Tuesday, February 19, 2019

What Will I Be When I Grow Up?

Next month I am going to be 70 years old. I read that with a bit of shock because it truly doesn't seem quite real. I was just over 50 when my husband died and my world changed forever. Plenty of people at the time (mostly people who really didn't know me at all) told me not to worry, that I was "young and could still remarry". I just looked at them with disbelief because I was fairly certain that was NOT going to happen, although what was going to happen was not at all clear at the time. What did happen was that I had to deal with some pretty serious economic and psychological chaos, that I decided after about 4 years that I'd spent enough time on that and I bought the land for my farm, and just before that I began this blog. A year or so ago, I downloaded my blog posts, all of them... over about eight years worth, and I read them. It was an insight into my own life.

When I started writing the blog one of the sentences in the short bio I provided for it was something to the effect that I still didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up. Sometime between 2003 and 2011, that sentence disappeared. In reading the blog posts, I tried to figure out when, why, and how I removed it. I honestly have no idea at all. But I now realise that my blog chronicled my transition from one life to a totally new one. At some point I grew up and I became something, and for months I puzzled over just what that was. Prior to 2003 I was a wife and mother, a teacher, a writer, a lot of things. I was the chief logistics officer of the Gabbani family and after my husband died, I was the chief mess cleaner-upper. Realising that the stress of the clean up process was doing nothing to either make my current life more pleasant, nor to extend my life, I decided to go back to my personal roots of small town/village living and I created the farm. Almost immediately, I began seeing the health benefits. My blood pressure and cholesterol levels on tests went back to my normal low levels. I slept better and had no need for coffee to keep myself going. A cup of tea in the morning and I was good. But that didn't answer the question of what had I grown up to be.

From the time I was young I absolutely knew that I wanted to raise some children. I wanted to be a mother. Being something of an academic over-achiever, I was told that since I obviously had the smarts to be a doctor, lawyer, or fill-in-the-blank, I had some kind of obligation to do so. Being told this only irritated me, and I steadfastly bounced from possible career or study to another equally interesting.  Eventually, I did finish a university degree, and then another one, only to come to the conclusion before finishing a third one that my heart wasn't really in it. When my dean of graduate studies in the psychology department at the University of Waterloo asked me what I thought I might do next in my exit interview for leaving with my MA instead of a PhD, I told him that I might start a Mexican restaurant in Toronto. But I didn't do that. I did marry and have two marvelous kids, eventually about eight years on I moved to Egypt with my husband...and then I was just as multi-focussed as ever.

Handling a household with four different cultures in its makeup (my husband was Sudanese/Egyptian and I was American/Brit) was sort of normal in Canada, but we never really went back to Canada, and Egyptians, regardless of their wildly heterogenous cultural and genetic heritage, value homogeneity. There was a bit of a balancing act for all of us to manage. I taught English to French-speaking school students, did some writing during my first few years in Egypt, then I did supply teaching at the American school in Maadi for some years while my children were attending there, got into writing and editing for a magazine, but for the most part, logistics still took up the majority of my time. My husband was almost constantly traveling, so it was up to me to be the steady point in my kids' lives, and to make sure that the moving parts didn't slice off anyone's legs as our family members moved in and out of our mutual physical space. I recall a period when I was in my early 40's of wondering what the hell I was doing with my life and why I had needed a graduate degree in social psychology to do it. After beating myself around the head and shoulders with these questions for a few months, I finally decided that however lunatic my planning had been, I did have responsibilities that needed to be handled and that my life overall wasn't a terrible one, so I'd best just get on with it. And I did.

When the crash came, it was a big one. My kids were in their late teens when their father died, one in university in the US and the other about to join him. When they both were away at college, it was just me and the pack of lawyers, bankers, and businessmen who were disemboweling the businesses that had been my husband's life work. I looked on from a spot of relative safety and knew that there was no way in hell that I wanted to drop myself into that insanity, although I had no doubts about my ability to manage much of it. It is a very troubling situation to look at work that you know could could do better than a lot of other people who are doing it, but to want to walk away from it because it isn't your work to do and you feel that it would damage you to do it. It rather reminded me of how I felt at graduating from high school and being told about all the wonderful careers that I could have that I really didn't want. Very disconcerting.

