Saturday, January 29, 2005


FelfelaDecor.JPG, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
Someone turned on the heat today. A hot dry wind is blowing from the southwest, a counterpoint to our usual wind that brings cooler air from the northwest. Fine dust covers everything, but as long as this wind is blowing, there isn't much point in cleaning. In two seconds the dust will be back. My old baladi dog Stella has a heart that isn't doing so well at her advanced age of about fifteen and the heat is not welcomed by her. She's panting and seeking the cool indoors.

I was riding this morning with a couple of clients, trying out a desert trail that will be used next Friday for a 40 kilometre endurance ride. There is a group of local riders who put on monthly rides during the fall-to-spring season for fun. The idea of endurance riding is that one is out there with a horse making sure to cover the course but taking good care of the horse as well. We have young vets who get equine practice checking the horses before the ride, at the halfway point, and at the end of the ride to be sure that the horses are fit to be ridden. Any that fail the checks are withdrawn. There isn't much glory in winning a ride like this, although there is usually a cup or something for the first three places. I'm going to be riding with Pauline, the young girl in the dramatic photo of the pyramid against the stormy sky. We'll likely come in last.

After two hours in the desert with this wind blowing, I came home and drank a couple of litres of water, had a bite of salad and lay down for a nap on the couch. One of the things this wind does is to make you so sleepy that a nap isn't just nice but is necessary. So I arranged the pillows on my large couch, stretched out and was immediately covered in dogs. I recalled an old song from my teenage years "Leader of the Pack" and rather inanely wondered if being leader of a pack of rat terriers was really worthwhile. A minute later, all had settled to what they felt was an appropriate snoozing spot and we were out for an hour. I rarely nap, and every time I do I remember why I rarely nap.

The sunset tonight will likely be fairly spectacular due to the dust, but I'm afraid that I will be less appreciative of the half acre of Sahara sand that is occupying my floor. Housework appears inevitable. Despite the warmer temperatures, I don't think anyone will be outdoors appreciating them. Sandstorms like this aren't so great for the lungs, and most of us try to stay indoors for the worst part. My grooms tell me that we are now in the beginning of Amsheer, the month of winds and changing weather by the old pharaonic calendar. In Alexandria we used this calendar to predict the weather and it was known as the fishermen's calender but it dates back to the time of the pharoahs and the months are tied to the rhythmn of planting and harvest.

While I was laying there, pushing dogs off my face and encouraging all to go to sleep so that I could, I realised that I've been in this house almost a year now. The sparrows are quarreling in the eaves again, trying to nest in every possible hole. The wheat has been planted and still looks like plots of lush grass rather than a grain. It's been a good year over all.

By the way, the absurd column in the photograph is from the Pyramids branch of Felfela, an Egyptian restaurant that is a favourite when we are looking for good inexpensive country food. They sell takeaway from a counter on the street just below the pyramids of Giza and you can get very full on foul and ta'ameya sandwiches (beans and felafel) for a couple of Egyptian pounds. If you are interested in something more formal, they have a garden and an indoor dining room, the source of the column, where you can have a variety of salads, stuffed pigeon, grilled quail, and other local specialities and sip on a chilled
Stella beer. Every restaurant in the chain is slightly different and this one must have employed an Egyptian relative of Gaudi to decorate the columns in seashells and stones.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Law West Of The Nile

Village girls
Village girls, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
Most of the village families here find an outside source of income very useful. If they are farming, there is little likelihood that they will starve to death, but you need money for clothes, electricity, doctors, and school books. Quite a few of my neighbours make the long commute into town to work, some of them are employed in local hotels and restaurants. My grooms live just down the road from the paddocks where I keep my horses. I know that for each of them, this income is incredibly important.

Until last week, I had a young girl of about 20 years coming in three mornings a week to help me with my housework, most importantly washing the tile floors. She'd been working for me for about 8 months and on the whole been satisfactory, but I had noticed that some odd things had gone missing. I couldn't say for sure that she had taken them, but they weren't the sorts of things that I would usually lose. One of them was a nice kitchen knife, another was the connector cable to a digital camera, and so on. Just before the feast, however, when I went in to the bank to deposite some dollars that someone had given me in exchange for being able to use my credit card I discovered that I was USD 900 short. I was not pleased.

