The year that my sister and I got camel saddles was the Christmas we never stopped talking about.
In 1966 we lived in a fashionable suburb of Cairo. Our villa was just a few blocks away from the vast Sahara desert, where we would sometimes walk after dinner with our parents. That Christmas night we placed the camel saddles we’d received that morning at the end of our beds. We sat on them and sang. When we ran out of songs, we made up stories, and when we ran out of stories, we described all that we saw– for now our camel saddles had transported us and we were on a journey that we helped one another see. We described the infinite number of stars suspended in an ink-black sky, with no water to reflect it. This was the first of the imaginary desert rides we would take. There were more. Cross-legged on those saddles, we dreamed futures and told each other’s fortunes. These fortunes involved a mix of TWA, Pan AM, the UN, and Broadway. Neither of us did any of those things, but symbolically those dreams foretold who we would be.
My sister is gone now, but the camel saddles remain as my Christmas image in that snow globe that shakes up flurries of memory and longing and gratitude. Now I travel without her under that vast sky– an epic journey begun together, continuing in stillness in the growing light of Christmas each year. Alone and yet never without her.
My sister, my parents, and my brother were writers. They wrote letters and journals and stories– leaving a trail of anecdotes and laughter set free by the typewriter ribbon and held in place by the ink on the page.
In going through my mother’s papers, I found a letter that she had written to her mother. She was writing about our Christmas in 1966. In it she said that the worst thing had happened: the Christmas presents had not arrived from the States. By the time the final post came and she realized the presents were not in it, the shops had closed on Christmas Eve. She made her way to the market at the Mosque in the center of Cairo. She clearly despaired as she wrote: “All I could really find for the girls were a couple of camel saddles. If they were disappointed, they didn’t show it.”
Had she not known? Had we never told her? Those camel saddles carried us into our futures as we sang the epic song of a childhood Christmas year after year.