Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Have A Little Snow In Your Coffee

CairoChristmas.JPG, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
Sometimes I meet people who end up adding something special to my life. In this case, a friend of my daughter called me to ask if I could arrange to take some cousins of her friend riding in the countryside. The boys are Egyptians but born and living in Canada and had come to visit friends and family in Egypt, as they do every year. Horseback riding in the pyramids area is a popular activity, but unfortunately for inexperienced riders, the horses are not very well trained. A fun ride in the desert can easily turn into a frightening experience.

I've spent years breeding and training a group of horses that I can trust with very inexperienced riders, so Rana's request was right up my alley. She arrived with the boys, an Egyptian friend and herself the other afternoon and we went out for a couple of hours in the countryside. I always enjoy these rides. No matter how often I see the trails and the people, there is something new to see each time I go out.

The kids had a great time. We started out in lovely afternoon sunshine and came home just as the sun was giving up the ghost. Even the Canadian/Egyptians had to admit that the air gets pretty nippy as the sun sets. The plus for me was that one of the boys, Kareem Shehata, brought along a digital camera and took LOTS of pictures along the route. We downloaded them to my computer when we reached home so that we could see them and we were all delighted with the quality of the shots. Kareem gave me permission to use them for my blog, so some of them will be appearing here. I'd encourage people to visit his website to see more of his work. He is a novice photographer, but I suspect will be doing some very nice things. In the meantime, I have some lovely photos for my blog.

The coffee shop in Maadi is a good example of the eclectic nature of life in Cairo. They serve great latte and expresso along with snacks from local bakeries. You'd almost think that you were in Europe somewhere. So, naturally or unnaturally, the management decided to decorate the outside of the shop for the holiday season with some real Egyptian snow, aka cotton. Goes rather well with the yucca, dracena, and other plants that could only survive indoors if the snow was real. It reminds me of Christmas decorations in Southern California when I was a child.

The same night that we viewed Kareem's photos, I woke up for some reason later and went to my front door to look for my elderly baladi dog. Stella is about 15 and not entirely sure what is going on much of the time. Usually she sleeps indoors on a bed in the living room, but this night she'd used the dog door to go out and sleep on the pillow on the verandah. As she's so old, I get a bit worried when I can't find her where I expect. When I opened the front door and looked out at my verandah and front garden, I experienced a momentary thrill as it looked as though it had snowed during the night. After a moment, reality kicked in again and I realised that what I saw as snow was just the play of light and shadow from a brilliant full moon. The moonlight was so bright that it looked like snow or frost on the tiles.

Now that would have been quite a Christmas thrill, but I don't mind not shovelling the stuff. A safe and happy New Year to all.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

What's Sauce For The Goose...

I received an email from a man who was curious what the situation for a non-Egyptian male wanting to marry an Egyptian woman was. I do know of circumstances where such marriages have taken place, but to be very honest they are discouraged both in tradition and in law. Until very recently, Egyptian women who married non-Egyptians could not pass on their Egyptian nationality to their children. This may not seem like a serious problem, but even if the children were living in another country it can cause problems. If they stood to inherit farmland in the Nile Valley through their mother, they would not be able to since foreigners cannot own Old Valley land. They could come and live in Egypt, but they would have to go through the same procedures for residence visas and so on as any other foreigner. There seems to be an assumption that a foreign passport is an advantage that overcomes any difficulties, but this is not always the case.

An additional issue for Egyptian women who have married non-Egyptians is that their children as non-Egyptians were not eligible for public schools. To be honest, Egyptian public schools are not to be recommended by most educators, but for women married to men who were not earning a foreign exchange salary, having to pay for private schools could be a major economic drain. So the legal and social services have, until very recently, discouraged Egyptian women from marrying non-Egyptians. Recent changes to social laws have loosened the strictures somewhat and now in most cases Egyptian women can pass their nationality to their children.

This, however, does not change the social problems. While it is socially considered to be acceptable for a Muslim man to marry a non-Muslim woman, the same does not hold true for a Muslim woman. I know that my late husband's family showed a great deal more concern over this issue when we announced that our daughter would join her brother at an American university than they did over the possibility that her brother might choose to marry a foreigner. For Muslim women it is usually recommended, if not required, that the prospective husband convert to Islam. There are, needless to say, many women in Egypt who are not Muslim, but many Coptic families are similarly unwelcoming to a prospective bridegroom who is not Coptic, just as Catholic families prefer their daughters marry Catholics. Many of the attitudes about inter-religious marriage are very similar to those that I recall in my childhood in North America.

The practical reality for a single man living and working in Egypt is that it is not exactly a red-hot dating scene. Many families take a very traditional approach to dating/marriage such that a couple may only begin to spend much time together once they are engaged. If the young man in question isn't felt to be good marriage material, he's really out of luck. Some families are more accepting, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Considering all the complaints that I've heard from both Egyptian and ex-pat men about the lack of social excitement in their lives, it doesn't look to be a thrilling proposition. On the other hand, as my husband used to tell me, "In Egypt everything is forbidden and anything is possible."

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Holiday Greetings

SakkaraStorm.JPG, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
Like most young children I went through a period of drawing Christmas trees that looked remarkably like the Step Pyramid in Sakkara. They were green, naturally, and usually covered with odd coloured balls, but my parents knew what I was making. This Christmas my own children are on the other side of the world with the families of those who are dear to them and my Christmas tree really is a pyramid. And it is a most satisfactory Christmas tree indeed.

Living in a predominantly Muslim country in the Middle East provides an unusual vantage point for the Christmas season. On one hand, this is the true land of Christmas in a sense. The Holy Family is said to have spent its early years in Egypt, and the path of their travels is marked in a series of churches throughout Egypt. The Coptic Church is the oldest Christian church tracing its heritage back to the apostle St. Mark. The religious aspect of the holiday is real and close in the countryside of Egypt. The flocks of sheep are grazing on the drying shores of the Sacred Lake at Dahshur, but not too many shepherds are likely to be sitting out watching flocks in December. The winds off the desert are icy. The camels that carried the Magi to Bethlehem rest after carrying their loads of palm branches to be fashioned into furniture or crates with an emerald pile of winter clover in front of them. We will see them slouching across the desert carrying pilgrims to pay a respectful homage to pyramids that were ancient when Christ was born.

Most of the customs of my childhood feel somewhat out of place here. Snowmen and evergreens are not the inhabitants of the eastern Sahara. Songs about white Christmases, chestnuts roasting on open fires, and Santa Claus don't really make much sense. The sweet potato man has been plying the roadside through the villages lately selling his seasonal roast sweet potatoes to warm the fingers of the chilled fellaheen (and anyone else with a taste for them and their crackling crusty skin). He will vanish again once the evenings return to their usual balmy temperatures in March. For those who are doing Santa's secular work and seeking out the perfect present, there is a series of Christmas bazaars that provide the opportunity to support any sort of charity, but the mad buying frenzy of the holiday season isn't really seen here.

My husband never did see the point of Christmas shopping and Christmas presents. His attitude was that if someone really wanted or needed something, why should there be this wait until the middle of winter? And all of this peace on earth stuff? If it wasn't going to happen in February, why was it important in December? I used to sniff and call him Grinch, but over the years I've grown to understand his point of view better. The Muslim population has its more intense season of charity during the month of Ramadan when many organizations push their charitable appeals at a time when the general population is very attuned to charity. Appeals are also pushed during the Christmas season, for why overlook another group just because of religious bias? Sensible, I believe, and when with the passage of time Ramadan and Christmas are at a six-month distance, it spreads out the giving through the year.

In Egypt Christmas is the feast celebrating the birth of the second most important prophet in the history of mankind, Jesus. For Muslims, he holds a great importance such that he was never killed in the Crucifixion but was carried alive to God. Even Mohamed was just a man who died and was buried. Believing that Allah is not in man's image and thus cannot have a child, Muslims can't believe that Jesus was the son of God. No one could be the son of God because God is something that cannot be comprehended by us mere mortals. I don't see that this is much of a demotion.

Egyptians are flexible about their Christmas as well. For the Europeans, they celebrate it on December 24th and 25th, while for the Copts and the Eastern Orthodox churches it is also celebrated on January 7th. Likewise, we celebrate Easter twice and then on the Monday after the Coptic Easter we celebrate Sham El Nessim, the ancient pharoanic feast of springtime. Scholars say that when the early church leaders were establishing their holy days, they found it useful to place them at times of the year that were already being celebrated in similar fashions. Thus, the old feasts that marked the returning of the longer days to the earth changed from being feasts that celebrated the sun to feasts that celebrated the Son. Perhaps the secret of the pyramids is that they've seen everything come and go so many times that they know that only a few things really matter. As I've tried to remind myself while slogging through slush in New York to be crushed in yet another overfilled bookstore, it isn't the presents that matter but the presence of love and care for others, regardless of the holiday.

Wishing you and yours all the best this holiday season, whatever holidays you may be celebrating.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Mad Dogs And Englishmen

Today has presented me with an amazing hash of experiences. This morning I took a couple of Italian women out riding in the countryside. One of them is essentially a non-rider so the ride itself wasn't exactly taxing. We ambled along happily in the winter sunshine enjoying the fact that there wasn't a cold wind whistling down our necks as there was two days ago.

