About Me

"Setting the world to rights"...one blog at a time! Plus anything else that comes to mind

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Lastly, on Egypt

It saddens me to read about the troubles they have had since my return. I worry for my friend and her family and for all the lovely people I met while I was there. I hope Egypt finds true peace quickly.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

An Englishwoman's experience of the Egyptians

They are a complicated people.

They can seem an angry and scary people. They look grim as they go about their daily business and, to the English ear, they always sound as though they are arguing and trading insults, especially since they look so dour as well.

Watching them in the traffic, haggling over prices in the shops, even ordering a meal in a restaurant reinforces this impression. One day my friend called me into her bedroom to watch an argument going on in the street below. Some sort of small traffic matter but there was lots of gesticulating going on and I thought they would come to blows. With great glee my friend advised me they were insulting each other's mother's vaginas! They can be very inventive with their insults.

On the other hand, one day found a car blocking traffic from four directions because a kitten had got stuck somewhere underneath the bonnet of the car. The occupants of four cars, including us, were all huddled round the front using the lights from mobile phones, torches or simply down on hands and knees under the vehicle, looking for this poor kitten. Eventually the kitten got bored of this game and shot out and away. Everyone congratulated each other and went happily on their way.

Then there's the matter of modesty. The first time I visited Egypt, almost 30 years ago, I was advised not to look men in the eye, it was immodest. Even today, women have a way of looking, but not looking, at men; more a case of...in their general direction but through them. It's not bad manners, it's modesty. Men will avoid looking at women in the eyes out of respect and to avoid giving offence. Because of this, everyone seems to walk around in their own little world until actually spoken to.

It can be very off-putting to the western female. Where I live, people look each other in the eye, we laugh and joke as we go about our business, talk in queues, don't worry whether we're talking to men or women, just people. Well, more or less...a little flirting makes the world go round and mostly we can tell when it's general friendly interaction or something else.

In the airports it was mostly men until body-searching was needed and women took over. Men would solemnly go about their business and not look you in the eye until something out of the ordinary happened, like when I went the wrong way and looked to be missing out the security machines. I'd be politely directed the right way and when I gave a broad smile and a 'sorry' they couldn't seem to help themselves and respond with a reasuring smile and be very helpful. In other words...'she's English, she can't help it'. Certain allowances would be made without stepping over the line between friendliness and informality.

For my part I tried very hard to fit in, apart from not looking people in the eye I wore trousers, long sleeves and nothing even slightly see-through or with low necklines. Not that I wear outrageous clothing at the best of times but I covered up more than usual for me. I was very hot from time to time but persevered. I wasn't about to wear a headscarf or a veil but the Egyptians are a reasonable people and it was obvious I was making an effort and I felt it was appreciated and accepted.

I heard that some of the passengers on cruise ships into Alexandria have a different outlook. In a way it's understandable because they are in a western environment on board and I suppose the shore excursions seem more like entertainment laid on especially for them rather than a visit to a different culture. The Egyptians view it rather differently. I'm told they are nice and polite because they want the visitors to feel welcome but they are in fact insulted by the inconsiderate expanse of flesh on view.

The long and the short of it, I tried to fit in and they responded by making me very very, very welcome.

I've met my friend's Egyptian husband only half a dozen times over the last 25-30 years and he has been unfailing kind and friendly. His English is rusty and my Arabic is non-existant other than a few words but we communicated well enough. For instance, I'd come into the livng room and sit down with a coffee, or a snack, or a book and he'd give me a mock glower, I'd grin and shrug back at him and he'd smile or laugh at me. Little things. I'd be sitting reading and he'd hand me an orange, and we'd sit watching the TV companionably eating our fruit, or, in the village, he came in with a section of sugar cane from the orchard and taught me how to eat it - carefully with due consideration for teeth! Not a demonstrative man but able to make me feel at home with the little things.

My friend has a lady who comes in to clean, iron, cook and so on. She doesn't have a single word of English but we communicated well enough through smiles and gestures. I was delighted when she handed me a bowl of beans and asked me to help prepare them. I sat and worked on them, happily listening to music and feeling a part of the household. Again, a little thing but one that made me feel good and at home. (Loved her cooking too!)