Quite abruptly, I began writing my blog, the first writing I'd done since my husband had died, and I decided to move from Maadi to a rural area near Abu Sir. It was my offsprings' turn to be disconcerted. I rented out the family home and came to an area where I knew a lot of people and had friends living in the area, which somewhat reassured them, but what the hell was I doing building a farm and living in the back of beyond? My kids had only known their somewhat odd but urban mother. We all moved past the shock, my life began taking on a form of its own without my late  husband or children defining it in any way, and it was sometime in this period when I decided that I had grown up. But what was I? Again, like about 15 years previously, I spent some months worrying about how to answer this question, and again as during my previous time of fretting, I guess that I sort of decided that this question was too hard to answer. I got on with the building of the farm, exploring avenues for income, becoming proficient in equestrian tourism, and enjoying the fact that my job was what I wanted to do even if I had to pay to do it. Not bad.

About seven years down the road, the revolution took place in Egypt, another outrageously abrupt event that I had absolutely no intention of missing even though I was just a spectator from the safety of my home in the country. I had never been someone who speculated about politics before, but I suddenly noticed that while I might not have been interested in politics, politics were certainly affecting my life and the lives of people that I loved and respected. My life took on a new facet as I turned my attention to trying to comprehend what the crazy forces at work in the Middle East and North Africa had in store for my home, myself and all the people around me, rural and urban alike. While eventually it would seem that the revolution changed little politically, it did change the way that we all looked at our lives, our country, and ourselves. My farm community had to relinquish tourism and find other outlets for ourselves. There was a lot of learning, studying, trying things out, and the farm has evolved even further. My staff, most of them with me for the past ten years or so, have changed, learned new skills and taken on new roles in our working community.

So here I am at almost seventy, and what have I grown up to be? I've become me. It truly is only very recently that I have realised that I don't need a label to slap on my forehead to let people know who or what I am. I didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up because somehow I always assumed that it would be some kind of classification, something outside of me. But it simply isn't. I am me and I am very happy to exist as that. Perhaps much of the philosophical  advice we pick up in books and conversations points to that conclusion. I currently feel that our job in our lives is to perfect being ourselves, and the things that we build, invent, create, and pass on are just byproducts of that process. My husband left a legacy in infrastructure for the grain industry in Egypt, but he most certainly was not that legacy. I hope to have a legacy of sorts when I move on to wherever it is that we move, but I most assuredly will not merely be that legacy. It will be a byproduct of my being me. If all we have to perfect is our me-ness, life is so much simpler.

copyright 2019 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Monday, November 05, 2018

Holding Lifelines

I've taken to waking up about 6:30 am each morning. A series of puppies who joined the pack and needed to go out and felt that they needed to play at an ungodly hour instigated the change but it has become habit now. I can't say that I like the call of Koko, the Amazon parrot, who begins his commentary on the day as the sun is rising. He sounds like a bad door hinge for much of his vocalisations. Sometimes I wonder if we could just teach him to whistle or do something socially more pleasing. On the other hand, I imagine that it all would mean something to another Amazon if we had one around.

The real attraction to the hour, however, is the quiet at the farm. Almost everyone is still asleep at home now, there is no one asking for my attention, other than the latest young dog, and I have the time to have a train of thought rather than the odd boxcar or caboose. I can write, plan the next batch of seed harvests, consider an exercise regime for our aging horse herd, and try not to think about an image of a world hurtling to disaster that assaults my mind every time I connect to the sources of the news that I use. We are all everywhere under this assault if we have the time and energy to connect to the world outside of our small domains, but sometimes I almost envy the villagers around me who don't have newspapers, who don't watch television news (and if they do, it is generally governmentally sponsored and designed not to rock any boats), and whose primary concerns are at the level of village politics, crops, and children. They are largely unwitting passengers on this terror-inducing ride that we all are sharing. They are, however, aware of how events in the country around them are affecting their small pockets of concern, such as the rising costs of electricity and fuels, the strange ways that the prices of foods increase while the amount of money they get for their crops does not increase, and the difficulties in getting medications for children and animals. Not being satisfied with the small picture of my neighbourhood, I know that I will connect to try to understand what the pattern of movement in the world in general is. This is what I began doing in 2011 when I could see that what was happening in Egypt was also happening in Tunisia, Syria, and Bahrain, generally with equally unsatisfying outcomes although each has been different.

