Sunday, December 30, 2007

No Man Is An Island

Funny things happen to islands in the Nile near Cairo. A couple of years ago residents of Maadi noticed dredging equipment working on a small unoccupied island just off the Military Hospital on the Maadi corniche. Rocks were piled against the banks of the little island, palm trees brought and planted...all very intriguing. Oddly enough, no one could find out who was doing the work or why or to what end. Now as you drive by there is a very manicured island with a picture of the President of Egypt on it. Did he change the island? No one knows. But there was quite a loud fuss made over the process because changing the shape or size of an island changes the way that the river flows and the River Nile is not just an Egyptian river but it is a major world river. When the Aswan dam was constructed and the silt that used to travel down the Nile to the Mediterranean Sea became blocked behind the dam, the farmers of Egypt weren't the only people affected by the change. The sardine industry was devastated because the sardines relied on the nutrients that had been reaching the sea through the Delta...except now their food source had vanished. Changing a river in any way affects much more than the people who are living on its banks.

Not long ago news reports mentioned that another island was having problems of a similar sort, but this was a larger island and one with quite a few people who have been living there for a number of generations. The islanders found some dredges parked alongside their island and some military personnel standing about on the shore. Having both military personnel and dredges is a very awkward situation. The military have fairly remarkable powers in Egypt... one doesn't want them as an enemy.

The situation became quite tense in fairly short order. The inhabitants of the island are, for the most part, farmers and as such very dependent on their land. At the rate that farmland is being developed in Egypt, to have to pull up stakes and move to another plot of land would not be an easy thing at all. Starting over on reclamation land is a massive enterprise in terms of installing infrastructure and building a new, Egyptians in general really don't like moving. They like living near their families and friends from generations back.

I've been watching the news to see what is happening with this island and for the past week or so there's been no news. The islanders are fighting the incursion of the army in the courts, but in a country where the military have extraordinary powers, that's not an encouraging activity. There's been no indication of who it is who wants the island or who claims to own it and no indication of the intended outcome. Hopefully, at some level of planning in this issue, people will realise that this isn't just a corner lot somewhere that might make a good grocery store. Islands are part of a river and the Nile isn't just any river.

copyright 2007 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Prayer for a Neighbour

One of the things about living in Egypt is the fact that my neighbours in an international sense are pretty high profile. About ten years ago, right after the end of the long Lebanese war, my husband and I had the opportunity to visit Lebanon for a weeklong conference of millers, mill owners and suppliers where the wives spent four days visiting different parts of the country. Diaa fell into the later category as one of the main suppliers of corn and soybeans in Egypt and I was happy to be a tourist. He'd been to Beirut once long before the war and I'd spent a couple of summers in Cyprus arguing idly with a Danish woman married to a Lebanese pilot who was a refugee with her two kids while various armies shelled the hills around their home above Beirut. Our longterm friendly argument was over which city was more beautiful: Beirut or Vancouver, BC. They have so much in common with the sea, the mountains, skiing, and good living. We never really decided, but Beirut definitely had some problems.

When I finally got to see Lebanon, I could definitely see my friend's side of the argument. Lebanon is one of the most lovely countries on the planet...or at least it was. When we visited the first time the scars of war were very fresh and the rebuilding that the Israelis again so brutally shattered summer before last was just getting started. Our Lebanese friends were very worried however about the generation of Lebanese who were growing up with no experience other than can you teach order and care to people who have never known it? This is a central issue in any developing country and a heartbreaking issue for a country that knew order for so long and then lost it for fifteen years.

One of my blog notifications brought up a post about a Lebanese singer Majida el Roumi who is a UN goodwill ambasador and who recently took all of the parties in her country to task for not working together to rebuild Lebanon. She was speaking at a ceremony to remember the slain journalist Gebran Tueni and I think that every leader in the world should take these words into his/her heart:

The English translation of her speech is online at
Now Lebanon

How many hearts have to be broken? How many homes have to be ruined? How many Lebanese have to be given worries as their daily bread? How many young men and women have to leave the country before you decide to meet and put an end to this disastrous situation and this horrible division? How can divisions reach the point of having people tell me, “Do not pray at Pierre’s funeral or say a word in Gebran’s commemoration, or you would be speaking up against the others.” Who are the others? Aren’t you all Lebanese? All those martyrs who have died from the southernmost part of the country in massacres perpetrated by Israel to its northernmost part, in the case of our beloved army martyrs, and all those who died for our youth’s sake, … Aren’t they all – truly and honestly – ours? Didn’t they break our hearts? Aren’t they only guilty of being Lebanese?

We no longer meet to pray for the martyrs’ souls, since we now have “their” martyr and “our” martyr. I reject this painful discrimination. I hereby say that it was an honor to sing for Pierre inasmuch as it is an honor to speak about Gebran. If I am accused of being Lebanese, then I am the lucky one. I no longer care who will be offended by these words. Indeed, I know that some people will be offended, but I no longer care about them because, after 30 years of war, we have come to lose hope. I no longer care to bear witness to anyone on this earth, especially not in politics. I only bear witness to the Lord, and our Lord loves peace. He is against violence and He tells me to bear witness to what is right, to the best of our youth and to the sovereignty and freedom of this land, as any self-respecting citizen with some dignity should do. I bear witness to the tormented, martyred Lebanese people who has close brushes with death everyday and barely hangs on to life. I say: enough is enough…

You say you are entrusted with Lebanon’s sovereignty and our safety… [In reality,] you have torn the country into pieces, and you want to replace it with one that is tailor-made for confessions, parties and power obsessions. However, this country is far greater than that. You are responsible for driving wedges among us and dividing us under a single roof. You have scattered us and linked our case with half of the world’s pending issues… Why should we be a card in everyone’s hand? How can you accept to remain divided for 30 years, and then tell the whole world that you are unable to run the country’s affairs? In the end, this may be the ultimate aim. If so, then why are you doing it? You are entrusted with our freedom, our sovereignty and our independence. I am here to say: [You have done] enough… let us live.

In the name of what is right, in the name of the Lord, who you say you love and according to whose will you claim to be acting, let this state remain a state. Whose interest would be served if this nation remains unsheltered and if the state breaks up into countless component parts? I am here to conjure you up in the name of the Lord to make peace. You are so stifling us that there will be no one left to hear you. I am here for Gebran’s sake to tell him: I have come to pay tribute to you, my dear brother and friend. Our hearts will keep on beating as one as long as you are alive within us. Why is that so? Because we remained oblivious to the worth of the perfect man that you were. If no tribute is paid to you today as a King who left us, who deserves such a tribute then? Do those who have slain us deserve it? We shall not give it to them. Dear Gebran, I see your pictures on billboards, and I am ashamed to tell you that your blood will not have been spilled in vain. In the name of the everlasting God, I tell you with total confidence that there will come a day when your blood will bloom only in the three colors of our national flag. This day of freedom and sovereignty will undoubtedly come no matter how long it takes because no one can grow greater than Lebanon… Nor shall Lebanon ever be diminished. All shall perish and Lebanon shall remain, and you shall always be there, O Gebran, along with the great men who have borne witness to its dignity and its special vocation on this Earth.

copyright 2007 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Saturday, December 15, 2007

A Season For Horses

As I have been reminded by friends, Christmas is coming, and a trip into Maadi reminded me as well. I drove past a very expensive florist to see real Christmas trees for sale. These trees probably sell for about a thousand pounds....but they do smell right. The usual Christmas tree in Egypt is a cypress or juniper and they don't have the same scent at all. With both kids in the US for grad school this year, it's going to be quiet in some respects around here at Christmas. But not in all respects. I have guests arriving beginning day after tomorrow and staying on until after New Years. The people coming are riders so there's going to be quite a lot of work done over the next couple of weeks.

Winters in Egypt are the stuff of legend, both in the sense that a winter in Egypt was the ultimate in luxury many years ago, and in the sense that unfortunately they are no longer what they once were. Even five years ago we would have weeks of air so clear that the stones on the pyramids of Giza could be seen from Abu Sir. This is no longer the case, unfortunately, because the inversion layer over the Nile Valley is keeping a thick black pall over the city. When there is a strong north wind, the smog is dispersed to the south and we have the lovely clarity that was once so common. When there is no wind, I have to ride out into the desert to find clean air. The wind also sculpts some extraordinary cloud formations that the sunset paints with vivid colours each evening.

We now have another new face on the farm with the birth of Lily's son Rayyan. I was wakened at 5 am on the 12th. I wrapped myself in a shawl and went out to find the most enormous fuzzball on stilts I've ever seen. Lily was a cart horse when friends of mine found her working on the streets. She's probably got some draft horse in her because she is a big, fairly heavy, black mare. She spent some time as a riding horse and was recently retired to my place because of her gentle nature. A sneaky little bay colt got to her and to Shabboura the mother of Shams, giving us two totally different babies to enjoy. Shams still thinks that she's a dog and I have to put a chair in my front doorway to be sure that I won't find her exploring the living room with disastrous effects. At three days, Rayyan is almost the same size as Shams at about 6 weeks. Extraordinary. Her legs have half the bone his do and she must weigh less than he does despite the fact that she stands around eating berseem and drinking roughly 15 litres of milk a day. We still have to wait until April to see what the combination of Wadi and and Anglo-Arab will produce. This next crop, aside from being siblings, is going to be interesting.

copyright 2007 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Suffer Little Children

I heard from Mohamed today that my neighbour's son Ahmed had been asking why I hadn't been by to visit him. And why was I supposed to visit him? Well, it turned out that the families here circumcise their sons at about the age of four and it was Ahmed's turn to have this done. I was a bit shocked because I simply assumed that male infants would undergo this surgery right after birth, the way that it had been done in Canada. Please pardon the frankness, but I can see a good reason to wait since it is easier to snip off small pieces of skin when they are of a visible size, but then again the trauma to a newborn who may or may not even wake up during the process (and I know a few who slept right through it) is probably much less. However it works out, I was amiss and I snagged a small box of dark chocolate digestive biscuits as a little bribe to my small friend.

Ahmed seemed quite fine for someone who had just gone through a life-changing surgery and was buzzing around the house offering everyone cookies in no time. His older brother Mahmoud, who is in about third grade, was sitting with one of his aunts working on his math homework. When he finished that, he started his English and his aunt asked if I could help him. Sure, why not? When I saw what he was assigned, I was horrified. He was given a small paperback workbook to deal with that could not have been more irrelevant to his life if it had been written in Martian. Mahmoud and I sat together as we sounded out such vital questions as who in his family or neighbourhood played golf.

Golf? I don't think that a child in this area has ever seen a golf club. Mahmoud's aunt explained to him, "You remember that game you saw on television with the men on the grass with the sticks and the little ball?" Mahmoud's smile said volumes. Golf is not exactly a reality here. One series of questions asked about Mahmoud's interest in sport. Does he like to run? Did he play sports today? Did he go swimming today? Is he planning to record a sporting event on television today?...What was he supposed to understand from this? His family doesn't have a video machine, nor does anyone in the neighbourhood. Mahmoud has never seen anyone tape a show in his life. And swimming....just where is a boy from the countryside supposed to swim? I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

I chatted with Mahmoud's mother and aunt about the work. I had to admit that one of the reasons that we'd never sent our kids to Egyptian schools was the horrific curriculum that is inflicted on the students. I'd been quite aware of the enormous load of homework that these kids have for some time...this on top of the fact that Mahmoud leaves for school at 7 am and gets home at 4 pm...and the fact that the work assigned is often quite inappropriate for the age range of the children. And Mahmoud is going to one of the local private schools as well. They are suppposed to be better than the public. The public schools are much more crowded and the teachers are even less qualified. For now, Mahmoud is going to drop by in the afternoon for some help on his English and I will be explaining golf to him.

copyright 2007 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Historical Note

One of my internet treats is The Writer's Almanac, published daily by Garrison Keillor and American Public Media. Each day it brings a poem and historical notes about writers and world culture. Today's historical note offered an interesting and thought provoking reflection on the conflicts of today:

"It was on this day in 1095 that Pope Urban II, while on a speaking tour in France, called for the first Crusade to recapture Jerusalem from the Turks. There was no imminent threat. Muslims had occupied Jerusalem for hundreds of years. But Urban II had noticed that Europe was becoming an increasingly violent place, with low-level knights killing each other over their land rights, and he thought that he could bring peace to the Christian world by directing all that violence against an outside enemy. So he made up stories of how Turks in Jerusalem were torturing and killing Christians, and anyone who was willing to join the fight against them would go to heaven.

About 100,000 men from France, Germany, and Italy answered the call, formed into several large groups, and marched across Asia Minor to the Middle East. Nearly half of them died from exhaustion and sickness before they ever reached their destination. They began sacking cities along the way, and they fought among each other for the spoils of each battle. When they reached the trading city of Antioch, they killed almost everyone, including the Christians who lived there. By the time they got to Jerusalem, it had recently fallen into the hands of Egyptians, who were friendly with the Vatican. But the crusaders attacked anyway, killing every Muslim they could find. The Jews in the city gathered in the temple, and the crusaders set it on fire.

Pope Urban II died two weeks later, never hearing the news. But the crusading would go on for the next 200 years. In the fourth and last Crusade, in 1202, the crusaders never even made it to Jerusalem, but got sidetracked and wound up destroying Constantinople, which was at the time the last great city left over from the Roman Empire."

The Egyptians who whom the note refers were those under the leadership of Sallah el Din (Saladin in western history books) who built the Citadel in Cairo and established the city in its current place. One of the buildings of importance in Constantinople was Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine cathedral that was later remodeled with minarets to become the Grand Mosque of Istanbul and the model for the mosque of Mohamed Ali in the 1800's. Now when you visit the Grand Mosque you can see some of the old Christian Byzantine paintings and murals that were once painted over with whitewash, and Mohamed Ali's mosque remains a favoured resting spot for weary tourists schlepping their way through Old Cairo. The past never really leaves us.

copyright 2007 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Nice To Feel Appreciated

A couple of days ago I received a note from Vicky Zhou asking if it was all right to include Living In Egypt in her book about useful weblogs. Sounded okay to me, so I wrote right back giving my permission. Always nice to be published, even if it is a bit indirect. Here's some information on the book:

Living in Egypt Included in Book About Top 500 Blogs

In the early days of the internet, if you didn't know how to write
code, you couldn't publish anything on the web. Well, nowadays with
software such as Wordpress, Blogspot, and Myspace, anyone.. yes anyone
can tell the whole world what is on their mind through blogging.

But, there really isn't a robust way to search for the best blogs on
any specific topic. Sure, there's Technorati, but what else? Besides,
much of the world wide web is full of splogs, spam, and
made-for-adsense blogs. And how many times have you read the same
exact post over and over in different blogs?

That is why a project, listing the top blogs by general categories
would prove useful. The book, titled "The Top 500 Blogs" is being
written by Vicky Zhou, an author and writer who offers href="">online
dating advice. From topics ranging from online dating to
technology, lifestyle, sports, music, health and love, the books aims
to be a comprehensive list of the top 500 blogs.

The Top 500 Blogs will be available in Amazon and all bookstores by
the end of 2008. Living in Egypt will be included in the category of
"Personal Blogs", so look out for that!

copyright 2007 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Friday, November 23, 2007

Coming Back Into Focus

Being short a camera has been a terrible strain. I'm used to a lovely little Panasonic Lumix that fits into a pocket and is so easy to shoot. Then last week an angel called Angela dropped into Egypt and dropped a camera into my life. She had a week off work and had always wanted to come to Egypt, so she and a photographer friend of hers came and spent a week at my guesthouse. She liked my photos and hearing about my dip in the canal, brought along an extra camera that she'd replaced with a newer model. It's larger and more complicated than the Lumix, but I figure that I can learn to use it. I'm back in business, and who knows? Maybe they will even be able to fix the Lumix.

Well, this last week has been busy with showing Scott and Angela around my part of Egypt. Naturally, they wanted to see the pyramids at Giza, so we rented some camels and went out just before sunset to catch the last light on them. We'd already spent most of the day in the desert chasing sun and shadows around Dahshur, Sakkara, and Abu Sir under a gradually darkening sky. We met our camel man in Nazlit Semman and headed out onto the Giza Plateau along with all the other visitors who have someone to pay off the tourist police who are supposed to be keeping us all out, but who are actually making a living wage on the bribes to let us all in. This is a fine old Egyptian tradition. As we reached the top of the hill, that evil winter Giza wind tore into us leaving Angela and I with our teeth chattering while Scott shot the photos that he wanted to get.

