Sunday, December 21, 2008

Learning From A Master

My neighbour decided that it was time to finish building his house and put a second story on it to provide a study for his wife and a spare bedroom. The project was complicated by the fact that when his built the first floor, he'd put a dome over the living room to help circulate the air and to evacuate the hot air that we are so good at collecting during the summer. He decided to remove the dome on the first floor and add one to the second floor immediate over the original to do the same job and to create a sort of atrium.

His design was very clever since he planned the stairs to be built outside so that all the work could be done without breaking into the part of the house that he was living in during the construction. The final thing to be done would be to break the original dome and put a railing around the space where it had been. He brought the same master bricklayer who had built the original dome to build the new one and Tuha, the bricklayer, brought his son to help and to learn how to do the work.

Tuha is a marvel. He built my barbecue for me, entire buildings for others and a gorgeous barbecue for a neighbour. You describe what it is that you want and he simply constructs it free hand. After watching ordinary construction workers, you realise that you are watching an artist. The only way to learn to do this is by doing it and his son is learning the family business after spending a number of years in school to learn to read and write. While this may seem strange, it does make some sense since the schools in the countryside are really nothing that marvelous and having a skill like his father's will assure him a good living.

Tuha, having built the main dome, put his son to work on the smaller dome for the stair well. Under his guidance the boy learned how to place the bricks precisely in place to create a slowly decreasing circle of brick that would form the dome. They work from the center of the dome standing on a wooden platform that closes the space beneath them. This platform will be removed when the dome is completed. This method of construction is the traditional architecture of Egypt and is cheaper than the non-traditional forms. A building made with the domes and barrel vaults from brick without concrete columns cannot easily be built upon to make a second floor, however, so many people like my neighbour mix it with the modern construction, making use of the air conditioning features of the dome and vault. And it never hurts that they are beautiful as well.

copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Islanders Win For Now

An article in the Daily Star today revealed that the courts had ruled in favour of the islanders on Qorsaya
who had been fighting off military dredges on their island and eviction orders. A previous suit by the islanders against the Potable Water Company asking for service to provide water had been denied because the courts ruled that as a protectorate the island wasn't entitled to civic services. This worked against the encroachers when again the island was declared to be a protectorate and immune from industrial or commercial building.

This is hardly the last word on the subject, but it is heartening.

copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Blessing On Us All

I woke this morning at 6 am wanting to turn on the BBC to see the results in the US elections, but almost afraid. My mobile phone beeped at me and I found a simple message from my daughter in New York. "Obama wins!" As I spoke to her on the phone we both were thrilled with the event. I listened to his acceptance speech and found for the first time in many, many years tears in my eyes, tears of joy and hope from the words of a politician. Any of you who have read my note on my blog about what I feel is important in life know that politicians are not, on the whole, my favourite people. But the succession of Barack Hussein Obama to the United States presidency is of vital importance to the world as well as to the American people.

I was born in the US and was, in many ways, the quintessential American. My mother was a British war bride and my father was from an old Scots/Irish family who had emigrated to North America before the revolution. But to be honest, even when I was so very young there were things that made me quite uncomfortable about the United States. Not the least of these was the fact that in California in the 60's and 70's my interest in learning Spanish, in reading Spanish literature, was considered suspect. As has become even more the case, more recent immigrants to the US were resented. It was not considered to be useful or desirable to speak a language other than English, an attitude that as someone who considered a career in translation, I thought was terribly short-sighted and frankly rather odd. I also was a serious opponent to the war in Vietnam, a military action that I felt was nothing short of disastrous for the place of the US in the world. When I moved to Canada to continue my university education, university in California having become too expensive for me, I was enchanted by the completely different attitude towards immigrants and their heritage in Canada and I decided, having the possibility to immigrate there, to stay.

The Canadians, at least in the 70's and 80's when I was living there, were much more aware of the fact that they were a country of immigrants than the Americans were. If a school had a certain percentage of children from an ethnic group enrolled, lessons in that language were required to be made available to these children after school hours. There was no question that French and English were the official languages, but there was an acceptance and understanding that Canada was a mosaic of many languages and cultures, unlike the attitude south of the border that if someone came to the US they came to become an American and should change and lose the past that had made them what they were when they emigrated to the US. I was much more comfortable with that idea and Diaa and I used to joke that we the absolute perfect Canadians, a Sudanese/Egyptian immigrant and an American/British immigrant. I took Canadian citizenship in the mid-70's with no qualms whatsoever.

Yesterday Americans remembered that the essence of the United States is that it is a country of immigrants...everyone there has come at some point in their short history from somewhere else. Now this is true of a good part of the world, including the British, French, and Germans and even the Egyptians...the history of mankind is a history of migration and conquest. But the United States is a young country and it is so totally a country of immigrants from diverse backgrounds. It's time for the country to remember this. Barack Hussein Obama is the true American, black/white/European/Kenyan/Muslim/Christian.

This morning, along with much of the world, I feel hope for the United States. This morning I feel comfortable with my American past, proud of it for the first time in many, many years. I pray for the safety and success of President Obama and Vice President Biden. Watching the two families embracing on the podium in Chicago live on the BBC this morning I could only think how this is truly a marvelous opportunity for healing in this country that has so much possibility for good, but that all too often has used its power without thought or conscience. Barack comes from the Arab "Baraka" or blessing. May he be one.

copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Friday, October 31, 2008

Only In Egypt

In my constant scanning of other blogs about Egypt, I've found a new one today called Life in Cairo. The author doesn't post often but she had a total gem in her August post, some YouTube videos from Egypt. I went to YouTube to get one of them. Some of the humour is definitely local, with the humour only in Arabic, so this isn't a foreigner laughing at the locals but the locals laughing at themselves, which Egyptians do with great frequency, bless their hearts. But do check her blog.

copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Friday, October 24, 2008

Going Out With A Bang

Although they are illegal and quite dangerous, Egypt has a thriving fireworks industry at a cottage level. Small factories make what we used to call cherry bombs (wads of paper with explosive powder and a bit of grit in them that explode when thrown against something), rockets and firecrackers, all of which are part of traditional festivities on the feasts and at weddings in the rural areas. The people who work in these industries suffer injuries fairly constantly and the users of the noisemakers also are injured with great regularity. So when the police get the chance to impound fireworks they do...but one could truly wish that they'd do a better job.

A couple of days ago one or two truckloads (depending on to whom one is speaking) were seized by the police in the area near Shubramant. Concerned that they might be explosive...I would imagine that they would be...the police rather haphazardly hosed down the cargo with water and then dumped it. Where was it disposed of? In the desert, most likely near the Giza Municipal Dump just up the road from us. Day before yesterday, innumerable grain bags of illegal fireworks were appearing all over the area between Abu Sir and Zawia/Shubramant to the delight of the children of the area. After all, most of the garbage in the dump is checked over for recycling, so why not recycle it, right? From about 4 pm on Wednesday to the present the air has crackled with explosions fairly constantly. The first night it went on all night, with a lot of very crabby adults wandering around the next day.

Of my ridiculously high dog population, probably 90% are terrified of the noise of fireworks, so I have about a dozen dogs running in circles all day barking at the unseen threat or running for shelter under my legs, in my bedroom, in the shower, in the kitchen...wherever. After two days of this nonsense, they are no longer barking at explosions more than about 300 metres away, thank heaven, but a neighbour estimates the supplies at sufficient for about two more days of this lunacy. Who knows, maybe this will get them so overloaded with fear that they will stop being frightened? I'd rather not be using the technique however.

Of even more concern with the vast quantities of these fireworks being used is the fact that children are being injured by them in the villages. I saw one boy not more than about seven years old clutching a round cluster of rockets in his fist and showing them to friends with delight. Heart-stopping. My housekeeper confirmed that there had been injuries to children in the Abu Sir area and the local omda did try, although unsuccessfully, to stop the spread of the illegal bounty at the beginning of the siege. But there were simply too many to collect and they were already too widespread. One would truly wish that when the police do something for the public good, it really would be for the public good. Frankly, it would have been better to send those trucks on their way than to spread these things around the villages the way they did. Unfortunately, until a child is injured, the fireworks are seen as being relatively harmless by most parents who grew up with their use.

copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Thursday, October 23, 2008

We Are Indeed All Laila

There is a wonderful website that unfortunately is largely in Arabic, Kolena Laila...we are all Laila..a site for women in the Middle East that I wish had more English in it. Perhaps soon. Recently they had a Day for Laila and sent out a questionaire to women throughout Egypt, including me. Two of my assistants here at the farm (men, of course) had the fun of reading the questions to me and putting them into words that I was familiar with and making sure that my answers actually correctly indicated my beliefs. They found it most interesting and quite entertaining.

It has always been my belief that we are more alike than we are different, and I believe that this is especially true of women...maybe this is because that's what I am. I will admit to some confusion when I'm trying to fathom the thoughts of men, but women usually make sense to me though sometimes I have to work a bit at it. I think that women work more at understanding each other and that this is one of our great gifts. This is why when I get emails from women who want to visit Egypt and have what I feel are rather dismal and strange reasons for not coming, it makes me very sad. Not long ago I had one woman tell me that she didn't want to come because she didn't want to be harassed on the streets and treated badly. Where would she get this idea from anyway?

The answer to that is from the net and the media. Recently there have been a spate of stories about how women have a problem being sexually harassed in Egypt. I'm not going to say that it doesn't happen because it does and it is a problem. But the fact that it is being publicised is actually a huge step in the right direction. The harassment varies in intensity from the annoying "psss, psss, psss" so commonly heard by women from bored policemen ("psss, psss" being the same sound used to communicate with babies and cats, ironically) to actually being groped to the roaming gangs who were problems in Mohendessin over the feast as noted in the Al Ahram article. In the past it's been argued that somehow the women were at fault, but when the men attack veiled women too as they did over Eid el Fitr, this argument stops holding any water.

Does EVERY woman walking down the road have to beat off men trying to abuse her? No, of course not. To be honest, in twenty years I've only had to deal with a few instances myself, but as one of my daughter's friends noted on a trip to a Friday market with me, I don't exactly invite nonsense having a rather "fierce" aura. I had to laugh but there's probably something to it. I don't tolerate bad behaviour around me, I am polite and I expect politeness from others and I suspect that this shines through because that's what I usually get. But there is more to the problem and my suggestion in this regard may not be very welcome in some circles.

When I first began traveling to Egypt my constant companion was my young son who learned very early that "no" meant exactly that, that whining or crying wasn't going to change things, that politeness mattered a lot, and that the reasons why these things were true would be discussed, but that the balance of power in decisions rested firmly in adult hands. I caught a lot of flak from my mother in law who felt that I was entirely too tough on a little boy...such harshness would "break his spirit"! Ha! Not too likely. When my son was about seventeen, my mother in law shocked me to my toes when she quietly admitted that although she had thought my child-rearing methods were crazy when the children were young, she'd decided that maybe I actually knew something. Frankly most young boys in Egypt are spoiled rotten and never taught to be responsible members of society. They are usually given most that they want when they want it and are not taught any delay of gratification. In my mind, delay of gratification is one of the most important lessons of childhood. You might get what you want, but it may not be now and you may actually have to work for it.

