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

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Ramadan Kareem

Ramadan Kareem is the normal Ramadan greeting, similar in a way to Merry Christmas. Kareem (or Karim) means "generous" and generosity is a paramount virtue during Ramadan. People who do not fast are expected to donate meals for those who are fasting. This can be done directly by feeding someone his/her iftar or by a donation to a mosque that is feeding people. In addition, you will see long tables set up in the streets at the time of iftar all over the country where anyone passing by may sit down to eat at the time to break the fast. The tables and the food are provided by families who can afford to feed people and are a Ramadan tradition. It is also traditional to have company iftars at which the workers and the management of the company break their fast together.

Ramadan is a great leveler as someone fasting who is rich is just as miserable without his tea and cigarettes as a poor person is. There is something very special about the month. Part of the tradition is that you should not get into arguments with others, you should behave especially kindly to others....someone should tell the cab drivers about it though. Traffic during the hour or half hour before iftar is a nightmare. Everyone is rushing to get home, have something to eat and drink and get that first bit of nicotine and caffeine of the day. There are A LOT of smokers in Egypt, and no smoking sections are still something new here. So the addiction suffering is pretty intense.

After iftar, which will be about 5:30 to 6 pm this year, people go to the mosques for special long Ramadan prayers, or they go out to visit, shop, or do all those things that they just felt to horrible to do earlier in the day. Shops are open until midnight or later, theatres run all night, the streets are full of people. I usually stay home for exactly that reason. Most Muslims will have a snack before they go to bed and then many set an alarm to go off just before dawn to be able to have a bite to eat and some water. I used to do this for my children when they were fasting at home. The traditional sohour (the name for this meal) is fava beans (called foul although they taste great) cooked soft and mixed with onions, garlic, tomato, pepper, olive oil and eaten with cheese similar to feta cheese and bread. This provides a good basis for getting through the day without food because these are complex carbohydrates that can keep the body going a long time. Foul is the traditional food of Egyptians of all classes. There is another interesting tradition of an individual that families will pay to come around a neighbourhood with a small drum which he will beat to wake them for sohour. If it sounds like sleep is a bit fragmented even if you go to bed early, it is indeed.

Towards the end of Ramadan, women begin baking cookies called kahk, which are a sort of shortbread often filled with date paste or ground nuts. They are really yummy when done well and could be used as slingshot ammunition if not. The feast after Ramadan, Eid el Fitr, is called "the lesser feast" or around here "the cookie feast". The first day of the feast after Ramadan, families wake up very early, everyone dresses in new clothes (a thing that is getting harder every year with inflation) and the men (and sometimes the women) go to the mosque to pray. It's impossible to sleep that morning because all the muezzin are chanting, the men and boys going to mosque are chanting as they's quite extraordinary. After prayer everyone goes home to enjoy a MORNING cup of tea and some kahk, and then they go to visit family. It's often traditional as well to have a meal of fish for dinner, at least in Alexandria where fish is always traditional.

I'm looking forward to Ramadan in the countryside this year. There will be a lot of new things for me to discover. And I'm going to make sure that I'm home good and early so that I don't have to deal with the traffic. One of the things that city residents find rather wonderful and astounding is the fact that the city is utterly still for the hour after the call to prayer (and iftar) during Ramadan. Everyone is somewhere eating, buses stop and the drivers join one of the public tables with their passengers, trains stop so that the passengers and employees can eat and drink, everything stops. It's amazing in a city like Cairo where there is so much activity to see such stillness. The only other time you see this is during the World Cup.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Reaching Ramadan

Either Thursday or Friday the Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan, will start. The uncertainty is due to a quaint custom that certain people must sight the new moon to announce the start of the fast. The fact that there are umpteen thousand computer programs and sites that can tell you the exact phase of the moon anywhere on earth is irrelevant. It has to actually be sighted to declare the start and/or the finish of Ramadan.

