Thursday, April 26, 2007

New Work

I have started a series of pieces (ambitious when I have not even finished the first piece) based on portrait photographs I have been taking.

I have been really struck by the fact that my best friendships in Egypt have not been with the class I move in as a diplomats wife, but with the Egyptians I see regularly at other levels. These people are often not so well-off, but are kind and gentle people who will be the ones I remember best. In fact, the three drivers I use regularly are probably my best friends.

I want to work on quilts that document some of them.

Hashim is a boab (a guard, not the tree) at Sakkara. I rarely actually let my working life into the blog - but this time I thought I would show you a bit of what I am doing. This is quite big - much more than life size. It gives me a slight shock whenever I walk into the dark studio if it is on the wall! I guess it is a metre and a quarter wide, and will be a bit longer when finished. His hands and arms are evocative and go in next. Then the rest of his galabeyieh.

Then I plan sections of the work which will give an idea of where he is - and I am hoping it will not feel kitsch so may avoid hieroglyphics and the more usual Egyptian references.

So - watch this space when I return from tomorrow's trip to Spain and Turkey.



Addendum to Minia

While I was chatting to the guards at the halfway-up the-hill point,Bob was admiring tombs. He was being escorted - when we delete the large bodyguard of police in khaki and local officials - by a very nice young guide.

We do not know his name - but it would be easy to find out.

He was born and grew up in Minia. HE studied Egyptology at the University of Minia. He has a job with the Inspectors of Archaelology. Every foreign dig is assigned an Egyptian Inspector in Egypt. He explained the tombs and the main paintings to Bob. His English was good but not flawless and a bit limited in some areas.

There is a point to this. He sat beside me in the guest room after we walked back from the hill. It was stiflingly hot but not too bad under the fans. He was happy and telling me about the tombs I had missed. Then he paused for effect.

"I am going to Cambridge," he said. "Next year."

I was both impressed and a bit surprised. This is a poor town and I was amazed that this boy would have the money to educate himself to this level, and a bit surprised that he would have won a scholarship with his English at its current level.

"I met a very nice woman from Cambridge," he went on, "and she said to send her all my papers about my education and she would look at them." He was bubbling with joy. "When I go to Cambridge I can get a job anywhere I want, even in Cairo Museum."

I asked if he had sent the papers.

"Yes," he said, "and I am waiting very impatience to hear when I will start."

I asked how he would keep himself as England was expensive. He explained very earnestly that he would work for a while before he studied to make the money he needed. At this point I really started hearing alarm bells as there is no way he would be allowed into Australia to do this.

He was so excited. He was bubbling and happy and his brown eyes were dancing with anticipation. I felt so sad for him as he was so obviously counting so much on this mystery woman. Perhaps she will be able to help him- but the idea of a young Egyptian public servant on about $40US a month actually getting to England to study seemed impossible.

I asked when he sent the papers and how long he had been waiting.

"Three days ago but I am very impatience."

If anyone has an enormous sum of money drifting around with nothing to do I know a young Egyptian who I think would work hard and be so incredibly grateful. He would not get into Cambridge perhaps, but possibly a smaller University which runs Egyptology. I left wishing with all my heart that there was a way to make an occasional dream come true.

Maybe though the dream is just that - a dream - and he will be happier in his life in Minia if he never goes to Cambridge.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Comments and contact

I have been asked to remove some comments from my blog - and I cannot work out how to do it. Comments are supposed to have a delete rubbish bin logo beside them - I cannot find it! I have tried refreshing to no avail.

Worst of all - I have been nominated for the Thoughtful Blogger Award twice - and I am not sure how to add links to respond.

I promise I am ignoring no-one. I just am severely limited technically.

Give me time and I will find someone to help me to suss it out!

For those who would like to contact me other than through the comments - there is a way. I am unwilling to list my email address on the blog - but if you follow the link to my website there is a contact link. It should be a gmail address. I am happy to be contacted - but I travel a great deal and might not answer promptly.

In Egypt the Salt is in the Pepper Shaker

This is one of those small things that is a constant and irritating reminder that the culture is different.

Butter here is always unsalted. It is odd for me - like eating unsweetened whipped cream on bread rolls and it is strangely tasteless. In some ways it is just as well as it means I am much less tempted to eat butter. In other ways - I miss the simplicity of fresh brown bread and smooth cool butter.

In Minia I had absent-mindedly reached for the salt to add just a sprinkle to the butter on my roll. It was late and we were hungry and lunch seemed a long time coming. The pepper was not so much a surprise as 'why did I forget AGAIN?'

We were in Minia on Sunday and Monday. In Egypt these are the first two days of the working week - and that is another constant reminder that I am not in Australia. It can be an advantage as when daylight saving works in our favour I can catch people in offices in Australia on a day that is our weekend.

We went to Minia for a conference at the University and so that Bob could meet local officials. We drove down the road to Fayoum Oasis. This road parallels the road that goes past the pyramids which goes all the way from Giza to Sakkara, to Dashour, then weaves through a dozen tiny townships past crowded but poor vegetable markets and small barefooted children, and past Meidum and a couple of other mud-brick pyramids (once stone clad) whose names I can never remember. The road past the pyramids runs through farmland and there is a constant passing of green fields and date palms and people stripping date fronds for the wood in the centre, and the fronds for weaving. It is busy and entertaining. Overloaded donkeys sway past with fodder so wide that I think they should carry a 'wide load' sign. The areas with small towns are really worrying as children dart across the dirt roads with scant attention to traffic.

The road we traveled was so different it was almost bizarre to see the pyramids a few at a time as we moved along it. We were surrounded by quite featureless desert. It might have been boring but I love its pale gravelly expanses. It stretches like a pale sea as far as the very distant horizons, and with now and again a long finger of sand dune, shining golden against it. We had an odd grey sky - and it has been with us for days, even in our weekend trip to the White Desert. The pale caramel of the desert, light yellow ochre of sand, and the cool and blued-grey sky were like washes in the palest of neutral watercolours.

We picked up a police escort at the last checkpoint about twenty-five kilometres before Minia. We were obviously expected. As we pulled in they came to ask us who we were, and at the answer a good looking young man in khaki and breeches swung himself onto a police motor bike and wheeled out in front of us, then a navy blue police vehicle pulled out behind us.

We proceeded in a police sandwich to Minia. Occasionally the motorcyclist waved trucks to the side of the road to let us through. It slowed us down a little but I am still childish enough to find it exciting.

We went first to the hotel. They sat us down, took our passports and gave us the usual glass of cold khakadeh. This is delicious, and tastes like cold plum juice. While I know it supposed to be hibiscus I have seen the flower growing and the plant, and the flowers are thick and fleshy - unlike any hibiscus I have seen.

We waited a while, then a bit longer and started to feel as if something was wrong. Bob went to the desk to check and after a little shuffling they admitted that our rooms were not ready. It was only eleven o'clock and there was a gentlemen there from the tourist office waiting to take us to see tombs - so we decided to see tombs first and come back to our rooms.

Minia is often called the Bride of Upper Egypt. I am not sure why. It is a nice enough town, though obviously mostly agricultural and very poor. It has a quite lovely Corniche along the River Nile, and this has been developed with garden and park areas.

It was hot. By the time we walked out of the hotel to go to the tombs of Beni Hassan it was over 39 Celsius and the thermometer on the car climbed as we watched. We were following one of the canals south - towards Upper Egypt which I always think is confusing. At one point we passed a Coptic cemetery and a huge church, then the Moslem cemetery - which was really fascinating. Each tomb had a beehive dome on top - and they were big. They looked like houses in the north of Syria. They nestled close together and packed tight all the way back to the distant hills - and we followed them for miles!

I was agonising for a photograph or two. Did I mention that we still had a police bike in front and a chase car behind? Photography was obviously impossible as the bike woudl have shot ahead and the chase car might well have run into us. I had to watch one brilliant photograph after another slide by. Large groups of girls wore brilliant floral dresses in orange and purple and yellow and blue and jade, and the wind whipped their bright scarves like hair around their heads. Small boys with bare legs sticking straight out horizontally rode white donkeys. Women in headscarves leant on their hands and stared out the windows at our cavalcade. I had to resist an impulse to wave like the queen.

In watching the tombs I had not been watching the thermometer. When we pulled up in front of Beni Hassan it was up to 43 degrees Celcius. We stepped out of the airconditioning into a wall of heat.

A brief stop for a coke saw the temperature climb even higher. According to our driver it was almost 46 Celsius (or 114.8 Fahrenheit for my American friends) by the time we walked out of the back of the building to start the walk up to the tombs. I was a bit horrified. I had caught a few glimpses of stone cut tombs as we approached that area - and I knew they were high. I had hoped that there were even better low ones which we were going to - but no such luck. A wide and attractive staircase climbed inexorably up the hill behind, totally exposed to the full blast of the midday sun. Up and up and up. One of the guides proudly told me that there were 242 stairs and that he had to go up every day. He said the ramp was easier so I tried the ramp. This was not a 'made' ramp - but a slope of gravelly sand and I was sliding back a few centimetres at each step. I was sweating and uncomfortable and decided that the stairs might be easier.

I gave up at the half way point. The group was all men. Their legs were longer, most were younger and all were fitter. I might have done it at 20 degrees. I might have done it a bit more slowly - but with rapidly striding, long legged, healthy, slim, young Egyptians - there was no way.

I told Bob I was pulling out and would wait on the benches at the half way point. One of the police in khaki suggested that I wait in the guards' box and they would look after me.


I moved up the gravel slope to the guards' box and was ushered in to sit down. It was much cooler as it was shaded by a roof made of dried cornstalks and they whispered in the breeze that was caressing the hill. The two guards took up stances leaning on their guns on either side of me and I felt as if I had been stuck in a pillbox outside Buckingham Palace.


It felt ridiculous, but it didn't last long. I was now occupying their only shade. One side and the back were made of badly fitted stone rectangles with enough gap to let a lot of light through. The roof and other side were corn stalks, carefully tied together with plastic bags twisted into ropes.



The box was small. If I had asked them in I would have to be prepared for a much more intimate relationship than was appropriate. Slowly they drifted back into the small amount of shadow cast by the stone side of the hut. They were chatting in a desultory way, and I had taken photographs of the river and river flats from above, and of the line of thirty nine tombs above me.



I was amusing myself looking at the bits of view framed between the big cracks between the stones. I looked through a vertical crack with framed date palms, a horizontal crack to a view over the canefields, horizontal again - what was I looking at? It was part of one of the men - but it took me a surprised second to realise I was looking straight into two eyes which were widening in horror as they looked back.

I burst out laughing and the owner of the eyes responded with howls of glee and relief. There was a prolonged explanation to the older man. I started to chat to them and asked questions about the things we could see. We discussed the sugar factory and the part sugar plays in the lives of Egyptians, and the village that was flattened by Mohamed Ali in the Ottoman period.

Bob returned and after another stop in the rest house we left. This time I had asked if I could have photographs and so we were all - all police and Bob and our driver - watching for the perfect view of the cemetery through the cracks between the houses, preferably at a point where the wall was low.

I spotted a possible place and our driver swerved to the side. The bike in front swirled around and came back. the chase car pulled in tightly behind us and four men got out with guns. I picked my way through the rubble at the side of the road to a vantage point (we had overshot just a tad) and tried to set up a photograph. To my horror I realised that I was surrounded by police and curious villagers. I took two quick shots in hope that they would give some impression of the cemetery. A little further on I repeated the exercise and included a small boy on a beautifully clipped donkey - but it was just so much trouble and we were attracting so much attention that that was all I took of a place I could have wandered for days!




Friday, April 06, 2007

Dust and Roses

We are in the middle of khamseen - the dust storm season. It is supposed to last fifty days, and khamseen is literally fifty. All day the dust has been blowing in from the desert, carried by a hot hot wind. There is grit everywhere. This is not the sandstorms I imagined with waves of heavy dense sand filling every crevice, but is much more insidious. It is a fine sand that hangs in the air for days after the wind sweeps it into the city. It banks up in the corners of our marble steps, and you can feel it under your feet, in your hair and between your teeth. Every so often a particularly vicious gust flicks dirty dust into your face.

The khamseen has blown in Summer. Egyptian summers are unrelenting. The heat just goes on and on. Many people leave for the summer months - Egyptians flock to the north coast where a breeze from the Mediterranean makes the heat much more bearable and expatriates just go home. Today was 36 and while it was dry it was really unpleasant walking around. This is the time when the rough and unkempt pavements, the need to walk to shop, and the irritations of life in Cairo seem to be most hard to stand.

We have a surfeit of roses. The bushes are smothered in buds and every day more have unwrapped the tightly curled petals. They are stunning - velvety and richly scented. You can smell them when you walk into the house as Gamal arrives every morning with a new collection.
He makes floral arrangements for me. They are like children's play gardens in many ways, but I love the fact that he brings them in with pride and affection and would not change them for anything. No - actually - for dinner parties I do tweak and manipulate them a bit. This morning he was setting them up in the area near the kitchen and carefully shaking dust from the hearts of the dark red roses. It reminded me of shaking sand from my shoes after being in the desert.

We made some food for an Embassy lunch today, with Ahmed cooking. It is a very strict fasting time for Coptic Christians and they eat no meat, cheese, eggs, milk, butter or animal products. We now make a good line in fasting cakes and usually have one for dinners as I can never work out which are fasting times and which are not - other than Lent and every Wednesday - but there are actually many more.

Today Ahmed made khoshary, the Egyptian national dish - rice, macaroni, brown lentils, chickpeas, and a spicy tomato based sauce which starts with the peeling of about four kilos of tomatoes. It is then topped with a good spoonful of very brown and crunchy fried onions. It is almost all carbohydrates, with pulses for protein, and I was horrified when I first saw it. In fact - it tastes good and is, in my daughter's words, "the perfect student food."

Ahmed is a master at khoshary. When the pasta is cooked and drained but still steaming he throws in the oil that fried the onions, shakes it quickly and slaps the lid back on. the pasta absorbs the flavour and even one piece of macaroni is richly earthy and smoky from the oil. He crushes several cloves of garlic and throws them in with the drained lentils, taking the garlic out again before he layers all the ingredients into the serving dish.

With the khoshary he made sandwiches - small discs of Egyptian bread sliced across and pulled open , lined with frilly lettuce and stuffed. He made tuna and fine chopped pepper salad in one lot for those not fasting, and roasted Mediterranean vegetables - tomatoes, eggplant, fennel, onion wedges, red and yellow peppers, cooked with olive oil and rosemary with fresh basil and mint added at the end for everyone.

I had gone out early to pick up fresh lettuce and to buy some of the vegetables for roasting.

Groups of young teenagers hang out on the corner near the coffee shops and the supermarket. This morning in the dust they were fooling around a bit. Boys here - and girls too - play much more roughly than kids in Australia and there are often wrestling matches and quite physical tussles going on. I ducked around a group of boys playing football with a drink can, and one of the girls was shouting encouragement while she drank her drink. These kids were obviously reasonably well off. All had purchased snacks of various sorts, and chip packets littered the ground at their feet. It is hard for me to watch people just drop stuff on the ground.

I commented once (and yes, I know I have said this before) that Egypt could use a TV series of programmes like the "Pick it Up" campaign run in Australia many years ago. "but", said my listener, a wealthy lady at a cocktail party who had just been decrying the mess in the streets, and the rotting garbage in parts of the Khan, "What would the Zebeleen do then?"

The Zebeleen are Cairo's garbage collectors. They have allocated streets to work and keep clean, and are often seen lugging huge woven baskets of garbage on their shoulders and walking the streets. They come into the yards areas of the high rise buildings as and the wealthy villas of Zamalek, collecting the garbage. The ones who work the area are familiar with me now and I am greeted as I walk. One had a small boy with him - there are often children working with the zebeleen and they are often, adults included, illiterate.

The little boy would have been about eight and undersized. He had been given the job of flattening and carry cardboard boxes from the shops. Then he would pick them up and carry them to the small pickup which was being carefully packed so the load would stay in it in the wind.

He was really struggling at one point, with what would have been eight flattened boxes, making a straight flat load taller and wider than he was. The wind was catching and pulling at it and he was swiveling but his father was making encouraging noises, and you could see the little boy was proud to be working.

Then one of the well-off young teenage girls shouted something in Arabic and threw her finished Coke can straight at him. He tried to catch it and dropped his carefully prepared load to the great amusement of the girls. He had trouble trying to pick it up in the centre of the road at the corner with cars impatiently beeping.

I was upset and angry and turned to move away.

On the gutter outside one of the more expensive chocolate shops in the wealthy suburb was a little girl. I didn't think it at the time but realise in retrospect that she was probably also zebeleen. She was dirty and her clothes did not fit and were in need of repair. She was jiggling a fretful baby of about six months old on her lap and trying to calm it, but the baby obviously was not enjoying the wind and the heat, and she had nothing to offer it. She could have been eleven, and the baby was obviously not hers, but she was responsible for it and doing her best.

Just then an young couple, probably expatriate, well dressed and with a small blond child in a stroller bumped the stroller down onto the street to cross it. The little girl would have been three. She was blue eyed and enchanting and dressed in pale pink cropped pants with a pleated ruffle around each calf, and a white singlet top with an embroidered scatter of pink daisies. Her hair was tied up with a darker pink ribbon. She was playing with an equally blond doll on her lap - dancing it on her knees in so much the same way as the little Zebeleen girl was trying to calm her baby.

The juxtaposition of have and have-not only a few metres apart was almost too much, combined with the chamseen and the dust and wind. I bought my vegetables, but on the way home I bought a tray of small pizzas fresh form the oven of Seoudi supermarket, and a tray of sweet sticky biscuits. A give them to the little girl in the gutter and her face lit up.

This city is never ever dull, but just now and again I find myself fighting waves of depression over the ones who have so little.
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