Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Don't Mess With Egyptian Women!

 I have time for a quick Christmas present from the women of Abu Sir to the rest of us before I scamper to get my Christmas lunch organised. Yesterday I was out for a ride with a friend and stopped by one of my neighbour farms just to say hello and chat briefly. He had a story that almost had me falling off my horse in laughter. The women of my area have my deep and abiding respect. They care for farms, families and homes in pretty tough conditions but never fail to have a smile, a greeting and to lend a hand to others. They are the steel of their families. While this is a very traditional part of the country and one of strong religious conviction, these women are also very accepting and friendly and have always been a source of laughter and joy for me, a very nontraditional aging Canadian. I've been hearing from many of my neighbours that they are very unhappy with the mismanagement from the Muslim Brotherhood and the meddling ways of the Salafis for some time. One neighbour told me how when buses came to shuttle protesters into Heliopolis for the demonstration at the presidential palace that turned so bloody a couple of weeks ago, quite a few of the mothers around me informed their sons that if anyone wanted to take the bus into town, they were welcome to do so but not to bother to come back.

So apparently a group of Takfir wal Higra moved into our area to help our local population behave in a more "proper" manner. They were seen walking along the roads in their short galabeyas and had taken a mosque for preaching and an office in Abu Sir for organising.  A week or so ago, eight of the men went into the main souq of Abu Sir and as they were entering noticed one woman sitting by her produce with a little bit of leg showing from her galabeya. Very rudely kicking at her leg, they told her to cover up and be decent. This was a monumental mistake. As it happened, this woman was the head woman for the souq and a member of a very populous clan in the area that number in the thousands. She and the other women in the market attacked the eight men and beat them so severely that they had to go to the hospital. When the men tried to file a report with the police about the attack, the police refused to take the report, saying that they weren't going against these women as well...were the men crazy? So now the youth of Abu Sir are using the office as a tea room and the mosque is no longer being used for their fundamentalist sermons and no one has seen the Takfir group for some time.

If anyone is wondering who to support to get rid of Islamists in Egypt, here is your answer. The women of Egypt are some of the strongest women I've ever seen.

copyright 2012 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Shaken Not Stirred

 What's it like living in a country that is still in the middle of a revolution? It's actually a lot like living in a lot of countries these days, just a bit more dramatic. Almost everywhere I look I see change occurring at a phenomenal rate, partly brought along by the changes in communication that this blog exemplifies. When I began blogging in 2003, people were much more reliant on the main stream media for information about events whether at home or abroad. In the almost ten years since then, events have taken on an immediacy never anticipated through media such as Twitter, Facebook and Storify. Where once I felt I was happy to be able to go online to read commentary on events from a wide-ranging collection of news sources via the internet, now I go online and check the comment on Twitter from their correspondents in our ever-boiling part of the world to see what happened overnight before it even appears in the media.  One of the results of this increase in media availability has been an increased sense in the instability of our world. I'm not sure how more unstable it is, but I am sure that we are more aware of it. I also am very aware of the fact that I am one small cog in this huge global information machine.

When the Egyptian revolution started in January 2011, my children in the US contacted me to see if I wanted to go visit them for the duration...but they weren't terribly surprised to hear that it wasn't in my plans. I chose the location of my farm with care, knowing my neighbours and the social structure into which I wanted to fit. It is probably as safe for an older woman who lives alone with an unholy amount of dogs as anywhere can be. Once they'd assured themselves that I was still the stubborn old lady that they knew and loved, they did lay down some ground rules. With the outcome of the revolution very much in the air, I was NOT to post anything at all on my blogs. The few times I did, I was the recipient of immediate angry feedback from my offspring. But it's really hard for someone who naturally resorts to writing not to write, especially when the country around her is almost literally boiling. So we came to a compromise. I was allowed to post other people's articles about events in Egypt on my Facebook page which became a defacto news service. Writing by proxy saved my sanity. I've tried to keep a fairly balanced viewpoint about events, although clearly my feelings could not be denied. Over the past couple of years, my Facebook page has become less a personal account of my activities and more a forum for my friends all over the world to read news, blogs, and snippets from Twitter and to comment on or argue over them among themselves. I've likened it to the old fashioned literary salons of the 19th century at times. I love watching the discussions although often I don't take part in them if a couple of people are really into a topic. When life gets REALLY interesting in our neighbourhood, like it is now, I find that I really have to make the time to sit and write my own words because there is so much out there that others are saying.  So far worries about retribution for what ideas we are putting out on the internet are relatively small, since to worry about a little old lady on a farm in Giza who never shows up on TV or at a protest would appear to be a waste of time when half of Egypt is online complaining about one thing or another.

