Saturday, June 17, 2006

What it is to be Free

Just before I left Australia I had a conversation with a good friend made about the Middle East. She said that she loved to be Australian because she was free. I was puzzled by the comment in its context and asked what she meant. I think all my friends in the Middle East, in Syria and Jordan and Egypt - think they are free. Those friends who live in Palestine - well, perhaps not.

My friend pointed out that she could go wherever she chose and vote for whoever she wanted, and that she was free.

Tabbi was talking to a friend of ours in Syria. He makes perfume. Name it - whatever major perfume you like, and he mixes a copy for $2 a 150ml bottle. We watched in amazement as he took out an identical bottle to a very well known perfume, added oils and essences and an alcohol base for an eau-de-toilette, and sprayed some into the air to check it. He then added a hint of colouring so it looked the same as the original. He carefully resealed the top, and took out a flat sheet of cardboard which, before out amazed eyes, became the original printed packaging for htis known brand. When we asked where he got the bottle and box he just smiled. He then sealed the box into crisp trimmed cellophane. At this point I would have bought this perfume in any duty-free in the world without a hesitation. He then reached into a drawer and pulled out a narrow roll of tape. With one finger he peeled off something transparent and carefully fixed it onto the bottom of the package. Then he twisted the pack around so we ccould see it.

It was a barcode, printed on a tiny transparent sticky label.

We watched in a mixture or flabbergasted awe and horror at blatant ignorance of the international laws of copyright!

When my daughter Tabbi was in Syria my friendly perfumier mentioned to her that he would like to open a perfume shop in Australia. She and Peter were travelling together, and both are law students. Wondering how to put it tactfully, Peter said "I think you might have some trouble with copyright."

He said, "Copyright, copyright, copyright. You think you are so free in the west. In Syria we have three rules.

One, do not talk about the government.

Two, no guns.

Three, (and he tapped his nose) no cocaine, no drugs.

In Syria we are free. You are not free. You have copyright."

This sort of copying is not illegal in Syria and all sorts of things including music are copied and sold. It is horrifying to us, but they see nothing wrong with it at all as there is no law against it, and no feeling that it is in any way wrong.

It made me think about what freedom is to other people though.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


I walked out on to the balcony off our bedroom a couple of days ago. I have no idea why. It is awkward to get at really - especially since I have a couple of suitcases stashed in the doorway. It is too hot to be pleasant to stand barefooted on sundrenched whit marble. I haven't been out there for ages - probably since last time it was washed and by the look of the drifts of dirt and leaves and soot that was a long time ago.

Even with a housekeeper I am a lousy housekeeper. I probably should have suggested it be cleaned - but then I hardly ever use it.

There was a big pool of water on the balcony.

Now, bear in mind that we have had a couple of weeks of over forty degree temperatures (over one hundred for those in the United States)followed by a week of comparatively cooler weather - around thirty two to thirty five degrees. It has not rained. The balcony has not been washed in weeks.

I stood for a moment looking rather stupidly at the puddle. It was a good six feet across and deepish near the drain. It just should not have been there and my brain was having trouble accepting that it was. I even looked up but there was nothing but dusty sky.

I had to accept that somehow the water had actually come out of the drain. It had climbed a floor level to do so, so it was obviously very determined.

I rang the Embassy and they called in a plumber. He removed a large supply of rocks and sand and builder's debris, declared the drain unblocked and proceeded to pack up his tools. I asked where the water had come from. He pointed to the drain. Well, I knew that - but why was it even in the drain when the balcony had not been washed in weeks. He told me that it was fixed now and left.

I went out next morning and came home to the dubious sight of piles of listing cardboard boxes with ominously soggy bottoms on the lawn. Veronica reported that there had been a flood in the basement, but she had cleaned it up. When I queried this, she said it was from the drain that the plumber cleaned, because it had been cleaned out.

Next day Bob went down to the basement to get some wine for a felucca ride. He shouted for assistance - and was assisted by Ahmed to clean up the now mounting pool of water with yet more cardboard boxes ankle deep (can a box be ankle deep?) in it. Unfortunately some of these were full of curtains, now very wet and heavy.

The plumbers came again and diagnosed a broken water main in the wall - hence the constant supply of fresh water in our new indoor swimming pool.

It will be fixed in two days - and meanwhile we mop regularly and often. At least it might help to soak some of the salt out of the walls.

Now wouldn't you think that water appearing from a drain on a second floor would be a clue to the fact that something other than a blocked drain was wrong?

Not in Egypt!

The Grey Ghost

My youngest daughter Tabbi has gone. She left for Australia from the house two days ago. At the airport (and she had been asked to present herself at checkout three hours early) she was told that the plane was going to be two hours late. Two hours later and still no sign of a flight. She had arrived at the airport at twelve and finally left at eight pm. Worst of all, she had missed her connection in Bahrain, so the airline put her into a hotel - to pick up the flight she should have been on a day later. She sent a text that commented that she was the only female in the hotel, and that Bahrain was like a sauna. She spent all her time in airconditioning, and found the heat almost unbelievable.

Even two days later the house feels very empty. In Australia it always takes a while to clear the odd bits of clutter that follow guests - the things that won't fit in the case, the bits and pieces left on shelves in bathrooms, and the jobs left to be done. Here, with my lovely efficient staff, things are whisked away and out of sight, the bed was stripped and remade and within a few hours it was almost as if Tabbi had not been here.

There were odd little things that happened though. A bottle of water in the bathroom had been tipped onto the floor and left water everywhere. I kept feeling strangely as if I were being watched. The house often makes odd noises, and our neighbours can be noisy, but there seemed to be more times when I looked up from what I was doing and thought 'what was that?' I kept seeing flashes of movement out of the corner of my eye, but when I looked up there was nothing there. We have security film on all our windows. It cuts out a lot of available light and makes the house dark, but it also keeps it cool and at this time of the year I am grateful for that. Disconcertingly though, it turns each window into a mirror if it is darker outside than inside, so when the film first went on I often caught movement from the corner of my eye, only to realise that it was me! This seemed to be at times when I wasn't moving around.

None of it was anything to put a finger on - it was just a bit odd and I was happy to believe that I was missing my lovely daughter and her bubbly presence.

This morning Bob brought me a cup of tea in bed. I would like to pretend that is unusual but it is almost routine - but never unappreciated. He gets up earlier to go to work, I tend to like to work late into the nights and then sleep like a log in the last few hours of the night. It is school holidays so there are no beeping cars and school assemblies singing raucous versions of the National Anthem with more enthusiasm than melody. Without my early morning wakeup tea I would probably sleep till eleven. He often brings snippets of news with the tea - a really interesting bit of news from an email or Aussie papers on the internet will actually mean that I drink it hot!

This morning's news was "I find this extraordinary, but there seems to be a cat in the house".

Talk about instant attention! This house is impregnable. I used to think that meant that it couldn't become pregnant. I know know better, but certainly it seems odd that anything could get in uninvited. The windows are kept tightly shut as the air is full of dust and heat and keeping the house closed keeps it cooler. For security reasons doors are always closed and locked. Local cats - even the two that I feed - are too shy and skittish to come in even invited. The two slender apricot males that sleep on our doormat will leap up and seethe and undulate back and forth a safe three metres away till fed.

However, the evidence was irrefutable. A nasty smelly pile was deposited in the centre of the small bed in our dressing room.

Our first assumption was that the cat had been in, used the bed as kitty litter (I don't much like that bedspread either) and gone. On second thoughts I started to put together the odd glimpses of movement and realised that I might not have been imagining it.

So today I cruised the house quietly, shoes off, scaring Veronica half out of her wits when I suddenly appeared beside her. She did not believe the cat could still be inside. I was starting to agree with her. We saw no other evidence. Then at 12.30, having spent too long on the computer in chat with family at home, and in great haste I was rushing around to get ready for a trip to the museum to investigate Tutenkhamen's underwear.

I grabbed some lunch and took it upstairs to eat as I changed. I brought the plate down to the kitchen and there was a flurry of movement from the sink as an elegant charcoal cat - in that lanky stage between kitten and cat - erupted from the sink and whirled around the room, skittering sideways on the tiles in its frantic haste to get away from me. I tossed it a piece of not-time-to-eat-it-chicken as I stepped away and back into the doorway. I moved out of sight and watched the chicken, to see the cat apporach it slowly. He is beautiful and I have seen him often before. He is long and slim and elegant and with the large ears and long face of the classic Egyptian cat. I must have moved because he saw me, and with his piece of chicken in his mouth he took off up the back stairs.

I had to leave for the Museum - but left instructions that he was to be quietly tempted out of the house with a food trail, not chased and frightened or they would have more mess to clean up! I arrived home after my staff had left, but have no idea if I still have a cat inside or not.

I love cats, but not when they are raging around the house untrained! It is nice to have the ghost mystery cleared up though - especially since Bob very kindly did the worst part of the clear-up!

Friday, June 09, 2006

Guns and Knives and Cinnamon Icecream

I spent a large part of the afternoon in a gun shop. It is on the corner of a street downtown, and the windows attract large groups of admiring teenage boys. The walls are covered with handguns in glass cases - I didn't know there were so many different types. Rifles and shotguns are in long racks and the whole place feels like an armoury.

It is run by a Swiss firm specialising in guns and knives, and there is no trouble buying these in Cairo - except that they are quite seriously expensive.

We were there to top up kitchen supplies. I had been bothered by the quality - of lack of quality - of our kitchen knives. Most of them you could safely sit on, blade up. Some you could probably sit on and wriggle. A really ripe tomato will just crush under the blade of the worst of them. I have two old knives that I love. They are antique bone-handled black steel (pre-stainless) and take an edge that would castrate a mosquito. My lovely chef and I have been using these for everything.

However the office found enough money to upgrade our kitchen supplies before the financial year ended. A search of all the usual places in Cairo came up with Pyrex baking dishes and cooking posts and frypans, but not with the more fancy imported stuff I wanted - like individual dessert baking dishes in something nice enough to serve in - and mini tart tins for individual tart cases. We have six, but most of our parties are fourteen and up! Plus all the knives were cheap - made in China with brands like "Made in GEMANY" (their spelling).

I was shopping with the Embassy Admin oficer and our lovely new Chef. Both are male shoppers - if one will do why look at others? We have nylon cutting boards in the house and they have gone furry and greyish with lots of mould on the surfaces that get wet - the undersides of the blocks. Ahmed was keen to replace with glass. His testing method was entertaining. He would pick up a large glass cutting board and drop it flatside down on the marble floor.

In a very large supermarket in Cairo which was the subject of bomb threats a year ago the effect was galvanising. It didn't break. We were the subject of a lot of instant attention. By the second board the Admin officer begged "Neither broke. Let's just buy them and go!"

However, we didn't find knives. Ahmed knew where to get them but the place wasn't open on Sunday.

So we went yesterday. We took a taxi into town but got out when the taxi jammed in tight traffic that looked unlikely to move. Ahmed had also had a discussion with the taxi driver that sounded somewhat heated and was definitely Ahmed telling the driver that we didn't want something he was offering.

Ahmed is tall and slim and most unlike my idea of a talented chef. He doesn't like chocolate. He cooks fish superbly but doesn't eat it. He is almost vegetarian and very healthy. He strides. He would say things like "We can walk and be there in ten minutes but a taxi will take twenty five." I would look at the traffic and agree that a taxi might not even move for ten minutes, that taxis in the sun are very hot and many have windows that won't open. So we would walk. It was not the heat of last week which was hovering around forty every day, but well up around 35 and not pleasant when there was no shade. He led, I followed and panted. NEVER trust a man's 'ten minutes'.

However, we found a knife shop and bought lovely knives. It turned out that Ahmed had asked the taxi we had hailed in Zamalek to take him to the gun shop which he had named.

The driver said, somewhat quietly after we had reached Downtown, "I have guns for sale if you want guns".

Ahmed said we were going to the gun shop to buy knives, not guns.

"I have knives too, very good ones that you can throw."

Ahmed said we wanted them for the kitchen, not for fighting, and it was around this point that he decided that the walk would do us good!

We detoured through Zamalek on the way back as I had seen large cake plates - rather heavy flat platters in a thick sort of plastery ceramic (nice china plates in large sizes is another thing impossible to find here) in a shop on the opposite side of the island. It was unfortunately closed, so I took the knives and headed home and Ahmed went off on foot towards the bus to his area.

On the way home I found a second hand book seller with quite a bit in English and bought some elderly paperbacks. One releases little puffs of black mould as you turn the pages. One is a Dick Francis which I have read - but I like his books. I had friends coming at six so had to get home, but will go back to see if there is anything else.

And then I stopped at a local icecream shop and bought a cinnamon and moccha ice cream cone. That is two separate flavours in a waffle cone - and delicious. I was juggling large parcels and it was so hot that I was licking fast to keep up with the drips pouring off the sides but it was cool and refreshing and gorgeous.

The trees on that street close the road overhead, so it was not uncomfortable walking. They are poinciana - which the locals call flame trees. They are richly green and feathery leaves, with great falls of scarlet below like pools of fresh blood, but soft underfoot. The flowers sit on top of the branches so you look up through bright emerald green to a scarlet background, with only glimpses of sky.

It was a beautiful walk.
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