Wednesday, March 08, 2006

A Change In The Weather

I love winter in Egypt. When my friends in Europe and North America are complaining about weeks of rain and snow, I get to smugly joke about Egypt being the place with no weather. There is a family joke about a weatherman being hired here about every four years or so, coming in to work to announce that it will be sunny and warm, and then leaving until the next one is hired. But yesterday was Egypt's chance to remind us that we can have weather that isn't perfect once in a while. It was hot at 9 am when I was feeding the birds. Hot and still. Odd after days of cool, sunny weather. A friend called me and as we were chatting I noticed that the wind had risen and was blowing off the desert, rather than from the valley. Rats. I warned my caller to close her windows because it looked to be getting dusty.

An hour later visibility was down to about 100 metres and the wind was howling off the desert. My neighbour Morad called me to ask if I could give him a ride towards Giza because his aging Jeep Wrangler wasn't in the mood to work again, and I was happy to oblige since I needed to go into Nazlit Semman to buy some chicken feed and vegetables to bake into the parrot bread that I have to prepare every week. We headed out in my Jeep with the airconditioning set to recirculate inside the car to keep the dust to a minimum. Driving down the road along the canal was hair-raising. The huge eucalyptus trees that line it giving us blesed shade in the summer were creaking and groaning in the wind. One nice branch falling on the Jeep could be more than a massive headache.

I was relieved to be past the eucalyptus when we got to Nazlit Semman, but that didn't stop the trees from being a hazard. As we came out on a road from my chicken feed man, we found a group of men chopping up a huge casuarina that had come down on the edge of the canal. They'd hauled the branches that stretched into the road back onto the sidewalk but traffic was still in a snarl. We had a list of items to pick up at shops for some of our neighbours so we wandered around Nazlit Semman stopping here and there to collect part of our treasure hunt.

Some cheese and yogurt were on the list and Morad recommended a small grocery near the Sphinx. I was amazed to see tourist buses leaving the area. I'd assumed that they would have called it a day long ago and headed back to less dusty areas like hotels. I couldn't resist taking a picture of the Sphinx while waiting for Morad to finish buying things in the store. You could barely make out the huge figure that rests at the base of the Giza Plateau. Figures would sort of stagger out of the brown fog that enveloped the area and make their ways to the few remaining tour buses that were still parked along the road.

The camel and horse men had packed it in long ago. Streets that would usually be filled with tourists on horses and camels were empty. A few of the men sat around empty coffee shops, while most people tried to escape the streets as quickly as possible.As the designated driver I was lucky in that most of the time I was sitting in the car waiting while the errands got run.

The skies gradually grew darker as the day wore on but the wind didn't drop until much later. When I arrived back at the house, Awatif told me that the power had been out most of the day, one of the other trials of these wind storms. Probably a tree down with a power line. This morning the house looked as though Awatif hadn't been in for a week...all her work the day before was for nothing. When the weather here changes, it's rarely for the good.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Mothers Of The Bride

There are people who have commented that I candy coat Egypt, a country with lots of problems where people have very hard lives, when I talk about the happier moments in our lives here. Well, I don't think so. The fact is that at my age I don't have so many illusions about living happily ever after in any sense. I've lived long enough to have seen that most of us spend our days in fairly stressful yet often tedious tasks that never seem to end. We spend years worrying about jobs, taking children to schools, running late to dental appointments, shuffling our money to meet bills and obligations, and then to relieve the boredom, something really horrible happens to us and we lose loved ones or find a dream shattered. I don't believe that human beings anywhere lead lives that are particularly calm or unnaturally joyous. But I do believe that most of us are granted brief moments of happiness, love, and comfort in the company of our friends, family and neighbours or by the beauty of the world in which we live, and all too many of us forget these blessings in the daily grind of living. In one sense, the events that I describe in my life here are not really about Egypt but about the common human joys that we all share, just as we share the common human sorrows. When I began writing my blog, I was concerned about the fact that somehow there was an "us vs them" attitude about people in the Middle East, that the journalists had managed to let people forget that the people with whom I'd chosen to live, the Egyptians, were really not so different from the Americans, the French, the Taiwanese in their daily lives. Sure, we all live in pyramids and drive our camels to work and go grocery shopping in belly dancers' outfits, but other than that we are just plain folks. So I decided to record some of the experiences of my daily life, and being a fairly easy-going, patient, and friendly person myself, most of those experiences are positive. I've had my share of horror but I'm not sure that the bad parts of my life have anything really do with being in Egypt as much as they have to do with human weakness in general...not my favourite topic and one that can be covered by many news sources.

Last week my young housekeeper got married to my neighbours' head groom. I could be concerned that she was too young to marry at seventeen, but she'd been orphaned a few years ago and that is a rather maturing experience. She's been working since she was about fifteen to provide the money for her household effects. It wasn't an arranged marriage. Gaber had been interested in Sabrine for some time and only recently convinced her to marry him. Sabrine worked for me up until a month before her marriage when she quit to have time to arrange all the things that were required for her new home and she found me an new housekeeper, a young single mother with two daughters who is really in need of the income. Tradition dictates that a new bride does not work outside the home in the villages, but a divorced mother has to do something to support her children if the father is not ready to help (as is too often the case both here and elsewhere). I've seen the procedure for weddings in the city, but this was the first time that I was intimately involved with the events in the village. Tracy and I found ourselves in the odd positions of being sort of adoptive mothers of the bride, having helped her to assemble some of her household needs for the wedding and having offered moral support during the whole procedure of the engagement.

A wedding in the villages isn't a one day affair. After the party to announce the engagement, the couple may wait a few months or years before marrying, depending on the ability of the groom to provide a home for the bride. Gaber's family is from a neighbouring village and he had an apartment in a building in the village that housed the rest of his family, so this wasn't an issue for them. Their engagement was only a few months. The first event of the marriage was the furnishing party when the families assembled the furniture that Gaber had bought and the linens, dishes and appliances that Sabrine had bought. I was invited to Sabrine's home where her purchases were assembled outside waiting the arrival of the trucks to carry them all over. I'd foolishly put my camera battery charger into a plastic bag with a box of salad the week before, shorting out the charger, so I don't have any photos of the collection, but it was most impressive. The women sat in the courtyard chanting rhymes in praise of the bride while the men sat in the living room. When the trucks arrived, everyone loaded the furnishings on board to move to the new apartment, leaving Sabrine at her home. The bride doesn't get to see her new home until her wedding night.

A few days later, the henna party is held at the bride's home. Henna is an herb that mixed with water provides a fairly strong dye and is used to colour hair or skin on important occasions. The henna party is a sort of bachelor party without the cake or the other festivities that we might associate with the night before the wedding. It gives the chance for the families and friends to celebrate the upcoming nuptuals while at the same time, provides a place for a very important economic event, the "nota". The "nota" is a system whereby local people pay a small amount of money to the bride and groom on the event of the marriage with the understanding that they will receive a similar payment when they have a wedding. The amounts contributed by each person are carefully noted in a large book under the supervision of a group of the older women, so that someone who contributes a lot will in turn receive the same amount. The contributions will provide the young couple with a financial boost at a time when it is direly needed.

Meanwhile, the festivities going on outside the bride's house while the financial crew works inside are loud and happy, and they span the generations from the grandmothers to the infants. Younger boys and girls crowded around Tracy and I begging to have their pictures taken. I obliged, but tried to point out that Sabrine was the star of the party without a great degree of success. The noise was deafening with music blaring from a DJ's stand outside Sabrine's family home as buses and cars drew up depositing well-wishers from surrounding villages. The women formed a knot around Sabrine where they took turns dancing together. I've seen plenty of belly dancers in hotels over the years but none of them can match the women who dance at family occasions for sheer joy in performance. Inevitably, Tracy and I got pulled into the circle to dance, something that Tracy did much better than I did. I actually took lessons in this sort of dancing many, many years ago, but over the years my knees have suffered greatly and no longer can stand the twists required to do it properly. Sabrine danced for hours that night, the power of the young, and Gaber arrived about halfway through to spend a couple of hours dancing with his bride to be. Perhaps this exercise helps to reduce the natural anxiety of the bride and groom. When I arrived at the party, I made my way through a thickening crowd of young men on the fringes of the women's group.