While in Cairo we visited a cousins and spent a some hours in their home. Afterwards I was told the husband, who spoke English, hoped I wasn't offended by his not having a chance to speak to me in English but he hadn't wanted to bombard me with questions - again, an example of the consideration and sensitivity of the Egyptian people. Sadly, when he came to visit in the village, over the festival, I was out walking with my friend and I missed him. I would have like to tell him I wasn't offended at all and in fact am more than happy sitting, listening and watching even when I can't understand what's being said. People-watching is a favourite occupation of mine.

In the village, people were both more natural and more formal, it's hard to explain. The kids in adult company were shy but not afraid to stare (the kids outside with their peers were the same as kids everywhere with their peers - brash, noisy, inquisitive and competitive), the teenagers and young adults were eager to please but uncomfortable looking at you. The adults were invariably welcoming. Usually they didn't seem to know how to deal with me but the language barrier caused most of that.

One little girl, looking fine in her festival best of shiny hair grips and jumper with a butterfly of the front, couldn't understand that I didn't speak Arabic and simply carried on speaking to me as usual; I shared some of my mandarine with her. Two young male cousins couldn't seem to look at me directly but one of them would rush forward to relieve me of anything that needed carrying. I felt a special affinity for one young lady who seemed to take me under her wing from the moment I arrived. I was witness to the ritual slaughters and she made sure I had good views and so on. One evening we had a visit from my friend's sister-in-law and four children. A son, who is due to do into the army and three daughters who are all in good jobs. All four have been through university and are well-educated and speak English, to varying degrees. It was a wonderful time filled with laughter. Although the mother-in-law didn't speak English and I didn't speak Arabic, the others translated as needed so the conversation flowed and no-one felt left out.

By the way, watching the ritual slaughters wasn't as gruesome as you might think. As I mentioned in a previous post, the animals were well looked after in life and they were slaughtered in the most humane way possible. Yes, there was an air of celebration but not...I don't have the words...not, nasty. It originates with a part of the Koran where Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son to God but God allowed him to replace his son with an animal. The animals slaughtered during the Hajj festival don't go to feed the owners. Oh, a joint might be kept but the rest goes to the poor. The animals are slaughtered, butchered on the spot and the meat is separated into parcels and sent immediately to poor families. I watched as the meat parcels were handed to the young members of the family who were sent off with directions to the families who were to receive the food.

In short, I have a great respect for the Egyptian people and am extremely grateful to all of those who made my trip so special. Including and especially my friend and her family who, frankly, are my family at heart.

Monday, 21 November 2011

More Alexandrian photos

Coo, it worked, here go the rest.

The first one is again of the souk. The second Is the eastern harbour taken from the top of the Cecil Hotel, the other is the Quaitbey Point showing the fort on the site of the old Faros of Alexandria lighthouse.

Alexandrian souk

This is the first time I've tried to upload any images to bear with me, it's not looking right in draft but perhaps it'll come out ok when published. We shall see! If it comes out, it's from a souk. If it doesn't, back to the drawing board.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Village accomodation

The house I stayed in is only 10 or so years old and on three storeys, the largest and most modern in the village. I felt very grand staying here. The large main room on the ground floor is given over to receiving visitors and has cushioned benches round three walls. The first evening saw a collection of men in galabeyas (that may not be how to spell it) sitting round the cushioned benches, smoking and setting the world to rights, discussing local and national matters and of course the upcoming elections, something on everyone's lips it seems. The second floor contained the family rooms but the top floor was all mine! A was given the choice of one of the family bedrooms or one of the two bedrooms opening off a large central room with own shower and toilet and a balcony. How could I resist the top floor with its balcony and views?

The 'back garden' is basically a mango orchard but also has mandarine oranges, avocado pears and sugarcane, as well as flowering shrubs near the building. Sadly, the mango season was over but I was given some sugarcane to eat. You have to have good teeth for this because first you need to rip off the outer bark, then break off a lump of the inner cane and once chewed and sucked dry you spit out the wad. It took me ages to get the knack of stripping the outer bark because I was afraid for my teeth but it was well worth the effort.

When we arrived we found a camel, a sheep and four goats tied up having their meal under the mango trees. Twenty four hours later there were only three goats left, the other goats, the sheep and the camel all having been sacrificed for the festival.

