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.