On our way back to the paddocks I noticed a large dog standing in a corner of a field in a rather awkward position. I couldn't really put a finger on it, but the dog looked very odd. As we approached the corner of the field, I could get a better look. It was a tall sort of German Shepherdish balady dog, a male and he was definitely not well. I've never seen a rabid dog before, but it isn't something that you would miss or forget. He had light eyes and they were jittering around in his head like the marbles in a pinball machine. He was also salivating like mad, great streams of saliva.

I got on my mobile phone immediately and called one of my neighbours to warn them as the dog was wandering in an area with lots of livestock and kids. He called another neighbour who owned a gun to go out and shoot the dog as quickly as possible. As it turned out it was the same guy's dog. I need to try to find a way to get rabies vaccines out here for some of the farm dogs. There are three year vaccines that would make a huge difference. The main problem is that the people really, honestly can't afford the LE 60 or so for the vaccines.

After our ride, I went to try out a new chestnut mare that I'm thinking of buying. She's from upper Egypt, a lovely sane Arab. We went out for a round of the desert with three other riders and had a wonderful time. Our trail took us past the pyramids at Abu Sir, Sakkara, and Mastabat Pharaon, as well as several of the Seti's pyramids (there were quite a number of Seti's). The sarcophagus in the photo is in the same area, marking a spot where riders cross a railway track to ride to Dahshur. It's a favourite photo spot for visitors, and I can't count the number of shots that I've taken of friends lying in it. The weather stayed brilliant and the mare is adorable. Merry Christmas to me.

Tonight I'm invited for dinner at my old house in Maadi by my tenants. They are actually Scots from Edinburgh, but that's close enough for the title. It's going to be very strange to be in my old home as a guest. I think that I'm looking forward to it, since I really enjoy Mark and Jane. But there are going to be a lot of memories jogged tonight. Still, the four years that I lived there after Diaa's death weren't exactly the greatest. I do believe that I'm much happier out here.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Is This Any Way To Make A Living?

PaulineAbuSir.JPG, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
Yesterday two of my favourite clients came by for a ride before going back to Europe for Christmas holidays. Pauline, the girl in the photo, is just fourteen, but she is fearless and cheerful no matter how long the trail. She's a joy to ride with. We took three of my geldings out to have a gallop in the desert and found ourselves racing the storm clouds across the desert to the south as they rolled in from the north.

The light was extraordinary. We had the sunlight coming in on our backs, from the northwest where it was setting. The wind was pushing the storm front south along the eastern cliffs of the Nile Valley, and the pyramids along the valley were briefly illuminated against the clouds as the sun and storm cooperated to give us a light show. I got some wonderful pyramid pictures but I wanted to get a shot of Pauline against the pyramids of Abu Sir and the rainbow that seemed to be starting just at its base.

Today there was a 40 km endurance ride over much of the same ground, but the weather was much kinder. After about 8 am (we'd had to arrive at 6:30 since we were working at the vetchecks today) the sun was warm enough to shed the sweaters and jackets that we'd bundled into. It was perfect riding weather and the horses were really enjoying themselves. They love the combination of sun and cold wind.

Life is good.

Monday, December 13, 2004

The Joys of Looking

Well, my bloody computer had to be reformatted once AGAIN. Hopefully this time it will be all right. And a neighbour pulled some strings with the local telephone central to have our lines checked, finding that there was indeed a break in the line sufficient to keep the gerbils from being able to work properly. Maybe things are looking up.

Driving into Maadi this morning, however, I had time to think about vegetables and fruit. Okay, that doesn't sound very exciting, but it was pleasing. My yoga class is at 9 am twice a week, and I have to be on the road at about 8:15 am. This is the same time that many of the farmers are on the road with their pickup trucks and donkey carts carrying the day's crop to market. Somehow a donkey cart loaded with a perfect pyramid of snowy white cauliflowers is much more conducive to thoughts of cauliflower au gratin than a cellophane packet in a supermarket. So maybe I'm weird, but the utter freshness of the produce inspires me.

I passed a couple of carts parked by the side of the road with golden oranges and the redder clementines stacked next to yellow guavas and stacks of local bananas. Our winter fruit are usually yellow and orange. The best apples here right now are Iranian and Syrian yellow apples, crisp and flower-scented. Strawberries are coming into season and the sales of whipping cream are soaring. Our winter vegetables; spinach, peas, beans, at least 8 types of lettuce, sweet red and orange carrots and new potatos tempt the laziest cook to toss together at least a salad and soup.

I'm beginning to plan my soon-to-be-purchased parcel of land where I will build a small house with room for my visiting daughter and other guests and a proper kitchen that I can work in with pleasure. High on the list of things to have is a good vegetable garden, fruit trees for shade, and a poultry yard. Oh, to eat my own tomatoes!

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Messing About With Horses

Hortenseposing.JPG, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
This photo was taken by Merri Melde while she was visiting me last February. I have lots of photos of Hortense being silly on a horse, but I think that Merri got the best one. Hortense is one of my neighbours, a young French woman who is utterly fearless on horseback, as is pretty obvious from the picture. The horse is Maximus, a rescued cart horse. She teaches lessons, trains horses for other owners, and competes in local competitions, both jumping and endurance. None of these competitions are very important, nor are they very serious. She has a good time, the horse has a good time, everyone enjoys themselves.

When I was a little girl I harassed my poor parents into buying model horses, broomstick horses, even into bringing two skulls home from a camping trip so that I could have a "horse" in the garden. I even fed the poor bones daily. When I was about 8, they finally gave in to the extent that I was allowed to take weekly riding lessons for a year or so. I was about 12 when we moved from a city to a small town where horses almost outnumbered humans. A couple down the road from us sheltered rescue horses and they were happy to have some demented child come to ride them and feed them treats.

At roughly the same time, I was reading rather large quantities of books about archaeology and ancient civilizations, with Egypt being right up there on my reading list. I bored any number of horsey friends silly by going on about pyramids and pharoahs as we rambled around the dirt roads and mountain trails on whatever horses could be collected. Despite all my entreaties, my parents never lost sight of their sanity and actually bought me the horse that I pleaded for. I had to come to Egypt to own a horse.

I spent twenty horseless years going to university, working and having children. Canada is a pretty expensive place to own horses, so it wasn't ever really an option. I was forty or so when my husband came home to tell me that he'd offered me as new owner for a chestnut Arab mare who had been owned by a friend of his. I didn't know whether to be delighted or horrified. I'd met the mare once and she wasn't exactly the friendliest creature on the planet, but in the end, a horse nut is a horse nut after all. I found a place for her in a stable in Alexandria and found myself a new group of friends who undertook my retraining as a rider so that I wouldn't kill myself with this green filly.

All of that was about 15 years ago. I still have the mare, Dorika, as well as two of her sons. I also have the son of a lovely white mare that I bought soon after acquiring Dory, a couple of gift geldings, one purchase who is worth his weight in gold for his patience and reliability with novice riders, and a filly who is growing up to take Dory's place as top mare someday. The horses are beginning to earn their carrots taking people for trail rides, but their real value is in maintaining my sanity.

Today I decided that I'd spent enough time doing errands and whatnot, so I called Hortense's husband, Morad, to see if he was free for a ride. He also trains and competes with local horses, so their work schedules often have holes in them that allow rides. We took two of my boys out for a trip around the local stables, stopping for tea here and there, trying out a nice looking mare, and generally fooling around for a couple of hours, but at the same time working on the training for the horses.

We made one stop for tea at a house near Morad's new place. The fellaheen who own the house buy and sell horses on a very small scale. There is usually a young stallion or mare tied outside the front door between training sessions with a cart or saddle. Today there were three horses there, an older mare being shod, a young stallion and a filly. I was riding my younger gelding who didn't really get the idea that he had to stand still while I was drinking a hot cup of tea and we had to walk in a few circles before he decided to cooperate. Thinking about it now, drinking hot tea on a horse is probably something that I should tell the kids not to try at home, but at the time it seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

At my age, I really shouldn't be doing silly things I suppose, but I find that life is much more interesting when I do. That's one of the things that the horses give me, a chance to play. I go exploring, I play games like trying to pluck flowers from a wall, I go fruit picking with four-legged ladders during mulberry season. It's fun and the horses don't ever turn around to me and tell me that it's time I grew up. Partners in crime.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

The Lonely Whale

Science News Article |

It isn't often that a news story catches my attention like this one did. Mind you, with the gerbils powering my net connection being a tad on the slow side these days, it isn't often that I get to download the news either. Still, this story about a single whale that's been cruising the Pacific for the past twelve years singing a song unlike any other really got me. The details are rather sketchy. Apparently using the sonar readings available through the US submarine fleet, scientists have been classifying whales and their migration patterns in the Pacific. This one whale has a voice unlike any other and also doesn't share the usual migration routes.

