Friday, May 15, 2009

Observing The Pilgrims

I had a nice couple from the UK staying at the farm for a weekend not long ago and they wanted, naturally, to visit the pyramids at Giza. Even more, they wanted to go inside the Great Pyramid, a trip that takes some organising these days. We got up at 6:30 am to be at the pyramids at 7:30 so that we could be first in line for the tickets to the area and the pyramids. In the old days things weren't nearly so organised and it was just a matter of showing up, but now you have to buy a ticket to the plateau and another to go into either the Great Pyramid or the Middle Pyramid at the entrance. There are two entrances, one down by the Sphinx in Nazlit Semman and one up the road from the Mena House. Once you are wandering around the plateau, it is a long dusty hike back to the ticket offices to get entrance tickets to the pyramids. We were first in line, and they got their tickets to see inside the pyramid.

They wanted to wander around for a few hours and I said that I would amuse myself at the pyramid while they did whatever it was they wanted. Sometimes my visitors want my company, but they were very independent, so I settled down to watch and photograph visitors to the pyramid. It didn't take long for the crowds and buses to begin arriving and soon I had more than enough to watch. It was a Friday morning and there were people from every nation on earth, along with Egyptian families and some school trips towing crowds of children around the area. At first I sat on the stones facing the pyramid and taking photos of people having their pictures taken. I find people posing next to one of the wonders of the ancient world to be utterly enchanting. Their delight in being there is written all over their faces and the poses are marvelous.

The photographers in the groups were so intent on their shooting that no one noticed the fact that I was shooting people rather than stones. Their subjects would climb up a few steps to stand on some of the lower stones, or they might pretend to push. Some people would simply stand quietly at the side of an enormous block of limestone resting their hands on it, as though feeling the pulse of the stone.

Moods varied from solemn and awed to hilarious enjoyment of the experience. As someone who has been visiting Giza for the past thirty years, watching the visitors awoke the delight and awe that I felt the first time I came and gazed at these unbelievably enormous structures. The first time I came to Egypt my husband brought me to the Sound and Light the first evening and the next day we came out to the pyramids with a group of his teen-aged cousins. They had all seen the pyramids before and their enjoyment of my delight was obvious. We had bought a good camera for that trip and were having a marvelous time taking photos of everything...everyone assumed that my husband was a foreigner since why would an Egyptian take pictures at the pyramids? Times have definitely changed.

As the morning progressed, I took shelter in a shady niche about three stones up the pyramid from which vantage point I watched the visitors as they faced me. It was almost ceremonial. The footing at the base of the pyramid is quite uneven and the SCA have built a wooden walkway over the rocky platform along which many of the first time visitors approach. It's a lot to take in and there is a moment for each one when they stop and try to take in the enormity of what is in front of them. From a distance they must turn their heads from left to right to see the expanse of the one face and then they must lean back, back, back to try to see all the way to the top. After a few moments of orientation, the group photographer begins to motion people to stand in front of the pyramid to commemorate the day.

I was there about four hours and have to say that I never had a moment to get bored. The parade of visitors was unending, the buses filling the parking lot never thinned out, and I took about four hundred photos that one morning. I did a lot of critical trashing of bad shots but I was left with almost one hundred that I felt were worth keeping. I always feel that there is a peace in the pyramids that tolerates our human foolishness. They have seen it all over the millenia. They had their centuries of glory, of neglect and even abuse, but over all they persist. I'm quite aware of my anthropormorphising large piles of stone but when you live with them as neighbours, it's easy to do. So a Friday morning watching the endless games of the pilgrims who come in wonder and delight to play out the ancient rite of celebrating these ancient observers of our history made a perfect day.

copyright 2009 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Monday, May 11, 2009

Definitely a Haven

Our world is a messy place although in many parts people tend to be able to hide the messiness better than in others. North America or Europe with its leash laws, humane societies, and animal rights activists almost makes one think that everything is more or less under control. It isn't, of course, since the very nature of life is change, but when North Americans and Europeans come to Egypt where normality is simply more chaotic than normality elsewhere, they are often rather shocked at the stray animals and working horses and donkeys. In some respects, Egypt is still living in the 19th century. The only working horses in New York City are the police horses or the carriage horses in Central Park, and there are plenty of interest groups that feel that it is inhumane to make horses work in any way and would like to see them abolished. My personal experience is that horses like working with people when the work is reasonable and the care is good, so that is not a great solution.

When I moved here in the late 80's finding a veterinarian to treat a cat in Alexandria was a major feat of detective work, and to be honest the first vet I ever found was pretty awful. Twenty years on things have changed quite a bit and we have a fairly good sampling of decent veterinary clinics in Cairo and Alexandria. Another change that I've seen has been an increase in the number of animal relief associations and animal shelters. Since these are a relatively new idea here, most of the population of Egypt is still trying to understand how they work. Keeping dogs and cats as pets is not that common in the general population, although it's often the case that a doorman will have a local cat or dog who knows where it can get a free meal in exchange for some guard work or ratcatching. These animals are not "pets" in the usual sense, but are more free-roaming partners who live without benefit of vaccinations or neutering and are subject to the stresses of random breeding. This is also the case for the farm dogs out here in the countryside. While this seems tough to people raised in orderly cities abroad, it is in fact the way of the world in less controlled environments.

I've visited quite a few animal shelters over the years and to be honest, most of them give me the willies. Quite a few end up housing large numbers of randomly "rescued" dogs and cats who have no hope of ever being placed in a comfortable environment and who are left to live in pens and cages that are often overcrowded, noisy, dirty and stressful. The low levels of funding for shelters have something to do with these conditions as do the wishes of the keepers to "save" these animals from life on the streets. I understand the problems of keeping large numbers of animals, having fifteen dogs myself (not by choice, believe me) and just visiting some of these places is enough to send me running for a calm place to collect my thoughts.

I have a group of high school students coming to stay at the farm for two weeks in June and was looking for some opportunities for volunteer work in the area, so I went to visit a few of the local shelters. One of them was eliminated immediately as I had some very real concerns for the safety of the students with the way that the dogs were kept. The tension level in the pens were quite sufficient that I could see fights breaking out quite easily. I went on to a new shelter primarily for cats and was quite delighted to find Animal Haven's new spaces. Noura el Daly had been working with her cats in Maadi for years but recently her sister offered her space out near our farms. A compound was built consisting of a series of rooms built around courtyards that afforded cats their choices of rooms in which to sleep and sunny spots for relaxation. The cats, and there are quite a lot of them, are not necessarily confined to one room and courtyard, but if they are sufficiently well-socialised, they can move among a choice of rooms, including one that has a ramp leading to a space on the roof.

There were more cats than I've seen in one place in a long, long time. Every possible colour and hair length was represented. Many of these cats are adult but rather than being frightened of humans and trying to escape attention, they sauntered over to purr against legs and offer heads for scratches and stroking. Dishes of food, rice with chicken, stood around for the cats to be able to eat at their leisure, and wooden benches covered in toweling, baskets, shelves and other interesting structures provided places for the cats to curl, sprawl, groom, and cuddle. The entire area was spotless and the attendants made a point of introducing us to their favourite inmates. The cats are neutered, vaccinated and available for adoption, but all too often people are wanting the cute factor of kittens and not interested in adult cats. I've had a lot of cats in my life and have had no problems adopting sympathetic adult cats. In fact, not having to put up with the crazy running around of kittens that almost inevitably leads to broken objects and torn curtains has been a real plus. One of our cats when we lived in Maadi was a totally blind female who wound herself around my daughter's legs just outside our doctor's office one afternoon. We called her Amelia and she presented us with four kittens as well in fairly short order. We were fortunate in being able to find homes for all the kittens and for Amelia as well, since we didn't think that it was fair to a blind cat for her to have to deal with a household with dogs as well.

Animal Haven isn't a dog shelter but they have a few dogs who have been left at the doorstep, so to speak. The dogs are baladi dogs, the street/desert/farm mutts that are ubiquitous here. They are also the smartest, most loyal, healthiest dogs that anyone could find and make the best possible watchdogs. I have two who patrol the farm every evening while my terriers find the best spots on the bed. The dogs are also given enough room, cleanliness, food and attention to make them delightful companions. I spoke to Noura after my visit suggesting that the students could come to help care for the animals, repair benches and baskets, and perhaps to do some rudimentary dog training to help make the dogs more adoptable. We'll see how things work out, but this is really a wonderful effort and hopefully more people will find their way out to adopt cats and the odd dog from Animal Haven.

copyright 2009 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani