Saturday, August 09, 2014

Learning To Live And Living to Learn










 I was talking to a friend today about this blog post and he told me that there is an Egyptian saying "If you do something, you might make a mistake and be punished, but if you do nothing you can't make a mistake."

Once a social psychologist, I suspect always a social psychologist. I went off to graduate school at the University of Waterloo in the mid 70's with a lot of illusions, but mostly I went there because they had a very short application form and one of my peculiar oddities is a horror of filling out forms. I can always think of other ways to answer the questions on them, ways that won't fit into little boxes, so I'm always left with a feeling of failure and confusion. Probably Waterloo wasn't the place for me academically, but it was where I met many beloved friends and where I met my late husband who was, in traditional Egyptian fashion, an engineering student. The social psychologists were experimental social psychologists, people who basically played experimental tricks on people to find out things about social behaviour. My advisor, Dr. Melvin Lerner, was an archetypal Jewish psychology professor and specialised in a field that studied victim blaming. He would undoubtedly be turning in his grave these days seeing my stand in social media for a just peace for Palestinians, but that is neither here nor there, because the parting of our ways came as I decided that I wasn't cut out for academia. I was interested in studying the development of verbal concepts of fairness in children, a topic that he didn't find very exciting, and his lack of support made me realise that this was not to be my life. When the graduate officer in our department asked what I was going to do next, I told him that I was considering opening a Mexican restaurant in Toronto...which, by the way, I never got around to. But much of what I learned to question and the concepts that helped me to formulate questions have continued to be useful to me in my very checkered career as a corporate wife, mother of multinational children, unwilling prisoner of corporate life and now living on the farm.

Dr. Sergio Forapani demonstrating dentistry to my staff
Before January 2011 many people in Egypt and beyond the borders never thought that the Egyptian people would rise up against the military rulers of the country. The reasons for this assumption were usually framed in terms of the "eternal patience" of the Egyptian people, citing millennia of authoritarian rule. But having watched methods of childrearing in Egypt, I had my doubts.  My in-laws, who were more or less upper middle class educated Egyptians, found it odd that I spoke to my children from the time that they were infants, explaining the reasons for my decrees as to what was acceptable or unacceptable behaviour.  I was living in Canada most of the year but would spend a month or so every winter with them in Cairo, during which time I drove my mother in law in particular rather mad by insisting that children under the age of three had no need of additional sugar in their diet, so her boxes of candies went untouched, or by refusing to allow a child who passed up a sandwich at lunch a couple of cookies later.  "But he's hungry!" she would cry. "If he were that hungry, he would have eaten lunch, but in the meantime he can have a carrot or a piece of fruit." was my cold-hearted response. I was terrible, I know, by refusing the request for a random toy when we went to a store. "But you have plenty of money!" "But they have to learn that you don't get everything you want it when you want it. Sometimes you have to work for rewards; it's called delay of gratification." She was utterly unappreciative of the value of a master's degree in psychology and thought that everything I did was completely mad, until one day she complimented me on my 16 year old son's skill at being a host at a family iftar and told me that she'd always thought that I was crazy but had decided that perhaps I knew something. I took the compliment with good humour, knowing that was as good as it ever was going to get.

Even one of my husband's uncles, a celebrated gastro-enterologist, told me flat out that it was pointless to talk to children under the age of four because they couldn't understand anything. I asked him how children were taught behaviour in Egypt and he just shrugged. Obviously, he'd never troubled himself with this problem, but his wife certainly had since his children of his first marriage, who were good friends of ours, were lovely people. When I moved out into the villages, my children were independent adults living and studying in the US, but I enjoyed the chance to watch parent/child interactions in the villages. One of the patterns I noticed was a sort of benign neglect. Children ran about under the more or less watchful eyes of parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents and older siblings, but they were not engaged in conversations by individuals older than them. They might talk to each other, but in general they would answer a simple question from an adult with a wide-eyed stare and no comment. This was true of my questions and I noticed that it also happened with most other adults. In my book of upbringing, not to answer a direct question in some fashion would be a major fault, but it seemed fairly normal to most of the adults. The children could speak when they wanted to, that was abundantly clear watching them together, but they rarely spoke to or were spoken to by adults. When I asked how the rules of life were learned, one father told me that people figured that by the age of ten or so a child was assumed to have learned them and would be punished for breaking them.