I spent some time sitting under the mango trees myself, sketching and generally relaxing. One afternoon was spent on the balcony on the top floor sketching with my friend's son. I haven't sketched for many years and he was determined I should start again. It was great, I'd forgotten how much I'd enjoyed it and I wasn't as bad as I'd thought I might be after all these years. It's re-kindled my interest and I feel the urge to start properly again. We set a kerosene lamp between us to draw and talked and laughed quietly while we worked. We were level with the tops of the mango trees in the orchard out back and as the sun started setting we could see large dragonflies dancing around the treetops. It was a wonderful way to spend some time.

The kerosene lamp got used in earnest that night because we had a series of power cuts, somthing that is quite common in Egypt. Her son was out with his cousins so she and I sat and talked in the light of the lamp and candles and a torch. Kerosene lamps give a much warmer light than torches so it was very cosy and fun.

An Egyptian village

In England, the average village is a small collection of dwellings, pubs, church, some shops, probably surrounding the village green. They vary of course, but this is basically it and they are surrounded by fields of grains, or vegetables or lying fallow as part of crop rotation. The fields are bound by flowering and fruiting hedges and a variety of trees. Drainage ditches surround the fields to ensure they don’t become waterlogged.

In the Nile delta, the village I stayed in was the same in so far as it was a small collection of dwellings, a couple of very small shops and I think there were two mosques. There were also fields and trees but the fields I saw were rice or alfalfa and the trees were mangoes, bare of fruit at this time of year, palms heavy with dates and the like. Whereas our countryside is noted for its greenery, here everything is covered in dust or sand. While our crops rely mostly on rainfall theirs need water channeled from the Nile, firstly via canals then through sluice gates opening onto irrigation ditches, or from water pumped from artesian wells. Fields and orchards are criss-crossed with irrigation channels consisting of two parallel raised earthworks about knee-high that can be blocked or opened to direct the water as required. It's an ingenious arrangement and one that has probably been used for thousands of years. When my parents were there about 25 years ago there was still the 'scoop-wheel' and donkey method (may father's description, I never saw it) of getting water from the canal to the irrigation channels but times have moved on.

During my parents' visit, most houses were one storey built out of the traditional blocks of Nile mud with dirt floors and tree branches strewn over the roof for insulation against the heat during the day and the cold at night. Since then, laws have been passed forbidding building with Nile mud because it is so incredibly fertile and of better use in agriculture. Gradually the houses are being replaced by brick buildings, still only up to three storeys. Once you get off the main agricultural motorway the roads are unpaved. As they don't get the rainfall we do that makes it necessary to have paved roads, and there are few vehicles in the village, they are all dirt roads. Makes sense to me, why pay for something you don't really need?

I went for a couple of walks with my friend, the first of which took us through fields of mango trees to the canal. Just before the canal was a buffalo grazing accompanied by a stork-like bird whose name I forget. The birds feed on insects that feed off the buffalo and help keep them clear of infestation, as well as other natural pests that can ruin crops - they're known as the 'farmers' friend'. They are also an indicator of good organic land as they avoid land soaked in pesticides.

The sun started setting as we walked alongside the canal on a roundabout route back to the house. The plants and trees may be dusty due to the lack of rain but it all adds to the charm of the place, giving it a sort of smoky feel and softening the landscape. There was a wonderful, warm and peaceful glow to the countryside as we walked back through the door.

The other walk was for the length of the village, along the dirt road, past the two mosques and the variety of houses going up alongside the low Nile-mud houses. We drew quite a crowd of interested children and I felt like the Pied Piper of Hamlyn. Let's face it, this was not a tourist area and I stuck out like a sore thumb, many of them would never have seen someone like me other than on the television. It was all pretty good-natured and when they got just a little out of hand and too excited, as children do, an adult voice would call out and they'd settle a bit, or my friend would warn them off. If they ever said anything untoward it was never translated for me!

Friday, 18 November 2011

Halal meat

Back in January I published a post about 'Laws for some and not for others' and the arguments about Halal meat brought the subject to my attention. My focus then wasn't really Halal meat but the even-handed application of laws. I didn't have enough information to pronounce on Halal meat, now I have a little more knowledge. The Festival of Eid at the end of Hajj took place during my recent visit to Egypt and animals are sacrificed on the first day.

I'm not going to be drawn into a discussion of whether we should eat meat or not, I'm a meat-eater and this post is based as follows: we eat meat, in order for us to eat meat animals have to be killed, as they have to be killed then they should be killed in the least distressful way possible. I'm not going to suggest there is a distress-free way because I'm not in a position to know that.

In the UK, animals must be stunned before the throat is cut to reduce suffering to the animal. Blood must be drained from the body before the animal dies or the meat is not fit for marketing, in other words - it is not healthy.

In Egypt it is forbidden to eat animals who have not been drained of blood before being killed. Blood is considered halal; forbidden but, stunning is not allowed because it reduces the heart-rate and the blood does not drain fully.

So, with either method, the animal's throat is cut and it dies of exsanguination to ensure the meat is as free of blood as possible. So the question is whether the animal should be stunned before the throat is cut...or not.

There are several ways of stunning animals and many arguments for and against the different methods, however, they seem to involve some form of technology, electrical-stunnung or stun-gun or gassing. Historically these would not have been available to the Egyptians. Neither would they have been available in the UK and it seems the stunning laws are relatively new, since fact only since the early 1900's.

As well as being the only available way of slaughtering there was also the health implications of un-bled meat. Increased amounts of blood present in meat increase the rate of decay, rendering the mean inedible. In the UK, with our climate, it is not such a problem, in Egypt it is much more of a problem.

So, we have a milder climate meaning less of an imperative to drain meat fully and an earlier introduction to modern stunning methods. We have the luxury of passing the laws that are now in place.

In Egypt there is still a wide-spread lack of effective refridgeration and less access to modern stunning methods. Therefore the live ex-sanguination of animals for meat makes sense.

From what I've seen they take no pleasure from the killing itself and each animal is treated with as much respect and consideration as possible. In the village, which is the only place for me to have observed this, they care for the animals greatly and they are well-looked after. When they are taken for slaughter it is done with the least distress to the animal as possible, the end is brought about quickly by a skilled man with a very sharp knife. I'm told the sudden loss of blood from the brain causes unconsciouness almost immediately.

I know there are also religious arguments for and against halal meat but it's not for me to comment on others' religious beliefs, I prefer to stick to the practical aspects.

All things considered, I have no qualm about eating halal meat in Egypt because it is acceptable within the society. As a meat-eater I believe it would be hypocritical of me to think otherwise. In the UK? Well, as we do not have a refridgeration problem and we have the technology, and as a matter of personal preference, I would like to know any animal I was eating had been stunned first.

As for whether we should allow the Halal method of slaughtering in the UK...the law remains and if it is a good law it should be followed by all, if it is not it should be repealed. No change there!

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Egyptian traffic

We arrived back in Alexandria yesterday and I've just got to get this out of my system. The traffic is terrifying! It was 'interesting' around Alexandria but I rather thought the equivalent of the motorways would be better if only because everyone was going in the same direction. How naive can one person be?

In the UK you can only overtake on the outside, you keep to the inside lane unless overtaking, you indicate when changing lanes, you keep a sensible distance from the person in front (well...that's the theory) and non-motorised vehicles up to a minimum horsepower are not allowed. So first - forget all that!

Picture a wide road, with or without lane markings; add the usual vehicles plus open back trucks with one or two buffalo, sheep or goats tied down in the back accompanied by one or two men sitting on the side or perched on the bumper hanging onto the tailgate while going at 60-odd miles per hour, or full of men, women and children packed tight, or sacks of something-or-other or furniture with small boys perched on top; not to forget the donkeys and carts, tock-tocks and motorcycles with ladies riding pillion side saddle. I even saw one scooter with the lady passenger riding side-saddle holding a baby and another with the crash-helmet proudly tied in place-of-honour on top of the luggage rack by a bare-headed rider. Oh, and a tock-tock is a three-wheeler with the driver in the center at the front and a bench behind for two people huddled close.

Now you've taken notice of them - ignore them, overtake whatever side you like, don't bother indicating because they'll only speed up to stop you getting in front of them, hoot the horn regularly to make sure they know you're there and get out of your way, hoot especially loudly at the pedestrians crossing the road and the lorry that's broken down in the middle lane where the driver is tinkering under the bonnet. Oh and beware of traffic trying to cross the central reservation, both at recognised and unrecognised turning points while at the same time swerving to avoid potholes.

I quickly developed a survival stragegy - I admired the scenery out the side window or shut my eyes. I was just thankful I was with a good driver and stood the best chance available of coming out of it all in one piece.

All things being relative, it was a 'good' drive up to Cairo and then we hit dreadful jams on the ring road, not a good thing in the heat. We didn't go into central Cairo but headed round it to a satellite town/city called El Rehab where we stayed overnight before taking the agricultural road to the village. Coming back there were no hold ups and no livestock-bearing trucks but it was just as scary. The agricultural road was the worst but once we hit the desert road from Cairo to Alexandria it wasn't so bad - or maybe I was becoming acclimatised.

Learning to drive in the UK is more of a handicap than a help for driving here but, to put things in perspective, I've only seen one minor bash here whereas the BBC world news the last few days has been full of the 37-vehicle fatal pile-up on the M5 in England...so who's got the right of it then, eh?

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Moving on...

We're leaving Alexandria in a few minutes to drive to Cairo, stopping overnight then on to my friend's husband's village for Hajj. I'm looking forward to the experience of the village and seeing what happens during Hajj. I doubt there'll be internet access so see you again when we get back.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

A puzzle

Every so often, most likely on a taxi, I see a baby's shoe dangling from the rear bumper, I'm told this is to ward off the evil-eye. I've been looking this up because when the 'evil eye' is mentioned these days it tends to conjure up visions of wizards and witches and cauldrons and that didn't seem to fit the context. My undertanding from what I've found so far is that it's really to do with the harm you can do to yourself and others by being jealous. You look at something you like too long and hard and it adversely affects what you do and how you act and so impacts on others as well. I haven't found out where a baby's shoe comes into it.

If anyone can correct my understanding or explain the shoe...please let me know!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Local market

I'm remembering something from an earlier post, i.e. not to make the mistake of trusting first impressions.

I went to the local market with my friend this morning. Not a market as I'm used to it, a few stalls with smiling holders and people chatting in the queue while they wait to be served or laughing as they go about getting their fruit and vegetables. Here everyone seemed to consider it serious business and no smiles to be seen anywhere although I'm told I was mis-reading it. I'm more than willing to believe that since virtually all the Egyptians I've met have been the most charming and friendly of people with easy smiles and good-humoured but I can see why Westerners might find it daunting.

It was held in a narrow badly maintained road with stalls set up along both sides - fruit, vegetable, fish, and I didn't make the mistake of thinking the rabbits were for pets. I wondered if the fish was fresh and then noticed the heaps were just covered with water and moving - definitely fresh! So many vegetables and fruits I'd never seen before, and the size of the cabbages, huge. I kept well away from the feral cats roaming around, it's one thing to be scratched by a pet that never goes out the house but quite another thing to be scratched by a wild cat in the streets. I've had my rabies jabs but they're only a stop gap until you can get to proper treatment and even so, there's no guarantee you'd survive. It was fascinating and I'll take a better look if we go again while I'm here so I can 'adjust my thinking' properly about the poeple.

Last night's walk along the Corniche (we went back hours after our meal) was not quite such a success. Neither my friend nor I felt like risking a dash across the traffic to walk alongside the sea so we stayed where we were. It was heaving and unbelievably noisy with the traffic and people close-up. I think I've become acclimatised to the quiet of the British countryside now and not in the least bit comfortable in crowds.

After our walk we wandered into the Cecil Hotel to use the facilities and have a nose around. It's lovely with what I've heard called 'shabby-chic' decor and furnishings. There are two lifts in the lobby with open shafts, polished wood cars and metal grills. I've only heard of Gerald Durrell but my friend tells the hotel was featured in a work called The Alexandria Quartet by his more famous brother, Lawrence Durrell. I bow to her greater knowledge of all things literary. We're likely to be going there for a meal next week so I'll look forward to that.

Before I sign off for now I'd better set the record straight. It has been pointed out to me that I'm not staying in a house, I'm staying in a fourth floor flat. Okay, okay, it's a flat. It's a very large, airy flat and beautifully appointed in mixed Egyptian and European styles, nicely reflecting the household. I'm off now for a little read with the window wide open to catch the breeze (but not the flies - the windows are netted against them) while nibbling some fresh dates.