Six years have passed since that morning, but today, when I come across that dusty and tattered book now tucked away in a box in my room, I still remember. The book, Fyodor Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov," is a Russian novel that had been bought in America. But in looking at it now, I think neither of Russia nor America. Instead, my thoughts drift back to the Nile Valley and to two young sisters who call Egypt home.
Four months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, I traveled to Egypt. After several days in Cairo – where on more than one occasion taxi drivers, after expressing sorrow for the attacks in New York and Washington, refused to accept payment from me – I traveled by train to Luxor, the ancient Egyptian capital 12 hours to the south. I was traveling to Luxor to visit Pharaonic ruins – but I was also traveling to read my book.
During my first day in the city, which is spread out along the eastern bank of the Nile, I took "The Brothers Karamazov" to the Karnak Temple. It wasn't long before I discovered a cubbyhole amid fallen and crumbling pillars and settled down to read.
My eyes pored over sentences like "For the mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for." At some point a security guard stopped by to ask what I was reading and to offer a cup of tea.
At dawn the next morning, I boarded a ferry bound for the opposite bank. Scores of other travelers were boarding as well. But while they were venturing to the Valley of the Kings – the location of the burial chambers of numerous Pharaohs, including Tutankhamen – or to the stunningly located Temple of Hatshepsut – the 3,500-year-old mortuary temple built by a prominent female Pharaoh – I was heading someplace slightly off the beaten track.
Having been to Luxor before, I remembered that near Hatshepsut's Temple several trails led up the mountain against which the temple was built. At the top, I would be free of the throngs of tourists and in command of a spectacular view of the Nile Valley – a perfect place to read my book.
Stepping off the ferry, I hitched a ride with a local farmer to a dusty village about a mile from the temple, where I planned to begin the hike to the mountaintop. But before I commenced the actual ascent, two girls skipped out of a house and pulled up beside me. Basma, age 10, and Na'ama, who was 8, asked my name. And then, in a world so often interested in money, Basma immediately said, "Ana mish eayza filus." ("I don't want money.")
In tourist-saturated towns such as Luxor, it isn't uncommon to be approached by local children wanting money. But what Basma said was true: The sisters didn't want money; they simply wanted to be friendly and join this lone stranger as he walked through their community.
I was sort of thankful, perhaps selfishly, that the girls had no large house, no satellite television, or any other costly possession that might have led them to ignore a passing stranger.
Partly because of their simplicity, they could see me. They even felt an interest in joining me. For free, they said, they would show me the best way up the mountain.
In my clumsy Arabic, I chatted with them about school and family, and the girls asked how things were in America. Their company was delightful.
Before long we reached the point where the trail began its ascent. Here the girls needed to turn back toward home, but before they did, they made me promise I would stop by their house to say hello once I was off the mountain.
I gave them my word that I would.
Forty-five minutes later, sweaty and coated in dust, I reached my destination.From my perch, I looked down on both the temple and the neighboring village and couldn't help but remember that a terrorist attack had been carried out by members of an outlawed Egyptian Islamic group right next to Basma and Na'ama's village on Nov. 17, 1997.
It is no secret that the individuals we encounter, be they good or bad, affect the way we experience a place.
It is also true that the venues in which we choose to read a book affect the way we encounter an author's words.
Hundreds of feet above the valley, I opened "The Brothers Karamazov" once again and soon read another of Dostoevsky's wonderful lines: "Above all, love little children, for they are sinless, like little angels, and they are there to arouse our tenderness, to purify our hearts, and in a sense to guide us."
Taking a break from the text, I let my gaze fall onto the village below.
I was thankful that on this day I had encountered not those who were violent and hateful but two curious children who took an interest in a stranger. Basma and Na'ama probably weren't angels, but I suspect that in some small way, even though time and distance now separate us, they will continue to guide me in the years ahead.