Thursday, January 20, 2005

Song And Prayer

Girl with a drum
Girl with a drum, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
I woke this morning at about 7 am to a sound that I haven't heard for years. Softly in the distance men and boys were chanting "Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar. La illaha il Allah." God is Great. God is Great. There is no god but God. As I lay in bed with rat terriers keeping my chilly feet warm, I smiled at the sunny morning and the memories this chant brought back.

Yesterday was a busy day for me. I had a first time client come to me for a ride in the area to check it out prior to bringing a British visitor later this spring. He's not a rider, so I put him on my schoolmaster, Bunduq, and showed him around the area while we chatted about the vagaries of introducing someone to Egypt. Once I finished with that, I went to visit some local stables and bought a new mare for my work string. Having finished that, I stopped off at my house to feed the menagerie and for a quick cheese sandwich with Morad before giving him a ride to Abu Rawash to take an eideya (a money gift for someone on a special occasion). His Jeep Wrangler has no top and it was cloudy, cold and moving on into evening, so my Jeep with windows and a heater was a good idea. Besides I needed to stop in Nazlit Semman to buy corn for birds on the way back.

We visited the home of Morad's uncle Magdy's best friend, Salah Abdel Hafez, who passed away before Magdy leaving his housekeeper and her family in the care of Magdy's family. Samiha's grandmother had been brought to Egypt at the end of the past century from the borders of Ethiopia as a slave along with others to work the farms of Magdy and Salah's family in Minya. Over time, all of the slaves were given their freedom and land, so now next to the owning family's land, is Ezbat el Abdeen...the farms of the slaves. Samiha's mother had gone to work as a housekeeper for Salah who moved to Cairo, so Samiha grew up in Salah's home in Abu Rawash and was the person who cared for him in his old age, sickness, and whose husband washed the old man when he died at home. He'd married once when young, divorced without children and lived alone all his life under Samiha's watchful eye. Before his death, he wrote a legal document with Morad's mother, who is a lawyer, leaving Magdy to administer and protect Samiha's right to live in the house that she'd built on the land behind Salah's home for the rest of her life. The land was inherited by his nephews and Magdy's family has had to work a bit to protect Samiha and her family. She's a lovely woman, obviously not Egyptian, who sent us back with a pile of home-baked bread, fresh cut spinach, coriander, parsley, and two stalks of the best sugar cane.
I was honored to meet this woman who still keeps the eccentric old house of Salah clean although no one lives in it anymore.

After Samiha, Morad and I stopped by one of my neighbours for a cup of tea that ended up being an evening meal. Saber is building Morad's house and will build mine. He's a very intelligent man who's never attended university, but he manages a huge nursery and learned construction working with his uncle, our omda Haj Abdou. Over braised veal, rice and a tomato salad, Saber told me that in the morning all the men and boys from this particular area would be following an old custom for the Eid prayer, the early morning prayer. They would leave their homes and walk up to the area of the tombs near Abu Sir village, just under the brow of the hill of the Sakkara complex, to pray in the desert near the tombs of their ancestors. Men from the area had been preparing the desert for the past day, and in the morning the sun would shine on hundreds of men and boys performing the Eid prayers on the sand beside the tombs. According to Saber, this is the right way to perform these prayers, with one's ancestors, under the sky. As he put it, "mish makshouf" without shyness.

This was the chant that I heard this morning, a chant I have not heard since about 1991, when we were living in Alexandria. I woke early in the morning on the Eid that day to hear a murmuring in the streets outside our villa walls. Gradually the murmuring became louder until it was a musical chant whose words I could clearly make out. I had no idea what the noise could be about, but there seemed to be no concern from my sleepy husband, so I went to the window where I looked out to see the streets full of men and boys in fresh white galabeyas marching through the streets chanting on their way to prayer. We were lucky in that villa to live near an important mosque in the area who had a muezzin with the most lovely voice I've ever heard and the attendance for Eid prayer was enormous.

I believe that St. Augustine said that to sing is to pray twice. He came from North Africa and must have heard these chants in his childhood because double prayer blessed my morning.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Holidays and Holy Days

DoryDogsMA.JPG, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
I adore my kids, really I do, but I have to admit to a sigh of relief when they are off doing whatever it is that young people do with their lives these days. My daughter came home from the US for a two week break in Egypt. It wasn't the best holiday for her. First Northwest/KLM decided to make life difficult on her flight home by cancelling her booking on the day she was to fly (She only found out about it at the airport) and then not wanting to board her the day they told her that she could fly after the first abortive attempt. Then when she came home, it became obvious that she REALLY wasn't well, so more time was spent with doctors and labs for various tests. The outcome was an amoeba infestation. A couple of boxes of medication later she was ready to fly back to launch herself into the spring semester.

Life is back to the dogs sleeping on the sofa while I listen to music on my computer (I LOVE my iPod) after a 2 hour ride in the rain. Well, the rain isn't so normal, but it was wonderful to get out and canter down the country roads with friends even if we were getting rather wet.

Day after tomorrow is the first day of Eid el Adha, the Greater Feast, probably the most important Muslim holiday. The haj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca, takes place during this period and Muslims who do not travel celebrate this feast at home. It's a bit problematic for foreigners and/or vegetarians since the feast celebrates the encounter of Abraham with the angel who put a sheep in the place of his son as he was preparing to sacrifice his son to God. Tomorrow and the next day many sheep, goats and cattle will be slaughtered in the memory of this event. Traditionally, the animal is brought to the home, fed and cared for carefully and introduced to the children for whom it will give its life. As the sheep was taken in place of Abraham's son, these animals are symbolic of man's obedience to God's will.

I have to admit that I do not personally sacrifice an animal on the feast. I do contribute to a pool with my neighbours to purchase a cow whose meat will be distributed to the locals and our workers. The traditional dispersal of the meat of the sacrificed animal is that one third is to go to the poor (often by taking the meat to a local mosque for distribution), one third is to go to friends, and one third to go to the family. My husband had cholesterol problems and we didn't eat red meat, so our sacrifice went entirely to our staff and the poor.

I've gone through years of actually having a sheep slaughtered in the garage at home. I don't really feel all that comfortable with it and I'm fairly certain that the experience had a lot to do with my daughter becoming vegetarian at the age of twelve. I haven't sacrificed an animal in years. I don't think that I ever will again. I respect the tradition, but I'll stick to sacrificing carrots. I'm sure that God will understand.