This Far, And No Further

The camel is a smart animal. It knows how to bend down at the knees to allow the rider to mound. But be careful what you say, because the camel can understand you in any language.

An Egyptian Odyssey

“And said, Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further; And here shall thy proud waves be stayed?” — Job 38:11

Once upon a time, I found myself at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza. It was on a family holiday we had been planning and saving for a while, and a visit to the famous pyramid was, not surprisingly, on the list of “must see” destinations or areas of interest to check out. This was in the days when it felt really good to go anywhere in a world without borders, artificial or otherwise. How the world has changed so dramatically. It is no longer the same. Not many things have remained as they were.

As part of the journey to reach the foot of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, we even took a ride on a camel. The camel is a smart animal. It knows how to bend down at the knees to allow the rider to mound. But be careful what you say, because the camel can understand you in any language. Never curse or laugh at a camel. Or, for that matter, any other animal.

In Kelabit folklore, they have stories of a whole longhouse being petrified and turned into a stone mountain, which can still be seen to this day. All because the village folks laughed at a frog dressed up in loincloths to amuse them, with grave consequences.

The ubiquitous camel ride was one of those many “tourist traps” being cleverly set up the moment you step out of your hotel, to wit, to catch the unwary traveller and get the unwary traveller to part with some spare change from his pockets. There is always someone after your hard-earned money, as if you are an Onassis, Bezos, Musk or Gates.

While negotiating the price for the camel ride, I couldn’t help wondering who was the smarter one — the camel, the tourist, or the camel master? Obviously, not the tourist. Nor the owner. It has to be the camel being the true winner at the top of the pyramid of winners. The camel wins, for it is want of nothing. She is just happy to be a camel. She accepts and is at peace with her fate. If only we could learn some wisdom from her and get some peace of mind in return.

A frightening and grotesque creature but a real desert saviour, the camel is in fact a wonderful creature. In other words, the moral of the story is don’t judge a book by its cover or, more precisely, an animal by its external looks. All animals and things have been created for a purpose. Each has a unique feature or characteristic. Isn’t life such a good teacher?

The day before, we went to the Cairo Museum and spent the entire day going through the displays in the sprawling, multi-storey museum complex. We saw the fantastic collection of authentic displays of ancient Egypt — the real chariot of war of the Pharaoh, tools and implements of day to day existence in ancient Egypt, all manner of vessels and containers, and so on from the heydays of the Pharoah.

We saw invaluable treasures that only a King of Kings could own; his ancient writings comprising figures of birds and animals, showing how advanced his civilisation was; and thousands of other things. We even came face-to-face with the Pharaoh himself, though he was in the glass display, lying down in full dignity. And very well preserved. The ancients knew something we so-called “modern men” do not.

That day, we came early to the museum, and we were driven by excitement to view first-hand the original antiques. Something we have read about but never imagined being able to see with our physical eyes. Years later, I discovered the real reason we went early and entered the museum the moment the doors opened that day, and it had nothing to do with the exhibits but with the sand and dust.

The dust was everywhere; dust of the present day outside, and dust from ancient times inside, and amongst the exhibits. Probably, dust in the minds of the myriads since the dawn of time, even in the Garden of Eden, that paradise on Earth that was lost due to a clouded mind. There is dust even in the spaceship orbiting the Earth. And outside of it.

You may have heard of cosmic dust, also called extra-terrestrial dust or space dust, which exists in outer space or has fallen on Earth. The universe is full of dust. It makes one wonder how unavoidable it is for man to be created from dust. It looks like dust is the very foundation of the physical universe. Well, the observable facts seem to point to that reality.

So undeniably, a fact of life is dust. It is found everywhere and is a true part of the universe. Why has no one adopted dust as their national symbol when it is so obvious a fact? I wonder why the selective blindness to an obvious fact.

And an undeniable characteristic of dust being ever present everywhere is the dust’s love for carpets. Do you ever notice that? Carpets are never free from dust, and both seem to co-exist. If you are still in doubt, look under your carpets. Better still, go outside and give it a good beating. Now I wonder, or rather believe that perhaps that was the real reason why carpets were weaved in the first place — to catch dust and fine sands that seem to be present wherever men and women are present.

