Saturday, August 07, 2004

More Marriage Trivia and Bridge Parks

When we were living in Toronto there was a beautiful park not far from our house. Almost any weekend during spring, summer or fall if we went off to the park for a walk there was very likely to be at least one wedding party having pictures taken there. The background was stunning and I could completely understand the wish. When we moved to Egypt, we were in cities that didn't really have nice parks for these photo sessions and sometimes the wedding pictures were taken in some rather unusual spots.

In Alexandria, pictures with the sea as a background were hands-down favourites. On a blustery day a slight miscalculation could and did lead to a rather soggy bride and groom. In Cairo, I've seen people posing for photos near the statue of Ramses in the median of Salah Salem Street, the main thoroughfare from downtown to the airport. The same median is often wall to wall families on summer nights.

One of my vicariously favourite wedding photo shots is on the various bridges across the Nile. A couple of cars park at the side (This is either on a highway or an impossibly busy road!) and people pile out, fuss over the bride's hair and then take pictures with either the city as a backdrop or the islands and farms to the south as a backdrop. On summer nights these bridges turn into promenades, in the cases of the city bridges such as Kasr el Nil or Malek Saleh, or a park in the case of the new Moneeb bridge between Maadi and Giza. At first it would just be cars parking along the side with people sitting around enjoying the breeze or fishing. After a while an enterprising fellow or two figured out that there was a good market for plastic chairs, cold drinks, nuts and so on. Now from dusk to about 3 am the Moneeb is solid with fishermen, stargazers and overheated families.

Bridge Astronomy

Caught in traffic under summer stars,
I can’t see the Milky Way for the lights of Cairo.
On the sidewalks of the city, all along the river,
Young couples and families come
To breathe
To plan
To dream of what might be.
Binary planets whisper together,
Hopes leaning over the bridge rail,
Penny chances fall – some to sink into the mud.
Small galaxies of desires pushing off the orbits of despair
While comets with children on shoulders stride a separate path in this narrow universe.

Have the astronomers found Kasr el Nil Bridge yet?

Back to the Wedding

GirlsHajAbdou, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
Once the airconditioning installers packed up (leaving an airconditioner that still doesn't exactly work...they come back tonight), I grabbed my camera and car keys to go over to my friend Janie's house. She lives just behind Haj Abdou in a house with stables that she and her late husband built about 8 years ago, and from her house, the wedding was within walking distance, albeit down a dirt road. No high heels in this crowd, for sure.

I left the dogs to supervise the house and as I was locking the gate, the power cut. But not all of it as the lights were still on at the wedding because of the generator that Haj Abdou had rented for the night. Obviously, the wedding was THE place to be, and it had the additional plus of being outside in the cool breeze. So I headed down the road.

Within a hundred metres of the road to Janie's and the wedding site, I thought I'd dropped into a used truck lot. There were pickups, dump trucks, and a variety of the more battered automotive issues of the past 30 years along the road. As I crawled past all of these cars, I thanked heaven for mobile phones and called Janie's nephew Morad who was one of the few individuals in a suit at the wedding since he was acting as an usher of sorts. I had to wait for a pickup truck that was discharging yet another load of chairs and then I squeaked my jeep between the trucks and tootled down the track to Janie's house.

I found my daughter Yasmine, her friend Emily, a friend of Janie's daughter, and Morad's wife Hortense all sitting up on Janie's second floor balcony enjoying the sight of the wedding lights and the quiet of the country air. The power cut had killed the microphones and the music wasn't "wafting" out into the ether any more. Actually, music doesn't really "waft" in Egypt. It is more of a projectile, since for some unknown reason, there is an addiction to high volumes of noise here.

Janie, Hortense, and I opted to go down to pay our respects at the wedding while the younger women offered to hold the balcony down. (We have a serious problem with floating balconies here.) They'd had enough of the dowsha (noise) and the microphones had just come back on. So there we were in our nice clothing tripping, sometimes literally, down a jeep track to a spot with enough candlepower for a supernova. If you looked up towards the lights, you would be blinded, so we all kept our eyes on the road.

