Secret of the Desert
The Golden Palace Perfume Shop beckons like an enchanted fairytale retreat after the noise and grime of the Cairo streets. We are seated on plump cushioned chairs and offered heavily sweetened tea by our host, Mahmoud. The mirrored walls are lined with glass shelves on which rest hundreds of delicately curved perfume bottles in hues of pale blues, greens and reds. The golden accents shimmering in the mirror overwhelm my senses and I close my eyes to get my bearings. Despite the enchanted feeling of this getaway, however, I am feeling far too wrinkled, frumpy and middle-aged to be a fairytale princess, especially since my hair, face and clothes are covered with a thick layer of sand whipped up by the Egyptian winds. As I sip my tea, I pray that I can make it out of the shop without breaking any of the bottles.
It is March of 2003, just days before President Bush orders the bombs to be dropped on Iraq, and I have chosen to travel to a Muslim country, despite the protests of friends and family. I am here with dozens of scholars from around the world to presentb a paper to the African Literature Association conference in Alexandria. We are spending two days in Cairo as tourists before the conference begins.
After we have had time to sip our tea and get comfortable, Mahmoud brings out the first set of essential oils for us to try. He explains how these oils are made and boasts that they are far more concentrated than, and thus superior to, the perfumes one buys in stores. Certainly, he sniffed, these perfumes are far superior to the bottles sold in barbaric fragrance outposts such as France.
Mahmoud brings around little vials and rubs drops of the oil onto our wrists. I am most impressed with “Secret of the Desert,” a subtle, earthy fragrance. Mahmoud explains to us that this was the perfume Cleopatra favored and which was the key to her success with men.
“Men will be unable to resist your powers if you wear this perfume,” Mahmoud promised us.
“Is that a guarantee?” I asked.
“If it doesn’t work, bring it back and I will personally verify its powers,” he said, winking. Everybody laughed.
Choosing to trust in the wisdom of Cleopatra and the guarantee of Mahmoud, I decide to purchase “Secret of the Desert.” As I wait in line to pay for my purchase, I think about my experiences so far in Egypt. Although I was not scared enough about bombs and potential terrorists to stay away from Egypt, I admit to being uneasy in a Muslim country at this time. So far, the people have been remarkably warm and welcoming, but still, I can’t help but think of the tourists who were murdered a few years back. Despite our constant police escorts, it could easily happen to us.
It is my turn to pay for my purchase. I hand the man behind the counter my credit card. While swiping my plastic, he smiles at me and asks where I am from. I hesitate in my reply. I do not want to say the United States because I feel so horrified about the impending bombs and ashamed to American. I consider lying, maybe claiming Canada or Germany as my home, but that doesn’t feel right.
“Minnesota,” I say.
He looks a little puzzled and responds, “I’ll need to see your identification.”
I hand him my license with trepidation. He places it in his shirt pocket.
Alarms go off in my mind. Why does he need my ID? Is there a problem with my credit card? No, the sale went through without a problem. It must be because he knows I am an infidel from an imperialistic Satanic power-crazed country and therefore I must be punished. I bet he is going to share my driver’s license with his terrorist friends, all of whom are Al-Qaida operatives. They will put me on the hit list of unveiled brazen hussy infidel s who must be stoned to death. My mother was right; I should never have come here.
Then he looks down at the license and said, “No, you are not from Minnesota. You are from heaven.”
For a few moments, I am utterly confused. Why would I be from heaven? Isn’t he the one who will go to heaven for murdering me? I stare at him, speechless.
He is smiling and winking at me.
Then he hands me back my driver’s license, along with a card with his name and phone number written on it.
“Call me,” he says.
Finally, it dawns on my jetlagged brain: he is flirting with me. Cleopatra was right; this perfume really works!
I feel a huge surge of relief. I beam at him with happiness, but not for the reason he is hoping. I am not going to die, at least not today, at least not at the hands of this man. I have been so obsessed with geopolitics that I have lost sight of a basic truth: commerce and seduction will always trump war. Even Cleopatra knew this.