When I sat down at my computer checking my appointments and tasks for the past few days, I discovered that there was exactly a fifteen minute window when the wallet had not been with me. I'd taken it out of my purse to pay my garbage collectors before the girl had arrived and left it on a table in the living room. I was going out in a couple of minutes, so I guess I got sloppy. When I came out of the bathroom before leaving, I noticed that the wallet wasn't in exactly the same position and put it down to "cleaning the table". Incorrect.

By the time I'd sorted out what had happened, we were well into the Eid holiday. I was at a bit of a loss as to how to proceed, so I went to my neighbour, Haj Abdou. Haj Abdou is the head of the main clan in the area and as such is the arbitrator in situations like this. He sent a couple of the younger men with a car and asked the girl and her mother to come to see Morad, who shared her services with me and who also employed her sister as to keep records for his stable management and tack business. She called me on the way, quite concerned. I told her I had no idea why Morad might want to see her.

When she and her mother arrived, Haj Abdou was out but his younger brother Haj Shaban was there to handle the situation. He went into a room with mother and daughter and explained the situation while we sat in the cavernous living room freezing to death. (Because important negotiations, conferences, and events occur in the Omda's house, there has to be a room with seating for about 60 people. Usually it provides an indoor playground for his grandchildren, however.) Daughter confessed and mother was in tears. Apparently she'd taken the money without even understanding how much it was and had given it to a young man that she knew to exchange for her. Luckily, it was a holiday and banks were closed, so he wasn't able to do so.

She promised that he'd give her the money that night and that she'd bring it back the next day. None of us were exactly willing to hold our breath for this, as it was the perfect situation of a young girl being taken for a fool by a young man. She had no proof that she'd given him anything and he could just deny it. Astoundingly, he did give her the money in the presence of her mother, and it was returned.

The damage to the family, even without any interference from the police, was considerable. The girl, youngest of three daughters, is sitting at home unemployed and unemployable in the near future. Her mother and sisters have been holding positions of trust in the community. Her mother is the keeper of the local gamaya (an informal sort of savings plan where everyone contributes a certain amount and then people borrow from it in turn), while one of her sisters is the custodian of the safe at a factory where she is employed. The second sister had access to all of Morad's house and files. As far as I know, the gamaya hasn't been removed from the mother and the other sister still has her job. The second one is on leave for a bit while Morad moves, but he and I are definitely without cleaning help.

I was so happy to get the money back that I never even asked about the other items, but later over coffee Morad and his wife and I realised that she'd been helping herself to various things over the months. Where I was missing a connector cord for a digital camera, he was missing a camera, an ancient one that wouldn't work with the connector cord from my house. Oh well.

This isn't the first time that something like this has happened. I employed a woman in my old home in Maadi for 8 years, paid her medical expenses and those of her children and mother, loaned her money for school fees when her husband traveled to Dubai to look for work and so on. When I moved and was renovating the house, she asked for a sink if I was throwing one out and I told her that she could have one when the workers removed it. Unbeknownst to me, she went to the house, removed sinks (plural), toilets, bidets, taps and so on from the bathrooms and kitchen and carted them off, telling the workers that I'd told her to. When I found out, I was furious naturally, but what could I do? She'd sold them already and used the money. A number of months later, she had the occasion to call me to say that she'd found work and would I write her a recommendation. I had to laugh at the absolute nerve of her request, and I told her that anything I would write would not exactly be helpful.

I could have taken the first housekeeper to the police. There were witnesses. But what good would it have done? Who would have cared for her two sons? It's a very hard call. The resolution of the problem in this case was much more satisfying for me. I got back the most important loss, the money, and my ex-employee learned that Very Bad Things Happen When You Steal. Hopefully, she'll turn over a new leaf, but it will be with someone else. I'm too busy mopping floors.