Farewell to my spinners
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.