The implications of the story are fairly staggering when you stop to think about it. The Pacific is a rather vast area and there are obviously things there that we humans are as yet unaware of. It's quite possible that there are whales in the Pacific that we are not aware of, but then there is the statement that this is one whale rather than a group of them. The first thing that occurred to me on reading the article was the thought of how excrutiatingly lonely that creature must be. To wander an area the size of the Pacific alone is unimaginable to me. But perhaps this sort of whale is a solitary creature. Orangutans are primates, like gorillas, chimps and humans, all of whom live in groups. Orangutans, however, are solitary and do not live in groups. They simply get together at breeding times, and after that the female is raising her offspring without any input from another orangutan.

Humans live in groups. The extended family seems to be almost extinct in many parts of the world, most notably in Europe and North America, but in Egypt it is alive and well. Sometimes an extended family is supportive and other times it is stifling. Much depends on the particular family or particular family members, but the association with an extended family in this part of the world was initially one of the big draws of Egypt. I grew up in North America and had almost no family other than one aunt on my father's side. My mother's family was all in the UK and we didn't travel there much to know them well. I've seen more of them since moving to Egypt than I ever did growing up. Something about the Egyptian sunshine and the English rain.....

The predilection for living in each other's pockets that is found in Egypt has caused all sorts of problems for urban planners. They've built satellite cities around Cairo to relieve the pressure on the capital city, but people don't want to be that far from their parents and old neighbourhoods. Getting Egyptians to move is amazingly impossible. As a college student in North America, I moved so many times that when I decided to add them all up as a grad student, I was astounded at the number of addresses I'd had over the years. That would not be the case here at all. Most young people live with their parents until they marry and then they don't move more than maybe once. Someone applying for a job in North America wouldn't think twice about applying for one in another city or state or province, but in Egypt to find someone willing to move from Alexandria to Cairo or vice versa is almost unheard of. Egyptians are definitely in the extreme of crowd-loving people.

I was talking to a friend the other day and laughing about someone asking me if it was hard living alone. First, when you have ten dogs, you are not living alone no matter how you figure it. A pack of dogs is a complex society and I'm constantly dealing with arguments, disputes and discussions among them. Then my friend pointed out that although I live alone with a gang of dogs, no one could say that I'm not social. I have neighbours dropping by all the time if I'm home and otherwise I'm usually off to see a friend. Then there are the visitors. Since I moved here in February, I've had ten long-term (over a week and usually more like three) houseguests and probably another four short term. Not bad for ten months in a shoebox inhabited by a lone woman and a bunch of canines.

Another story about the whale in the New Scientist quotes researchers as saying that the lonely whale probably isn't a new species. It's voice is at a higher frequency, a much higher frequency, than other whales of what they believe is its species. Maybe this is just a sort of Tiny Tim whale, for those of you old enough to remember the falsetto-voiced singer. And if it's like Tiny Tim, well, that could be reason enough to be alone.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Water, Water Everywhere And Not A Drop To Drink

Cattle Egret in a Canal
Cattle Egret in a Canal, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
There's an old man who works at our airline. He's worked for our family for many years and over the years we've given him the odd bit of money to help pay for his son's medications and dialysis. His son has been on dialysis since he was about 10 years old or so and now his wife is on it as well. The reason that his family have to have dialysis is that the wells in his village are polluted with the runoff from fertilizers used in the fields. The phosphates and nitrates that accumulate will destroy a person's kidneys, as well as kill infants under 6 months of age when they bond with the iron in the blood in place of oxygen.

Pretty nasty isn't it? Our canals are picturesque if you see them at the right time of day when the light reflects off the surface instead of penetrating to show the rubbish that's accumulated under the water. Riding at dusk, they are streams of quicksilver etched with the ebony images of the trees and passing villagers. Their beauty is breathtaking. If you fall into them you need a serious dose of an anti-parasitic or you risk getting bilharzia (schistosomiasis), and if you drink from them, well, forget it.

It is the nature of the world to incorporate extreme beauty with extreme danger, I think. I just wish that it was the nature of governments worldwide to care more about the welfare of the poorer people who have their lives cut short by a lack of decent water. There are "fresh water" wells dug all over the countryside, but if the wells are not deep enough, they are polluted by the runoff from the fields. Poor people have a hard time scraping up the LE 2000 that it cost me to dig a well that would provide me with non-poisonous water. Where I have a good well, I've installed a tap outside the garden wall so that my neighbours can use the water. But they still wash clothes in the irrigation water.

Rome wasn't built in a day and the Egyptian countryside won't be cleaned up in one either.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

War On Gerbils And Other Musings

My left hand is more or less healed now (meaning that there is an impressive looking gash in it but I can leave the bandage off now when I'm not riding) and I can type properly again, but do you think that the gerbils would let me have enough bandwidth to use Flickr so I could post a picture? Not today, lady...nor yesterday and so on. Pics will have to wait for at trip to a friend's house. This is why I have a laptop. For some bizarre reason the bandwidth on our phone lines is now about 19 thou bps, a miserable level but what can I do? I'm lobbying with Vodafone to get a Mac compatible PC card to access the net wirelessly, but so far it's a no go.

Winter is underway here as I mentioned before, having dropped in on us like a busload of in-laws, that is without warning and in full glory. One day we were in t-shirts and the next we were hauling out sweaters. I invested in an oil radiator for the living room to take the edge off the chill at night and found myself in a stream of cars at our shopping center (on the other side of the Nile and closer to higher income civilisation) with large square packages of similar objects all struggling to get home to take the ice out of the dwelling places. Okay, those of you with REAL cold issues may laugh, but the way that buildings are constructed in Egypt concentrates on the dispersal of heat rather than the retention of it. That means that they tend not to collect the summer heat but to bounce it off or radiate it, and during our admittedly short and not very cold winter, our houses turn into refrigerators. They heat up a bit during the day but the chill of the night takes it away. When we were living in Canada, we would come to Egypt in the winter and the children would only wear their winter coats in the house when we were visiting their grandparents. Needless to say, this drove the grandparents right around the bend, but they had trouble believing that it was actually spring outside for these transplanted penguins.

The horses love the chill and have a great time roaring around the desert when we go out there. I have a riding client who comes with her daughter twice a week, a diplomatic spouse who was trained as an archaeologist, and we were out in the desert yesterday for about 3 hours. I wanted to show them how the illegal strip mining is actually removing a major plateau just west of us so we took a straight course out of the country club. I was shocked to see how much more of the plateau had been carted away by the gravel trucks. Thousands of cubic meters of desert are simply gone. I have no idea how to try to do something about this since it is being done under the unwatchful eyes of the governorate of Giza and the Egyptian Army.

After the plateau, we headed back down into a wadi where we ride all the time. I wanted to show them a hill where there was an old hole from some "informal" excavations and large limestone blocks that were left behind from ancient Egyptian work. We had a wonderful gallop across the wadi and up the hill where, again, I was brought up short in utter shock. The old small hole was now about six times larger and the piles of sand from the effort were new. Below the hill there had been some small holes and chips of limestone, but as we approached it was easy to see that there had been some clandestine work in that location as well. An old screen for sifting had been left on the sand and the sand itself had obviously been disturbed by digging although it had been put back into place.

Interestingly, the department of antiquities feels that horsemen are not their allies in the fight against antiquity pilfering. At Giza they've constructed a huge wall between the desert and the habited area of Nazlit Semman and there is talk of doing a similar contstruction here in Abu Sir. Walls accomplish nothing, however, when trucks can move in from any other area of the desert to transport shovels and men. In fact, having horsemen in the desert is a deterrent of sorts since we notice problems and activity and can report it. On the other hand, much of this work is done at night and there is no feasible way to patrol the entire desert at night. The fact is, less than 20% of the sites in Egypt have been explored by the archaeologists and Egypt simply doesn't have the budget to either explore it all or to spread people all over the desert to safeguard it. The poorly paid employees of the Antiquities Department actually contribute to the problem since it is so easy to bribe someone who makes so little to "guard" something if they can't make their extra income simply by showing off the site.

For someone who loves this country, watching the theft of antiquities and of the desert itself is killing. The desert is being stolen with the agreement of the government itself so to whom can one complain. Local rumour is that the biggest gravel customer is the government of Israel for the construction of their infamous wall. That may, in fact, just be rumour, but if true, it is really criminal. Sometimes I do get frustrated here.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

The Dangers of Being A Carrot

Giza Plateau
Giza Plateau, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
Last Saturday my regular riding clients came by for a countryside tour. I have a mother and daughter who go out with me a couple of times a week, sometimes with a friend for the daughter. They are delightful people, I love going riding, and what could be better than being paid to ride with people you like? But after our ride as we were feeding the horses some chopped carrots, one of my geldings mistook my hand for a carrot in his zest for grabbing all that he could, and I got a nasty chomp on the left hand in the fleshy web between my thumb and forefinger.

Luckily my client did a lot of hiking and she had some steri-strips at home. These bandages are used in place of stitches when you have an accident in a remote area and can't get to someone to stitch you up. Handy items. I used some to close the wound but it's pretty ragged and in a spot that moves almost constantly so I opted to skip the stitches.

For the first two days, my left hand was pretty much immobilised, but it's healing nicely and I'm back to being able to type. Pretty much a shaggy dog story as an excuse for why I haven't posted.

