Ma’at and the October War
by James K. Bowers
It was called “The Battle
of the Chinese Farm”. Situated along the Suez Canal near the Great
Bitter Lake was the Japanese experimental agricultural facility for which
the battle was erroneously named. It was here that the Israelis and
Egyptians fought one of the most important battles of the October War of
1973. It was here that Samut fought the most important battle of
his brief and insignificant military career.
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Samut was born in Cairo in
1949, son of a wealthy doctor, but was destined for a far different purpose
than that of his father. As much as his father wanted Samut to become
a doctor, the boy would have nothing to do with such plans. No, rather
than pledge his abilities to the saving of lives, Samut intended to become
a taker of lives. He would become a soldier. Samut refused to respond
to his father’s numerous attempts to prod him into the medical profession,
instead becoming even more intent on his dreams of becoming a soldier.
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Stubbornness, it seems,
is hereditary. Samut insisted that his future was dependent upon
his desire to become an officer in the Egyptian Army. His father,
on the other hand, refused to help Samut realize his dreams of command.
No money would be forthcoming from him for anything but a medical degree.
Furthermore, unless Samut acquiesced, he would no longer be welcome in
his father’s house beyond his eighteenth birthday, mere weeks away.
It was perhaps an unfortunate battle of wills, for neither Samut nor his
father could hope to win. The gears of fate were set into motion,
and there was nothing to do but watch as the future unfolded.
It was, of course, Samut’s
decision to make. In the days before his eighteenth birthday, Samut
spent more and more time with his Uncle Harkhuf, and it might be argued
that his uncle’s eccentricities did nothing but “confuse the boy”.
Five days before Samut’s birthday, Uncle Harkhuf took great pains to present
him with a small wooden case. Within the ornate box were a number
of small scrolls, each covered with ancient hieroglyphs. “The old
ways are all but forgotten, and it saddens me. Samut, my sister’s
only son, you must take this with you. This is a copy of the Scrolls
of Ani which I transcribed myself during the first year of your life.
You must keep it with you always, for there may come a time you will need
the scrolls in this case.” Uncle Harkhuf would speak no more of it,
and on June 14, 1967, the day before his birthday, Samut joined the Egyptian
Army, not as the officer he hoped to eventually become, but as a lowly
Life in the army was hard,
much more demanding than Samut had ever imagined. The days were long
and those in command, though they bore the rank of officers, seemed more
like slavedrivers than professional soldiers. When his lot in life
seemed to become unbearable, Samut would think of his father. He
would think of the ridicule that his father would heap on him if Samut
failed to realize his ambitions. “Here is my failure of a son, the
one who would not accept my gift of years at university. Here is
the young fool who refused to become a great doctor in order that he could
spend his time guarding sand dunes from the Jews. Here is the dreamer
of glorious dreams” It was, as always, enough to strengthen Samut’s
It took time, much more
time than Samut would have preferred, but his dedication was rewarded.
He was given more responsibility, and with that responsibility came competence.
When Samut’s competence was noticed, he was promoted in rank. With
rank came more responsibility. And the cycle began anew.
By 1973, Samut had risen through the ranks. He had become an
officer through dedication and sheer strength of will. He was a newly
appointed lieutenant in the Egyptian 21st Tank Division. His father’s
doubts regarding Samut’s capabilities would surely be erased if he only
were told this tale of Samut’s success. But, alas, Samut and his
father had made no attempts to keep in contact over the span of the last
six years. Samut dearly missed his mother and his sister, and he
often thought of Uncle Harkhuf, but could not bring himself to return to
Cairo, his boyhood home. He had no desire to again argue the issue
of his career choice with his father. Even if there was no exchange
of words, Samut knew the ghosts of old disputes would hover over them,
ruining any chance of repairing their relationship. No, he mused,
it was better that he never return.
October found Samut and the
tanks of the 21st Division playing their role in the new offensive.
The plan to recapture the Suez Canal and neutralize the Israeli Bar-Lev
Line was executed swiftly and skillfully. The small column of tanks
rumbled along, the “Chinese Farm” easily seen in the distance. They
had no advance warning, no idea that they were in any danger. Samut
and the crew of his tank saw the brilliant flash that erupted within the
crew compartment. Then nothing.
It seemed as if hours had
passed before Samut awoke. It was silent and he was puzzled when
he realized his crew was no longer in the tank. He clambered out
the open hatch, wondering at his inability to hear anything, then thought
that he must surely be deafened from the blast. His crew waited for him
outside the tank, miraculously none the worse for the wear. Their
uniforms were tattered and ripped; their skin had scrapes, cuts, and burns.
Otherwise, they seemed to be healthy enough. They, as well as Samut,
carried packs on their shoulders. Oddly, Samut did not recall ordering
the packs removed from the tank’s storage compartment. His head ached
and he felt dizzy, but he straightened himself and continued making his
way over to his crew. At first, Samut thought they had been watching
his approach, but as he drew near it appeared they were looking at something
behind him. As it became obvious this was the case, Samut stopped
The temple was not at all
large if compared with the gargantuan stone monuments and structures left
by Samut’s ancient forefathers, but it was much larger than anything that
Samut remembered seeing in the rather barren terrain his tank column had
been traversing. It made no sense, but yet Samut knew this place.
