Saturday, September 11, 2004

Car Mechanics and Arab Aqueducts

A couple of days ago I had to drive into Maadi to get a fax and to send a fax out immediately afterwards to help provide my daughter with school money. As soon as I got onto the freeway that leads over the Nile, a horrifying racket began coming from my car and I pulled over to the side immediately. As I was looking rather helplessly under the hood a friend of mine called me on the mobile to report that she was almost in Sharm. I told her what had happened and she said that she would call a good mechanic who would be able to get to me quickly. I also called my neighbour Morad who said that he'd be right there as soon as possible.

So there I was in the September sunshine standing by the side of the highway with a car that wouldn't start wondering how I would get the faxes taken care of. Two policemen walked up, being on the beat that has them walking that section of the freeway to help stranded motorists, and we had one of the all too common conversations about how one of them wanted to emigrate to Canada. So often it's the land of milk and honey fallacy and these young men don't realise that they are likely to be washing dishes in Montreal rather than being able to start a successful business right away.

Finally Mona's mechanic drove up and began examining my currently useless Jeep. He found a problem with a broken fan belt, a dead battery and a cracked drum that appeared to be the source of the problem, and Morad drove up just as Mohamed looked up from the engine of my car. Shouts of laughter rang out as it turned out that Morad and Mohamed were old friends and business acquaintances. Mohamed has been trying to put Morad's unbelievably dilapidated Jeep Wrangler back in working order for about a year. He'd have an easier job of it but Morad is building a house and never has enough money to go around.

We sorted my car out sufficiently to go to Mohamed's workshop just under the Cairo Aqueduct, an old section of the city. Meanwhile Morad loaned me his red monster, lacking any mirrors or roof to go do my faxing chores. My car was repaired and returned shortly after I arrived home with Morad's Jeep and today we went to settle the bill with Mohamed. His workshop is a narrow street where his mechanic helpers lie on old strips of cardboard while they change axles, or adjust drive shafts in a variety of jeeps. A couple of college aged young men sipped tea while they watched one of the men drain some brake fluid and dismantle various parts of their car.

With the backdrop of the old Arab aqueduct built to serve the Citadel with Nile water, this streetside car shop set amid houses that were at least 200 years old was a change from the local Mobil station. We have modern car repair shops but all too often the workmen in the official shops don't do such a good job while they run clandestine shops in their spare time where they put in good work. Welcome in Egypt.

Sanity On Four Legs

YasandKids, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
I admit it. I'm a horse-freak and have always been one. I love the smell of them, I like to watch them, I love to ride them. But the world really looks different from the back of a horse. I can travel around the villages slowly enough to admire the care with which a mother braids her young daughter's hair. I have the time to admire the care that the women give to scrubbing their pans and the mats that cover their floors. I have the quiet to notice the baby ducks in the canal and the egrets hunting minnows along the banks.

In a car, if you are driving, you haven't the time to see anything, especially here in Egypt where you have to be watching for the next lunatic to swing around a corner on the wrong side of the street. (Remember Schrodinger's Cat?) Driving is not for the faint of heart in Egypt. Riding as a passenger in a car isn't much better really because the passing scene is so rich that you spot something interesting and it's gone already. The hiss of tires on the road, the blare of the radio, the hum of airconditioning, all of these things drown out the call of birds, the songs of housewives hanging out their laundry, the squeals of children playing.

I've spent a large portion of my life zooming from place to place meeting this appointment or that, making sure that children were at school on time, arriving at dinner parties on time. Now I want to see the world at my pace.

Yesterday and today I took time to go out with my horses in the neighbourhood. A little boy of maybe four years ran out of his front door just down the road from my paddocks waving his little hand in the air to give me high five as I walked by with my 7 yr old gelding Nazeer. Nazeer paused politely as I reached down to be able to reach the grubby paw offered to me. One of the men from the neighbourhood warned the boy to stay away from the horse, but I told him not to worry, it was our special game. I play it with all the village children here.

We wandered out into the desert looking for some neighbours who were also riding this morning. Only found them on the way home...after all it is the Sahara and there is rather a lot of room there for some little horses. But in the meantime we stopped by the Japanese Hill, an outcropping of stone coming up out of the desert not far from the Step Pyramid. The Japanese have been excavating there for some years, hence the name. Recently they've discovered some rock cut tombs carved into the face of the outcropping and today as we trotted past I could see an entire wall of ancient stones against the hill had been uncovered.

