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.


Blogger Maryanne Stroud Gabbani said...

Really nice post, Jenny. I like your eyes. Years ago when my son was a photography student in high school, he did his graduation project photographing the people who live in the City of the Dead, and I used to drive him there so that he could take photos. The people were very curious at the sight of an apparently Egyptian young man being driven by an obviously foreign woman, so I ended up in a lot of interesting conversations. Once they understood that the work was for his school, they were all most obliging and he got some wonderful photos, most of which decorate my guesthouse now.

4:28 pm  
Anonymous Marilyn Wilson said...

Jenny, so wonderful to read your post about the City of the Dead. Oh how I wish we had had more time to explore with you when we were in Cairo. It all seems a blur now and it was only 2 months ago.

11:39 pm  
Blogger Lindi said...

Thank you, Jenny, for your beautiful descriptions. You have a wonderful gift in your ability to breathe life and love into your words. If ever I get to see these places myself, they will be more special to me because of your telling.

11:17 am  
Anonymous Kristin Freeman said...

I can feel, smell, see in minute detail every place you visit and share on your blog. Thank you for presenting some pictures that will forever be a part of my memories. Perhaps one day I will travel to this wonderful place of sight, sound and fragrance and then your words will resurface and guide my steps.

4:43 am  
Blogger Vireya said...

Thank you, Jenny, for this wonderful blog you have kept while in Cairo. I have loved reading it. Your words and your photographs have touched me, and brought to life a part of the world I will probably never see with my own eyes.

9:34 pm  
Blogger Deb H said...

Sometimes pictures aren't needed.
What a stunning post.

4:12 pm  
Anonymous stephanie newman said...

Jenny, your blogging is wonderful, what a land of contrasts in everyway-I have laughed and cried at the same time reading your posts and hope one day to be able to visit the mysterious and humble places you have shown us. Thankyou so much! We are looking forward to getting you back in Australia very soon!

7:51 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing so much of yourself in your blog, Jenny. Haven't commented much, but have enjoyed Cairo through your eyes , and photos, so much.
Marg G

8:30 pm  
Blogger Leah/ Texas/ United States said...

What colorful tales you tell! Please post a photo of the oranges if you have it. Otherwise, your skills at storytelling have painted it lovely in my head.

3:32 pm  
Blogger 71square said...

Your words, and the pictures they paint, bring tears to my eyes. I hope with all my heart that you will post some of the pictures you describe, but sometimes I think I could paint a picture or design a quilt only from your descriptions. They are simply beautiful, and seem to capture everything, in a dream-like kind of way... Thank you for sharing your gift with us! --Kim

11:36 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jenny, God has used your blog in a mighty way to prepare me for my daughters trip to Egypt. I actually felt as if I were walking with her on her journey. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us and please do share more. Thank you again. Deborah, Texas, USA

7:29 am  
Blogger wayne said...

Jenny, I'm Beris Lyons (my new husband is Wayne and I am currently using his computer. (You will recall I was married to Garry Quayle from KL days 1982-1985) ... if you are the same Jenny ... please let me know as I would love to catch up with you again. My email address is I am presently living in Kuwait and am quilting - I almost fell off my chair when I was told you were here too. I would love to chat and fill you in what has happened since 1992! Take care. Beris

11:02 pm  
Anonymous vishav bhraman said...

Nice article..

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11:08 pm  

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