soul of my ancestors
"Lost is he who deserts his past."
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Soul of my Ancestors follows Igor Limansky, the son of an Egyptian emigrant, as he travels to Egypt for the first time in hopes of reconnecting to his family lineage, learning his grandfather’s story, and understanding the ancient traditions and modern lives of the Egyptian people.
An Egyptian proverb states, "Lost is he who deserts his past." It is a truth Igor knows in his bones and one that compels him to seek a better understanding of his family’s history. Guided by his ancestors and a desire to find a sense of home, Igor takes us on a journey that invites us all into the spiritual, culinary, and musical exploration of a returning son to his mother’s homeland.
Igor André Yvan Antione Limansky is a first-generation American and son of an Egyptian-Armenian mother and a French-Russian father.
As a third culture kid who has fostered his lifelong curiosity of culture and place, Igor has a way of building rapport and connecting to the hearts and souls of those around him.
He is a meditation practitioner, a community organizer, bow hunter, and chef. He lives in Bountiful, UT with his wife and dog.
In 1968 Igor’s mother and grandmother left Egypt in search of a better life. Igor’s grandfather, Raouf Khella stayed behind in his beloved country where the Coptic people, his people, have resided since the birth of civilization.
Raouf’s story and legacy have been a mystery to Igor. Growing up in Utah Igor's mother never taught him Arabic or encouraged him to celebrate Egyptian culture. Instead, she focused on raising him to be “American”. At 40-years-old, Igor feels the absence of the wisdom and traditions of his family lineage.
He hopes his trip to Egypt will help him connect to the soul of his ancestors and that he will be able to feel their guidance in this next phase of his life.
Cairo, Egypt 1958
From Left to Right Farida Philomena (Grandmother), Raouf (Grandfather), George Henry (Uncle), Theresa (Mom)
In old Cairo, the Coptic faithful gather for Palm Sunday. The sounds of conversation over breakfasts of ful medames and ta'ameya fill the air. With the help of a translator, Igor speaks with some of the families about the meaning of the procession, the Palm Sunday bombing in 2017, and the reasons so many people like his mother have left and why so many people like his grandfather have stayed. A cloud of incense follows the procession as it weaves through the ancient streets and ends at St. Sergius, where Igor lights a candle. Afterwards, Igor buys a bowl of Koshery from a street vendor and continues his walk through the old city.
At sunset, Igor finds himself at a cafe surrounded by mostly older men passing shisha. Their curiosity about Igor turns to conversation and upon hearing about his search for his grandfather's legacy they share stories of their own grandfathers and for some, reflections on becoming grandfathers themselves. It is a surreal experience for Igor as even the word for grandfather in Egyptian Arabic "Gedo" is foreign to him.
He feels more connected to his grandfather than ever before and at the same time more aware of the lifetime of disconnect he is trying to bridge. The music in the background is haunting and beautiful, the city starts to transform as evening arrives. Igor says his shukrans and salams and with the blessing of the shisha smoke he heads into the bustling Cairo night.
Music in the Blood
Igor walks through the Cairo streets and the sounds of music and revelry coming from a bar stops him in his tracks. He enters the bar to a scene of people dancing and singing with a full band. This place feels like an outlet for camaraderie and angst, it reminds Igor of his teenage years and early 20’s in Salt Lake City’s vibrant punk scene. The two experiences overlap and Igor settles into himself.
Igor walks into the bathroom of the bar wondering what life would have been like for his grandfather, Raouf Khella, a man who moved from Abu Tig in upper Egypt to Cairo. Raouf worked in a warehouse in the daytime and promoted live music at night. What was Cairo like in the 40’s and 50’s? How old was he when he lost his hair? Looking at his reflection in the bathroom mirror Igor wonders if he will inherit his grandfathers hairline and whether his love for live music and cigarettes also came from his grandfather.
The evening continues with a tour of bars and clubs with music from artists like Maryam Saleh and Abo el Anwar. Igor speaks with patrons and artists about how gathering for live concerts and the Cairo music scene has influenced their lives. Igor grew up in Utah surrounded by the fair-haired, light-skinned descendants of mormon pioneers. Being surrounded now by Egyptians makes him feel like he’s at a cousin's wedding and that everyone around him could be family.
As a Christian, a meditator, and a ritualist, Igor has always felt a connection to the desert fathers and the Christian traditions of monasticism and mysticism. In Salt Lake City, he was grateful to find a Zen Buddhist temple and a meditation practice that has supported his life for the last 18 years. However, he has always longed to find a connection to his Coptic contemplative roots. Staring at the Paromeos monastery, one of the oldest in the world, he thinks he may have found it. Located in Wadi El Natrun, the monks live much like those of ancient times. They wake up every morning at 4:00 am to chant in Coptic and the simplicity of their routine and stone living quarters underscores the monks' commitment to a life of spirit and worldly renunciation.
Igor spends a few days praying, eating, and meditating with them. Igor wonders what most christians in the USA would think if they heard these chants. Would they remember the roots of christianity in Egypt and the Middle-East? Would they remember that Egypt is where the Holy Family fled to blend in and escape persecution?
Igor walks the endless expanse of desert with one of the monks. They visit the stone ruins of ancient monasteries, explore the origins of Christian monasticism, and discuss the unique rituals and history that was borne from the merging of both Pharaonic and early Christian cultures. Igor imagined that he would feel a connection to fellow contemplatives at the monastery but couldn't have imagined the deeper connection he feels to the daily rituals and the generous faces of the monks.
The drive from Cairo to Abu Tig takes most of the day. Igor watches the sweeping desert landscapes and cloudless skies drift past the car window. In a cramped car the small Egyptian film crew talks about their love of storytelling and how it has influenced their lives. They talk about their families and the connections they have to their own ancestors and family histories. Igor notices how some of their stories underline the similarities of their lives and how other stories underline the profound differences in their experiences. All the stories however, remind Igor of the power our past has to bring meaning to our present.
Igor thinks of the Holy Family walking this same route as they searched for refuge in Egypt. He thinks about how the story of their sojourn in Egypt has helped sustain and connect the Coptic people to Jesus and the Holy Family for 2000 years. In Asyut they make a stop for food and gas. There, they meet Christian pilgrims making their way to Dayr Durunka and the caves where the Holy Family is said to have spent the night. Igor can relate to their desire to see and touch the holy sites and to tangibly know a piece of their Christian ancestry. Igor longs to have a similar experience of his grandfather and wonders what he will find when they reach Abu Tig.
Igor arrives in Abu Tig, he meets some of his extended family and they walk around the town and share stories with him about his grandfather and the Khella family. Igor can see the Egyptian features they share in their eyes and smile, together they visit the cemetery where his grandfather is buried. Sitting in front of the headstone, Igor shares that he feels his grandfather has guided him to this place and that his life and story will be something Igor will carry with him. Over a meal at the Khella home, Igor expresses his gratitude for their generosity in sharing their home, stories, and food. He hopes this is the first visit of many and that by uncovering his grandfather’s legacy he has reestablished a connection to his family culture that he and his descendants will continue to care for and deepen. Moreover, his grandfather’s presence fills him with optimism - a hope that the values of faith and resilience that the Coptic people have fought to preserve will be remembered and passed on through the generations.
Sham el Nessim
INHALING THE BREEZE
On the bank of the Nile, Igor walks past picnickers celebrating the warm weather with music, and traditional foods like fesikh, green onions, and termes. Igor spreads out a blanket and places a picture of his grandfather next to a candle. He lights the candle and takes a deep breath. He is joined by some of the crew and friends he made on this trip. He feels a sense of connection to a tradition his grandfather, the Egyptian people, and the ancestors have been celebrating for the past 7500 years. The writer Milad Hanna once described Egyptian identity as “Sunni face, Shia blood, Coptic heart, and Pharaonic bones”. Sham El Nessim is a national holiday rooted in the pharaonic celebration of the coming of spring that falls the day after Easter Sunday. Egyptians across the country celebrate this national holiday together. Igor feels as if participating in this tradition is a baptism into his own ancient linage tradition. He feels a sense of wholeness and deep connection to himself and his ancestors.