So, what is Egypt like in the middle of a revolution? Because that is where we are, in the middle, in a process that no one knows the ending of. I think everyone in Egypt has been anxious in the past few weeks with many people going down to Tahrir and gathering in other squares in other cities to protest the actions of our fairly recently elected president and with the knowledge that the Muslim Brotherhood and the supporters of said president were planning to have their own protest in support of the president. One of the main, not always unspoken, fears was that somehow the two groups would simply explode if put in contact, like a match to a stick of dynamite. A while back the Ikhwan bussed in supporters from outside of Cairo to come to Cairo University to support Morsi as he prepared to announce the acceptance of a draft constitution for a public referendum. The fact that the committee drafting the constitution did not contain any constitutional experts in any general sense was extremely worrying to many people. After all, a constitution of a nation isn't exactly a set of rules for a children's backyard club. It is supposed to protect the rights of all the members of the nation and with limited representation by minority groups and women, there has been an enormous amount of concern with what the output would be. On Thursday an Arabic version of the draft was released, which has been the topic of enormous amounts of discussion. I've printed up copies of it for my staff to read and think about. An English translation of it was published by Egypt Independent which I have been reading as well. Late in the evening yesterday, Morsi announced that this would be either approved or disapproved in a referendum on December 15, giving voters only two weeks to consider the issues.  I'm not sure that more time would necessarily lead to more clarity of thought on the subject, but it's fairly sure that only having two weeks to find, read, and discuss the draft does make it harder for people to object to it. Most referendums in Egypt have ended in a "yes" vote out of inertia. And in the end, this referendum was no different.

Does this signal the end of the process? By no means, and not the least of the reasons is Morsi himself. He's put people who even many Muslims and revolutionary types can't approve of on the Shura Council (the upper house of parliament) like generals and members of the Islamic Jihad. There is such a thing as appropriate, really Dr. Morsi. Virtually everything he has done, while he may have words to say that it has been expedient or for the good of the country, simply screams authoritarian Islam. And this is wildly offensive to Egyptians of all varieties who were thrilled to get rid of Mubarak. We are nowhere near the end of the tunnel and no one is sure what those dancing lights are. They could be Salafi cigarettes (soon to be taxed at much higher rates!), the steam engine of economic collapse, fireflies, fairies, or, heaven forbid, the end of the tunnel. My personal bet at this time is not the last, but the fairies or fireflies sound good to me.

So am I packing up for what might be the stability of the US or Canada? Not at all. First, I'm not all that sure of the stability of either state, to be honest. Both are awash in political and religious conservatism themselves, albeit both Canada and the US are so much larger than Egypt physically that the effect is diluted, and both are facing serious domestic political issues. Gun control in the US is vital, although many people are extremely vocal against it. My personal cynical view of the gun issue is that given the US is the world's largest manufacturer and seller of weapons and ammunition, the gun enthusiasm has been created in the same way that other consumer appetites have been and that no one is going to try to control the selling of guns for fear of damaging an important part of the economy, just like all the calls for cutting back on the "aid" for Egypt is going to lead to nothing because that "aid" is actually a government subsidy for the arms industry in the US and the money goes directly to the companies producing weapons and ammunition and to those servicing such weapons. What happens to them later is irrelevant to the US government or those industries, but the sooner they are used or blown up the better because that simply creates a new demand.

Canada, aside from the environmentally wasteful behaviour of the current government, is facing a deeper and perhaps more dangerous domestic issue that could easily splash over the border to the south. Both countries were created by wave after wave of immigrants primarily from Europe over the past three hundred years or so...a brief second compared to the history of Egypt. These immigrants, having now the positions of power in a land that they essentially invaded and confiscated (no wonder that both their governments are fairly staunch supporters of Israel, the most modern European colonial power) are crying now about how new waves of immigration are threatening their life style. Oddly enough, the indigenous peoples of North America, who for the most part live in poverty and on marginal properties to which they were pushed by the immigrants of their times, are getting rather fed up. A movement that started in Canada with a tribal chief Therese Spence, who is on a hunger strike for assistance for her people, Idle No More, is gaining support from other indigenous people's groups worldwide. At some point, the urge for justice that seems so keen in many semi-European countries in the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Africa is going to have to thrust itself inwards to examine the morality of how those countries came to be in the first place. This is going to be intensely painful for many people. On the other hand, they could try to ignore it like they have in the past, but with the character of communication in our societies these days, that simply isn't so easy.

All things considered, I'll stick with my Egyptian revolution which for the most part is relatively straightforward even if we haven't the foggiest where the path is taking us tomorrow. I see shudders of change running through countries all over the globe and I don't think that anywhere is going to be immune. All the patterns I see forming are indicating that with information becoming so much more readily available and so much more easily placed in the public eye, many profound changes in human society will be seen in the relatively near future. My analysis is, of course, done very much by eyeballing events and getting a vague sense of movement. There is nothing scientific about it and I'm sure that some of the things I suspect will happen will not come to pass, but of this I am sure: Change is inevitable and will be faster than expected. It will likely make many people unhappy.

copyright 2012 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Little Red Hen Moves To Egypt

 I have about ten people working for me on my farm, helping to care for the animals, working in the gardens and basically providing a lot of support for me. They've all worked for me for some time...like before the revolution.  After the revolution our busy schedules of school visits, equestrian tourism and so on pretty much died. A lot of stables around me unloaded their horse and cut staff right away, but I couldn't do that to families that I was supporting or to the  horses that I'd rescued. So we tightened belts and looked for ways to economise. One way was to turn the land between the horse paddocks and the garden into vegetable gardens for the use of all the staff and their families. The deal is that everyone chips in on the work and everyone benefits. So the other day after lunch I took a look at the beds and announced to the grooms and gardeners that everyone needed to put in some weeding time. Not all of them were thrilled so I told them a story, one I'd heard as a child,  The Little Red Hen.

