Sunday, December 31, 2017

Looking To The New

Last day of the year and I don't know whether to breathe a sign of relief or hold my breath in fear. I suspect that I'm not alone in this. The world is such a peculiar place right now. Day before yesterday someone attacked a church in Helwan, shooting a guard and later being shot himself. A video of the shooter showed a man wandering aimlessly in the street in front of the church carrying an automatic rifle while the people living along the road hid behind their shutters and exclaiming and filming. It was hard to figure out if the man was totally drugged, mad, or had an appointment. One of the normal aspects of life in this part of the world is our tendency to look at everything with a very jaded eye. All too often things are not what they seem.

But while my daughter is huddling indoors hiding from the lost Arctic blasts sweeping through Wisconsin, I'm sitting in my living room with the doors open to my garden. The clouds are gathering against the hills on the other side of the Nile so the domes on the evil dog kennel next door to my horses are picked out by sunlight and gleaming against the dark grey. The dogs there,  happily, seem to be quiet and content for a change and the noisiest thing in the garden is Koko, our rescue Amazon whose father must have been a peacock to judge from the melody and volume of his calls. Pretty bird who sounds like the worst rusty gate in the world.  The advantage of being closer to the equator in all of this climate change muddle seems to be that things don't change that much here along the earth's waistline, although the summers are longer and a bit hotter than before. I think that I will be able to cope with climate change for a while more, even with my not liking air conditioning. That is a point on the good side while looking at the coming year.

We have been very busy at the farm this winter with more families coming out to relax in the gardens, more local people coming to ride in the countryside, and more schools coming to do classes for children about nature, farming, animals and so on. While busy can be tiring, it is good for my staff and for the budget. I'm not seeing immediate signs of issues that will be causing problems for us in the new year, but then, on the other hand, who really knows? One of the things that I see my friends in North America learning these days with the strange one running the show there, is our wait-and-see attitude about the future. We are used to being surprised by our leaders but this is a new experience for people who have been lucky to have more stable individuals before.

So let's hear it for stability and some peace.

copyright 2017 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Where Did I Go?

Fifteen years ago I started writing Living in Egypt because friends of mine in Europe and North America were worried about my safety and well-being in the "dangerous" Middle East. I wanted to tell them all the ways that Egypt really was no different from anywhere else so that they might be reassured, but in 2003 finding general information on the internet about what passes for normality in Egypt was very difficult. At the same time, I moved from my urban home in a very comfortable upper middle class neighbourhood south of Cairo, Maadi, to a farm that I began building in the villages north of Abu Sir. It was a period of enormous change for me, and to be honest, taking the time to read my own blog from beginning to end recently was quite an eye-opener. I had decided that having been a career wife and mother for so long, it was time for me just to be me whatever that might be. I wasn't completely aware at the time that this was what I was doing, but it most definitely was. Just as the years from 2000 to 2004 passed in a blur of discovery, panic, fear, worry, and feeling out of my depth in my late husband's corporate world, the years of 2004 to about 2010 really were a more leisurely, but equally disorienting, exploration of myself and my relationship to my world as I was redesigning it centered around my farm and my neighbours. It took me months to realise that I didn't really need to be in Maadi almost every day and to be relaxed about being home in the country. At the time, many of my friends out here in Abu Sir were commuting into the city to work, and that seemed normal.

During the first few years there was a lot to organise at the farm. We were fairly busy doing equestrian tourism and I was riding almost daily with clients. I'd forgotten how hard I'd been working at this until I re-read my posts. At the time, I had help at the farm to care for the horses (we didn't have the goats and sheep yet) and the young men working with me were pretty standard grooms. They would assist me with the riding, but they couldn't communicate with the clients unless they were Egyptian, and it took me a long time to teach them a basic premise of my work out here. I felt that while riding in the countryside it was utterly necessary to be courteous to the farmers in the area because they were working around me, while I was having fun. Many of the young men felt that simply being on a horse made them somehow of a higher class and were inclined to imperiously order a donkey cart driver to move to the side of the track to let us pass. That kind of behaviour didn't earn anyone any points among the neighbours. Horseback riders in the countryside were almost unknown at the time, and I wanted our interactions to be friendly. Gradually, I sorted the staffing issues out, culminating in a day in 2008 when I fired every one of my grooms in one fell swoop, necessitating a grand staff search. The reason for the firing was simple. One or all of them had taken to selling the manure from our paddocks as an independent project. I was unaware of it until one day I saw the cart leaving with a full load, and when I happened to check that same day the manure had not been deposited at the land we were renting to grow berseem for the horses. When I asked where the donkey cart had been going when it left, every one of the young men just sat and looked at me without answering a word. I gave them time for me to drink a cup of tea to think about answering me and told them that if I didn't get an answer, they would all be fired. They did not and to their immense surprise and the shock of the neighbouring farms, I told them to take their things and leave immediately. This left me with a young girl from Alaska who was living at the farm and helping out, my best friend from Toronto who was my age and knew nothing at all about horses, a gardener, and my man Friday, Mohamed Said, to take care of about 20 horses. When friends called me to ask me what I was going to do, I told them that I imagined I would be feeding a lot of horses for a while. It wasn't as though I didn't know how to care for them after all.

My farm was already known as a good place to work and it only took a few days for word to get around that I needed help. Pairs and trios of men showed up at the front gate and they were quickly weeded through to find the ones that were not going to have a heart attack at working with a pack of a dozen or so dogs. The first group lasted 24 hours since they were impolite to the people working at the farm. The second included an older (mid-30's) man who came in and patronisingly informed me that he knew everything about horses and would have the farm sorted immediately. Unfortunately for him, he didn't know anything about listening to instructions and following programs, and he was out on his butt in 48 hours. Within a week though, I had the start of my present staff and things were looking up. I had established my reputation as a real boss and someone who had to be reckoned with. The farm rules that included the necessity on the part of the staff to be polite to each other (and of course to me), not to have voices raised in shouting matches, and that a polite request from me meant an order to be obeyed right away were odd to the guys, but they soon learned to appreciate them. A courteous working environment is important. It took me years to teach them to become proactive, and take initiative, and much of that change occurred after 2011. There was a revolution then, but it wasn't at all what anyone thought.

I was as astonished as everyone else on the 25th of January, 2011. I had been aware of rumblings on Facebook about a protest against police brutality and I was aware as well of a deep discontent. I had joined Facebook as a means of seeing the holiday photos that my kids were not sending to me directly, and I quickly found how nice it was to make contact with friends who were now living in other parts of the world. I didn't use it much other than posting riding photos and dog pictures. When we found ourselves glued to the TV for 18 days watching events unrolling in Cairo, I began looking more seriously at the use of Facebook as a news source and to investigate Twitter for a means of listening to the conversations (only the ones in English sadly) of individuals who were in the streets to have a more immediate source. My children immediately contacted me from the US in concern, and while I made it clear to them that I wasn't going to evacuate for any reason, we did agree that my blog should be put on hold as we were not sure how things would turn out and no one wanted a reason for me to either land in jail or have to leave the country. This was why the blog went quiet for so long. The days when the phones and the internet went silent also gave me some thinking time.

I had made friends via my blog with people from Global Voices, a group I highly recommend for information about life in all sorts of people, and on Twitter I began following them. From that point, I looked at who they were following, and so on down the food chain, to find people who were on the ground and knew what they were talking about. My daughter in New York also did a similar exercise and we divided up the day so that I was online from 7 am to 7 pm and she during our nighttime hours. We mined Twitter for up to date information which was initially passed on to friends in the US who posted it on Facebook for people looking for news. Eventually as abnormality became normal, the kids agreed that it was ok for  me to post news articles on my Facebook feed as long as they'd been published elsewhere and I made no comment that would get me arrested. I was doing a lot of online research not just about Egypt's issues but also about Bahrain, Tunisia, and Syria, where similar uprisings were happening. I really wanted to  understand what was  happening, and having done the work already I decided to share it with my friends. Most of them appreciated it, since the "normal" news is generally written from at least arms length and also fairly slowly. The Facebook feed has turned into a news service and both of my kids have unfollowed me because it simply contains more news than they like on Facebook. I don't mind that at all, and in fact recommended that they do it. This was the beginning of the political part of my new self. I had always avoided politics carefully, but when a huge wave washes over your nice little section of the beach and pulls you into the water, learning to swim suddenly seems like a good idea.

The events of 2011 had much more far-reaching effects on my life than I had imagined. The tourism that had been a major activity at the farm suddenly dried up as people outside Egypt decided once again that Egypt was way too dangerous a place to visit. Even worse, the insurance companies affiliated with embassies, companies and so on here in Egypt went through a period of forbidding expats in Egypt from traveling outside of their own neighbourhoods. Not only were we not getting visitors from abroad, but local people weren't coming out either. From 2011 to about 2014, Egyptian society itself was confused, unstable and unsure. The changes that occurred during those years would confuse anyone and I was very, very thankful for the peace of the countryside. Farmers simply don't have time to protest. Someone always has to care for the animals and crops. It's a 24 hour a day job.

We had decided to look into breeding goats in the beginning of January 2011 and I had an appointment with a friend who bred milk goats for January 27 to go buy some stock from him. Needless to say, we postponed the appointment, but on February 12, we went down to his farm near Beni Suef and bought a trio of goats that formed the basis of our current flock. We named the buck Google, and the two does were Twitter and Horreya. They were Alpine/Nubian/Saanen mix and the offspring of Google and our baladi does already in residence were given political names like Suzanne, Hosny, Tantawi, Bashir, Bashar, and so on. With not much else to do, we all began learning about goat breeding and care, a huge change for a bunch of young men who saw themselves as keepers of horses, as horses are much more noble animals than goats. Unfortunately, horses do not produce milk and cheese (something the guys also had to get used to) and mostly just stood about costing us money since there were few people coming to ride. And awkwardly, our horses are rescues, meaning that they come for the duration of their lives and selling them is out of the question, even if there were a market for them. A life change for all of us was in the making.

With the unsettled times of the post revolutionary period we saw price increases at exactly the same time that places like the farm were finding themselves without any clients at all. Hotels and restaurants were closing all around us, and I found myself with a group of young men who were smart and beginning to open their minds, but who were incredibly bored. Some permaculture classes were held at the farm, and the guys were told to help with the work and to study this. We began using the new knowledge to put one of the main outputs of the animals (manure) to work, growing our vegetables. If I didn't have income to give the staff raises, at least we could offset some of the food costs for their families. Sometime in 2012 one of the vets working with the Donkey Sanctuary branch in Egypt came to me asking if I knew any young men who wanted to learn to be farriers, the people who trim and care for the feet of donkeys, horses, and mules.

Thinking of my staff, I told him that I had a number of young men and assigned them to the staff of the Donkey Sanctuary once a week for about six weeks of training. Initially they saw the assignment as a distinct demotion, but their teachers were excellent and they all came home bubbling with information and ideas after the first day. About the same time, an idea that had been simmering with me for some years came to a boil and I collaborated with a young vet about the possibility of helping the farmers in our area who were having a very tough time with veterinary care. With the increases in the prices of gas, medications, food, the costs for a vet visit had risen to the point where a farmer could not pay, and there were no free vets available. I had long thought that by providing anti-parasite medications, wound treatment, and other preventative medications along with education, the farmers could avoid many of the major problems. I had done quite a lot of research finding local alternative sources to the active ingredients in worming medications, for example, and had found that I could worm a donkey for about 5 LE. This meant that our work would be quite reasonably priced. In 2013 we started the Rural Wellness Initiative to help the local farmers.

When you can't necessarily make money, it is better to make sure that your time is well-spent. Until 2013, there wasn't much income out there. Luckily, our expenses were kept to a minimum that could be covered by my income from other sources. What was increasing in my farm staff was the confidence and self-worth of my staff. A group of fairly average young men from the villages around me, who had not finished primary school as their teachers had told them that they were too stupid for school, were accomplished farriers, trained vet assistants, understood the rudiments of organic gardening, and were discovering their skills in teaching farmers how to better care for their animals. And, even more important, they were discovering that helping others simply because you can felt good. They took more pride in their work and were more interested in types of training. We had a Cadre Noir-trained instructor come to work at the farm while his wife was based here in the Dutch embassy. The guys learned so much from him about training riders and horses. They harassed  him for information and knowledge. Gradually, the companies, schools, and embassies were easing up on regulations about coming out to the dangerous farm areas and people began coming out to the farm more to enjoy the green space, play with animals, and feel safe and calm. With schools coming out more, I began working with my staff so that they could take over more of the teaching duties on their own. I needed people who could give good lessons in basic horsemanship, talk knowledgeably about our gardens, discuss the care and feeding and milking of our goats and sheep and so on. What had been very much a one woman show needed to branch out, because I was also getting older and simply couldn't do everything anymore.

