Aida grew up on the El Masri estate by the Nile – in Karawan House, a pink mansion named for the legend of the nightingale:
Aida loved the beautiful but sad legend about the bird, which Dada Amina used to tell her when she was a child. In Arab tales, the rose was believed to have originated from a sweat droplet fallen from the prophet Mohamed’s brow. Legend has it that from the time the first rose was created from this droplet all roses were white, until a nightingale fell in love with one of the blooms and pressed its body so hard on the petals that the thorns of its stem pierced the nightingale’s heart, turning the white rose to red with its blood, as well as creating the sad notes of the wounded bird’s song.
Karawan House is not the most imposing house around, but it is grand enough, and beautifully situated:
Its central structure was flanked by two lower wings, holding a ballroom and terrace on one side and a jardin d’hiver, the equivalent of an English conservatory, on the other, which was a suntrap even in winter. All the front rooms in the house looked out over the river and the desert, but the view from the back rooms was just as magnificent, taking in the grounds, with palm trees and green fields in the distance.
Though she lost her mother in childhood, Aida has such happy memories of growing up at Karawan House with her father, an archaeologist. This was a warm, loving, secure environment for her. But when her father died in her late teens, his reputation in tatters, Aida was devastated, and she fled the judgmental eyes of Egyptian society, travelling to England, where she lived with her mother’s brother and worked as a nurse during the war. Now, eight years later, Aida is an adult, and with the war at an end, she has decided to return to Luxor and seek justice for her father and clear his name.
So it is, with a heart filled with love for her father but also grief for his loss and fury for those who caused his death, that Aida comes home. Yet she finds that the El Masri estate is not quite the home remembers.
Aida’s eyes travelled over the exterior of the building. Once so full of life and laughter, it seemed that Karawan House finally lived up to its name. After all these years, and with her father gone, it seemed shrouded in melancholy and drained of its former colour.
The finely carved old mansion that had been solidly built was now in bad repair. It displayed a neoclassical dark pink and cream crumbling stone façade with arches, pediments, columns and elegant, narrow windows masked by faded green wooden shutters.
Without a master or mistress at the helm, the estate is not flourishing. It’s clear to Aida that she will have to step up and try to restore the estate and develop it, for herself and for the many workers employed by the estate. Still, this is no easy task, especially for a lone woman in 1940s Egypt.
A simple solution would be to accept the marriage proposal of her neighbour, Phares: a marriage between them would unite their land, and she would no longer bear all the responsibility for the El Masri estate. But Karawan House and its estate is home! Aida can’t just relinquish that, give her family land to Phares; she cares deeply about the estate.
According to the old adage (which originates from the title of Thomas Wolfe’s 1940 novel), ‘You can never go home again.’ It’s true, in a sense: Aida’s homecoming isn’t what she wishes it could be, because the home she remembers is gone – her father, her innocent youth, warmth, love, security. Still, this place can be her home again, if she is ready to start a new chapter in her life, to grow, to learn, to be open to change. For as George A. Moore wrote, ‘A [wo]man travels the world over in search of what [s]he needs and returns home to find it.’