My Arabic is functional, not perfect by any means, so the story was somewhat simplified for them. For anyone who doesn't know this story, it is a staple for North American children in their pre-school years. Briefly, a red hen is walking around one day when she finds some wheat on the road. She gathers up the grain and decides to use it to grow more wheat so that she can bake some bread. At various points in the process (planting, weeding, watering, harvesting, milling, and baking) she asks various animal friends (cow, donkey, duck, dog, cat, rooster) to assist her, but each one has a sort of excuse as to why they can't help her....until, of course, the bread was baked and everyone wanted some, but the little red hen tells them that since they were too busy to help, they must be too busy to eat.

The guys all listened politely to the end and then at the end, one of them began to laugh and said, "See? She fooled them!" Another slightly more socially adept groom suggested that it was something else. I laughed and said that yes, if they wanted to eat the bread (or in our case, the vegetables) they needed to be there for the work and announced that I was the red hen. All very simple, you'd think, but the young man who took the story as the hen taking advantage of and then laughing at her neighbours then spent hours trying to figure out who among them was the donkey, the cat, the duck and so on.

Sometimes stories don't travel all that well.

copyright 2012 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Mogamma Game in 2012

I went downtown today. I went to the Ministry of Justice on Lazoughly Square to get a paper stamped for a friend. There I was told that I had to take the paper to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. When I pointed out that I'd been sent to the Ministry of Justice by the people at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they told me that I had to go to the BIG Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the one on the Corniche next to Maspero. Terrific.

Mohamed drove me over there as we passed through the area of downtown Cairo that has been "in flames", "melting down" and "filled with rioters". Other than the usual Cairo traffic, the trip took no time at all as there were no road blocks, no protesters, no fire bombs, not even very many police. It only took half an hour to find the door. Egypt's foggy bottom tends to be really foggy even in broad daylight and just happens to be across the road from what has to be the world's largest used clothing market. 

I found my way in and told them that the people at the Ahmed Orabi Department of Foreign Affairs had sent me to the Department of Justice who had sent me to this Department of Foreign Affairs. "Why?" they asked. "I haven't the slightest idea, but I need this paper stamped." I replied. They looked at the paper and told me that it was dated 1988 and was a marriage contract. I agreed and pointed out that it was stamped by the Consulate in New York. They told me that it should have been stamped by Foreign Affairs and/or the Justice Department over twenty years ago. I pointed out that as the groom on the paper had been dead for about a year and the bride was living in the US, there wasn't much they could do about that, but I was trying to get the inheritance papers sorted out for my friend and that if they woulf be so kind as to  help me, I would really appreciate it. A small whispered consultation took place and I was suddenly given a numbered tag and marched over to a tent where apparently the one man in all of Egypt who could sign this paper and stamp it for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in lieu of the Department of Justice was working. This very kind and polite elderly gentleman did so and then directed me to a third Department of Foreign Affairs.

According to the guys at the big Department of Foreign Affairs, this third office was “just behind the Semiramis Hotel near the US embassy”. Wonderful. This was exactly where I had promised my two currently long-distance kids not to go after the excitement of the past few days. Back into the car, a trip through the madness that is Cairo’s roadways near the Ramses Hilton (a place that I absolutely refuse to drive myself) and we found our way to the back of the Semiramis Hotel. Mohamed had to drop me and leave because there were no parking places and no way the police around there were going to allow him to wait around. Once I asked for the building with this office, I was pointed to a spot about two or three blocks south. “Behind” is a very relative term in Egypt. If you are in our foggy bottom looking south, then the other Foreign Affairs IS behind the Semiramis, but it is also behind the Shepheard’s Hotel and behind a couple of other buildings as well. To my untutored mind, I naturally assumed that “behind” required “in front of” being facing the Nile, but obviously to them it meant “in front of” being facing them. Interesting world view.

As I made my way to the hopefully last office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the shortest route was blocked by a four meter wall of enormous concrete blocks recently placed across the road to block protesters from the US embassy, so I had to walk around the Shepheard’s to the Corniche along the Nile, turn left away from the Nile and then zigzag around roads blocked with razor wire and very bored Central Security Forces. A couple of friendly secret police not so secretly gave me directions to the entrance of the ministry, which was guarded by even more bored CSF personnel. The brass plate told me that the office was on the fifth floor but someone obligingly pointed out that it was actually on the first. Naturally. This is an odd office that seems to work only with embassies, which would explain why it was practically next door to the US and British embassies, among others. Again I had to go through the entire sequence of events, was told quite brusquely by a very nasty little man to go sit down outside and dismissed. This wasn’t looking good, especially when the same nasty little man came out and shouted at a couple of the people who were waiting outside for whatever they were waiting for….but, miracle of miracles, after twenty minutes I finally received my properly stamped paper so that the lawyer can work on the statement of heirs for my friends.

Years ago, people used to joke about the Mogamma Game, a sort of sadistic snakes and ladders that would be experienced by people trying to do paperwork in the Mogamma, things like visa renewals. At the time, I had a very conscientious husband who made sure that the most I ever had to do was to show up at the appropriate time and sign something. Since his death I’ve learned how to do things the hard way, like everyone else in Egypt, and luckily most of the time I can keep a sense of humour about it. So I wandered all over melted down Cairo today and except for the fact that a lot of pavement was being held down by snoozy CSF personnel and I had to walk over four blocks out of my way because of yet another unnecessary wall (wish I had the commission on that franchise with all the walls built over the past year). But the good news is that Cairo is alive and the system of bureaucratic torture is very well indeed.

copyright 2012 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Motoring...Circumnavigation of The Aviary

 Learning to walk is an interesting process. The Kid has figured out how to stand up and move around the house and garden while holding on to something. He's delighted to stagger around holding on someone's hand, but hands are not always free to hold small people. They are sometimes busy cleaning houses, preparing meals, or even writing for the net.  I'm sure that there are all sorts of fancy high tech toys and things available in Toys 'R Us, but here in the villages most of the toys are homemade. While I was in the US, someone brought an odd wooden sort of tricycle thing to the farm. There is a handle over the two wheels and a third wheel that sticks out in front. I wasn't sure how it worked until recently when The Kid's motor abilities had improved to the extent that he could begin to use it properly. He learned to haul himself up to hold the handle and propel his little machine around the patio. On concrete, it can go pretty fast, but in the garden it slows down.

 The grass provides a fair bit of resistance to the wheels which makes using the vehicle (I honestly don't know what to call it) somewhat safer. There are certain problems at this stage, however, steering being the most important one. The Kid hasn't figured out yet how to adjust his direction. Once he's aimed in a direction, he simply continues in a straight line until he comes to a stop and he did when he wedged himself between a palm garden chair and a flower bed. Somehow he had to move the direction to his left and this was a bit too difficult. Right after I took the photo, he asked for help by holding out his hand and guiding my hand to the handle of the push vehicle.
Once we sorted out the steering issue, he continued on his merry way accompanied by one of his faithful companion, Rocky. He ran into a new problem here...sand. Sand provides even more resistance and his tiny legs were really working hard to get the wooden wheels of the vehicle through the fairly deep sand.
 But sand doesn't just cause resistance. It is also unevenly resistant and makes a wooden tricycle tip over...albeit very slowly. Rocky watched as The Kid gradually tipped over on his side.
But a tricycle on its side is still a fascinating piece of equipment. The small wheels under the handle spin wonderfully when stroked by a small hand. The hole where it is attached by a nail is just slightly larger than the nail to provide the right amount of spin
Tipped back on the handle,  the single wheel that is usually in front can be spun as well, providing a few minutes of intriguing play under Mindy's watchful eye.
But spinning one's wheels gets  pretty old pretty fast and it's time again to tip the vehicle over onto the wheels and continue circumnavigating the aviary. The new obstacle was a recently planted area of lawn that is still in clumps as it spreads in front of the aviary. This was a tiring portion of the exploration. The wheels would catch on a clump of grass and then sink into the neighbouring patch of sand.
 Having struggled through the newly planted sod, The Kid found himself on some nice smooth grass and headed for the patio in front of the house. Notice his guardian still standing watch. I had to help keep him from knocking over my flower pots full of seedlings.
The patio was a piece of cake and I could hear his chuckles as he motored for the front door. Our ranking baladi dog, Ganja, oversaw this portion of his trip.

He managed to wake up Groucho, one of the older terriers as he blew through the living room on a clear vector for the door to the summer garden near where we'd started this journey...but this portion of his trip was fraught with danger. Immediately in front of him were three steps and going down them could be quite painful. I  pointed out the advisability of using the ramp just to the right of the stairs that had been installed for some of our creakier elderly dogs and people.

I couldn't take a picture of him going down the ramp because I was too busy holding the vehicle back to a toddler speed as he descended followed by Demon, another terrier.
 Back in the garden it was deep sand again to head back to the front patio and the nice flat patio. This portion of his trip took the longest and it was a very tired little boy who pushed his wooden tricycle up to the front of the house and asked to be picked up. He laid his head on my shoulder and just rested waiting for his mother to finish dressing to take him home. Someone is definitely sleeping well tonight.

copyright 2012 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Recognising Catastrophe

These days the news from Egypt is pretty depressing for just about everyone. Voters are expected to choose soon between two candidates who are not the first choices of most of the voters, and who are fairly diametrically opposed. There is Dr. Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood who terrifies all the voters who worry about Egypt turning into another Iran, while opposing him is Hosny Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, who claims that everything will be different if he is elected president, but most people sort of doubt that. Faced with two miserable choices, everyone is seeing disaster everywhere they look.

Some of us make a habit of seeing disaster in everything and I'm one of those people, oddly enough. "Catastrophizing" is a psychological term for the act of seeing the worst case scenario in every situation, and when I was a grad student it was something that I would be reprimanded for by my clinician friends as being maladaptive. I had no idea it had a name because it was just how I dealt with things.  I've catastrophized all my life. As a child I would lie awake at night and wonder how I would manage if I were to wake up in the morning and not find my parents there to care for me. Whenever I attempted something new, applying to university for example, I would spend hours imagining that I would not be accepted and think of what it would mean to my life, how would I manage to make a living, and so on. Of course, I did get accepted, but life was always coming up with new challenges to give me something to worry about.

It was when I was in grad school that one of my friends called me on my habit, gave it a name, and told me that it was a really bad thing to do. To be quite honest, I wasn't really convinced. I'd been looking at worst case scenarios all my life and a habit like that is hard to change. But when I looked up the pattern, I noticed that catastrophizing was something that was supposed to lead to a sense of inability, worthlessness and so on. But in my experience my assumption of catastrophe in every situation had led me to explore all the possibilities of what could go wrong and as many of the possible solutions as I might be able to imagine. Rather than paralyzing me, it pushed me to explore the possible futures that I might face and to try to figure out how I would deal with them.