I remember sitting having coffee one morning with a group of women, Egyptians and foreign, who were married to Egyptian men. As is the habit of women everywhere, we were laughing and crying over the foibles of our husbands and sons, commiserating and complaining and supporting each other's frustrations and worries. One of the women, however, said one of the most profound things that I believe I have ever heard. She suggested that until each one of us could honestly say that we had raised a son that we felt was qualified to really be a good husband to a good woman, we frankly had nothing to complain about. The behaviour of the men of Egypt is in the hands of the mothers of Egypt and it's time for them to insist that boys learn to obey, that they treat women with respect and kindness. This isn't something that one can insist on once the child is a teenager. It is something that you must build into his character from the very beginning as he is learning to walk and talk.

There is a corollary to this as well and a story for it. When I was about thirteen I recall standing in my mother's kitchen listening to the chat of the women who had gathered there to cook a communal lunch for about five families who had gathered in our home. Each of these women had been raped or molested, usually by a male relative such as an uncle or cousin, when they were young and each of them had taught their daughters that while good little girls were polite and considerate, they did not have to be polite or considerate when certain boundaries were crossed. Not one of their daughters had ever been raped or molested. I was astonished to hear such a thing and it obviously made a huge impression on me. When my children were young they learned that they had the right to expect appropriate behaviour from adults and the right to complain forcefully if this was not forthcoming. This was another sore point with my Egyptian family because my daughter was not as quiet and docile as Egyptian girls have been traditionally taught to be...but it's more than time to change that pattern. One needn't be docile to be polite and most fathers would want their daughters to be safe as well as polite. The fact that women are now beginning to demand their day in court to prosecute criminally rude men is a sign that the tide is turning as well it should. We are, indeed, all Laila, and when Laila is safe and respected her brothers will be happier as well.

copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Time to Grow Up

When I first began writing this blog in 2003 I described myself as someone who was still trying to figure out what I was going to be when I grew up. I was 54 at the time. Sometime in the past six years, I guess that I've grown up without really realising it. I haven't thought about growing up in ages. I found myself sitting with some young friends last weekend...funny thing how most of my friends are younger than I am now, but then a lot of people are anymore. We were talking about growing up and the realisation hit me that for the first time in my life, it was no longer an issue. I've finally done it, I think. I think I'm finally a grown up and I believe that I'm pretty comfortable with what I am.

I've been someone else's child for a while, but now that both my parents are dead, that doesn't really define me. It certainly formed me, but it doesn't define me. My parents were highly individualistic, to say the least. In fact, I used to believe that my father was simply weird and for much of my life all I wanted was to be "normal" whatever that was. I'm not sure that I ever really knew what it was, and looking back on things, I'm fairly certain that normality has escaped me at every turn. Having my own children was the most "normal" thing that I ever accomplished, but I'm not sure that raising them astraddle two continents and cultures qualifies as "normal" in most estimates. My daughter echoed my wish for the elusive normality in a conversation this summer, so this must be a continuing issue, at least in my family. I asked her what was "normal" and she had just about as much trouble explaining it as I've always had.

So now if I'm all grown up, what am I? Well, I wanted to be a cowboy when I was little, and sometimes I do get to mess around with the horses pushing water buffalo down the trails around here, but I'm not a cowboy. I've spent time doing corporate things after my husband died, but I'm definitely not a business person...definitely! My children are fond of reminding me that no matter how old they may be, I'm still their mother. Sometimes I suspect that they might wish this were not the case, but it is and I can be their mom sometimes...usually when things aren't going so well. That's when you always need your mom, after all. But basically I think that I've come to be quite comfortable in my eccentric skin. I'm fairly certain that is what one would call someone who lives alone on a small farm with a small zoo and animals like horses who seem to feel that it's ok to wander around the living room. Sorry kids, so much for normality.
copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Bananas and Other Samples

One of the best things about having a farm is being able to plant fun things all around you. We planted fruit trees: apple, peach, guava, pomegranate, ishta, oranges, lemons, tangerines, and bananas, as well as very playful crops like sugar cane. The cane is tall now and visitors over the Feast that begins on Tuesday will get to cut stalks down and chew the sweet juice out. What's left over is more than appreciated by the horses, donkeys and goats.

Banana trees were some of the first things planted here and I have a couple of varieties. One type is the larger banana that is familiar in Europe or the US, but my favourite is the smaller type, what my kids used to call "banana samples". These tiny bananas are only a couple of bites but the flavour is wonderful and they don't go immediately to banana mush as they ripen. When I began visting Egypt in the late 70's, one of the first things to be imported here was a total mystery to me because they were importing Dole bananas...big tasteless yellow things in a country where the tiny bananas were so good. My husband's family learned very quickly that I was not at all impressed with imported bananas. These were simply not in the same class as the sweet little local bananas like the stalk being inspected in the photo by some of the dogs who were hoping for bones.

Now as we prepare for about four days of complete idleness (well, maybe not depending on how many people decide to take advantage of the holidays to stay and play in Cairo possibly at the farm rather than going to the's still hot here) I've taken more time on my collection of Egypt blogs and would suggest that they are a marvelous way to realise the richness of the experience here. I've found blogs from students here in Arabic courses, professors at the American University, housewives caring for young and not so young children while husbands pursue their careers, and locals of all flavours. They talk about so many aspects of life here, both good and bad, that a wander through the blogs will give you a wonderful tour. I know that elsewhere the Feast is not an occasion of idleness, but maybe during low points in news programs or evening TV you might pick one or two to try out. These samples of Egyptian life are just as tempting and tasty as our tiny bananas.

copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Friday, September 26, 2008

A Geography Lesson

Last weekend a group of tourists were abducted by a group of armed men in southwestern Egypt. The initial reports in the papers online were enough to make me want to tear my hair out. Headlines of "Tourists Kidnapped in Aswan" gave the world a totally incorrect view of what had happened. Amid much confusion, the story is finally coming out, even if the the tourists have not.

Apparently a group of 11 tourists from Italy, Germany and Romania hired a desert safari company to take them to Gilf el Kabir, a remote area of the Libyan desert in the southwest corner of Egypt. This is not an expedition to be taken lightly at all. The area was only first explored thoroughly by Ahmed Hassenein Bey who wrote an article for National Geographic in 1924.

Modern explorers use SUV's in convoy in order to carry the enormous amount of supplies necessary for a trip to the area. Safari leaders recommend groups of at least four to six cars with experienced drivers and plenty of gas and the Egyptian government requires a police presence on such expeditions. In fact, at least one of the hostages is an Egyptian police officer. As usual, there have been more articles in the international press about this situation than there have been locally. But to get the geography correct, the incident took place at the far southwestern corner of Egypt, nowhere near any of the cities or ordinary tourist venues...roughly on the back of the moon. As far as anyone can tell the kidnappers are desert pirates from Sudan or Chad, since the hostages have indicated that they do not speak Arabic. Such desert pirates in armed vehicles have been seen in this area for about a year. As marvelous as the area is, I think that this will likely deter some visitors for a time.

copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Whazzup Egypt !!!: New Tourist Visa Extension Law

Whazzup Egypt !!!: New Tourist Visa Extension Law

[More ...]

Thanks Kim at Whazzup Egypt for this note. I get five to ten emails a month from people all over the world who are wanting to come to live and work in Egypt. That may seem odd to some, but it is true. I do counsel that life here can be tough if you aren't prepared...having either some help here or a decent knowledge of Arabic is the absolute minimum unless you are a radical Outward Bound graduate. Until recently it's been fairly easy for someone to come here on a tourist visa and then find work, but it isn't so surprising at all that the government is making it tougher. So if you are thinking of coming to live, you might want to line up a job ahead of time or be sure that you can get a work visa through your employer. There are plenty of employers who will ignore that little step, putting their employees in the position of being illegal workers.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Making An Exception

I generally don't talk about politics much. Egyptian politics are confusing, frustrating, and usually pretty pointless. The government here does pretty much what it wants and it's up to us to cope, not that this course of events is so different anywhere else as well really. After almost 60 years of watching politics in a number of countries it all starts to get a bit blurry.

However, the recent nightmarish possibility that someone like Sarah Palin could actually become the Vice President of the United States has made me break my politics rule. I'm watching the US elections with a great deal of interest this year. She was picked so carefully to provide McCain with some kind of excitement (I've seen him speak...he does not generate much heat and tends to simply repeat himself...old age?) but what a horrific possibility. How are women in the US supposed to support a woman who as mayor of a town in Alaska was the one to insist that rape victims pay for the rape kit used by the police in their investigations...something like that is usually on the house, to say the least. The New York Times article that the title accesses offers innumberable reasons to doubt the suitability of this woman for a job that could put her in the Presidency should her well-aged partner kick off any time in the next four years.

Personally, I see this election as being much more important to the US internationally than it is to the country domestically. The President of the United States is the public face of the country. Bad enough the world has had to put up with the Howdy Doody brainlessness of George W. for the past too many seasons...but if the voters in the United States show that they feel this superannuated "war hero" and the brainless (albeit fiendishly clever and manipulative) set of boobs chosen to accompany him are to be the public face of the "leader of the free world" I honestly suspect that there is going to be a major reconsideration of just how important the US is anyway. And with the financial crises that are being set off by the banking crisis in the US, there will be even more cause to reconsider.

Of course, one of the major characteristics of American culture, especially as epitomized by Fox News and CNN and such, is the tendency to imagine that the rest of the world is "just like us" only poorer or that they are the enemy. In actual fact, neither of these assumptions is justified, and I sort of doubt that very many Americans are really going to worry too much about what the rest of the world thinks about the US Presidency. On what basis Americans are going to choose between the candidates remains to be seen but the possibilities are a bit daunting.

As a North American living in the Middle East, the low level of international knowledge shown by Palin, despite the fact that she can see Russia from an island off the coast of Alaska, is rather frightening. Ignorance is definitely not bliss...just ask anyone who's been involved in the Iraq war which has been a monument to ignorance and lies from day one. Now that it's finally public that Bush lied about the reasons for the war, maybe it's time to seriously re-evaluate the US activities in the region. Somehow I can't see McCain and Palin doing that.

It's going to be an interesting in the Chinese curse that wishes one to live in "interesting" times.

Sorry, no photos here. I tried to use some from the web and none of the ones I uploaded of Sarah Palin would show in the blog...I wonder what that means.

copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Reading Material For Ramadan

It's hot. It's been hot all summer and I'm ready for a change. This has been a busy summer in a way, not always a good way. It started with the rush of getting away from the farm for two first trip out of Egypt since moving here with all the creatures. But my son was graduating from Harvard with an MBA, and you just don't miss that. Impossible. So a whirlwind trip to New York and Boston was undertaken on Egyptair's nonstop flight from Cairo to JFK. The return was amazing as I found myself on a flight that had to be made up of most of the preschool Egyptian children in New York on their way home to spend summer vacation with grandparents in Egypt...Sleep? Not much. I arrived to find an old friend from New Zealand in residence at the farm already and two new friends from California arriving in two days, while my niece, her daughter and a group of high school kids also from California were staying with friends who run an alternative school here. Chaos!

No sooner had everyone departed for their respective home bases than Egypt was hit with equine influenza and we had a 3 week quarantine followed by ten days of sheer misery when the horses were inevitably infected and we spent days hosing down a herd of miserable feverish equids. One of the mules and all of the donkeys came down with the bug as well. The babies and the youngsters (5 year olds) were hardest hit but everyone came through at the end and we all breathed a sigh of relief. I was quite happy that this happened at a time of year when there wouldn't be much demand for riding horses anyway with most tourists avoiding the summer heat and most of my local regulars being away on summer holidays.

So here it is the beginning of September and the first day of Ramadan is tomorrow. This means what for work? Who knows really, but the way things work is that if people rely on drivers to go places, they are not going anywhere much after 3 pm. During Ramadan the traffic is appalling for about 3 hours before iftar, the breaking of the fast, and no one in their right mind goes anywhere then. Businesses and schools close early so that everyone can be home for iftar, hence the traffic. I suspect that weekends will be busier than weekdays and mornings busier than evenings, which is fine with me because I love to saddle up one of the horses and go wander around during iftar listening to the silence of people happily eating.

With the summer heat, I've been hiding indoors during the day doing things like scanning about 25 years of old photographs for the children to be able to have them on cd's. I was a bit apprehensive at first, but finding wonderful shots of my husband playing with the kids, memory shots like the photos taken on our one successful camping trip as grad students (Diaa's idea of camping was the Hilton actually), and millions of pictures of the kids' early trips to Egypt filled a lot of holes in my heart. Troubles tend to hide good memories and it's healing to bring them back to the foreground.

Another job I gave myself was to collect all the blogs that I read from time to time so that other people can enjoy them too. Blogger just brought out a new gadget that automatically updates the blogs so you know from my sidebar when there is a new post. Some of these blogs are written by Egyptian bloggers, some of them are expats writing about their lives here, a few are political, many non-political. There are many more blogs in Arabic but I'm only including the English ones...I can't pretend to be able to read a blog in Arabic. One of the things that I noticed when collecting was that I'm kind of a grandmother among the bloggers, having started in 2003. A blog-fogey if you will.

So if you find yourself not wanting to brave the pre-iftar traffic or just sitting in some non-Ramadan place with quiet time, do explore the blogs. They are ample evidence of the variety and richness of life in Egypt, which pleases me immensely since one of my earliest goals with my blog was to find a way to show the world that richness.

So, to everyone Ramadan Kareem. May the next month be filled with the joy that Egyptians find in this month of fasting and reconnecting with friends and family.

copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Probably Elsewhere Too

Today's New York Times asks if Jon Stewart of The Daily Show is the most trusted men in America, and then looks at why this may be. With my subscription to Showtime Arabia I get to watch Mr. Stewart every day followed by Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report, a fact that my daughter in New York finds hilarious since she has to follow it online as she, being an impoverished grad student, doesn't have a cable subscription. I read my news online, following the BBC World, New York Times, Washington Post, and the International Herald Tribune among others through Google News. I haven't trusted television news for many years. The Daily Show is the only "news" show that I watch and I find that it keeps me remarkably up to date with American politics, certainly as up to date as I want to be.

Perhaps it would bear examining Jon Stewart's following in the world outside of North America as well. He is incredibly popular in the Middle East among English speaking viewers for his ability to get to the point of the matter, eliminating the political fluff. I am delighted that my cable subscription gives me access to his sanity on a daily basis. It's funny the things you find in Egypt....

copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Monday, August 04, 2008

Some Women's Issues

I don't like to discuss politics in general, not the faceless issues that so often populate the news. I'm not sure that they need discussion and they often don't really touch individuals directly. Recently, however, I read an Associated Press article online about a grassroots movement to convince Egyptian women that female circumcision is a bad idea. "Grass-roots effort in Egypt fights 'cutting' girls" written by Anna Johnson is an excellent piece that looks at a reasonable local approach to a very emotional issue. Every women's organisation in the world seems to be against FGM (female genital mutilation) and I am totally in agreement with all the objections. It is a pointless practice that causes much pain to young girls and later to women when many of them have problems with childbirth and pregnancy due to the rather haphazard surgeries performed. What I have trouble with is the strident demands that "they HAVE to be made to stop it!" without any background in the social complexities involved.

I was talking to my housekeeper about the issue the other day. Like most women in the villages here, she was circumcised as a child. She has five children of her own, the oldest two being girls and a couple of daughters younger. When I asked if they had been cut, she told me that her mother had come by one day while she was at work, taken the two older girls and had it done. She wasn't entirely comfortable with the fact and was rather embarrassed to tell me. This is where a good part of the problem lies. The older women who have been raised with the tradition have a vested interest in continuing tradition that validates their experience, no matter how unpleasant the experience might have been. In fact, in some cases, the more unpleasant, the more they want to see it continue so that they don't have to feel that they suffered for nothing. It's a variety of the old argument that perpetuates the British habit of sending children off to boarding schools at early one liked it but "if I survived and thrived, you will too".

One of my neighbours here managed to convince her housekeeper not to cut her daughters using an extremely ingenious argument. Most of the families here are very religious and she pointed out quite correctly that circumcision is not a Muslim tradition at all. This information came as quite a surprise to her housekeeper as it did to mine when we were talking. FGM is an ancient African tradition and is not supported anywhere in Islam, and at least in Egypt using this religious argument could be quite successful. The trick with it, as is the case with so many things of a religious nature, regardless of religion, is the fact that religion and tradition can become so totally entangled that they are hard to separate. There are quite likely figures who might argue that the surgery supports female chastity...but you can make the same argument for medieval chastity belts. I'm going to follow this grassroots movement and be cheering on the sidelines.

A Google link took me to a new blog today The Hijablog. This is a fashion blog for young women who wear hijab and I find it a real breath of fresh air. Hijab, the wearing of a scarf to cover your hair and often the neck and shoulders, is something that most westerners have a problem with. I could never even bring myself to wear a hat in the depths of a Canadian winter, often coming back into the house after shoveling the driveway with frozen hair after my morning shower (I mean how extreme a hatophobe can you get?) and I only wear a riding helmet because I promised my kids that I would for safety and I don't like to break a promise. So the likelihood of my ever being hijab is minimal to say the least, but I have also long been a an admirer of the women who turn their use of scarves and veiling into interesting and attractive outfits. Some might say that this negates the purpose of hijab, because it's almost impossible not to notice these striking young women, but I have to admit that I see the veiling issue as a combination of a social and a fashion choice.

My daughter used to wear a scarf over her vibrant auburn curls while in Cairo, partly to escape the need to do anything with them (they have a total life of their own!) and partly to deal with the reactions of young men in Cairo, who quite frankly need to be taught to deal with women on a much more comfortable and polite basis. It was never a religious thing for her, although it is for many young women. The way I see things, women have a multitude of manners in which to present themselves, hijab being just one. And I get a kick out of young women who are interested in exploring the fashion aspect of it. Good for you, Basbousa.

copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbanien

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Not Only In Egypt

About a week ago the net flickered and died out here in Abu Sir. We had to haul in our telephone company to check the lines (Gee! There are about 6 breaks in this section!) and our internet company to check the lines afterwards, and now we are back in the cybersphere. While my connection was down, I would go to a friend's place every couple of days to check my email. I'd delete anything not essential, not having much time to waste on things that I could usually meander through. One of the things that I did do, however, was to read my online New York Times. There was an article in it on the 23rd about how Philadelphia was in the grip of manhole mania... with the price of iron on the rise, they are being stolen.

Now this is a story I can identify with! Disappearing manhole covers are a fact of life in Egypt too. In the US they are trying to come up with a way of locking them so that they can't be stolen, but we deal with the problem in another way. Road Sculpture is the Egyptian solution to open manholes, as it is often also the solution to things like broken down buses on the side (or even middle) of the road. Road Sculpture is the artful placement of tree branches, stones, bricks, or even barrels in the road to indicate that there is something, aside from the tree branches, stones, bricks, or barrels that a motorist might wish to avoid.

It can be quite disconcerting to be driving peacefully, or as peacefully as one can drive in Egypt, down a road only to spy some anomalous object right spang in the middle of the thoroughfare. Having come from a basically law-abiding tidy society in Toronto, my initial response was to think "Good grief! Someone could hit that and have a nasty accident!" But after a while I came to understand that leaving large dangerous objects in the middle of the road was an attempt to PREVENT accidents. Of course. It makes all the sense in the world.

So maybe we need to export some of our road sculptors to the US to teach them how to avoid accidents while beautifying the roadways. Just imagine what the Highway Patrol would say.

copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Keeping a Cultural Mix

A Washington Post article on the boom in business for the Cairo Hard Rock Cafe which is owned by the Binladen family underscores the wonderful mix that is Cairo. When the Grand Hyatt was built a few years back, it was advertised as a 5 or 6 star hotel, but when a Saudi bought it recently and poured the entire alcohol stock into the Nile, making it a DRY hotel, it's star rating plummeted in the eyes of many tourists. We used to like the sushi restaurant in the Grand Hyatt, but I do like my sushi with a beer. Now most of the guests who want to refresh after a hot summer day are wandering over to the Hard Rock Cafe which is in an annex to the Grand Hyatt. I love the quote in the article from the Cafe manager who when asked about the fact that both owners are Saudi commented that no two fingers on the same hand are alike. That is so true and is the saving grace of the world. In fact, not all Saudi's are followers of the Wahhabi sect and many of them are not enamoured of the strict rules that the Wahhabi's enforce.

So raise a glass to variety!

copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Floating On The Ark

My life currently revolves around horses, mine and the horses of the people who entrust them to me. Imagine my horror the other day to hear that there is a virus sweeping Egypt that threatens the health and the very lives of those that I love. One of my vet friends told me that for the first time in ages, possibly ever, the summer racing season has been canceled here because of a highly infectious virus sweeping the stables initiating, as far as we can tell, in Alexandria.

Since that day we have quarantined the farm, as have many of our neighbours, in the hope of keeping the virus away from our horses. Equine Influenza is like any other influenza in that there are different strains of it and it mutates all the time. There are vaccines for it, and in fact horses in competition are required by the FEI to be vaccinated against it twice a year. The problem, however, is that the vaccines may not be entirely effective against the particular strain that is going around, so vaccinated horses may get it anyway, albeit an attenuated version, but enough to infect someone else who might not be vaccinated.

