When we reached the exit from airport security we found our guide Ahmed holding a sign with our names on it. He greeted us with “Welcome home!” which I thought was just a charming version of “So glad to see you!” or “Welcome to Egypt”. But there is more to it than that.
Over the course of the first two days here several people said that very thing to me; drivers, hotel staff, waiters, ticket takers. Clearly this was not just a one off. There was a pattern to this and something intended by it. I finally asked our friend Dawn what this “Welcome home” was about. Dawn has lead these tours for years and views Egypt as a kind of spiritual home, surely she could fill me in.
“They are welcoming you home, to Egypt. Egypt is everyone’s home!”
This was about genealogy. This was a reminder that my blood runs to Africa. And that we can all say likewise.
In a flash my sense of being away from home was turned on its head. What I was being told was that by making this long and tiring journey across an ocean and across a continent, I have now arrived…. home.
Hard to imagine, that. We all come from somewhere it’s said, presuming different places. Geographically true. But genealogically we all trace our ancestry back to Africa, and to this northeast quadrant of Africa. I was being told “Welcome home, long lost kin!
Upon arrival at a new destination you never quite expect to find yourself at home.
The first task for any visitor is to work at orienting oneself to the new geometry, usually with city map or GPS in hand, seeking landmarks and street names, maybe making use of a tall building or a minaret. Something that lends a structure of familiarity to an unfamiliar pattern. And you need enough of that triangulation to feel like a loose grip on the situation is in hand. That is travel.
But home is another thing. Home is generally what you left to get here. Home is all familiar and cozy contentment, the warm and welcoming arms of routine, what we know with confidence belongs to us.
To be in a land you have never been, to hear sounds unheard before, smells and sights without reference only to be told “Welcome home!” comes as a jolt. Everywhere you travel you might be fortunate to find a hospitality that would indicate inclusion into someone else’s home. Maybe you would expect some form of greeting in that situation like “Welcome to our country”, or “Welcome to our home”.
But this new greeting is something shockingly familial, a phase saved for someone you know intimately well, for family, or those considered like family. This phrase is for someone who belongs. This phrase, given out, reaches for some universal about humanity. Something more than hospitality. “Welcome home” suggests that you are prodigal, only wandered off for a bit, now to return. That you have arrived at your true and forever home.
The Arabic sense of hospitality is strong, it’s built into what it means to adhere to Islam. The Prophet requires it of the faithful. So what line of category gets crossed here? What suggestion is made in the statement “Welcome home” to someone who before that moment of encounter was a stranger? What greeting is this to a face never seen before?
It seems we are gifted with unused senses.
“Welcome home” he said. And a sense of the world and how people live in it was turned. A new sense of it came to life. Maybe I might have been waiting on it. Maybe travel has about it a kind of returning.
There was another surprise waiting for me when I first saw the pyramids of Giza the following morning. Again, it involved a crossing of a category, though this time it was a blurring of the exotic and the familiar. I rose early to the sound of the muzzein giving a call to prayer. Cairo just would not let me sleep. My thoughts all night were of the Pyramids out there somewhere in the moonlight nearby. The call from neighborhood minarets got me dressed and outside.
You spend a good bit of life in plans and dreams to reach somewhere other than “here”. There is certainly lack of contentment hinted at there, one that has been justly decried as a kind curse hidden by the blessing. What else but endless misery awaits those who are never settled? But it also brings elemental life to a soul in persuasions of convenience and routine. And the unsettled nature of the traveler doesn’t beg for relief from it.
And then one day very much like today you wake up in Egypt in Cairo at the Mena Hotel on the Giza plateau, looking at the pyramids. And it becomes an experience so prominent, so central, that everything else seems to have been always pointing towards it. All of it was indicating that this would become what it is. It is a strange sensation to know that this might be what all that other stuff was for. What all those thoughts and experiences that clackered about, all that randomness, all the inchoate piecemeal bits, what they were adding up to. The point of it all. Being that you are here and this is exactly the place you wanted all along.