaeological find. Not surprisingly, for Issem graduated in Archaeology, Antiquities and Egyptology. The title may be quite a mouthful, but for an Egyptian, it is all in a day’s work. Egypt has always been associated with ancient artefacts, in particular, the pyramids.

Modern people have found it hard to come to terms with such a massive piece of construction work by ancient people 5,000 years ago. At 148m, Cheops pyramid is a stupendous 45-storey high structure. Someone has estimated that its stones could be used to build a wall 3m high all around France. Some people have invented the theory that aliens were the true builders of the pyramids, much to Issem’s irritation.

The theory is incredible because there was a progression in the construction of tombs for ancient Egyptians, Issem explains. The first “pyramid” by Zoser consisted of six layers – the so-called “stepped” pyramid.  After that, Snefru attempted to build a true pyramid but the angle of his pyramid was too steep. He ended up with a “bent” pyramid where a point of inflexion occurred half way up the sides of the pyramid. He did, however, correct himself with a proper pyramid later. The three succeeding generations after Snefru saw the building of three Great Pyramids at Giza. Later pyramids (and tombs) focus less on the size than on the artistic decorations inside the pyramids. In that way, much more was preserved of those ancient people through their writings than those gigantic but essentially empty monuments at Giza. The challenge of building a pyramid had obviously worn off on a people who could build five of them in four generations and so they moved on. In short, the Egyptians got bored with building pyramids.

“Two possibilities,” I replied. “Either I did not push the wallet deep enough into my pocket and it fell out, or I was picked at Luxor Station.”

Issem smiled and waved a finger. “No, I have never heard of such a thing. Not in Egypt.” There was that air of complete conviction in what he said that I had to believe him. A good thing too, for otherwise, how could I continue to entertain any hope of getting back my wallet from the train? But it was the more galling alternative of the two because it meant I was now the chief culprit – and victim as well – of this misfortune.

It was not a big station. After a brief inquiry, Issem led me to the barbershop. A stern-looking man was just then having his hair cut. It took me a while to realise that it was not a barbershop but the man’s office. His junior officer was attending to his grooming. Issem knocked lightly at the open door of the small office full of woolly hair on the floor and waited deferentially for a response. He was not his usual buoyant, I-can-deal-with-anything self. For he stood before the august Egyptian bureaucracy, the size and state of the office notwithstanding.

After a short exchange with the man, Issem led the way to another office. The same deferential knock preceded the entry into a more spacious and airy office, modestly furnished with two desks, behind each of which sat a senior officer. On the desktops, I could see no computer monitor, although the presence of a telephone set heartened me considerably: we had moved up the bureaucratic hierarchy. Here was where facts could be ascertained and decisions made.

I was asked to write a statement. The stationery was a sheet of foolscap paper, the two leaves of which sandwiched a piece of carbon paper.  When I finished, the 2 leaves of paper were pressed firmly down at the spine to facilitate tearing.

A unique element of ancient Egyptian bureaucracy is the scribe. He is commonly depicted as sitting cross-legged on the floor, silently recording all that is going on. His contribution to our understanding of ancient Egypt cannot be underestimated. Another depiction shows him looking up, throwing up his two hands as if struck by wonder. This is the hieroglyph for the value of 100,000. In an ancient’s mind, this must have been an awe-inspiring figure. Yet the ancient Egyptians had use for such a figure and invented a glyph for it. The 2.3 million limestone blocks of the pyramid of Cheops must have been recorded by some scribe at some point using it.

Every now and again, the world becomes infatuated with ancient Egypt anew. Witness today the series of The Mummy movies and cartoons. We are mesmerised once again by their strange writings, an adumbration of past glory, whether they be an echo of deep religious faith or simply a chatter of everyday trivia. For more than a thousand years, man could not distinguish one from the other, unable to discern beyond the meaningless symbols of a lost language. Then in 1799, a black stone tablet was discovered at Rosetta, near Alexandria. On it were three parallel inscriptions in hieroglyphics, Demotic and Greek. The brilliant French Egyptologist and linguist, Champollion, studied it for many years and finally deciphered the hieroglyphics in 1822. A resurrection of ancient facts and knowledge followed. The ancient Egyptian scribe has been given expression once again.

To my complete disbelief, I saw him sitting in that very office, on a chair, not cross-legged, but serving every bit the function of the scribe of ancient Egypt! Among all the items I witnessed being handled by the senior officers – documents, calendar, phone, teacup – the pen was not one of them, except when their signature was required. Instead, a junior officer was seated next to them, taking down their dictation of any official notes or correspondences. Welcome to Egypt!

In sweeping strokes that would have thrilled any left-handed writer of a Latin language, Issem accomplished a translation of my report in the right-to-left script of Arabic. Phone calls must now be made. The train was not contactable while on the move except through the cell phone of the security officer on board. That had to be traced first before he could be tasked to make a search. It was a time for patience.

It is an unfortunate name for a telephone company – Nilcom. Would you sign up with a telephone company whose name suggests that you would not get any communication (nilcom)? It is obviously derived from the River Nile, like so many other things in Egypt. Only 2% of Egypt, otherwise known as the Gift of the Nile, is arable land, consisting of a narrow strip of land on either side of the Nile. The annual flooding of the Nile gives the ancient Egyptians three seasons to their calendar: a season for sowing, a season for nature’s work, and a season for harvest.

The middle season was a time for pyramid-building because peasant labour was available, Issem tells me. This is an unfamiliar explanation. Our stereotyped view is that the pyramids were built by slaves. Issem has a satisfactory explanation for his position. Not far from the pyramids of Cheops and Chefren lies the burial ground of people who died while building the pyramids. If they had been slaves, they could not have been offered such prime burial grounds next to royalty. The Pyramids Sound the Light Show echoes a similar sentiment when it proclaims that such work could not have been effected by the whip; it was the labour of the faithful.

As for the desert – the 98% – it is a much-neglected part of the tourist’s itinerary in Egypt. The desert, where the morning glory blooms; where date palm and all kinds of greenery flourish; where eggplants the size of large pomeloes are produced. Yes! This is Bahariya Oasis. One cannot imagine life so rich and vital, yet so simple and dusty. No fast food, no credit cards, no traffic jam (but still dusty), no hassle. However, only a stone’s throw away lies barrenness. Barren, but not boring. A 4×4 jeep brought us out into the beautiful landscape of the desert. The Black Desert is pimpled with hillocks of volcanic origin. A simple climb up one of these gives one a breath-taking view. The White Desert is made of white limestone. Wind and time have carved both strange and recognisable shapes that stand on the desert floor like sculptures. Our driver prepared us a hot evening meal under the stars. Now I know where those astronomy books got their pictures of stars from: they copied them from here – and did a very bad job of it! We gazed upon those sidereal LEDs as we drifted off into slumber under camel hair blankets. Boy, was it cold!

Finally, the security officer on the train was contacted successfully but his mission failed. I was to go to the Toursim Police to make an official report for my insurance claim. But I thought I just did! Never mind, I chose not to ask any question.

Would it be perfectly understandable if, at this stage, my conversation pointed to accusing some unknown pilferer of picking my pocket? Not to Issem! He absolutely refused to entertain that possibility and became quite irritated with me.

At the Tourism Police, the same two-leaf foolscap sandwiching carbon paper was proferred, with the same pressing down of the spine before tearing, complete with a real-life Egyptian scribe thrown in. My story was regurgitated in full. Many more telephone calls were made. It was in the midst of one of these that the officer said something to Issem, who in turn addressed me in an emotionless voice, “They found your wallet.” It was fifteen minutes after the train pulled into Aswan Station.

I didn’t know what to think. I suppose the credit cards would be there. But what about the Egyptian pounds? And the US dollars? And the Singapore dollars? These were unworthy thoughts. I heard the happy, ripping sound of my report being torn – across the page, not down the spine. I did have a niggling doubt of whether I might need it after all if the found wallet turned out to be someone else’s, but I had come to accept that doing the exact same thing twice was not always a meaningless waste of time. Nor should stereotyped thinking be teacher of cross-cultural understanding.

A lot more red tape was needed before I saw my wallet again.

That evening, Issem and I returned to the train station. On the floor of the office were two bags without tags. Lost luggage, I thought. I could immediately empathise with their owner, who, like me a while ago, must be feeling adrift just then. My heart went out to that poor soul. A short while later, my “poor soul” was escorted into the room, looking scruffy and unkempt. He was handcuffed. Mostafa pointed at the two bags and informed me, “Drugs!”. I recoiled.

On the desk, I saw a sealed brown envelope. Much verification and recording of one sort or another had to be done. The scribe was scribbling furiously by the side. Issem fed me with crumbs of information as they fell off the bureaucratic machinery, “Your wallet is in the envelope…there are 2 credit cards….an ATM card….993 Egyptian pounds…”. In that fashion I was duly informed of all that my wallet contained: the exact number of US dollars, “Singapore money”, down to the coins.

I knew that Issem was still smarting under the pickpocket “accusation”. After a few silent rehearsals, I coaxed these words out of my mouth: “It was my fault. I was careless. Thanks for your help.” “It’s OK,” Issem replied, “Only thing, you should not have thought it was a pickpocket. This kind of thing doesn’t happen in Egypt.”

We needed three more stops at various government departments all over Luxor to get my wallet back. The standard bureaucratic drama of foolscap-carbon sandwich, pressing down of the spine before tearing, and the silent scribe were performed. A soldier led the way, bearing the brown envelope protectively in his closed palm as if it were a holy relic. Issem and I went in procession after him.

If you would have it, Luxor has the right aura for this kind of gad-about. Luxor was known as Thebes when it was the capital of Upper Egypt. Thebes saw the golden age of ancient Egypt. Powerful kings ruled from here. Beautifully decorated tombs were built across the Nile in Valley of the Kings. When the kings died, the accoutrements for their afterlife consisted of fabulous treasures. Power struggles and court intrigues were a natural development. Presumably this was how the high priest, Aiy, came to be buried in a valley close to the Valley of the Kings. He had almost attained royalty during his lifetime. It is believed that he murdered the young king Tutankhamun and later married his widow.

Thebes belonged to the kings and the priests. The kings have their valley, the priests have their temples. Luxor has two temples: Luxor Temple in the middle of the city and Karnak Temple three kilometres to the north. Each temple consists of an outer open court, an inner closed court (with ceiling), and an innermost chamber, where a shrine was housed. Every year at Karnak Temple, the king and the high priest would enter the chamber where the shrine was kept, perform cleansing rites to the shrine, and then bring it out in a holy procession through the streets of Thebes to Luxor Temple and back again to Karnak.

The breaking of the seal of the brown envelope and seeing my wallet emerge was a special moment for me. The closest experience I had to it was standing in the delivery suite when my first child was born. I verified that the credit cards were indeed mine but declined to count the money even though Issem invited me to do so. It was a weak attempt at redeeming myself, which I think he appreciated.

It was close to midnight of a very long day when we left Luxor Police Station and walked in silence through the chilly night. Suddenly, Issem turned sharply towards me and asked, “Where is your passport?”

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