Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Eid...Interrupted by Technology

The chanting started at about 5 am. "God is great. God is great. God is great. There is no God but God. God is great. God is great. God is great. All thanks to God." I'd set the alarm for 5:30 so I just cuddled down into the covers and listened for a while. Today was the first day of Eid el Adha and I'd arranged with Ahmed, one of my grooms, to go to see the Eid prayer in the desert this morning. I'd gone out on horseback the first day of the Eid at the end of Ramadan, but this is almost January and we've been having a cold spell for the past week, so the Jeep was really in order. I pulled on jogging pants and a jacket, grabbed my camera and we headed out to see this. I've been hearing for years about how the people of the area gather for this important prayer in the desert and I wanted to experience it.

We drove down to the village of Abu Sir in darkness with the heater blasting away in an effort to defrost the jeep. It was 6 am as we slowly worked our way through the narrow alleyways but I was surprised to see market stalls open for business and housewives out sweeping the streets in front of their houses. We were heading for the desert near the modern village cemetery, but I do believe that there isn't a straight road in all of Abu Sir. Twisting and turning a decent size jeep through alleyways that were designed for donkeys can be rather daunting under the best of circumstances, and too early in the morning and freezing are not the best of circumstances.

We were early enough that most of the people hadn't arrived yet and neither had the sun. The antiquities' lights on the hill behind the spot chosen for the prayer were the only illumination. The place itself is extraordinary in that the modern cemetery abuts on the bluff into which pre-pharaonic tombs have been cut, so this morning's event was overseen by many generations of ancestors.

Men from the village spread woven mats on the sand as Ahmed and I sat watching and waiting for more people to arrive. I noticed that the mats were being spread with a gap between so that the men could walk in their shoes to find a spot to sit. Prayer rugs are never walked on with shoes. Gradually the rugs filled as the sky lightened. Men and boys streamed in from the village and from behind the tombs that line the desert. Sometimes women join in the prayer, but this morning they rather wisely stayed in the relative warmth of their homes.

Finally, as the sun crept over the Sakkara plateau, the sheikh spoke the Eid chant one more time and then roughly ten thousand men joined in prayer under the dawn sky. It truly was an awesome sight and one that filled me with a special peace. As the only woman in the area, I remained in the background as was appropriate so as not to be a distraction from prayer. Women always pray to the rear of the men or in another room, men being easily distracted from religious contemplation according to Muslim tradition.

This was certainly true for some of the younger set. A group of roughly ten year old boys kept turning back to look at my jeep during the prayer, and when it ended, they all appeared at my window to ask what I was doing and where I came from. I assured them that I had a farm down the road and was a neighbour who had heard that this event was a marvelous thing to see. They nodded sagely, agreeing with me but were still rather mystified. Seeing fathers leaving to take care of the next family chore on Eid el Adha, the slaughter of the sheep or goat, they scampered off.

Many people find this slaughtering practice to be hard to deal with, and I must admit that I do not slaughter personally. I don't eat lamb so I have no need for the meat and my staff all have their own animals, so I give them cash at the feast, something that they find a great deal more useful. A while back I participated in an online discussion of the pros and cons of various methods of slaughter with some American and European vets. The procedure for a halal slaughter is to use a very sharp knife to slice the jugular vein and carotid artery and then to let the animal bleed out. The vets assured us that the procedure involves a loss of blood that is so swift, there is little or no pain and the animal loses consciousness very, very quickly. I must admit that I found this reassuring.

With the prayer and the slaughter aspect of the Eid out of the way, the feast moved on to the enjoyment that everyone in Egypt looks forward to. Schools and businesses will be closed for at least three or four days, children and parents have holidays and everyone gets a rest. In Nazlit Semman some enterprising young fellows brought donkeys who would ordinarily be carrying cargoes of turnips or clover and began renting them out to the urban children for donkey rides, while other children played on the grass in the median of the main street. Parks, unfortunately, are in short supply in Cairo and medians make do on holidays and summer evenings.

I had some guests who wanted to go see the pyramids of Giza, so we headed to the Giza plateau. Tourism is alive and well in Egypt to judge from the crush of buses and minibuses lining up to enter. My friends decided to check out the interior of the medium pyramid, but having done way too many pyramid interiors in my mis-spent youth, I opted to sit in the sun and check out the United Nations at Giza. Everywhere I turned I heard another language: French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Russian, English, and a number that I couldn't identify for the life of me. The truly fascinating thing is how the camel men and postcard sellers keep up with this. They switch languages with an alacrity that any UN translator would envy.

The temperatures in the shade were still a bit chilly so many of those who were waiting for their pyramid-exploring kin opted for the sunshine. As we walked around the plateau, we were accosted by the usual number of oddly dressed individuals selling scarabs, pyramids molded from resin, glass pyramids, tacky tshirts, and faux Bedouin headcloths at every turn, but my assurance that "we live here" usually brought a sincere apology from the sellers. It's nice to know that they understand how annoying they are.

As someone who was more or less immune from the circus, I could really relax and enjoy some of the more common ploys. The favourite, of course, is to offer a sitting camel as a spot for a photo opportunity and then once the victims are on board to tell the camel to rise. Once the riders are about eight feet in the air, they are in a much weaker bargaining position and are then fleeced to be allowed to get off. It's a massively aggravating situation while you are sitting on some growling, smelly uncontrollable beast and being led in the direction of someone's perfume shop despite all protests, but pretty funny to watch from the ground and it makes a good dinner story.

As much as a resident gets tired of the usual tourist scenes, the people watching at the Giza plateau is second to none. Children dragging parents around massive piles of rocks or falling asleep in backpacks, awestruck teenagers estimating how long it would take to climb a pyramid (in your dreams, kid), and older visitors smiling calmly at something that, thank heaven, is older than's all part of the magic of Egypt.

The Eid fell on the last day of the year and New Years Eve was a quiet potluck dinner at a neighbour's place. The mix was the usual for us, Norwegian, American, Spanish, Egyptian, and Canadian, and a roaring fire was most welcome. New Years Day for me was busy with some expat families bringing children out to the farm to play with the animals and blow off steam...a good omen for the coming year, I hope.

I had every intention of posting this on the first day of the Eid but the gods of the internet were not kindly disposed and my connection vanished for a while. Hopefully, all is well now.