When I was only about twelve I read about the epidemics that swept through Europe decimating the population in the Middle Ages. I became fascinated with the Black Death, probably to a certain level of concern from my parents. But I learned about the causes, the cures, the effects on the political systems and economies of Europe along the way. When we decided to move to Egypt, I took an entire series of first aid and CPR courses from St. John's Ambulance in Toronto and threw myself (quite literally) into a Bronze level lifesaving course at the neighbourhood pool. I had an idea from my travels here about the general level of first aid in Egypt in the late 80's (like nonexistent) and was going to be prepared for the worst case scenario, which in this case was needing this knowledge. And I did need it. A month after we moved here, with my training I was able to recognise and deal with my husband's  heart attack. We got him to a cardiologist and into ICU immediately, postponing my widowhood by a good twelve years. I don't want to think about all the times that the first aid training came in handy: broken arms, choking victims, a visiting child who had a crowbar fall on his head from a neighbouring construction site...you name it, it happened at our house. People used to joke that the catastrophes happened around me because I knew how to deal with them and how to get people the care that they needed to survive them.

As I've grown older, my catastrophizing has become a good and faithful friend. When the bird flu broke out and began spreading, I was worried for my African Grey parrots so I learned all I could about the vectors, the signs, the problems...and I learned that parrots don't get it. By examining the catastrophe I realised that it wasn't really a catastrophe, no matter what the press said. I did have to slaughter my chickens when bird flu broke out at a chicken farm near me, but no people got sick at all and we were well provided with chicken soup for some time. Some research on swine flu also reassured me that I was highly unlikely to perish from that as well. When life turned interesting in Egypt during January 2011, I assured my children that I would be fine where I was, and although events were at times very frightening, albeit more for the people in the center of the city than for us out in the villages, I had no intention of evacuating. Instead I threw myself into finding out as much as possible about what was going on, what possible risks might be, what possible outcomes might be...in other words, what were the worst possible scenarios.

I've continued my preoccupation with trying to prepare for catastrophe for the past year and a half. I have no input into what might happen in Egypt. Due to a wonderfully weird bureaucratic glitch, I don't have my Egyptian citizenship despite having been married to an Egyptian, being mother to two Egyptians, and having lived here for almost 25 years, and I can't even vote. It's pretty frustrating although the thought of having to choose between two totally unwanted alternatives is not terribly appetising.  I wish I could really say that I've gained some understanding of what is happening in Egypt right now, of what we can expect, but I can't. I'm watching bemused like everyone else, wondering how on earth we got here. I have my own ideas of what would be the greater catastrophe for Egypt: Morsi for president or Shafik...but even that has variables that I can't predict. I don't know how invested the military is in seeing that Shafik win the election, what they will do to ensure that, how they would respond if Morsi won, or what the reaction would be if Shafik wins and people feel that the elections are a total sham.

There are times when imagining the worst case scenarios just can't really do justice to reality.  Do I feel incapacitated, frozen, unable to make decisions or act? Not really. I am frustrated, worried, and do feel that way too much is hanging in the balance. Am I about to take off and leave? No. None of my worst case scenarios include my leaving Egypt. I love my farm, my neighbours, my animals and my life here. I'd say that my absolute worst case scenario involves me not being able to move around Egypt freely and being stuck out here...and as far as I'm concerned that isn't a bad scenario at all.

As I was thinking about all of this, quite serendipitously one of my children's friends posted a link to an excellent New Yorker article on the internet. Entitled Failure And Rescue, this article suggests that life is unpredictable, but that how we face our catastrophes determines how much we succeed.  He uses the story of surgery that almost went terribly wrong but ended up in success because people were aware of the possibilities of problems, recognised the signs and were able to deal with them. Sometimes catastrophizing is an adaptive trait.

copyright 2012 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Monday, May 14, 2012

Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200, But Do Watch This Video

There is a video that I think everyone who has an interest in the Egyptian political scene in either the short run or in the long run should spend an hour and a half to watch. Mahmoud Salem, a blogger also known as Sandmonkey (see his blog at http://www.sandmonkey.org), spoke at the Washington Institute for Middle Eastern Affairs a few days ago. Aside from being an extremely astute and acute observer of our political scene, Mahmoud is a highly entertaining speaker. His description of Am Moussa as "that sandwich that you find in your fridge at 3:30 AM when you are hungry but you can't remember where it came from or what it's made from; but you eat it anyway" is priceless. This is one young man who, in my opinion, is a national treasure and should be watched closely. Please click on the link to see the YouTube video. It's worth every minute. copyright 2012 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Importance of "No"

The word "No" carries a lot of interesting baggage in Egyptian life. One of the things that I often tell newcomers to Egypt is to remember that in a strange way telling someone "no" or giving unpleasant information is almost considered rude. There are millions of apophrycal tales of asking directions in Egypt that detail how the askers ended up traveling many miles in strange places at the direction of well-meaning people who simply don't want to disappoint the askers by telling them that they have no idea how to get somewhere. We have a custom that I call the Egyptian No, wherein someone simply never quite gives an answer to a request rather than to deny it. An Egyptian No can stretch out for weeks if the person making the request doesn't catch on, but it is a lovely way to avoid a confrontation by simply saying something can't be done. The fascinating corollary of this reluctance to say no is the tendency of most Egyptian males in positions of authority to answer any request or suggestion in the negative the first time that the request or suggestion might be made. One of the pieces of advice given to me by Egyptian women friends was to expect this behaviour from my husband, and to be patient in my maneuvers. Initially, he would tell me that virtually anything would be impossible to do, so I should wait and approach the idea again after a while at which point he would have had time to think about it and would be more likely to be positive in his response. No, it would appear, is the perogative of power in Egypt. After all, in my experience, it has been the first response of any government official. As my late husband used to say, "Egypt is a country where everything is prohibited, and anything is possible." My consideration of "no" in Egypt was partly stimulated by my mother in law's attitude towards childrearing, which was very much at odds with my own, especially during my children's early years when we were often staying with my in laws in Cairo. I was of the opinion that it was never too early to start laying down boundaries and instilling cooperation and obedience in my children with the ideal that as they grew up they would be able to make their decisions independently. This was not the way that most children in Egypt were raised some 25 years ago, and very much the same is true today. First, there is little conversation with children in Egyptian families. I've had supposedly very well educated doctors assure me that there was no point in talking to children because they couldn't understand anything said to them until they were about four years old. As far as I was concerned (as someone who had done graduate work in social and developmental psychology) a four year old child is starting to solidify and is no longer as teachable as an infant. Additionally, by not encouraging speech and conversation, the children are getting a bad start in communication, speech, and literacy...things that will be enormously important later in life. And specifically, children are not told "No, you can't play with the remote control.", "No, you may not have cookies before dinner." or "No, this is an unacceptable type of behaviour.". Instead they are responded to with a noise, a toy, or some other means of distraction...and certainly not with an explanation of why they can't do something or why it might be a bad idea. This provides little basis for later occasions when decisions as to do or not do something might be necessary. What are the fallouts from this kind of upbringing? First, it becomes clear that "No" is the tool of someone in power and when mothers don't use "No" they are obviously not the people in power. This cuts away at the issues of respect for women in general. Another aspect of this upbringing is the fact that chldren never learn that "No" can be a final answer. Friends of mine who are teachers in private schools tell me that both parents and students are almost completely incapable comprehending that "No" actually means something simply isn't going to happen. For them, "No" is a response that may change over time, that can be negotiated, while in real life it may really mean "this simply isn't possible; now think of another solution." Sometimes, the only way to deal with a final "No" is to say that the decider will think about it and let them know later, although both parties know that the answer won't change. Time spent having a year old toddler in my home these days have brought theses issues back to the fore lately. I began telling The Child "No" when he first discovered that it was interesting to pound his tiny hand on the glass doors to my cabinets at about 6 or 7 months of age. He was quite shocked at first, but I generally only have to repeat my "No" once or twice and he gets the idea. These days, like most boys, he is utterly fascinated by anything with buttons such as phones and remotes, but these are off limits to little boys. At first, he would cry when told "No", but my complete disconcern with his distress at being denied an immediate pleasure would quickly make it clear that tactic wasn't going to work. Even his mother finds it rather pleasant to deal with an infant she can talk to. To be totally fair, not hearing the word "No" enough is not strictly an Egyptian trait anymore. I've seen "No"less children from many cultures, societies, and social classes. I'm probably a hopeless curmudgeon but I think that they are all much poorer for the lack. copyright 2012 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Monday, April 30, 2012

Exploring The Nile in The Garden

I'm no longer young by any means, although I am very active, especially on horseback. My own children are in their late twenties and early thirties now. No grandchildren so far, and perhaps there never will be. I was one of those odd people who really, truly wanted to have children. There were other things that I wanted to do, of course, but many of them were compatible with being a mom. Not everyone feels that way, has a really deep desire to be a mother, and probably it should be a requirement for being a mother, because it is, without any doubt at all, the most difficult of the many jobs I've done in my life so far. But for me, it was, also without any doubt at all, the most rewarding. 
My housekeeper never really had a choice about having children, and she has about seven of them to my two. She's barely the age I was when I had my daughter twenty eight years ago and her oldest son is in his twenties. She must have barely been slightly more than a child when he was born. Her youngest is barely a year old now and has been coming to work with her since he was two weeks old.  He's now crawling and walking with the help of chairs, walls, and tables. Luckily, he takes a nice nap every afternoon that lets Magda get some work done, but when he's up we all take turns keeping an eye on him. And these days it does take some watching to keep up with him.
 Today the gardeners were pumping water from our well to water the garden while we were sitting out in the afternoon sun. One of the larger dogs decided to stand majestically on the grass between the crawling one and me, and when he moved, the crawling one was nowhere to be seen. I immediately rose from my chair to search for him and found him happily sitting in a running stream of water. Since he was already wet and muddy, I decided that the best thing to do under the circumstances was probably just to get my camera.
 This young man is a complete treat to watch these days. He's fascinated by just about everything. The running water entranced him and he practiced putting his hand in and out of it, running his fingers through the sand/mud. He found an old piece of bamboo and twisted it around until it broke off in a manageable length.  

Then an odd sound caught his attention and I followed his gaze upwards to some wind chimes hanging from the aviary. The wind was causing the bamboo tubes to chime gently. It isn't a sound that one would expect to hear in an Egyptian village.

The musical accompaniment identified, he now turned his attention to the excavation of his stream bed for a while, but our diesel pump had been turned off and it seemed time to do more exploration down stream since the water level upstream was dropping.

When my own children were this age, I was so caught up in trying to care for a husband and my home and my sanity that just enjoying time spent watching them exploring their world was pretty much out of the question.  In a sense, Magda's son gives me the pleasures of a grandchild without the responsibilities. His mother is finding joy in a baby who is happy, well-fed, and is developing a real intelligence with the advantage of supervised play and a safe place to explore. I remember examining stones and flowers when I was young enough to find them enormous. Watching an new person discovering the same sorts of things reminds me now in my older years of the wonder of the young.

copyright 2012 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Looking For Perspective

When I moved to Egypt, in many ways it seemed to be country frozen in time. That changed irrevocably in January 2011, and since then I've seen friends complaining that they feel they've aged about 10 years in a few months. It is really hard to keep track of where Egypt seems to be going and how it's going to get there. I read the news from a million sources religiously and find that most of the mainstream media get a pretty limited view. News seems to come from statements from people and institutions which can tell you what they want you to know, but not necessarily what it means or feels like. So I troll through half a million tweets from activists and journalists looking for somewhat more obscure but well-written articles and blog posts that can fill in the gaps. Twitter is very useful in this respect as it's very interesting to listen in on discussions between journalists covering the same region (most of mine are, quite naturally, based in the Middle East) as they debate the relevance of news items.

We are sliding into our presidential elections at this point. The turnout for the People's Assembly vote was an amazing 70% and the interpretations of the results went on for weeks. Most of the new members of the Assembly were from either the Muslim Brotherhood or from the Salafis, with a reasonable number from the liberal coalition and some other smaller parties. Most people were concerned that this would signal more emphasis on sharia law and conservative tradition...was Egypt going the way of Saudi Arabia? When my staff, grooms and gardeners who all live in the villages near me, told me that they were going to be voting for these three parties, I was surprised to hear that the liberal coalition was in the list. None of them struck me as the Salafi type, although the Brotherhood was no surprise so I asked what the logic there was and the reply surprised me. They weren't voting for religion. They simply wanted to be sure not to vote for any remnants of the old regime and felt that these three parties were the safest. This was borne out by a discussion of the election results that noted that the percentage of candidates elected who could be traced back to the previous regime was tiny, perhaps 3%. So perhaps what Egyptians were voting for was change more than religion...but then again, perhaps it wasn't. I guess we will find out.

As I've found that most of the news coverage of Egypt has concentrated on only a few aspects of life here, I've been keeping my eye out for broader coverage and would like to recommend a few blogs that will help with this. Zeinobia at Egyptian Chronicles writes political posts for the most part with a very personal perspective. Her latest post looked at the football ultras protest that preceded the announcement of the charging of over 70 people in connection with the tragedy at the Port Said football match. The implication is that the protest pushed the army to lay the charges, but given the number of police and security personnel who have been acquitted by the courts and the willingness of the "government" to release people in prison who are willing to pay a portion of their ill-gotten gains, the likelihood of conviction is small. Zeinobia also is blogging about a trip she's taking to upper Egypt and posting videos.

Mahmoud Salem, aka Sandmonkey, has been blogging since 2006 and is one of my favourite bloggers on the Egyptian political scene. He started blogging anonymously due to family connections to the Mubarak regime's party, the NDP, but came out with his own name after January 2011. His posts are some of the best thought out commentary on Egyptian events available. He ran for the People's Assembly but unfortunately didn't make it...hopefully for us he might manage next time, though it might be unfortunate for him.

Maurice Chammah, who writes Adrift On The Nile, is from the US and studying journalism in Egypt on a Fullbright. His perspective on Egypt is different and his posts are as well. A recent one looked at the very local music scene in Port Said. With his slightly foreign perspective (yes, we do notice things that locals take for granted, just as they see nuance that we often miss), his blog fills out part of  a complete picture.

Baheyya, an anonymous blogger, has been at work almost as long as I have, since 2005, and I've enjoyed many of her posts enormously. The blog was very quiet for a while, but lately has become more active with a very interesting post on the youngest presidential candidate. The age factor of Egyptian politics and power cannot be underestimated, and I've heard people say that the changes we are going through are as much a matter of generations as ideologies.

The Arabist, which is largely written by Amrani Issandr, a journalist, is a different sort of blog. As a journalist, he works with news stories, presenting Arabic stories in translation to show what is going on in the Arabic press, and often posting the work of other journalists in this area. He doesn't simply look at Egypt but also at the rest of the Middle East.

Global Voices collects blog posts from all over the world and offers them in translation and also often in the native language. They have websites in over a dozen languages and the editors and aggregators are skilled at picking out important posts from the different countries. They should be a frequent stop when anyone is trying to make sense out of the news.

Ahmed Awadalla, who writes Rebel With A Cause, looks at a lot of different issues, most recently the needs of rural women. Even urban Egyptians have little knowledge about life in the villages and they tend to imagine all sorts of odd things.

Lest I totally overwhelm people with a reading list that no one could handle, I will add just one more view point today. Sarah Carr is a mudblood as the post-Potter people call our half Egyptian half Something-Else population. Being the mother of a couple of these and friend to many, many more, I have a special affinity to the interesting, often humorous and sometimes slightly skewed point of view of our less pure Egyptian population. Her posts at Inanities are often extremely funny and always worth a read. If you find her byline on a piece of journalism as well, and you will quite often, it is a cue that this definitely should be read.

When I began blogging about Egypt in 2003, nine years ago now, there really wasn't much out there on the internet to counteract some pretty shoddy reporting in the main stream media. Thankfully, that is no longer the case and Egypt is emerging in the minds of people abroad with a much more rounded personality. We aren't sure where the road we are on is leading us, but we know it won't be backwards to the past. One way or another we move forward to a new definition of one of the world's oldest countries.

copyright 2012 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Day of Long Marches

A thoughtful protester waves a flag exemplifying the hope and worries of us all
I had a lot of reasons to move to Egypt and a lot of reasons to stay here after my husband died. One quite significant reason was the sunshine. I'm one of those solar powered people who do infinitely better when there is bright sunlight, a commodity that is rarely in short supply here. It is mirrored in the smiles of the people of Egypt and just seeps into your soul. But in the days leading up to January 25, sunlight of almost any sort was in short supply. Rainclouds were blowing in from the north coast and temperatures (balmy by Canadian standards)were dipping into fleece jacket levels and people were huddling around space heaters shivering. The internal temperatures were not much better.

Everyone I knew was wondering what lay ahead for Egypt. The parliament was being sworn in, a mass of bearded Islamic mn who were not really reassuring most of my very secular friends. I felt a bit more comfortable having had conversations with my staff out here in the villages about the voting. When I asked them what they were looking for in voting, they told me they would vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists, and the liberal coalition....what an unlikely menu! My staff are not exactly a bunch of religious fanatics and the addition of the Kotla, the liberal coalition, seemed really intriguing so I asked for the rationale. Oh, it had nothing to do with religion, they told me, but was all about finding people to sit in parliament who were definitely NOT part of the old power machine. But did they worry about strange strict policies that could affect tourism...the base of the living that they make with me. Oh no, they reassured me, and if the new parliament didn't do right by Egypt, now they knew they could get rid of them and find people who would. I suspect that this logic had a lot to do with the election results, but many people who worry about the Islamic State of Egypt are still very concerned.

An Islamic protester who had been chanting against the military

The military did an excellent job of telling everyone that on January 25 the "thugs" (aka, protesters) would run riot throughout Egypt (well, mostly Cairo but as far as they are concerned that is Egypt) so on the 24th there were lines in banks, people stocking up on food supplies, worries about ATM's not functioning...general panic mode in many neighbourhoods. I'd arranged things so that I had no pressing engagements, and I'd promised the offspring as usual to stay at the farm like a good mom. My knees aren't so good for a lot of walking and, should anything get weird, my staff and animals really need me here. The 18 days last year were a round of neighbours helping each other out with animal feed while trucks weren't coming through, loaning money for groceries, and so on. Farms simply don't work without farmers.

I wasn't expecting the Appocalypse but I told Mohamed Said to stay home with his family in Dar el Salam so that he wouldn't be worried all day. Wednesday came with sunshine and cool breezes. Beautiful. Facebook was full of information about the plans for the day. Probably there had been a lot out in Arabic, but much to my sadness, I'm still illiterate in Arabic so I had to wait for English posts. The list of marches setting out to Tahrir was impressive. It was a holiday but it was a Wednesday, and everyone was somewhat anxious. There had been rumours on Twitter of air shows and gift coupons from the military, things that many felt cheapened and subverted the nature of the day. The first day of protests last year had been against police brutality, something that everyone had seen plenty of for the past year. While many Egyptians seem to feel that progress has been made towards a democratic state, many others wonder if any progress at all has been made and if it is going to be made. I set myself up with Twitter to follow my friends who were marching throughout Egypt and watched the day unfold in wonder.
The march in Giza
Most of the people I follow are activists and were not in a celebratory mood, other than perhaps to celebrate that they were still there and available to protest the lack of progress towards democracy. I'm sure that there were people celebrating our unfinished revolution as if it were a fait accompli, but I didn't hear from them. And like almost everyone, I was utterly blown away by the magnificent abundance of people in the streets reminding the military that they had not fulfilled their promises. By about 11 am I was reading that Tahrir was full to bursting with people who had simply gone straight there. Apparently the early morning mood in the square was more celebratory, probaby reassuring the military who wanted that scenario.
One of the amazingly long flags

But the marches started about noon and wound through all parts of Cairo, even coming all the way from Nasr City and Heliopolis and Maadi. Given Cairo traffic, it's probably faster to walk from these places to Tahrir anymore than it is to drive, but this is still not a small walk. By midafternoon, people were wondering what would happen to everyone who was marching to Tahrir. Where could they fit thousands more? A Google Map that appeared on the net today gives a good idea of the amount of people on the streets and where they all were. A friend of mine who joined a march from Maadi ended up walking to Tahrir and then turning around and walking back by a different route. A lot of the marches never did land in Tahrir but ambulated throughout the city chanting and carrying signs. Egypt was full of some very tired citizens at he end of the day. And the army's predictions of chaos? Nowhere to be seen. This morning a few protesters are still occupying Tahrir. January 25th is over and the combined holidays of Police Day and Revolution day (politics DO make for strange bedfellows!) are finished for another year, but I believe that we have another 18 days of interesting activity to look forward to. The Powers That Be were, I'm sure, hoping for a one day event but somehow I kind of doubt that they will get their wish.

The beautiful photos I've used in this post are courtesy of Mostafa el Sheshtawy who can be found on Flickr as msheshtawy.