Morad and one of the cousins of the groom met us at the outskirts....there wasn't really a door or anything, hence the real need for ushers. After all, how would you find someone in an acre of chairs and people? We were escorted to the stage so that I could give my congratulations to the bride and groom who were in the middle of one of the typical humiliations of an Egyptian wedding. The hired singer had them performing for the audience, attempting to sing love songs to each other to the immense hilarity of the gathered audience.

I could hear puzzled whispers as I went up the stairs to the stage, "El Hawagaya gaya." The foreign woman is coming. As I reached the stage and stuck my head into the circle of light that was burning up the bride and groom, Mohamed Abdou was just crooning to his new bride. A loud "Ya Khalti!" rang out through the microphone and he shoved the instrument of torture at his new wife so that he could give me a kiss on the cheek and a hug.

"Ya Khalti" is Arabic for "Auntie", specifically his mother's sister, and it is quite an honor. Janie was impressed and explained it to me afterwards. She is called "Ya Hajja" or "Ya Beya" as she took her status from her husband, a man loved and respected by all of us. Women are usually given honorifics and are rarely called by their first names by men outside of their immediate family. So I could be Um Nadim or Nadim 's Mother, or as I am called at my fruitseller in Maadi, Um Ali, after my African Grey parrot who they know eats most of my fruit.

Leaving the bride and groom croaking away at their love songs, we went to find the father of the bride. The mother and many of the women had gone inside to serve some dinner to immediate family. The crowd was amazing with people still arriving at midnight. We spotted two young men in dreadlocks sitting on chairs at the side of the crowd and asked who they were. Morad checked around and they turned out to be a couple of tourists that some boys had brought along for the evening.

Once we'd made the rounds of the hosts, we headed back to Janie's to wait for the crowd to thin enough that I could drive the girls back home. We finally got through at about 1:30 am, an early evening by Egyptian wedding standards, but Haj Abdou doesn't believe in dancing til dawn. Later this week Janie and I will go over to the Haj's house to watch the video with the women. Apparently there is some great footage of Janie dancing with Haj Abdou's wife. Janie is quite the dancer.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Commercial Break

Melted Pyramid
Melted Pyramid, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
Having spent the morning cleaning up the grass at the paddocks, I decided that it was entirely too hot for any serious activity so my daughter and I took her friend into the desert to examine pyramids. 3 pm on an August afternoon may not seem like a great time for desert driving, but it was gorgeous. A strong breeze cooled us just enough, no sound at all on the air. We ambled around looking at nice rocks. One of the pyramids that I wanted the girls to see was this one that was constructed of millions of mud bricks. Gradually, it is collapsing, but right now it is just amazing.

Our Village Wedding

MohAbdouWedding, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
The Oweyan tribe (and lord knows if I spelled that correctly in English script) were Bedouins who settled here around Abu Sir, in certain parts of the Delta near Alexandria, and near Hammam on the north coast a hundred years ago or so...relative newcomers in Egyptian terms. Haj Abdou Rashid, the father of the groom in our neighbourhood wedding, is the head of the clan in the Abu Sir area, sort of a capo da capo. He's a charming man in his 60's, I guess with sparkling blue eyes, fair skin from a Turkish ancestor, and white hair. If you put him into a three piece suit, he'd be at home in any board room, but the family businesses are construction, farming and mining for gravel, sand and stone for building.

If you want to buy land, lease a house, or build anything around here, Haj Abdou Rashid and his brother Haj Shaban are the men to talk to. (The "Haj" part of their names indicates that they have both made the pilgramage to Mecca.) Being a single woman, albeit as old as almost anyone's mother, it's very handy for me to be identified in the area as being under the Oweyan family protection. The two brothers and their children occupy a large house with about 6 apartments and a huge courtyard on the main road a few hundred meters north of me. When there is a family dispute, a problem over land, any kind of local issue at stake, the courtyard fills with the local folk so that Haj Abdou can hear the dispute and solve the problem.

Last week Haj Abdou's last child was married in festivities that lasted a full week. Last Thursday was the Katib el Kitab, the signing of the book, which is the formal portion of a Muslim wedding. This involved most of the closest family members (like out to second cousins) coming to the family house to pay their respects and to inspect the apartment that the newlyweds will move into. Throughout the week, Haj Abdou prepared a couple of recently harvested fields near the mosque that adjoins his house for the wedding party last night. The fields were bullozed to smooth them and a number of dump trucks of desert sand were poured over them to provide the area for the guests. The perimeter was fenced with appliqued tenting that is used for every occasion here. Special companies come to set it up for you the day of the party/funeral/whatever.

Wednesday night a generator and an air compressor were on hand to light the long strings of coloured light bulbs that decorated the family house, hung from the minaret of the mosque to the party area, and formed a tent shape over the seating for the guests. The air compressor pumped air into inflatable gates that were decorated with, of all things, snowmen. I can't imagine where they found that!

A stage was built of scaffolding at the far end of the sanded area for the entertainment last night. Chairs were placed randomly before the stage for people who wanted to watch the entertainment, and then in circles further back for the discussion groups. The scene in the picture is the video cameraman shooting the evening while the singer has the bride singing along for the groom. Imagine doing karaoke at your own wedding!

I missed the beginning of the party as I was supervising the installation of an air conditioner in my guest room. I heard the rhythmic honking as the cavalcade of cars approached the tents, and then my dogs went ballistic as there was the obvious reports of automatic weapons fire. Guns are not legal in Egypt, and other than seeing armed police and army around everywhere, you really don't often run into them. I'm sure that the machine guns being shot off last night are not okay, but the officials just leave them with the familiies for ceremonial purposes. I've never seen anyone with a gun.

Most of the excitement was over when I arrived at about 11 pm, but the power just went off in my house so it will have wait for a while.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Wedding Season

girlsjumping, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
It was interesting to me when I first moved to Alexandria that most social events in Egypt (even at that time children's birthday parties) were held in the evening or at night. Now dinner parties and adult functions made sense, although many ended up being attended by sleepy children who were with parents. In the late 80's having a babysitter stay at home with your kids was a rather novel idea in Egypt. My children had been raised with early bedtimes, so night was not their finest hour, and my husband and I quickly broke in a set of babysitters from his office staff. It didn't hurt that we had our first baladi dog at the time, a spayed female called Pepsi, who was so devoted to the children that if we were not home, the "sitter" could only go from the chair in front of the television to the kitchen to make a cup of tea without being shadowed by a German Shepherd sized bodyguard.

One of the most interesting, and sometimes most dreaded, of social spectacles in Egypt is the wedding, most of which in the countryside are held in summer for the balmy night temperatures. City folk hold their weddings at homes, in restaurants, or at hotels, depending on how much the budget can afford. So they are not so bound by the season. A truly posh wedding here in one of the ballrooms at a five star hotel with a catered dinner can cost as much as a small house. I've told my kids since they were young that they will never get one of those weddings. These fancy society weddings tend, on the whole, to be rather boring as well. There is usually a singer and a belly dancer for entertainment and the entire program is videotaped to the nth degree.

Country weddings tend to be rather louder, more interesting, and are held outdoors. They tend not to stretch on into the early morning hours since farmers still have cows to milk early on the next day. Our neighbours, the family of the area power structure, are marrying off their last son this Thursday and the festivities should be something to see. The bride is from a neighbouring village and will be picked up in a rented Mercedes and led in a parade that will be heralded by a rented Hummer. I asked why horses weren't being used, but the distances are too long.

My daughter has one of her friends from New York arriving on Wednesday night, so Emily will move directly from jet lag to village wedding. What a culture shock. Should be quite an evening. I'll take some photos and post them. We were even honoured with written invitations to the do and are reallly looking forward to it.

I've inadvertantly been part of wedding processions in this area when out riding in the afternoons and evenings. Horses just love it when a line of honking cars comes up behind them on a one lane dirt road. The clapping of the men, the beating of the drums, and the laughing and singing women and children piled into pickups, dump trucks and on donkey carts make for an unusual parade. I usually try to get out of the way as quickly as possible, but a couple of times that meant just trotting in front of the procession for about half a kilometre. The participants were generally so cheerful that they didn't mind our slowness and in fact were pleased to have the horses as outriders. The horses weren't all that thrilled.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Living with Corruption

K-Man noted that as a foreigner in Egypt I might not have noticed the corruption among public officials, but I beg to differ. Maybe because my late husband was in business, or because most of my friends are either Egyptian or very long term residents, but I've seen truckloads of corruption in Egypt. Part of the problem lies in the utterly pitiful pay scale in public service. Back in the days of Nasser, when businesses all over Egypt were being nationalised, a job was promised to every university graduate, while at the same time, the universities were essentially free of charge. No country can afford to pay the wages of virtually every citizen without making these salaries miniscule.

So when I moved to Egypt in '88, there were Egyptian government employees everywhere, all making a couple of hundred pounds a month...which is quite insufficient for a family. Of course they took bribes to get their work done. I don't approve of it but I do understand it. But there is corruption in every society in most of the upper tiers, since that is the level at which people have the power to sell favours. Unfortunately necessity (that old mother of invention) promoted corruption at the lower levels where the employees were paid so little that they had to find other ways of supplementing their income, It's not found so much where a salary is sufficient to live on.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Eating well

Fritzi, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
I've come to the sad conclusion that crunchy Cheetos are bad for my arthritis. Having fallen off of at least 30 horses during my unlustrious riding career, I have all sorts of misalignments, cracks, crinks, and other assorted inauspicious joint ailments, with the worst being my left knee which is minus its miniscus. (Surgery done here for a 10th of the price of Canada or the US and a very good job too) If I spend too much time sitting down, as was the case through the four years of seemingly endless meetings and negotiations after my husband's death, I have trouble walking evenly for the first few minutes. That's a great excuse to go out and "exercise" it in the saddle! But to go back to the Cheetos, these wonderful cheesy, crunchy empty junk food morsels are my only true 1`junk food vice, and luckily, they are relatively hard to come by here. Today was payday and I went shopping for groceries, found some Cheetos, and decided to treat myself. My hands don't feel so great and I think that maybe I will cut the Cheetos off the treat list. Besides, mangos are in season and they are much nicer, as well as being better for me.

Most of my food money goes on my menagerie. The dogs get a diet of some kibble for the vitamins and protein in it, along with a cooked stew of pureed (before cooking) zucchini, carrots, some garlic and some ground meat, into which the whole wheat baladi bread is put to soak. This is a traditional canine diet here, since it's only very recently that dry dog food or cat food has even been available. And for the most part, it is still very expensive. As my oldest dog, Stella, a 15+ yr old baladi dog is in brilliant health, it must be a pretty good diet.

The parrots actually get the most variety in their diet, but then I have two species, one Old World..the African Greys..and one New World..the Cuban Amazons, Both are very flexible in their eating habits, but I notice that they don't all have the same tastes. Mona (a Grey) really likes a circle of banana first thing in the morning, while her mate Fritzi probably just wants a good cup of coffee because he mostly tries to bite me. The general diet for these feathered ones involves a dish of cut fresh fruit and vegetables such as carrots, cucumbers, grapes, pomegranate, apple, banana, guava, melon, hot peppers, soaked corn or chickpeas, orange...and other fruits in season that I might pick up. They also get a bread that I make up once a week that consists of ground broccoli, beets, carrots, whole eggs with the shell, hot peppers, corn meal, soaked black-eyed peas, green peas, whole wheat, sorghum, and chick peas. Amazing how much birds can eat, and the chickens who get the leftovers lay the most delicious eggs.

The tortoises mostly wander around the yard eating the grass and young flowers. They've been with us for over 15 years, and when one gardener complained that they were eating all the nasturtiums he was just told that he could plant more then. I had him place boxes around plants that he really didn't want eaten rather than putting the tortoises in a box, which was his idea. After all, plants don't need to move around. He wasn't a very happy gardener in a house where the animals had more rights than the plants.

The equids (I have both horses and donkeys) started their lives in a fairly normal Egyptian fashion, living in boxes and eating a diet very heavy in grain, specifically barley. It took me years to be able to arrange for them to live out of doors and eat a lot of rice hay instead, and many people think that I'm totally nuts. But they are much happier out side and are generally found under the sprinklers on hot days. Oddly enough, the changed diet is much cheaper than the original.

While the feeding of the animal side of the family is more costly, good nutrition for humans also comes of it. After all, if you fill your refrigerator with fruits and vegetables for parrots and dogs, there isn't much room for other less healthy things. And chopping fruits and vegetables first thing in the morning (hungry parrots can make quite a racket!) is a good chance to nibble through a good breakfast.

So thank you birds, and Fritzi, let go of my finger!