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Living in Egypt


Living in Egypt

Egypt isn't what it appears to be in the media...but that's no real surprise, since not much is. I moved here in the late 80's from Toronto, Canada, with my Canadian/Egyptian husband, my son and my daughter. The children adapted quickly and we decided that this country was a good place to live. Now I wouldn't change my home for anything.

All about Living in Egypt March 8th, 2006

Mothers Of The Bride

Last week my young housekeeper got married to my neighbours head groom. I could be concerned that she was too young to marry at seventeen, but shed been orphaned a few years ago and that is a rather maturing experience.

Shes been working since she was about fifteen to provide the money for her household effects.

It wasnt an arranged marriage. Gaber had been interested in Sabrine for some time and only recently convinced her to marry him. Sabrine worked for me up until a month before her marriage when she quit to have time to arrange all the things that were required for her new home and she found me an new housekeeper, a young single mother with two daughters who is really in need of the income.

Tradition dictates that a new bride does not work outside the home in the villages, but a divorced mother has to do something to support her children if the father is not ready to help (as is too often the case both here and elsewhere).

Ive seen the procedure for weddings in the city, but this was the first time that I was intimately involved with the events in the village.

Tracy and I found ourselves in the odd positions of being sort of adoptive mothers of the bride, having helped her to assemble some of her household needs for the wedding and having offered moral support during the whole procedure of the engagement. A wedding in the villages isnt a one day affair.

After the party to announce the engagement, the couple may wait a few months or years before marrying, depending on the ability of the groom to provide a home for the bride.

Gabers family is from a neighbouring village and he had an apartment in a building in the village that housed the rest of his family, so this wasnt an issue for them.

Their engagement was only a few months. The first event of the marriage was the furnishing party when the families assembled the furniture that Gaber had bought and the linens, dishes and appliances that Sabrine had bought.

I was invited to Sabrines home where her purchases were assembled outside waiting the arrival of the trucks to carry them all over.

Id foolishly put my camera battery charger into a plastic bag with a box of salad the week before, shorting out the charger, so I dont have any photos of the collection, but it was most impressive.

The women sat in the courtyard chanting rhymes in praise of the bride while the men sat in the living room.

When the trucks arrived, everyone loaded the furnishings on board to move to the new apartment, leaving Sabrine at her home. The bride doesnt get to see her new home until her wedding night. A few days later, the henna party is held at the brides home.

Henna is an herb that mixed with water provides a fairly strong dye and is used to colour hair or skin on important occasions.

The henna party is a sort of bachelor party without the cake or the other festivities that we might associate with the night before the wedding.

It gives the chance for the families and friends to celebrate the upcoming nuptuals while at the same time, provides a place for a very important economic event, the "nota". The "nota" is a system whereby local people pay a small amount of money to the bride and groom on the event of the marriage with the understanding that they will receive a similar payment when they have a wedding.

The amounts contributed by each person are carefully noted in a large book under the supervision of a group of the older women, so that someone who contributes a lot will in turn receive the same amount.

The contributions will provide the young couple with a financial boost at a time when it is direly needed.

Meanwhile, the festivities going on outside the brides house while the financial crew works inside are loud and happy, and they span the generations from the grandmothers to the infants.

Younger boys and girls crowded around Tracy and I begging to have their pictures taken.

I obliged, but tried to point out that Sabrine was the star of the party without a great degree of success.

The noise was deafening with music blaring from a DJs stand outside Sabrines family home as buses and cars drew up depositing well-wishers from surrounding villages.

The women formed a knot around Sabrine where they took turns dancing together. Ive seen plenty of belly dancers in hotels over the years but none of them can match the women who dance at family occasions for sheer joy in performance.

Inevitably, Tracy and I got pulled into the circle to dance, something that Tracy did much better than I did. I actually took lessons in this sort of dancing many, many years ago, but over the years my knees have suffered greatly and no longer can stand the twists required to do it properly.

Sabrine danced for hours that night, the power of the young, and Gaber arrived about halfway through to spend a couple of hours dancing with his bride to be.

Perhaps this exercise helps to reduce the natural anxiety of the bride and groom. When I arrived at the party, I made my way through a thickening crowd of young men on the fringes of the womens group.

As the evening wore on, this group grew larger and more boisterous in their celebrations with young men dancing together in traditional dances using staffs and rather untraditional dances in which they waved cans of insect spray whose propellent had been lit, providing the boys with mini-blowtorches. Safety is not Egypts middle name, but happily no one was hurt during the evening.

After a couple of hours of the music and dancing, I made my way home, a bit deaf for the time being, but I had clients for riding early the next morning and a lot of preparation to do yet.

The next day was the wedding celebration which was held outside of Gaber and Sabrines new home. The wedding itself is actually just the signing of the register to show that the bride and groom are married.

The ceremony is small, with only a few witnesses, is called "the signing of the book" appropriately, and is usually held in the afternoon, after which the bride goes off to the hair dresser and prepares for the party in the evening.

Tracy had arranged for her car to be decorated to carry the bride to her new home, but some workers arrived rather late to install kitchen cabinets at her new house, making us late for the task which fell to one of our neighbours.

She and I dashed about getting ready to go and went over to Zawya, Gabers village, in my jeep. We found lights strung over an alley in the village and crowds of people standing before a stage on which Sabrine and Gaber were greeting their guests. Most of the grooms in our area were at the wedding, so I wasnt surprised to find some of mine waiting for us to take us to the stage to congratulate the bride and groom.

We inched our way through the crowd to the stage where Sabrine greeted us with hugs. The change in her appearance was fairly astonishing.

A beautiful girl in her natural state, she had been made up for the video tape that is made for every wedding. Like the old tomb paintings that Ive seen all over Egypt, I found a groom with dark skin and a bride who was made up to be much paler.

Interesting. Her long hair had been wound up in curls on top of her head and her hands decorated with henna drawings.

She was dressed in a long white wedding gown of western design, which I very much suspect was rented for the occasion.

A wedding dress is not really a very practical investment for the new wife of a stablehand. Sabrine insisted that Tracy and I join her and Gaber on the stage while people climbed the stairs to congratulate them. There we met members of both families, including the much-feared mother-in-law.

Rumour has it that Gabers mother is a very strong woman and that Sabrine will have some adjusting to do in learning to live downstairs from her. Egyptian mothers-in-law are not known for their love of their sons wives. I had my problems with my mother-in-law and chats with Egyptian friends assured me that the problems were not necessarily concerned with my being foreign. Egyptian wives also have problems in the same area. To be honest, Gabers mother didnt really look like someone I would want to cross.

The wedding celebration was a bit of an anticlimax after the henna party. Lasting only a couple of hours, the party broke up with the announcement that the bride and groom would be accompanied to their new home. As she turned to move down the stairs, Sabrine looked at Tracy and I with huge worried eyes and gave us a small smile. We didnt join the crowd escorting the couple to the apartment and went back to our cars. Sabrine had told me earlier that this was a moment that every girl fears as much as she might look forward to it. The day following the wedding, the bloodstained sheet of the marriage bed would be on display to prove that the bride was, in fact, a virgin at her marriage. If for some reason the sheet had no blood, which could conceivably happen even to a virgin bride, there could be serious repercussions including an immediate divorce. Happily, this was not the case for Sabrine, as I heard from her friends later.

Sabrines life hasnt been easy. She is not from a wealthy family, quite the contrary, and it is large, her father having married three women, although not all at once. Shes had pretty much to fend for herself since her father died a few years after her mother, but shes a smart girl who thinks carefully about her choices. Having talked with her a lot about what she was deciding to do in marrying Gaber, I have a lot of respect for her good sense and intelligence. Weve seen her through a major step in her life, her wedding, and now since Gaber is working in the same field as I am, with horses, we will be in contact through subsequent events. In all probability we will see her a new mother within a year. I dont plan on losing touch with her because she is a girl who sang as she worked in my home, who loved to play with my dogs and laughed with us at silly Egyptian television shows that we would watch together in the afternoons to help our Arabic. Somehow Tracy and I adopted a daughter and we plan on being there for her. Mabrouk, habibti

Posted by maryanne: - 1:22 pm - 3 Comments

February 5th, 2006

Abu Erdan, An Early Terrorist? Not Exactly

Ill bet you never knew that Audubon Society and some of the other conservation groups started with womens hats. Not the connection that most of us make, but that is true. At the turn of the century it was the fashion to decorate womens hats with feathers, parts of birds and even whole birds, the more exotic the better. The fashion reached a point that birdwatchers could rack up a better spot list sitting on a fashionable corner in New York or London than they could in the field. One of the birds that was most in demand was the egret for the graceful sweep of the snowy feathers and feather collectors went to work on the little egret and cattle egret population of Egypt as they did in North and South America, with the effect that there was general concern that the birds being hunted might become extinct.

The methods used by feather hunters were brutal to say the least. The plumes desired were most attractive during the breeding and nesting period, so this was when the hunters went to work. The result of their efforts was not only dead adults lying about under the trees, but starving young who were still nestlings dependent upon parents for their feeding. Concerned birdwatchers began a media blitz and formed such groups as the Audubon Society to try to turn the tide. Women members lobbied to have feathered hats outlawed and some of the British in Egypt began an unusual public service campaign to inform the people of Egypt of the dangers of killing egrets. Matchbooks, train cars, and posters on buildings proclaimed in Arabic "Abu Erdan saddiq el fellah", meaning "The Egret is the friend of the farmer". Abu Erdan means "father of beaks" in reference to the long beak sported by the egret, and they do assist the farmers of Egypt by eating the grubs, worms and even young mice that might be turned up in the tilling and cultivating of the soil.

The saviour of the egrets was not so much the written word as it was the hairdressers scissors. Bobbed hair suddenly became fashionable and the extravagant feathered hats that had previously adorned the longer hair were no longer in demand. Gradually the egret populations regained strength. These days cattle egrets are no longer in the least bit endangered. Just before dusk they can be seen gathering in the trees along the road that borders the Cairo Zoo, tall shady eucalyptus and casuarinas where they will be nesting during mating season. In the countryside they can be seen in flocks following a tractor or examining freshly turned soil for bugs and other avian-oriented goodies. Sometimes they will be resting quietly in the sun along a trail as Im out riding only to take off in a huge white cloud when the horse disturbs them. The cattle egrets still outnumber the little egrets, but sometimes I catch sight of some of the more unusual water birds such as night herons or grey herons. Sometimes life should be for the birds.

Posted by maryanne: - 4:37 pm - No Comments

December 19th, 2005

Definitely Book Of The Month

I stopped by Diwan, a lovely bookstore in Zamalek, the other day when I ventured into town for some reason that Ive already forgotten. Stopping at Diwan is like stopping at a chocolate factory for me. I am a serious book addict with a fairly serious library of books by and about Egyptians and Egypt. My visitors love it because they can read to their hearts content about pyramids, Mamelukes, early exploration of the Nile, whatever. Anyway, I found myself poking through the shelves and I ran across a book by Dr. Leila Ahmed, the first professor of Womens Studies at Harvard Divinity School. The book, A Border Passage, is her autobiography and reminiscences of her childhood in Cairo during the change from British rule to Nassers government. To be quite blunt, it is one of the best books Ive read in years.

Dr. Ahmed has also written Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, a book that I havent read yet, although it is now on my list. A Border Passage is lyrical, with the music of Egyptian life a theme that flows comfortably and seductively throughout her autobiography, which explores many of the issues of growing up female in Egypt. Some of the issues faced in growing up during the 50s and 60s have changed for women in Egypt, but many of them are the same. Watching my own daughter identify and deal with them as she grew up here was both interesting to me and daunting at the same time. With a Canadian mother and an Egyptian father, she had to invent her own culture as she grew up, since the two didnt always synch well. My husband was a product of the same culture as Dr. Ahmed, a culture that did value males over females, and that allowed males more freedom of action than females had. On the other hand, I was raised by a father who felt that it was important for both the boys and girls to know how to cook, sew, change tires on a car, fix a broken toilet, pitch a tent, and catch a fish. Although I made it clear from day one that there would be no difference between the rights of our son and our daughter, this was a point that had to be brought home more than once. Leila Ahmeds family was both ordinary and extraordinary and made it possible for her to study abroad at a time that such a course was not so common for young women.

I spend a lot of time with women of many backgrounds and social classes. My seventeen year old housekeeper from the village cant read or write, and her mother died about five years ago followed shortly by her father, leaving her an orphan. Shes now engaged to be married to a young man from a neighbouring village, a skilled groom working for friends of mine. Before she became engaged to Gaber, she asked my advice as to his suitability. Gaber is a polite, hard-working young man with whom I could see no problems, so my advice was that he would probably make a good husband. Although my heart cringes at the thought of a seventeen year old getting married, shes already been supporting herself for the past three years and is well past the usual age of marriage in the villages. When she marries, she will stop working for me, but has promised to arrange for a friend of hers to come to help out in my house. Her friend is also married but also has children and I suppose has realised the necessity of extra income in her family.

Every woman has a story. We will recognise ourselves in parts of the story and find new truths in other parts. We will enrich our own lives by learning of the lives of others. A Border Crossing is a double blessing. Not only does it give us an experience of another culture, another country, and another time, but it does so with such beauty and grace that you will dread finishing the book as I do.

Posted by maryanne: - 12:52 pm - No Comments

December 10th, 2005

Just Another Pretty Face

A few weekends ago in November, from the 17th to the 20th, The Egyptian Agricultural Organization, the national Egyptian Arabian stud farm in Zahraa, held the National Egyptian and International horse shows, four days of some of the loveliest horses you could imagine.I went on the first and third days of the show, the days when the mares and fillies were showing because Im very partial to the girls. The fact that I know many of the breeders who have spent their lives breeding and training some of these horses is a definite plus. Its always good to cheer for the horses of friends.

The history of the Arabian horse in Egypt is a long one. When the Arabs moved out of the Arabian peninsula early in their history of conquest that reached all of North Africa and parts of Europe, they moved with their armies on camels leading the horses that were used in the lightning raids on cities and towns along the way. The Arabian horse is one of the primary breeds in existence. They are small, fine boned, thin-skinned, and the originals were tough as nails. They had to survive on whatever fodder was available and, like their owners, on camel milk and dried dates when nothing else was available. One of the interesting characteristics of the Arabian horse is that it has fewer vertebrae than other horses, indication of how long the breed was isolated from the others. The Mameluke cavalry was famous for its horsemanship and the area where I am living now was once the horse farms for the Mamelukes. Like other famous cavalry regiments such as the Cadre Noir of France, or the riders of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, the riders developed stylised versions of the war moves of the horses into a form of equine ballet. Known as the dancing horses of Egypt, these horses move in time to oriental music with movements similar to those of the high school of dressage. One of the favourite accompaniments of the horse shows in Egypt is a performance of the dancing horses, which often culminates with the horse sitting like a dog and offering a leg in salute. In battle, a horse that could sit or lie down on command could help an injured rider to escape the from the danger of the fight.

These days most of the Arabian horses in the world are not called on to perform in battle. A very versatile breed, they are used by ranchers to handle cattle, by endurance riders who travel hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles in competitions, and by people who just want a hardy, intelligent riding horse. Breeders of pedigree horses compete with them in horse shows that rate their beauty, as categorised by head and neck, topline, legs, and movement among other things. Arabs are known for their smooth, almost floating, trot. My own horses are not pedigree Arabs, but baladi, or countrybred, Arab mixes. They share the Arab intelligence and versatility as well as the small sizeall the easier to to get back on should one fall off, not that I do that much anymore.

Halter shows such as that at the EAO the other weekend involve some major financial considerations. The mares and stallions that produce prize winning foals in the international shows often have price tags equivalent to the value of an expensive home in a good neighbourhood. Ive personally met foals valued at half a million dollars each. Pretty impressive and way, way, way out of my budget. They are works of living art, these extraordinary creatures. They float over the ground and seem never to touch the grass, looking out at the world with wide dark eyes that seem to say to everyone watching them, "Well yes, I am utterly beautiful. Of course you are enthralled."

Some people are silly enough to think of horsebreeding as a business. For the very rare breeder, it is a business, but for most people it is an extremely expensive hobby. The investment in the buildings, land, and livestock to start breeding is enormous if you want to compete at the upper levels right away. Many of the successful breeders have been at it for over forty or fifty years now. Meanwhile, if you happen to lose a good broodmare, something that is all too easy, the profits of a year or two can go down the drain in a matter of minutes. Nevertheless I do enjoy watching these people competing with their lovely creatures, though not quite as much as I enjoy riding my own mongrels.

Posted by maryanne: - 3:22 pm - 6 Comments

November 28th, 2005

Shopping Among the Neighbours

We needed some supplies for the new land, supplies that you can only get in a farming village, so Tracy and I headed over to Hawamdaya with my head groom to buy them. Hawamdaya is not on any tourist map, in fact its barely on any maps. We get there by going through the village of Abu Sir and continuing on down a narrow asphalt road towards the Nile. The asphalt wears out soon enough and becomes potholed mud more suited to the donkey carts and three wheeled motorcycle tuk-tuks that have been imported from India to serve as taxis in the area. I was very glad to be driving a jeep, aside from the fact that the items we were buying (huge aluminum cooking pots and a three burner camp stove) wouldnt have fit in the trunk of a regular car. The area before entering the village is beautiful, farming land as yet untouched by the spectre of urbanisation.

Last Saturday I explored it a bit on horseback withfriends and found it to be just as entrancing as it promised from the road. Lovely palm groves alternated with open fields and on the road we found a palm fiber factory working turning the palm leaf into thin green threads that are used to stuff furniture. Ten years ago it was common to see these factories working under the palm trees, but now they are less and less common. Most people seem to prefer foam rubber now, but I recall driving through Abu Numros on the way to the Club when my horses lived there and plowing through mounds of green fiber piled on the roads to separate from the wheels of cars or carts as they passed over the palm branches.

The longer I live in Egypt, the more fond of the villages I become. A lot of my friends think that Im nuts. The villages are dirty, indeed. There is no attempt at civic services there other than the odd school, phone office and electricity board. The people may in fact be uneducated and have some rather odd ideas, but they usually have the time to chat and exchange these funny thoughts with you. I wouldnt want to live in a village like Hawamdaya for anything, however, and am much happier on my own farm, but a visit there is fascinating. I cant imagine what the village streets are like if it rains since they are composed of that sticky mud that turns to the consistency of concrete during the dry season. These are places that are truly best suited to equestrian travel. Maybe that is the charm for me.

The road into Hawamdaya is oddly enough a divided road with a grassy median on each side of which the dirt potholes are avoided by two independently traveling lanes of traffic. Driving down the right hand side of the median you are just as likely to encounter oncoming traffic as down the left hand side, so it really doesnt matter which side you choose. The trees in the median, however, provide shade for the women selling the fresh produce to the villagers. Its a wonderful example of the randomness of Egyptian country life, as long as you are feeling relaxed and comfortable with the unpredictability. If you expect traffic, cows or even people to be following the rules, you are in the wrong place.

The main items that we needed were some heavy aluminum pans about a metre in diameter to serve as feed bins for horses until we could finish the paddocks. These are sold by the kilo rather than by the piece, so as we selected items, they were weighed and the price of each item or group was added to the mounting total on my mobile phone. Wonderful things, mobile phones, they are like little computers anymore. The shop we picked was owned by an old man who hauled out an assortment of pots and pans to suit our needs and then bargained ferociously over the price. Not too many discounts from that one.

While I chose the pots and pans, Tracy took my camera and had a great time shooting photos of the passersby. Women came to the shop for pots such as those that we were buying, while others seemed to be walking children home from school. Most of them wore the usual head scarves that are so common in the country, while one or two wore the old Bedouin style face coverings. Tracy is the quintessential tall California blonde, the essence of the foreigner, but no one minded her impromptu photography. In fact a number of people offered themselves as subjects. I wish I could post all of the photos, but it just isnt possible.

On our way out of town, laden with many kilograms of aluminum pots and a stove for cooking barley for horses and eggs and tea for grooms, we stopped to buy some grains for my parrots and chickens. Right next to the man selling the grains was a small booth filled with plastic jerry cans of gasoline. As we waited for the corn, sorghum, and black-eyed peas to be weighed out, one of the tuk-tuks came to a halt by the booth. The driver ordered some gas for his taxi and we had a chance to ask him about his vehicle. Imported from India, these tricycle taxis only use about 5 litres of gasoline a day. A litre costs LE 1 here, so the outlay for fuel is about LE 5 per day. They carry passengers around the village areas for .5 to 1 LE a trip, so these are profitable little thingsCute too. We left to go home thinking that if we had extra money, one of these would be a nice investment, and probably one that many of our village women would really appreciate. It would sure beat riding in the back of a pickup truck.

Posted by maryanne: - 2:34 pm - 3 Comments

November 7th, 2005

Make A Joyful Noise

Yesterday was a very special day. It was November 5th, the birthday of my late husband and of a good friend, Erin Munro, but it was also the wedding of Mayan and Arthur. Mayan is the daughter of one of my best friends in Cairo, and the older sister of one of my daughters best friends. There are a number of us who are close. Some of us are non-Egyptian wives, ex-wives and widows of Egyptians, some of us are Egyptians, but we all have such strong ties to Egypt that weve chosen to live here and make our lives here even if the relationship that brought us here initially is no longer there. Yesterday was utterly beautiful. Mayan and Arthur met in the UK where Mayan (like her father in Cairo) is working as an architect in London. As they got to know each other, the realisation that they wanted to spend their lives together grew, leading to their wedding yesterday in a church in Heliopolis and a garden party celebrating the union out here in Sakkara. I was taking care of some sick animals and didnt make the noon wedding, but arrived at my neighbours in time to greet the bride and groom as they arrived in (what else?) a shiny jeep decorated with flowers and ribbons. The crowd waiting for the couple exemplified part of what I love about this country. The brides Christian Egyptian family was there as was her English family. The hosts were a Muslim family whose head is Egyptian/Moroccan while the wife is Egyptian/German.

The grooms family are English and Dutch. The guests were from every possible background and nationality. Egyptian weddings are fun. One of the traditions of them is the Zaffa, the procession of the bride and groom into the reception preceded by singers playing tambourines, pipers (you probably thought they were only Celtic), reed players, and dancers. A good Zaffa can wake the dead and make them dance. The tambourines provide a driving rhythm as the women in the audience ululate shrilly. This is a sort of trilling call involving movements of the tongue that Ive never learned to do and is traditional at weddings and other joyful occasions. Ive seen the processions to last as long as almost an hour when the wedding party was entering a hotel. Hotels and their visiting guests love weddings, although not always for the same reasons. The guests love them for the exotic beats and the dancers. The hotels love them because they make a TON of money on weddings. Our zaffa was only about fifteen minutes long since the bride and groom emerged from their sunflower-decked jeep at the end of a garden path between rows of date palms as the guests lined the path to watch, cheer and toss fake coins. About ten singers in pale blue satin waistcoats offered praises of the bride and groom and encouragement for the enjoyment of the festivities. A group of six young women in red dresses danced down the path in front of the couple, two of the women wearing headpieces carrying brass candelabras bearing lit candles. The candle dancers didnt dance the entire way down the path, quite understandably. I think that those candelabras must be really heavy.

The procession led into the garden of the country house and to the deck of the swimming pool where Arthur and Mayan danced before the guests to the old rock and roll song "Happy Together". Old friends who hadnt seen each other for ages found time to catch up on gossip in the afternoon sun as we watched the wonderful fusion of two families from different parts of the world. First time visitors to Egypt sat with archaeologists and asked questions about working here, about archaeology and culture. Young people from at least four different countries compared parties as they mingled over lawns sprinkled with palms and gardenia bushes. About sunset everyone moved into a currently empty horse paddock where a Cairo restaurant had set up tables of traditional Egyptian dishes such as koshari (a mix of pasta, dark lentils, rice, a spicy tomato sauce, and crispy fried onions), shawerma (slices of meat or chicken skewered on a rod and roasted, then sliced thin and mixed with tomatoes and onions in pita bread) fattah (a mix of crispy bread, meat, and a creamy vinegary sauce..excellent), kofta, kebab and shish tawouk (grilled ground meat, meat chunks and chicken chunks respectively) along with salads and cooked vegetables, some of them stuffed with rice. Local ice cream and desserts such as Om Ali (a sinful concoction of cream, crispy bread, nuts and raisins), fought for room with freshly made sweets cooked before us. I think that our visitors had a chance to sample some of the best of Cairos cooking. And then the dancing started.

Disco, rock, and Arabic music poured out of the speakers set up in the garden and the younger members of the crowd proved that the night belonged to them. English matrons found themselves being pulled onto the makeshift dancefloor under a trellis to try their hips in an Arabic shimmy. Men young and old clapped hands over their heads in encouragement and appreciation of the womens efforts and then found themselves being pulled into the circle. I watched the festivities until some of the evenings chill began to work its way into my bones. The autumn evenings here are cool these days and once the sun has gone down, leaving a crescent moon kissed by a single star in the velvet sky youd better be either dancing or wearing a sweater. After riding all week, my knees were not up to dancing and my light jacket wasnt up to the chill, so I retired around 8 pm. Most of us fogeys packed it in by around 9 pm, leaving the dance floor and the garden to the younger generation.

The bride and groom eventually called it a night and retired to one of the hotels near the Pyramids. Today they drove down the Sinai peninsula to spend their honeymoon in Sharm el Sheikh. Im sure some sunshine will help them through the English winter ahead. I know that I will see them often in the years to come. The thought brings me a great deal of pleasure because they are a wonderful, lively, loving couple who will have much to bring to this world. Bless them and the parents who raised them.

Posted by maryanne: - 10:59 am - No Comments

October 10th, 2005

A Visit With Adam Henein

A week ago on Saturday my favourite riding partners opted to go on an exploration with me to see if we could find our way from the paddocks to the Wissa Wassef Museum. According to Google Earth, the route was very straigthforward, simply an extension of a route that we had explored before. So we ventured forth on the horses to find our way to the weaving center. That day was still hot, too hot to be riding in the desert, but in the farmland we had trees for shade and our trail took us into the wind blowing from the north. My village neighbours were working hard on the harvesting of zucchini squash from the fields near the paddocks, in preparation for Ramadan which would start a few days later. For some odd reason, the month of fasting is a major food-buying time, as Egyptians do a huge amount of socialising during Ramadan. Invitations fly to friends and familes to join for the breaking of the fast each night, resulting in something almost like a month long celebration of Christmas.

After a longish trek along canals, marking our progress by the restaurants and villas that we recognised on the other bank of the canal running parallel to the main road, we found ourselves outside the museum. We rode the horses in, to the astonishment of the doorman, explaining that we were visiting a friend who lives in the compound behind the museum. After a pleasant chat with Pat, we set out again seeking the best way home. Turning towards the expressway to the north, we passed a door that stood open. On inquiry it turned out to be the workshop of Adam Henein, a well-known sculptor who had cast a delightful bronze donkey that stands in the garden near the front gate of the Wissa Wassef center. Unfortunately the sculptor himself was not at home that day, being out of the country.

This weekend the weather was even better than last weekend and we decided to take the same trip to take some photos of the trail, since wed both forgotten our cameras the week before. We set out as before, but the activity level in the fields was much lower now that the fast had begun. Much of the more difficult labour had been done shortly after sunrise so that the farmer and his family could rest during the heat of the day. With temperatures still above 30 C, this rest is necessary for people who are neither eating nor drinking during the daylight hours. We found our way to the atelier of Adam Henein and discovered to our delight that not only was he in, but he was quite intrigued by the fact that we had arrived on horseback and he invited us in to see his work and chat.

Adam Henein is a very lively older gentleman with wonderful bright eyes and a chuckle just hiding behind most of his sentences. We introduced ourselves and were ushered into his magical back garden which is dominated by a granite boat of pharaonic majesty, upon which various bronze and stone statues are placed. Due to a relatively recent theft, many of the smaller pieces are not left out in the garden anymore, but were brought out from the storage inside to be placed where we could view and admire them. And admire them we did! His work has shown in many of the major galleries in Europe and in New York, so this is not a forgotten artist at all. When we did some research on his career, dreams of owning one of his bronze donkeys took wing, since it would be highly unlikely that either of us could afford the piece. But the loss is less for me, since the artist is more or less a neighbour and I can always go and drool over the donkey in the Wissa Wassef garden.


Mornings like last Saturday remind me how blessed I am. I may never be able to afford an Adam Henein piece for my garden, however much I might love to have one of his donkeys, goats, or dogs adding its particular bronze charm to the more lively creatures that inhabit it, but I have had the pleasure of meeting one of Egypts treasures. This was a morning that I will remember for a long, long time.

Posted by maryanne: - 3:16 pm - 4 Comments

October 10th, 2005

Construction Village Style


A couple of days ago I walked over to the land to check on progress. I found a couple of men working at digging trenches along lines that had been drawn on the soil in powdered lime, and another group of men mixing cement next to a large pile of sand and gravel. One man with a battered wheelbarrow was pushing loads of wet cement to the trenches where the wheelbarrow tipped its sloppy load into the trench to form the basis of the foundations of my new home. Im building my house in the village fashion, which is to say, entirely by hand work and amazingly quickly. After watching the villagers put up a house with little more than some pencil drawings and powdered lime on the ground, one begins to believe that perhaps building pyramids wasnt such a huge task after all.

We have a very high water table in the Nile Valley, so foundations that go much deeper than about a metre run into standing water fairly quickly. This means expensive waterproofing for the foundations and such. For the villagers, any extra expense in building is a problem, making their situation and my own quite similar. So how do they build their homes? The walls are based with concrete set in trenches just under a metre deep. Then more concrete is poured on top of the base to create concrete walls that extend another half metre above the ground level. Brick walls are then constructed on top of the concrete, made of red brick with holes to improve the insulating quality of the brick. These walls are about 25 cm (just under a foot) thick.

Today, after having gone to see the work progress yesterday afternoon, I went to take some photos of the construction. Id been warned that Id better take the photos soon, or I would miss the entire building phase. Yesterday Id found brick walls to the level of my chest on the concrete base. Today the walls were almost at the level to connect to the (as yet nonexistent) roof. As you can see in the photo, the standards of on the job safety in Egypt are absolutely the highest. The bricklayers stackedwhat else?bricks on empty 50 gallon drums to lay old boards to form a scaffold for finishing the wall. This particular wall is the outside wall of my new living room. Once the level of the floor has been raised and the tile or stone floor laid, I will be able to look out of the window to my horses in their paddocks.

Although the methods used to build the house are simple in the extreme, they are effective. A simple lead weight on a string, a plumb line is used to check that the wall of the bedroom (at right) is straight. One of the most important issues in the construction of the house is to ensure that there is a good flow of air throughout. Since the prevailing winds come roughly from behind the young man in the photo, windows on the walls behind him and to his right are vital. This is not exactly a palatial mansion that I am building. If anything, its even smaller than the shoebox that Im currently occupying, but at least it will be mine. The living room is the room at the right with the front door at the point where the dirt comes up to the level of the concrete. The bedroom is just beyond the young man measuring with the plumb line, while the kitchen is the room just in front of him. The bathroom will be just to the left.

While the house is small, the climate here is lovely and just outside of the kitchen and bathroom will be a 25 sq. metre patio under a grape arbour where I suspect I will be spending a lot of my time. Behind the house is a small garden with a stairway to the roof of the house where eventually I will build a two room apartment for my daughter. She is going to have the best view in the place and a terrace from which she can look out over the horses, fields and the desert. Right now the garden is full of wood for concrete pouring frames and some old bricks, but once we finish building, I will plant bushes, grass and whatever will make Molly the Corgi and Schmendrick the cat happy in their private garden. An openwork brick wall will ensure that the other dogs dont go back there from the patio and harass them. Molly is blind and Schmendrick only has three legs. They dont need any more problems. The little boy in the photo is the son of the contractor building the house. He cant wait for me to move in so that he can come and ride the donkeys and the horses. Since he lives just down the road, I expect to see a lot of Ahmed Saber.

Posted by maryanne: - 2:59 pm - No Comments

September 26th, 2005

Construction Village Style

A couple of days ago I walked over to the land to check on progress. I found a couple of men working at digging trenches along lines that had been drawn on the soil in powdered lime, and another group of men mixing cement next to a large pile of sand and gravel. One man with a battered wheelbarrow was pushing loads of wet cement to the trenches where the wheelbarrow tipped its sloppy load into the trench to form the basis of the foundations of my new home. Im building my house in the village fashion, which is to say, entirely by hand work and amazingly quickly. After watching the villagers put up a house with little more than some pencil drawings and powdered lime on the ground, one begins to believe that perhaps building pyramids wasnt such a huge task after all.


We have a very high water table in the Nile Valley, so foundations that go much deeper than about a metre run into standing water fairly quickly. This means expensive waterproofing for the foundations and such. For the villagers, any extra expense in building is a problem, making their situation and my own quite similar. So how do they build their homes? The walls are based with concrete set in trenches just under a metre deep. Then more concrete is poured on top of the base to create concrete walls that extend another half metre above the ground level. Brick walls are then constructed on top of the concrete, made of red brick with holes to improve the insulating quality of the brick. These walls are about 25 cm (just under a foot) thick.


Today, after having gone to see the work progress yesterday afternoon, I went to take some photos of the construction. Id been warned that Id better take the photos soon, or I would miss the entire building phase. Yesterday Id found brick walls to the level of my chest on the concrete base. Today the walls were almost at the level to connect to the (as yet nonexistent) roof. As you can see in the photo, the standards of on the job safety in Egypt are absolutely the highest. The bricklayers stackedwhat else?bricks on empty 50 gallon drums to lay old boards to form a scaffold for finishing the wall. This particular wall is the outside wall of my new living room. Once the level of the floor has been raised and the tile or stone floor laid, I will be able to look out of the window to my horses in their paddocks.


Although the methods used to build the house are simple in the extreme, they are effective. A simple lead weight on a string, a plumb line is used to check that the wall of the bedroom (at right) is straight. One of the most important issues in the construction of the house is to ensure that there is a good flow of air throughout. Since the prevailing winds come roughly from behind the young man in the photo, windows on the walls behind him and to his right are vital. This is not exactly a palatial mansion that I am building. If anything, its even smaller than the shoebox that Im currently occupying, but at least it will be mine. The living room is the room at the right with the front door at the point where the dirt comes up to the level of the concrete. The bedroom is just beyond the young man measuring with the plumb line, while the kitchen is the room just in front of him. The bathroom will be just to the left.


While the house is small, the climate here is lovely and just outside of the kitchen and bathroom will be a 25 sq. metre patio under a grape arbour where I suspect I will be spending a lot of my time. Behind the house is a small garden with a stairway to the roof of the house where eventually I will build a two room apartment for my daughter. She is going to have the best view in the place and a terrace from which she can look out over the horses, fields and the desert. Right now the garden is full of wood for concrete pouring frames and some old bricks, but once we finish building, I will plant bushes, grass and whatever will make Molly the Corgi and Schmendrick the cat happy in their private garden. An openwork brick wall will ensure that the other dogs dont go back there from the patio and harass them. Molly is blind and Schmendrick only has three legs. They dont need any more problems. The little boy in the photo is the son of the contractor building the house. He cant wait for me to move in so that he can come and ride the donkeys and the horses. Since he lives just down the road, I expect to see a lot of Ahmed Saber.

Posted by Administrator: - 8:41 am - 1 Comment

September 22nd, 2005

Lowlights of Autumn


Its the first day of autumn and the temperature outside is 35 C or 95 F. Everyone I know is taking the afternoon easy if its possible. But it is the time to get the fields ready for the winter berseem crop and the date harvest started last week. All over the countryside there are cornstalk shelters and walls being built to protect the drying dates from the predations of crows, rats, and youngsters, not to mention wandering cows who might like them too. And the cows are wandering in Egypt right now. We were riding in the desert an noticed a dark crowd of something on the sand about 100 metres ahead of us. As we got nearer, the horses eyes almost bugged out of their heads because there in front of us was a herd of dairy cattle meandering along in the shade of the garden trees at the edge of the desert. My horses see cows all the time, but usually one or two or maybe four tied up in shelters next to their owners fields. They see cows being walked home in the evenings as the sun is setting, or they see a few cows walking out to the fields on the days when we go out riding early in the morning. But to see a group of about 30 cows walking along was a stunner to them. I have to give them credit; they didnt go nuts, spin and run off into the hills at the sight of all the bovine flesh on the hoof. But it was obviously a startling sight. I guess its the first time I ever realised that horses can sort of countat least in the sense that while one to four cows is fine, thirty is definitely overdoing it.

This is the time of year when visitors to Dahshur will see tents set up along the filling lake shore and flocks of cows and sheep grazing on the grass that will soon be covered with the water of the Nile. The authorities open the canals to the lake in the fall to provide water for the migrating waterfowl that travel south along the Nile, landing in the lake at Dahshur. This action is less out of concern for traveling ducks and geese than out of concern for the duck hunters from the military who use the lake in the late part of October. Still, they dont manage to shoot all of the birds by any stretch, so we can give them a bit of credit. This year I noticed the same herd of cows grazing in an empty field next to my land as I was visiting the site to sign the cement on the foundations of my house. I mentioned that Id seen them in the desert just the day before and was told that they were visiting from Damietta. Now that is a stunner. Damietta is on the Mediterranean coast east of Alexandria, an easy 300 kilometres from here. And what are they doing here now? Apparently at the end of summer the cotton farmers spray their fields and to protect the dairy cattle from the spraying they send them walking the 300 kilometres north to Cairo where we dont grow cotton. As the spraying is done at the end of the summer when many of the summer crops are being harvested, the cattle have plenty to eat in the fields that have just been harvested. They make their way from field to field grazing on the stubble along the way. Theyd been tidying up the fallen leaves and pruned mango branches from the gardens along the desert when wed encountered them there.

For the rest of us who arent harvesting dates, it seems to be the season for a summer flu, something wonderful that begins with a sore throat and turns into a nice chesty cough. Ive had it for the past couple of weeks and the only way I can make headway is to stay home and be inactive. The riding trip where we saw the cows was just a simple walking tour out to the Japanese Hill to check that we could still see Dahshur, Sakkara, and Giza from the top (we could) and back, but the next day I felt like death warmed over. Even the dogs seem to be getting it or a canine version. Two of the Rat Terriers have been coughing at night so that the house sounds like a TB ward and now the Dalmation is kind of mopey and coughing a bit. The vet is sympathetic and has offered suggestions to help the poor canines, but basically this is something that we have to ride out. Now how am I going to get the dogs to drink warm lemon tea?

Posted by Administrator: - 11:13 am - 1 Comment

Maryanne Stroud Maryanne Stroud is a transplanted Canadian now living in Egypt, which she loves. She is also the operator of Al Sorat, a well run horse stable near Giza, and an AETBI member offering various tours.

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