This fascinated me. Rules were almost never delineated or explained but breaking them brought punishment. It reminded me of the old learned helplessness experiments I'd learned about many years before. Basically, these experiments involved shocking or imposing other unpleasant experiences randomly to individuals in a learning task with the end result that the individual seemed to decide that it was irrelevant what he/she might choose to do because something bad was going to happen no matter what. The individual would no longer seek to do "the right thing" or try to avoid "the wrong thing" because it didn't matter. Essentially outcomes were random and uncontrollable, so why try. That essentially was the life for many children. They weren't told what sort of behaviour would bring a particular response....they had to find out for themselves and the outcome might not actually have anything at all to do with what they'd done. If Dad came home in a bad mood, you'd get hurt, no matter what the behaviour. Since the parents had also been raised in the same fashion, it all made a sort of perverted sense to them.

When I began looking around at day to day life in Egypt, the same random response pattern showed up. Even things like taxes for companies have no cut and dried rules, but are negotiated with someone, with the outcome completely unpredictable unless you figure out the right amount of lubrication to be applied. Students at universities and people competing in sports often find that who you are related to has much more to do with your success than what you do. One of my friends who visits me in Egypt from New Zealand on a regular basis always posts a blog of her trip and one year it was entitled "Egypt: We Do Random Well", so it isn't me who notices the tendency to random outcomes, punishments and rewards. The Egyptian school system is a prime candidate for the imposition of learned helplessness. In the first place, most teachers are just people who couldn't get another job. They aren't trained in any way at all. They are certainly not qualified to impart knowledge since their main qualification is a lack of qualifications for any other work. The curriculum could honestly be said to have been created by that famous room full of monkeys with typewriters. I've tutored village children with their English homework, and it is utterly insane. One little boy was given a text to read that went something like this:
"Fatima and Hamza are brother and sister. Their father is a doctor who works in a hospital and their mother is a teacher who works in a school. Every day they go to school, study their lessons and come home to do their homework after school. On Friday their father washes his car and then the family goes out to the park or perhaps to the swimming pool."

My first job was just to see if any of this made any sense to this boy. No women in his household worked outside the home. It is considered shameful if they do. Of course the fact that there is little in the way of transportation that could take women to jobs and even less in terms of jobs out here might also be a factor. None of the children in our village have a doctor for a father. Most of them rarely see doctors. Their fathers are labourers or farmers. In Egypt, NO ONE but possibly a cab driver washes his own car! If you can afford to buy a car,  you can afford to have someone else wash it for you..so this part of the story is fantasy. And finally, the little boy had to ask what a park was. He'd never seen one. He's seen pictures of swimming pools and maybe even seen one once but he's never been in one.  How could a primary school child make any sense of this, especially considering the fact that probably the teach was mispronouncing the words so much that the language hardly resembled English at all? And then,  even now corporal punishment is still common in schools and most of the people I've spoken to from our area experienced it and, in fact, quit school because of it. When I asked them why they quit, often the answer was something along the lines of "I could get hit at home, so why go somewhere else and have a stranger do it. I was too stupid to learn."

Dr. Sergio Forapani chatting with Dr. Mohsen Mohsen (right)
Dr. Sergio (left) and Dr. Mohsen (right) at a clinic
I have a staff of ten at my farm, five young men in their mid-twenties, three younger boys whose parents asked me to take them on to teach them, a housekeeper and my late husband's driver who is now my right hand after twenty years. Only Mohamed has any education. The rest never finished school and were convinced that they were too stupid to learn. I had often talked to them about going back to school but the answer was always the same....they thought there was no point.  After the revolution, when there was no work in tourism for us, I noticed that the guys were getting really, really bored with just the daily chores, so I sent them  out in ones and twos to work with the Donkey Sanctuary to learn to trim donkey feet. At first they were very reluctant, sensing another evil experience with the dreaded learning situation, but they came home energised and enthusiastic. The vet they were working under Dr. Mohsen Mohsen, is a skilled teacher who encouraged their learning instead of punishing their every mistake. They were happy to realise that the training I'd given them in horse and donkey care actually made them quite experienced in the field, which gave them more confidence.

