Thursday, November 03, 2005

Eid El Fitr

I have not disappeared from the planet. I have not even been flat out with official functions. In fact, in hunting for excuses for not doing the blog I realise that there aren’t any.

We spent the weekend up in Agami with good friends, and lounged around the pool and read – and I even did a bit of painting for the first time in ages. I have been swimming a little lately. At leat – not what I call swimming, but treading water in the deep end while pushing weights around with hands, and floats around with your feet. It is supposed to be exercise, and maybe it is – I have had a few aches in muscles I didn’t realise were there. However, it feels about as much exercise as lying on your back on a bed. Worse – we talk and laugh the whole time so time goes in a flash.

I have to confess though that I didn’t swim at Agami. I put on my swimsuit and bounded – well – staggered – down the steps in the morning. I walked to the ladder. I stepped onto it and down two rungs. I hesitated. I was, by now, up to my knees. It was cold. My feet were cold. I couldn’t really feel my toes. I went down one more rung and chickened out on grounds that I was there to relax and icy water wasn’t relaxing. I got out again and had a shower!

On Sunday and Monday I actually ran a class. Two good friends have wanted a class for some time. I was happy to do it, but they wanted to pay and I didn’t want them to. Worse – if I use my marvelous studio they can’t pay or I am using the house for private commercial purposes and it is government property and I would be into very murky waters. Finally we did it, and it was fun.

I have spent a lot of time up there in my eyrie lately. Recent visitors had pointed out that we have eagles slowly circling overhead and obviously living on the top of the tall apartments next door. I have also discovered that I have small dark brown furry animals in the garden. I think of them as stoats. They are almost otter-like in their movement, chocolate brown and densely furred, and they dart around the garden. From the roof I can see them often. Locals call them weasels, but I think they are shorter.

By the way – someone sent me a list of Steven Wright sayings – and one is very apt here. “Eagles may soar, but weasels don’t get sucked in the exhaust of jets.”

It was the last day of Ramadan yesterday. Well, at the time there did not seem to be 100% certainty, as with most Islamic holidays. However, most people seemed pretty sure that this would be it. It was a public holiday, as is today, the first day of the Eid El Fitr.

We went for a walk in the evening to see the last settings of public tables. They line up down public streets under the overpasses, tucked into alleyways, and clustered on footpaths. On each place setting is a bowl of yoghurt covered with a loaf (well, a round disc) of aish balady – the local bread, a salad in a plastic container, a few dates, as that is the traditional way to break a fast, and a glass of water. This food is always free, and often the people are poor, sometimes not, just dropping in for a free meal, or caught, like our drivers are sometimes, away from home.

I had never really taken photographs of this. I wanted snaps with people at the tables but found it curiously hard to point a camera at longs rows of the elderly and underfed of Cairo. I have a couple of poor photographs, and apologise for the quality. It is also time to break the fast when the light is low – and this is the worst time to take photographs with my digital camera. Worse still, in a few places where the light was adequate I received very definite “NO PHOTO” responses to my request to take photographs.

We were asked into a soup kitchen – literally. I was walking down a narrow dark lane, gauging the people most likely to allow a photo. I reluctantly decided against trying as it felt intrusive. People were clustered around a hole-in-a-wall window where they were being given dark pottery steaming bowls thick with vegetables and smelling very savoury. One man asked me if I wanted photos and took me off down an alley. Bob followed saying “Where are you going?” I replied that I was following a man who had indicated that I should go that way.

He took us into a tiny space, tiled, but far from spotless, where huge pots like laundry coppers were bubbling away, thick with broth, vegetables and chick peas.

The soup kitchen
The soup kitchen

You know, I absolutely love this tradition. There is something very sharing about long tables spread with free food. It is even better when most of the people sitting there are strangers to each other. They wait, and chat while they wait. Some – those who find the fasting most arduous, might have there heads in their hands, some are quietly praying. It has been cooler in the last few days, so people don’t have the headaches from dehydration that are almost standard in the hotter weather.

Before the call to prayer there is a stillness and waiting – an avid expectancy. At the call to prayer many reach for the water immediately. Some almost savour the anticipation by waiting a little longer. There is a sense of relief, a loosening of the control that has held them hungry and thirsty all day. Try a day without water sometime –or any drink. I often fast if we are invited for an Iftar. I have found that I can do without food easily enough, but not without drinks. The saliva in your mouth thickens to the point where it is hard to swallow. It is an unpleasant feeling, and makes me understand the number of people who spit in the street in Ramadan.

Ramadan tables Ramadan tables
Ramadan tables Ramadan tables
Ramadan tables

I also photographed some of the food shops on the 26th July - the main street of Zamalek. I love the way whole carcases hang from the rail above the butchers, with protection only on cut meat surfaces. The fish shop is always spectacular with fish arranged in different ways each time – like elaborate floral arrangements. It will be the last night of Ramadan lanterns too. The next three days are days when children will have new clothes, toys and sweets – and many adults too! There is feasting, and many families will meet to eat together.

Food shops in Zamalek Food shops in Zamalek
Food shops in Zamalek Food shops in Zamalek

I gave tips to my staff and some nice chocolates from a place on the corner.

I have new staff that I have not talked about. A cook called Ahmed Ali has started and I have decided that it is heaven not knowing what is for dinner. Because of Ramadan he has been leaving our food on plates and in the frig for us to reheat so he can have Iftar with his family. His hours might change a bit with the end of Ramadan so he can serve us sometimes, but the real delight is that he will do the canapés for guests, and the dinners – and that Bob will have meals waiting for him when I am away. No more getting up at five to do muffins for breakfast when we have official guests either.

I also have a driver, Ahmed Sayed, and that is going to make my life much easier. He has already distinguished himself with finding the foam core board from samples sent by lovely Aussie friends.

Life is pretty good.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read your blog almost daily and realized that I need to thank you for this glimpse into another country, another culture and the wonderful images you post (and paint with words). Thank you so much.

Catherine in Illinois, USA

2:09 am  
Blogger Min said...

I've just been told of your blog. Looking forward to meeting you in person at the quilting workshop in Kuala Lumpur. Such beautiful photos in your blog!

4:10 am  
Blogger Sam Bowker, somewhere distant and exotic. said...

Thanks for another wonderful post Mum, so great to hear you're having such a good time! Looking forward to meeting again around late November, inshallah.


5:11 am  
Blogger Helen from Canberra said...

Hi Jenny,

I must agree with you, to me your life does sound pretty good. Keep up the swimming, it is very good for you. The weather in Canberra is very changeable at the present time but we have had had lots of rain which is a blessing.

Regards Helen

8:06 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jenny,

I've enjoyed reading about your time in Cairo.

Michele (Bucasia Beach Quilters) Mackay, Qld

9:03 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jenny

I've enjoyed reading all of your (and Sam's) blogs -- but particularly the last two. The descriptions have been absolutely wonderful.

Thank you for doing this

Love, Tena

12:25 am  
Blogger Sarah Ann Smith said...

Hi Jenny.... I can tell it has been quite a while since we left the (US) Foreign Service (that was in '97, last lived overseas in '91), as this all sounds wonderful to me. I've never been much intrigued by the Middle East, mostly out of ignorance and unfamiliarity. I love the glimpses I get from your posts.

Who knows, I've even been muddling over the idea of re-upping for a couple of consular tours when my youngest is out of high school in 10 years (if they'll take me back!). It could be great fun...I'd sign up for Maputo in a heartbeat. Then after an AF tour maybe they'd reward me with Canberra or Auckland or Sydney? Anywhere in that region where I could visit both nations!

'Til then, I'll enjoy the vicarious thrills, Cheers, Sarah

12:37 pm  
Blogger Elle said...

Thanks for sharing your photos. They make me feel as if I'm there.

7:26 am  
Anonymous paramjeet said...

hi Jenny
thanks for all those wonderful pictures Allways Looking forword for more

9:19 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

HI there, being that I am a native of Egypt and miss it there very much, I appreciate your time to share your expierences. I am glad that you have been able to see the meaning behind the culture of Egypt. Every place you mension, I have been there and daydream about being there again. Keep enjoying yourself, and again THANK YOU.

1:56 pm  

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