Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Living in Colour

When I was building my house I decided that I wanted the house to blend in with the trees and the fields around me, so I asked for a stucco roughly the colour of the cabbages and palms in the fields nearby. After rejecting mint green, sea green, turquoise green, kelly green, forest green, and a dozen other shades, the plasterer finally got the colour right, to his great disgust. "But, madame, this is not a bright colour!", he complained. That's right. It's a grey green that is very easy on the eyes. I love the colour and am happy with it, but the neighbours have decided that this is simply another example of my eccentricity.

Local tastes in house colour are a tad stronger than mine. Sometimes I wonder if the colours are conscious choices or whether someone simply had a sale on a certain shade of paint. I remember a number of years ago when there was a sudden outbreak in lavender painted balconies in certain parts of town. We decided that a huge truckload of lavender paint had been highjacked, but it may have simply become fashionable. Riding through the villages, I notice the house painting fashions change over the years. Just recently it has become popular to paint balconies and houses and then make flower-like prints over the brighter or darker colours of the base.
The interiors of the houses are often equally strongly coloured and bright. I was also scolded for having such subdued tastes as painting my living room a dusty rose rather than a bright yellow or pink. To each his own, I guess. But then I have a collection of prints, photographs and paintings collected over the years that decorate my walls and the village houses are generally more bare of decor. Farmers save their money for schooling for children, new animals, repairs to machinery or buildings or such. Paintings are less practical.

While I choose to live in subdued tones, I really enjoy seeing the bright patterns that people paint on the balconies and walls. Cities are far too much grey cement and red brick in my mind and the colours brighten spirits as well as they brighten the view. Sometimes they are geometric patterns and some of the paint jobs provide optical illusions of texture and space.

I'm sure that in many of our more regulated communities, the local authorities would be having fits at some of these paint jobs. But that is one of the wonderful advantages of a fairly uncontrolled building code.

copyright 2010 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Waiting For Lunch

A flock of cattle egrets patiently await a farmer who is harvesting berseem clover for his animals. They know that they will have some choice pickings from the insects, grubs, and flies disturbed by the farmer's work and he gets his field cleaned.

copyright 2010 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Full Service

They were closed so I couldn't see who was doing what but the concept is brilliant. I just want to know if you do the tatoo after the taxi or after the destination or the internet. Could get busy.

copyright 2010 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Taking On The Tiger

On a government TV channel a talk show hostess and guests discussed the effects of Facebook on Egyptian society with all the abilities and facts that one would expect from Fox News. The recent fuss over the photoshopped picture of Mubarak at the Arab summit in the US was a pretty clear indicator of the internet abilities and sophistication of the print news service so it isn't really a surprise that the conversation, when it managed to be correct factually, was pretty naive. The response from Egyptian bloggers ranged from scorn to hilarity. One of the very interesting suppositions was that the internet hasn't really penetrated Egyptian society. Cairo is one of the most well-served cities I've seen and even in the villages there are internet cafes everywhere. With many mobile phones capable of accessing the net and Facebook, it is astonishing to see who is on Facebook.

Global Voices in English » Egypt: Bad Bad Facebook

copyright 2010 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Women Writing; Women Reading

Arab women get a bum rap to my way of thinking. The stereotype is a silent acquiescing figure wrapped in black just waiting for her master's voice, but as I've been happy and eager to tell friends abroad, that is so not the reality. I'm not saying that life for women in the Middle East is all sunshine and lollipops, but I am saying that women are not the doormats that they are imagined to be either. Just recently, I followed a lead from one of my favourite bloggers about Arabic literature in translation, M. Lynx Qualey, who writes (appropriately enough) Arab Literature (in English) on Wordpress, to a site Arab Women Writers. This site contains biographical information and references to Arab women who live all over the world (including the United States) and who write in a variety of languages. I consider myself fairly well-versed in Arabic literature, at least in translation, and I was awe-struck by the extent of the list of writers catalogued on the site.

My enlightenment regarding the role of Arab women first came courtesy of my mother-in-law, God rest her soul, who was a force to be reckoned with. She never stood in the limelight, but she certainly directed the lighting crew and everything else. No one, but no one, crossed her. Once I moved here, my education continued. I met women who were working at the highest levels of business and banking, women like Iman Bibars the director of the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women,Noura el Daly who runs Animal Haven and many others who completely ignored the stereotype and were working hard to change it.
For those of us who can't just hop a plane to travel to wonderful new places to see and learn, books offer us the chance to visit and learn from our living rooms, even more so, I feel, than films and news. Books about women are terrific- but when they are written BY women they are the unique voices of experience. I've written before about Dr. Leila Ahmed's book, A Border Passage, which remains one of my favourite books and one that gives a unique picture of Egypt in the days before Nasser. Lucette Lagnado, who left Egypt with her family for the US as a child, wrote the wonderful Man In The White Sharkskin Suit, which gives insight into the lives of the Jewish Egyptian families prior to the Nasserist diaspora. Through the eyes of these women we can move in time and space, gaining wisdom from our sisters all over the globe.