With its elaborately decorated walls and ornately carved columns, the temple
was, at once, both out of place and exactly where it should be. Samut
turned again to his crew, but they were gone.
Returning his gaze to his
battered tank and the temple behind it, Samut struggled to make sense of
his surroundings. From within the temple appeared a young woman,
dark-skinned and beautiful beyond words. Her silky black hair cascaded
softly over her shoulders and danced in the slight breeze. Upon her
head she wore an enameled gold circlet, and from it an ostrich feather
fluttered above her left ear. With a wave of her hand, the steel
of Samut’s tank was transmuted to sand. The wind rose to an incredible
fury, reducing the sand that was once an engine of destruction to a slight
mound, barely noticeable among others here in the desert. Samut’s
eyes met hers and though her lips never parted, he could swear she was
calling to him.
Samut walked over the sand
that was once his tank ¾ to the woman
¾ to the temple. She smiled and
he followed her into the darkened interior. After the heat and wind
of the desert, the restful calm and coolness of the temple’s interior was
a welcome relief.
The woman said, “You have
arrived far earlier than we had expected, Samut. You have preceded
even your Uncle Harkhuf.” Samut thought it odd that she would know
his name, much less the name of his favorite uncle, but still he said nothing.
“My name is Ma’at and I will be your guide for a few moments. Before
you leave the Judgment Hall of Osiris, I will pass judgment over your soul.
If you have lived a good and just life, you have nothing to fear.
If there is wickedness weighing on your heart, you should have nothing
but fear.” They walked silently through a torchlit hallway for what
seemed to be miles.
Samut remembered his uncle’s
strange ways and beliefs. He thought back to the last week he spent
with Uncle Harkhuf and... and remembered the unusual gift his uncle had
given him. He had looked at the scrolls numerous times, always puzzled
by the ancient hieroglyphs but never finding time to decipher their meanings.
As though Samut had been speaking aloud, Ma’at answered his unspoken questions.
“Yes, Samut. They are in your pack. You were wise to have kept
your uncle’s gift.”
They, at length, arrived
in a large chamber with a pool dominating its center. The water sparkled
as if it contained the stars of the night skies, and sweet perfumes filled
the air. A long table with platters of meat and fruit stood along
the wall to Samut’s right Young servants busied themselves about
the table and the pool. “Samut,” said Ma’at, “you may rest here until
I call you to the Great Chamber to be judged. You may wish to bathe
and have a meal before you are summoned. If there is anything that
you require, you have but to ask one of the servants.” She then turned
away and walked away in silence.
Samut, at first, did nothing.
He had, while walking with Ma’at, come to the inescapable conclusion the
he was, in fact, dead. There was no other explanation for anything
that had happened in the last few hours. Days? Weeks?
Samut had no idea what role time might have in this world of the dead,
but decided that a bath and meal could certainly do him any harm.
Were the pool acid and the food poisoned, what harm if he was already dead?
The water was relaxingly
warm and after bathing at length, Samut reluctantly left the pool to sample
the dishes laid in abundance on the table. The food and drink Samut
found to be of finest quality as he ate his fill. His tattered fatigues
had been replaced with a soft linen tunic, and as Samut rested on a padded
reed mat, his thoughts turned again to Uncle Harkhuf’s gift. He motioned
to a young servant girl, then, as she waited expectantly for his instructions,
he described to her the small wooden case that she was to retrieve from
Samut accepted the case
from the girl, thanking and dismissing her. He ran his fingers across
the lid of the wooden box, tracing the intricate carvings with his fingers.
It was all so familiar. He opened the box, revealing the small scrolls
contained therein. Picking up the first of them, he unrolled it expecting
to see again the cryptic ancient scribblings. He did; but unlike
before, Samut understood the hieroglyphs that danced upon the scroll.
He began reading. He did not stop until he had read them all.
He was brought food and drink by the servants, but refused to cease in
his study of the scrolls, choosing instead to take meals while he read.
Many days passed.
Or a few seconds, for what is time in a timeless world? Ma’at returned,
as promised. Samut was given over to Anubis to lead into the Great
Chamber and Ma’at again said to Samut: “If you have lived a good and just
life, you have nothing to fear. If there is wickedness weighing on
your heart, you should have nothing but fear.” Thanks to Uncle Harkhuf’s
gift, Samut was prepared for the rituals of the Judgment of Ma’at.
His ceremonial entrance into the Great Chamber went well and, in the presence
of Osiris, Samut recited each and every line of the Negative Confession
as if he had known it his entire life. “...have not spoken lies.
Hail to thee, Set-qesu of Hensu, I have not stolen food. Hail to
thee, Utu-nesert of Her-ka-Ptah, I have not spoken curses. Hail to
Thoth dutifully recorded
each word Samut spoke. When the time came for the weighing of Samut’s
heart, he looked to Ma’at and she nodded. Waiting by the scales crouched
Ammit, the Devourer of Souls, drooling, snarling, and eternally hungry.
The horrific creature, a patchwork of crocodile, lion, and hippopotamus,
stood ready should Samut fail. Beyond Ma’at and Ammit was the doorway
to the Kingdom of the Blest, through which Samut would walk if the weighing
was in his favor. Ma’at reached to her headdress, removed the ostrich
feather, and placed it on one pan of the scale. She smiled as Samut
stepped closer and, without fear, placed his heart on the other pan.