Egypt's Nile river is well and truly steeped in ancient history - istock
Egypt’s Nile river is well and truly steeped in ancient history – istock

Amid all Egypt’s great wonders, it was a visit to a backstreet orphanage in Luxor that marked the start of a life-changing journey

At the Saatchi Gallery I stand before a black Tutankhamun, his skin representing the fertile, life-giving silt of the Nile. My mind is cast back to a time years earlier when I stood with my husband on the banks of that great serpentine river. 

The vast, serene waters gleam in the orange air. A felucca casts a wing-like sail across a low Egyptian sun, fronds of palm trees on the far bank visible across the water. From my hotel balcony in Luxor, I am stilled by the scene. The tranquillity is healing, and exactly what I need. 

My husband and I had been trying for a baby for a year. Until recently, I hadn’t really focused on why we hadn’t got pregnant. I was in my thirties, busy building my career in law, and anyway my GP had said it was normal to take a couple of years to conceive. It will surely happen for us, we think. Surely. 

Then, devastating news. A fertility specialist tells us my hormones are outside the “acceptable” range for IVF and we would not be able to have children of our own. And so we book a holiday, to Egypt, to take our minds off this news that leaves us charred on the inside, depleted, our eyes hollow from a desperate, incurable grief that only those who have been there can know. 

After settling in, we attend the holiday rep’s presentation. “At the end of your holiday,” he notes, “please consider leaving any unused toiletries at reception, as we donate them to the local orphanage.” My husband and I exchange looks. We both know that alongside the ancient sites, we will also pay a visit to this orphanage. 

The next morning at the Temple of Karnak, I marvel at the magnitude of the structure, built on a scale for the gods. Flanked on either side by guardian beasts at the avenue of sphinxes, I feel safe, that all is well. The heat, though, presses upon us like a weight. As we explore, I could not have known that beneath my feet, under the earth, lay as-yet undiscovered bronze statues of Osiris, the Egyptian god of fertility.

Temple of Karnak - istock
Temple of Karnak – istock

The next day, we muddle our way through backstreets to the orphanage, expecting unkempt babies and peeling paint. But it is a bright, clean, beautifully decorated space, and on the floor, in cribs and bouncers, are a scatter of chubby, cherub-faced babies.

They see us and beam, reaching up, arms outstretched. I didn’t know then that this is how babies who have not learnt to form a bond with a single care-giver react, that they love indiscriminately. The rush of emotion is immediate. I don’t easily cry, but in that moment, as I hold a squishy-thighed baby girl named Suzanne, I sob, overcome with an influx of boundless love weighed heavily with a sense of tragedy. How could these gorgeous babies have been abandoned?

In the next days we see the Herculean Colossi of Memnon, the regal Hatshepsut Temple, with its mathematical symmetry and the gold-laden Valley of the Kings. We do obligatory horse-and-carriage rides and eat meaty shorba soups and koftas with ­vermicelli rice. 

Banana Island is next. It floats in the middle of the Nile. There is something magical about an island in a river. We select a felucca with a guide who isn’t too pushy. His name is Mo and he gestures to us to embark. 

Banana Island is ripe with an abundance of sweet papayas and mangos. They are felled from trees and cut open for us to eat. Deeper into the island, down a track between the foliage, we happen upon an old man in a blue kaftan, seated alone on a throne-like chair. He looks like a biblical sage from another age. We nod and smile, unable to communicate.

“Bismillah,” he says. These are words we know. They mean in the name of God, and so we chant Al-Fatiha, the Muslim Lord’s prayer. It is surreal: four strangers standing on an island in a river declaiming shared words. He insists we eat at his home that evening. 

Hatshepsut Temple - istock
Hatshepsut Temple – istock

Mo drives us through areas tourists don’t see: dirt tracks and single-storey shacks. We discover that the old man is a holy man. Dinner is served, and tea and sweets follow, and then this: “How long have you been married?” 

My gut constricts, because I know what’s coming. 

“You don’t have children?” he asks. 

We both look down with a shake of our heads. The news is still raw, and we are not ready to talk about it.

 “I will pray for you,” he says. 

Before we leave Egypt, we head back to the orphanage because my heart aches to see the babies again. They have news: a newborn was found in the reeds by the Nile that morning by a passer-by. They name the new baby Naja, meaning “saved”. He writhes in my arms, his head warm in the crook of my elbow. “Shhh”, I say. “You’re safe now.”

Back in London, I look into the possibility of adopting a baby from the orphanage, but our hopes are quickly dashed. Red tape and prohibitive expenses apply because these babies are not technically orphans. Abandonment, we are told, means living parents and legal complexities.  

Then a new hope. A friend insists I consider a new fertility centre she has heard great things about. The centre permits me a mercy shot at IVF. The kind doctor punches the air with forced enthusiasm; he has harvested an egg, a single egg. The woman in the hospital bed next to me has 14 eggs. She struggles out of bed and comes to my side. In a whisper, she wishes me luck, her eyes so gentle. I smile and look away.

Fertilisation, a grade one embryo, but it fails to take. I have not conceived. The day I learn this, I’m walking home from my London commute. I think of those sunsets on the Nile, of the people we met, and I make a decision. I decide to stop. To accept that we will not have children of our own. Almost at once something shifts.

A weight drops and the world around me comes alive. I notice graceful treetops waving in the darkening autumn sky, the scent of damp earth like perfume in my nose. I find, in that moment, I am deeply content with every aspect of my life as it is. 

It’s 2020, and at the Tutankhamun Exhibition I whisper to my sons, now 11 and 13, that one day I will take them to Egypt. The month after my failed IVF, I discovered I was pregnant. Naturally. And I know that for all the wonders in Egypt, there are lesser-known treasures I discovered that will stay with me forever. 

Tutankhamun Exhibition - eddie mulholland
Tutankhamun Exhibition – eddie mulholland

Hina Belitz’s new novel, To Lahore, With Love, is out now and available to buy online (£9.99, Headline Review)

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