Further on there is another excavation site bustling with workers carrying baskets of sand and rock. There archaeologists from the Czech Republic are working on more walls that are emerging from the desert. One of the archaeologists mistook me for one of the friends that I was looking for, so I stopped to chat and explain that I wasn't Janine. Apart from the jeans and work shirts of the archaeologists, the scene could have been one from the past centuries with the village men in their gallabeyas and scarves carrying the rubble from the building that was being explored.

Having taken our time checking out the activities of the Egyptologists in the neighbourhood, Nazeer and I headed home. On the way I finally discovered my friends who had taken a different direction in their ride, and we chatted about new activities for our equestrian group. I'm advocating a weekend sand polo game where we take something like a ping pong paddle on a long handle and use it to move a brightly coloured tennis ball around the desert in teams. That would be fun and the paddles wouldn't be that hard to make.

Now I face a day of gardening, running an errand into town for a friend who is stuck in Sharm, catching dinner with one of the art teachers from the American school and two friends who are travelling to London in the morning. Plenty to do here...too much in fact. But an hour in the saddle on a horse who is happy to stop long enough to chat or just gaze at our surroundings helps a lot.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Keeping One's Own Religion

Wondering wrote a comment asking if it was possible to "marry a very strong muslim man from Egypt and not be muslim and not want to be muslim". I would say with some qualifications that of course it is possible. I've known women married to Muslims who were not Muslim. What are the qualifications then? First, how central is religion to your lives? Are you both tolerant of each other's religion and religious beliefs? If you are not tolerant, I would say that the experiment is pretty much doomed. And tolerance doesn't just mean a passive tolerance. Is the Muslim partner going to be bothered by celebrations of Christmas and Easter, assuming that the other partner is Christian, there is going to be considerable stress at least twice a year.

And then there is the issue of what religion, if any, the children of such a union are introduced to. Do you give them both and let them choose? For most Egyptian families, this idea is horrifying and there would be considerable pressure on the man to have the children raised as Muslims.

Similarly, a major consideration should also be for where this marriage is going to be enjoyed. If the couple is living in North America or Europe, then the laws of the country will determine the rights of the wife in cases of divorce or widowhood. If, however, the couple is living in Egypt, then the legal situation does have to be considered. A Christian wife of a Muslim man has no legal rights of inheritance in Egypt. The laws governing inheritance are outlined for Christians and for Muslims and they are different. There is no allowance for mixed marriage under the law.

In my mind, religion is a very personal thing, just like taste in music, belief in fairies, or which side of the bed you have to sleep on. Theoretically, mixing two very different personal beliefs should be possible, but you can't forget the nasty facts of law and family pressures. These things can make all the difference.

Best of luck

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Whose Cat Was That?

Erwin Schr?dinger - Biography

Erwin Schrodinger (whose o has two dots over it) was an Austrian physicist who came up with the diabolical thought problem involving the possibly dead cat. He never tried it out. But that's ok. Thousands of introductory physics students have been enamoured of Shrodinger's possibly dead/possibly live/possibly both cat for decades.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Driving with Schrodinger's Cat

I have a son with a degree in theoretical physics who has tried to explain the subject of quantum mechanics to my limited mind a number of times. Oddly enough, I keep running across references to quantum mechanics in the strangest places these days as well. In conversations, books on philosophy, novels, and finally, I realise, in Cairo traffic. They call it synchronicity when you keep running into the same people or ideas in various contexts at a particular point in time...well, maybe the physicists don't call it that, but people who talk about patterns in one's life do.

Whenever there is casual conversation about quantum anything, Dr. Shrodinger's poor maligned feline gets mentioned. Dr. S' cat was used as a thought problem illustrating the fact that quantum mechanics talks about the probability of something happening rather than the observation of it happening. In the thought problem a cat was to be sealed up in a box in which there was a decaying atom, a device to measure the decay and a relay so that if an atom decayed, a poisonous gas would be released that would kill the cat. Since no one could predict when the particle would decay, the life span of the cat was indefinite but it could be discussed as a probability. Mathematically, the situation would be expressed as the cat being both living and not living to a certain extent, but as we all know, for the most part, that is a condition that is very difficult to achieve. So empirically, the cat would either be alive or dead.

Now the connection between the cat and Cairo traffic occurred to me the other evening when I was navigating the insanity of a summer Thursday evening (like a Friday night elsewhere) in downtown Cairo on my way to my sanctuary in the boondocks. I learned to drive in a country with a booklet of traffic laws on which prospective drivers would be tested. I learned to drive in lanes, obeying traffic signals. These things don't work the same here. When there is an agreed-upon set of rules and markings as to where cars are to go or not to go, a driver can relax a bit and predict where another driver will be. That doesn't happen here ever.

A oneway street in Egypt is, like Schrodinger's cat, an expression of probability. If you start down one, you are not guaranteed to be able to continue without meeting someone head on, but you have a greater probability of not meeting someone. The fact that traffic police usually just make notes on the license numbers of cars having drivers using mobile phones or not wearing seat belts tends to encourage such random behaviour by drivers. I have never seen a driver pulled over by a policeman for reckless, fast, or inappropriately directed driving. It just doesn't happen. When I encountered not one but at least six or eight cars driving in the wrong direction on that Thursday night, I was annoyed but not surprised. It's strictly rollerderby rules out there, but what a great way to learn defensive driving.

The more I think about it, the more I suspect that Cairo may just be one huge thought experiment. When I first moved here and was trying to figure out the rules to the game, my late husband told me that "In Egypt everything is forbidden and anything is possible." Sounds like Schrodinger's cat would have been right at home.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

And Now Dates

Yellow dates
Yellow dates, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
When I lived in Canada, we would watch for the green summer leaves to turn red, gold, and orange, knowing that it was the sign that summer was over and winter was on its way. Egypt, as always, is a different story, but we also have something that is the signal that the heat of summer is over. We watch the green dates on the palms turn to gold, yellow and deep red in preparation for the date harvest. This comes in September and October just as the mango harvest is winding down, which is a good thing since they are both very labour intensive harvests.

The date harvest is one of my favourite times of year here. Entire families move from the villages to camping huts in the date groves of Dahshur. Near Abu Sir, where the fields are open for cultivation, date palms occupy smaller groves or line the edges of fields. As the bunches of dates get heavier towards the end of summer long ropes made of palm fiber are tied to some of the older, taller trees to help stabilise them and keep them from bending right over. Naturally the ropes attract the children who climb over them and bounce from them whenever the adults aren't looking.

There are over 600 varieties of dates, most of which look a bit wrinkled and brown when they've been dried. Fresh and crisp, however, they are anything from pale yellow to a burgundy red and can be almost round or as long and thick around as a thumb.

As the corn is harvested at the end of summer, the stalks are saved to be woven into walls to surround fallow fields where the dates will be sorted and dried in the sun on mats woven from the fronds. The dates most commonly sold in markets outside the Middle East and North Africa are those that have been left to ripen in the sun. The fresh dates have an astringent taste that can be a bit hard to get used to at first, but they are wonderfully refreshing as they aren't as sweet and heavy as the dry ones. Some dates are left to dry totally and can be stored for a year or so. Dropped into a bowl of water or milk, they reconstitute in a couple of hours to their heavy sweetness. An image of dates drying in Siwa Oasis can be seen at siwapic7.html

Date palms are believed to have been one of the first plants to be domesticated and they are a marvel. There is no part of the plant that cannot be used. The trunks are split to use for building or supporting things. They are fibrous and rot quickly if left wet, but in Egypt that isn't much of a problem. The fronds are cut a couple of times a year and used to thatch houses or animal sheds. I use them to shade my aviary. I have chairs, sofas and tables made from the ribs of the fronds from which the leaves have been stripped to use in making mats, baskets and fiber. The sheep, goats, horses, donkeys and camels are fond of the fronds and of chewing on the palm trunks themselves, and they love the windfall dates that they can find on the ground. In emergencies, water can be found by cutting the growing heart of the palm and scooping it out of the center of the trunk, while the heart itself is a nourishing meal. Dates themselves contain a wealth of minerals and are used to rebalance the bodies electrolytes after the Ramadan fast.

I lived around palm trees a good part of my life without really understanding the wonder of these incredible trees. They are very slow growing but they begin bearing fruit early. There are some new groves where the bunches of fruit barely clear the ground. That must be great for the harvesting and maintenance. But for me, one of the great joys is just looking out over the fields from my roof and watching the long fronds tossing in the wind like landlocked sea anenomes.