Friday, May 06, 2005

Some Weeks Are Longer Than Others

Garden gathering
Garden gathering, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
This is the time of year when we change from winter/spring to summer in Egypt. Sham el Nessim, which was celebrated last Monday, is the day when the police all over Egypt get to change from their black wool winter uniforms to the summer whites, and their relief is usually obvious to any observer. We've had a cooler than usual spring, so it wasn't so bad for the poor traffic cops standing in the sun.

The transition from spring to summer is greeted with mixed feelings here. On one hand the days are going to be hot for a while, like about 5 months, but the evenings with the silk soft air (at least out here in the country) make up for the heat. Relaxing on the verandah or riding in the countryside at night are wonderful in the summer. Winter nights are pretty chilly to enjoy much.

This year the transition was marred with tragedy. The deaths of three young Egyptians who for whatever bizarre reasons decided to try to harm some foreign tourists were upsetting to all of us. Tourism is so important to the economy here that most Egyptians want nothing more than to see it increase. None of the people I know are interested in seeing people stop coming here. Whatever logic was being followed by the young man who threw himself off the bridge and by his sister and fiancee is as foreign to us as the thoughts of any aliens. The picture that has come through here has been of a wildly disfunctional family.

On Monday my guest and I went out for a ride in the countryside in our celebration of Sham el Nessim. Music playing from various gardens announced the arrival of city folk who had come to spend the day outdoors in the traditional manner. Farmers were working in their fields to harvest the green fodder for their animals, but their wives and children were already on their ways out to bring the Sham el Nessim picnic of fish, cheese, onions, and bread.

Refreshed by an hour or two with the horses, I headed into Maadi on a much less pleasant task. An a'aza was being held in one of the gardens for a friend of mine who had died in a particularly tragic fashion. A teacher at a local school, when she didn't show up for work early in the week before, someone went around to her flat to see if she was all right. A widow for many years, she'd been having problems with her younger son, so there was some concern for her welfare. The concern was well-founded in this case, as she was found dead in her flat, a victim of domestic violence. The younger son, a boy in his early 20's, had apparently killed her in a fit of anger.

Just as with the young people who died earlier in the week in a senseless, supposedly political act, this was complicated by the problems and pressures of youth, many of the same problems and pressures that are found worldwide. Her death wasn't especially Egyptian, it was just a tragedy, and it was an immense tragedy for her older son. A kind, sensitive young man, he teaches music therapy in a school for children with special needs, autistic children and those with attentional and learning disabilities. The Egyptian legal system does not take matricide lightly, so he has lost both his mother and his brother in one incomprensible act of violence.

The friends who gathered to honour his mother came literally from all over the world. Many were long time Cairo residents, some of whom flew in from Europe and the US to pay their respects. The setting was one of Maadi's most beautiful gardens and every guest brought a dish to share with the others. Near the garden gate was a table filled with potted plants and a note asking each guest to take one, plant it in their garden and nourish it with the love that the woman we were honouring would have given it. She was an avid gardener and always had plants growing in her class room.

I find gatherings like those difficult. I barely remember the days that I went through after my husband's death almost five years ago,but I do recall that somehow the sympathy of others made everything worse in an odd way. In retrospect, I don't believe that it did make things worse, but when I was trying so hard to keep myself under control, the grief of others was an invitation to feel it myself. Seeing her son sitting in the shade with his wife brought it all back to me with hideous clarity. When someone was speaking to him, he could make contact, but when left to himself, he slipped into a deep grey fog. He is fortunate to have a loving wife who will be there to help him through this period.

The rest of the week slipped past in a haze of tasks and errands. One delightful task was a trail ride with my Belgian friends and Nathalie's 76 year old mother. She was a delight, curious, active, and fearless. Despite the fact that she hadn't ridden for at least 25 years, she handled an hour and a half on the trail like a trouper, trotting and cantering along with the rest. I think I've found my role model. What a woman! And she'd just gotten back to Cairo from a trip to Petra where she'd spent two days hiking in the desert visiting the ruins in Jordan.

Yesterday my son and I finished some work on a project together. In celebration we went to a restaurant in Zamalek where his girlfriend and another American friend who is studying at AUC joined us for a beer. We went on to a Japanese restaurant in Giza for dinner, from which point I headed back home to the farms and they continued on to meet other friends. I remember being that young and staying up half the night. Don't do it much any more.

On my way home a pickup truck with a smoke machine in the back brought traffic to a screeching halt by creating a cloud of anti-mosquito smoke so thick that drivers couldn't make out the road for a couple of minutes. Cairo traffic being pretty insane at the best of times, the situation could only be laughed at. Once the smoke cleared and I could continue on my way, I found myself behind a wedding party in about four cars, all of which were weaving all over the road. In the US or Canada, they would have been arrested for reckless driving. Here people just smiled and waved. I worried that they might not make it to the reception. Fortunately, they turned off and the rest of my colleagues on the road seemed to be at least moderately sane.

Near the Giza zoo, I stopped for a traffic cop and a young girl about 8 years old was walking down the median holding strings of white flowers for sale. I bought a few strands of ful for my rear view mirror, remembering my husband buying some the first time we came to Egypt as the scent filled the car. Some of the sweet things never change.