Winter has arrived here and the nights are cold enough to drag out the old quilts from the drawers under the beds. I even invested in an oil radiator that is currentlly taking the chill off the air in the living room. That helps, as otherwise I'm wearing more clothes in the house than outside of it. The good part about winter is the clearness of the air and the way that the stars are so close at night.

The horses love the chill air and are full of energy, not that I need them energetic until my hand is healed. The parrots are eating voraciously and I've upped the octane of their bird bread by adding unsalted peanuts to the mix. They are living outside and wearing down coats, to be sure, but they and the dogs are much hungrier in the winter because of the chill, I think.

I took the photo of the tourists at the Giza Plateau the other day when I was there with a guest. The authorities try to push all the trinket sellers and the horse and camel men to a spot that they call the "scenic overlook". As you can see from the photo, the spot isn't very scenic but the view is pretty good. It almost looks like the Great Pyramid on the right is larger than the middle one, which isn't the case at all. It's quite extraordinary how the pyramids change sizes depending on your viewing spot. Just like a lot of other things.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

It's Raining, It's Pouring

Storm coming
Storm coming, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
Well, not exactly. But winter suddenly arrived with a boom of thunder the other day, much to my relief. We'd been going along with temperatures in the 30's (Celsius) for so long that we were beginning to wonder if summer was going to stay forever. The warmth was extending the hazy fall days with the warm air trying to rise from the valley floor but being held down by cooler air blowing in from the sea to our north. Now the skies are clear and the visibility in the desert is our usual winter breathtaking clarity.

So I have my favourite mare on rehab walks in the evening, the weather is cool enough to take riders out for day long rambles in the desert and countryside and I don't have to worry about the dogs dying of dehydration, not that they would with the conveniently placed pails of water around the garden.

The parrots have made their winter adaptation by demanding a higher octane bird bread and more of it than fruit. They usually get a mix of broccoli, sweet potato, beets and whole eggs mixed with tahini, soaked black-eyed peas, pasta, soaked sorghum, corn meal and peanuts slow-baked for a couple of hours. In the winter I up the soaked grains in the fresh food and add more peanuts in the bread to keep them warm and happy since they live outdoors and it does get chilly at night.

The locusts never made much of an entrance in our area though they did land in a friend's garden on the Red Sea and denude a couple of trees. I'm not sure where they are heading as I've had computer problems that resulted in my reformatting my hard drive this morning, so I haven't been able to connect to my gerbil-powered server for a while. I did see quite a few of them while riding in the desert last weekend and they are impressive. Bugs the size of sparrows are not my cup of tea at all and the thought of being engulfed in millions of them just makes my skin crawl. When you consider that they can take a field to the sand in a few hours, these things are a force to be reckoned with.

I'm hoping that my reformat has done the trick and I will be able to post more often. As it is, I'm dragging my laptop to a friend's place in search of broadband... A techie's life is never easy.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Not Passed Over This Time

BBC NEWS | Middle East | Locust swarms advance into Egypt

Yesterday was overcast, but not all of the clouds were just water vapour. Enormous swarms of locusts, huge red grasshoppers longer than a man's finger, roughly the size of a house sparrow though lighter, were traveling through the country. Reports from local radio mentioned locusts landing throughout Cairo, but I saw none in my immediate environment. Friends of mine who had been riding in the desert just west of us told me that they saw quite a few in the desert, and this morning another friend who has a farm south of Dahshur reported that he spent the night with his neighbours burning tires, banging drums, and playing loud music to keep them from landing on their fields.

It's not clear where they are all headed. News reports say that they are headed for the Red Sea, where the fish will undoubtedly be delighted, while the tourists will be less delighted. On the other hand, other reports suggest that they are headed down the Nile Valley towards Sudan and Ethiopia, two countries that can little afford the visitors. Now if my gerbils will allow me to connect to the net for news....

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Another Wedding; A Different Style

I went to another wedding last night, this time one for a couple of young people who are living in Dubai. The groom is Egyptian while the bride is Palestinian/Jordanian. They were actually married a few months ago in Dubai but they groom's family wanted to welcome her to the family with a wedding celebration here. The party was relatively small, maybe a hundred people, and held in the Abu Nawas room at the Mena House Hotel.

The Mena House is an amazing hotel. It was built as a hunting lodge for the Khedive during the 1800's, and it was a getaway where the royals would go to hunt the quail that would land at the no longer existing lake at Nazlit Semman. Nowadays it's fairly impossible to understand why the urban sprawl at the base of the pyramids of Giza would be called "Quail Landing" since runaway construction has long since obliterated any spot that a self-respecting quail might want to land. Now a muddle of brick low-rise buildings with stables for horses and camels for tourists on the ground floors has crept up to the gates of the hotel and the foot of the pyramids. Inside the gates of the Mena House, however, a wonderful time warp occurs. Grassy gardens shaded with elegant imperial palms and other shrubs invite barefoot walks in the moonlight. The interior has been preserved with cool marble hallways, enormous hanging lamps and complex carved woodwork. The Abu Nawas nightclub was named for a poet and was fashioned of mahogany paneling and beaten copper walls.

While we were waiting for the festivities to begin with the procession of the singers, dancers, drummers and pipe player to escort the bride and groom into the room, Janie and I decided to wander in the gardens for a few minutes. Egypt doesn't have the strict non-smoking laws that you find elsewhere, so the evening was going to be a bit tough on us nonsmokers. We opted to fill our lungs ahead of time, while admiring the crescent moon in the palms and the play of light from the Sound and Light show on the Great Pyramid just beyond the garden. Tarek and Ranya (the bride and groom) had been staying at a small hotel near us at the edge of the desert, but no one could blame them for staying a couple of nights at the Mena House after the wedding party. I can't imagine a more romantic setting for a honeymoon.

It may seem a bit odd to be having a wedding party and honeymoon six months after going through the legalities, but watching the celebration of the young people who were dancing with Tarek and Ranya to both western and oriental music all evening, it made sense. The couple are both working in Dubai but with their families in Egypt and Jordan, a big party in Dubai just wasn't a possibility. Waiting a few months to enjoy the party in Cairo made more sense, since Jordan is just a hop away. Having gone to more Egyptian weddings than I care to remember, as well, I noticed that both the bride and groom were comfortable with each other and able to relax to enjoy the evening more than many other couples who were employing more traditional timing.

All in all, it was an unusual evening but very satisfying to me. I've watched Tarek's best friend Morad grow up since he was about 17. Now he and the rest of Tarek's friends are almost 30 and they are beginning to settle into their lives. Most of them are young professionals of various stripes with Morad being the odd one out in his obsession with working with horses. But it is at Morad's house that they usually gather and many of them come riding with us. Janie and I watched the zeffa (the wedding procession) as it began with the group of Morad and Tarek's young male friends dancing at the beginning of the procession before the dancers came into the scene. She turned to me and laughed "So there is the future of Egypt" and there they were dancing in celebration of the union of young people from two different countries who were making their home in a third country. A number of traditions were shattered last night, but I don't see that it was a bad thing. Maybe their future will be brighter for it.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Warning: Slow Gerbils

kids.JPG, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
I might as well warn my readers that my posting to the blog seems to be dependent upon the rate at which the gerbil that powers my server is running. Lately, the gerbil hasn't been too happy and I'm lucky to get 30 thou Kbps, which barely downloads my email. To be able to post with a photo takes a webpage and the gerbil-powers-that-might-be have to be very happy for me to get a webpage. OR I can haul my laptop to a friend who has a decent connection.

There is a rumour that I might be able to get DSL sometime in the near future. This would be heaven on earth.

So any vibes from you all to keep my gerbils happy in the meantime would be much appreciated.

Dorika's Ears

Dorika's Ears
Dorika's Ears, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
We have a holiday starting tomorrow, the Eid el Fitr, also known as the Small Feast or rather irreverantly as the Cookie Feast. Tonight is the end of Ramadan and parents are madly shopping for new clothes for their children, and maybe even for themselves. My son and a number of friends have gone to our house in Sharm el Sheikh to enjoy a long weekend in the sun, but I am going to be spending the feast hopefully looking at scenes such as that in the photo.

The ears belong to my 17 year old Arab mare, Dorika, who was named for her first owner's Hungarian niece. She's recently been given a new chance on life after having been diagnosed with a disintegrating sesamoid, which would in relatively short order become so painful that she would have had to be put down. Luckily for us, a general in the police had a horse with a similar problem and talked a visiting American vet into bringing the one thing in the world that would save her life, a shock wave machine.

This is similar to the machines that are used to crush with sound waves the stones in kidneys and such. What it does is to cause microscopic damage to the bone that encourages the damaged joint to heal extremely well and quickly. She had two sessions two weeks apart and my vet promises that she will be 100% shortly. Meanwhile, she's already been able to go out for walks in the countryside, which is where I took this picture.

So I will take great pleasure in watching my neighbours taking time out from their work, since even the farmers take the Feast as a holiday. I plan to go for long walks with the love of my life, this savvy Arab mare, to see the children in their holiday finery riding the newly washed donkeys who are getting a break of their own from carrying loads from the fields to the houses.

Some of my clients have already asked if I would be traveling over the Feast and when told that I'd be around, they indicated that they might take the time to come for a ride. And now, for the first time in about 4 months, I can ride Dorika. Life is very good.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Cold Turkey

It won't surprise anyone to learn that I'm a Net-addict. I switch on my laptop as I'm making tea in the morning and set it to download my email while I'm chopping the vegetables and fruits for the parrots. Usually I take a break to drink my tea and scan my email for anything particularly important or interesting before feeding the birds, and then I take my time over my reading while the dog food boils. Email has made an enormous difference to my life since we got the internet in Egypt.

My family lives in New York, Illinois, Oregon, California, the UK, Australia, and Sudan. Letter writing was so time consuming that it tended to never get done. Now I can do a multi-mailing and let the aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters (plus the various offspring thereof) know what is happening in my life in one fell swoop. And I even get news back sometimes...especially when one of the kids is in need of something, right?

The usual magazines that I used to get in Canada, like Scientific American, National Geographic, and so on are on line now, so reading is easier. And with the menagerie, a constant source of veterinary information is necessary, which is available through a veterinary email list and Merck's online manual. I correspond with riders all over the world, some of whom have actually made it to Egypt to visit over the years, and some of whom I have managed to visit on trips abroad.

I moved to Egypt as a member of a family of four that was joining a larger extended family here. We were unusual in that extended family in that we had our own pursuits, like sailing the 10 metre cruising boat my husband brought over from France the year before we arrived or running on Fridays with the Alexandria Hash House Harriers. I extended my world with friendships with other women living in Alexandria, with writing the American Women's Association newsletter for a couple of years, with our project of a guide for families moving to Alexandria from abroad. But when you are restricted to the contacts that you make physically, your world is by definition rather small. And as ex-pat friends moved on to other postings, it was far too easy to lose contact with them.

Email was a miracle to me. The world expanded enormously. I learned from endurance riders in Europe and the US how to attempt to manage a 120 km horse race in the spring of 2000, just before my husband's death. No one else locally had the slightest idea so it was a bit of the blind leading the blind, but in this case the leader at least had people whispering instructions in her ear. When Diaa died I was utterly overwhelmed by the outpouring of sympathy from my email riding friends, both endurance and ordinary. All of a sudden I realised that I wasn't alone in the world. Even though I'd lost the center of the family universe, I had friends all over the world who were checking in on me, encouraging me in my struggles to understand and deal with the insane economics of our situation, and telling me to get out there and see my horses to stay grounded.

I've been able to get advice for myself and neighbours about unusual veterinary problems from my contacts with vets in Europe and the US. X-rays can be scanned and sent abroad to get second opinions. Equipment and medications can be ordered online to be carried back by travelers. How did I ever survive without email?

Well, for the past couple of days, I've been finding out. I use the Apple server for my email and the Apple server got sick sometime on Friday. It's Sunday morning and I haven't had any email for - GASP! - almost two days. I've been haunting the .Mac boards with other suffering email addicts to find out why, when, and how we will be restored. Not much news coming back except that I will have email sometime this afternoon, inshallah. On the other hand, the other posters on the board are complaining from Tasmania, the UK, all over the US, and other unnamed points. Hopefully, Apple will get things sorted out and I really will get my email today.

Even without the immediate contact of email, the windows that were opened with the internet stay open. My father was one of the people who helped to set up sections of the internet back in the early 70's. When he retired, he moved to Vancouver BC for a couple of years to enjoy the salmon fishing and to help to connect Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia, the University of Victoria, and the universities in Washington state just south of the border. He told me about the project and I thought that it was interesting, but at the time I'd never even imagined a personal computer and I never thought that it would have such an impact on my life. Well, Dad, you did a great job and I hope that you're enjoying watching us all wander the universe that you helped to create.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Portable Language

My home seems to enjoy a constant stream of visitors from abroad, many of them the now grown children of friends who are more than happy to explore the exotic East from the comfort of a relatively familiar base. I have amassed quite the collection of guide books that get left behind and a good collection of "Teach Yourself Arabic in A Week" books as well. But there are some Arabic words that are essential to every visitor to Egypt and quite a few that export well also. So I decided to make my own list of Very Useful Arabic Words:

Salaam Aleikum - Peace be upon you, the standard greeting with the standard response of Wa Aleikum Salaam in the short form.

Zayik or Zayek - the first being feminine, How are you?

Ilhamdulilah - Thanks to God is the response to "zayik", as it is the response to almost anything, including the signal that you have eaten all that you possibly can at a lovely dinner table and will burst if offered one more pastry.

Bukra - Tomorrow is when everything happens, unless it happens "Fil mish mish" or in the apricot season which means don't hold your breath. Apricot season used to be so short that if you blinked it was over. We have a longer season now, but things still are happening fil mish mish.

Ma'alesh - A wonderful Arabic word meaning so many things. I just ran into the back of your car? Ma'alesh (I'm sorry, it's not so bad, sh*t happens) I walk into a store looking for something and don't find it so I say "ma'alesh" as I'm leaving in apology to the clerk. Your dog dies and you are feeling miserable? Ma'alesh. These things happen. I'm sorry you're sad.

Yani - My all time favourite useful Arabic word and the one that most visitors take with them. It means "that is to say" or "it translates to". Why doesn't English have a cute little word like this? Example: "We're coming over at 4 pm; yani, when the kids get up from their naps."

Inshallah: As God wills. This is the tag to every statement of intent. I will be there at 7 am, inshallah. I will go to the Opera Thursday, inshallah. Used to drive me crazy until I noticed that things do indeed tend to happen as God wills. I may plan to meet a friend for coffee but if the sink plugs and I have to wait for a plumber, it isn't going to happen. In the US people assume that if they say something will happen, it is simply a matter of will. I guess will isn't good enough in Egypt and you definitely need the help of the Creator.

There are many more words that are useful to visitors and residents but not so many that give the sense of the difference in culture. Nothing here is cut and dried. Everything is conditional and has its own fate. Human desires and actions are not enough to ensure that something will happen. One of the first and hardest lessons to learn on moving to Egypt is to throw away those long pads on which people write the list of all the things that they are going to do that day and to buy a very small pad. I used to be able to complete ten or twelve tasks a day in Toronto with two small children in tow. In Cairo if I get two done, it's been a very good day.

Aleikum salaam wa rahmat allah wa barakatu. Upon you be peace and the mercy of God and his blessing.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Looking For Slightly Crazy Egyptians Stateside

The Ride and Tie Association Homepage - Two People, a Horse, and an Exhilarating Race!

I was recently contacted by a variant of the endurance population in the form of Carol Ruprecht on behalf of the Ride and Tie competition that will take place in Libby, Montana on July 9, 2005. This is the world's championship race and they are hoping to field an Egyptian team to compete. Since Montana isn't on the itinerary of most of the people that I know, I thought I'd try to put the word out almost any way I could.

For those of you unfamiliar with Ride and Tie (and don't worry, that includes roughly 99.999% of the entire world), this is a competition for two people and one horse. The idea is that one person rides the horse for a certain distance, ties the horse and takes off running. Meanwhile the other person has been running behind (one would assume) the rider to the place where the horse is tied, where he/she unties the horse and rides on ahead to the next tie spot. The team continues leap-frogging down the trail until the end of the race.

Obviously, some willingness to run over trails is a prerequisite for this sport as is a certain ability to ride a horse. Likewise, a patient and willing horse is asset. Personally, I'd suspect that a reasonable level of mild insanity would also be useful. From everything I've heard the R&T folk are a cheerful, friendly bunch and Carol will try to help people to find a local horse in Montana to assist them. This is not cut-throat competition at all. Considering what they are doing, how could it be?

The R&T people contacted me last spring about the 2004 race last summer, but I couldn't find anyone mad enough to try it out. I'm really hoping that we can find someone this year. So if any of you know any manic trail-running Egyptians who want to go to Montana in July, please pass the word and the website. Thanks.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Not Seeing the Pain

A number of events in my life recently have made me ponder this point at some length. Last night I drove with a friend of mine to visit an American vet who has been traveling back and forth between Egypt and the US for some 25 years or so. He has a small flat in the area of the stables near the Giza pyramids. If ever there was a neighbourhood that needed a vet, this is it. Here is a neighbourhood of small houses, many of which have tiny horseboxes built attached, where the men who follow tourists around offering camel and horse rides around the pyramids live. The area is old, really. Once a village of antiquities miners, it now primarily caters to tourism and has done so for the past few hundred years.

When tourism is at a low, like during the first Gulf War when for some bizarre reason everyone assumed that Iraq and Egypt were next door neighbours while they are actually nowhere near each other, Nazlit Semman was ghastly. The camel and horsemen couldn't make enough money to feed their children, much less their horses, many of which were walking skeletons. It was horrible. When tourism is hit here, it hits everyone right down to the farmers who don't get as good prices for their produce. Tourism is good here now, despite things like Taba, and most of the horses look okay. Not great but okay. But the men themselves are usually doing pretty well to look okay as well. As a horseowner, it still makes me very uncomfortable going there because there are so many horse, donkeys, and frankly humans, who need help and I am only one person with limited resources.

