Thursday, May 19, 2005

Working With What You Have

Omar.JPG, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
The workmen were my teachers from the very first. I learned my Arabic from the fruit and vegetable sellers, from the electricians and the plumbers, from the grooms and the veterinarians. My Arabic isn't the most elegant even today. I do better in the paddocks and souqs than I do in a board room or a cocktail party. People laugh kindly at my Alexandrian accent, sort of the way that someone might find amusing the way a newcomer to English speaks with a southern accent. I can live with that.

Omar is my blacksmith. His teacher was Yassin, who had been trained by the British before they left Egypt in the 50's. Yassin began training Omar as he was going blind, not an optimal training program. Far too many skilled workers and even professionals here guard their skills jealously, not wanting to give anything away lest the younger ones steal their clients. Omar never really got a good chance to learn from Yassin, but a number of years later we were able to help him out.

A visiting American blacksmith offered to help a number of us who boarded our horses out in Sakkara by taking Omar under her wing for a few weeks to train him. The look on Omar's face the first time he met Sara was priceless. Clearly he didn't believe that he had much to learn from a least he didn't until she had fashioned a complete set of specialised horse shoes from a bar of iron in about 20 minutes. After that, she had his total attention.

From Sara he learned a lot about shoeing, about changing the shoes to fit the horses rather than vice versa, a very important distinction as most horsemen know. He commissioned an ironworker to build him a portable forge and a foot rest for filing the horses' hooves. He was a good blacksmith at the beginning, but he's a much better one now.

One of the things that I've always wanted to do is to institute an exchange program for skilled workers in the field that is so important to my life, horses. I'd like to be able to offer free room and board for visits to Egypt by vets, farriers, and saddlemakers who are willing to come to Egypt on holiday and spend part of that time teaching our people here. That is probably the only way that we are going to be able to train anyone under the educational level of a doctor of veterinary medicine. There are no schools for farriers, no training for saddlemakers, and our veterinary schools aren't exactly hands-on training. Unfortunately as well, politics being what they are, a man like Omar isn't likely to get a visa to go to study with a master blacksmith in the US or Europe to improve his skills.

You have to do the best that you can.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Street Smarts

BasketCart.JPG, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
I decided about a month ago that I needed a wicker basket for some cotton kilims that I use to cover my furniture to protect chairs from the wear and tear of rat terriers.I keep spares so that I have clean ones to put on while I wash the sandy ones. While driving in Maadi, I saw a typical basket cart parked at a corner near the Irish school and stopped to ask the prices. I looked around and couldn't see anyone near the cart, so I asked the guard at the school where the basket seller was. He didn't know, and I went on my way but I stopped by at least three times a week for the next three weeks. I never did see the owner of the cart but the baskets never changed place or position.

Finally this morning as I was cruising past the corner, I spotted a man sitting in the shade under at tree across the street from the cart. Screeching to a halt, I asked if by any chance he was the proprietor of the cart. Yes, he was, came the reply. Just out of curiosity, I asked how long he'd been leaving his cart parked unattended at this corner. Oh, heavens, no. He was there every day according to the basket man...but there was a sheepish grin when I raised my eyebrows and told him that I'd been looking for him for weeks to buy some baskets. Sheepish grins turned to calculation as we decided which baskets we needed and when we went on our way the jeep had our fruits and vegetables packed into the larger rectangular wicker baskets for the ride home.

How many major cities can boast that a cart full of items like this can be left unattended for weeks on end and there not be any theft? Pretty amazing even for Egypt.