When Ramadan begins, Muslims who are not traveling, nursing babies, ill, or females in their menstrual period will be fasting from first light (marked by the call to dawn prayer) until dusk (marked by the call to evening prayer) for a month, refraining from eating or drinking all day, living without cigarettes, coffee, tea, any alcoholic beverages, or daylight sexual activity. Sounds like fun, doesn't it? The premise is good, that everyone should spend some time thinking about the tribulations of the poor and his/her relationship to God. There are extra-long prayers in the mosques in the evenings and many more devout Muslims will make an effort to go to the mosque at least once a day for prayers. Even the less strict Muslims will refrain from drinking any alcohol for the month, and those who are not fasting for some reason will be careful not to eat or drink in front of others. When my children were young, before they were considered old enough to try fasting (about 12 years), we had a rule that they would not ask the housekeeper to prepare food for them, they should drink before leaving the house, and not eat outside during Ramadan. Since they were in a French school in Alexandria, they were free to eat at school and the times when eating was avoided were not so long, so for them it was an exercise in consideration.

I've suffered from a hypothyroid condition since my daughter was born, which leads to hypoglycemia and problems with my blood sugar, so until the children were old enough to try fasting I didn't fast, but I followed the same rules as I set for my children. Once my son was about twelve and wanted to try fasting, I fasted with him, despite my doctor's suggestion that it wasn't the best idea. Since the date of the onset of Ramadan moves backwards in the year's calendar by about two weeks per year, it's been in spring, winter, and now fall pretty much the entire time I've lived in Egypt. The days have been short and made shorter by the need for a shorter working day to get people home to their families by the time of iftar, the breaking of the fast, so fasting really wasn't very stressful. In fact it was rather a pleasant change not to have to stop the day's activities to prepare meals.

The best way to explain the emotional sense of Ramadan to non-Muslims is to ask them to imagine that Christmas lasted a month and was somehow combined with Lent. It is a time (at least theoretically) of somewhat somber reflection and at the same time a time of joining together of family and friends. Egyptians are not somber by nature so the more festive aspect of Ramadan always wins out. People make a special point of entertaining friends and families at iftar or sohour (the meal late at night before the dawn prayer). With the advent of television, Ramadan is the prime viewing period for shows, serials, special game shows, and the like.

What this means to daily life in Egypt is rather intriguing. The first two weeks of Ramadan there are a lot of very cranky people wandering about with headaches from the withdrawal of caffeine. One of the most important things about Egypt is that it runs on sweet, strong tea. Take that away from morning to evening and you have some VERY unhappy folk about. Add to the equation the fact that they are also giving up cigarettes during the daytime and the word "irritable" takes on new meaning. But iftar comes at dusk and for many people they break their fast with a cup of tea and a cigarette, becoming kinder gentler people for the fix of nicotine and caffeine. The iftar meal traditionally begins with dates, which replenish sugars and electrolytes, soup, and usually light grilled meat, rice, and salad. Dessert is the killer though. Ramadan desserts go from the healthier dried fruit compotes to artery-clogging pastries filled with butter, sugar, nuts....Talk about sugar highs.

Each year the newspapers note that food consumption actually increases during Ramadan, with sugar, butter, and meat most notable in the menu. Combined with fasting, these items aren't exactly healthy, but so far not too many people are taking notice of the articles on staying healthy during Ramadan.

The last two weeks of the month, people have adjusted to the nicotine/caffeine double whammy, but by then they've been sucked into the television shows that run all night long, and we have a population of blood sugar-depleted sleep-deprived zombies. Many people never sleep all night, a fact that plays utter havoc with productivity and driving. Never install a nuclear reactor during Ramadan and don't try to drive during the half hour before iftar. Not everyone follows this pattern however. We were not the only family that didn't have sweets to end iftar and that made a point of maintaining normal bedtimes during Ramadan. If you are a serious worker, there is no way to stay up all night and function during the day. We would celebrate iftar with my inlaws once or twice during the month and usually gave a huge iftar for the Sudanese branch of the family once during Ramadan. In return we might accept about two or three invitations to iftar and we tried to avoid sohour invitations. My husband had more demands on his time due to business invitations, but since I was the one who would be getting up early to get kids to school I could avoid them.

Tonight I was driving one of my son's friends home to her apartment in Maadi after dinner and we passed a midan that was filled with hundreds of Ramadan lanterns suspended from the branches of the huge ficus trees in the garden in the center of the circle. They were sort of like Christmas lights in a way, but the brass and the coloured panes in the lanterns cast a special light unlike anything else. Egyptians outside Egypt during Ramadan get very homesick as Europeans and North Americans don't understand the magic, very much as European and North American partners of Egyptians miss the magic of Christmas. The religions involved are different, the traditions are different, but the feeling is very much the same.

Ramadan Kareem

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Other People's Backyards

#-E commented that the Israeli tourists to Sinai are more likely to go backpacking and hiking in the mountains than the Europeans who come for Las Vegas By The Sea (aka, Sharm el Sheikh), and I'd agree. They and the local outdoors types are more likely to support the camping beaches and the bedouin camps in the interior. Like I pointed out in my last post, the only conclusion one can come up with regarding Taba is that this was aimed particularly at the Israelis and not at the Egyptian government as many of the attacks in the past actually were, although it was the tourists who were harmed. It's bad enough that things are such a bloody mess in Israel, Palestine, Gaza without having it exported to Taba.

Meanwhile in my backyard, aside from the hideous mess that is the internet here, life is pretty good. I came back to six puppies in two litters who will have to find homes, but that should be workable. Two horses have a vet visit this afternoon for leg problems. I have one of my Rat Terriers staying for a while with me because her owners, previously Sharm residents, are in an apartment in Zamalek for a grim wait. The husband underwent surgery for brain cancer last year in Vienna with the associated chemo and radiation therapy, but there is a new tumour and he isn't willing to do it again. Trying to care for a dog in an apartment under these circumstances isn't really an option so I offered to give her a place to stay for the time being. She stayed with me while her family were in Vienna as well so she understands the routine.

October is the start of our best weather that should last all the way to about June. Nights are chill, mornings cool and the afternoon sun is a blessing rather than a curse. Leaves do fall a bit, but not much. Poincianas lose their leaves in the winter, when we need the sun more and get them back in the spring along with their scarlet blossoms. I'd rather sit with my door open to hear the muezzin's call and the pickup with the unintelligible loudspeaker messages about weddings and funerals in the area than hear the sirens of the police and fire department in Manhattan.

The attack on the storage in Toronto turned out to be less painful than I'd expected. At least two thirds of the boxes could simply be thrown out, being things that simply were pointless to ship. But there were a few boxes of my grandmother's journals from before WWII, my old high school annuals and photo albums (the kids will get a laugh out of those), my husband's and my Master's theses (pretty dry reading), some silver mugs that had been baby gifts to the children, some pewter wine glasses that were a wedding present, and some painted panels that used to hang in the living room of our house. All of these things will come here, while about 4 boxes of good wine glasses went to my hosts in Toronto with instructions to share the wealth. Funny the things that you think are important when you pack them away may not be later.

I spent the afternoon with a friend who had worked for my husband in Canada. He has had the keys to the storage and has cared for our house there. I think of Dave being very young, but both he and Bruce (another ex-employee who came over later that night with his wife and kids) have some grey hair now. Aging is such a shock. Dave and Bruce were just out of college when they came to us, and now they have kids, hockey practice, mortgages, that whole syndrome that is associated with becoming a bona fide "Adult". Made me feel old in a way. I float along life's channel without really noticing the passage of time until a marker like this comes along. I wonder if there is a way to synchronise one's outside better with one's inside? Or if I really want to.... I sort of like being about 30 inside.