Now approaching 2018, Al Sorat Farm is much, much busier. We have school visits on an average of about once a week in the winter, and families coming on weekends. I feel that I can trust my core staff to handle almost anything. They have even been teaching themselves English and are fairly fluent in it although the vocabulary might be a bit limited. I have also decided that I need for my own sake to renew my work on my blog. It is still about living in Egypt, and about the commonalities and differences in human existence. I'm going to leave political commentary to experts. But I do hope to do more writing off of Facebook.

copyright 2017 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Ramadan Greetings.

 The wind today is hot and dry, enough to parch you from the inside out, and it is the first day of Ramadan. My staff are mostly fasting and given that the temperature is over the 35 degree C cut off level, they are resting (sleeping) in the shade of their reed hut. The temperature limit for work was initially created for the horses who have a hard time cooling their core temperatures when the ambient temperature is too high. Humans do much better cooling themselves, but honestly once the temperature hits over 35 degrees C, aestivation becomes a very interesting word.  Aestivation is the heat-induced version of hibernation wherein an animal becomes very quiet and rests in the shade to avoid the heat. It is mainly considered a habit of reptiles, but it makes sense for other animals too in Egypt in the summer. The weather forecasts say that the temperatures should drop day after tomorrow, which will be a relief to everyone.

Ramadan is moving gradually into the cooler months of the spring, winter and fall in the weird backwards crawl of the Islamic calendar through the Gregorian calendar. Subsequent Ramadans will be cooler, have shorter fasting days, and will require a different kind of patience because it is harder to justify the long naps on shorter cooler days. This is more or less the end of our string of summer Ramadans for a number of years. The adaptation of our society to this fasting requires an adaptation of its own to the difference in the length of the days. But the fact is that no matter how long the days, the month of festivities that mark this month in Egypt is disruptive to routines.

When my children were young and were learning about Islam I was fasting with them and preparing iftar every evening. Ramadan was one of the few times when my husband would actually be home at dinner time, unless he had social iftars are almost every evening. Later I found that I had an issue with highly reactive blood sugar and was warned by my doctor that fasting in general wasn't good for me and I stopped doing it. But during Ramadan, our family routine did not change that much. We were not addicted to the Ramadan television festival that keeps people up all night. There was school and work the next day, so everyone turned in at a reasonable time. We also didn't change our diet much during the month, having a light evening meal without any sweets at the end of it.

Now that I am living alone at the farm, my Ramadan schedule is even quieter during the summer fasts. Visitors to the farm usually come in the morning to be able to head  home before the pre-iftar traffic insanity. Driving during the two or three hours before sunset is essentially something that one only does because it is absolutely necessary, so no one is going to be traveling out here at that time. My staff live nearby and they go home just before sunset, having taken care of the evening meals for the animals. Of course the wives and mothers have done all the work for the iftar. I remember my riding friends in Alexandria who used to invite me to ride before iftar...their way of distracting themselves from hunger and thirst. It was a nice idea, but I had to point out that they all had wives who were getting their meal ready and in my case I WAS the wife who would be doing that. The lightbulb would switch on over the heads and there would be a rueful shrug. I don't bother with iftar since I am not fasting, but my diet is lighter during Ramadan and I have something very simple and easy. If anything, Ramadan is a bit of a holiday for me since the work of visitors to the farm is much less.

This year the general happiness that characterises the Egyptian approach to Ramadan has been sadly tempered with the tragedy of the attack on the Christian families in the south and the news that Egyptian planes are bombing in Libya in retaliation. The connection between these two events is not entirely clear, but then most things in Egypt aren't generally entirely clear. Perhaps some clarity will come later, but perhaps not. While the month is one of fasting which seems very solemn, Egyptians focus on the breaking of the fast with friends and family, which makes Ramadan here almost like a month long Christmas season with gatherings at night, special meals, and a huge emphasis on family. The fact that this season has been started out in blood has not been lost on us and we are all mourning. I hope that it will not also end the same way.

copyright 2017 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Monday, May 22, 2017