Many new residents in Egypt have difficulty coming to terms with the needs of the country. We have feral dogs and cats in the cities and countryside (and to be honest, we need them to keep down some of the other wildlife) and people get crazy seeing kittens and puppies being produced just to get hit by cars or to live very difficult stressful lives. Animal rights organisations try to adopt out these dogs and cats, but there are limits to what can be accomplished. If we got rid of them, we'd be overrun by rats, mice, weasels and so on. And animals are not the only problem. There are children working at the ages of 7 or 8 years in the shops and workshops of the country, but the schooling is not really sufficient and adequate for many of these children, so in some cases, they are in fact better off working if they have someone who will also teach them to read and write at the same time. In addition, their families need the income.So many problems, so little time.

I'm interested in endurance riding, an absurd sport that involves traveling on a horse for 50 to 100 miles in a day, and I subscribe to an email list that includes some of the best riders in the world. Some of the American riders and their horses have been invited to travel to Dubai in January at the expense of the United Arab Emirates to participate in the World Endurance Championships. Much of the costs of the trip will be paid by the ruling families of the UAE. Recently HBO has aired a program called Real Sports that I've heard about but not seen. I don't own a television and we don't get HBO anyway here. But this particular program documented the sport of camel racing in the UAE where these same ruling families have been using small children as jockeys for years. These children are often essentially bought or kidnapped from Pakistan and Bangladesh for this purpose. They live in much less than optimal conditions and are often injured or killed in the course of training or competition.

The Americans on the endurance list have been horrified by this program. The charges documented can be checked with a simple Google search on the subject of camel jockeys, and there is plenty of evidence that NGO's, governmental bodies, and other groups have been very concerned about the practice for many years. I pointed this out to the list, trying to let them see that the information about the world is out there. These things aren't state secrets. Life in North American can be so easy and comfortable in many respects that it's easy to forget that life everywhere isn't the same. So many of the resources available to the world for solutions are in places that maybe don't need so many solutions.

But what is the answer? I don't know. The riders invited by the same people who have the children riding camels in the UAE are having to ask themselves whether they can be comfortable going. Can they help more by going and drawing attention to the situation or by staying home in protest? I don't know. Is it better to take the pups and kittens off the streets to try to adopt them out (but often condemning them to a life in cages in a shelter) or to let the ecosystem work its way through, however brutal it may be. Is it useful to get into an altercation with someone abusing a donkey, one of millions working hard throughout Egypt, or can something else be done?

The only thing that I do know is that it is the worst possible choice to simply not see the pain and the problems. The world has ugliness, pain, suffering, and abuse in it. We have to keep our eyes open to the beauty, but we also have to accept the existence of the evil in the world so that our hearts can be strong enough to fight it. To allow the pain to debilitate us such that we can't be active enough to build new things that might improve situations does none of us any good. I try to keep my eyes open to it all and to remember that emotion never built a bridge.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

So Why Are You Foreigners Anyway?

An old friend of mine came by to go riding the other day. I've known her for at least ten years and we've gone through a lot together. Both of us are technically not Egyptian, but this is our home. We've raised our children here, survived many years of marriage here, and at one time we ran a magazine together here. She was away for much of the summer and then was called away again to nurse her mother for a few weeks in France, so we had a lot to catch up on as the horses ambled along the paths in the autumn sunlight.

Years ago my friend was injured in a serious riding accident when a horse fell on her in the desert. In recent years she hasn't done a lot of riding, so we were taking it easy on our way through the countryside to a place where we could loop back through the desert from the pyramids at Abu Sir. Moving along a trail behind my house, we met up with a young girl, probably about 12 years old or so, riding a small white donkey. I've met this girl many times before in the area and just as before she asked me hopefully, "Baksheesh?" Baksheesh is Arabic for "tips", or as it is usually used, a handout.

When I first started riding in the countryside where there are always lots of children and farmers, I was warned that I would be harassed for baksheesh. One of my neighbours went with me the first few times as I was walking a mare who needed rehabilitation on firm ground rather than the sand of the desert. Seeing kids asking for baksheesh every so often, he suggested that I take a bag of sweets or something with me, but I vetoed the idea. My theory was that if the kids learned from day one that I never gave anyone anything, after a while they would stop bothering me.

I chose to handle the situation with conversation and jokes. When the children would ask for baksheesh I would turn to them as if I'd never thought of it before and say "Yes, please. I really need five (or ten or fifty) pounds. I'm completely broke." They were usually so stunned at hearing this from a foreign woman that they would stand there with their mouths hanging open. Any listening adults generally fell about laughing. After over five years of practice, the children do know that there really isn't any point in asking, but some of them do anyway. One group in a particular village do it just to hear their mothers laugh at them when I ask them for money instead. Once in a while I will explain patiently that there is no point in my carrying money while riding since there are no stores on the trails and nothing to buy. Funny how this point has seemed to escape my questioners and when the idea sinks in, they are a bit embarassed.

So there we were facing this young girl on her donkey and for the millionth time (she's a bit slow on the uptake) I was explaining that I don't carry money when I ride horses. Puzzled, she looked at us and asked rather plaintively "Wa entu khawagat lay?" which is roughly "So why are you foreigners anyway?" We looked at each other and burst out laughing to the total bemusement of our young donkey rider. You know, after all these years, we really didn't have an answer for that one.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Ramadan Heroes

I was invited to a company iftar the other night that meant my driving into downtown Cairo. This is something that I really don't usually like to do these days, since my driver's license is expired and my car license went missing. Both are supposed to be back with me on Saturday, inshallah. But then, I've been hearing that for some months now. So I try to restrict my driving to my country lanes where most of my neighbours probably don't have licenses either.

Driving in Cairo, as I've noted before, is not for the faint of heart. The phrase "hell on wheels" was invented here. But if it is an extraordinary experience for the drivers, it is also stressful for the Cairo police. A bit of background will help here. Most young men in Egypt must serve their country for two years in the military or the police. The better educated boys are officers or find ways of fiddling themselves out of the obligation...same as any country, witness George W.'s military record. Boys who are only sons are also exempt from service so as not to leave a family without a male heir, a serious problem under Islamic law. We have all sorts of police here and it takes years to figure out which are who, so to speak. Black uniforms with black hats are the internal security forces, and you don't want to mess with those guys. Khaki uniforms with red hats are the military police.

The normal everyday police wear black wool uniforms in the winter and white uniforms in the summer. They can be seen all over Egypt, on any major corner in any major urban center. An interesting aspect of this is that often the lower ranking personnel are posted to cities other than those of their birth, making them utterly useless if you are lost. So are they, and it's highly likely that they will speak an interesting dialect of Arabic that leaves them totally unintelligible. I don't know how long their shifts are, or when they begin or end, but the job is unenviable. Standing in the sun, day in and day out, sandstorms, traffic jams, and during Ramadan fasting as well...let's just say that the waiting line for this position is pretty short.

We have traffic lights in Cairo, in fact, as far as I know they'd just been installed when I first visited in 1977, but the puzzle of them is that they do not function without human accompaniment. Egyptian drivers, on the whole, do not recognise that green means go and red means stop, so there is always some poor traffic cop standing there trying to translate red and green for the motorists. As I noticed while driving to my iftar VERY CAREFULLY so as not to attract undo attention to my licenseless state, the traffic from approximately 2 pm until the call to prayer at about 5:20 pm simply gets more frenetic and tangled as the time goes on. I left home at 4 pm putting me in the midst of the pre-iftar madness, partly having been held up by household chores and partly with the theory that at 4 pm no one in their right mind would set up a license checking roadblock.

Most of my route was on the Cairo Ring Road, a highway that circles the city. In a few years it will be an Inner Ring Road, but let's cross that bridge when we come to it. From my home to the Pyramids Road traffic wasn't too bad. I had to dodge the usual water buffalo being led down the main road attached to donkey carts, but that is easy. Once I hit the major arteries of Faisal Street and Pyramids Road, traffic slowed down to a crawl, giving me plenty of time to ponder the fate of the hungry, thirsty men who were trying to avoid total gridlock at the intersections while calming impatient drivers who either leaned on horns or attempted to drive down sidewalks. It's right up there with air traffic control at La Guardia, or O'Hare or Heathrow for tension and stress. I'm sure that plenty of them would have loved to take out a raygun and simply incinerated whole lines of traffic.

The government puts on extra police for the pre-iftar rush and these guys actually do a brilliant job of keeping the traffic moving. I made it from Abu Sir to inner Mohendessin in about 45 minutes in traffic that was flowing with the speed of a drain clogged by window putty, but at least it flowed. At dinner I found myself sitting next to a Swedish woman who was here for business with our airline, on her first trip to Egypt. One of my companions was talking about the traffic that they'd endured getting to the restaurant, and being a Brit, was complaining about the lack of discipline among the motorists. One of his comments was that the police don't really do anything here. To a very large extent, he's right. I'd love to see what would happen if you dumped about 100 thou of Toronto's finest here. Before they all had nervous breakdowns, they'd have a field day giving out summons for improper driving, bad vehicle maintenance, you name it.

There's a possibly true story about Cairo and urban planning. At one point, it is said, the Egyptian government asked the French and the Japanese to evaluate the city of Cairo and offer their best suggestions about how to improve it. The two groups went off to study for about 6 months and came back with their suggestions. The French reportedly told the Egyptians to empty the city, turn it into a museum and start over somewhere out in the desert. The Japanese told the government not to touch a thing. As far as they could see, the city was working although by all rights it should have been at a standstill, so anything that would be changed might destroy it. Probably both assessments were right.

So in the meantime, my hat is off to the poor fellows standing in the intersections trying to keep the buses from running right over the Fiat 127's, while explaining to the horsecart driver that he really shouldn't be there. It's a nasty job and someone has to do it. Thank heaven it isn't me.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Quiet Sunday Thoughts

Sunday is the first day of the work week in Egypt. For me it's now natural to think of the weekend as Friday and Saturday, and it causes me no end of problems when I go to the US. But I'm here in Abu Sir and Sunday is the day that all my office job friends go back to their cells and I get to stay home. I like that.

That's not to say that I have no work to do. I still have things that I'm doing for the airline and I'm working on a website for the trucking company. Website work on a 45 thou Kbps line is excruciating work. There is an optimist at one of the DLS providers who thinks that we can connect in the boonies, and the connected ones out here are cheering him on but not holding our breath. So this morning I did some web work for the airline since the so-called website designers who manage the website managed to make it virtually invisible when they got it up and running again. Some company in Australia managed to nab our old url, so they adapted it. That's no problem except that they changed all the company names in the website to the adapted name. As I pointed out to the power that is looking over these things, that makes the website invisible because everyone will look for the website by the original company name, not by the url. Brilliant work, guys. As I mentioned to our marketing people, website work isn't rocket science, but these guys are barely making bicycle repairs. Well, they will have a lovely time sorting that out. And better I get to work here looking out my big double door to my garden than I'm stuffed into an airconditioned cubicle.

The next task was to find the dosages per kg for fipronil, better known as Frontline drops, so that I could Frontline all the dogs. That's a lovely new verb. Naturally, it only took me about an hour to load the pages so that I could save Merial's dosages to my computer. I used to have it as a note, but when I moved information from my old Mac iBook to the new Powerbook some things went missing. That was one of them. I buy my Frontline in packages for enormous dogs like Danes and then divide the dosages with a 3 ml syringe to suit Rat Terriers. I can do 5 Rats for one Great Dane which makes Frontline an economic possibility with 13 adult Rat Terriers around. I don't recommend this as a practice unless you are sufficiently anal to be sure to underdose if anything. Fipronil does a great job on fleas and ticks, and I find that I only need to administer it about 4 times a year rather than the monthly that they recommend, however too much can make a dog very sick. But the Rat Pack are all snoozing on the chairs and sofas in peace so I got the dosages right.

I still have to go over to the paddocks to do the five dogs there, but I have a guy who comes over once a week to sort of garden for me and he should be arriving any minute. Eid (means "feast or celebration") won't stay if I'm not here. He's kind of nervous with all the dogs watching him. Can't imagine why. If he doesn't show up soon, I'll head over there. Meanwhile I can finish this post.

I'm expecting my equine vet as well this afternoon to finish a dental job on my 18 year old mare. Horses grow their teeth throughout their lives and the teeth get ground down as they chew the rough grasses that they feed on. Over time, the molars wear unevenly and there are sharp points left that can cause problems in the horse. This mare had lost weight recently, so we were suspecting tooth problems, which indeed she had. Dory is particularly precious to me as she was the first horse I ever owned after longing for one for my entire life. She's a smart, tough little mare and has given me two lovely sons over the years.

A few weeks back I was riding her at night and the trail we were cruising along suddenly disappeared into a corn field. Dory spotted the problem right away and made a quick 180 degree turn on the roughly 15 cm wide path that was running along the canal. Unfortunately, I'd decided to hop off on her left side (the side away from the water) but by the time I hit the ground, she'd turned and I hopped off into a chest-deep canal. Yuck. There were people leaving a house party about 40 meters or so back the trail, but no matter how loud I shouted, they didn't hear me, and there were no bushes or bunches of grass or anything on the bank that I could pull on to haul myself out. The dredging back hoe had undercut the bank so I couldn't just climb out either. Dory watched me for a couple of minutes, standing just far enough away that I couldn't grab her leg either, and then ambled back down the path to the cars. A fully-tacked horse did catch people's attention and they followed her back to where I was marinating in who knows what. A couple of men grabbed my wrists and hauled me out while women fussed over me. I was, thankfully, wearing a black tshirt and dark grey pants, even darker with the lovely canal mud, and they wanted me to shower, but what was the point? I still had to ride my horse home so I thanked them for their kindness and headed home. We checked Dory over for scratches and scrapes and then I dripped my way back to the house.
Dory could have just taken off for the stable while I was standing around in the canal. She knew the way home. She could have just settled in for a lovely evening snack in the cornfield. She went to the cars instead and I got home at a reasonable hour to have a long shower and a dose of anti-everything medicine to counteract the effects of the lovely canal water. Good mare, that one.

Well, Eid the gardener hasn't shown but Emad the vet just called so I'm off to the paddocks with my Frontline vial and syringe. Hope that your Sunday was good as well.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Romanticising Ramadan, Or Anything Else

I think of romanticising as creating a prettier face for something than actually is there. You know, "the noble savage" and all that. I don't believe that I romanticise. I don't think that the life the fellaheen live is better or more noble than the life that the urban poor live. Both lives are grindingly difficult, both involve not being able to have many of the pleasures that other people have. But if I were to choose, I would rather be poor amongst the fields than in concrete., I don't believe that there is anything intrinsically more moral about a life spent here as opposed to a life spent in Toronto either. It is a life that I've chosen to live and it gives me an extraordinary amount of pleasure which I enjoy sharing with others.

Do I try to show others the beauty that honestly is around me? I do and it is there. It is around all of you where ever you are. You simply have to go look for it. You have to take the time to wander and watch. You have to stop and listen to the songs around you, to the games of children, and the barking of dogs. Our canals are often filled with old plastic bottles and that most mysterious of Egyptian objects, the rubber flipflop...but only one. No one knows where the other one is. Perhaps it will be found halfway up a wadi somewhere. How can I see past the refuse? When I ride along the canals at dusk they are like quicksilver reflecting the trees on their banks in sharp black. The song of the curlew and the grunt of the egrets as they fly to roost in the evening can be heard over the thumping of the diesel pumps. We choose what we want to see and hear. If you only want to see the dirt, the disorder and the pain, that's what you will see, but it doesn't mean that there is no beauty there as well.

All of the great social holidays in the world have been hijacked by the media, by advertising, by groups with axes to grind. We need to see beyond the media, the axes, the advertising to the soul of the event. A friend of mine commented to me today that Ramadan was presented differently to her when she lived in Kuwait. There it was a trial, a period of difficulty, while her Egyptian friends begin to explain Ramadan with the joy of family gatherings and companionship. I don't know if she was given a skewed perspective while in Kuwait. I've never been there. But for her the difference was vast.

Television programming looks on Ramadan as a gold rush. Families are staying up to visit, to eat, to watch entertainment. Yes, the commercialisation is there, but not everyone is sucked into it. You have the choice. I, for example, don't have a television. Not everyone does. The traditional lanterns were imported from China one year, much to the concern of many newspapers. Yes, but is it that important where they are made?

Look beyond the skin. Try to see beneath the surface. There is no need to romanticise anything if you can take the time to see the true value of the complex life around you.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Ramadan Nights

A couple of nights ago I took a friend for a ride in the countryside. The horses were feeling lazy, we were feeling lazy, so we were just sort of wandering around enjoying the evening at iftar. She and I weren't fasting, although my grooms were, so we arranged to leave just before iftar and come back after. This way they could go eat with their families at iftar. The boys who work with my horses live in the neighbourhood and one of them is always there at night in case of emergencies.

As we moved out into the fields we could hear the muezzins calling out the Arabic prelude to iftar from the local mosques. A few late farmers were still bringing their water buffalo, cows, goats and sheep in from the fields, but as we clopped through the village by the corner I saw friends of mine who work at the local country club sitting on mats watching television with the children while the most astonishingly delicious smells wafted forth from every home. Garlic, onions, chicken roasting, rice cooking, vegetables in tomato was incredible. Like riding through a restaurant.

The call to prayer echoed across the canals as we moved away from the village into the farmland and a stillness that was hard to fathom settled over the land. Egypt isn't a quiet country usually. We have about 70 million people crammed into a tiny strip of land along the Nile and the basic noise of living beings can be deafening. During iftar, however, virtually everyone in Egypt is sitting down to a meal of some sort, whether they are Copt, Muslim, or any other ethnic flavour. The logistics are simple: For a month nothing at all can be done for the hour before iftar or the hour after, so you might as well plan a family dinner during this time. No cars travel. No vendors call out their wares. No donkey carts rattle. No football games take place in the empty streets. Everything is utterly still.