As an added bonus, I'd like to recommend Nahla Hanno's blog Born Again Egyptian, which she writes in both English and Arabic. Unfortunately, I can't read Arabic so I have to be satisfied by the English posts, but they are more than satisfying. She's living in Saudi Arabia and writes about her experiences at home and abroad and about her love of Arab women's writing. A marvelous post titled Both Right And Left Handed talks about a book by a Syrian woman who interviewed women throughout the Arab world about their lives. She found food for thought and hope among the Tuareg women of North Africa. And who knows who we will discover tomorrow...

copyright 2010 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Monday, September 27, 2010

Photoshopping the "Real" World

About a week ago an Egyptian blogger noticed something odd on the Al Ahram website. While news sites from all over the world had published a photo of Obama, Mubarak, King Abdullah of Jordan, and the heads of the Israeli and Palestinian states all walking into begin a new round of peace talks, Al Ahram had published a slightly different version of the photo with Mubarak walking in front of the others. As Wael and subsequently many, many others pointed out, the picture was obviously photoshopped. One discussion of Wael's post quoted him as saying that this approach was typical in Egypt. When there was a problem to be solved, rather than really doing something people preferred to "photoshop it".

Adobe may not be too pleased to see that the name of it's photo processing program has become a verb, especially one with such controversial underpinnings, but it most definitely has. Discussions of the use of Photoshop to alter body shapes for models appear online at Jezebel.com and in media articles. People gasp and say "horrors" but the visual distortion of our world has become so commonplace that looking at something warts and all can be shocking.

I was sitting with some friends on Friday enjoying the afternoon with lunch in a garden and the talk turned to the terrible piles of rubbish that one finds at the very end of the Moneeb portion of the ring road. The road was intended to go around the back of the Giza plateau to join up with the highway to Fayoum and the other end of the Ring Road near 6th of October City. UNESCO and other groups protested the proximity of a highway to the antiquities and construction was stopped on the road abruptly. The dirt road bed still exists and is, in fact, used extensively by cars and trucks wanting a short cut to the Fayoum road. But at the end of the highway portion, trucks carrying rubbish to the Giza dump take advantage of the fact that no one is around to see them to drop of their load on the end of the highway, thereby saving the driver both time and the money that he would normally pay for entrance to the dump site. This particular spot is also one of the best places to take a distant shot of the Giza pyramids...as long as you crop out the enormous piles of stones and rubble in the foreground.

Some of the people who live in the city were asking why the government allowed such dumping and those of us who live out here just began laughing. The "government" does nothing out here and sees the need to do nothing. Every so often someone important will visit and in the weeks before the visit trees are suddenly planted along roads, canal banks are covered in truckloads of sand to disguise any ambient garbage and so on. This is like the transformation of Cairo University (which included banning most of the students) for Obama's visit. If it looks good for a photograph, then that's good enough.

But at the end of the day, we don't live in photographs, do we?

copyright 2010 Maryanne Stroud Gabbanis

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Here Comes The Cloud

Masry el Youm today reported that the farmers have started burning the rice straw in the fields in the Delta. This happens every year and every year I get angry about it. The smoke comes from the north nearer the sea, but is blown south to the Cairo/Giza area by the prevailing winds which blow southwards up the Nile. So in addition to the horrible mess that the cities produce in the air made up of industrial pollution, diesel exhaust, gasoline exhaust and so on, we have smoke. Throats become sore, eyes tear and swell, noses run and get stuffy. The ordinary day to day pollution of the valley is so bad already because of the inversion layer (heat and pollutants rising from the valley is trapped beneath a layer of cooler air from the sea and desert) that we truly don't need this.

The real annoyance to me, however, is the fact that rice straw is a perfectly good animal feed. There has been almost no education done among farmers who know it as bedding or compost only. Here we have a total waste of animal feed in a country where animals are still so much a part of our lives. Part of the problem is the lack of baling machines in the Delta where they grow the rice. Last year we did some checking around about the rice straw situation figuring that maybe we could get it cheaper from the farmers...which we could if they had baling machines.

Egypt could solve one of its annual problems with something so simple.

copyright 2010 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Saudi Hypocrisy

Global Voices reported today the response from other countries in the Middle East and North Africa to their recent ban on young Moroccan women coming to the Kingdom to perform omrah, the pilgrimage that takes place during Ramadan rather than during the Great Feast a month or so later. These women, apparently, have been decided to be a threat to the sanctity of Saudi male morality as they might be prostitutes (and one must assume, of course, that the required male accompanying them would be their pimp). To say that the Moroccans are a bit miffed is a major understatement. This is a blanket indictment of Moroccan society by a group of people who are notorious for their travels throughout the region for the purpose of sexual enjoyment.

In Egypt, there are villages outside of Giza and Cairo where male Saudi tourists have made a tradition of offering young girls sizable (for the girls of course, peanuts to the Saudis) amounts of money for the "privilege" of an informal marriage to the tourist for the summer months. The girls are then left to fend for themselves, and the fortunate ones find someone who is practical enough to appreciate a girl with some money to start a life with. Not a pretty picture. Apparently, this is common enough practice in Morocco as well to cause Moroccan legislators to pass a law requiring Saudi wives to be informed of these marriages before the marriage can take place. Since the law was passed in 2007, this ban is probably not in retaliation.