It's amazing what a passion will persuade people to do. I'd been asked to cover the endurance race being held at Sakkara Country Club under the auspices of the Pan Arab games. Teams from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Libya, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE were to race 120 km in the desert in a series of five loops with vet checks at the club. Unfortunately, the start of the race was scheduled for 5:45 am, necessitating a 5 am wake up. Happily, there was excellent catering at the race and once the teams of riders got underway, we were able to find a good breakfast while waiting for them to finish the first loop. Endurance racing really is not a spectator sport. There isn't much to see of the racing part because the riders are very quickly usually stretched out over miles of trail, each essentially riding alone. Once they get back to the vet check area, the horse is checked to see that its pulse and respiration have dropped to normal, and then there is a half hour hold for the horse and rider to eat and drink something before setting out again. Exciting, right? I overheard one nicely dressed woman remarking to a friend that this was the first endurance race she'd ever seen and probably the last too. She'd never spent so much time in her life "watching horses get bathed." A major part of the preparation for the vet check is to cool the horse from its exertions in the desert to the point where its heart rate is low enough to pass muster.

At the end of the day, the UAE took team gold and the individual gold, silver and bronze expected. Qatar took the team silver and Syria and Egypt shared the bronze. Bed felt great after chasing from one end of the race area back to the press tent about a dozen times to update the progress of the race to a website for endurance riding. I was really proud of our Egyptian team for their performance and careful riding of their horses. They were riding home-bred and home-trained horses rather than the best that money can buy.

Yesterday was American Thanksgiving as well as the last day of Angela and Scott's visit. We played with the horses and Scott got some lovely photos of Shams playing with her herd...the dogs. She is now downing over a litre and a half of milk at a feeding and is eating crushed horse pellets and fresh berseem. She wanders around after the grooms, plays on the lawn with my driver, and curls up in the shade with her buddies the dogs. She doesn't seem to realise that she's a horse at all. After taking them for a quiet ride in the neighbourhood during which Scott only took 670 photos, we wandered over to some friends of mine who live nearby for turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, pumpkin pie and all the rest of the traditional stuffing appropriate to Thanksgiving. Early this morning we got to the airport to get my visitors back to the US and Scott left me with about three thousand photos of the race and the parts of Cairo that they saw. It's going to take me ages to see them all!

copyright 2007 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

A Small Miracle

Last Saturday we had a small miracle happen at the farm. I've had two mares standing around becoming more and more rotund by the day. Everyone visiting had their own idea regarding whether Shabboura (Fog in English) or Lily (My Night in English) would deliver first. Well around 3 pm in front of the entire farm staff and about 5 visitors, Shabboura lay down in her paddock and proceeded to have a baby. Horses just don't do that. They like to have their babies in private as a rule. They wait until 3 am or some such horrible hour to foal. But not Shibs. No, she had to have an audience and plenty of attendants.

Foaling usually isn't a long drawn out process. For wild horses, it couldn't be because the mare and foal are at extreme risk during birth. True to form, it was only about 30 minutes from the first sign that she was having labour pains (puzzled looks at her stomach and flanks along with some sweating) to seeing the nose and front feet of the foal start to emerge. A couple of the grooms came to hold the foal's legs and then shoulders so that it didn't slide back during contractions. Once the foal was on the ground they helped to remove the placenta from the face, announce that we had a filly, and then move her to near the mother's head so that she could clean her up.

Shabboura's human audience were utterly enthralled by the birth. At some point I will have some photos from various real cameras, but I had to make do with my Nokia. Lily watched the birth very calmly from a corner and after the filly, who I decided to name Shams (Sun) had dried off Lula the mule and her buddy Jack leaned over the paddock fence to welcome her. When Diva had her filly about six months ago, Shabboura was the other mare in the paddock and Lula and Jack were just as interested.

We got the Shams to do the all-important early nursing that gives the foal immunities acquired by the mother, gave her an enema to move the meconium out of the filly and left mother and daughter together to get to know each other overnight in a quiet box. But the next morning it was apparent that all was not well. Shabboura was edgy, didn't want the filly near her, and there wasn't much available in the way of milk. We called a vet who came by later in the day, checked out Shabboura and told us that somehow she had a nasty infection in her udder and that the filly couldn't nurse from her mother. We'd started supplementing Shams' milk supply with goat milk, but most of the goats in the area are about to give birth and there isn't a huge supply. Some people will supplement with baby formula so we bought a few cans of a recommended brand and until we could get that out to the farm, we gave her some local skim milk from a baby bottle.

Shabboura was moved back to her paddock with Lily which is close to the grooms' room so that she could be monitored in terms of temperature and administration of some pretty hefty antibiotics. We felt that we could hardly lock poor Shams up alone in a box...since none of the adult horses are forced to live in we constructed a small paddock right next to the boys' room. After creating a frame of rope, we moved in hay bales to build walls and then spread an thick layer of hay on the ground for a warm and comfortable place for the filly to sleep. The dogs very quickly decided that the hay was indeed a comfortable depth and moved in to help the filly sleep.

One of the hardest things about having a bottle fed baby is the frequency of feedings required to keep a small mammal alive. Shams needs about half a litre of milk every two hours or so, and I thank heaven for my grooms who are taking turns at doing it each night. They make up their bed on the mastaba bench that is next to Shams' hay paddock so that it's easy for them to get up to feed her the two bottles that are required. Waking up to feed her isn't that difficult. Shams can be pretty persuasive. She's figured out that humans are great because they provide food and that dogs can be both entertainment and warmth. This one is really going to be fun to raise.

Today we had some of the school kids in for a riding lesson and the grooms made sure that they had a bottle of milk to feed to Shams. She's not at all fussy who holds the bottle as long as they hold it. In a few weeks she's going to have to have another home, but it's possible that if the infection that Shabboura has clears up properly she will be able to go in with her mother and perhaps with Lily and her foal. We have a couple more paddocks under construction for this.

Shams is the sixth foal to be born here. All the others have been "normal" situations where the mare did most of the work for us. This is a new experience, because even if she should be able to return to her mother, Shams identifies very strongly with humans and dogs now, much more than the others ever did. I wonder what this is going to mean. Wadi, Fagr and Negma have grown up in the herd, while Nazeer and Nayzak were born in a boarding stable and lived with their mothers in boxes. Herd foals are much more socially adept, but the first two colts had a lot of paddock time with their mothers and the advantage of sharing an extra large box with both mares. This year's crop of foals is going to be something else.

copyright 2007 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Keeping In Touch

Rebellious Arab Girl had an interesting post today. She suggested that everyone post about their favourite blogger and why this is their favourite. I have to admit to very eclectic tastes and the site where I saw the reference to her suggestion is one of my favourite sites for blogging: Global Voices Online. Technically, I suppose Global Voices isn't a blog, but for someone like myself who is interested in things all over the world, a site that collects blogs and keeps track of who is saying what where is invaluable. I also have a Google News alert set up to give me a link to every news article and blog that mention "Egypt", "Giza", or "Cairo", which drops a little email into my box that gives me pages of reading every morning. This arrangement has brought me travel blogs by people just passing through the area, keeping-in-touch-with-home blogs by people who are living in the Middle East temporarily, and of course some of the more mainstream blogs from Egypt, as long as they are in English. I find, however, that Global Voices still has more depth in the blogging field than Google when in comes to aggregation. So they have my vote for a favourite blog/blogging tool.

I was chided this morning by an email correspondent who was worried that perhaps something was wrong because I hadn't posted for so long...almost two weeks. Well, there was a minor bug that was slowing me down, and I'm finding myself very busy these days on the work front. I've been mostly working my riding trips by word of mouth and such. My website is out there and I get quite a few inquiries from there, but I haven't done much advertising. A week or so ago, however, a newspaper from the UK was doing an article on unusual vacations and they listed my farm. Free advertising is always nice, and this prompted quite a few people to contact me about riding here. Between my usual daytime work with horses, lessons, rides and such, plus correspondence at night, I've been neglecting the blog. The fact that I am still cameraless doesn't help either. I really like having photos to illustrate my posts. But hopefully that will change for the better soon and I will be back to my chatty self.

copyright 2007 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Monday, October 15, 2007

New Life For Old Weeds

To the untrained eye, water hyacinth is very pretty. Its big round leaves give way to lovely pale violet flowers that look for all the world like the hyacinths that used to bloom early in spring in my garden in Canada. They don't have the lovely scent as far as I know, but then leaning over a canal to smell a flower isn't the best idea at the best of times. Most of the canals here have the plant growing in them and periodically they are dragged out and left at the sides of the canals for wandering goats and sheep to eat. Besides being pretty, I've been told that the plant also takes up heavy metals in the water, which probably doesn't make it the best animal feed in the world. To be honest, the goats seem to only nibble on the freshest leaves and then only if there isn't anything better to be had.

The downside of water hyacinth is that a lot of water is lost to evaporation from the leaves and it clogs the channels of the canals so that the water doesn't flow freely. Beautiful or not, it is a weed. This morning I found an odd little item from the Shanhai Daily, a newspaper in China (bless Google News) that talks about a Chinese company coming to Egypt to manufacture furniture from the water hyacinth that grows in our canals. Apparently the weed itself is of superior quality in Egypt and the labour costs are low enough to make the investment a good thing. I must confess to being a bit stunned at the idea that a Chinese company thought that Egypt would be a nice cheap place to manufacture something. My second thought was to hope that someone puts some environmental safeguards on such a factory, not that Egypt is notoriously strict in that department, but China appears to be much worse. According to the article the manufacture of water hyacinth board does not involve the formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals that fiber board and plywood do. I'd want to do a bit more research before I take anyone's word on that, but if true, this all sounds terrific. We get rid of our weeds and have a new supply of wood for building furniture. One of the problems for furniture makers here is the fact that we have to import all of the wood, since we have no forests. It all sounds, on the surface, like a nice fit. Now let's hope the reality lives up to the press...but that's always the problem, isn't it?

copyright 2007 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Saturday, October 13, 2007

A Soggy Horse Tale

The Nile Valley is crisscrossed by irrigation canals distributing water to the farmlands of Egypt. These canals sometimes extend through urban areas where pipes have been laid to contain a canal under a roadbed as well. Near the farm where I live, the canals have trails alongside them, making them a favourite place to ride my horses. Yesterday was Friday and I took the morning to go riding with a group of friends through the desert to the northern end of Sakkara village and then home through the farmland to the farm. The ride down in the desert was lovely. A light breeze kept us all cool and my young gelding Fagr was behaving beautifully, keeping up with the older horses and not trying to run off in the vastness of the Sahara.

As we moved into the farmland on our way home, we kept up a brisk pace to be back at the farm in a good time for my friend Cris to be home on time. Our track took us past families in the fields, most of them harvesting forage for cows and donkeys so that they could relax at home on the first day of the feast after Ramadan, which is today. The horses were happy moving down the trail that wound along a deep canal about midway between the two main roads in this area. We were in the middle of nowhere and delighted to be there.

Suddenly, we came around a bend and found that one of the farmers had placed a diesel pump on one side of the trail with the intake hose extending across the trail to the canal on our left. There was room to pass and two of my older horses being ridden by friends hopped the hose and passed safely. When it was my turn with Fagr (aka, Figgy), however, his left hind foot slipped on the edge of the canal and he slid into the 2 metre deep canal. Although I launched myself out of the saddle towards the path as I felt him slipping, I didn't make it and ended up submerged in enough murky water that I couldn't feel the bottom, not that I'd want to anyway. I discovered that Fagr is a very strong swimmer, strong enough to pull me along the canal until I got smart and dropped the reins.
The farmer whose pump had been parked at the trailside reached down and helped to haul me out of the muck and then we had to call to Fagr who was swimming in some bewilderment along the canal. He turned and emerged from the water slightly downstream and on the other bank. Another farmer took the reins and led him along the path to a point just down the trail about 150 metres. We were reunited, dripping and filthy, and I realised that my digital camera and my mobile phone were both in the saddle pack attached to Fagr's saddle. As he'd spent rather longer in the water than I had, I was not optimistic about their survival.

As it turned out, my pessimism was well-founded. Both the Nokia and the Lumix were willing to turn on after about 18 hours sitting and drying out, but their behaviour is very erratic. The Nokia won't dial things and keeps beeping at me randomly, while the Lumix opens the lens and then shuts it over and over. Very sad. And I'd just gotten the Lumix back from being serviced on Wednesday night. Panasonic took over a month to replace two motors inside that had been damaged by dust. Well, at least dust isn't the problem now but I'm hoping that I can convince them to work a bit faster this time.

So for a while, my blogs will either be accompanied by photos I've already taken and stored or they will be photo-less. That is the point of the shaggy horse story, and Cris was late as well.

copyright 2007 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Listening To The Silence

My camera has been having some dust issues lately. What a surprise considering that it gets tossed into my bag anywhere I go whether on foot, horseback or in the car. I take it everywhere and there's dust everywhere in Egypt. After two years any digital camera would get a little sticky, so I took it into Panasonic in Nasr City, where, of course, the camera opened and closed perfectly. The guy at the service desk handed it back, saying that it was fine and was rather bemused when I suggested that it might need...GASP!...service. I walked out with a receipt for my beloved Lumix and a promise that it would cost between 50 and 500 LE and would be finished in ten days. Unfortunately but as usual, that was a month ago, and today when I called and totally lost it with the service department they told me that I would, inshallah, have it tomorrow. All of this is to explain the scarcity of visual aids. The pictures here are either older or were taken with my Nokia.

We are over halfway through Ramadan, well past the first part of the month when the general population of Cairo is going around the bend from caffeine and nicotine withdrawal. After a week or so their bodies are used to the idea that they will get their fix after sunset, but the late nights and the sugar highs from Ramadan deserts ae beginning to take their toll.

Today I had to do something that I try not to do during Ramadan. I drove myself into Maadi to take care of some urgent errands. The traffic wasn't really as bad as I'd imagined it might be, but it was bad enough. Between the Monib Bridge and the Autostrad, the flow slowed to a trickle and as I crawled along I could see the cause. A large truck was blocking the left lane (not necessarily the fast lane in Egypt) and behind it I could see a small car was rather smooshed against the concrete guard rail. People were standing around discussing the situation and there seemed to be no causualties, which was a relief. Just ahead of the truck was another car that had somehow been involved in the mess as well.

I don't know if anyone collects the statistics, but based on reports by friends of mine who don't have the option of holing up on a farm and just going places on horseback on dirt tracks, I'd be willing to bet that the accident rate goes way up during Ramadan. The temperatures have been in the low to mid 30's C (low to mid 90's roughly by that other measure), so dehydration is a real issue. Blood sugar rates that are scraping along the asphalt during the day skyrocket after do the speeds of many cars. It really is not much of a surprise when people tell me how just in our neighbourhood there have been two hit and runs and one major head on collision in just the last ten days. I don't like to drive during Ramadan. I'd rather stay home.

One of my informants about traffic conditions came out to ride with me this evening. She's military, an fighter jet mechanic, and does a lot of driving between the base and Maadi where she comes on her days off. She rides as much as possible while she's here. I guess it's a good antidote for all that mechanical stuff. I suggested that she come out and ride with me over the iftar period to hear the silence of the countryside, so she came out about half an hour before iftar. The guys got our horses ready while I finished a riding lesson with a couple of small girls and we set out for the trail while they set out for iftar.

Iftar, the breaking of the fast, takes place just after the call to prayer at dusk. Half an hour before the call, there were still a few farmers working in their fields and a few stragglers urging their livestock homeward, but most of the fields were empty. Wonderful smells of garlic, onions and tomato drifted from the houses we passed and children were rushing in from playing outdoors. You never realise how much ambient noise a place has until it goes away, and the quietest time in Egypt is during iftar. It's one of the few times when you can be out in the countryside and truly be alone as long as you are not near someone's home. We ambled along enjoying the birdsong and waiting for the moment when we would stop hearing the trucks on the Mariouteya Road nearby. This is one of the major routes south and the steady rumble of trucks, buses and cars on it becomes a kind of white noise that you don't really notice until it goes away. Eventually that time comes when even the slowpokes have either arrived home or given up and the white noise is gone.

The call to prayer echoed from the mosques of the area and gradually a deep silence fell over the fields and canals. We were the only people out on the trail and every family we passed invited them to join them for iftar. We thanked them and continued our ride. The sky darkened and the palms became black outlines against the horizon. Closer to the farm a few cars were beginning to move about as families left their homes to visit friends. We were passed by one large blue dump truck full of kids who shouted greetings. I guess if the family vehicle is a dump truck, that's what you use. We did, however, decide to prudently avoid the larger village on the main road by the country club and the smaller one just past the entrance to the farm because of another fine Ramadan tradition that really doesn't go that well with horses...cherry bombs and bottle rockets. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valour.

copyright 2007 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Egyptian Humour is Special

Hannah Allam's blog Middle East Diary today listed some great jokes that Egyptians tell about themselves. The sense of humour here is a special gift.

copyright 2007 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Getting Creative

While my hands were healing from spider bites, it was pretty hard to ride horses, so thoughts turned to other projects that we wanted to pursue. One of the things that I'm wanting to get for the farm is a donkey cart that is built for driving with just two passengers. It would be so much more practical for local trips in the neighbourhood, along with being, most importantly, a lot of fun. I'd been told that an ironworker at a local art centre could probably help me make a cart based on a photo of one that I'd downloaded from the net, so I set off with my trusty Mohamed Said to make his acquaintance.

