Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Looking for Hashim

It is quarter to six in the evening and Summer is here with a vengeance. It is currently 43 degrees (109 for those in the States), and the air is shimmering. Morning showers are odd - cool water for a minute, then the hot water reaches the shower and I step in. Then the shower is suddenly uncomfortably hot and I have to get out again as no amount of turning it down to the cold side will change the temperature. What has happened is that the water in the cold pipes is now the water from the pipes on the outside of the house - and really hot. In fact it is usually hotter than straight hot water.

Heat wraps around you like hot milk when you step outside - or in my case, when I walk up the stairs to the roof where my studio is. The last two flights are very hot as no air conditioning gets there and there is a huge glass window which belts out heat. It is the sort of heat that I dread entering, then as I go out I think "Really this is not too bad." Then halfway down the block to get a cab it starts to hit and sweat is trickling down my back.

This morning I walked out to join a friend for a 'lady' lunch. There were no cabs for some strange reason outside Seoudi market - there are always cabs here so it was odd - and I walked a couple of blocks to pick one up. I could almost feel my makeup sliding off in a sheet! When I found a cab I was not sure I was better off - climbing into a hot metal box never seems like a good idea in extreme heat and the vinyl seat had been in the sun. Worse - I had a cranky cabbie who grumbled all the way - all of four blocks - to my friend's house.

However - I had fun yesterday.

I had called up one of my friendly drivers to take me out to Saqqara to chase down Hashim. This is the man who is the subject of my latest quilt.

He works at Saqqara, but the last couple of times I have been out there I have missed him, or he is not on that shift. A phone call to a man who is the Inspector of Antiquities revealed only that they had many men working there called Hashim.

We left early in an attempt to beat the heat. As we crossed the Qasr El Nil bridge (which, by the way, was built by the firm who built the Sydney Harbour Bridge one year later) the statues of the lions that guard each pylon were wrapped. I was sorry for the lions - they are marvelous exaggerations of lean leonine form. One of the other statues, and I am embarrassed to admit that I don't know his name, was surrounded by scaffolding. I loved the silhouettes of the men putting it up - such interesting shapes.


We arrived at Saqqara early. It is the site of one of the first pyramids - the Stepped Pyramid. Did you know that Egyptian tombs used to be covered with a mud brick structure called a mastaba which was intended to keep the mummy safe from grave robbers, ready to be used by its owner in the afterlife? Then an early pharaoh - and in the case of Saqqara it was Xoser - decided to put a mastaba of stone over his tomb, then another mastaba on top of that but a bit smaller - then another - and you have pyramids like the Stepped Pyramid and the original section of the pyramid at Meidum.

It is actually more layers than this but this is the romantic view where I cut off the busloads of tourists and the bottom two levels as well.

We brought out the photograph of Hashim and showed it around. The consensus seemed to be that he was not there today - and I didn't need a translation as it was obvious from the head shaking. Within three minutes we had attracted about three men. One was delegated to go and find Hashim's phone number.


He came back with his hand tightly closed. I assumed he had money in it - but he had actually written the number on his palm.

We attracted attention from tourists as five people craned around his hand to try to decipher the bits of phone number that had disappeared into the creases. It must have looked like palm-reading - which of course it was.

A very loud - shouted - phone call was made and I was told that he lived a long way away - more than two hours. I could not see why someone who lived as far away as Alexandria would work at Saqqara. No - two hours was an exaggeration. He would be home from another job in one hour - could we ring then. We were not allowed to bring the man who had made the phone call as they did not speak to each other.

IMG_7137.JPGDirections were given.

At this point a lot of interest was shown in the photographs of Hashim I was showing around. Suddenly they all wanted photos and I was to bring them back to hand out, as I had with Hashim's. I took a string of men, one after another in the gaps between tourists. I was interested in the machinations of one good looking young man who had sidled into another man's photograph, and then asked for one of his own. For each I took a distant view, and a close up. when I took this man's closeup he changed his mind about how he would look, and the white and very dramatic kaffieh around his neck was suddenly a perfectly and tightly wrapped turban.

One, then two

the full view and the closeup

IMG_7135.JPGand with turban!

We drove for an hour. One endearing sight was a woman on a donkey nursing a goat as the donkey trip-trapped along the dusty road. I got out of the car to take a photo and after I had taken it she beckoned me to the other side to show me a kid stuck in position as it was being born. For a horrified moment I thought she was taking it to be killed - but it was going to a vet.


We finally met Hashim on a bridge. Have you ever tried to explain to a slightly worried and suspicious Egyptian the idea of a release paper? It is a concept that does not exist in Egypt - in fact in a lot of places. The idea that someone has to give permission for their picture to be shown in public was obviously foreign to Hashim. I heard bits of the earnest conversation going on and he obviously could not understand whey the Australian Ambassador's wife would want him to sign a paper. Worse - I heard the words for secret police - he was really concerned. In the end we or rather, Wael - my driver for the day - wrote it in Arabic.



And - I have my signed release form. Ahmed, our chef, said "I could have saved a lot of work. I can write that I need four bottles of milk and sign it and put a date on top and in America they would never know what it said.

So - we have added a translation below and had that signed by the translator as a true and accurate version.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Waiters and Fire Extinguishers

There is nothing quite like starting a dinner party rigid with ambassadors with a waiter - THE waiter - collapsing with a grand mal fit onto the fire extinguisher which then proceeded to cover the kitchen with white powder.

That was the short version. Now for the long one.

Our very nice and regular waiter carried the somewhat diminished platter of prawns with their selection of dipping sauces into the kitchen. The housekeeper was in there and ready to wash up as dirty dishes arrived. She glanced at the platter, realised there were only two prawns left and pointed out to the waiter that I was always happy for my staff to try the food and 'did you want a prawn'. She got no response. She looked at him and his eyes were looking up. She repeated the question. Just as she started to feel frightened by the blankness on his face he took a step back, then another and went straight down.

He hit the fire extinguisher, snapped the pin, and landed on the trigger. A hissing cloud of white powder poured out into the kitchen.

A grand mal fit is terrifying if you have never seen one and my lovely housekeeper was terrified. She tried to speak to him but he was arching and thrashing. She had heard that you are supposed to put a spoon into the mouth and tried it but could not lever his jaws open. Then he went still and started to go as blue as a Nubian can and she totally panicked - certain that he was no longer breathing. She rushed out to the balcony where the group had started on the red wine and were talking elegantly of the politics of religion. Maria silently beckoned the chef. Ahmed was at the barbecue and about to put the steaks on, surrounded by the usual retinue of men who always seem to feel that barbecuing has to be supervised. The only slight difference was that most of these were ambassadors.

He dismissed her with a flick of the fingers. She beckoned more urgently and as he approached her she hissed the name of the waiter and shot into the kitchen. He followed demanding to know what was wrong with the waiter. One step into the doorway and Ahmed almost fell over him - still seizing.

He froze. "What is he doing?" was the first astounded question.

Then - noting that the kitchen and Maria were snow white - including the last pair of prawns on the platter, the stove and every single surface including the waiter. "How is he making the powder?"

He tried to lift the waiter, and skidded in the white snow underfoot. On the white tiled floor is was as slippery as glass. Both went down together, and the waiter started to fit again. Ahmed was lashed by a twisting arm and was horrified at the position of his hands, trying to untwist them and realising that that was impossible.

"Get Gamal" he said to Maria.

Maria rushed to the back steps and downstairs where our gardener had been making tea for the drivers.

Gamal came into the kitchen, looked at the poor waiter, and dropped to his knees, going into the sura of the Koran for well being and health. Halfway through it the waiter stopped fitting and relaxed. "Look," said Gamal. "How effective is the Koran? Now he is unconscious."

Ahmed came out and beckoned me. By now I had realised that something was going on as the group of watching men who had been hanging over the barbecue has drifted back to the table and the barbecue was emitting blue smoke until I turned it off. It is so unlike Ahmed to walk away in the middle of something that I was already concerned.

As I reached him in the doorway he said, very formally, "I am afraid our waiter will not be able to complete his duties tonight."

I was a bit flabbergasted and said "Is he sick?"

"He is tired."

"Just tired?"

Ahmed was heading back to the kitchen and twisted one hand eloquently in the air. At least, it would have been eloquent if I had known what it meant.

At that point I assumed a quarrel had broken out in the kitchen and our waiter was walking out in high dudgeon. This, I thought, was a matter for a man.

I tapped Bob on the shoulder and suggested he check the kitchen as there seemed to be a problem with the waiter.

Bob walked in on a scene of total devastation. Everything was covered in white and the waiter was by far the worst. Bob and Ahmed managed to hoist the (now conscious) waiter to his feet, and he staggered oddly around the kitchen, then pulled himself to attention and said "Red wine."
He looked bizarre enough to be really frightening and Bob steered him to the stairs and suggested he sit. A firmer suggestion was acted on.

Bob rang the doctor. When the waiter had recovered a bit Ahmed and Gamal helped him downstairs. Maria swept the Kitchen and Gamal proceeded to throw out or wash everything that had been out.

Ahmed cooked the steaks. The dinner was perfect, probably considerably helped by the amount of red wine that had been consumed in the interim, mopped up a bit with generous helpings of my home made olive and rosemary bread - thank goodness I had made that!

Our waiter is now fine, but has absolutely no memory of the evening. Both Ahmed and Maria had sleepless nights after this, but we did a very long debriefing next day which had all of us roaring with laughter, and then swinging straight into "Poor man" commiserations. Somehow laughing at another's misfortunes is a coping mechanism.

There are still odd bursts of laughter around the house. Looking back - it was funny- not so much at the time. And - we have a new fire extinguisher, all ready, as Ahmed said, for next time.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Quick answer to a question

I have a question in the comments that I cannot answer as I don't have an address.

So - yes, the jackets are sold - but only really in the Tentmakers' Khan. They are rare - one was made some years ago for a Saudi Prince, and they were a bit surprised when I ordered them. I took the tentmaker and the fabric to a tailor as I wanted it well made. I had also a jacket (two actually) that I liked and which fitted well. We left the fabric there, and the tentmaker phoned when it was cut out. The tentmaker collected it. Then they sewed on the appliqué. Then they took it back to the tailor (I had delivered the lining in the meantime). He cut out the lining, and made up the jacket. The tentmaker picked it up and rang me to collect it.

Yes - I could have bought it from the tailor but the tentmaker wanted to see my face when I collected them. It was my dear friend Mohamed Dendon, who is coughing far too much, smoking still and not looking well - which is worrying.

So the answer is yes - they are for sale - but because they would need a range in different colours and sizes to make on spec I think they will only be made by order for a while.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Jackets from the Tentmakers

As a small teaser I thought I would put up a couple of photos of the back of the Hashim quilt. I used two dyed pieces - neither very interesting - to make the back. One was a failed attempt at a length I wanted to feel like a sandy beach - and one a pale mauve using up the last dregs of dye on a hot day when I had really lost interest in working any longer. I sewed them together, then cross cut them and flipped one - so it is a large fourpatch.

I like plain fabrics on backs as they show the drawing of the quilting process.


I collected two jackets from the tentmakers. I ordered these ages ago and handed over the fabrics - the plain colours all from Australia, and the background for the cream one from Syria.

Neither is exactly what I had in mind. I worried about the blue as I saw it in the 'sewing on pattern shapes' stage and felt that the single drifting lotus pieces were very like extraordinarily large polka dots from a distance. Iwas not sure that large polka dots were a look I wanted. Made up it is better though, especially with the Syrian fabric lining.

The cream was supposed to have only a V of work at the top and on the back and perhaps down the sleeves a little. I drew this up and explained it, with translation. Three months later all this was obviously forgotten as it is covered in work. However - I love the design work. Faced with the glowing delight on the face of the old man who laboriously stitched it when I put it on and swirled in front of a mirror - I could not possibly have disappointed him with a negative comment of any kind. It is a bit worrying that there are many obvious pencil marks on the back where the design drifted a bit from its intended origins. I will try a pencil eraser - cross your fingers for me!

So - these are definite eye candy. This blue is a shortish jacket that I saw as quite casual - a bit more dressy with black pants, but alright too with jeans. Sorry about the bad focus - better ones will be done when I have time. I shot these not realising how blurred they were.


And the cream one - longer and more evening-ish.


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Cars, passports, viruses and babies

It has been a strange week. We have had car troubles - no, we do not own a car - or at least, we thought we didn't. It seems that unfortunately we do. The gentleman who bought our car a year ago had put plates on his car from another vehicle he owned so he could drive it, but never changed the registration and customs clearances into his name. We had done our paperwork, and had given it to him in the approved way complete with two letters - one to the Ministry seeking permission to sell, and one receiving permission from them to sell the car. A month ago we heard through the grapevine that he was selling the vehicle, and then he left town. Then we received a letter telling us the registration was overdue and the story slowly emerged.

Luckily the car had not been sold and will be returned to us. We will sell it. This is a hassle we do not need at the beginning of Summer when everyone is leaving town.

The air conditioner in the beautiful round room on the roof with the big table tennis table for pinning quilts had died about six weeks ago. We were assured that it needed a new compressor and that it had to be ordered from Outside Egypt. This seemed extraordinary to me. There is an air conditioner hanging off almost every room of about a fifth of the buildings in Cairo - and the rest would have them but cannot afford them. You would think that with this meaning that about four million people have more than one air conditioner there would be a generous supply of spare parts from the biggest brand in town. You would be wrong. They had to order it - it took four weeks.

They came to put it in. Men worked in the blazing heat of the roof for several hours over an even hotter metal box, then they went away. I breathed a sigh of relief, waited an hour, scooped up Hashim and his batting and back and headed for the room. It was like an oven and the air con was clearly not working. I walked out to check. The 'box' outside was open and spilling bits and pieces around an area of about nine square metres.

I rang to see what was wrong. They needed gas. They hadn't brought it. They would come back tomorrow. I started to mutter about the lack of foresight that does not assume that gas might be needed when it clearly was, but gave up. Their ways, not mine. That was hard to maintain as I needed the room and would have dripped all over anything I tried to work on in it at more than forty degrees - inside. I insisted it be done that day. I don't often throw tantrums, but this was close.

It was fixed and worked for two days. Then it died again. The short story is that it is working again now, but I am starting to wonder about the wisdom of staying through summer to work.

Then I put in an application for a new passport - and I was refused. My diplomatic passport is full. My ordinary passport has expired and I let it die as there seemed no point in paying for a passport when I do not need it. I have to enter and leave Egypt on the passport that has my residence visa in it. My passport has been reaching the saturation point over the last few months, and I have not had a single block of the three weeks I needed to get a new one as diplomatic passports cannot be issued at the post. Apparently my birth certification submitted with the original passport (so many years ago that I hate to remember) has triggered an alert. There was a rather unpleasant mention of a 'backwash' and my lovely son has saved the day by digging out the original version from family files in Canberra.

Then - worst of all - I had a couple of reports of a virus on my website (not this blog). I whipped the signature off my emails, and warned my lists, but was horrified to think that I might be infecting people. It is now sorted out - a 'malicious' text was removed by my server after diligent work by my lovely webmaster. It is now safe - but it gave me that awful sick feeling you get when something you care about is violated.

This has been the fortnight of baby quilts. I have rattled off two quick quilts in the interims between bits of Hashim and waiting for fabrics to finish him.


This one is a gift for little Mohamed - the son of our chef, Ahmed. Mohamed was born just after Ahmed started work with us and I didn't make a quilt - I was incredibly busy, and did not feel I knew Ahmed well enough. Since then I have felt a bit guilty that I did not make one - so a fabric covered in cats triggered this quilt. Little Mohamed adores cats. The pattern is a brilliant pattern by Fran Williams and I have made it many times.


This Jewel Box is a bright and pretty pattern I also make fairly regularly as a gift. It is also quick and easy. I made this for a new baby born a bit early to one of my lovely drivers, Mohamed. Or perhaps I should say - to his wife. Adam is Egyptian and I thought that if I played a little with the placing of the colours of the triangles I could almost see three dimensional pyramids. They might never notice, but I liked knowing they were there.

You do not give gifts to local babies before they are born. I think there is a strong level of superstition that somehow you will ill-wish a baby if you do. Even in the first week celebrating is very low key. However at one week there is a Sebua - a huge celebration. A lamb is sacrificed and cooked with rice and served to anyone who comes - and people bring gifts to the baby. I have always felt that the last thing I would need to organise one week after the birth of my first baby is a huge party with masses of food to be prepared. Mohamed obviously felt this too as he has decided his wife is too tired and he is holding the Sebua a week later. From this point the baby is recognised. I handed over the quilt after the one-week stage when I lent him my little snappy camera - as it seemed so sad not to be able to record a new baby. The stammering and overwhelmed reaction on the phone (gifts in Egypt are NEVER opened in front of you) was delightful and reminded me of why I still give quilts as gifts.

I am feeling flat - just too many complex problems for one week - but - Hashim is almost finished. I have just the border to quilt, then bindings and he is done. I might put up some quilting details - so watch this space. I will not post the whole finished image as I am afraid of finding myself disqualified from competition because the image is deemed 'published'.

It is late and I am weary.

Friday, June 08, 2007


I have had several very rude comments after I sent an email to a list saying I had 'a man half finished on a piece of cloth upstairs' and bemoaning the fact that I needed fabric to finish him.

Well, I decided to clean up my stash since I couldn't work without that particular shade of high value purple. In the process, tucked between dark greens I found a piece - not identical to the other, but close enough to work. I have no idea what it was doing in the 'dark green' basket. It all felt a bit too much like 'scarlet ribbons' for my liking as I had just felt so desperate. I thought my order for fabric had gone missing and have been gnashing my teeth and metaphorically hitting my head on walls for days - so I am not going to enquire too hard about just how this happened.

Well - he is almost done. I have taken some shots. There will be a lot of quilting and a narrow lighter strip inside the very dark side so it will not look exactly like that when finished.

Trust me.



Thursday, June 07, 2007

Stars in Alignment

Something seems to be working well for us at the moment.

Today is my mother's birthday. She is not young - up there in her eighties but bright and sharp and enjoying life - and she cruises the internet, occasionally even doing a project for me. My father's was a couple of weeks back. They have not been together for a long time but he is also well and happy. I have great genes.

Today my youngest daughter (I have three daughters and a son) won a prize which had her scrambling for tickets to Quito in Ecuador in two weeks. There she will pick up her free Peregrine cruise of the Galapagos Islands. I have threatened to buy her the "Nice Boobies" t-shirt from Threadless, but she is resisting. I think I do not blame her.

Today my second daughter, in the process of moving her family to Canberra to join us all again, had a telephone interview for a job she would very much like to get. Before the day ended they had rung to say they will fly her to Canberra and would like to meet her. This means, to me, that she is shortlisted. Better still, it means that her qualifications are right up there with the others in the race for positions in Canberra, so if she does not get this one there will be others.

I have also been waiting for an order of fabric, carefully ordered from the States almost nine weeks ago and anxiously awaited. I thought it would be here when I returned from Spain and Turkey - but it wasn't . Then I thought it would surely be here when I returned from Dubai - but it wasn't. I left for Kuwait with that nagging drop in the pit of my stomach, having talked to the company. We had all generally agreed that it was probably gone. It turned up two days ago. There is still a bit of time to go with customs clearances to do, but I have felt really desperate about this - I have elected to stay in Cairo through the heat of Summer, when I will actually have some time to work - and thought I would not have the fabric I needed to do the work.

And finally and thrillingly , the long and complex case my husband has been working on in Sudan is over and went well. He is thinner, but mutters that he needed to be. It is not something I can talk about, but I am pleased. It is nice to be home, and to have him home too.

Today I went into one of the areas of Cairo that I tend to drift to when I want plastics. It is a street market area which has lots of food and vegetable stall tucked between tall buildings which afford some shadow except when the sun is directly overhead. It has shops too, tucked into the ground floors of the buildings and all are small, and most sell cheap plastics. I like the area as it is full of people and always interesting.

I was with a driver I really like. My young drivers have, in many ways become my best friends. They are my window on the way young Cairenes think. As we travel we talk, and I really enjoy the frequently philosophical conversations.

On the way today we saw a taxi carefully pull level with another cab. The driver dropped back just a tad, then his hand (and a large lump of his body) came out of his window, and he opened the back door of the other cab (which was not quite latched), then slammed it. All of this happened while the cabs were moving, not fast, but steadily. The surprised passenger in the back of the cab waved her thanks, as did the driver, and the other car accelerated off.

Then a man walked along the path beside us and stepped out in front of us to cross. We stopped. He was carrying a shop mannequin, without her arms. Perhaps this was why he had her in a grip that curled under her crutch with one hand and with his palm spread on her bottom. The other arm held her firmly around the waist. My friend and driver muttered that he would have to marry her now, as no-one else would, and we laughed, as did many others watching.

Half a block further a man fell off his bike. He was not hurt - he stood and brushed himself off, but two drivers were out of their cars and helping to hand him things that rolled from the baskets slung on his bicycle.

I like Cairo. I struggled with the traffic at first - especially while I still had a car. It is irreverent traffic. I watch friends keep up constant running commentaries along the lines of "Look at that idiot ... what does he think he is doing... why can't they just stay in one lane??" I have almost decided that to cope with Cairo you have to learn to accept that the traffic will never behave as you would expect it to in your own country. Accepting that a different and entirely 'organic' (my Brother's term but I really like it) system can also work is almost essential to loving this city.

We parked. We had driven past a few shops that seemed to have something like the plastic rectangular 'baskets' that I was looking for and which I use to store fabric. Once we walked back we found that what looked similar when stacked was actually a pile of drying racks.

Then came the incident that managed to caste a pall over my marvelous day. Do not read on if stories about animals might upset you - as it upset me.

We passed a woman with an enchanting small desert hedgehog in a cage. It was young and lithe and climbed the bars of the bird cage and clung, then dropped down to find another side and repeat the exercise. There was a good amount of fresh vegetables and food in the bottom and fresh water, so I assumed it was a pet, then wondered if it was for sale as this was a market. I had the sudden idea of buying it and releasing it into my garden.

My friend spoke to her. He talked at length and looked rattled - and seemed to be arguing. Mind you, Arabic frequently sounds like arguing and I often ask a driver what is wrong, when he has just been having a discussion. He turned abruptly and started to walk on. I asked what she had said and he said "It is not for sale." I asked what was wrong.

He shook his head. "I don't believe in these things." I pressed him. I wish I hadn't.

"Her sister is very sick. She says if she kills this animal her sister will get better." He was visibly upset. I asked if he thought she would sell it to me if I was very generous with money. He answered very slowly and thoughtfully.

"What is the point? She will take your money and find another of these animals. Then she will kill that one. Either way one will die. When someone you love is sick, then you will try anything, and believe in anything. If you take this animal and she cannot find another one and then her sister dies she will always believe that her sister died because she failed. Then she will live with guilt and despair."

He was so right that I was silenced. We saw her again, still looking for someone to kill the hedgehog for her, and I am still struggling with the fact that I did not try harder to save it.
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