Italian farriers showing the best treatment for a donkey at a clinic
Egyptian and Italian farriers demonstrating for my staff at a clinic
One of the biomechanics classes with farriers, vets and grooms
A biomechanics class with Dr. Sergio and vets, farriers, and grooms
After some months, after talking to some large animal vets who were saying how the gas price increases and increases in veterinary medicine prices were making it almost impossible to work with farmers who didn't have the cash to pay increased fees, a vet friend and I decided to try setting up a veterinary charity in our neighbourhood to help the farmers with their animals. We got a number of vets to work with us, both experienced and fresh from school. My guys were amazed to find that while they didn't have the technical knowledge of the new graduates, they did have much more experience and much more comfort in handling the animals, who ranged from pigeons to even the odd camel, with the majority being donkeys, goats, sheep, cows, water buffalo and poultry. This again was an enormous morale boost. We've been doing our work now for two years and every day farmers and cart drivers bring animals to the farm for treatment. We've had master farriers and a professor of veterinary science from Italy come to stay and give classes and practical lessons, often extremely technical work, and the guys are there for every class and every lesson, even coming in on their days off.  One of my gardeners has set up a chicken raising project for his wife and other women in his family to supplement their income, and they are raising some wonderful chicken. Friends from town make the trip to come to buy them, and there is an ego factor in knowing that professors and such are making a special effort just for your produce. Their veterinary knowledge is being used to raise better, cleaner, healthier animals and to teach others how to do it too.

I've watch typical learned helplessness victims turn their lives around and change their attitudes completely with giving them the chance to learn and use their knowledge to help others. One of the most impressive things, and something that I think has been extremely important, is the fact that they are not being paid for their veterinary work. It is all voluntary, even the work that occurs almost every day after working hours at the farm. This is a point of pride. Not only do they know things, but they can help people and do so without benefit to themselves. It isn't enough to give them knowledge...much of it they had before we started the veterinary work...they need to use it too.



copyright 2014 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Losing A Voice of Reason in Egypt

 A young man died yesterday who by any reasoning should still be here with us. Bassem Sabry was a writer, analyst, activist of the highest ethical standards whom I first encountered online during the winter of 2011. At times, reading the discussions on Twitter, Facebook and other social media, I was struck by his strong wisdom and innate kindness. When he published this on his blog I was stunned to realise how young he was, only 31 at this death, and how wise he was beyond his years. I posted many things that he wrote because he did it so much better than I did. I would urge everyone to take a moment to read this post from last May and think on it. If we all learned as much as he did in his thirty years, surely this world would be much better.


copyright 2014 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

 Revolutions are interesting things. While they can be quite exciting, frightening, exhilarating, and hopeful at the beginning, as we saw in 2011, they tend to drag on as a society tries to readjust and recalibrate...a process that is draining, frustrating, and often very boring. When it became quite apparent that the uprising in Egypt in 2011 was having a severely adverse effect on tourism which had been the main source of income for my staff at the farm, I began looking around for ways to keep a staff that was used to escorting tourists around our area busy with new activities. One of the things that I did was to sign some of my grooms up for a donkey care course that was being given by The Society for The Protection Of Donkeys and Mules In Egypt (a local branch of the international Donkey Sanctuary). They weren't thrilled at first since donkey care is held in much lower esteem here than horse care, but they came back from their classes lit up with the new skills and ideas that they were being taught. It was terrific to see the eyes open again after months of mind-numbing boredom. The routines of caring for horses and gardens at the farm really wasn't very stimulating.

One of the things that happened in 2011 was a number of newpaper articles here and abroad bemoaning the fact that the horses at the pyramids in Giza, horses who have always been a source of concern and dismay to visiting horsemen as well as the local variety because even in "good" times they've always been abused, were "starving" to death due to a lack of income for tourism. The situation was infinitely more complex than that, but local and international charities rushed out there to help the starving horses of Giza by distributing large bags of corn to people who often showed up with well-fed horses who I even saw being fed pastry as the owners waited to get their corn. Not only is corn NOT a good feed for starving horses having way too much simple sugars, but the wrong people for the most part were getting the corn, parceling out the grain into smaller bags and selling it in the markets at a very nice price. Most of it was not going to starving horses but no one was sticking around to find out.

Into this fertile ground fell some visitors to Egypt who realised that animal rescue was becoming a growth industry. Two separate young women set up "horse rescues" in Nazlet Semman soliciting funds through Facebook accounts to care for horses in Egypt during late 2011 and early 2012. Both of these charities touched the soft spots of animal lovers all over the world and collected significant funding, mostly from abroad, to care for the Giza horses, but unfortunately neither of them are either registered charities in Egypt and neither of them are precisely transparent in their financial dealings, leading one of them, the more successful, to block their page (Prince Fluffy Kareem) locally, meaning that anyone using Facebook from Egypt cannot even access their page. After having some problems with the Egyptian authorities over the fact that they are an unregistered charity, they opted to become invisible in Egypt. While there are questions about some treatments and account transparency, in their favour, they do help to feed the horses of at least some of the stables in Giza. The other charity, The Egypt Horse Project, has not done so well with its track record of care here and seems to be undergoing a metamorphosis of some sort lately. It is too early to see what is really happening and they have their own very serious issues of accountability.

About a year ago, having watched all the hullabaloo over the horses in Giza, I decided that the knowledge gained by my staff with the Donkey Sanctuary vets should be put to use in our neighbourhood to benefit the farmers. Before the revolution there had been vets employed by the Ministry of Agriculture who would travel around the countryside giving bird flu innoculations to the flocks of small farmers, giving vaccinations for cows, sheep, buffalo and goats to prevent brucellosis (a disease that can pass on infection through milk to humans), Foot and Mouth disease, Rift Valley Fever and a fairly intimidating array of other diseases, both zoonotic and veterinary. In an emergency, the farmers could call one of these vets to come and treat a sick or injured animal, who often represented a huge investment and was the major producer of disposable income for the family.

Since 2011, frankly, most of these vets have not been seen and I was concerned that the situation for the farmers was becoming much worse than that of the tourism horses in Giza, so I contacted a local vet who was working with and Egyptian animal charity, Egyptian Society of Animal Friends, and he and I began finding a way to help the farm animals in our neighbourhood without cost to the farmers. We started a Facebook page called the Rural Wellness Initiative Egypt to tell people about the work and to invite people to learn more about rural Egypt. At first ESAF helped to sponsor the work with the donation of the vet's time, but when he got a job at The Brooke, we had to find a new vet to work with us, which happily we were able to do. Our focus has always been on preventative maintenence such as worming, hoof care, feeding instruction (we weigh donkeys and let farmers know when they gain and lose weight so that they can learn to feed the proper amounts), and wound care.

It isn't flashy and the necessary medications have for the most part been bought by myself and a neighbour. We registered the charity here in Egypt this fall and have managed to pick up a corporate sponsor for our work to relieve the financial pressure on myself and the neighbour, so we've been very happy. Our vet is paid on a daily basis, but the work itself is done by volunteers, mostly my staff who have become extremely proficient in the technical support part of veterinary work, learning how to clear the blocked tear ducts of donkeys and horses, and being trained in basic dental work by the Donkey Sanctuary. We aren't doing the required government inoculations as we don't want to step on bureaucratic toes, but we would like to expand to do rabies shots for the farm dogs. We go out weekly with our donkey cart to one of five treatment stations where the farmers can bring their animals for treatment and the farmers know that they can come to the farm for treatment if needed. If it is something other than a hoof trim or wound care, we call in a vet immediately. Happily, there are vets in the area who are willing to help.


 Yesterday was one of our usual treatment visits to a small village not far from the farm. We treated donkeys, water buffalo, cows, a horse, and lots of poultry, rabbits and goats, as the women take care of those animals at home while the men are working in the fields. It was a fairly busy clinic but nothing overwhelming, and after lunch my staff asked to sit down with me for a discussion. What I heard from them initially knocked me off my feet, but on reflection it is sad but not surprising. Apparently farmers who don't read local papers or visit Giza ever are not unaware of the business aspects of animal rescue and they had been asking some rather pointed and at time quite rude questions about how much money my staff were making from this work. Since we don't charge for our work, I was initially puzzled but the questions were in fact aimed at the idea that no one helps other people without profiting from it, so there must be some form of profit for myself and my staff. Incorrect, but in this very profit-driven world the logic is undeniable.

Since the people that we are working with are the friends, neighbours and families of my staff, these questions and insinuations were very hurtful. One of the things that had pleased me so much about this charity work was the fact that it had given my staff a sense of pride in their work and a community spirit that they could help others. It has opened them up to a joy of learning, an appreciation of intellectual growth and a curiosity about animal care where there was simply rote training before. We are often joined by visitors on our clinic days, visiting vets and vet students, photographers and filmmakers wanting to document village life, and adults and children from our expat community who want to help, so their knowledge of other cultures and habits is increasing dramatically. Next week we have two Italian farriers and an Italian vet coming to help out and to give classes to improve the hoof care knowledge for my staff and local farriers. We have no farrier schools here in Egypt, so this is their only real chance to learn.

We were all quite depressed after yesterday's conversation about the incorrect assumptions of the villagers regarding the financing of our project. I value my staff greatly and the fact that this work could be causing them problems is troubling. I'm not sure how we will handle it but I truly am extremely irritated at all the faux animal rescues that are giving charitable work a bad name. I knew that there was a good reason that I've always referred to my farm as a retirement home for nice horses and dogs rather than a "rescue", even though friends and family laugh at me and tell me to call it what it really is. But if an "animal rescue" is a way to make money by pretending to help animals, I can't call it that. A major part of our work at RWI is educational, trying to make the farmers better animal keepers because healthy animals help to keep the families healthy. It is a sad puzzle.






copyright 2014 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Monday, February 03, 2014

The Power of One

Tomorrow we will be driving downtown to Sednaoui hospital with my housekeeper's son Ali and a friend of mine here who works as a groom and has a son with cerebral palsy so bad that he has fallen over many times and broken his chin. We are going to consult with my friend Dr. Mostafa Shokry, who is one of the best orthopedic surgeons I know (he's reconstructed one of my shoulders and replaced both my knees) and also the administrator of Sednaoui hospital, one of the  dreaded governmental hospitals...but one that he is transforming into a real hospital.  For some odd reason, an orthopedic surgeon has always been one of the first doctors that our family would have to find when we moved somewhere.

Ali was kicked by one of my horses over a year ago, an accident that broke his upper arm in about 5 places. It was in the evening and I had clients about to go out, so I splinted it carefully and sent him off to a local doctor who xrayed it and put it in a cast. The next day we xrayed it again and it was clear that the initial cast was NOT going to suffice so I sent a photo of the xray to Dr. Mostafa. He had us bring Ali to Rabaa Adaweya hospital for the initial surgery to put a titanium plate in his arm to keep all the pieces in place while they healed. We did the surgery to remove the plate at Sednaoui about ten days ago and now we will remove the stitches and that will be that.  Khamis is bringing Omar for an assessment of what they can do to help the repeated injuries to his chin. Caring for a disabled child in the villages is a really tough job but Khamis and his wife have done their best.

Government hospitals in Egypt have a well deserved horrific reputation. They are underfunded, understaffed, have had almost no security since the revolution 2011when the Ministry of the Interior decided essentially to go on strike.  One of my first experiences in Egypt when we moved here in 1988 was with the government hospital in Alexandria whose ICU was the only place we could get the correct medication for my husband who had suffered a heart attack. It was all I could do not to run out of the place screaming because it was like my worst nightmares of Dickens. He was there for two weeks and survived, but it certainly wasn't because of the hospital. So when we were going to Sednaoui I was apprehensive to say the least. What I found was a real surprise.

Once we got Ali settled in his room to wait for his day surgery, Dr. Mostafa took me to see what he's been doing at Sednaoui. Since he's very important to the maintenance of my arthritic old body, I hadn't been all that thrilled when they'd named him hospital administrator, and I'd sympathised with his stories of frustration and exhaustion as he first undertook the task, taking courses in hospital administration at the American University in Cairo as well as working all day at the hospital and evenings in his clinic with his private practice. We had chats about how to  encourage more active participation by staff members in the process of improvement as I was working on changing my staff from labourers to real partners at my farm. It has been a very tough year for him.

The first place that we noticed a difference was in the room that Ali was assigned. It wasn't large or fancy, but it was very clean and bright. I've had much worse rooms at some private hospitals in Cairo. In fact the first time Dr. Mostafa had to do surgery to reconstruct one of my shoulders after a fall, we were in a private hospital that was so horrible that we all agreed to get me out of there absolutely as quickly as possible. The nursing in my home would certainly be better than at St. Peter's in Heliopolis, and the premises were a thousand times cleaner. As we walked around the hospital I could see that our conversations about staff motivation had paid off at Sednaoui. All of the staff from the doctors to the men doing the renovations were welcome to speak to Dr. Mostafa and clearly respected and liked him.  Well, from my point of view, of course they would since he is a terrific person.


One of the initial things that the hospital had to do when Dr. Mostafa was trying to upgrade it was to improve security. Since 2011 there had been many incidents of people attacking doctors and nurses either in frustration at a lack of service or, sadly, to acquire the drugs available at hospitals. There is a security company working at Sednaoui now that is responsible for maintaining security at the gate. One of the more difficult day to day problems is the fact that if a poor Egyptian (Most of the users of government hospitals fall into this category.) is in hospital, vast numbers of his family and friends will come to see and want to stay with him. Unfortunately dealing with more than one companion in a hospital is not conducive to effective work, so the numbers have to be restricted. As well, since we all know that hospital food is boring at best, most people bring home cooking, which can wreak havoc on a prescriptive diet. A major part of the security staff's job is trying to thin out the visitors. Unfortunately, last summer Sednaoui was the receiving point for many people killed and injured in protests at Fath mosque near Ramses and the courtyard became a triage stage to try to facilitate treatment. Dr. Mostafa's usually cheerful face went a bit grey at the memory. Orthopedic surgeons, pretty much by definition, don't generally have to deal with people who are dying of wounds.



One of the things that I was very impressed with was the way that the hospital working areas were being redesigned. The doctors' offices have examination areas and computers, along with a small room with a cot for the residents whoh have to stay at the hospital at nights.

A long sunny room that is currently being used as a cafeteria for the staff will be a waiting area for families of cancer patients who are visiting to receive chemotherapy or radiation treatment.
The bathrooms were in serious need of renovation. New tiles, fixtures and doors have been installed. This isn't luxurious, but it is clean and functional, which is what one needs in a hospital after all. On the public wings where treatment is free, if not extremely in expensive, there are these joint bathrooms. On the private wing, where two patients may share a room, they also share a bathroom.










The old design for the ward bathrooms had very little or no privacy. These are being torn out for renovations.

The nurses' station prior to renovation, kept the nurses away from the patients and their families, tucked away behind glass windows, but for nurses to be effective they need to be aware of what is going on around them and accessible to the patients.









The newly renovated nurses' station is  open and the nurses are accessible to the patients and their families. Not that the nurses' dress is  very neat and clean. Government hospital nurses are not generally known for this.

This is a shot of one of the wards after renovation. It could be any private hospital.

We look around Egypt and we see problems and difficulties in every direction. It is incredibly easy to feel that bringing things around to the way they need to be is a hopeless task. To do everything at once is a hopeless task really, but seeing what one intelligent, caring, hospital administrator/doctor can accomplish gives us all hope. We just have to keep working one step at a time.

copyright 2014 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Another Year Another Anniversary

 It's 6 am and I find myself awake on this Jan 25 without any apparent reason. The older I get, the more anniversaries of different events I have crowding my life. I remember well the Police Day three years ago. I had one of my daughter's friends staying with me at the farm and neither of us had any real intimation that the day was going to be so momentous. We'd heard rumours of marches and such being planned but no one really had any idea what would be started that day and we still don't know how it will end. Today I will be staying out here in the countryside with my animals and staff. It looks like a lovely winter day in Egypt, but I'm hoping that I won't be following timelines of pain and damage online as I check Twitter and Facebook feeds. The one thing that changed for me forever that January 25 three years ago was my connection to current events through social media. It was the only way to keep track of what was going on here during those 18 days, and I developed an addiction to knowing what was happening in Egypt without having to wait for events to pass through the innumerable filters that are the ordinary media in the world.

Yesterday I, like everyone else in Egypt and probably in the world, was shocked by the news of the explosion in front of the Islamic Museum early in the morning. A friend who had been planning to bring her daughter out to the farm texted me at about 8 am saying that they'd felt/heard the explosion all the way out in New Cairo. The shockwaves must not have traveled so well through the Nile, because I had to admit that I'd slept well and soundly without disturbance.  The bomb that went off in a car parked in front of the police headquarters in downtown Cairo was aimed at the police, not the newly renovated Islamic Museum...the museum was simply collateral damage, but that is the problem with car bombs. They really don't aim well. The fact that it went off at 6:30 am on a Friday morning was a real blessing, since no self-respecting Egyptian would be out and about at that hour on a Friday (This is the only day off for many, so a lie in is essential!) and the street by the police building was essentially empty. I wonder why this is a detail that most news reports fail to mention. Had it gone off even three or four hours later, the death toll would have been much, much greater.

Following Twitter, the subsequent bomb at a Metro station (again near a police station) in Dokki, an apparently ineffective bomb at the police station across from the Mena House at Giza (somehow that seems fitting since my experience with that particular place of social "justice" has shown it to be dubious at best) and then another bomb attack on a police official in Giza filled the day with ever increasing amounts of concern. Maybe I've lived too long in the Middle East, or maybe I've just lived too long period, but from my angle we were blessed with either some incredibly inept bombers yesterday or they were people who really didn't want to hurt that many people. Who, at this point in time, is to say what the truth of the situation is.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, I had some women come out for a ride in the countryside, I did my grocery shopping in the village of Abu Sir, and I spent some time in the afternoon with some very lovely Italian Egyptologists who had been visiting the pyramids of Abu Sir and the Sun Temple just across the road from us. Overall, the contrast between my Twitter feed that was full of anger, fear and lots of finger-pointing and the relatively idyllic afternoon in the garden couldn't have been more stark. The government press has done a brilliant job of cranking up anti-Muslim Brotherhood anger since the end of June, a job that honestly didn't need much amplification since by the end of June most people in Egypt were well and truly fed up with them, their incompetence, their unwillingness to negotiate anything or to cooperate with anyone and the general sense of depression at the thought of having to spend more precious time in this particular funk. We have had enough free-floating anxiety, fear, and worry, thank you.

Reports of groups chanting against the MB floated across the news feeds along with some reports of clashes where anti-MB types were actually prevented by police from taking out their anger on some hapless bearded person. This was not the sort of scenes that I like hearing about. A mob is dangerous, no matter what it's orientation. By evening, I'd had it with what was being called reality beyond my bubble and I turned off my computer to watch a Coen Brothers film, but not before I got a concerned message from my son in New York.  He was only seeing the filtered, amplified "Cairo Is Burning" news reports on the mainsteam media, so of course he wanted to know how I was.  I reassured him that nothing at all was blowing up out among the water buffalo, that all the targets for the bombs seemed to be the security/police forces, and that he had to remember I've been through all that before here in the 90's when the world was screaming about terrorists in Egypt, while what was actually happening was that there was a pretty focused battle going on between various groups and, again, the police/security forces. Back then, we kept an eye out on where the security/police people were and simply made sure that we were somewhere else. While life in Egypt is not all that it could be, it was certainly also not at all what it was being portrayed as being.  And at the end of the day, the security people could certainly be trusted to follow through on these bombs....after all the prosecutor general was investigating Pepsi ads that were supposed to be inciting demonstrations. Some things in Egypt don't change.


copyright 2014 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Safe Havens

"How are you?" 'Are you safe?" The questions come in emails, in phone messages, on Facebook....heavens, even verbally. On these long hot summer days when there seems to be so much going on in the media, but when reality seems to be stuck in a  puddle of tar on a melting road, it's hard to know what to answer. We are in the midst of strong currents that push us in directions we don't want to go. The hope and vision that we saw in the winter of 2011 is darkness and worry in the heat of the summer of 2013.

My staff came to me today to talk to me about their annual raises. This is a topic that usually comes up in June but when it did this year, I told them that I couldn't do any raise at the present time, but we could talk at the end of the summer...and we are now at the end of the summer. But my funds are limited and while they are sufficient to pay salaries and the feed bills at the farm,  they are not going to be sufficient to pay increases without income from clients. I explained this to them and told them that we simply had to be able to get by on what we have for the time being. This is hard. We have good land on the farm where we are growing vegetables that the staff can use to help feed their families, but they are used to the idea that things get better, and right now they are NOT getting better.  They have good salaries and I help them with their medical bills and other things, but no one has ever taught economics or even accounting in Egyptian schools. It isn't very easy to explain that we just can't do raises.

Developments in Egypt are disturbing. The Ministry of the Interior has posted a notice showing two symbols that are being used as avatars on Twitter and Facebook in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, and is asking that people turn in friends as terrorists. This is a very bad sign, and in connection with the fact that the Ministry of the Interior has raided Human Rights Watch and is asking for a number of 2011 activists to appear for questioning.

We are under curfew, which is less than any kind of problem for me since I never go out anyway, but this is meaning terrible losses in an economy that is already crashing for most businesses. During the summer heat, most Egyptians are nocturnal and do most of their socialising and shopping in the cooler evenings. For the past week everyone in most places in Egypt has had to be home by 7 pm, although today they announced that the hour has been extended to 9 pm every day except Fridays. With all the businesses not making any money, how can everyone survive?

I've loved my life in this country and I still  have no wish to be living anywhere else. I look to the US where I lived during my childhood, but I see huge problems there. Most of the Middle East is  a crashing disaster. Europe is having major climate problems and its own share of political unrest. There simply seems to be no safe haven these days.


copyright 2013 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Monday, July 29, 2013

Laugh In The Dark

A couple of little old ladies (ok, one of them was me so maybe the "ladies" part is an exaggeration) were having lunch yesterday at the new Lebanese place on Road 9 in Maadi. (Al Balad is nice food, a little pricey, but good.) Anyway, we were talking and my companion told me that at every single shop where she'd stopped that morning the workers within were bursting to talk to her about all the advice Egypt seems to be getting from governments abroad. The gist of each outburst was "But none of those people have been here! None of them has seen their businesses go under because there's no power/gas/clients/money! None of them have had to listen to the crazy religious jabber of people who think that the age at which a girl marries is more important than the security of our hospitals!" There were variations on the theme, but essentially that was what she was hearing, and being a nice woman originally from Pennsylvania but also a 25 yr resident in Egypt, they really wanted to understand where all this was coming from.

The problem was that my companion felt the same way. As she put it, how could Pakistan, for heaven sake, where people get killed in horrible sectarian violence all the time, stand with a straight face and criticise the "coup/revolution/junta"? Neither of us are happy with the situation as it stands, especially since if people start running down streets away from mobs or CSF forces, us little old ladies aren't very fast. We make terrible revolutionaries.  Over olives and bread, I had a thought and it was that as much as what Egypt is doing in terms of our social/political growth (hopefully) and change (certainly) scares us Egyptians, it is TERRIFYING most of the rest of the world.

In my search for thought-provoking articles for my Facebook page, I follow people who comment on events worldwide, and one of the remarkable things I've noticed is that the general discontent level worldwide is rising. This is accompanied by a rise in conservative-unto-fascist thinking as many people retreat in the face of their worry and confusion (which is a whole other topic but it is feeding into the general divisiveness in Egyptian society), but many governments around the world must be really worried that if crazy, chaotic Egypt can get a ton of people (and I will not get into the question of just how many but it was a hell of a lot) into the streets, what would happen if THEIR people did it! This is a very sobering thought because no matter what form of government is concerned, the fact is that no army or police can really deal with a situation if literally millions of people simply walk into the streets and refuse to leave. So far, most places have not been driven to the point of distraction that Egypt was, so it hasn't happened, but the fact that we've done it means that it can be done. I'm quite sure that this is a lesson every government is hoping that their people don't notice or learn.

I think that, while being aware of others' opinions is not a Bad Thing, being overly concerned with them is debilitating, especially when the ship of state is sailing uncharted waters. Please forgive the nautical metaphors but having spent some years helping to skipper a sailboat around the Mediterranean, the image is the best I know.  The reality is that we don't know what is going to happen here. The MB seem to be digging in their heels and refusing to accept the political world that the majority of Egyptians are currently willing to be living in, which means that the military goal of clearing Raba'a and Nahda is going to be very difficult to achieve. And the recent allowing of "emergency" powers to the military AGAIN! is troubling to many of us who remember all too well that the military have kept a subtle but firm hand on our government throughout all since 2011, much to the detriment of the people. Will Tamerod be able to pull off another coup/revolution/whatever against the military should everyone realise that we are being steered back to 1990...or will the threat be enough to keep the military somewhat in line until we have some sort of real  opposition party? We simply don't know but we can't stand still. We must move on.

Friends in the US and Canada who read alarmist headlines contact me constantly about possibly returning to the lands of sanity (in their minds, but not mine), but I'm here for the long haul. Life these days reminds me of a carnival ride I went on when I was about seven in San Diego. It was called Laugh In The Dark and you sat in a small car that went through dark tunnels where skeletons and the like would pop out at you around corners or fall almost into your lap. It was terrifying and I believe I went on it three times that day. This is all utterly mad, but I wouldn't miss it for the world.


copyright 2013 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani