Tag: North Africa

Egypt: Paradise with plenty of problems

Almost any horseman in the world harbours a fantasy of galloping across sand dunes in the shadows of the pyramids. It’s a no-brainer. Most of us watched Lawrence of Arabia and drooled, or daydreamed about mummy movies where the heroes make their escape across the desert on horseback. And then there are some of us who are lucky to be able to do this almost any time they want … like me. I’m living a horseman’s wet dream and have no wish at all to disturb it.

When I first visited Egypt from Canada in the late 70s with my Egyptian husband-to-be, I was struck by the astounding number of working horses in the streets of the cities and villages, some of them in dire Black Beauty straits, but many in wonderful condition. When we moved to Egypt with our children in the late 80s, my husband encouraged me to begin riding again, but learning to live in Egypt with two youngsters was challenge enough for me – until the day he arrived home with the news that a friend of ours whose wife had just died had given me a four-year-old Arab mare. I wasn’t sure if I was delighted or horrified but it started me on my life of crime.

Twenty-three years later, this mare and I are still partners although I lost my husband almost thirteen years ago and the children are currently working and studying in the US. Dory, my mare, and I now live on a small farm in the villages near the pyramids of Abu Sir, between Giza and Sakkara, where I have established an informal animal sanctuary/goat breeding enterprise/educational center/equestrian tourism center. We share the farm with 18 horses, three donkeys, a mule, a varying number of goats, a water buffalo, an aviary full of various types of poultry and birds, and a pack of 16 dogs varying in size from just over Chihuahua to just under Small Cow (a very large Great Dane).

Maryanne with her horse, Dory.

Most of the animals here have been rescued from situations that would have involved unpleasant outcomes, but in order to keep both my health and sanity and theirs, we don’t take in lots of newcomers. Also, as we do a lot of educational work with schools, scouts, families and farmers, not every rescue is well-adapted to the demands of the work. They have to be patient and kind above all and willing to learn a sort of animal professionalism that dictates that they tolerate a lot of attention and loving. Oddly enough, this can be difficult for animals that have been abused.

Just like people who are given a chance to live a healthy, fulfilling life that demands the right amount from them and gives back enough reward, animals in a good environment can live surprisingly long lives. Our oldest terrier is 17 and showing few signs of ageing, while visitors are astonished that we have two horses over 30. A good quarter of our working horses are over 20. They thrive on a considerate working regime that engages their minds and bodies, and offer a wonderful example to our human visitors of how to age gracefully. We don’t just teach riding, grooming and such, but also life lessons.

When the protests began in Tahrir two years ago, my children, quite naturally, called to see if I wanted to “take a small holiday” with them in the US. I declined quite vehemently. First, I felt very safe living in a rural community where everyone knows me. The protests were quite localised in downtown cores and out here people had cows to milk and crops to tend. Second, I employ members of eight local families on the farm and I had to point out that I could hardly leave them without my support. Finally, as I told my son, I was as astonished at the events as everyone else in the world and I had no intention of missing this for all the tea in China.

I saw those 18 days through with two other women friends. We would sit and watch Al-Jazeera with the staff who only had access to the government channels on their TVs and were thus somewhat in the dark as to what was going on downtown. Lively political discussions ensued and I’ve been delighted to see the growing knowledge and interest in people who had been long left to feel utterly powerless.

Unfortunately the political awakening of Egypt wasn’t such a terrific thing for tourism. Every protest has been accompanied by media reports that intimated that all of Egypt was at risk of chaos or destruction, although that couldn’t be further from the truth. Our riding tour business has been slow for the past year or so although the people who came immediately after Hosni Mubarak stepped down were amazing guests who so enjoyed seeing the changes in our country. They also really enjoyed visiting the villages and farming communities that we ride through, and one experienced traveler told me that although the Egypt he’d visited on a bus tour a few years earlier seemed in no way ready for democracy, the Egypt that he saw riding with me was a totally different story. But that is the difference between the tourist as an object viewing a population that is an object – as so often happens when visitors are isolated in buses – and someone who is on horseback interacting with people as we are passing by.

For a Canadian who doesn’t want to shovel any more snow and who thrives on sunshine and good vegetables year round, Egypt is paradise, albeit paradise with plenty of problems, not the least of which is the traffic – it’s almost paralysing Cairo these days. But name a country that is without problems … I don’t think you can.  And I can gallop by a pyramid any day I want.

Maryanne Gabbani is a 63-year-old Canadian mother of two. She started life in southern California, met her Egyptian husband in Canada and now calls a farm in Egypt her home. 

Drama and devotion on a Friday night

The Sayyeda Nafisa mosque in Cairo is surrounded by chaos, chaos that laps at its walls and occasionally seeps inside its doors.

The women’s section is entered via an alleyway running along one side of its walls, an obstacle course of ever decreasing human need: from beggars, supine and supplicating, to an insistent seller of single flowers wrapped in plastic and tied with a ribbon (a gift for Nafisa), to the relative self-sufficiency of a small stall selling religious bric-a-brac.

Inside, women lie prostrate or sit or pray at the shrine’s entrance, buffeted by the voices of three rambunctious cleaners who are as much concerned with cleaning out the pockets of the faithful as the faithful are with cleansing their souls, busily sweeping/blocking the mosque exit as they extol the beauty of the “moons” in front of them.

At the shrine itself women touch the walls as they recite Qur’an while on the other side of a trellis-like structure dividing the sexes, men do the same. At the end of a room an officious man in his sixties oversees proceedings, occasionally barking out orders at the squawking cleaners and even the devotional themselves.

There is a constant stream of people on this early Friday evening. A small boy wanders through the supplicants, lost in his own reverie – of crisp-eating. Another woman dressed in a black baggy tunic reclines against a wall, cheek in palm, staring into the middle distance. Then she suddenly and without warning prostrates herself in prayer, almost throwing herself flat onto the ground until her thin form is submerged in her clothes so that she resembles the Wicked Witch of the West who got her comeuppance.

There was drama inside the mosque on this Friday evening. With great bluster a woman – still wearing her shoes – swept into the entrance hall and declared that she had been robbed while at the shrine. One of the cleaners, a particularly active woman in her early 70s wearing a green khimar matched with a long necklace of prayer beads, immediately launched into action and declared that she would find the thief. The doors to the shrine room were shut, to no clear end. The thief had gone. The officious man, armed with a long metal ruler, began imperiously demanding that women at the shrine leave, and was mostly ignored. He focused his attention on a woman seated on the floor.

“Stop begging and get out,” he said.

“Don’t push it,” the woman replied.

The man declared that he would summon someone to remove her. The woman looked the other way and continued eating.

There is a donation box next to the shrine. A woman opened her purse and moved a single LE10 note out of the way to get at a few coins, which she dropped in the box. Another woman gave guavas to the officious man and the cleaners and anyone else who crossed her path.

The cacophony of it all was pierced by the call to the Esha prayer, beautiful but loud, pumped out of the mosque’s speakers. But even at top volume it could not drown out the sound of a fight coming from the alleyway outside. The cleaners took their brooms and immediately went to inspect.

Two robust matrons, eyeballing each other, were screaming threats and invective. One of them worked at the stall they were standing in. A group of people watched. A young girl of around 16 sat on a stool in the stall and became increasingly agitated until a youth of around the same age or younger suddenly flung himself on her and viciously attacked her, dragging her out of her seat and along the ground. One of the matrons hit her on the back with both hands. She was punched and pulled across the narrow alley until one of the cleaners, a determined septuagenarian, intervened and led the sobbing and distraught girl into the mosque to seek refuge. It was impossible to tell how the fight had begun or what it was about.

The robust matron sat on a plastic chair and answered her mobile phone as if nothing had happened. She interrupted her caller only to entreat the young man not to follow the girl into the mosque as he took his shoes off. He went in briefly anyway.

The cleaner who had rescued the girl appeared.

“Come inside again and I’ll give you fucking hell,” she promised the boy. He skulked away.

The fury lingered as the prayers began. A man had watched the violence impassively – he started reciting Qur’an halfway through while spectating. He left. The robust matron took up her sentry position at the stall again as the sound of the prayers floated out into the tormented night and disintegrated above a young woman who emerged from the mosque in tears and pressed her face into the wall, arms by her side, perfectly still apart from the sobs rippling through her body. Opposite her, somebody had twice written in a strange curling font on the mosque wall: “I seek forgiveness from God”.

Sarah Carr (@sarahcarr) is a British-Egyptian journalist. This post was first published on her blog www.inanities.org

Hassan Hajjaj’s rockstar portraits

Hassan Hajjaj’s portraits from Marrakech capture the colour and spontaneity of his childhood in Morocco. His sitters – ‘not just musicians but the snake charmer, henna girl, bad boy, male belly dancer’ – often wear clothes he has designed, standing in spaces totally covered by patterns he has chosen, and the photographs are eventually set in a frame he has constructed.

Click on an image below to view the gallery.

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This post was first published on the Guardian Africa Network.

Wed for bed: Underground marriages in Egypt

Khalid and Egan (not their real names) are undergraduate students at the American University in Cairo who are “deeply in love” in every sense of the fairy-tale phrase. They are desperate to marry but cannot afford it. So they turn to a solution that is popularly referred to in Egypt as “underground tube marriages”.

These secret unions, also called urfi marriages, have exploded in colleges throughout Egypt. Despite officially being banned, they have an established Facebook presence and are spawning new entrepreneurs. Weddings and dowry payments typically cost thousands of dollars in Egypt and even if a marriage is concluded to the satisfaction of the bride and groom’s families, city apartments are way beyond the means of many newlyweds.

To make matters worse, in predominantly Islamic Egypt, sex before marriage is fiercely discouraged and engaging in premarital sex can have dire social consequences. Many families in Egypt are ready to disown their children if they live as partners without official marriage. It is this pressure and the urge to engage in premarital sex that drive many students into urfi marriages.

What is required for the secret unions to take effect is simply consent between boy and girl. Usually two witnesses, often friends, sign the secret marriage agreement. After this, the consenting boy and girl are legally married. This union is halfway between the official Egyptian legal system recognition and traditional family understanding of marriage. That’s why the couples who partake in these ceremonies consider themselves “married”.

In some colleges the urfi marriages take place in abandoned lecture theatres or in secluded accommodation hostels. These are as cordial as conventional receptions. If the urfi marriage was conducted in, say, an abandoned science lab, a feast of drink and food will follow at the same venue after the conclusion of the vows. Noisy conversation and jive music in any college dormitory on a weekend is a sure sign of the celebration of an urfi union, said one elated new bride, proudly showing me an ivory-coated ring that she deftly hides from her family and outsiders.

The need for secrecy does not just apply to the couple. The witnesses, though they may welcome an invitation to officiate, also want to be secret — it is a social embarrassment to be labelled a conveyer of secret marriages.

But a girl who engages in secret marriage faces the possibility of never marrying formally if the outside world manages to unlock her secret past. If an urfi marriage does not work out, and a prospective suitor hears about her past, he could spurn her.

Urfi marriages are more about chemistry than money, even if they are not always about falling in love forever. As Egan admitted: “I could not wait for us to finish our four-year degrees and then marry. Even if that was the case, he could never afford the $7 000 and the Toyota Prius that my family demanded in order to give their consent.”

The proliferation of underground marriages has turned some enterprising students into semi-successful businessmen. Some students advertise their services on university notice boards and others offer “marriage witnesses” services on Facebook and other social networking sites.

One third-year physiology student, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, said: “I usually charge fellow students $50 if they want me to be a secret marriage witness. I’m never short of customers — every two weeks on average — and I’m paid more thereafter to make sure I lock my mouth once outside the ‘underground’.”

It is not all merry sailing for the lovers. There is no legal status awarded to these marriages if the relationship turns sour.

The courts do not place any paternity burden on the man if these marriages end in divorce and the belligerent parties emerge from the underground to take their custody battles into the legal courts above. But Egan, who was well through her first urfi marriage, summed it up: “Urfi marriage gives me a feel-good feeling and erases my guilt whenever I want to indulge in pre-marital sex.”

Hadid Beduwi is a Chadian journalist married to a New Zealand diplomat in Alexandria, Egypt. This post was first published in the M&G newspaper.