Changing Gears

 Six years ago things happened in Egypt that changed much of how we saw ourselves and how others saw us. All of a sudden with the alleged Arab Spring in early 2011, the eyes of the world were on Egypt and other countries in the Middle East. To say that things didn't exactly work out as planned or hoped (since there really wasn't much planning involved in the events of 2011 and the following years) would probably be the understatement of the century. At the time of the unrest my children asked me politely but very forcefully to stop blogging for a while. I like my children and I could understand their concern (like if I got deported I would be driving them out of their minds) so I went along with it. Meanwhile I was trying to make sense of the political activity in the area and was doing a lot of research with journalists on Twitter and other forums, and I was sharing that information on Facebook for friends of mine who had lived in Egypt, visited in Egypt, or who were just interested in Egypt. My Facebook feed turned into a news service of sorts where odd bits of information are shared with the world about life in the Middle East. That was the original goal of Living In Egypt, after all, to give people outside the country an idea of what it was like to actually live here. But after six years of mostly doing the news, life has changed again in Egypt and I've decided that it is important to document this change.

My farm went into the Arab Spring period as a place where people came to do equestrian tourism. We had visitors from abroad who would come to stay for a week or so in Egypt and would ride our horses seeing Egypt very much up close and personal. Immediately after the uprising in 2011 we still had a few visitors but the numbers fell quickly to nothing. This was, to say the least, a very difficult period. Not only were there no visitors from abroad but many companies, embassies, and schools in Cairo were extremely nervous about their people even traveling around the city, fears that most of us living here found quite baseless...but no one was asking us. Financially we managed, but for me the most difficult issue was how to keep a group of bright young men occupied while most of our work languished. The opportunity came up with The Donkey Sanctuary to have them trained as farriers and vet assistants, so I decided that if they weren't working much, they might as well learn. At first they were reluctant, but realising over time that they had real skills and knowledge was a powerful push for them to learn more. These were young men who had never finished primary school, having been told that they weren't smart enough...but it was not the case at all.

 In 2011 we began a goat breeding project at the farm to add the characteristics of some European and Middle Eastern goats to the local baladi Egyptian goats to improve the production of both milk and meat. We are now on about our third or fourth generation and our herd is a mix of Syrian, Saanen, Alpine, Nubian, and Boer goats along with the baladi base, which is important for its hardiness. We have since branched out into breeding Sudanese sheep, which are a short-haired sheep that give very nice milk for cheese. During a period of serious power cuts in 2012 we began looking at improving the viability of electricity and water at the farm. There is no provision for water supplies out here in the countryside and the electricity is somewhat eccentric to say the least. We arranged to dig a new 40 meter well closer to the animal paddocks than the original 20 meter well behind the house and I contacted a friend of my children's who had come back to Egypt to work in the alternative energy field about installing solar power. That began a four year project to gradually provide solar power to the farm and to ensure that we had sufficient water supplied for all the animals and our growing agricultural projects.

With all of these projects going on, we also started an initiative to provide free veterinary care to the local farmers who were becoming increasingly harmed by the inflation in gas, electricity and medical costs. Vets work with us and most of our work is caring for wounds and doing maintenance on the farm animals to teach the farmers that it is easier to keep their animals healthy than it is to fix them when they are broken. Even with the demise of tourism in the Cairo area, we were keeping fairly busy, and once the panic over security dropped we found a new source of income and visitors in the schools and families from Cairo who wanted to come to the farm to learn about animals, plants, farming...or just to take a nap under a mango tree. With the general stress level for Cairenes increasing as well, a quiet spot for relaxing in a green space has been very appreciated.

So living in Egypt has definitely become a new game. We are dealing with ferocious inflation here, insecurity about what is going on in the region in general, disillusionment with the hoped for social changes in the country, and concern for what will come next. The political sphere is ephemeral and uncontrollable it would seem, so I see no point in commenting on that. Here at Al Sorat Farm we are concentrating on doing agricultural research and development introducing new varieties of vegetables which we grow organically (one of the contributions of the many horses and other livestock at the farm) and then harvest seed to provide seedlings to other growers. We are experimenting with goat, sheep and buffalo cheese. We have increased our selection of unusual trees with lychee, longan, pecan, neem, karob, and sapodilla trees in the garden. So the focus in the blog is going to narrow a bit to life on the farm and our activities here. This is only appropriate since as I approach my seventies, I am less and less interested in subjecting myself to the craziness of Cairo traffic, the crowding and the pollution, and all the other urban problems. This blog has always been about my life in Egypt and these days it is more about plants, animals, and people in the countryside. For old readers, I hope that you enjoy my posts, while for new ones, I hope that they give you an insight into another lifestyle.

copyright 2017 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani