On a lighter note – We woke up Friday morning – the first day of a three day weekend! – and all the clocks set to automatically update had moved ahead an hour. I thought it was 7, yet my iPhone and iPad both said it was 8 am. Had the clocks moved a head or not? Looking online also showed a split – Timeanddate.com showed one time, worldtimezone.com another. At some time between 9 am and 10 am, we finally got Al Ahram (read the editorials, I am fascinated by their insight in the Obama administration’s foreign policy) and the word not to set our clocks ahead the previous night.
So the deed is done – Kate Middleton is now officially Catherine Mountbatten-Windsor aka Mrs. William Arthur Philip Louis, Duchess of Cambridge, Countess of Strathearn and Baroness of Carrickfergus (one of the oldest cities in NI.) The British Community Association Clubhouse in Maadi was all decked out for the event, with miniature Union Jack flags and napkins, hearts, flowers and UK expats all dressed up to watch the event on large screen TVs placed around the lawn. The Beeb gave most of the airtime to the nuptials, but kept its ticker running, alerting the crowd with updates on Syria (formerly ruled by French mandate as part of the Sykes Picot agreement) Libya (formerly known as Italian North Africa), Bahrain (a former UK protectorate) and Morocco (a former protectorate of France, through a treaty between Germany, Spain and France.) Ok, stepping off that soap box, sorry, it just keeps sneaking in.
Egypt itself was officially declared a republic in 1953, following the 1952 Revolution, which freed the country from its status a protectorate of the British Crown. But remnants of Egypt’s time spent in the Commonwealth can be found throughout Cairo, intermixed with the modernist style of the revolution’s resultant socialist republic. Near the Townhouse Gallery, a sign advertising a theatre and odeon hangs over a space now used for car repairs. In the warrens of the Khan el Khalili, relics of this former life – British porcelain (no Walking Ware or Susie Cooper so far, but the search continues), antique cameras (all the Brownies you could want) and antique radios – are for sale, jumbled along with spices, brightly colored textiles, jewelry, carpets and reproductions of ancient Egyptian artifacts.
In Maadi, you can find exquisite English antiques mixed in with those in a more traditional Egyptian style. Walk Road 15 and you will find two stores, almost immediately next to each other, which both specialize in design and antiques. The first, Yaman Gallery, specializes in mashrabiah (balconies) and doors – recycling the incredibly intricate arabesque doors for use in new homes or repurposed as tables – as well as reformation of masterpieces of special furniture. Its space is one big showroom, the outside wall of an apartment building and several storage spaces underneath the building. The proprietor, Mohamed Bakr, peels up an unassuming metal door, and inside each carrel is a mash-up of classic English furniture – mahogany, maple and marble abound – with the belle époque almost arts and crafts style favored by Egyptians (as described by my untrained eye.) Layers of dust and the smell of old books cover everything, making it all seem like priceless antiques from another era.
Down the street, Theodor’s presents antiques and collectibles through a crisp blue traditional UK/USA boutique storefront. There is a strong effort to merchandise the pottery, porcelain and antique clothing among the antique and beautiful furniture that supports its London esque prices. Sadly, the shop seems to have been closed since March (or there is just a coincidental holiday overlap) and the Western proprietor has not updated communications on it since February, according to Facebook.
According to the World Fact Book, Egyptians have the following religions affiliations – 90 percent Muslim, 9 percent Coptic Christian, 1 percent other Christian. This weekend was a long holiday weekend – recognizing the roots of Easter in some ancient fertility celebrations. Monday, in fact, was a bank holiday across Egypt, Sham el Nessim – whose name translates roughly to Smell or Breath in (Sham, with Shamo being Renewal of Life) the Spring Breeze (el Nessim – which is breeze or zephyr.) It is a holiday that has been traced back 4500 years, to roughly 2000 BCE and predates any religious celebrations. (Egypt is/was an early adapter to a lot of religions – remember that Christianity was started here, and the walls of St Paul’s monastery still stand.) All Egyptians celebrate, with picnics and feasts – we had a delicious vinegar battered fish and classic Egyptian rice. Read more about food and Sham el Nessim at The Egyptian Kitchen.
The breeze – by the way – is worth stopping to smell. Just walking down a street, you feel like you are smelling the most perfect cup of herbal tea, perfectlly brewed and steeped. It is better than any perfume. For Sham el Nessim, we went to a park along the Nile, and played. One of the nicest things about parks here is the beverage service – a very nice gentleman brought coffee in a samovar and poured it into a crisp white porcelain cup and saucer. Even the police celebrated – they’ve put away their winter black jumpers and wool pants and donned crisp white cotton uniforms, the likes of which Laurence of Arabia would appreciate (I can’t spend an hour in white without getting dirty, and even in a city as dusty and grimy as Cairo, these guys stay immaculate – I think it’s something they teach at the Police Academy.)
To celebrate Easter for the boys, we set up an Easter egg hunt, and tried to think of stories involving the Easter Bunny (which is hard.) Even harder was trying to get the man at the Supermarket to help me find Jelly Beans. I recognize that I am the ignorant Westerner hoping someone speaks English in a foreign land, but there was still strong comic element to the whole thing. I asked, and he originally thought I wanted jelly, replying yes, we have apricot, grape or strawberry. I said, no thank you though, but I am looking for Jelly Beans for children, as a treat. A sweet, even. He heard, sweet red kidney beans. This went on for a while, me trying to get treats for the boys without the boys hearing it, and the man offering me a litany of beans from around the world; none of them from Cadbury.
