Monday, April 24, 2006


I am travelling at the moment. I was working over Easter in Dunedin in the South Island of New Zealand. Southern Women, Southern Quilts, was a symposium of quilters which was one of the best-run I have attended.

I arrived very weary. I left home in Cairo at lunch time on Tuesday, and was collected at Dunedin airport at about four thirty in the afternoon on Thursday. Even allowing for a ten hour time difference it was a very long trip.

The tutors stayed in beautiful accomodation and I was shown into a very elegant room. I spent my first ten minutes searching for bottled water. I was unable to believe that they would not supply it - how on earth was I supposed to brush my teeth? Even worse - it was now well after six on a Thursday night just before Easter, and I knew that all the shops in town would be closed until at least Saturday morning. How was I supposed to ge water without a way to travel. I was so weary I was hardly thinking straight.

Then it dawned on me. In New Zealand you can use tap water!!

It is funny the things that you carry with you after a posting in the third world. I kept looking the wrong way at the edges of roads. I kept trying to get into cars on the wrong side. A couple of times I caught myself starting the 'wait a minute' handsignal - which would possibly have been misinterpreted in New Zealand as something rude.

I am back in Australia now and can't stop worrying about the organisation for our Anzac Day breakfast for up to ninety Australians in Cairo. My cook is well briefed, and has probably been working on it for the last two days. We have waiters organised. I keep wondering if Bob remembered to give him the money to buy the food. We have planned bacon and eggs and sausages and grilled tomatoes. There will be some Moslems and for them we have organised halal sausages and will cook them inside, not on the pork-tainted barbecue. There will be damper and fruit salad, and anzacs to eat with rum-spiked coffee to keep out Cairo's early-morning cold when people come in from the dawn service.

It feels odd that this time Bob will be there without me. Last year I was there and Bob was up in Tobruk in Libya with the Minister for Defence for Anzac Day. The service in Cairo was haunting, and I can still feel the odd sense of ranks of people standing behind me - when behind me was a long cemetery, grassed and beautiful in the still cold morning, with nothing behind me but hundreds of white Commonwealth grave stones.

It has been delightful to see family in Canberra, and on Friday I travel to Coffs Harbour to teach at Be Creative by the Sea. Then I will be back in Egypt on the 11th May.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Edge of the Trees

I walked through the streets of Zamalek with a friend to see her new apartment two days ago. We chatted as we went, peered into doorways and shop windows, hopped up and down pavements and stepped over holes, and dodged obstacles. We walked mostly on the road in places where pavements were inaccessible. Later, after a couple of gin and tonics, I walked back alone in the dark. Students around the art school gathered in laughing groups, and with the onset of Spring the girls are wearing brighter colours - orange and green still endure from last season, but there is a lot of fresh clear pinks and blues.

Egyptians are a dear and friendly people, and smiles flash out at me, and occasional greetings as I walk past the groups. Next week is the holiday which translates as something like "Smelling the breeze" where children appear in new clothes, and windows are thrown open to blow away the fug of winter and let in the spring air. It is an old holiday - possibly Pharaonic, and not known in other Arab countries. For me it is a sense of sadness, as it signals the end of what I see as the best weather for walking and exploring, and the onset of a long, fierce and relentless summer.

It occurred to me as I walked that night that this is a dear and familiar place now. This is home in a way that I would not have imagined last year when I really struggled with the sheer difficulty of a daily walk to the shops. I did a lot of work in art school based on a quote from Rhys Jones which I think of as the 'Edge of the Trees'. He talks of the familiarity of home against the mystique of the different - and I won't even try to explain what it means to me as a frequent traveller who lives out of my own culture. I have it on my wall all the time and love it. Just for your information:

Rhys Jones - the Edge of the Trees
"The discoverers" struggling through the surf where met on the beaches by other people looking at them from the edge of the trees. Thus, the same landscape perceived by the newcomers as alien, hostile, having no coherent form, was to the indigenous people their home, a familiar place, the inspiration of their dreams.

The trees here are taking on new leaves. Winter is a short flurry here, not as distinctive as Canberra with its frosts and ice. I have even had basil growing throughout Winter on our marble steps in big tubs. However, trees still lose their leaves and it is nice to see the apparently dead branches starting to put out lacy green frills. Somehow a dormant tree here implies death much more so that at home. Even the new growth is so uncertain - a green fringe will appear on one branch but not another - that I find myself peering out my upstairs windows at the flame trees and jacarandas and thinking "Please, please, be OK!"

In Seoudi supermarket on the corner one man who works mostly inside has always worn a soft flat pair of slippers. In the excitement of Spring his plain brown leather ones have been replaced with a pair in strongly contrasted fake leopard fur, fluffy and bizarre with his neat forest green and beige uniform and cap. Every time I go in they bring me a drink immediately - Coke, or 7-Up, or a juice - which is lovely, but surprisingly awkward if I am juggling a bag, previous shopping from whatever trip I have just been on, and a shopping trolley. Philadelphia cream cheese has disappeared again, and it is a mark of my seige mentality that with the sudden appearance of a shipment of Piccalilli that I bought a bottle 'just in case'- where I don't think I have ever used it in my life!

Chicken has disappeared and we have had deaths here from bird flu. Egypt slammed down fast on the problem and banned all live birds from rooves of apartments and street stalls. Pigeon house are empty, and I miss the great swirls of birds as they took to the skies in the morning. The places that had chickens and geese and turkeys are deserted or locked, and the odd stand of quiet rabbits has replaced birds - and almost needs a sign saying "The other white meat." Most Egyptians will not eat chicken or eggs in fear of bird flu. The worst of the ban is that for many poor Egyptians the stocks of chickens provided their only source of protein, as eggs or meat. Many have been so reluctant to lose their birds that they have removed them from rooves to rooms inside the house - and increased their chances of contracting flu by being even closer to their birds. I am noticing more dead birds in the garden, and lots of small swirling clouds of feathers where a cat has found it first.

In one of the first deaths (gospel according to the press) a woman in hospital claimed to have no contact with birds so her illness was not considerd bird flu. However, as her condition worsened she asked a neighbour to go to her room as her chickens were in a cage under the bed and would need food and water! The neighbour reported her and the disease was identified. She died, and so did her daughter.

I am on the point of leaving for a month. I am a bit reluctant this time. I don't really want to be away from Bob for so long. There was a freedom in having children at home that I had never really appreciated - that when you leave three people behind they have each other for company. I have had enough time in the house on my own this year to be reluctant to do it to Bob. A really big house is somehow much more lonely than a small one. Everything echoes but the rooms are so far apart that a radio playing at one end cannot be heard in another, so you move from silent space to silent space. I have at times put on TV in the study, and a radio in the kitchen, just to fill the silences. Now I do it with an Ipod (what a new toy this has become!) which has its own way of holding the whole world at bay.

I will be in Dunedin over Easter, then Canberra to see family and friends, then working in Coffs Harbour.

I will try to keep up the blog from time to time as I travel.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Syria, and Sinai

In the last few weeks I have found myself repeating previous trips. We have had a spate of visitors and that keeps me busy. Egypt is not an easy country for Australians, especially those without a lot of travel experience. After one day at the Pyramids I think many guests would decide that the spare bedroom is about as exotic as they want to be. Giza is, for me, the worst of Egypt. Crowds, dust, flies and worst of all - hundreds of people who want to separate you from your money. They often use the worst of tricks and emotional blackmail.

I would love to see huge signs up in many languages giving an idea of a fair price for a taxi ride, for a guided tour through a tomb, or a ride on a horse around a pyramid. I have heard quotes for the latter varying from forty pounds to five hundred Egyptian. Worst of all are the ones who negotiate prices, and when the time to pay comes insist on Sterling, not Egyptian - a massive increase. I feel so sad for the hundreds of thousands of good and gentle Egyptians whose reputation is forever tarnished by the sharks who go into feeding frenzy at Giza.

However, I am allowing myself to be distracted.

I have been in a blog vacuum. Parts of my blog were used in ways I never expected, and it was hurtful enough to have me curl up against a wall (metaphorically speaking) and refuse to write again. I have now more or less recovered and will continue to write, but much more carefully.

I took my visitors to Syria and they loved it. It is a wonderful place - kind and thoughtful and generous with both its treasures and the access to them. We went to the Krac de Chevaliers again and I love this place. It has to be one of the best crusader castles anywhere. We also went to Palmyra and it is years since I was there. My daughter has been visiting on her way through to a tour of Turkey, the Ukraine, Russia, Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania and down again through Poland and Czech Rebpublic. I am proud of her, but concerned and very grateful that she is travelling with an old friend.

Her old friend is a young male law student, a year ahead of Tabs in his studies, who is good looking in a tall and clean cut way.

He was very nearly mobbed in Palmyra. There was a girl's school visiting from Aleppo, and I would love a pound for every girl who wanted a photo with them both - but seemed to manage to be beside Peter. Tabbi said that it was like trying to travel with Johnny Depp. The schoolgirls were enchanting. They were noisy and effusive, singing and happy, swarming around us like clinging bees and showing off to each other. Syrian people are faireer than Egyptians, and the Crusader heritage in so many areas is obvious in the beautiful light eyes, charcoal rimmed with long lashes, but grey or ice blue or the most haunting of greens. The girls are so beautiful, lithe and sinous in their movements, and wearing surprisingly close fitting clothes even when they wear head scarves.

The best thing about the trips to Syria is sumptuous food. While much of Egyptian food is excellent it does not have the huge range of the fare available in Damascus, with the local regional variations in each different town. Also while Egypt has gone the whole hog and banned all poultry sales in the wake of bird flu here, Syria does not acknowledge a problem. It was nice to be able to eat chicken again (well cooked of course). There is a fabulous dish in Aleppo of meat balls with sour cherry saice, and I left Tabbi with enough money to provide a meal there for herself and her friend. We always come back feeling stuffed, and certainly these are two kilo trips.

We went to the MFO headquarters on the far side of the Sinai on our return, for a dining in night. It said 'Dress, Dinner Suit" on the invitation, but on walking in I was immediately concerned that someone had made a mistake. The uniform most worn by the MFO was short sleeved khaki and I felt somewhat overdressed in a long sleeved lined silk jacket which was also far too hot. I often decry men's suits as a stupid garment to have to wear even in summer - but there is precious little available to women that is much cooler in a country where shoulders and arms have to be covered.

We had driven across the Sinai to almost the border with Gaza to get there. As we reached the Peninsula black clouds were massing overhead, and the horizon glowed pale with sand dunes against the deep grey blue of the cloud. The wind was fierce over the sea and white tops capped every wave. Two large white birds were whirling about each other overhead - almost like two sets of white undies in a dryer. It was hard to work out how much of their crazed flight was deliberate, and how much was the wind.

The villages in this region are small and poor, and there is no glass in the windows, just shutters. In one village a woman in traditional embroidered dress was struggling to close her shutters against the wind, while her skirts lashed at her legs with their blue on black embroideries, and her shutters kept swinging out of her hands and back agaist the house. The light was that strange light before or after storms, so the pale mauve shutters glowed against the yellow ochre house. It was such an odd colour combination, full of discomfort and discord, but amazingly beautiful. As we went passed I had to twist in my seat to keep her in view and was so relieved when she managed to clip the shutters closed.

Just beyond the village another woman walked the skyline of creamy dunes. The edges of the dunes were lifting in the wind, with the pale sand flowing aross the edges and down the sides. She had a pile of kindling strapped together on her head. It was such an unwieldy bundle, twigs and branches sticking out like one of Andy Goldsworhty's nests, and as she walked her skirts whipped at her ankles like bad tempered terriers.

It was a lovely drive - and I really like to visit the MFO. You know, we talk so much about those of our boys in the army who are willing to give their lives for our country. When I look at places like this I wonder how many would so willingly do the far less dramatic thing of offering to live in dreadfully restricted conditions in often horrific heat, living out a year in boredom and clerical work to help to hold a fragile Middle East peace together. They are so admirable and so laid-back in their attitude to what they do that I almost burst with pride in our young Australians every time I go there.

OK. I am blogging again. I will try to do a few lines a day until I feel back into the swing of it!
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