Thursday, May 19, 2005

Meeting the First Lady

Last night I went to the palace.

I love those first seven words. As one of my friends said on hearing them “as I say all the time…”, but then she has a very sharp, sometimes even sarcastic, sense of humour....

You know, none of this is routine for me either. I can still be awed by the week I have had. Life here is all ups and downs. A present I had bought for my son’s birthday was deemed too heavy for the diplomatic bag, so he will not have any mail from me. It sounds like nothing, but I am miserable about it. It is odd that such small things can take on a huge importance. I had assumed that we were permitted the same two kilos going out of the post that we are allowed to bring in – but we are not permitted any parcels at all!

However, the up-side is enormous. Not only the privilege of living in another country and learning its ways, but the amazing gift of moving in circles that would be inaccessible to the graying, middle-aged, overweight lady who quilts and lives in Garran, in Canberra, in an ordinary suburban home with a husband who works for the government, two adult children, a cat, a dog, and three chooks. I sometimes feel as if I will find that it has all been a mistake, and that someone important was meant to come here.

I guess that also means that maybe other people in high places occasionally wonder too if they came sideways off life’s trampoline.

Last night I went to the Palace to meet Mrs Mubarak. She had invited all the male Ambassador’s wives, and many of the Egyptian ministers who were female to come to a reception. We were to arrive an hour early. For things like this I use an Embassy driver, and because we are often short of cars and drivers at the Embassy, Bob came home early so I could use his driver.

The invitation was for 7.00pm so I left here at 5.00pm. It takes nearly an hour to drive to Heliopolis at this time, though it is actually not all that far.

We walked through a security gate, just like the ones at airports. In fact, you do this at every hotel here, and usually a handbag has to be handed over and is quickly searched. It often amazes me though, that many women here wear such large amounts of jewelery that the security barriers frequently bleep. At the palace bleeps were taken seriously. My mobile and camera (why did I take that with me – how dumb can you get?) were taken out of my bag, and I was given a number for them. Later someone searched for me and returned the mobile. I think they probably realised that it doesn’t take photos.

We were given a card with a number on it and shown into a small side reception room.

These rooms were stunning. All the floors were marble, but laid with beautiful Persian carpets, most in the Nain and Isfahan style which is predominantly blue and cream and aqua. The ceilings were very high, and trimmed with inlaid stone work in many traditional patchwork patterns around the edges. Furniture here tends to me more ornate than in Australia. Wooden parts are elaborately carved and gold leafed, and the upholstery often in satins and flocked velvets. There is an effect of pattern on pattern on pattern. This was sumptuous, but most of the colours were light, in the creams, green, aqua and blue ranges, so though it was rich it was not heavy.

At about 6.30, when most of us had been there for about half an hour, we were taken into a much larger reception area. This was very high, with an open central area and two floors, so one was a mezzanine that wrapped right around the main room. The balcony was all marble, but very heavily veined in olive and deep green. It had an inlaid stone border that went right around the room which was just exquisite, about six patchwork patterns on top of each other in cream and tan and terracotta and black. Add to this a beautiful piece of edgework that dropped like a hand stitched lace edging below the balcony – but was all carved white stone. Most of the furniture in this room was striped gold and white, still with the gold leaf covering on the arms and legs, so it was rich but subtle and oddly not over the top for such a huge and stately room. We were served fresh juices, orange, lemon, strawberry (still my favourite), guava and mango.

A few minutes before seven doors were opened in the hall outside. Mrs Mubarak arrived with escort vehicles. She is slim and attractive, and looks in her fifties or younger, though my mathematics tells me that that cannot be right. She is very, very elegant, in a slim cream dress and longish loose coat that looked like a silky crocheted lace in a heavy cream, almost caramel colour. She was warm and friendly. She moved quickly through the group, and shook hands with all of us.

We now moved after her into a reception area with tables, and this is when we realised what the numbers on our cards were for, as they signified our tables. I must admit, I was impressed with the Egyptian skill with protocol. Each of us was seated according to diplomatic rank, which dates, not from how important your country is (wouldn’t that be a can of worms?) but according to how long it is since your husband arrived in the country.

This put me at table ten – but even though we have been here only a few months, there was still a table eleven. A harp, with ornate gilding and a wider base than I remember on those I have seen elsewhere, was set up on the entrance area, which also acted as a stage. A young girl sat and played it through the reception, working her way through Andrew Lloyd Webber tunes and an occasional movie theme.

Best of all, there were two long wall sections which held Wissa Wassef tapestries. They were the best I have ever seen. I shouldn’t be surprised, but the ones I have seen have been so good that I didn’t realise they could be better. One was about eight metres long, woven in three sections, and moved down through every possible phase of Egyptian life. The other wall had two smaller pieces, both based on the Nile and traditional plants and flowers.

Ramses Wissa Wassef started the weaving school in 1952. He was convinced that all children have art within them, and just need a way to let it out. He believed that if children where given the skill to weave, and were not interfered with by adults telling them what they should do or criticising their work, that they would make beautiful things. Some of the original weavers still work there, though many are grandparents, and their children are often trained in the second generation. I hope to see the school in the next week, and it is something I have wanted to see again ever since 1991 when I went the first time.

Have a look at the website. I love the work for its exuberance and beauty. I would rather you looked yourself than say too much else about it.

We helped ourselves to a buffet of cocktail party snacks, smoked salmon, prawns, fruit on skewers, and tiny exquisite petits fours. We sat at our tables to eat, and tea and coffee were served. Mrs Mubarak spoke, though it was obvious that she had recently lost her voice. She asked us to consider approaching our local libraries in Egypt to give talks about our countries, with maps and posters and things to help children in Egypt appreciate the rest of the world.

After an hour she left, going through the same system of a handshake each, and working her way around the room. We followed her out.

It took about half and hour to have every car file past the main steps to collect the relevant wife. It made me appreciate the fact that we have a white car, where almost all the others were black. It also made me realise how useful it is to have the flag on the car as we do if I am out with Bob. They say all cats are black in the dark. From the top of a flight of stairs in the dark all black Mercedes look absolutely identical. It was really very funny hearing all those around me trying to work out which car was theirs.

There were only about ten cars which were white, and I had arranged with my driver that he would ring me on my mobile as he was close to the stairs. He did that, and it made my pick up very easy.

It was a really interesting night, and I felt very honoured to have met Mrs Mubarak so early in the posting.

Today I have a Women’s Association lunch – the last for the year since most of the women go home for summer – and my friend, Mary McKinnon, the Canadian Ambassador’s wife, will launch her book, the Global Staircase, on international relocating! I think I should have read it years ago.


Blogger Helen from Canberra said...

Hi Jenny,
I must say that it still sounds like Cinderella to me. I just bet that you felt as though you had lost a limb without your trusty camera. I am sorry that your son didn't get his birthday present on time but if he is anything like his mother I know he would have understood. I am off now to have a look at the Wissa Wassef website. Canberra weather is just more of "the same old, same old".

Regards Helen

8:46 am  
Blogger Kt said...

Love this post Jen - fabulous insight into the ups and downs of your extraordinary life.

And Helen - I just love your daily weather updates!

6:13 pm  
Anonymous Sam Bowker said...

Please don't worry about the present Mum, I am sorry to hear it is causing you distress. It really does not bother me! I very much appreciate the effort you must have gone to to find one.

It does sound like you are still having an amazing time. Your darling dog is doing well, as are all his staff down here. Love you lots, Sam.

6:34 pm  
Anonymous Jo Ferguson - Brisbane said...

Just love your descriptions Jenny, isn't it amazing how quilters can always describe decor in quilting terms and the rest of us understand exactly what is meant by it. I could almost picture the large reception room as you described it.
Well done to Sam for your comment, a wonderfully understanding son - happy birthday.

8:30 pm  
Blogger Lisa, Procrastinator Extraordinaire said...

Thanks for the fabulous insight into another way of life. But what the heck is a chook?

12:35 am  
Anonymous Sue, a Melbourne Scquilter said...

Love following your Blog Jenny, it is a real privilege to share your many wonderful experiences. Your descriptions and photos are so detailed and vivid, I can imagine myself there - it must be your quilter's eye and attention to detail!

6:49 am  
Anonymous Kim said...

Its wonderful to hear you enjoying your experiences so much mum, you deserve to be happy. Only wish I could enjoy them with you. What a wonderful adventure!

10:18 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read your blog almost every day, it's just fascinating and the personal insights make it doubly so. What a fantastic educational resource it would be for any students studying Egypt. The photos are wonderful too.
keep up the good work,
best wishes, fellow SCQuilter, Karen from Coolamon

3:45 pm  
Anonymous Dr May Meleigy said...

Hi Jenny, very interesting your meet with the first lady. I too met her last week, with Richard Gere and was honoured too. Richard was very interested in my animated health awareness programs I am currently organising for Egypt and I gave him my contact details, as I did mrs mubarek. I'm worried that he may have lost them, and wondered if there'a any way you would know of his contact details. If he helped with my project, he'd help seventy million egyptians as I will air my programs on national television and cover a wide variety of diseases and health issues.

5:34 am  
Blogger Jenny said...

An answer for Dr Meleigy,

I am sorry, I cannot answer comment left on the blog unless you leave me an email address. I have no idea how to contact Richard Gere. He is very organised, and has a private secretary. I am sure he would not be likely to lose your details.

Did you meet him at the Charity dinner? I liked him very much. I thought he was kind and thoughtful, and had a lot of interesting ideas on the Middle East.

How did you find my blog?


6:25 am  
Blogger Liz Needle said...

Hi Jenny,

What a great experience. The description of the palace is amazing and there is THE FOOD again. Your life is just full of food!!!


7:21 pm  
Anonymous Liisa Allen said...

Hello Jenny...interestingly enough...a year later than you--I got a call from my husband in Egypt after being unable to reach him for over four hours. He explained to me very matter of factly, that he was "at the palace for a dinner with the presidents wife". Wow. I missed out. I am a Canadian living away from my bank director husband who resides in Cairo. Apparently he was at a fundraiser for the museum there tonite. I sure wish I could have gone and enjoyed the food. Funnily enough, I had thought to ask my husband when I am there this summer if it would be possible to meet her one day...and how? because I am in nursing and her stance on women's rights there intrigues me so much. So, I had to post this to you....your blog is great. Keep going...I too seem to live quite the surreal life and you are so right about being able to frequent different social circles there. I attended the engagement of a famous movie star Kareem Abdul Aziz in December..with my husband and that was so elaborate! Wow. Anyhow..check out my blog. I would love to be able to catch up and meet you when I am in town again next month. As for my hubby..he has meetings tomorrow..then flying off here to Canada to meet me in Montreal and driving here to my home afterwards in Ontario...close to Toronto. I tend to go between...Toronto-Cairo-Marina-and asia from time to time. They call me the gypsy Infact I have a blog with that title... Look forward to hearing from you...Take care...Liisa. You can check out my webpage for pics in egypt..of us..!

1:57 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, Liisa you sure do have the surreal life. The Bank Director husband - that was #2 right? The one you caught cheating? It seems some things never change and some people never learn - husband #3 now. Karma seems to keep repeating itself. Seems like you keep getting caught up in your own stories and fantasies. We will see how this one ends in about a year or two. 45 years old and some people never learn or change. Not very smart, very insecure.

3:56 am  

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