Eventually, we did find sweets and treats, but at a different store.
Here are photos of the egg hunt and park outing. One photo is Egypt Kitty, the cat adopted by Villa 41, hidden among the flowers – in case you hadn’t had enough hunts this last weekend.
Have you read this book yet? I inhaled it in about a day. There were some facets of the life that it depicts that were totally alien to me – imagine being in college and texting a male being taboo and risqué, or talking on the phone with a man you had not met yet being haraam. On the other hand, despite cultural differences to courtships, people (ahem, men) behave basically the same all over the world – they say they’ll call you but well, you all know how that story ends. An “Aunt” to the women of the book basically advises them to follow The Rules (it’s set in the 90s so this makes complete sense, I knew predatory blonde sharks swimming around Manhattan who carried that book around with them then. . . )
This book covers the lives of four female friends in and out of Saudi Arabia, looking for love. It gives really good insight into the process with the parameters of Islam. And to me, it seems like everything was felt to a higher degree than it would have been in the West, because there was so little interaction prior to setting off in some form of a relationship. Honestly, there was not enough Ben and Jerry’s out there to cure the break up blues in the book. That being said, I cried, at times, over the way these women were somewhat more discard-able within their society than I would like to think I am in mine.
Two things really intrigued me about the book. The first was the distinctions drawn as to what was a truly Islamic nation versus what was a Muslim nation (some of the women felt that only Saudi Arabia was a truly Islamic Nation, others felt that the whole Gulf, an area of more fundamental Islam than some other Muslim countries were true Islamic countries.) The narrative examines the many levels of Saudi society and its almost caste like structure (something I think I’ve seen in Egypt as well), and how much a cognomen can say about a person. These names indicate far more than the region or religion (as an example, to some, my own last name can indicate specific countries in the British Isles and Catholic or Protestant) we can derive from Western names, but almost a complete socio-economic history of the family. Yikes.
I read the book while watching the BBC cover what it was calling The Arab Uprising, and including parts of the world formerly known as Persia. And not to sidetrack too much into the false geopolitical constructs that resulted from the Great Game, but there is an extra level of irony that it was the BBC using these vagaries. The juxtaposition between the BBC’s blanket reference to a part of the world that covers at least two continents (I’d argue three, because Turkey is secular and European, but also may qualify as part of this world culturally) with the detailed inside view of society offered by The Girls of Riyadh made me realize how much of the social nuances in this world are being missed, even by some of the premier news agencys of the West.
The other aspect of the book that struck a particular chord in me was how many of the footed cultural references referred to Egypt. While Saudi Arabia may be the Islamic of Islamic countries, it is clear that for most of the Muslim world Egypt was providing the best in arts and culture. Along with the slogans calling for Mubarack to resign and leave, the protestors during the recent revolution also held signs urging Egypt to “Show The World What Egypt Can Do Again” – referring to a revival after 30 years of cultural decline under Mubarack as well. Walking around Cairo, you see old movie theaters converted into automotive repair shops, dance halls in decline and various other signs of cultural neglect in a city that was one of the first to bring the world arts and culture. Hopefully, a new regime can restore its glory.
My second night staying in a room at El Gouna by myself – there was a giant bug in the bathroom. OK, giant only to my bug-phobic self; take the space between your thumb and the next closest finger – that was the length. The width was roughly a thumbnail. It was enough to have me bouncing on my toes in squealish girly girl disgust. So I call housekeeping. Somehow, during the call, my asking that someone take care of the bug and spray the bathroom becomes a complaint about the smell of the room.
To the rescue comes Mamoud (sp?) from housekeeping, in rubber boots and the polo and cotton pants of the grounds crew, with incense and Clorox to make the room I’m staying smell cleaner and better. I explain it’s not the smell, but a giant bug (breaking back into my signature oh god a bug dance – bust a move) that I’d like him to deal with. He reaches out with his boot, smashes the bug with an audible crunch, matched by my stomach twisting, and then picks it up with his hand. He then holds it out to me, and says, “It’s just a part of nature, come take a look.” I creep out from the corner I had danced behind, and do indeed cosy up, kind of sadly, to the carcass to which he says, “You have heart.” And asks if I’m staying by myself. I say yes, and he says is there anything else I need. I explain that housekeeping is coming to help me find the modem. He says, “Bah, I’ll call my friend, he’s the electrician here, and he’ll help.”
Eventually, the IT guy shows up – he’s in khakis, a button down and a tie, higher up on the Movenpick food chain – and he too cannot figure out where the modem is. He explains that the hotel recently redecorated rooms, and he had to check where it was, and asks if I am staying by myself. While he is trying to figure it out, my housekeeping friend gets his electrician friend to come over, and he finds the modem slot covered in the wall. All three wait to make sure I can get online – it’s a party, me and three nice Egyptian men in my hotel room.
As the party ends, and the guests begin to leave, my new friend asks if I want a guard outside the door, he can get someone big and strong to make sure there is no trouble. Aw, shucks.