Not far from the farm on the Mariouteya Road is a place commonly called Fagnoon, after two Arabic words: Fanan or artist, and Magnoon or crazy. The crazy artist who established this wonderful place is otherwise known as Mohamed Allam. He decided that the children of Cairo needed a place where they could let their imaginations run riot...and in the process created a marvelous space where their bodies could be free as well.

The centre itself is a creature of constant growth. Platforms, balconies, walkways, and bridges connect spaces where children of all ages can paint, draw, work in wood or fabric in shade and sunlight. The meandering walkways invite exploration and an obviously handmade bridge curves over the canal to a garden where pottery wheels stand under shades and a pen of goats watch the activities with interest. Papyrus has been planted in the canal so that papermaking activities can also be pursued. This is one of the few places that you will see the plant that was so much a part of Egypt's history growing. The day we came, workers were constructing a third level to some of the centre, giving visiting chilren many metres of wall to paint and decorate.

With so many of Cairo's children living in apartments, a space where not just spirits but bodies can run free is a joy. In one area a net of multicolored fabric hangs from the ceiling ending in a slide down which children can slither onto a pad of mattress springs also wound in fabric. The center is full of objects that can be climbed over, into and under.

Adult art activities are also encouraged here. The hadad, or iron worker, that I'd come to see has created animal statues that are found randomly around the centre. A goat stands in a teepee framed in wood and woven from dried bullrushes from the canal. A vividly imagined pair of ducks and some ducklings gather in a shady corner near a column that is constructed of natural wood in the shape of a tree. While we were chatting with the hadad and the centre's owner, a group of college aged students ran about on an upper level pelting each other with water balloons. Paint streaks on tshirts and jeans showed that having a water balloon fight wasn't the only activity of the day. These young adults have been coming here since the time that they were school children being brought on excursions from the classroom. My grad student daughter is one of Fagnoon's biggest fans and was fond of spending an afternoon out there.

Mohamed Allam is a good director for such a centre, being an artist himself who creates beautiful and interesting work. A gallery for his work is part of the complex and his handiwork is everywhere, in statues scattered about, iron wall hangings and beautiful and innovative furniture created in wrought iron and wood,fabric or other materials.

A trip to Fagnoon should be compulsory for Cairo residents. Parents can relax under a tree if an artistic endeavour is not on the menu, kids can run amok happily, and resident bakers offer refreshments such as fateer, a flaky bread eaten with sweet toppings such as clotted cream, nuts and honey or with savoury such as cheese. There are even outdoor taps and showers to clean off all the grubby little Van Goghs after a day creating. Just recently another branch of the centre, Fagnoon Fellah, has been opened even closer to the farm. This centre offers space for camping overnight near the village of Abu Sir on the Mansoureya Road, within hiking distance of the original centre. The centerpiece of the new establishment is an enormous net hung from the trees, providing enticing spaces for climbing or just settling in with a good book. More information can be had by contacting them at or phoning 3815-1633.

copyright 2007 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Sunday, September 09, 2007

A Spot of Trouble

About two weeks ago I found a sort of white blister on the knuckle of the middle finger of my right hand. The blister soon had a red ring around it and I scrubbed it hard with a surgical scrub, fearing that it was a spider bite. The knuckle swelled, the right hand hurt like crazy, but after about three days the swelling went down and I stopped worrying. A couple of days later I found another blister on the palm of my left hand, near the heel of my thumb. That one really hurt and within 36 hours I had another blister on the tip of my ring finger on the left hand. By this time, the right hand was much better aside from the fact that the hole left by the blister on the knuckle was taking its own sweet time to heal. As a matter of fact, even today it still isn't healed.

I began getting alarmed when the wound on the left hand turned black, blue and a bit green with red streaks running up my arm and an egg-sized lump under my left arm. I wasn't getting much sleep with my dreams being entirely about pain in my hands, and I was feeling pretty terrible. I did some research on the net and made an appointment with our family doctor. The research confirmed what I feared, that I'd been bitten by a brown recluse spider, probably while cutting chicory in the garden for the birds' breakfast. Egypt has its fair share of venomous spiders, as well as spiders that are supposed to be venomous and aren't. We have poisonous snakes and scorpions as well. Despite my hanging about in the sorts of places that critters like, I really haven't seen much in the way of evil ones, other than the recluses.

One very rainy winter in Alexandria there was a rash of brown recluse bites among friends of ours. Most of us caught things in time and escaped with sore, swollen bites, but one of the men didn't pay attention and ended up in surgery having his elbow joint cleaned out when the bite became necrotic and invaded the elbow. These cute little brown arachnids pack a wallop. They are relatively small, just over a half inch in diameter, and nocturnal, with a preference for hiding under vegetation in the garden or in clothes that have been tossed on the floor...a good reason to be tidy. But they aren't aggressive and only bite when someone "attacks" them by putting a hand or foot on or too near them. In fairness to the spiders, while they are not uncommon in Egypt just as in the southern United States, my kids never seemed to get bitten and there could have been tigers hiding in the rubbish tips that they called bedrooms in high school.

Two weeks on, I'm still taking antibiotics. The tip of my ring finger and the base of my thumb on my left hand are still so sensitive that I jump if I accidentally bang them on something. The bite on my right hand has a nasty deep scab that is slowly healing, and I put a layer of A&D ointment (not just for babies, you know!) on my hands about three times a day to help the healing. The lymph node is no longer swollen and I'm feeling pretty good...especially since the temperatures are down to a balmy 33 C these days. Do I still cut chicory for my birds? Nope. On his suggestion, I let the gardener do it. He has calluses on his hands that no spider could bite through.

copyright 2007 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Time Enough To Eat

Egyptian food is wonderful. Much of the wonderfulness of it comes from the freshness of the ingredients. I was cruising the news on the internet and found an interesting piece on Time online (you can reach it by clicking the title here) about how much of the cultural aspects of eating are being lost in the globalisation of fast food. My closest fast food place is probably about 15 km, a fact which never fails to please me. In Egypt fast food places all deliver, making it even easier to destroy yourself with food. On the other hand, sometimes I get an invitation to Mabrouka's and that is much, much better. Mabrouka is a widow about my own age with four sons and two daughters. Two of the sons are married, two are not yet...all of them live in the family house. The daughters are married and live nearby. Mabrouka grows her own poultry and buys produce in the village that is grown by her neighbours. She is a wonderful cook, as you can see in the photo. Dinner included chicken cooked with sliced potatoes in a tomato sauce (fresh tomatoes of course...not a can in her house) that were baked in a wood burning oven. The roast chicken was also baked in the oven and the stuffed aubergine, peppers, zucchini, and cabbage leaves were cooked on a stone top to the oven. It's more work than I want to do, but boy, do I appreciate her work. Dessert is usually fruit.

I wish I could say that since moving to the farm I've lost a ton of weight and become sleek and svelte, but that would be fibbing. I haven't but I know that my diet is a lot healthier than it was in the city. The temptation to just call for a pizza was always really a tough one. Now most of my meals are prepared from the things that we are growing on the farm. This depends on the season, but being able to freeze or dry vegetables makes them last. Like most of our neighbours, we are growing the summer crop of bamia, or okra. Part of the reason for this is because I find the flowers lovely. Fresh okra is eaten while still small, but the parrots and poultry appreciate the larger pods. When dried and ground into a powder, the pods are the basis of a Sudanese stew, moolah, of which I am inordinately fond in the winter. The pods have small spines on them and I'm always struck by the dedication of the okra farmers who have to pick their crop in the summer heat while completely wrapped in fabric to keep the spines out of their fingers, arms, legs, and faces. Much of the crop is frozen to provide okra for winter meals, since when it is cooked with the rich tomato sauce and small chunks of meat, it makes for a very filling meal...much more filling than is needed in summer.

Another summer crop that is more appreciated in the winter is molokheya, which could be called the Egyptian national dish. Molokheya is essentially a weed called swamp mallow other places, a tall plant with shiny oval leaves and small yellow flowers. It grows almost anywhere wild and is also planted in fields. The leaves are chopped if fresh, or crumbled when dry, and cooked in a chicken, rabbit, or beef stock to which is added a fried garlic, coriander and a bit of cumin. Hot pepper can be added to taste as well. The molokheya makes a rather mucilaginous soup...another word for sort of slimy...but it is known to be good for digestion. Once you get past the texture, and some people never do, it is wonderfully delicious over rice. We have a small field of it growing next to the longeing ring and I find the plants all over the garden popping up next to roses or behind palm trees. Welcome.
My parrots like peppers, my grooms love peppers, and I like them too. This year we planted hot peppers and I learned that if you pick them young, they are usually sweet, but if you wait for them to ripen to red, they pick up a lot on the heat scale. Peppers have a ton of Vitamin C among other things and are very good for you. I never had any idea how many peppers can be produced by relatively few plants. It's quite astonishing and I haven't had to buy peppers all year. We also are still working our way through the braided onions and garlic in the verandah, while it is almost time to plant again.

Zucchini is a vegetable that is planted all year round and it only takes about two months to complete the growing cycle. One of my friends in Alexandria called Egypt "the land of the eternal zucchini" because of the omnipresence of this vegetable. Yesterday I made a salad from gargeer (aka: Arugula) cut fresh from the garden, tomatoes and red onions also just picked, the first zucchini from our garden sauteed with garlic and mushrooms (the only bought items), with chopped roast chicken. Zucchini just out of the garden tastes NOTHING like the stuff that you get from the supermarket. In another week I'll be sending zucchini home with my grooms because there really are limits to how much I can eat, even with the poultry, rabbits, parrots, and tortoises helping.

Finally, being on the cusp of the mango and date seasons, we have a number of sweet options. The mangoes this year had a hard time with the summer heat, but they are just as juicy as ever. The new dates are just coming on the market in time for Ramadan in a couple of weeks, and the sweet red Zaghlouls are already being sold on the roadsides. Left for a couple of days they turn brown and softer, resembling the dates that are more common in Europe and North America. The grapes, both seedless and with seeds are still in season as are the guavas. As the weather cools, apples, oranges, and bananas will take their places.

The farmers here for the most part eat a vegetarian diet. Vegetables grown in the fields, cheese and yogurt from the family cow or buffalo, and bread or rice are the staples. Breakfast is often cooked beans known as foul (pronounced "fool") cooked with onions, garlic, cumin and lemon, and eaten with cheese and bread. Lunch may be bread, cheese, onions, and then dinner might be a vegetable stew. It's a healthier diet than is followed in the city by a long shot. Sometimes it's easy not to miss junk food.
copyright 2007 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani