Perhaps Mike was right that he should never have left Egypt. A moment after we parted, I peered into a courtyard of the West Bank of Luxor--the one below my apartment--and saw a group of women huddled around a large silver skillet, dipping bread in a rich green stew.
"What is that?!" I said--rather hungrily.
The oldest woman--the cook, it turns out, Zaina--beamed and waved me to sit.
"You eat with us!"
It took a split second to choose between going off to a hotel for dinner--and facing the alienated rapport with hotel staff, food and tourists--and sitting on the ground with six beautiful giggling Egyptian women around a skillet.
"Don't mind if I do," I said--and dipped a thick piece of spongy bread, made by Zaina herself that morning, into what turned out to be a spinach, garlic, clove, and onion sauce.
Followed by the freshest bowl of vegetable soup, and a real stuffed pigeon, that one eats--I learned--in one sweet, succulent gulp.
In the meantime, I gazed around at my fellow diners--all young women, except for Zaina--and asked who was married, who was not, and how it all came to pass.
The youngest girl, next to me, the one who had teased me with a lifted eyebrow, asking my name, and who now rolled up my sleeves, one by one, with a smile, as I launched into the pigeon with my hands, now told me she had just finished high school, and that she did "nothing", but hoped one day to either be a housekeeper in a home, or--with a hopeful giggle-- "married."
"And how does that happen--marriage? Arranged or love?"
The girl gave a broad grin. "Why love I hope!"
As for the handsome woman behind her, with the beatific look of contentment, her hair pulled back under her veil, her marriage was "one of love!"--all the girls chimed--with Zaina's son, her own cousin.
"A great love!" my young interlocutor added, putting her arm around me. "A great great love!"
The wife herself nodded with a sweet laugh. Suddenly I noticed the little bundle of blankets besides her on the divan: the new baby. He slept with his fists curled still in the air.
It was interesting, this enclave of women--all very warmly nestling with each other--and, it turned out, in some way related, although not all lived there. Indeed one woman had left her husband for the night to "sleep over" with the girls.
Zaina the mother/grandmother was the cook. She cooked for all of them nightly.
"A supremely excellent cook!" I enthused. Truly the best food I had had in the Egypt.
In walked Zaina's husband, home from a day as a taxi driver for BBC news; he took off his sweater, settled in the couch, and said: "Yes that is why I married her! I followed not my eyes, but my nose! The best kitchen is Zaina's!"
Zaina reached up and took his hand; they smiled affectionately at each other.
I could not help speculating that each of these women--even the happily married young girl--had been mutilated, but still the sense of family caring was enticingly strong.
"It's better, life on the West Bank," said the husband. "Better than Luxor, the East Bank. Here we are still a village. We live collectively. We help each other."