Tuesday, May 27, 2008


I have spent the last few days sorting and organising the many photographs that have built up around the house. I have been doing the same with my images on the computer.

Our big computer is now packed along with the scanner and printer. I am using my laptop. It has one of those low and set-down keyboards - it looks sophisticated but with any length on my finger nails at all I skitter all over the place so I have somehow never come to terms with using it!

I have been taking the photographs out to the areas where I took them and attempting to find the people I photographed.

One old man - who was elegant in black and white when I took the original shots - was not in the gold furniture area when I went there. The usual mob was starting to form, people crowding around to see if I had them in the pile in my hand. Sometimes I get plaintive requests for missing pictures - "Don't you remember? I was sitting on a motorbike behind the chairs you were looking at and it was about seven months ago - or maybe it was after the Eid as I was eating meat the night before..."

Most of what I had was distributed and we started to move - somehow I was being herded, like one bemused sheep in a very large group of sheep dogs. Down an alley we went, and through an archway, and down another alley I had never even realised existed. The children tend to run in circles around the group so we stopped and started as they got in the way -just like the way one of the cats weaves around my ankles as I walk in the garden.

We stopped under a green shutter and they started to call.

These are the images I had for him.



One boy went racing off to find the door on the other side, but the rest took up almost a chant. A very bewildered face appeared at the window. I had two pictures for him. One had been taken by the man who had headed for the door around the back,and one was now tossed up to the window.He was in sleeping clothes, a white galabeyieh and he looked a little tousled and obviously had not felt well enough to face the day.

I loved the look on his face when he saw the photos - and my three shots in quick succession tell the story!




Friday, May 16, 2008

Bits and pieces

I walked today down Bab El Qalk, and in towards Bab Zuweilah. This is the area where the Tentmakers work.

I was taking my time. Every walk at the moment has the weight and importance of a 'last time'.

An elderly man shuffled past, moving fast. His tracksuit drooped about his spindly thighs and hips, slung low enough to be dangerous. It was threadbare in places, with patches of beige showing through - which I hope was his underwear. The legs were too long and had frayed to a long and daggy fringe.

Across his bottom was one word.



There is a white horse on the same walk. He (undoubtedly) is always parked in the same place, beside a man with a big fruit stand. He is a beautiful horse - in good condition, firmly muscled and rounded, and pulls a cart that is a patchwork of pattern and paint - bright triangled in red and white and black and green and yellow. Every day as I pass he is turned in his traces, untethered, and his fodder is piled high and bright green on the surface of the cart he pulls. He is always eating, and he never seems to try to wander away.


We went out last night to a coffee shop with a singer. I love this place - and there will soon be a whole blog on it. Last night though, I was fascinated by the singer. The sound system must have been set to maximum echo - so the blasting words rang into the room long after he lowered the microphone from his mouth. "Habiby" - which roughly translates as 'my darling' and is the mainstay of all Arabic songs as far I I can see - became 'Hab b b biby y y by by by".

I realised how useful this was as he saw that we were there and rushed over to greet Ibrahim.
He was in the middle of a series of 'habibys' and one long note was sung straight into Ibrahim's ear as the singer wrapped the microphone around Ibrahim's neck to make sure the audience missed nothing. He lowered it with time to greet us with a few words before the last throbbing notes died away, and then took it up again. It is obviously useful to have echoes long enough to have twenty second conversations between them!

Farewell to my spinners

I went with my son Sam, to the Friday markets in the City of the Dead a few weeks back. It is a marvelous place - though unbelievably grungy. If you have watched the blog you will have seen several references to it. I took the usual photographs of lots of people. I love the way the faces of the older ones have so much history written into them. On the whole I have found people are happy to be photographed. Now and again I want a pose that the person is holding and take one without their knowledge with my "sneaky camera". Do not worry - I have never ever been abused for it when I take a photo back, though I occasionally worry about the ethics of it.

I went to the City of the Dead again yesterday.

I had a pile of photos to hand out. This is something I do often - copy images to CD, print them off at one of the local cheap photoshops, then take them back to the area where I took them where I hand them out. People are usually delighted and it means that the next time I want photographs of people they rarely refuse. I have almost been mobbed in some places by people hoping I have images for them.

One of the men I photographed with Sam on our first visit there was an elderly man in a long white galabeyiah. He had a marvelously bushy beard, and the beard was dyed bright scarlet-orange with henna. I have since found it can be of religious significance - at the time it was simply a wonderful splash of colour. My request for a photograph led to some catcalling from the men around him, but he smiled, composed himself on his chair with his hands on his knees, and I took four shots in quick succession - two close and two further back. At one point he turned his head to answer a friend's comment - rude, guessing from the laugh on his face - and the shot is side-on but really amused.

I had two of the four printed to give to him - both the more formal versions.

The following week Sam and I went back. I have been dithering for a long time about purchasing an old door. I cannot possibly claim to need it - but I wanted it. Bob had said that he didn't mind as long as I did something with it in Canberra. I had reluctantly come to the conclusion that it was just a silly 'want' but the day before I packed I realised that I might forever regret not buying one while I had the opportunity.

The doors are wonderful. They have that faded and streaked and worn look that can show the past seven coats of paint in wear and scratches on their surface. Palimpsest is a popular element in art and somehow these doors are art forms of their own. Some are carved, some have insets of wrought iron work - curved or art deco. The colours are marvelous - greens and blues and purples, and the occasional one which is just wood turned silver and umber with use and wear, with the oil from a thousand hands soaked into areas where people reach to push it open, or to turn a key. Some come complete with knockers shaped like a softly curled hand holding a ball, feminine fingers forever frozen, and often painted in the same colour as the door. I suspect sometimes, knowing Egyptian painters, because it was just too much trouble to go around the knocker with the paint. Like old men's faces, their history is written in their surfaces.

Opposite my lovely man with the red beard was the best stall for doors and it was in the process of going through the doors that I had spotted him.

We could not see him there so I approached a boy sitting in his rather sad and tatty stall. There were old bits of washing machines, lumps of unidentifiable metal, cardboard boxes flattened down but decidedly tired, and a smashed typewriter - so smashed that it looked as if it had been thrown through a third floor office window in a rage.

I showed the boy the photographs and his face froze, and he shot to his feet. He was muttering about the Sheik - and I realised that one of the men the week before had also called him a sheik. It started to dawn on me from the shock in his face that something was wrong. Then others started to crowd around including a neighbour from the drink stall opposite. I caught the word 'dead' in Arabic.

He had been hit by a boy on a motorbike only a few days after I had taken his photograph, and he had died.

By this stage a fair-sized crowd was gathering. I was still trying to control the photographs, but others were snatching at them, l0ooking, and handing them back. A tall girl in full black, headscarf and long sleeves and dress and coat, pushed through to the front of the crowd. She took one photograph then held it at full arms' length behind her - like a child refusing to return a toy to its rightful owner. Her face - I can only call it stricken!

I kept picking up odd words in the flood of Arabic - like "his daughter" and "no photos". As I realised that she wanted the photo for the family - and had no intention of giving it back anyway - I nodded and she shot away.

I was still numbly clutching the other photograph - but the neighbour from the drink stand begged and I gave it to him.

There was a group of Americans in the small and narrow 'door' shop and no hope that we could fit. Sam and I moved on. Looking back now I realise that I was utterly - quite out of proportion - shocked. I do not think I could have made a decision on a door even if we had been able to go there.

This was the second time in one week that I had tried to return a photograph and found the subject had died. Earlier in the same week I had visited the spinners with a friend and a set of shots taken around February - in a muddy and wet period in Winter. We had not found the men I hoped would be working, and in looking further afield had stopped and talked to a spinner I did not know who was working with his young son.I took some photographs, and they were in the pile I was sorting while talking to Ragab and Ali - two spinners who have become good friends. They had had a similar reaction, grabbing at the photos in shock. I had sent four good images, full face, off to the subject's home with assurances that they would be so welcome - "they will be shocked, and it will make them sad, but they did not have photographs of him except from his wedding."

Two in a week. Egypt has changed me in some ways. It is a country rife with superstition. It threads through the religion, and is interwoven through the folk lore, some beliefs are pharaonic, and some the most modern of conspiracy theories. The same lovely friend who had decried the sacrifice of a hedgehog to save a sister with cancer had calmly arranged to kill a sheep four weeks later when his taxi kept breaking down, despite the money he spent on repairs.

Perhaps I did not really believe that I had caused the deaths - that would be pushing too far when I have always believed myself without superstition - but as we walked away through the mud of the city of the dead, with a small crowd still following us entreating us to bring more photographs, I felt - guilty.

Two days ago I went back to the City of the Dead with Ibrahim again. It was time to say goodbye to my lovely spinners, Ragab and Ali, and to old Hamed, keeper of fifty three tombs, with the face like a kindly walnut.

We sat in a circle in one of the tombs, on chairs borrowed from homes nearby, and in the cool shade of the rooms. Outside Hamed's carefully tended pots of plants were in spring flower - and they had handed me a rose and a 'ful' a fragrant gardenia-like flower. The spinners had told us that the family of the dead spinner were happy to have my photographs, and in a lull in general conversation I mentioned my worry that I might be blamed if people realised that two that I had photographed recently had both died within the following week.

He explained seriously and carefully that every person's birth is a set and recorded date, and every death is the same. There is nothing that can be done to avoid death on that date, and nothing that can be done to die on a different day- as if it is not your time you will not die. I think it is the sort of fatalism that helps them to cope with the concept to death, and certainly there is a sense of closing the door and moving on.

He pulled others into the conversation and they reassured me - obviously amused that I should think I could have the power to change something so thoroughly controlled by God.

There is a story (in the Middle East there is always a story). Ali is walking in the Cairo market and he sees Death, who looks straight at him. He turns in panic and runs to his master's home.

"Master, I have seen Death in the market, and he was looking for me. I must leave and hide."

The master decided to send Ali to relative in Aleppo, in Syria. He put him on a plane that afternoon. Then because the shopping had been forgotten he went late to the market.

He saw Death, but was unafraid, as he felt it was not his time, so he approached him.

"My servant Ali was very surprised to see you in the market here in Cairo this morning."

Death said, "I was very surprised to see Ali here too. I have an appointment to meet him in Aleppo in only four hours."

After fizzy orange with Hamed we walked to Ali's home. He is probably seventy. His face is think and lined but full of laughter. He had a dark ring around his head, as if he has been wearing a hat with black dye that ran into his skin. His hands and arms are stained indigo from the dark silks he has been spinning. He has four teeth, but they are crooked and catty-cornered, like stained old pegs left in the earth for seventy years too long. He wears an old white business shirt, with a double sided razor blade attached to his collar for cutting his threads. Years of loping up and down long alleys beside the threads on his loom have left him as lean as a piece of dried sinew, lanky and fit, despite his age. I have never heard him use even one word of English.

He stopped in the doorway as we slipped off our shoes, and took my right hand in both of his.

"I love you," he said, and tears filled his eyes.

I had a lump in my throat I could hardly speak through.

I love this country, and my Egyptian friends.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Farewells and photos and the best of drivers

I am on a slow sad series of 'last days'.

I have been putting off blogging. I have been so busy and so scatterbrained. I have taken cameras full of photographs and keep thinking I must send them to Flickr to start the process of putting them on the blog.

But I have just decided that if I do that you will get nothing, as I will never do it.

We drove through a shadowed street yesterday and a ray of light slanting between tall dark trees and buildings picked up the brilliance of a tumble of oranges in the cart of an orange seller. In a fragment of light and time it gilded the faces of three ladies in black and the orange seller himself. I will always wonder if he wore a deep blue galabeyiah because he knew it would look spectacular against the colour of his cartful of fruit.

We stopped in the City of the Dead. Poor Ibrahim patiently stopped and reversed, and parked and stopped again while waiting for photographs. All those images I have seen flash past while driving - and I have thought "One day I will get out and photograph that" - well, today was that one day.

We stopped first at a point where you suddenly see a huge panorama of the City of the Dead looking back towards the Citadel and the low squat dome and fine minarets of the Mohamed Ali Mosque. It is breathtaking. Long low walls, lots of yellow ochre, warm terracotta, pale bleached green domes in the marvelous blue-green of tombs and the sacred sites of Islam, concrete and mud brick and every shade of grey and dust, and an occasional brilliant yellow. There are sculptured domes and white domes and green domes and domes just like the best of old jelly moulds. There are crenellations against the sky. There are tombstones - long and narrow and also gold and green and white.

Then a funeral went past and a short hoot from Ibrahim warned us to fold down the cameras and show respect to the truck with its simply draped body, and the following trucks of mourners. Women in black turned sober suffering faces towards us and I realised that no matter how much I think I know and love this city there will always be things I can never be a part of.

I visited my lovely spinners - Regab and Ali and Sayed, and Regab's son Khaled who has now taken over Regab's own old wheel while Regab struggles with a new and ungainly one in dark green. I love the way their faces light when they see us. It feels as if they have become freinds regardless of a common language and time to know them. Old Hamed who tends fifty three tombs showed his keys to the friends who were with me on this trip. His face is enchanting - it is full of life, vivid and bright and fun, but so lined and he is small and thin in repose.

We drove from the areas I know into some I do not know and walked a little. We found a wonderful tomb, fret-worked and painted in strong colours and patterns inside. Apparently it is the tomb of the family of a famous footballer. The caretaker wore a spotless and obviously newly laundered white galabeyiah. He had two teeth, on on each side of the front of his mouth, and must have been seventy. He was entertaining Ibrahim with stories of his travels when he was young.

"I have visas in my passport that you woudl not believe" translated Ibrahim. "I was in France when I was thirty five. I wish I had never left." We all laughed, the caretaker included. It was so silent in his area. There were no famous mosques, no people moving around carrying bread, not even enough plants to have birdsong. The long narrow streets stretched off into the distance. Harsh sunlight lit the golden walls of his tomb and cast black shadows inside, making the paintwork dark and indistinct. The streets were just packed earth, and the earth seemed to colour the walls around. Doors studded the long walls, each leading to another tomb with its packed earth floor, or grey concrete, with its few potted plants and small tidy room for mourners. It was hard to see it and imagine the green fields of France as he obviously did so often.

"Why are you sorry to have left France?" I asked and in fact as it left my lips it felt like the stupid question of the year.

"In France I could eat - how we ate and ate," - and what a silencer that was. Ibrahim made a quick comment about pretty French girls and we all laughed again.

As we walked away I commented to Ibrahim that I was saddened by his comment. Ibrahim said that he thought in many ways it was a true thing to say, but there was no doubt that he could eat something in Egypt. Perhaps, thought Ibrahim, he remembered most that he was young in France, and that all good memories came with youth.

It was a comment that struck so true that I felt silenced again. A crow flew overhead and perched on the minaret of a small mosque. A women in black appeared on a long cross street, and though she was walking quickly it seemed to take a long time for her to reach and pass us. I wanted a photograph but was caught between lethargy, indecision and tact. There was a strange echo between the appearance of the tall slim and quite beautiful woman and the arrival of the crow. She was not actually all in black, as the scarf that bound her head was edged in glittering beads in blues and greens. As she left the bird left his place on the minaret.

And last - all the pretty little horses. We had rounded a corner just after the panorama and the funeral. Against a blank concrete wall was some children's play equipment. We were stopped at first by the gaudy netting that enclosed a trampoline. It was rainbowed, and so the tomb behind it took on a magical misty 'lit in colour' look. Opposite and against a curved wall was a skipper - like a metal rubbish skip, or a scoop from a bulldozer. It was full of horses. They were obviously from a merry-go-round, brightly painted. Their long bodies arched and leapt, and in places the paint was completely gone, so the wood looked as old and worn and polished as driftwood. They were bright and gaudy, and quite incongruous against the City of the Dead.

Then I realised how appropriate they were. They were for the young and the living .. all through this area people live and work. Some are just poor and have found the area suitable for housing, some service the tombs and the necessary services for the dead. Some just sell food, or spin in the long alleys, or use the areas as they are quiet and cheap. The Cairo City of the Dead is also a city for the living, and even the children are not forgotten. I tried to buy a horse - and I am ashamed of that now - but it suddenly seemed so strong a symbol of life going on regardless of death.

This is a pragmatic country.
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