As the evening wore on, this group grew larger and more boisterous in their celebrations with young men dancing together in traditional dances using staffs and rather untraditional dances in which they waved cans of insect spray whose propellent had been lit, providing the boys with mini-blowtorches. Safety is not Egypt's middle name, but happily no one was hurt during the evening. After a couple of hours of the music and dancing, I made my way home, a bit deaf for the time being, but I had clients for riding early the next morning and a lot of preparation to do yet. The next day was the wedding celebration which was held outside of Gaber and Sabrine's new home.

The wedding itself is actually just the signing of the register to show that the bride and groom are married. The ceremony is small, with only a few witnesses, is called "the signing of the book" appropriately, and is usually held in the afternoon, after which the bride goes off to the hair dresser and prepares for the party in the evening. Tracy had arranged for her car to be decorated to carry the bride to her new home, but some workers arrived rather late to install kitchen cabinets at her new house, making us late for the task which fell to one of our neighbours. She and I dashed about getting ready to go and went over to Zawya, Gaber's village, in my jeep.

We found lights strung over an alley in the village and crowds of people standing before a stage on which Sabrine and Gaber were greeting their guests. Most of the grooms in our area were at the wedding, so I wasn't surprised to find some of mine waiting for us to take us to the stage to congratulate the bride and groom. We inched our way through the crowd to the stage where Sabrine greeted us with hugs. The change in her appearance was fairly astonishing. A beautiful girl in her natural state, she had been made up for the video tape that is made for every wedding. Like the old tomb paintings that I've seen all over Egypt, I found a groom with dark skin and a bride who was made up to be much paler. Interesting. Her long hair had been wound up in curls on top of her head and her hands decorated with henna drawings. She was dressed in a long white wedding gown of western design, which I very much suspect was rented for the occasion. A wedding dress is not really a very practical investment for the new wife of a stablehand. Sabrine insisted that Tracy and I join her and Gaber on the stage while people climbed the stairs to congratulate them. There we met members of both families, including the much-feared mother-in-law. Rumour has it that Gaber's mother is a very strong woman and that Sabrine will have some adjusting to do in learning to live downstairs from her. Egyptian mothers-in-law are not known for their love of their sons' wives. I had my problems with my mother-in-law and chats with Egyptian friends assured me that the problems were not necessarily concerned with my being foreign. Egyptian wives also have problems in the same area. To be honest, Gaber's mother didn't really look like someone I would want to cross.

The wedding celebration was a bit of an anticlimax after the henna party. Lasting only a couple of hours, the party broke up with the announcement that the bride and groom would be accompanied to their new home. As she turned to move down the stairs, Sabrine looked at Tracy and I with huge worried eyes and gave us a small smile. We didn't join the crowd escorting the couple to the apartment and went back to our cars. Sabrine had told me earlier that this was a moment that every girl fears as much as she might look forward to it. The day following the wedding, the bloodstained sheet of the marriage bed would be on display to prove that the bride was, in fact, a virgin at her marriage. If for some reason the sheet had no blood, which could conceivably happen even to a virgin bride, there could be serious repercussions including an immediate divorce. Happily, this was not the case for Sabrine, as I heard from her friends later.

Sabrine's life hasn't been easy. She is not from a wealthy family, quite the contrary, and it is large, her father having married three women, although not all at once. She's had pretty much to fend for herself since her father died a few years after her mother, but she's a smart girl who thinks carefully about her choices. Having talked with her a lot about what she was deciding to do in marrying Gaber, I have a lot of respect for her good sense and intelligence. We've seen her through a major step in her life, her wedding, and now since Gaber is working in the same field as I am, with horses, we will be in contact through subsequent events. In all probability we will see her a new mother within a year. I don't plan on losing touch with her because she is a girl who sang as she worked in my home, who loved to play with my dogs and laughed with us at silly Egyptian television shows that we would watch together in the afternoons to help our Arabic. Somehow Tracy and I adopted a daughter and we plan on being there for her. Mabrouk, habibti