In my grandson’s second summer, we picked mango, peach and lime in our Cairo garden, and figs at the beach. He learned the names of all the trees. Now he is four and the trees bear names but no fruit. The well we dug in the garden at the beach to water our desert figs yields saltier water, and in Cairo, a storm of burning winds killed the infant fruit on the branch. We pick the limes and admire their hardiness. I tell him the fig and the mango will come back next year. I think I’m lying.
I find I can’t talk to him about animals – and children’s books and games are full of them. In the Arabic alphabet, “a” is for lion, “b” is for cow, “t” is for crocodile, “th” is for fox, “g” is for camel, “h” is for donkey, “kh” is for sheep. What animal here would have a good word to say for humanity?
This morning someone shared an image on WhatsApp: in an infinity of blue water, lush trees and bushes grow, framed by the metal oval of a wrecked ship.
The Egyptian creation myth tells of a small island that rose as the waters of chaos receded. Papyrus and lotus grew on the island, and among them stood the deity the Egyptians gave the head of the sacred ibis. Thoth brought to mankind language, maths, architecture and all technology. Beside him, her restraining, sheltering arm around his shoulders, stands his consort Maat, embodying ethics, harmony and justice. Thoth could go nowhere without Maat.
The ibis has not been seen in Egypt for 150 years. Today we watch as concrete is sunk into the threatened and polluted Nile to make walkways; as ports are modified to receive coal; as eucalyptus trees, two centuries old, are torn from the ground to make wider roads for cars.c
The ibis was a silent bird.
Just before bedtime, the children and I sit on the terrace – close and silent – and contemplate the river. A rare kingfisher dives in the tree-hung area near the bank, two ducks rise in parallel from the water as though on a temple wall, a stork settles on a rail with an eye out for fish, and in the current in the middle of the water, an egret drifts down-river on a raft of rubbish.
My alphabet has gone. I have lost the ability to talk to my grandchildren happily and hopefully about the world.
“A” is for animal and “b” is for bird. “C” is for carbon and “d” is for desperate. “E” is extinction and “f” is the future.
Ahdaf Soueif is the author of “Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed” (Bloomsbury)