Sometimes, however, I try to have a day in my domain, leaving the world beyond the farm to careen as it will, whether I am aware of it or not. Yesterday we had no visitors booked at the farm, and there was time to catch up on some left over chores. We had harvested most of our karkade before the weekend and I had spent some time peeling the thick petals of the seed pods off to dry for tea, while saving the pods to dry to supply us with the next year's crop. This is peaceful work, albeit colourful, since the dark wine red petals stain my hands a burgundy hue as I work. I asked one of the guys to collect the rest of the pods from plants that had been growing along the driveway so that I could finish the job and hope that the purple thumbs would go away soon. I had forgotten that one of my young women friends was coming by to interrupt my morning collection of depressing news items for my timeline, so her arrival was very welcome. I also got a phone call from a Toronto number, which was a young woman visiting Cairo who called to see if she could come out to go horseback riding. I have no idea at all how she'd heard of us, but I suggested that she come, and I ended up with a couple of women to chat with during the day.

We sat outside at the big wooden table speaking of photography projects, Egyptology, what to visit in Cairo and why, canine pack behaviour, lost loves, friendship, the search for guidance and clues in navigating our lives...the usual sorts of things I suppose. Not at all usual, I suppose in one way. I have never been very good at inconsequential chatter, so the kind of topics that allow our hopes and fears to bounce off a shell don't often come up. It was our visitor's birthday and she had decided that downtown Cairo being rather intimidating, she wanted to spend it in a more natural, calming situation and found herself at the farm. Cairo is intimidating. It is fast, crowded, nonlinear, deep, profound, with layer upon layer of history both modern and incredibly ancient...layers that push up from under sidewalks for the casual visitor to stub one's toe on. As Cairenes (ex-Cairene in my case) we advised deciding on places to explore that would create ripples in questions in herself and encourage her journey. As it happens, she told us that she had worked in IT for years and was finding herself attracted for some reason the writings of Jungian psychologists.

Our visitor went out for a ride with my staff for a couple of hours, my friend and I continued our conversation about the twists and turns of life during a three month period when she had been traveling, and I found myself with an image in my head that was becoming clearer and stronger. I have often spoken with friends about a web of old women who, like spiders, feel the tugs and jerks of events and concerns in our planet, but who are not there to prey on victims but there to keep the web steady so that the younger folk can repair connections, and strengthen the threads. I can list many of these women and my heart blesses them daily that they simply have the strength and health to exist, while I notice younger women who are working their ways from the center to the edges where eventually they will take the places of those of us who will go on. I don't know why the image is of women; it simply is. I'm not going to question that although when I have talked about my image with a few other women, they do understand. I know men who are supportive of the web, and perhaps they have a web of their own that I am not a party to. I'm comfortable with that.

Part of the clarification of the image came just last week when a former yoga teacher of mine, Debra, appeared suddenly in Cairo accompanying her husband on a trip here. We hadn't seen each other for about fifteen years as she and her family had moved to South America in a work transfer for her husband. We haven't really been in touch, but she has been in my thoughts almost constantly, since she was the instigator, the catalyst, for enormous change in my life and in the lives of a number of my friends who were also her students. We studied yoga with her, but we also learned how to hold and protect our souls while changing our lives to be more expressive of who we all were. We didn't have much time together during her visit, but, to use an utterly mundane image, I felt like a battery that had been popped into a socket to recharge. She told me that she had been dreaming about me and felt a real need to see me in the flesh and see what I was doing. As it happened she and her husband showed up at the farm just in time for lunch and I waved my hand over the dishes proclaiming that "this is what I am doing much of the time", preparing and serving food to sustain and strengthen the body and soul hopefully. We both had a good laugh because my claim was both true and too simple and we both knew it.

Perhaps my image of crones holding the lifelines of the world is just a way of reassuring myself in frightening times. I'm not sure. I doubt that I will ever be sure in my lifetime. Our visitor from Toronto mentioned that one Jungian analyst from Canada who recently died had been saying that a pendulum has been swinging in the universe from a masculine to a feminine axis and that much of the misogyny, violence against women, and the attempts to roll back rights for women are stemming from the reactions to this change in orientation. Perhaps this is true. I don't know. But at the depths of my soul I can feel the need for balance among all the aspects of the world, human and nonhuman, and we will continue to try to protect this balance in my pocket of the world.

copyright 2018 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Putting Some Things Back Together

For about the past eight years, I have been posting news on Facebook, partly at the request of the offspring who worry about my well-being. There are all sorts of well-being, however, and I have found that I miss my blog. It never was about politics (although these days politics sadly infuse almost all aspects of our lives everywhere...and not in very gracious ways.) and I will continue that policy. But I needed to come back to Living In Egypt.

So where was I before I was so rudely interrupted? I was quite a bit younger, that much I know. I will be 70 this spring and I find it little short of amazing. I've outlived both of my parents and the inside me consistently finds the physical me annoying. I have to keep reminding myself that I can no longer do everything in the world, or even at the farm, myself. A recent visit to my mechanic (aka the orthopedic surgeon who has replaced my knees, revamped my shoulders, and put a plate in my right leg when I broke it with a stupid misstep) revealed that while my left shoulder has a better range of movement than my right, it also only has one muscle holding it together instead of the two gnarly ones in my right shoulder. What that meant was a stern warning to keep my hands no higher than my shoulders if possible, and this combined with the numbness in my right foot following the fall, has put paid to my horseback riding. Riding has been so much a part of my life and sanity that it is excruciating to read what I just wrote. I haven't even been able to write it because writing it made it real. I still have the horses who have a home with me until they move on to wherever all the creatures are waiting for me, but I can't ride. I can't ride. The pain of that sentence is something that can simply not be explained to anyone who hasn't had to give up their soul activity.

Riding to me was never about learning to do the perfect 20 meter circle, or about jumping a fence taller than I was, or about earning a blue ribbon in a show. It was about freedom and companionship. A horse can go just about anywhere a person on foot can, and they are much smarter than to waste their time walking around malls and shops. My earliest memories of heaven are the trail rides that the Balboa Park Stables (now long gone) used to reward the lesson kids with every couple of weeks. A string of horses ambling along under the eucalyptus trees with kids... I know that the stables were on their way out at the time. A freeway had cut through much of the trail area for the stables already. But my family moved from San Diego to Ojai where one was greeted by a large yellow "Yield To Horses" sign on the way into town. Here there were horses everywhere and most of the roads in the early 60's had wide dirt shoulders for riders. I had truly found heaven.

Riding is not just a pastime, however, it is a lifestyle and one that can be rather unforgiving, especially if you own your own horse. In a sense, I was lucky not to own one as a youngster. But nevertheless, the demands of university and the costs of riding in the US and Canada meant that from the end of high school I might have ridden about twenty times in as many years until I moved to Egypt. I was so busy with learning, marrying, living, having children and doing all of those normal things that I essentially forgot about riding, but everything came back when my husband came home one day in Alexandria to announce that I was now the owner of a young Arab mare. I'm sure he had no idea what a Pandora's box he opened in 1990. Ten years later when he died I had five horses to care for.

Within four years I had about fifteen horses as friends who were moving begged me to take horses from them to keep them from going to pyramids' stables, and I started an equestrian tourism operation here based on the concept of leisurely travel through the Egyptian countryside and desert rather than a frenzied dash near the Giza pyramids. I was exploring trails on horseback when I wasn't riding with clients and I decided that I needed to be living out in the same area where my horses were living and working. I bought the land to begin designing and building my farm while renting a small home and garden close by. It was a relief not to commute from Maadi, but there was more than enough work to keep me busy. There were many days when I was in the saddle between four and six hours a day with hours of supervising builders in what time remained. The revolution and subsequent drop in tourism tossed us into a new path of educating first my staff and later others. Now most of our work is in education in many aspects, but the horses are still here although others are riding them.

It's been a hard transition to make. The broken leg involved almost four months without being allowed to walk much, but the broken heart has taken much longer. I've avoided the horses, I realise now. My lovely grey gelding reminded me just the other day of this when I helped walk him with a young student from one of the schools visiting us. While I was telling her how Doobie and I had been partners for about 20 years, I caught his eye on me as if saying, "And where have you been lately?" It's time to put things back together.

copyright 2018 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

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 engagements...business 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