My Dad Was A Real-Life Tomb Raider
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My father is an academic. With two masters, a PhD, and a salt and pepper goatee, he’s done his best to conform to the “university professor” cliche. When he received his doctorate, he went out and purchased an arm chair. He already had the slippers and maroon robe, a gift from my grandmother when he first left Egypt for America in 1986. He traded in cigarettes for cigars, and then, on his 45th birthday, he gave himself a Meerschaum pipe. Almost 20 years later, he is now the proud owner of one of the largest tobacco pipe collections in the family. This is impressive, you see, because according to my grandmother, the men in our family have always been avid smokers. And, more importantly, they have always been collectors.
When I was still young enough to be escorted to and from the bus stop, I once used that time to ask my mother why I’d never met either of my grandfathers. They both died before I was born, she told me. Before either of my older siblings were born actually. But they were great men, she reassured me. Her father was a doctor. Incredibly kind, and known in his small district in Egypt as a community leader. Similarly, my father’s father held a position of influence, although more formal. He was Mayor of Hurghada, the third-largest city in Egypt, and District Attorney before that. What was he like? I asked my mother. But he had died long before my parents even met. She had only heard stories, most of which detailed his professional successes. What role he played in my father’s life, however, remained a mystery.
Over the years, I approached my father many times with questions about his childhood. He told me about his work on an oil rig and all about playing in the sand dunes with his friends after Friday prayer instead of going back to school. With a cheeky grin, he would recount how he, like Sean Connery he’d say, was the popular kid in town. Girls would fawn over him, but he never had time for a relationship – just fun. He showed me decades-old black and white group pictures of him and his friends – he was in the center, of course. But what about your dad? I’d ask. And he’d change the topic.
The mystery grew, as did my curiosity.
I first visited Egypt when I was eight. The contrast to the American suburban Illinois town that I called home was staggering. The streets were coated in a thick layer of dirt and dust, and unabashedly aggressive beggars lined the sidewalks. If they didn’t fill their daily quota, my aunt explained, they’d be punished by their bosses. It was strange to me, because the homeless in Chicago usually kept to themselves. Egyptian beggars are armed with determination and a sharp tongue, not an empty 7-Eleven cup for change.
I arrived at my grandmother’s house and was engulfed in a storm of hugs and two – three? – no, two kisses on the cheek from tens of family members I had never met. Every smell seemed to be ten times as potent as it was back home – spices, dust, and the scent of summer heat seeped into my mid-Western palates, piquing the part of me that empathized with my Egyptian ancestry. My grandmother’s house was in Giza, and the family was lucky enough to secure the location years before I was even born, which meant that each window gave a stunning view of the three great pyramids. But my attention was drawn to the mahogany-framed picture hanging above the black-and-white TV in the salon. At half the height of my eight-year-old self, the photo was hard to miss.
“Who’s that?” I asked my cousin, just two years older than me. After making it abundantly clear that she was appalled I’d even ask such a question, she replied: “It’s Gid’o, allah yarhamo.” God rest his soul. For the first time in my life, I saw the face of my grandfather.
Eight-year-old me was not impressed.
“That looks like my baba,” I said. I needed more. Later that night, I went to my grandmother, who would sneak me cups of Turkish coffee when my mom wasn’t looking. We discussed petty things – how I was still jet-lagged, whether or not I liked the local food – whatever conversation my little Arabic allowed. Finally, I broached the topic. “Nana,” I began cautiously in the fear that she would react like my father did. “Why does baba never talk about Gid’o?”
“Ah,” she said, nodding knowingly. “That’s because he feels guilty for killing him.”
Now, at only eight years old and having spent the entirety of my life in small-town Illinois, there was quite the language barrier between my extended family and I. So for the next four years until my second visit to Egypt, I understood my grandmother’s revelation as, “He is sad about his death.” Which was understandable to the young me. But four years later, both my Arabic and detective skills had improved measurably.
“Why,” I tried again, “does baba get so uncomfortable whenever I bring up Gid’o?” This time, my grandmother looked perplexed.
“He never told you?” She said. “Your Baba was a tomb raider. When he was younger, he took something he shouldn’t have, and cursed my husband. Your baba won’t approve of us talking about it. Tea?” A deliberate change of topic.
From what I was told, my grandfather had died when my father was only 19. My uncles – ages 1 and 13 at the time – were left without a father figure in their lives. And, because “family came first,” as my father always told me, he dropped out of school, got a job on the oil rigs on the coast of the Red Sea, and assumed the position of Man of the House. In light of the conversation with my grandmother, I realized that his intentions were not as altruistic as he had always made them out to be.
I approached my siblings for help. “Don’t you want to know the big secret?” I asked my sister while queuing in line for a camel ride at the pyramids. We had grown up with Sherlock Holmes novels and CLUE board games. This was the sort of mystery we had only ever read about. Mysterious death of a grandfather linked to the theft of an ancient Egyptian talisman? Indiana Jones had nothing on my dad.
We went on a family day out to the pyramids once, and when we were about to enter one of the structures, my dad stayed outside. “I need to make a phonecall,” he said. But we’re about to enter Khufu, the largest of the three pyramids. “Go on ahead, I’ll catch up.” We entered without our father, and quickly realized there wasn’t much exploration to do. A vertical pitch-black tunnel met us at the entrance. Grooves in the wall made for a makeshift ladder, and the passageway was so narrow that our backs could rest on the back wall for support. Anyone remotely claustrophobic would not have a great time in there. Our ascent was marked by a number of side passageways with a sign hanging precariously in front – “KEEP OUT. BOOBY TRAPS”. Finally, our guide stopped at a seemingly random doorway – without the cautionary signs, I wouldn’t have been able to differentiate it from the rest. We crawled through and I braced myself for all the glory I would associate with the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh. We emerged into a room with high ceilings – clearly at the center of the pyramid – lit with floor lamps. A massive stone bed sat in the middle of the room, hollowed out. “That’s where the sarcophagus was,” our guide told us. I looked around at the bare stone walls.
“Where’s everything else?” I asked him in Arabic.
“Tomb raiders. Now their children and their children’s children are cursed. God help them.”
Originally published on Gate37.