Last year Australia went through a countrywide quarantine when EI broke out in what until that point had been one of three EI-free (along with Iceland and Greenland) countries in the world. Strict controls that caused enormous hardship to the equestrian industries, racing and tourism, as well as sport and recreation, brought the situation under control and Australia has been declared free of Equine Influenza once again. Egypt, on the other hand, is hardly likely to ever be free of Equine Influenza. We have a huge population of working equids hauling carts of goods and food to all parts of the cities from the farming areas. To be honest, I don't know how the country would cope without its donkeys and horses.

So these days I'm sitting here with the creatures catching up on organisational work, writing, and so on. No one comes into the farm, no one leaves...other than staff who are extremely careful to avoid any contact with any other animals whatsoever. The local staff come and go in one set of clothing, leaving work clothing here where there is nothing to contaminate it. We have a mix of herbs that are being added to the horses' grain in the evening in the hopes that it will help their immune systems to fight off the virus. I get calls from my vet friends reporting the latest cases. This afternoon I heard that there were eighty cases at the EAO, the Egyptian government stud where 400 of the foundation bloodstock of the Egyptian Arabian horse are housed. I suspect that most of the horses here are not vaccinated against EI, partly for financial reasons because the vaccines are imported from the US and are very expensive, and partly for other reasons. I have serious doubts about the usefulness of the vaccines. The theory is that the vaccine gives the horse a small case of EI to induce production of antibodies, but since we have other strains of EI floating around all the time, they should also get antibodies from those strains that our horses come in contact regularly anyway. And in this case there are horses who should have had the vaccines due to FEI regulations anyway, and they are also ill....and worse, they are speading the disease. Hopefully, it will burn itself out soon and we will be free to roam the desert again. In the meantime things will probably get worse before they get better.

copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Monday, June 30, 2008

The End Of An Era

The Bob expired today quietly in his home in the aviary. He died of old age, actually quite extreme old age. In the wild hedgehogs only live to be about four years old and The Bob was closer to about eight or so. He was never a cuddly individual but he would come out to see what I had for him to eat whenever he heard my voice in the aviary. Hedgehogs are....well, prickly. But he was a much loved member of the community and was a gift from Uma and Jim when they moved from Cairo to Singapore.

He will be buried in the garden under a laurel tree that needs to be transplanted into the earth.

Farewell, Bob. You gave many people much pleasure during your life with us.

copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Importance of Staying In Touch

I recently took a brief holiday to the US to see my kids. When I got back to Egypt, I arrived to find my niece from California, along with her five year old daughter, a fellow teacher, and ten high school students, happily installed at an alternative school not far from the farm where they would be staying for a two week visit to Egypt as a part of their school program. I also had an old friend from New Zealand who came to think out some major life decisions at the farm and within a couple of days, another friend and her daughter from California had arrived via Luxor. If I'd been rested after two weeks of bouncing between Boston and New York, a matter of conjecture only since I certainly wasn't after a flight home on a plane carrying every small child in the US with an Egyptian grandparent to visit over the summer, I wasn't rested once I got home. My animals apparently miss me a bit when I'm gone and the greeting from the dog pack was riotous to say the least, but it was later in the evening that I noticed a real difference. When I sat down...and later when I went to bed...I found that all the dogs, even the big ones, had to sit or lie close enough to me to touch me. With temperatures during the day of over 90 F/38 C, this could get to be a burden. Night time temperatures in the high 70's/high 20's, made things a bit better but I didn't get much sleep the first few nights. It was as if the dogs needed to reassure themselves that I wasn't going to vanish again while they were sleeping. Silly dogs...but are they?

When I spent some time talking to my niece and catching up on family happenings, I was astonished to find that I'd missed some pretty important events abroad. Living on the opposite side of the globe, more or less, from part of my family and a minimum of 11 hours flying time from the kids, I rely on internet communications a lot. Emails, chat, Skype, even Facebook are all helpful in keeping up with family and friends who are wandering the globe, but in the end, we only know what others tell us about their lives, and they only know what we are willing to disclose. That can be a problem. "Oh, I didn't want to worry you." "Well, I figured that it would blow over." How many times have we all used this excuse as a reason to keep our problems to ourselves? We all do it. We share the good times and hide the bad ones, but at what cost?

When my husband died, I soldiered on. I sat through years of horribly confusing negotiations, miserable meetings, and generally disabling work in fields that I really had no experience with. It was not fun. Without a group of women friends who gathered around me, held me as I cried, and encouraged me when I wanted to just give up and run away, I would never have made it. Ladies, I salute you and I would never have survived without you. A core group were also going through some pretty gut-wrenching life changes...divorces, separations, career issues...and we would meet about weekly for a meal and an exchange of woes. How depressing...but not really...and how therapeutic. An Irish grad student friend of mine used to tell me, while we were suffering from being the first major influx of women grad students in our department in Canada with all the weirdness that entailed, that a problem shared is a problem halved. It isn't really that other people are going to solve the problem for you as it is that simply carrying the burden of our problem alone adds to its weight.

