Within the monotheistic traditions that many of us honor, this is a time for New Year celebrations. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year welcoming the 5,774th year of the Jewish calendar was observed in September. The Islamic New Year commemorating the 1,435th year of the prophet Muhammad’s emigration (Hijra) from Mecca to Medina was observed in November.
Today many will welcome Gregorian year 2014 with parties and good cheer, feasting, drinking, sobriety checkpoints, football, walks on the beach and New Year resolutions made – and broken.
Among my New Year memories I recall getting arrested in Egypt during some government protests, a beach in Oman facing the Arabian Sea, a bonfire along New Hampshire’s Seacoast just before a New Year sunrise and Sittoo, grandmother, always making Moghrabieh, a form of Lebanese couscous, for a New Year feast.
Today, I remember a New Year celebrated long ago, in privilege and comfort, where I faltered in standing for the Other.
“Why don’t we get a bunch of friends together and spend New Year’s on the Upper Nile, visit archaeological sites and enjoy each other’s company?” was the idea that got us started.
Before long a group of Saudi, Egyptian, European and American friends had hired an Egyptian cruise boat, retained tour guides and were ready to sail the Nile.
We gathered in Egypt over dinner at the Cairo Marriott and a surprise dinner guest (but not for the cruise) was Omar Sharif, who had attended high school with one of my friends.
Yes. Omar Sharif of Doctor Zhivago fame. Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia. The Omar Sharif who was a world-class bridge player was a friend of my friend, and he was at the next table! I actually took a Polaroid of him and got him to sign it. By dinner’s end the photo had disappeared; so much for the loyalty of friends when the iconic Omar Sharif is present.
Our days were filled visiting places like Philae, Aswan, Edfu, Kom Ombo, Esna and Luxor. Pharaonic and Greco-Roman sites overwhelmed us with their beauty and grandeur, positioned by their architects with great vistas across the Nile valley.
We visited Djeser-Djeseru, Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple at Deir el-Bahri. Hatshepsut, which means “Foremost of Noble Ladies,” was one of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs. She was, as American Egyptologist James Henry Breasted wrote, “the first great woman in history of whom we are informed.”
A backgammon tournament started on day one with a “championship” round scheduled for our last night onboard. Every Middle Eastern male on the cruise fancied himself an expert, and they considered me just a young interloper – a bit of a nuisance.
But I entered. And won. And won. And won. And the more I won, the more it was excused as my “luck” vs. their “skill.” And the more I won, the stronger the Arabic expletives and the more tempers flared.
Backgammon, or tawleh in Arabic, is a really big deal, and it was as though I was challenging their virility.
But I had really good luck, humor and a secret: Before coming to Egypt I had been on assignment in Riyadh, and staying at the same hotel as I as Paul Magriel, one of the world’s foremost backgammon authorities, who was there on a private visit. We met in the coffee shop and, as Paul was bored during the day (he visited his client only at night), we spent our afternoons playing backgammon. He was a wonderful mentor, and I was a quick learner.
I won the tournament.
It was a wonderful New Year. Meeting Omar Sharif was a high point, learning about Hatshepsut’s greatness was an unexpected pleasure and winning the backgammon tournament a sweet victory.
And there was a low point, one where I was silent for too long.
Our party took breakfast and dinner onboard – we had the run of the ship and everyone, everything, focused on serving us. Each meal, the cooks made far too much food to eat – that’s the tradition – and much was left over. Many of us familiar with the Middle East knew that the staff who served us would share the leftovers.
On days when our boat was moored at a site we were visiting, some of the tour party – particularly the Americans – gathered up the leftover food and took it off the boat to feed to the scavenging pye dogs that gathered nearby.
I should have said something the first day. I didn’t. I didn’t know everyone well. I was among the youngest, and I wasn’t group leader. On Day 3 I said something, explaining how the extra food was meant for the people serving us.
My comments were not generously received. In their mind I was protecting the anonymous crew whom they couldn’t see – the mechanics, room cleaners, sweepers, servers – while I was ignoring the mangy stray dogs in their line of sight, and affections.
Others supported me. The practice dwindled, then stopped.
It’s easy to be silent. Safer sometimes, too. But we are called to speak – it’s the gift we’ve been given that distinguishes us, to be able to name things. To speak for dignity, for honor and truth. To speak for pleasure or with praise. It is the gift we are obliged to share.
Today. Every day.
Happy New Year.
This column appeared originally in the Concord Monitor.