Sunday, July 29, 2007


We have spent four days at Agami.

This is up on the north coast - slightly Libya-wards of Alexandria. I have always thought Alexandria a magical name - along the lines of Mandalay and Samarkand and Isphahan. I like its Arabic form, Iskanderia, even better. I have always thought it a bit presumptuous to call places by their local names when speaking English - but I do it from time to time because I love the way Iskanderia rolls of my tongue. Egypt has some great place names - Zagazig is also high on my list.

The embassy has a villa at Agami. This sounds good too and evokes images of bougainvillea and cool breezes. Half of Cairo heads north in Summer and it is an unusual middle class family that does not have a favourite place to stay for a week to enjoy the cooler air and the sea. The reality is of course, that Alexandria and Agami immediately develop the traffic problems that are usual in Cairo - and suddenly Cairo is almost a delight to drive in - if you are not in a black and white taxi with a window that will not open and a driver who is chain smoking. Agami is an odd place - mostly below the poverty level apartment blocks without charm or even cleanliness. then right in the centre you have blocks of huge high walled villas. Right on the next corner from 'ours' is one owned by Omar Sharif.

Worse - the roads are a terrible mess and that is without summer traffic. There are always large flooded areas, and the worst traffic jam I have ever been stuck in was in Agami. That was because the local government had decided to dig up the roads to try to fix the water problems. We had heard it was better, but I was not sure I believed it - after two years in Egypt you start to doubt positive rumours.

We had originally planned to spend a full week at the villa. Usually people go just for the weekend, but it was our turn for the villa and Bob decided to make the most of it and add in the rest of the week on leave. We would go to Agami, he would relax, read a lot and make some notes for his next book, and I would sew.

A few weeks earlier I started to fret.

I have the world's best studio here. I have two huge rooms (OK - the air con in one has not worked now for nearly four months and I am utterly fed up but that is another story!). I have space, a large fabric stash, drawers full of threads, several machines, and design walls. I have trouble going up the three sets of stairs to my studio without leaving something I should have with me on the ground floor. How would I ever pack to go three hours away and have everything with me. Bob has a 'hard' car here and though the BMW is stunning and beautiful and elicits fervent sighs from men who sit in it - it has a very small boot because the walls around the passenger section are thick.

Here I have air conditioning - at least in one room of the studio, and in the bedroom, and in the study. I have internet access. In Agami there are ceiling fans in some rooms. I was on the point of backing out of the idea altogether one evening when Bob, apropos of nothing, looked up from his book and said "I am really looking forward to getting away to Agami and just relaxing."

Uh oh!

So - I said nothing then, just commented a few days later that I was worried about staying the whole week. It was a long way to food supplies when it was so hot, Bob is not allowed to drive the car and so we would have to walk for supplies, and it was very hot to do a lot of cooking. We compromised - go on Sunday, back on Wednesday. Barbecues, and some premade food by Ahmed!

All was well. the road was better and we had been told of a new way in which made it a doddle.

I have discovered that there is nothing sad about the long loose robes which Moslem women often swim in. I used a long cotton man's robe (a galabeyieh) one weekend when I realised I had left my swimsuit at a friend's house. It was stunning for swimming - almost more like being naked. It stayed down - which is more than a long nightie can manage in bed - and it moved softly around me well away from my body - drifting like long hair in the water. Best of all - on a really hot day I do no more when leaving the pool than dry my face. A long wet robe stays cool for hours even on a hot day.

That evening I pulled on a galabeyieh. I walked barefooted down the marble stairs to the garden and long tendrils of jasmine caught in my hair and dragged softly across my shoulders, scenting the warm air with their delicate lemony scent.

The pool is lit from beneath, and while the turquoise tiles are a fairly common pool colour during the day, at night they seem to deepen to a heavenly cobalt. The garden is fenced with tall - three storey tall - walls of white lattice, dredged heavily in uncouth sprawling and effusive bougainvillea. Most of it is magenta - deep and dark when small and first developing, but it has smaller areas of deep orange, a pink, and a pure white and best of all - a wild and stunning cerise - the most intense colour I have ever seen in this plant.

The pool has obviously been cleaned just for us. It must have been a few hours ago and already in the corners there are drifts of flowers. I move in down the ladder. The water is so warm that I can hardly feel the its surface as I go down the ladder, except that the skirts have started to move around my legs. Ripples spread around me as I sink into the water and barely moving my legs, drift towards the deep end. The flowers start to move out and around me. The occasional white one is like a skeleton leaf when back lit - pale and fragile like fine lace. Occasionally one flower drifts like a large moth from the tangles above the pool and floats very slowly down. Mostly down. With the evening breeze it might also go up, or sideways, and the flowers keep drifting - not like moths actually but like the feather that opens the movie of Forrest Gump. If you pick up a magenta flower from the surface of the water and pull it down under the surface, it changes to deep purple, almost indigo. True - even in the light of day.

I do a lap under water and come up with flowers in my hair. I feel like a flower child of the seventies in a long wet dress, and drugged with warmth and water.

OK - that was the best bit.

My idea of bliss is a swimming pool of my own. However, in the middle of summer in Egypt it is impossible to be in the water all day unless you want to be sunburnt. Bob's idea of a relaxing week is to read large tomes on the Middle East (unless he is deep in his current bedside reading which has been War and Peace for the last month) and he GRUNTS when I speak to him.

It was so HOT. It was almost as hot as Cairo at about 35 to Cairo's 38 - but much more humid - and Cairo has been up to 63 % humidity lately. I just dripped whenever I was dry - and of course I dripped when wet too. The only table that I could work on was in the dining room (one of the few rooms without a fan) and somehow, in the couple of months since we were last here, the table had magically changed from a standard rectangle to a strange octagonal shape with legs in the centre of the only straight bit that would actually take the weight of a sewing machine.

I have looming deadlines. However, I had bowed to the fact that I would never fit everything I wanted for the major pieces I am making into the car, and had brought little projects - baby quilts to be quilted and a larger one which I started with for a friend's little girl.

It kept falling off the table and drove me crazy. Bob moved the table for me - as I was too hot away from the fan - and I doggedly sewed, with the backs of chairs holding the quilt on the odd table.

Then we discovered the other major Agami drawback. I had spent a bit of time on the menu for the time there so I would reduce actual cooking to a minimum. Now I discovered that I actually was the menu, and my legs are covered with burning bites from pale and silent and ravenous mosquitoes.

Worse - I ate a surfeit of tiny sugary mangoes - so little that you can hold four in the palm of your hand. They are delectable, and Egyptians are so proud of them. It was hard to see why they would be worth the fuss till I ate one - then I realised. They are like the best of every different mango you could imagine. Pure fruit and sugar, honeyed and delicious. No fibres. No turpentine aftertaste, not even against the skin, so you can drag your teeth hard across it so scrape every golden scrap of flavour into you mouth. Best of all - the seeds are only about two millimetres thick - 1/8 inch for my friends in the US.

We also ate a lot of figs which are also just appearing on the market and are soft and rich and stunning. And little sugary grapes - heavy bunches of tiny golden yellow seedless ones, picked at the peak of sweetness and refrigerated so they touched your mouth with ice and then almost exploded on your tongue.

Both were a bad idea.

I am now suffering the inevitable punishments of too much soft fruit and one of the banes of Egypt. I am not brave enough to even leave the floors of my house with a bathroom on them - and taking Lomotil before I venture out of the house. I know - I have to see a doctor if the condition persists. I am still itching all over, and my deadlines are still looming.

Laugh and I will have to search you out and force feed you on mangoes and figs till we match.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Babies and Midden Quilt

We have babies in the garden.

This is obviously the time of year for procreating. Not only have I been flat out making baby quilts (three down and three to go) but we have kittens and palm pigeons as well.

Two years ago we had palm pigeons start to build a nest on the bathroom windowsill. There are wooden shutters, and the windows are rarely opened. They are quite thick glass and heavily textured so people cannot watch us shower. I described the nest, but went very quiet, as the shutters which were almost closed on that side, creating a nice private pocket for a very sheltered nest, suddenly blew open in heavy wind and all the nest and its eggs crashed to the ground.

This time I was determined that we would protect them. As soon as we spotted the two birds coming in in tandem with bits of twigs and long grass I said to Bob, "I think it would be good if we tied that shutter so it cannot blow open as it did last time."

"Which 'we' were you talking about? he asked. "Do you mean you would like me to tie it?"

He knows me well, and went off to investigate the kitchen drawers for string.

There was a brief moment when we thought we had scared them off as they seemed to disappear. Then the nest building resumed. We were so touched to peer through the glass and spot two big pink soft flowers - all the trees are in flower at the moment and this has blossoms like a banksia rose but two shades of pink, soft and full like a very doubled almond blossom. They had tucked flowers into the side of the nest, like a bridal bower.

Anthropomorphic?? Yes - unashamedly.

Two eggs were laid, but it seemed only the mother who sat them and I started to worry about her and whether she was getting anything to drink - or eat.

Then a couple of weeks ago there seemed to be a lot more activity. She stayed on the nest for about three more days, and the second egg hatched.

Both babies are now fully feathered and look like smaller versions of their mother. We have almost watched them grow at an amazing pace. If you walk into the bathroom and turn the light on during the day they can obviously see through the window, and the larger and cheekier one taps at the window in warning.

They will fly any day now and I will miss them - but not the definite suggestion of rank ammonia that has invaded the bathroom.

We also have kittens - one small mother cat who is not much more than a kitten herself has had and raised SIX. One dark ginger, one ginger and white, one lighter ginger, one tortoiseshell, one a beautiful gold-grey tabbi, and one the most gorgeous silver grey smoke with a white chest and paws and tabby markings.

Actually they are not really tabby markings - they are Egyptian Mau markings with clear spots on their flanks like tiny leopards. Mother seems to have weaned the gingers and the calico first but is still feeding the two greys.

I managed to get one quick shot of two of the kittens feeding. I have always had a very soft spot for greys and tabbies.


I have been working on quilts this Summer - which was the main point of staying all through the summer after all.

The current project is based on a body of work I did some years back and I am returning to it. I need one big piece and three or four small ones.

This is the big piece. It is wide and short - unusual for me but I wanted a strong landscape presentation.

First I quilted a perspective grid, and quilted a whirling night sky above it. This is only a detail so you get the idea.


The I started to apply midden rocks.

I was not happy with this at this stage as it all feels like a nice place to put something - as if it is all merely a background. Obviously more thought was required. My family was asked to make suggestions.

A PhD student, now Dr Marjorie Sullivan, wrote a doctoral thesis on Middens of the South Coast of NSW. In it she documents every midden site along the coast and I was fascinated by the processes of this study and the things she found.

Walking around Broulee Island one Winter for the body of work I was doing for my Art School final year I realised that the stones I was walking over were curiously terracotta in some areas. While standing in the middle of them it was hard to see but as you walked away and looked back there were distinct circles of red.

I rang Dr Sullivan and asked why. She said that silcrete oxidises in fire, and that meant that the centres of the stones turned dark, while the outside went terracotta. What is even more interesting is that one fire will not do it - it takes frequent and repeated fires.

Through the stones are the broken shells of long ago meals. I photographed a lot of these and brought the images with me. On a night walk (no - the rocks did not really glow in the dark - that is called artist's license) I found that the shells shone stark silver as their bleached surfaces picked up the moonlight.

I loved the idea that these old hearthstones of Aboriginal middens still glowed as if they held their heat. I worked on the subject in art school, and I am going back to it again now. I am also interested in the fact that one way an Australian of Anglo-Saxon background is permitted to reference the Aboriginal people is through archaeology.

So - now for some more with a commentary I just sent to the family.


The foreground is now more built up. I like the introduction of the silver lame shells and much larger foreground rocks.


The silver was very strong so have knocked some of them back with black acrylic paint over the top. I also have 'drawn' other shells at the sides with the quilting and that smooths out the shell impact a bit too.


Tried one gold fabric but the local lame was a very thick one probably intended for slippers. It leaves a sliver of melted plastic around the edge which is only just OK. I will use it if one of the others is not here when I return from Agami. I need more glowing gold shells over
the heat.

Hot rocks are not stitched yet as it is easier to do the shells if I can remove the rocks around them. The pins are very shiny - sorry about that but they will not stay there.

I will bead the sky in dark blue beads in scatters, and a few in the 'sea' which might
look more like sea then. I want them to catch the light without being too visible. I think I need a moon path across the water. I had a lighter moon at one stage and it was distracting. Now I think it could take it - but the moon also needs to be bigger.

The idea of the grid was that it is an archaeological reference and I wanted just one in this piece - the others will be much more contemporary.

I will outline and stitch down the hot rocks with gold thread.

Possibly also need to disarrange the shells in the foreground - they feel too even at the moment so perhaps a few more and more clustered.

I really like the shells, especially with the black and navy brushed into their hollows. The disadvantage is that the acrylic will polish off if you really work hard at it so I will ship it with a cloth in between the folds, just in case.

Now - what to use for binding. The fabric is silk like the first midden one and I do not want to bind in that.

There you are - the midden update!

Then I just have three more smaller ones to do - much more abstract but using some of the same elements.

It is late and I am weary.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Dances with Camels

We have a long-standing connection with the Camel Markets. I realise on re-reading that that looks a bit odd - but one of the Embassy drivers, a tall, dark and very attractive Sudanese who always looks as if he just stepped from the pages of Esquire magazine - has an uncle at the camel markets.

IMG_2311.JPGAshraf, his uncle, and a young virgin ( Ashraf's description) from Morocco

We visit often, and we always try to send our visitors out there, preferably on a Friday morning when the action is heaviest. It is an odd place, dusty and very surprising not smelly. Camels do not urinate a lot, and their droppings are very dry. I suspect that the adaptations which have them ideal for desert life would have most of us in terminal kidney failure - but then camels are different.

Camel Market, Cairo

One of the camels at the pyramid of Dashour, Antonio, will actually swivel his head in a horribly snake-like way and firmly kiss his driver on the lips.
s for youAntonio is in front

During one of the more horrible periods of last year when Bob was back in Oz for the Cole Enquiry I sent him a text. "At Dashour, Antonio sends a kiss." I got an immediate response. "Am in enough trouble already."

Anyway - Ashraf's uncle has shown us a lot of hospitality over the years. We have been in the habit of phoning to say we are coming - or that our guests are coming, and they make tea, and as a high treat, put our guests (one at a time) on their famous racing camel Shakil.

I only realised the other night that Shakil means Troublemaker. He is a well named camel.

Camels have never been known for their good will and gentleness. They tend to make a lot of the sort of noises that humans find off-putting and which seem to signal a constantly roiling gut. They have long yellow teeth and bare them frequently in ways that humans find even more off-putting. They dribble in a slimy way which means that not many want to get too close to that end of them. They object noisily when asked to sit, or kneel as is more correct. They object noisily again when asked to stand - in fact, when asked to do almost anything. On the plus side they are easy to photograph and have the most beautiful long eyelashes.

Shakil objects more than most! He is almost manic. He is very fast. Apparently last year he came second at the huge camel races in Sharm El Sheik. this year he is tipped to win. We were once told that you can tell a good racing camel by the fact that they seem to stand with their bellies sucked in and Shakil looks suitably concave. With my son on his back he tore around the camel markets hissing and snarling at anyone in the way - and they did not stay in the way for long.
IMG_2319.JPGIt is surprising how fast a tethered camel can move when running circles around the man holding the string.

Ashraf was very pleased to invite us to the wedding and henna night for the daughter of one of his uncles of the camel market.

We went to the henna night.

As soon as the car turned into the street I felt that incredible buzz - like seeing the Treasury at Petra through the siq, or like standing in front of a really exciting art exhibition. The street was throbbing with sound, light and colour. Lights swung in brilliant arcs of red, green, and yellow from the beginning to the end. Screens of REAL tentmaker appliqué lined the street from one end to the other, blocking the unsightly concrete buildings and grotty entrances and somehow merging into the trees to create the feeling of a huge tent - in the centre of a Cairo suburb. The ground was covered in carpets. Nubian music has an instant excitement, and it throbbed through the air with its mixtures of voices and drums. All down the street people were dancing - and their clothes were the pure saturated colours of the tentmaker appliqué.


The sound level almost reached pain as you approached the centre. We had been given seats of honour - right in front of the loudspeakers. I could feel the music in my chest, through my bag, and everything vibrated - it was almost impossible to think.

The henna painting of the women's feet and hands (and, I think, some part of the men of the bridal party as well, though I was not offered close inspections) had been done in the afternoon. Next time I want to do that! The patterns were beautiful - long graceful twists of flowers and leaves looked blue black against satiny bronze skin. The whole sole of the foot is painted, then graceful flowers curve up the calf to the knee. I know there are connections to beliefs around it, but have not really found out what the exact meanings are. I photographed one enchanting little girl and her hands as she watched the dancers.


They had obviously been awaiting our arrival for one important entertainer. They cleared a space on the centre of the carpet covered 'dance floor'. They pushed back chairs, they ushered us to the front - with increasing urgency as we heard a commotion from the darkness at the mouth of the street, and, to a roar of music, Shakil came charging into the street, whirled on the carpet and charged right back out.

Shakil enters, and leaves

In the blur of movement I was seeing through the lens of the SLR I realised that at one stage he came straight at me and Ashraf's hand shot out - recognisable by the silver bracelet. I know only one man can control Shakil - and that man was on his back. However, I think he might have done better at looking nonchalant if his cigarette had been in his mouth the right way around!

I thought that was it - but Shakil came back again and again and again, seeming to dance with the delighted men as he rocked and ducked and whirled. At one stage he charged a corner and women scattered in panic as chairs rolled. He seemed to be on a perpetual slope to one side of almost 60 degrees. Carpets rolled their corners up in terror under his thudding feet, his teeth seemed his most prominent feature and the one that seemed to approach most often. At one stage he left an unmistakable gift on the red carpet - perhaps a comment on his opinion of the night and noise.


There was a final baring of teeth and he galumphed off into the night.


Then our host emerged with a smoking pot - they gave it another name but it smelled like oud - a marvelous smoky smell like a richer sandalwood. Did you know that the word perfume comes from the Roman occupation of the Middle East? Per for scent, and fume for smoke, because of the Arab tradition of taking scented smoke through their houses for the scent, and incidentally deterring moths in clothing.

Photographs don't show the swirling of the dance, with men joining him and lifting their clothes to fill them with the rich and expensive scent. The host has eight brothers, and all are very good looking men, with the aesthetic slim face and high cheekbones and as elegantly beautiful in city clothes as in the galabeyiehs of the camel market.

Our host then called out his wife, and she put the pot on her head and danced for at least half an hour, steady and stately and rhythmically moving through a packed and bumpy crowd of dancers with the pot gently smoking. Through the whole night the clapping was an undercurrent of beat from women in chairs, and from kids on the stage and packed all around the perimeters of the screens.




Did I mention that the man who opened the door of our car to let us out into the party was holding a whip? It was an ominous beginning. Then another man handed Bob a sword. The men were all armed to the teeth and most of the dancers brandished swords or sticks or whips - great thick leather ones like black snakes wound around wrists to control the ends! One of the brothers held his sword lightly over the head of the bride - though his name was not Damocles.

The bride to be was in bright lime - a beautiful girl with a compelling personality - one of those people who can light up a space with a smile, and obviously what I think of as a 'woman of power'. Nothing magical - just one of these women who will naturally lead groups. IN fact, the party was full of them. The groom was in white, as is appropriate for the henna night. He was dark and charming and looked gentle. They were obviously in love, and there was a lot more contact and dancing between the sexes than at most Egyptian parties. It was just delightful to see.



I have so many photographs but will add a few of guests at the party - just scroll until the text starts again.




IMG_7432.JPGCheck out the shoes!

IMG_7422.JPGThree wise men


There was a stage set up at the end of the street, and on it drapes and chairs. Just before we left the bride, who had briefly disappeared, reappeared in striking traditional black and silver. She and her fiance sat on the chairs and received the crowd. They posed for a myriad of photos - and some of the poses were obviously expected and were intended to show off the henna.




I know food was to be served - but it was around 1.00am and we piked!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

4th July

We went to the American National Day celebrations last night. It was a curious mix of cultures.

It was held in a really marvelous Palace - the Mohamed Ali Shubra Pavilion. In fact Pavilion is a good word as it has no living quarters. It is a square building, huge and open to the sky in the centre - which is filled with water. Imagine covered walkways all around the sides, but as wide as small ballrooms, with beautifully painted ceilings and white columns. The corners all have enclosed rooms as do some of the side and these are gilded and painted and wood paneled - and not as over the top as some Egyptian palaces.

The central open square is a marble lined pool, with cascades in some corners and a marble island in the middle. This has no permanent access, but last night a walkway covered in blue had been built to allow access for the Presenting of the Colours and for the US Ambassador to walk out to give his speech without having to wade through above-the-knee water.

There would have been thousands of people there. The military band on the island played songs from American musicals - could you call The Sound of Music an American musical? Wafts of sound reached us through the noise. A young man with a tattered collar approached Bob with great enthusiasm to ask if he was an ambassador - I guess it was hard to miss when you have arrived to the VIP entrance in an armoured dark BMW with a flag flying, been scooped up by a waiting hostess and walked direct to the US ambassador and his wife to be greeted - cutting off the long and winding queue who looked daggers at us to my intense embarrassment. There are times when I like my life here and times when it is awkward. Australians do not queue-cut with panache.

Back to the young man with his frayed shirt and brown suit and enthusiasm. He introduced himself as a journalist.We had both shaken hands and Bob had confessed to his position. The young man asked for a business card from Bob. bob said he woudl give him one if he could have one of his in return.

The young man (he actually did not give us his name) fumbled in his pocket then laughed as he confessed that his wife had them. Bob smiled and said he would be further up the reception area with a card waiting for him when he found his wife and his cards and walked away. I was a bit surprised as Bob is usually happy to give out cards - but apparently Ambassador cards are sought after in card collections and he is getting sick of going through boxfuls as handouts for no good reason. Card collecting is a local sport.

It was HOT. We have not had the really horrible heat of last week where it was well over forty every day, and touched 49 one day according to our driver. It would have been about 36 all day and was still well over thirty. However evening clothes in Egypt are never cool. They have to be in evening fabrics, and sleeves have to be at least three quarter length, and I wore my coolest outfit which has a silk sleeveless top in blue, black pants, and a floaty sheer thingy on top in blacks and blues. With people starting to pack in it was still an the air coming through the windows rarely reached me. I had a fan and noticed that others were sidling closer to get the benefits of it - and the programs being handed out at the entrance were more useful as fans than programmes. In fact, the double fold centre pages were all sponsors for the event which surprised me a bit.

In keeping with the mix of US and Egyptian the food reflected this. At one stage I found myself holding a large drumstick (verging on turkey sized) of southern fried chicken and trying to juggle that with the fan and glass of wine I had been given. It was wrapped in a napkin which the waiter had suggested I take first in order to pick up the drumstick, but it was hard to eat politely, and people, as they do at cocktail parties, kept coming up and shaking hands - or almost shaking the drumstick. I kept having to shift it to the other hand and tuck it between two fingers that were not holding the glass. I truly regretted that piece of chicken. In fact I would not be surprised if it was responsible for the series of bad dreams that resulted in my sitting here at 5.00 am Egypt time to write a blog, rather than risk going back to sleep.

The presenting of the colours was done with appropriate pomp and deliberation. We had five minute and one minute countdowns and requests to turn off mobile phones ready for the formal ceremony. The ambassador walked down the new blue bridge. Two marines (who from my position looked like one man with four feet moving in unison) marched two flags - one the Stars and Stripes, and one a red and yellow flag I did not recognise but must be US based in some way - across the bridge. Phones rang all around me and most of the crowd talked at the top of their voices. Those nearest the water tended to be watching and those unable to see just talked - some on their mobiles.

They played two national anthems which were sung by an Egyptian singer who I must find - he had a FABULOUS voice - and the most marvelous rolling, pure, full tenor. The Egyptian national anthem is good anyway but stunning in that voice. The US national anthem was equally enthralling. Actually people stopped talking for that. Then the Ambassador stepped to the podium and everyone resumed their conversations. He spoke, and then requested an additional silence - had he been listening??? We hadn't had a silence! Anyway - an additional silence while the flags left the space. That seemed odd as there were fixed US flags fluttering right in front of him but no-one took them away. The flags left in a slightly subdued roar of conversation and it was strangely endearing. Even the Might of the US had not been able to command a silence of stop the incessant ringing of mobiles. It made me feel a bit better for the Ambassador making his farewell speech at another dinner a few nights ago, when one person in the room not only had her mobile ring but took a whole long conversation without even attempting to lower her voice.

Then the Japanese Ambassador was apologising to the Spanish Ambassador's wife and to me that he had to take French leave of us. That seemed funny, especially when he went on to explain that in French it is called English leave. We were at an American party in Egypt with the Japanese Ambassador taking French leave of Australian and Spanish women in perfect English.

The water looked so cool and good. An earlier discussion had decided that if one person jumped in the rest would follow in rescue. A dry voice pointed out that you would only have to stand up to rescue yourself. At one stage I was tempted to be the jumper. Only the thought of emerging in clinging chiffon from water in front of a crowd of thousands actually deterred me.

We left shortly afterwards, driven off by the heat.

We have a lunch at the house today for twelve, followed by drinks for another dozen or so this evening. It will be a busy day and I am in charge of flowers. The predicted temperature is 37, but the house is air conditioned and cool.

I need to leave at some point as I am desperately searching for gold lame to try a technique I saw in a marvelous quilt in Kuwait. The talent there is awe-inspiring. I have a couple of gold fabrics, but neither is right - and the lame I need is bonded to a backing of white fine knit that feels almost like plastic - straight nylon. You quilt a layer of this over the top of any cotton quilt, then use a soldering iron to cut away the parts you don't need. The quilt underneath does not burn, but the lame cuts clean and the edges seal at the same time.

And - speaking of seals, I am tempted to include a photograph my daughter just sent of herself on a beach in the Galapagos Islands surrounded by equally stretched out seals and sea lions. But I won't as she was not wearing a lot and would kill me!

Monday, July 02, 2007

Damietta and Dust

I had thought of Damietta or bust - but dust was more appropriate.

No-one would describe Damietta as salubrious. It is a small and rather scruffy city in the north of Egypt nuzzled against the Delta and the Mediterranean sea. Just head for the bridge over the Suez, follow the canal north instead of taking the bridge, and when you get close to Port Said turn left. Well - that is the simple version. Actually you sail past the turnoff and do a u turn, then hook back and turn right. This manoeuvre is common in Egypt and I have never worked out why as it is utterly confusing, both for sign posters and for motorists. Add a few flyovers in between and drivers who tend to turn left from far right lanes and vice versa and you are getting the idea.

We came first through Ismailia. This is much nicer and known as a farming community which grows luscious fruit. Mangoes are just coming in and stall after stall lines the road, usually painted scarlet and arranged like shallow vertical stacked boxes, slanting back just enough to stop the contents from falling out. Long green and golden mangoes nestle against each other and shade from the greenest (which will keep longer) at the bottom to the orange gold at the top. The air is redolent with their scent. They alternate with melon mountains, and frantically beckoning sellers try to entice you to buy. Now and again a melon that rolled out to argue with a truck is splattered in colourful chunks across the road. The area is green and lovely.

We passed the bridge over the Suez - and it is truly a beautiful piece of engineering. Suddenly you are in drier and sparser countryside.

Then about half a kilometre on we passed the first container ship.

There is something truly disconcerting about passing ships in the desert - well, in very scruffy sandy scrub anyway. You know you are still a long way from the sea and there is no visible water as the narrow gap between the road and the canal is very slightly humped. Then - just about one hundred metres away you pass an oil tanker - and it is really huge. You can easily - even through the thick glass of Bob's armoured BMW - read quite small print on it. The No Smoking sign is big and obvious though - and I really hope that this sign is more obeyed and enforced than similar signs around Egypt.


We drove into Damietta and were immediately aware of poverty and bleakness. Nothing was luxurious - except the huge number of furniture outlets. These studded the road side - so you had grotty concrete high rise, again and again then suddenly a marble faced extravaganza with Pharaonic columns and gilded lintels, triple storey and bulging with elaborate furniture. Then it was back to grotty coffee shops and places selling spare parts for engines until the next one.

We browsed through a few places and I started to feel a bit unsure of our reasons for being there.

I have a confession to make. Egyptian furniture is very very different. It is ornately carved, heavily gilded, and covered in very elaborate cloth - like heavily embroidered silk or very shiny satins. It is upholstered to the effect that I have often wondered if you would just keep slithering along it until you came off at the other end if you sat down too suddenly. Syrian furniture is much the same. It is like the French furniture at the court of Louis 14th (or was it 15th?), and the style is often nicknamed Louis Farouk.

When I had been in Syria for a few years I started to realise something very strange. I started looking at the carved chairs and thinking that they could be quite lovely, even in Australia, if they were just finished lightly with a satin varnish like Estapol, and covered in a beautiful fabric, but one that is more to our taste, like a heavy linen or cotton print. I left Syria before I actually considered buying one. In Jordan I managed to resist.

Here - I am capitulating utterly. We went to a furniture fair at the weekend. Looking at the pieces there I realised I wanted to do this. We are in an odd situation in that we are going back to no furniture in either lounge or family room. The ancient cane sets from Malaysia have been declared dead. The Furniture Fair seemed to specialise in the most elaborate of the style - with one set even having tiny lovebirds carved above the chairs. Syria went in for huge eagles with wings spread.

You see what I mean?

Jjust look at the bead tassels on the cushions. The red couch is classic Louis Ferouk, red flocked velvet and all.

One lady admiring the modern settings.

I had been wanting to see Damietta for some time as it is known for its furniture and its skilled wood carvers. Where in Australia could you buy carved and beautiful wood without a fortune changing hands?

Take a walk with me through the grotty back streets, and it is like sieving for sapphires in Black Creek in NSW. Every so often in the mud you find a gleaming jewel.









This is turning into a photo essay - but there is more to come.

We had met an uncle of a friend who was with us. One of the men in the Embassy is getting married i a few months. Before an Egyptian man marries he has to set his wife up with an apartment and furniture - all new, and all the best he can afford. He had given up his day off happily when we asked if he would like to come. He rang an uncle who met us on a bridge (what is it about bridges and Egyptians?). His uncle was leading us to a warehouse of unfinished wood.

As we came around a corner Bob said quickly and urgently, "Don't look, he has taken off his fingers." I swung obediently (did I promise obedience?) but not before I had seen a young boy - maybe a small fifteen or younger, with a strangely truncated hand - and a lot of blood, winding his shocked way towards a car. Blood dotted everything and our host in the shop we were now being led into was surreptitiously trying to rub it into the floor with his foot while showing us things high on the walls. It was hard for me not to try - gruesomely - to scan the floor for spare fingers, though I know here they would not have the money or technology to attempt to put them back.

It was a sudden and shocking reminder of the lack of work-safe practice in Egypt, and shadowed the rest of the day.

The warehouse was marvelous. Another photo essay is inevitable as the pattern on pattern was wonderful! I fell in love with a totally impractical table with Napoleonic decorations - shields and festoons of flowers in swags. It was impractical as it was too big and high and round for a coffee table, not quite big enough for a dining table, and the marvelous decorations made it totally impossible to put your legs under it without pain.





We chose two chairs and a narrow side table, and were persuaded that we also needed a smaller round side table to go between them.

One very elaborately but beautiful carved chair - in the naked timber - cost about three hundred dollars Australian. I can see it in beige and black toile at the moment, with honey coloured timber - but that could change. I have a photograph of the same design 'finished'.

and a detail of the top of the chair.

And just to finish - some wrapped work ready for shipping against a Pharaonic backdrop in one of the huge shops. It was so like a major art piece that I loved it.

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