So the dumb animals aren't so dumb at all. They understand the need to be with the ones that they care about even if they can't speak in words. Years and years ago, AT&T, the American telephone company ran an ad campaign to boost long distance calling (I'm not so naive as to think that they approached it as a public service!) that featured someone saying "Reach out and touch someone." It's good advice. And don't only share the good news. It really is okay to say, "I know you can't do anything about this, but just knowing that someone is thinking about it with me helps...." And if you are on the receiving end, know that hearing about a problem doesn't necessarily mean that you have to rush out to slay a dragon. Sometimes just swatting a fly will do.
Oh, and the dogs? It only took a few days of sitting on me for them to decide that I'd returned for the duration and to go back to giving me space to breathe...thank heaven.

copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Monday, June 09, 2008

Very Misplaced Sympathy

Every so often, I read something that I just want to send to everyone I know. DB Shobrawy's post on Mideast Youth was just one such post. He quotes a well-meaning post regarding some Egyptian children who the writer imagines as fanaticized beggars. Hmmm. There are a few missing steps there and a lot of unwarranted assumptions. One of the assumptions seems to be that one must have a lot of stuff to be happy. To be honest, when I spend time in the US I tend to feel overfed every second of the day and shopping becomes painful. I mean, what do you really need all that stuff for?

I know that it is really nice to be able to order in Mexican food from a particular province, and having vitamin water must be terrific. But do you really need it? Last time I talked to a nutritionist, the major use of water was to hydrate a thirsty body. Theoretically, you get your vitamins from your food, but I can rather understand if people don't get much in the way of vitamins from foods in the US. I washed some dinner plates that had contained salad and the lettuce didn't even wilt in the hot soapy water. What is in that stuff anyway? I love to buy the little roast chickens from the chicken man in our village. They taste wonderful and you actually have to chew them. My daughter and I bought a roast chicken at an excellent grocery in New York, and it tasted like marshmallow. You don't need teeth to eat chicken in New York.

A lot of tourists are taken aback at children begging at tourist sites in Egypt. My late husband used to go ballistic whenever he saw people giving them money, and rightly so. He would point out that most of them were doing it for entertainment rather than to stave off starvation, and that giving them money simply taught them that they didn't have to work to make a living. He very reasonably didn't want them learning that lesson...but it was amazing how upset some people could get when he objected. I have a rule where I live. I never give kids anything. Nothing, zip, nada, mafeesh. If there is a family in true need, the neighbourhood pitches in and I will do so with all the others, but I never pass out candy, toys, or money to kids. As I tell them, no one has given me anything lately, but if they ever do, I'll come back and buy a package of biscuits to share.
copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Friday, June 06, 2008

So Now We Know

The news clippings (the title provides a link) this morning were full of the announcements by the Supreme Council for Antiquiities that a new pyramid had been found in the Sakkara Antiquities Area. This pyramid, called a "headless pyramid" by its initial finder the German Egyptologist Lepsius over 150 years ago, had been lost when covered with sand over the years. Lately the SCA has been rediscovering the site and in the process having to find a way of disposing of all the sand, rock and rubble that had covered it.

For about a year now, people riding their horses in the desert just east of the Step Pyramid at Sakkara have been treated to increasing mounds of sand, stone, and unfortunately as well, some garbage in the area fondly known as the Boneyard, the Antiquities Council dumping site. While the sand, stone, pottery shards and bone are fairly naturally occurring items, the sheer volume of the dumping has been quite impressive. Happily, the garbage dumping has been rather less in volume and hopefully now that the archaeologists have found what they were looking for, will be even less.

Dr. Hawass is probably quite right in his statements that only a third (I'd guess even less than that) of the antiquities in the Sakkara area have been found. I'm quite sure that the locals of the village of Abu Sir, who have been as intimately involved in amateur archaeological expeditions in the area as their more famous colleagues from Gurna in the Luxor area, would agree with me. I would like to suggest, and in fact I have suggested, to the Antiquities Council that the dumping of debris so close to the area is perhaps not the most brilliant idea in the world.

Most fishermen and divers know that the surest way to attract sharks to the area of a boat is to dump trash overboard in the vicinity of boat. The sharks will come for the trash and stay for a meal of the fish that are being caught or the odd diver. Human sharks are no different. By dumping truckloads of sand and rock in which can be found the odd pottery fragment, piece of alabaster pot, bead, bit of pharaonic woodwork or even mummy wrappings, the local scavengers are being lured to an area in which ideally, for the sake of Egyptology, they really shouldn't be scavenging.

copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Ever Higher

After the protest in April, the Egyptian government announced that they would be raising the salaries of the public sector employees by 30%....everyone was very happy. Then in the last couple of days it's been announced that there are going to be price rises in the neighbourhood of 50% or more in many fairly central areas. Gasoline for cars is going up from about LE 1.4 to LE 1.9 a litre and the propane bottles for cooking are going up about 50% as well. While Egypt has been subsidising a lot for the population for years and no one can continue that forever, most of the population are utterly unaware of the fact that they've been in a protective bubble all this time. So their perception of all this is not at all friendly or understanding. There seems to be a prevailing attitude here that everything is on a "need to know" basis...and no one really needs to know. But it's time, I believe, for the Egyptian government to realise that one way or another the people of the country will learn about things and it's usually better to learn it from the government...seems to me that was the argument for sex education in the 60's too as I recall..better not to learn it in the streets? Be that as it may, a concerted effort on the part of the powers that be here to let the populace understand that at some point even government money runs out might be a good idea.

But the math here is not very good because even with the salary increases, with the gas price increase the inflation rate will still outrun the salary increases by a significant amount. The price of gas is going to be added on to all the food prices, the cost of transport of everything, right down to my hay trucks. And then I notice that they only put a 10% tax increase on cigarettes. Ok, boys, smarten up. By increasing the price of cigarettes by 100%, they are still cheaper than anywhere else in the world AND you might actually get people to stop smoking and costing the entire system tons of money in health costs. But dollars to donuts, the guys doing these figures are smokers.

copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani