I took a parlor car tour of parts of the American West, starting in Rapid City and ending in Salt Lake City. It was good; I enjoyed the sights; but my strongest memory was actually the on-board tour guide warning us that when we stopped for lunch we inevitably were forced to congregate in the gift shop before we left. The wonders of Yellowstone, Mt. Rushmore, the Tetons, Jackson Hole, but always tainted by the imported curios in the local gift shop.
I was watching Tony Bourdain taking his No Reservations travel show to Egypt and he regularly reminded the viewer and the Egyptian guide that he was in Cairo but he wasn’t going to see the pyramids. True, you could see them from the hotel balcony off in the distance, but how could you go to Egypt and eschew such impressive and ancient monuments? Well, Tony made a good point by suggesting that he didn’t want to exit through the gift shop. After all, what does Tony need with chotchkes when he’s in search of good food (and a cold beer).
If we die and go to heaven will Saint Peter direct us through the gift shop after we pass through the pearly gates? Or is the gift shop in hell? Seems more appropriate, right?
Thinking about gift shops and Egypt reminds me of the book I just finished: The House of Jasmine by Ibrahim Abdel Meguid. Well, actually it made me think of when I first read Naguib Mahfouz’s masterpiece, The Cairo Trilogy … three volumes and no gift shop. When I read Palace Walk, the first volume of the trilogy, I was transported half-way around the world and to early in the last century. I was not in Kansas anymore. Everything was new and strange and fascinating. I could smell the streets and taste the tea in the shops. Sitting on the sofa in New Jersey I left my mundane life and found life and adventure in Egypt.
Although Mahfouz’s novels were surrounding the struggles in Egypt early in the last century, Meguid’s novel, The House of Jasmine, covers a period of history and political strife that I had experienced myself, albeit on television in New Jersey. Perhaps it is the familiarity of the period but I felt I was reading a decent novel that punctuated its narrative with references to the political changes that were going on in the Near East in the seventies. But I never lost myself in the life of Egypt; in fact, with only a few changes to the narrative and the names of the characters, I might have been reading about people in Spain or France or even Canada. Yes, The House of Jasmine had a gift shop.
By that I mean that Meguid’s novel wasn’t deeply satisfying and if you don’t want to forget it too soon, you had better buy those salt and pepper shakers that look like the pyramids.