Everyone loves the dust collector. It’s been politely named the ‘carpet’, long before cars were invented and became more important than pets. Kings, emperors, despots, and all shades of authority figures loved them — laying them on the floors of their palatial palaces and on the walls and parapets. Even the humble peasant would have one in his humble abode. No one wants to be seen without one. It’s a status symbol.

Being ever present, it is no wonder that dust has been declared as public enemy number one ever since the days when brooms were first invented. Woe to a man or woman who fails to learn the art of wielding the broom, for he or she will be subdued and utterly humbled by the dust in no time. That’s where the term “bite the dust” may have come from. When you are humbled, you are said to have bitten the dust. Even philosophers and mystics have reflected on and moralised about dust. My favourite mystic poet, Rumi once said: “When someone beats a rug, the blow is not against the rug, but against the dust in it.”

More than a dust trap, the carpet is a clever device to test the perseverance of all housewives, who are the epitome of patience and long-suffering. Not many can pass the test of perfection, least of which is the person termed as the “husband” in the house, but as for perseverance, nothing beats the housewife. Housewives keep on going, every day and day after day, even after every fall. And they are hardly appreciated, let alone thanked, for their roles in keeping house.

The carpet is the clever mechanism that keeps the fire of perseverance burning bright. A fire that is fed alive by hope and determination. It’s better that the carpet be beaten than something else. Carpets are good traps for dust, the true enemy. They help the housewife vent her fury at the dust. Truly a relief valve and a pacifier. In many societies, women are expert carpet weavers. It seems to come naturally, the need to make and have carpets.

Now back to the original story line of being poised at the foot of the great pyramid to get down the passageway into the middle of the pyramid. This was what we came here for — to see the great pyramids and to get inside, if possible.

The camel is a smart animal. It knows how to bend down at the knees to allow the rider to mound. But be careful what you say, because the camel can understand you in any language.

I took the first slot to go down, followed by the rest of the family. After all, I was the head. I held on to the railings and started descending the steep staircase into the heart of the pyramid. But I had hardly taken a dozen steps down the bridge when an overpowering feeling of being overwhelmed and being choked got over me. I started to sweat profusely and felt the queasiness of suddenly finding myself in a confined space.

Deep inside, I knew I could not descend any further, but to retreat was not easy as people were streaming down one after another. My trip to the crypt is this far, and no further. Like a mountain climber who trained his entire life to climb Mount Everest, giving up on the final ascent is a massive disappointment. But such is life. It has its ups and downs.

In desperation, I mustered the courage to climb back up the staircase, going against the general flow. It seemed like ages before I managed to reach the top. Just in time to gasp for some fresh air. I composed myself, looked up into the sky and its welcoming sense of space, and settled down to wait for the family to return from their trip to the innermost crypt at the centre of the pyramid.

And that was how I found out that I am one of those who may be claustrophobic, a term which is used to describe someone with a fear of small, enclosed spaces. If you’re claustrophobic, there is almost nothing scarier than the prospect of being trapped in an elevator for a long time. My condition is not as serious though. As it is a psychological thing, I have learnt to deal with it as I grew up.

Growing up in Bario, a thick blanket is a necessity. It keeps you warm and comfortable. But it has a dark underbelly to it. I recall having to struggle and fight hard to get out from under the blanket in the middle of the night, gasping for fresh air as the oxygen under the blanket had been depleted after I had fallen asleep under the thick blanket. Sometimes, I wonder if unintended suffocation under heavy blankets whilst asleep is the cause of sudden deaths in the village.

It took a trip to the great pyramid of Egypt — what I called my “Egyptian odessey” — to unravel a pre-existing condition that I never quite knew I had. But I am now assured that life’s mystery is such that we are never left alone. We are being watched and taken care of. That much is without doubt. Love is always on the prowl. Be an easy prey.

So, we must not despair of God’s mercy, for His mercy is bigger than all the world’s despair and hopelessness combined. And on this journey called life, it’s useful to remember that life is not about a perfect walk but how one keeps getting up no matter the number of falls along the way. Each step at a time, just as we learnt very early when we first started to walk as a toddler. How wonderful the lessons we can learn in this life, if only we are willing to be good students.

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