I've experienced this stillness in the cities over the years and it's always been a miracle of peace. The difference is utterly stunning to most newcomers. In the countryside, it is easily as extraordinary. Bird songs that might have to harmonise with radios or children's shouts now assault the ears as though to say that finally they have the center stage. Somehow even the dogs don't bark. Iftar comes just as the last of the sunset dies from the sky leaving streaks of colour behind the silhouettes of black palms. It looks like those old hand-tinted 30's postcards and you have the sense that somehow you've left your own time behind.

On our way back to the paddocks we began to encounter those folk who had risen early from their table and were off on errands or visits. Children began to venture out of their houses, having had sticky fingers and lips thoroughly washed to remove the syrup that covers the Ramadan sweets. A gang of adolescent boys had set up a football (soccer) game under the lights in the street at the end of my dirt road, and cheerfully called time out as cars began to pass again. We left the horses to have a quiet snooze and headed back to Maadi to have a later dinner with my son.

As we drove past the mosque the call for the Aisha (evening) prayer was beginning (the Maghreb (sunset) prayer is the one that signals iftar) and boys and men from the area were congregating for the prayers after iftar. Grandfathers bent from years of hard work in the fields were laying out the mats with the aid of boys as young as five or six. The women would be cleaning up after the meal and doing their own prayers at home. My neighbours raised hands and called out to us in greeting and we returned the blessing; Salaam Aleikum, Wa Aleikum Salaam. Peace be with you, and with you peace.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Diaa and clouds

Diaa and clouds
Diaa and clouds, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
Fredette asked about my husband and I realised that I haven't really written about him much, other than in passing. This is partly because it's been fairly painful, but some of the pain was, in fact, released by my trip to Toronto. The photo shows Diaa at the controls of his Beechcraft C90, a photo taken by a friend who was traveling to Germany with him on his last trip. When he heard what had happened on the return trip, Mohamed sent me copies of the photos that he'd taken in the plane as they were preparing for take off. The second photo is one that was taken in Petra on one of the airline's inaugural trips from Sharm el Sheikh. He'd tried the trip and the tour himself to see that things ran smoothly and was clowning around with the Jordanian Bedouins at Petra.

If any of the women ever had any questions about why I would move to Egypt, I do believe that the photos pretty much answer them. He was drop dead gorgeous, extravagantly intelligent, and full of visions and drive. It was sort of like being married to a tornado. I never knew where he was going either physically or mentally (I was NEVER bored!) and only God had the power to stop or slow him down. We had one hell of a good time together.

Diaa grew up between Egypt and Sudan, a living example of the saying that every Egyptian has a Sudanese uncle. His cousins were the children of one of the first leaders of the Sudan after the country split from Egypt around the 60's, but his father was a government employee, an engineer in the department of irrigation. He moved to Egypt for university in the late 60's and his family soon followed.

After he finished his first engineering degree at the University of Cairo, he had to join the army like all Egyptian men unless they are only sons. During the '73 war, he served as the commander of a mobile missile station and while he had some pretty good stories about having to hijack a train from Cairo to get his missiles delivered, he wasn't a natural soldier. After the war was over, he enrolled briefly at the American University in Cairo to work on his English and go to grad school. The experience whetted his appetite for adventure and he ended up applying for grad school in North America.

He was accepted at a number of universities in Canada and the United States, but the University of Waterloo in southwestern Ontario offered the best financial deal, so that is where he ended up. He applied for his student visa at the Canadian embassy in Cairo, was accidentally given a form for an immigrant visa, which he filled out being totally unaware of the significance, and he was granted immigrant status. This turned out to be something of a problem when he traveled to Canada for school in 1975 because as an immigrant he couldn't go to university right away. He had to spend a month or two working the assembly line at Budd Automotive while the university sorted out the situation so that he could attend classes. The experience left him with a strong desire never to do that again.

When we met, we were both graduate students, he in chemical engineering and me in social psychology. It was an odd match in terms of our ways of dealing with the world and our terms of reference. He was mystified by subject matters that had no formulas, while if I never saw another number (having taken statistics and multivariate analysis) it would be only too soon. I taught him English, while he talked me into becoming active in the Grad Student Union, an organisation that we served for a number of years as President (Diaa) and Chairman of the Board (myself). It was the only time in our 24 years together that I was able to tell him to shut up in public with impunity, and I took full advantage of it. Any concerns our fellow students had about our "taking over" the group were very quickly dispelled as we often disagreed over tactics and goals.

Diaa decided to start his own business while we were still in grad school. At first we supported the business from our work as teaching assistants, and later when I'd decided that I really didn't want the PhD just as I was starting to work on my thesis, from my jobs. We were married in 1980 in his thesis advisor's garden and our son was born in 1981. Our daughter was born in 1983 and while the children were young we tried to spend at least two months a year in Egypt so that they would have some sense of family there.However, the business started to demand longer and longer trips to Egypt and Sudan with increasing regularity....the impetus for our move.

About the same time that I finally got tired of being a single parent in 1988 and we moved to Alexandria, a severe recession hit North America and Europe, but Egypt was a wild west economy. Years of nationalisation by Nasser were replaced by Sadat's and later Mubarak's efforts to bring Egypt back into the international arena. The country desperately needed goods and infrastructure, and Diaa was there to help build the infrastructure and import the goods, in his case wheat, corn, and soybeans to feed the poultry industry. He built an innovative company around grain bagging plants that were mounted on barges (a combination that he designed) which could be towed out to ships in harbour, thus avoiding the high costs of bagging grain in the US and the costs of waiting for a berth in the frantically busy harbour of Alexandria.

After that success, he moved on to build a massive computer-driven grain discharge terminal with storage siloes in Egypt's deep water port of Dekhela, just west of Alexandria. For this he had to have government cooperation and he got it. He also financed the entire operation by himself with capital from his first company and loans. When the grain terminal was being built, he realised that he needed to move the goods, so he built a trucking company with a fleet of 100 Kenworth trucks to move the grain.

While we were still living in Alexandria, Diaa went to check out flying lessons for our son, who was a total flying freak. At the age of 10, he was having his father bring home FAA manuals to be able to play his flight simulator games more realistically. Diaa found that there was no way for Nadim to learn to fly before he was 18, but the instructor took Diaa up for a spin and he was hooked. He enrolled at the National Aviation Institute in Imbaba and for the next few years worked on his private pilot's license and then his commercial license. He took flying very seriously and was a star student.

Once we'd moved to Cairo for the sake of the businesses which now required more time with governmental bodies, banks and so forth, Diaa had to commute to Alexandria for the grain terminal and a new soybean crushing plant that he was planning near Alexandria. Egypt has some of the most dangerous highways in the world and none of us were very comfortable with the amount of time he was spending on the road.

His desire to own his own plane was beginning to make a lot of sense, but rather than just buy a plane, he decided to set up Egypt's first regional airline to service the booming tourism sector in Sinai. Then, as now, a huge number of tourists were flying directly to the Red Sea for holidays, but they also wanted to see the antiquities of Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simbel, Petra and Cairo. To do this in the mid 90's, they would have to take an Egypt Air flight to Cairo, overnight, and then fly to one of the other destinations, repeating the whole procedure on the return. This would kill a number of days in a 2 week vacation for which the hotel bill in Sinai was already paid. It was a problem. Orca Air flew day trips from Sharm el Sheikh to Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, Petra, and Abu Simbel, so that the tourists could leave in the early morning, see the antiquities and return for a late dinner in Sharm.

Diaa used the Beechcraft C90 to check on things in Sharm, Alexandria and Cairo, and sometimes he hit all three cities in one day. He also occasionally flew charters himself if they were interesting enough. One time he took four days off to fly a French film crew around Egypt. Busy man. Along the way he taught his son and daughter to fly, and just before Nadim left for college he soloed in the C90 on a trip to Borg el Arab to inspect the soybean crushing plant.

The plant was over 90% finished and financed again by Diaa when he was killed while making an emergency landing in a rice field just northeast of Cairo in June 2000. The landing was successful but as he taxi'ed the wing tip hit a palm tree flipping the cockpit into a low concrete wall. He was killed instantly when his head slammed into the roof. Within 48 hours I had about six banks on my doorstep panicking over the fact that we were currently in debt for the cost of the plant (a quarter of a billion dollars US) and Diaa was no longer there to manage the situation.

I found myself sitting in board rooms trying to learn the ropes of the companies and helping the banks to secure their own positions at a time when what I really wanted to do was go crawl off into a corner and just cry. But it wasn't a normal situation at all. There were banks that could have crashed with this event. It was, to be quite honest, four years of hell. At the time our son was a freshman at Columbia University and our daughter a junior in high school in Cairo. I had put aside money to assure their educations, so I told them to keep on track while I helped to sort out the mess. Unfortunately, Diaa was also a one-man show, like many entrepreneurs, so the mess was considerable.

Finally, it's over. The trucks are rolling, the soybean plant has started crushing, Orca will be flying again soon, ships are discharging at the terminal in Dekhela. We lost ownership of the soybean plant and most of our shares in the trucking company and the discharge terminal are pledge to banks. Basically, we lost almost everything but none of that really mattered when we lost the most important thing of all....Diaa