The assumption that Moroccan women are looser in their morality and thus probably prostitutes is highly offensive to all Moroccans. Morocco is less strait-laced than Saudi, to be sure, but then the Saudi's are notoriously less strait-laced the second they set foot off Saudi soil as well. It seems to me to be a serious case of the pot calling the kettle black. An article in the Guardian looks at the stereotyping involved. By the same kind of logic of "loose morality", given the stereotypes of North American and European women, one would have to ask if Muslim women from these areas have special problems going on pilrimages as well...and why are Egyptian women not banned? Maybe that's the point. These pilgrimages are getting to be very crowded, so perhaps it's better to make them gender-specific and cut the crowds down?

copyright 2010 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Summer in The Cities

It's 9:30 am. I've been up for a couple of hours, even had a shower, but you wouldn't know that now. I'm sitting here utterly dripping wet with a towel on my table to keep my arms from soaking the table top, and all I've done is to feed birds and make myself a cup of tea. Still, I'm very happy to have done that since this summer has been devoted to recovering from a bilateral knee replacement done at the beginning of July. I'm now walking around the house (where the ground is level) without crutches and thinking seriously of when I'll be able to get back on a horse. That's probably not for a while yet. I'm happy to wait until the temperatures drop to at least about 34C/93F...that's about 5 degrees C lower than they are now.

It hasn't been a boring summer, despite the time spent recovering from surgery. For the first few weeks, I couldn't sit in a normal chair with any comfort and was checking my email on my laptop from a battered old lazyboy chair donated by a friend. That wasn't bad, but a laptop REALLY heats up your lap and virgin naugahyde doesn't exactly dissipate heat, so computer work was necessarily short and sweet. Once I was able to sit up for some lengths of time (and another wonderful friend found me a lapboard to help insulate my healing knee incisions from the fiery laptop) I started transcribing my father's journals for friends and family. My father was an interesting character who worked in many capacities but primarily as a computer modeling expert for the US Department of Defense...back in the days when being a modeling expert also meant inventing most of what you needed to do it with. When he retired, he moved up to British Columbia where my sister was attending university for a while and helped to set up the internet in the Pacific Northwest. He died in 1978 and his journals ended up with my sister who sent them to me in New York this spring when I was visiting my kids there. As children we always knew that our dad did something that the US Navy didn't want him talking about. (No fears there, Navy folk...he even took his secrecy stuff seriously in the journals.) We knew he worked on the Space Program some, but really other than as a guy who loved talking, camping, fishing, hiking and taking a nap on a Saturday afternoon, we didn't know a lot about our father. So this is a labour of love for me.

Before I did my surgery, I spent some time with my kids in New York. My daughter was taking a break after her comprehensives and we found ourselves wandering over the lower portions of Manhattan running errands and doing shopping. Our peregrinations took us near the site of the new Muslim community center that suddenly became the source of such vitriol lately. I must confess to being utterly bewildered by the willingness of certain portions of the media to whip Americans into a fearful frenzy over nothing at all. I think many of the hate-mongering reports, especially from Fox (can't call it "news" when most of what they say has no basis in fact) are horrifying. I must confess that the fact that Rupert Murdoch is comfortable with a Saudi partner who is helping to fund the community center SHOULD give some of the protesters pause. The manipulation is just a bit obvious but no one seems to want to see it. As someone old enough to remember changes in US laws about race and women, old enough to remember the aftermath of the imprisonment of US citizens because they happened to be Japanese (many second generation) during WWII, I wonder if American society is actually making any progress at all in becoming what it could be.

Of course life in Egypt continues to provide wonder, bewilderment, and the odd hearty laugh. Recently the art world was rocked with the news that thieves had made off with a $50 million Van Gogh painting of a vase of flowers from the Mahmoud Khalil museum in Giza. It wasn't a difficult theft since none of the alarms in the museum and only seven of the forty-three security cameras were working at the time. This morning's news item about the government's plans to build a nuclear reactor to take up the power needs not met by natural gas and oil just below the assessment of the security at the museum left me gasping. We can't keep the security at a museum up to par and we are supposed to be comfortable with a nuclear reactor? I don't think so. And why in heaven's name isn't Egypt a forerunner in solar energy...with about 360 days of sunshine what couldn't we run on solar energy?

The world is a puzzling place.

copyright 2010 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Friday, July 30, 2010

Beads And Baubles

Post courtesy of Pat Canfield

As readers of this blog will know, Maryanne often has friends and guests from abroad visiting her. Recently a friend from New Zealand came for an extended visit --- her fourth so far. Since Maryanne is recuperating from her knee surgery, she asked me to take her friend to the Khan El Khalili to do some shopping. For those of you who have been here, you understand what that can entail.

On a good day, the vendors can allow people to wander and peruse the shops at leisure. On a day where the planets are in the wrong alignment, they have the mentality and finesse of street hustlers the world over who make one want to bring in the Terminator to deal with them. Sadly, since we went early in the morning, their energy levels were high and we had the warm cuddly feeling of turkeys running the gauntlet on the day before Thanksgiving.

However, Kelly wanted to buy some belly dancing costumes and so off we went (not even fortified by cappuccino I might add). As she is a veteran of Khan shopping, we were able to negotiate without hysteria or total breakdown as I have occasionally witnessed with un-warned tourists. We did stop at one of the shops where they have a wonderful selection of crystal goblets, ornaments, t-shirts and folkloric dresses. The owner, Maged, is always pleasant, helpful and charges correct prices. This sadly lulls you before going back out into the battlefield.

We then dodged and ducked through the medieval passages that make up the centuries old market and ignored some terrifying displays of belly dancing outfits that were hanging from doors and archways. The current selection of tourist souvenirs that come in from China would be lucky to only have high lead content as opposed to scary design elements. Fortunately on one of the main streets, we found a man who makes the costumes and sells from his workshop and showroom. He is on the fifth floor of a multi-bazaar shop and does not sell to other vendors.

We were surrounded by displays of costumes swathed in plastic covers lining the walls and displayed on headless plastic torsos that looked like a rather unfortunate chorus line but everything was clean. Shelves were neatly stacked with scarves and belts edged with coins. One room had the flowing skirts for beginners and another room had tables of the beaded costumes wrapped in clear plastic bags looking all of the world like brightly beaded cocktail purses.

The owner and haberdasher, Ahmed, has been in the business since he was 12 years old and prides himself on matching the customer to the costume. Kelly had great fun trying on scarves and a flowing skirt over her jeans and t-shirt. Then she moved on to requests from some of her friends back in New Zealand.

Sitting on the tapestry sofas and happily drinking cold soda, we got a bit of a lesson on why there are different price levels on the street. The beads, which are hand sewn onto the costumes, are imported from the Czech Republic at 100 – 150 LE / kilo. Others come from China at 10 LE and Taiwan at 24 / kilo. A good costume takes over a half kilo of the beads. A belt takes 1,000 coins – copper are 35 LE / thousand and metal are 13 LE. This makes for a lot of clinking noise.

After discussion of her friends’ hair color, size and performance level, a group of costumes were selected and some headless torsos hit the dust. Fortunately dancers’ costumes and t-shirts make for light luggage on the trip back home. And they certainly don’t break.

By the time we finished the shopping, the street hustlers had re-fortified so our departure was truly fast and a bit like broken field running on the football field. The good part of the day was that we had one happy traveler and her escort who had learned something new and had managed to not inflict bodily harm on anyone on the street. Basically, a productive day.

Note from Maryanne: Maged Mustafa is an old friend and the printer of our farm tshirts. He is a pleasure to work with and has some of the best handblown glass in Cairo. His phone number is 010 5193691

Ahmed Omar, for belly dancing enthusiasts, can be reached at (02) 2592 7452.

copyright 2010 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Mobinil User Warning

I'm one of Mobinil's oldest users in Egypt, and theoretically thereby accorded special privileges and consideration. When I have a complaint, for example, I have a special number for their first class customers that always gets answered although satisfaction is not always guaranteed. I know because I have been calling that number at least 6 to 8 times a week for the past few months.

Over a year ago I noticed that my bonus points on my Mobinil account was up over 20 thousand and a friend suggested that I use them before some accountant decided I wasn't interested and took them away. I went into the Mobinil shop in New Maadi near the area we fondly call Junk Food Alley, the line of fast food restaurants that greet you when you take the first exit off the Autostrade into Maadi. The only thing that they had that interested me was an iPhone and since it was practically free, I got it. I talked to the clerk about whether there was any necessary adjustment in my account plan and he very kindly said they'd take care of it. Cool...a new toy. At the time I had access to the internet through a broadband landline so I didn't use the internet part of the iPhone much at all, but when some local construction destroyed the landline, I did some research and went back to Mobinil for a USB modem connection. By this time, Mobinil had built a massive faux palm tree at Sakkara Country Club to improve our signal out here and we could get 3G service. Wonderful. I now had internet at home that didn't cut out every time there was a rainstorm and my iPhone as back up.

Living as I do outside the city, I'd made arrangements that my Mobinil bill (which was always in the neighbourhood of LE 700 a month since I do have kids in the US that I call every so often) would be paid automatically from my VISA card. I like having my bills paid. Now imagine my shock when I got a phone call in December to say that they were having a problem deducting my bill from my card. I figured that my bank was having some kind of glitch, this is Egypt after all, so I told them I'd be coming into town the next day and would stop by to pay in cash. Could they tell me the balance, please? The balance was LE 6920.39! No wonder the VISA was refusing it. When I picked myself up off the floor, I very firmly suggested that they do some serious checking on what exactly was going on with my bill. I was informed that there was a charge of 5307.06 LE for Mobinil LIfe, their telephone internet services. What on earth was going on here???

I don't use my phone for internet as a rule. Typing on a phone keyboard isn't much fun and I'm much happier to use my computer at home. Besides, I have a package with the modem that was supposed to charge me LE 150 a month for up to 3GB downloads with things like Facebook and YouTube free. As I wasn't downloading music or movies and I'm not a fan of YouTube, there was absolutely no way I was overusing my account. And the counter on my computer indicated that I might reach 3GB in 8 to 10 weeks, so that wasn't happening. I stomped my tiny consumer's foot soundly on the phone beginning the close and intimate relationship with the First Class customer service line. I was assured that my complaint would be looked into and that they would hold back on needing payment.

In January, Mobinil cut off my service and I was on the phone in a rage. My January bill included a charge of LE 3232.12 for Mobinil Life as well as my more normal charges of LE 548.77 bringing my total bill to LE 11,126.82. This time my initimate relationship with the First Class service personnel got a little heated. I sat on the phone until they dug up my past complaint and duly noted that it was "under investigation". They turned my service back on. Thank you, Mobinil. When I inquired about the status of the investigation, I was told that there was a "global problem with some aspects of the billing system".....a DUH statement if I ever heard one...and that someone would be in touch with me in 24 hours. Needless to say, that didn't happen. Every so often I would call and ask how the billing problem was coming along only to be told it was "under investigation".

On February 25, Cairo was hit by a thunderstorm of biblical proportions with hail falling all over to the fear/delight of people who had never seen the stuff before. I happened to be in town with friends when the storm hit and as we were driving back to the farm we could see massive bolts of lightning striking all along the edge of the desert near the farm. There are some huge high tension power lines a short distance away from where I live so I was hopeful that the strikes were hitting those rather than my pipe corrals around the horses, and indeed the horses were wet but safe. A number of strikes were in the neighbourhood of our Mobinil palm tree which was quite close to the power lines, and in fact, we were without internet service for some time after the storm...a "global problem" according to my buddies at the First Class Service line. Eventually the service did come back but it was rather spotty. Service would slide from E to 3G to a dot to nothing in the course of half an hour. Calls were being dropped or not getting through and the modems were very unhappy, as were all the modem owners out here.

This ushered in a new era of complaints. "Hello, madame. Is this complaint about the bill or the internet service?" Well, how about both? We went through the requisite gymnastics of checking settings on computers enough times that I can do them in my sleep. Hello, Mobinil....the issue is not the computer or the modem. It is the fact that your signal sucks, despite a relay station palm tree the size of Godzilla. Please send someone out to see if there was damage during the storm. Eventually, they did send some nice engineers out to do measurements and play with wires I assume and the service got marginally better.

Meanwhile back on the bill front, my connection fees had gone up to LE 300 a month but my Mobinil Life was down to LE 240.10, which was an improvement but I still had problems understanding what this charge was for. A deduction in my bill of LE 5752.98 brought my total back down to a measly LE 6146.02. Whoopdedoo! I thanked heaven for small mercies and urged my voices on the First Class Service line to do a bit better. In March Mobinil Life was creeping up again at LE 590.64, possibly because the internet on my modem wasn't working...who knows actually?...and there was another adjustment of LE 3418.11. Mobinil was kind enough to deduct a relatively normal payment in the neighbourhood of LE 700 from my VISA. I was hoping I was seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.

In April, my Mobinil Life was LE 332.88, with a reasonable total, an overdue balance from previous periods just over LE 3000, and Mobinil took a bit over 1200 from the VISA. This was a bit more reasonable but at no time had anyone from Mobinil contacted me to explain what gremlins had been dancing through my account. In May the gremlins struck again with Mobinil Life bouncing back up over LE 2400. Were the "global problems" fixed or had they simply been incarcerated for a brief period? In June with the Mobinil Life charges down to about LE 300 or so, Mobinil helped themselves to over LE 3400 on my VISA card in payments, leaving me with an overdue balance of over LE 3000.

So how do I rate Mobinil customer service? Would -399 be appropriate? We still have the signal problems and no feed back whatsoever on what is going on. Yesterday alone I was on the phone three times to tell them that we couldn't use our modems, that the iPhones were getting coverage that varied from none to 3G but that we COULD check our email on them so the issue was the data signal as opposed to the phone signal. Obviously, I currently have internet service but the explanatory phone calls have never arrived. I've arranged to be able to check my bills online and so far my July bill isn't showing up so who knows what exactly is going on. I will never, ever just allow my bills to be paid unchecked by my VISA and I know many people who have withdrawn this option from Mobinil due to similar problems. Do I have the option to change carriers? Unfortunately no. Vodafone has appalling service in my area and can't be used for the internet. I know. I've tried. Etasilat, while quite reliable for phone calls, can provide back up phone service for when Mobinil drops the ball out here, but they have no 3G service in this area. So I'm left to poke a large orange elephant in the butt with a stick in the hopes that it will find me tiresome enough to actually pay attention. It's sort of like an experimental trial to see if the Japanese are right that the nail sticking out will be the one hammered down or whether the American saying that the squeaky wheel gets the grease is correct. In the meantime, squeak, squeak, squeak.

copyright 2010 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Sunday, July 11, 2010

With A Little Help From My Friends

I'm sitting at home this July and really, really at home for a change. I built my home to provide shelter for me from the sun and wind, to be a place to sleep in, and to be small and easy to care for. I have two small steps that go from the house to the garden, installed with the thinking that as I get older, the last thing I want is to have to deal with a bunch of stairs. There are no steps inside the house and everything inside is within easy hobbling distance. All of this is really useful right now because I had a bilateral knee replacement last week and I am not allowed to even tackle the little stairs to the garden until my staples come out.
The decision to do a knee replacement was a difficult one. On one hand, I began suffering serious pain in my knees last fall and walking was becoming torture. If walking on the smooth sidewalks of New York in June was bad, one can just imagine what it was like on the uneven ground of my farm. And if I couldn't walk comfortably to see my horses and to move around....what was the point of having legs anyway? Oddly enough, riding was the one thing that I could do for hours without any pain at all...but you can't live on a horse, no matter how much it might seem like a good idea.

I started doing research on knee replacement, talking to friends and family who have had it done. My younger brother had his done, which made me suspect that part of the problem was genetic, a malformation of the knees that my doctor had noticed when he looked at my xrays last fall. He said that I needed to do them both but we could either do them one at a time or at the same time. The real issue for doing two at once was aftercare. Friends here asked in astonishment "You are going to do a surgery like this in Egypt?" But the surgery itself wasn't nearly the concern that managing for the first two weeks after surgery was. We have some very good hospitals here and excellent doctors, though our nursing leaves me homesick for Canada. But on the other hand, the hospitals are set up here with the understanding that you will have a friend or family member staying with you to assist you. I decided that a lot of pain once was better than a lot of pain twice and opted for the bilateral surgery.

The surgery itself was in a relatively new hospital in Medinat Nasr with a very nicely equipped operating theatre. I was having an epidural with some interesting goofy juice to keep me out of the doctors' way. It was a long surgery, about 6 hours or so, and I recall coming to some incomplete consciousness (no pain...and I wouldn't swear about the consciousness) to be aware of the sounds of hammers, drills, and other power tools. I exited the semi-consciousness as quickly as possible as power tools should never be associated with someone's body....EVER. The first few days after surgery are best not remembered much....catheters, drains, yuck. But they were fine with the pain meds and we coped ok. The day after the surgery, I was given a walker to practice standing up and walking a bit, but it was the much anticipated removal of the tubes that provided the stimulus to get up and walk to the bathroom. Little triumphs, like washing my hair over the sink in the bathroom so that at least part of my body felt fresh, made huge differences to me. I was in the hospital for 5 days including the day of surgery and friends stayed with me in shifts for the time.

Finally I was sprung to go home to my vast relief...and the relief of my staff and friend Kelly who came here for a holiday and found herself dogsitting. The staff shut the dogs into the back garden while I arrived so that I could maneuver myself into a chair in peace, then we barricaded my knees with the walker and loosed the hounds. A walker is a terrific fence. After about 5 minutes of insanity on the part of the dog pack, they settled down to the reality that I was really back and not going anywhere soon. They'd never seen a walker before but very quickly learned to get out of the way as I was hobbling around the house. We'd made some helpful adjustments to the house, like adding a twin mattress on top of my king-sized mattress so that my bed was at an easier height for me to get in and out by myself, and getting a toilet seat extender to put on top of the toilet for the same reason. When your legs are functioning in a pretty funky manner, you really appreciate having a tall toilet and bed. Another friend had donated an old lazyboy chair to the living room and that has really been a lifesaver as I can adjust my body to stay comfortable.

The first "setback" was actually a very useful lesson for me. After I'd been home about 24 hours and the residual pain meds from the hospital had worn off, I had a really tough early morning with muscle cramps running up and down my right leg. I was in tears and called Kelly in the guesthouse. A friend of mine who is a massage therapist was staying there for my first week home, and she came over and massaged the muscles in my leg until I could relax enough to sleep again. The lesson learned was that while the orthopods can give you pretty shiny new knees to work with, it's your old muscles who are going to be doing the work, and probably not without complaint at first. While I expected pain from the surgery site, I was unprepared for the muscle cramps. Magnesium supplements, massage, and a mild anti-inflammtory took care of that issue and I was humbled before my 60 yr old muscles.

Now I have about 3 days before the staples come out of my knees and I will be given the go ahead to hobble around my garden where I should be hobbling and to begin my serious physiotherapy. The movement in the new knees is a wonder to me. After what I realise has been very long time of pain and discomfort, these new bionic knees slide so smoothly with my leg movement that I am in awe and remember the joy of free movement again. I've been resting a lot between wanders around my tiny house...my body is quite happy to tell me to remember my age and not push things too hard. Pushing things too hard is part of what got me here in the first place.

Would I do the surgery here again? In a heartbeat. My doctor did a beautiful job on the surgery and my friends have been so amazingly supportive of me, popping by with gazpacho soup, fruit cake and fresh cherries and helping with the few summer clients that come by, my staff have been there to handle all my responsibilities, and the core group of nurses (the two Mona's, Kelly and Sabine) who have been so very helpful in my post-operative care. I am amazed at the love and care that have surrounded me. I went in to fix my knees, but came out with a new appreciation for my life.

copyright 2010 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Walk Along A Mameluke Street

A couple of weeks ago a close friend of mine, Patricia Canfield, decided to take one of the walks in Cairo sponsored by ARCE (The American Research Center in Egypt). ARCE offers some amazing tours of Cairo and sites further afield for very reasonable prices. You do have register with ARCE beforehand and to show up on time for the bus as they absolutely depart at the advertised hour, but the tours are some of the best in Egypt. Pat is a freelance writer living here for some twenty odd years and when she showed me the photographs and told me about the places she'd seen, I begged her to write it up for me for my blog. These days my arthritic knees have taken me away from any ideas I have of three hour walks, although knee replacement surgery scheduled for this summer should have me back pounding the pavements, however gingerly, in the fall. Here is her story:

Al Mu’izz Li Din Allah Street

One of the highlights of tours to Cairo is the Khan El Khalili which is an intricate warren of over 1,000 shops, craftsmen and workshops and an astonishing group of Medieval and Islamic monuments which have occupied the same cramped area for well over 1,000 years.
The most spectacular group of these monuments is on Al Mu’izz Street which is part of the main thoroughfare that ran through the Medieval walled city. It is an area called Bayn El Qasrayn (Between the Two Palaces). This was the Mameluke (1250 – 1517 AD) ceremonial parade route which ran between the two palaces of the Royal complex. At that time it was said to be wide enough for 10,000 troops on horseback to pass. These palaces were built on the site of the earlier Fatimid (969 – 1171 AD) era buildings which were the heart of what was then the city of Al Qahira (Cairo).
An extraordinary group of these monuments was painstakingly restored and has recently been reopened to the public. These three adjacent complexes below were built by Mamluke Sultans who traveled extensively during military campaigns and incorporated much of what they saw into their own buildings.
The oldest complex was built by Sultan Al-Mansour Qalawun (1279 – 1290) and is a magnificent grouping of the highest examples of Islamic architecture. It included a Maristan or hospital that handled hundreds of patients each day with a highly specialized medical staff and surrounded the patients with beautiful gardens and soothing musicians. An eye hospital still exists on the site. There was a Madrasa or religious school. However, the most spectacular feature is the Mausoleum which is an absolute treasure trove of marble inlay, intricately carved gilded wood, Islamic calligraphy and stucco that looks like lacework and which houses a cenotaph with several royal burials.
The next building was constructed by Qalawun’s son, Sultan Al-Nasir Mohamed, who was one of the most prolific builders in Cairo’s history. A white marble Gothic style doorway that was brought from Syria opens into the passage which separates the Madrasa from the Mausoleum. The door to the entrance is well-aged silver and marble inlaid floors form a carpet like passage between areas. Colored stained glass windows play with light and color throughout the buildings.
The third building of this contiguous façade is the Khanqah (Sufi monastery) and Madrasa of Sultan Al-Zahir Barquq (1382 – 1399). There are exquisite examples of gilded Arabesque stalactites on the domed ceiling and bands of Koranic inscriptions stretching across the walls of marble inlay and carved Mashrabiyya wood. Colored glass mosque lamps are hung from chains in graceful groupings.
From the street, you can see the interplay of light and form in the recesses which give so much texture to the buildings and the minarets that top the structures are a study in different styles of design and calligraphy. It is a place that constantly affords you a new sight to study and a new treasure at which to marvel.

copyright 2010 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Earth Calling the University of Oregon...

Arabic Literature (In English) is a wonderful blog about what Arabic literature can be found for those of us who love it but don't read Arabic well enough to be able to read it in the original. The title here links to one of those head scratching posts about people and places whose logical processes seem to be missing a few cogs. The University of Oregon has an Arabic language department that is being moved to the Religous Studies school. Huh? I live all day in Arabic and never talk about religion at all. You can follow the connection in the blog post to the original student news report about the switch and the confusion it has engendered.

Arabic is a language spoken in many, many dialects and accents in many countries in this world. Classical Arabic is the form that is the Arabic of the Quran and the Arabic that all countries recognise as being the purest form. It is, however, not just a language of religion. The comment from the university that "Arabic is being folded into the religious studies department because the department can support Arabic students reading advanced literature and documents, most of which are Islamic in nature" totally ignores the fact that Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature and that there are many marvelous novels being written and published in Arabic all the time. To assume that "advanced texts" are religious in nature demonstrates a total lack of comprehension of the the Arab world.

Gongratulations, University of Oregon. You win this month's dolt award.

copyright 2010 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Working together?

I've recently found a very nice blog about Arabic literature in translation. This morning I read a post that exemplifies much of the discussion on the list regarding raising reading in Egypt to an acceptable activity. Reading is not high on the list of things to do to relax here. Most Egyptian students are so traumatised by the school system that they are happy never to read anything more complex than a road sign for the rest of their lives. And there is no culture of parents reading stories to their children in the evening to encourage kids to think that reading can be a pleasurable activity.

Now we have lawyers (do they read for fun?) wanting to sue to have the classic 1001 Arabian Nights and a prize winning novel Azazeel banned for being a bad influence on society and insulting Christians respectively. There is something seriously wrong with people's priorities here. A novel is, after all, just a story. No one ever has claimed one to be fact although many novelists like Salman Rushdie have fallen afoul of critics (many of whom have obviously never read the books) who don't want anything untoward to appear in print.

I would suggest seriously that since 99.9999% of the population here spend a vast amount of time watching television and much less reading that the lawyers start their crusade elsewhere. Can I nominate Sex In The City and/or Desperate Housewives or Weeds as being far more detrimental to public values and probably much more widely viewed than anything in print. Of course that would mean taking up the lances against Orbit Showtime Network which is based in the UAE I believe, that liberal country where giving your wife a peck on the cheek in public can result in police action.

Sometimes life simply is too weird.

copyright 2010 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


About five years ago my farm was a flat pepper field...enough cayenne to launch a rocket but little else. I began building with the paddocks for the horses, since they were the most important inhabitants here, and the fence to keep the dogs in away from the neighbour's chickens. As I built I tried to visualise how I could see the farm developing, and I must say that life is much more inventive than imagination.

I'd started taking clients out riding in the desert and countryside before I built, but now we have companies in Europe and North America sending us people. We even have a tourism schedule of a week on/week off but happily the companies aren't filling the time. I'd really rather they don't. Mohamed has branched out from being the driver and assistant manager here into cooking and photography, both things that he's found to his surprise he's very good at...so good at the cooking part that our clients are now begging us to write a cookbook so that they can make some of his amazing recipes at home. That sounds like a summer project.

We've provided a base for workshops for trainers, Zsuzsu Illes came to do work with riders at the farm and to teach us how to make the most of the saddles that we have with the right pads last fall and this spring Steve Edwards came to show us how to use his mule saddle on Amira and to film a training video with her. And Maggie and Nelson Mieske made their first (of hopefully many) trips from Qatar to work with our farriers here. Nelson was delighted to find them so eager for lessons and feedback, and already quite proficient despite the fact that there are no schools for farriers in the Middle East as far as we know. We'd love to remedy that, but everything must be done in increments.

One of the things that I had in mind for my farm was for it to be a place where people of any age could just come to enjoy animals and nature. We made sure that the plant life is nontoxic, that the animals are friendly and well-cared for, and over the years more and more people are coming just to enjoy that.

This spring was our second Cairo Girl Scout camp out. About 30 girls from a number of different schools in Cairo came to spend the night in tents on the garden lawn, to learn about camping skills in workshops, to play with goats and donkeys, to try riding horses, and to ride in the donkey cart. A hike through a neighbouring landscape nursery gave them a chance to appreciate the plants that we grow out here and they all had a great time around the campfire in the evening.

My plan in building my farm is for me to have a home for myself and my animals and to have a place that welcomes visitors, so that (very selfishly) I don't have to schlep myself into town all the time to see my friends. It's a lovely thing to see a project grow with its own energy in the way that you want.

copyright 2010 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Tuesday, April 06, 2010


It's the day after Shem el Nessimand we are all sitting around feeling entirely too well fed. This year the Coptic and Western Easters fell on the same day with Shem el Nessim the day after..three Easters in two days is definitely a record. Shem el Nessim is the official start to summer here and the mannequins at the malls are showing signs of summer readiness. All of this catches me a bit by surprise since we really didn't have a winter this year.

It's been a winter full of riding, mostly in tshirts with just the odd light jacket. No winter winds whistling down the dunes from the North Coast this year, although we did get a spectacular sound and light show one night when a thunderstorm brought the first hail in about 20 years to Cairo. We had a lot of internet issues after the storm, I suspect brought on by lightning strikes to the monster palm trees that are used to disguise relay towers here.

We've had our share of interesting visitors this spring. Steve Edwards who trains mules in Arizona came to visit my friend Bill the mule man here. Bill attended clinics at Steve's place and brought a saddle for our mule Amira. This saddle is so much more complicated than a horse saddle that we were all delighted to have Steve come out to show us how to use and adjust it properly. He also gave us mule-training tips and taught the staff how to make three and four strand rope out of old baling twine.

Steve and his wife Susan were filming the action here to be shown on RFD-TV in the US and to use on a cd about mule training. I rode out to the pyramids of Abu Sir on Figgy while Steve rode Amira, so now Figgy gets to join his big brother in being a film star. Next week I have some endurance friends from Michigan joining us, Maggie and Nelson Mieske, who are currently in Qatar where Maggie is teaching English at the university in Doha while Nelson works with horses there. Maggie is planning to do some riding with me as I have a mother and daughter visiting Egypt on a riding holiday here, while Nelson will be set up with some of the local farriers to help them hone their skills. Life is fun.
copyright 2010 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani