Friday, April 25, 2003

People-watching in Mohendessin

I live and work in a suburb of Cairo, an area that was a planned community of big lots with houses and beautiful trees that was built in the 20's and 30's. The houses are disappearing and there are more apartment buildings with the attached decreasing parking, but it's possible to be here and almost never go into downtown Cairo at all. Having to work at the family businesses since my husband's death, and having my kids living in Manhattan to attend university, I've tended to go to meetings, offices, and so on until the end of the day, and then go home to my dogs and parrots and computer. Much of my socialising is online with my friends and family scattered all over the world. Last week, though, a woman friend of mine was downtown doing errands as I was finishing a meeting and she suggested that we meet for dinner at a restaurant in Mohendessin that has wonderful salads.

I was finished first and my driver dropped me off at the place where I would meet Mona. We were coming back together so I sent Mohamed home with the car. (Driving in Cairo can be terrifying to the novice, but parking in most parts of the city is absolutely impossible, so one needs a driver to drive the car while you are in the bank, embassy, whatever.....they really should be called parkers.) We were meeting at a Danish coffeeshop/restaurant on the main street of Mohendessin, another section of Cairo that had been farm plots for engineers in the 50's(hence the name: Mohendessin=engineers). Now the main streets are filled with shops and restaurants and automobile showrooms. The ground floor of Trianon has small tables that look out onto the sidewalk, while larger tables are upstairs. I decided to wait for Monah downstairs and have a glass of iced tea. It was a perfect spot for people watching, and I realised how much I've missed just sitting and watching the theatre that is Cairo.

There I was in a perfect European coffeeshop, looking out at a busy street that could have been Los Angeles, or Athens, almost anywhere warm....but the mix was pure Egypt. I sat there for about half an hour and recorded in a notebook the characters that passed by my table. First to note were the sunglass salesmen, just like the ones in New York or any other big city, with a table filled with a million varieties of eyewear, most of which wouldn't protect your eyes from a lightbulb....but very nice looking. Business wasn't too bad. A balloon/inflated animal salesman ambled down the street in a cloud of sharks, birds, balls, and dolphins. He'd wave them at kids to tempt them, but wasn't having much luck. He'd probably do better later in the evening when the kids were crabbier and the parents desperate for anything to quiet them down. A group of young mothers wandered by windowshopping. My eye was caught by one of the group, a girl in her early 20's in a long pink skirt, a pink blouse and a pink headscarf and draped over her shoulders. She had a baby in a Snugli, one of those carrying pouches like kangaroos have, and the baby was tugging at her scarf as she walked along chatting with her friends. Something about hegab (wearing a headscarf and long sleeves and skirt) in pink with a Snugli....I don't know why, but it really delighted me.

The next person I really noticed must have been a student. She was likely the same age as the young mother, but she had sort of tossed a white scarf over her hair and around her neck as if in an afterthought. She was wearing a light blue shirt, a long denim skirt and black sneakers, reading a book as she strode a hurry to be somewhere. At 6 pm, the sidewalk was empty enough to do this. Four hours later, it would be full. At the same time, families were wandering by that could be seen in any shopping mall in the US. Teenage girls in jeans and t-shirts, mothers with toddlers and strollers, all in totally "western" clothing (since when does denim have a location?). A totally Egyptian individual came swooping along the sidewalk then, a tea seller in a pale green galabeya and a white turban, balancing his glasses of hot dark amber tea on an aluminum tray. He obviously had his tea stall somewhere to my left and his clients to my right. About 10 minutes later, he swooped back with his tray filled with empty glasses. Meanwhile an itinerant shoeshine man wandered down and set up shop for a few minutes by a group of motor scooters with boxes for delivering pizza. He squatted on one box that he carried on a strap, while the customers placed their shoes on another box that was lined with pots for various polishes. A boy on a bicycle came by with a basket fastened to the back filled with bread and pretzels. The basket, made from palm branches, was much wider than the bike and he had to be careful of his path. Finally as Mona arrived at the coffeeshop, there was an old man hobbling along with a cane, dressed in a slightly dusty whitish galabeya, about the same colour as his beard. He was muttering to himself and taking little notice of people around him. Later, as we had our salads at a window table above, I saw the old man again, working his way back down the street, and the boy with the bread basket was weaving among taxis and other cars. I have always been in awe of the bicycle bread men who weave through traffic, sometimes with palm racks of bread balanced on their heads.

Caesar salad, cobb salad, ice tea and a lovely piece of cheescake for dessert since we'd been so good at having salads. We paid downstairs at the register, joking with the cashier because our waiter was new and having a hard time getting his checks sorted out. Then we left to go back to Maadi. After five minutes I realised that I'd left my mobile phone sitting on the chair next to the cashier and we returned in a panic. Cairo, a city of 18 million people, has no telephone book, so a mobile phone with the numbers entered into the memory is worth its weight in gold to the owner....but is just another phone to a finder. The cashier had found it and was waiting for me to show up. "Don't worry," he reassured me. "People leave all sorts of things here, but they can always come back and find them." I love this country.

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

From Dave Francis who apparently has a radio show in Russia:
I will spell it out for you.  Apparently some of the people in the Arab
world don't quite get it.

The US supports Israel.  It does not want to see Israel destroyed.  It will
not, under any circumstances, allow that to happen.

That may be wrong, it may be unfair, but in case you haven't noticed, the
world is unfair.  Get over it.  It is the world you were born into.  Make
the best of it.....

Israel says that it just wants its physical integrity protected, and that it
is only protecting itself.... We believe them because the face we see of the Arab in the
Arab world is an ugly, screaming mob, burning flags, cheering bin Ladin,
supporting Saddam, and killing Americans. ....

If you want to see Israel's support in the US cut back, take my advice.

1-Come out against terrorist acts.  Killing civilians, guerilla fighting,
all of it.  Come out against violence.  Don't allow it, don't spread it, and
don't do it!

2-Show that you are thoughtful, instead of just some disgusting, bad
smelling, nasty mob screaming in unison.  Be a group of individuals, come
together for a single purpose, and make that purpose the establishment of a
peaceful existence for Jews and Arabs alike.

3-Denounce the hate mongers among you.  Cut them loose like they are your
ex-wifes relatives.  Get them far away from you.  Do not let them be on TV.
Or radio.  Or magazines.  You get the idea.

4-Take responsibility for yourselves. ...

5-Apologize for the past....

The west in general, and America in particular, are very kind, forgiving
places.  After you do these five things, you will find that your lives will
get better, America will begin to pay true respect to you and your
societies, and your social structure will finally be worthy of some respect.
Dave Francis
"When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun." -Hermann Goering

Well, Dave, it was pretty long so I cut out some of the extra stuff and just included your main points. You're right. I don't agree with all of it. Some of it you may be surprised to hear that I do agree with. Sure, the US is going to support Israel and no kidding....the world is unfair. There are problems in the Arab world and I don't think you'd find many here who would disagree. But do I think that the reason the US sees the ugly face of Arabs is because that's all there is? No...that's only all there is on television, and, as anyone with a brain can calculate, a 30 second news clip is just that...30 seconds. So what is the Arab world like for the other 23 hours, 59.5 minutes? My kids went to an American international school here where about 40% of the students were from the US. Many of them bitched and moaned about the dust and the lack of shopping malls and no Oreos when they first came....and most of them didn't want to leave when their parents' contract period ended. They must have liked the "disgusting, bad smelling, nasty mob screaming in unison".....or maybe for the first time in their lives, they actually got to know some Arabs and found Cairo to be an exciting, safe, fascinating city, something that it's been for over a thousand years. Hmm. Interesting thought. As for the hate-mongers among us....well, who do you think is propogating the charming view you expressed above? We watch Larry King too, you know. Give me a break.

Finally, about America being so kind and forgiving....not too damn likely. America forgives and forgets according to its pockets. Was Iraq a threat to the US or just to Chevron, Shell and Exxon? And what better way to revive a sagging economy than to rebuild a wrecked country with your own companies and their money? If that is forgiveness, may I never see it. What kind of kindness and forgiveness has eroded your own constitutional liberties until the Americans are no better off than people in the "underdeveloped countries"? What is worse is the fact that this has to be pointed out to them by Canadians like Margaret Atwood because they are walking around clueless as to what has happened to their own country.

No, Dave, we aren't all that worried about being loved by the US, especially after watching its performance over the last couple of years. The US has gotten by with Uncle Sam and being the good guy for so long that it forgot to watch that the mask didn't slip. And it slipped...oh boy, did it ever slip. Americans only watch American news, so they don't realise that the rest of the world has watched the American news and other people's news and sat there appalled at the level of national self-deception. With a friend like the US, who needs an enemy?
It's okay, Hermann, you can put away the gun. There's no culture there.

Private Celebration

Yesterday I went out to my horses and saddled up Dorika, my first mare, my love above all, and my truest buddy. She's been on R&R for almost 2 years now, first for a broken sesamoid, then an abcessed hoof, and finally a pregnancy that seriously depleted her reserves making her too thin to consider riding until recently. We ambled out the gate leaving my gang of dogs whining miserably behind and went out to see that the countryside was still there. After 2 years without riding, I wondered if we would still have the same connection, would she have gotten spooky or silly? It was like the most perfectly maintained lock and key. I thought and she did, and her delight in encountering the donkeys, camels, dogs, children and chickens was visible. We circled through some familiar farms and then entered the desert at Abu Sir to walk back to Sakkara Country Club, a place that was her home for many years, and that just recently got its horse-loving owner back from California to bring it back to life.

As we entered the desert just below the pyramids at Abu Sir, a group of Japanese tourists waited for us to go through the gate, smiliing at Dory. She's a tiny thing, but the second she sees the desert, she seems to grow in size. She arches her neck, flings up her tail and a shiver of excitement runs through her body that her beloved desert is STILL there after two years. I kept her to a quiet walk for our two hours of country and desert but both of us were dying to just take off and soar again....Thank heaven one of us understands delay of gratification. The air was crystal clear and you could see all the blocks in the pyramids of Giza, but there were rainclouds blowing south from Alexandria so that the palms, eucalyptus, and cassuarina trees along the desert edge were a grey blue against the black and the berseem fields gleamed a green that defies description. It is the very essence of green fertility and nurture.

When we got to the Club, I rode her back to the stables where we found Ibrahim standing in a group of people looking over a big chestnut jumper. Dory walked up behind him and laid her head over his shoulder...gave him quite a shock, but it was so good to see him again and welcome him home. I tried to chat for a while but Dory was back in Dory-mode and wanted to be moving again, so I mounted and headed back towards our paddocks down the road. A group of my friends were sitting at a table on the grass by the pool ordering lunch, so Dory and I walked in between the tables to say hi and order a sandwich for when I got back. There are signs saying "no balls and no dogs" by the pool but nothing saying no horses, so...... Ibrahim thought it was funny, as I did it to tick off his mother who is a very non-equine sort of person who has made our lives miserable over the last couple of years. As he said, I could probably ride Dory right into someone's living room and she wouldn't knock over a table.

We went home through the village by the club through the soccer games and laundry. Only two hours of heaven but worth the wait. This is the mare whose love of movement and exploration led me to find endurance, the mare who has taught my children to ride and been utterly trustworthy with them, while taking me on some hair-raising gallops through the desert. She's the mare who will go anywhere with me and do anything, and who has given me two of her beautiful sons who are as strong, kind and honest as she is. I am blessed indeed to have such a friend and to have been able to spend a magic afternoon with her.

Sunday, April 20, 2003

Mulberry Season

I decided to stop reading the news...or at least to forget about it as soon as I read it. There is nothing I can do about the political insanity, so I might as well concentrate on saving my own sanity. So I went out to ride today in the countryside. It's toot season in Egypt. That means that the mulberry, or toot, trees have berries that are becoming edible. My first encounter with mulberries was in Canada where our neighbours had a couple of lovely mulberry trees that formed small bowers where my children would cover themselves in purple juice. We soon had a set of special "mulberry clothes" each year that simply became more and more stained until the season was over. When we lived in Alexandria, our villa had an absolutely enormous mulberry tree in the garden outside the kitchen and I learned about the true joy of mulberry season. I've never had so many flies in the garden in my life. The trees were too tall to harvest the ripe berries and they would fall to the ground where they would form a sticky past on the patio. The gardener spent most of his time picking up the good berries and putting them into a bowl to take home for his children and the housekeeper's. Even so, there were plenty for the birds and the flies.

When we moved to Cairo I was relieved to see that we didn't have a mulberry tree in the garden. We have four mango trees and those have proven interesting the time that the top half of one broke off bringing down an easy 100 kilos of unripe mangoes in the garden. Luckily no one was under the tree at the time. However, May rolled around and lovely white mulberries began dropping onto our car as it was parked outside next to our garden. We didn't have a mulberry tree but the neighbours did. At least it wasn't purple. But I believe that all the children in Egypt go slightly mad during toot season. While riding today, my usually calm bay gelding was rather shattered by the sight of arms and legs up in trees and little voices calling out greetings from a point way higher than he would usually expect. At one point, as we passed a boy of about 10 years standing on the back of a donkey to pick berries to high to reach normally, I really expected poor Bunduq's eyes to drop out of his head.

Now it's dark and the children can't see the berries, so we have a bit of peace in the house. Afternoons, however, are chaotic as children on their way home from school stop at every known mulberry tree, including the one outside our garden gate. My dogs spend the entire afternoon warning me of encroaching intruders, while the children begin barking back at the dogs. Not really much I can do except to hope for a light crop this year.