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