Sunday, 31 August 2008

My stepmother

Egypt is my mother
Her Nile is in my blood
Her sun is in my tan
Her face is in my features
Even my color is that of wheat
The color of your harvest, Egypt

These are not my words, but those of a song known to every Egyptian around my age. We all know it well and probably sang it at school at some point. It has always brought filled us with enthusiasm to make this country the best place on earth.

A couple of weeks ago, I walked into a bookstore famous for its good choice of what to put on its shelves. I found a book that I have seen standing in the same place of the display for months. It’s titled “Egypt is not my mother, … she’s my stepmother.” I knew that the author was using the song I told you about and he was sure that everyone would recognize it. I didn’t quite understand what he meant by the stepmother part or by the picture he chose for the front cover.

I bought the book. It’s a collection of short articles which the author decided to compile in one book. After reading a couple of them, I started to understand why he realized that Egypt was his stepmother.

Last Thursday, I was driving my cousins home late in the evening. There was a traffic jam in an unusual spot of the city. When I approached the end of the street I saw that the reason was a ‘lagna’ – literally means a committee or a checkpoint and Egyptians call it a ‘kamiin’ –ambush. In the traffic world of Egypt, it means that a couple of middle or high ranked traffic police officers and a number of soldiers have parked their cars to do one of two things: 1- to comb the area looking for a suspect, or 2- to check everyone’s licenses (!) which should be OK.

It was a kamiin of the second type.

I approached the soldier and he asked for both the car and my driver’s license. I handed them to him and, seeing that they were fine, he kept them and walked to the front of my car and bent over to check whatever.

He handed the licenses to the officer who was already holding enough of them. Because Egypt is my mother, she’s taught me what to do in these situations. I parked the car and walked over to the officer.
“Kheir? Hope things are OK. Can I have the licenses back?”
“What’s wrong with them?”
“Obliteration of numbers on the plate.”

I didn’t respond. I left him surrounded by the many motorists who were begging him to get their licenses back. I walked to my car and did as the soldier did earlier. Numbers on the plate perfectly readable if you are standing a month away. The plate is bent at the bottom due to driving on the blessed bumpy streets of Cairo.
“There’s nothing wrong with the plate.”
“We don’t think the same.”

Okay. Now I understand. Ramadan is almost there and they need some money to go grocery shopping. Egypt, my mother, also taught me this and told me that if I argue with this officer I might end up being beaten up at some point or maybe go home with a smashed car and still with no licenses in hand.
“What do I need to do?”
“Pay 150 pound now or we keep the license and you collect them later from the traffic department.”
“I’ll pay now.”

I got the money and waited for my turn to pay.

Despite all the hatred my heart has for Egyptian police officers, I found myself looking at his face trying to have eye contact with him. I wanted to tell him what my mouth couldn’t utter. I wanted to ask him when the last time he had a good night’s sleep was or if ever ate food bought with blessed money. I wanted to tell him that he would be another reason why I want to leave this country although I love it more that he did. I wanted him to see the cold anger that was boiling inside me.

He never lifted his eyes off the receipt book. He handed me my receipt, both licenses, and the change.
“Thank you,” he said and I was now sure that he was not fully an Egyptian police officer yet. There was a trace of conscience somewhere between his ribs, which was not enough, though, to stop him from turning a deaf ear to all the voices around him.

Back in the car I looked at the receipt and it read:
(.. and they paid the minimum fine for ‘changing the shape of the plate’). Oh, great. He didn’t even have that trace.

And yes, I now think that Egypt to him is definitely a mother who, to me, has started to feel like a inhumane stepmother.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Sunrise .. at last

On the notice screen, it had said that sailing from Luxor to Qena would be at 5:30 a.m.. I had been tossing in bed since 1:00 a.m.. Insomniac for a reason.
I expected the vibration caused by the movement of the boat to help me sleep. It did not. I got off bed, put a comfortable dress on, passed through the bar, grabbed a cup of tea, and went up on deck. I thought I was going to be the first person there but she was.
She was carrying a camera with as many lenses as the times you would envy her. She kept moving in her white linen shirt and khaki pants, from side to side, taking photos of the green farms, the proud palm trees, the little boats, the fishermen, and the small houses that hugged the Nile and followed us whenever we sailed.
I sat quietly on a comfortable sofa, enjoying everything she saw and watching her playing with her camera. The sun started to shyly come out behind the palm trees and in no time it was up right in front of us.
"Excuse me, do you mind taking a picture of me?"
She took my camera and, before I even suggest, lifted my arms and I turned to face the sun. I felt the cold wind play with my hair, the sun shine inside me and wash away the pain of too many sleepless nights, the trees caress my face and promise me .. things.
I knew that finally admitting to a decision made long ago was what took the sleep away. I felt overwhelmed by how stupidly I agreed to be hurt and how easy doing what I knew to be right seemed.

I went back to my cabin, did not draw the curtains and could finally sleep that day.

I finally agreed to 'Let Myself Be'.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Dancing on the street

9 a.m.
I woke up to a familiar sound of heavy metal bars being thrown on asphalt. I did not move out of bed. I knew what it was. They were bringing stuff needed for a wedding that was going to take place on the street later in the evening.

11 a.m.
I looked from the balcony and saw the equipment. From so many previous observations, throughout all my life actually, I knew that those bars were later going to be built into a stage which is of the type needed for a band and not a DJ. Since there would be a band, and unlike the DJ weddings, this promised an all night celebration.The possibilities this kind of stage bring are:
I) a belly dancer, beer and hash
II) no belly dancer (if they do not have enough money) but there is still beer and hash
III) there is none of the three and it is merely going to be a noisy evening
I always pray for Scenario III to happen and it rarely does. This time, because I wanted to take pictures of the belly dancer and hash, Scenario III did happen.The occasion was the henna of a guy who lives at number twenty four on my street. A henna is a celebration that takes place on the night before the wedding day. The women of the family bake henna herbs and put candles in the middle of it and passes it around for people to dye their hands with it.

11 p.m.
I took an interesting short clip instead of pictures of people cracking hash.
I wanted to share it with you because …
… I love the song: the tune, the Upper Egyptian beat, and the lyrics. It makes you want to dance to it.
… it is an authentic picture of how some Egyptians celebrate their happy occasions on the street. They rent a stage, chairs and colored lamps for which they steal electricity from the closest lamp posts. They hire a DJ or a band which come with their huge speakers. For financial reasons, some families would rather give the whole neighborhood a six hour headache than renting a celebration hall at a club.
… this celebration tells you that although the guy’s henna was not held at the Marriot by the Nile, he and his family were still extremely happy. On the street yesterday were people who came out to share the happy occasion. They were wearing their gallabeyyas and black dresses, listening to music that reminded them of where they originally came from, dancing in groups and individually, kissing and hugging and shaking hands and congratulating each other.
… (in case you have not noticed) there was a veiled girl wearing a rather tight outfit, dancing on the street just beside a bunch of guys. Just a quick reminder, the henna was on the street, which means that tens of people were watching from their balconies. I was one of them. This girl’s family was most around. Everyone was clapping hands and having fun. I would say some of her male family members, a brother, an uncle or some cousins, were probably around as well. No one thought it was inappropriate because for them it was absolutely acceptable for her to compliment the family of the couple by dancing.
… this supports my theory about the increased harassment on the streets of Cairo. Here was a female that I am sure the majority of guys around thought to be sexy. Yet, no one dared to stare, harass or bother her. If they had done, it would have meant they disrespected her family and the whole thing might have turned into a huge fight. This, in turn, would have translated into an attempt to ruin the celebration on purpose. Everyone knew the rules and everyone did follow them.
… those same men who knew very well how to behave are the same guys who hang around the street and harass girls they do not know. So they do not need all the ‘Would you accept this for your sister?’ slogans promoted to face the increased sexual harassment incidents in Cairo.

3 a.m.
The band suddenly stopped playing and started putting their instruments into their cases. Everyone droped silent and seemed to know what was going on. There was a white microbus behind stage. I thought it was the one that came to pick up the band. My mom said this was not the case.
I saw a slim guy with a pistol in his belt and I instantly knew what was to come.This was supposed to be a police van patroling the area to make sure things were alright. This meant that they were there to stop the celebration because the tent was blocking the street and the music was too loud.What they were really doing, as I am sure most of you have already guessed, was roaming around to find opportunities for “dinner”. One of the groom's family went over to them and gave them some money (Mom says LE 50 to LE 100). The microbus reversed and drove away.

The keyboard was out of its case again.

Viva Egypt.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Five days to remember **

Day 4: On Deck
It was an hour before sunset. I decided to use the deck before the Italian guests returned back from their tour.
Half an hour later, a guy who was in the pool with his son a while ago walked towards me.

“Hi. Do you speak English?” he asked.
“A little,” I replied and did not stand up.
“So, are you Italian?” “No, Egyptian.”
“You’re on holiday?”
“No, on business actually. I’m the English trainer of the staff.”
“Oh, really. Well, their English is already good.”
“Thanks, I let them know you said so.”

He was a huge guy in his, I'd say, mid-forties with a big mustache and a beard. He was wearing shorts and a big T-shirt. Or maybe he made it look so. He was standing bare feet.
A minute later, a lady in a khaki linen dress walked towards us.

“Hey, you missed the sunset,” he told her.
“I know,” she replied.
“Oh, we haven’t introduced ourselves,” he said and we did.
“This is my wife Carine. Carine, she’s the English instructor of the staff here.”
“Oh, your English is very good. You’ve never studied abroad?”
“Not, yet,” I replied. “Is this your first time in Egypt?”
“No,” she replied. “We came here twenty years ago on our honey moon. We stayed three days with our backpacks in a felucca. This time we’re here with the kids.”
“You’ve made a very good choice,” I said.
There was a nervous silence after which Carine said “Ok. We don’t want to keep you from enjoying the sunset. Pleasure to meet you.”
“Pleasure to meet you, too.”
I shook hands with both of them. And they went back to their subbeds.

Later in the evening. I walked into the restaurant for dinner and the whole family was there. For some reason, they looked to me like the couple in The American Beauty, unhappy. The husband sat with his back to the door and was doing the talking. A couple of minutes later, the wife and the son left. She passed by me and we both avoided each other. The husband and the girl sat silently. When they were leaving, he looked at me.
“Busy evening. No tables. Sorry you had dinner late.”
“I know. It’s ok, though.”
They left the restaurant and I never saw them again.

Hmm. In any case, I would have felt jealous the way she did. Maybe more, actually. Is it a mid life crisis? Plus …

“Ok, Miss,” the waiter interrupted my thoughts. “What would you like for dessert?”
“No, nothing, Ayman. I’m already full.”
“No way. Brownie with vanilla ice-cream or sweet baked pumpkin?”

Day 5: Sidi Aboul Haggag

Five days ago I took this picture because it looked interesting to see a mosque inside a temple.
Only today I knew it was of Aboul Haggag, a sufi leader whose lineage goes back to Prophet Mohamed and who came to Luxor and built this mosque at the time when the whole temple was buried under the sand. When they discovered the temple the mosque stayed there.
Today was the last day for the preparation made to celebrate Aboul Haggag’s ‘moolid’– birthday.
People gathered in the park behind the temple and belt a celebration tent close to his grave. I was having lunch with two of my students who insisted on showing me a bit of the city and treat me to lunch.

We sat at a restaurant overlooking all everything, Luxor temple, Aboul Haggag’s mosque, the tent, the little accessories and toys stands, and the Nile.
It was almost ten in the evening and we decided to leave.

The place where Aboul Haggag was buried was being restored but were still going in and out trying hard to reach his grave. Once they reached it, they put their hand on the green cloth covering it, recited some verses of Quran and prayed for what they wanted. Some of them thought that, since he was related to Prophet Mohamed, he could be a mediator and ask God to give them what they wanted. Some of them even sat there at the foot of the grave. Others were chanting and sitting around someone who later gave a sermon.
Best of all were the mothers and children sitting on the grass outside enjoying the cool breeze of summer.
Best of all was not the luxurious boat for which people paid tens of thousands of dollars.
Best of all was the people who sincerely welcomed me and tried to make me happy.
Best of all to know that good people have not vanished from the world yet.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Five days to remember *

Sunboat III was going to sail for one day and I had to move to Sunboat II and board at the restaurant of Boat IV. You got that? Anyway!

It was lunch time. I walked into the other boat, introduced myself to the cold-faced receptionist. I entered the restaurant and my initial impression was confirmed – there is an unfriendly atmosphere for some reason. Waiters in the restaurant kept looking at each other and in less than one minute everyone knew who I was.

“Would you like to drink something, Miss?” one of them asked.
“Red wine, please!” I replied. Without smiling. His eyes grew into two tires of a huge lorry. I smiled and looked at my plate. “Just water, please.”
“Ok. Revenge on the 22nd. I’m in your class then,” he smiled the reply and went to get the water.

Day 3: Up, up, up we went
My alarm clock went off at five forty in the morning. I jumped out of bed and in no time was dressed and ready at the reception. At five fifty-five a tall local guy walked hurriedly towards me
“Good morning, Ma’am. You must be Ms. Sherine.”
“Good morning. I assume it’s me who you’re looking for. Can I see your list?”
“Sure, Ma’am.”
“Okay, I’m not Sherine, but this is my cabin number. So, it’s me. AND, I’m not a VIP, ... please,” I smiled and handed him the slate. He smiled back and we walked to the minibus that took us to the boats.

And I thought I was early. Five small motor boats were already full. I stepped in and out of all of them till I reached the last one. There were cups and saucers, cake, tea and coffee. A young man attended to everyone and in less than five minutes we reached the west bank of Luxor. Another minibus was waiting for us and drove us through green fields till we reached our destination.

Hot-air Balloons of all colors were rising above the houses. It looked as if the kids inside the houses had tied them to their beds the previous night.

We got into the balloon, and got safety instructions from a Captain Ahmed, a mid-twenties guy who spoke English with a mixture of Luxor accent and many mistakes. But we all understood him.

We started to rise above the fields and I felt I had wings.
I became everyone I saw.

A woman shepherding goats by a small canal on her field.

A farmer ploughing his land using two buffalos another using his own legs.

Ramsis II on the walls of Habu temple.

Another balloon passenger looking my direction.

A young child lying in bed on the roof of his house and waiving to the passenger of the balloon that just passed above him. His eyes smiling more than his lips did.

“Where are we going to land, then?” I asked the captain.
“Anywhere. It depends where the wind takes us.”
“I see. And what has the poor owner of the land to do with all this balloons thing.”
“A couple of years ago, farmers used to love seeing us land in their fields and always welcomed our guests. Now, if I land in an arid field, the farmer will come crying about the ‘gold’ he had planted the day before. We usually have to shut him up with a hundred pounds or so.”
“What do you have to do to be a balloon captain?”
“I studied for a year and a half before I got the license. You do eight courses, three of them are medical. Here, have some water, you’re standing right under the flame.”

Dinner Time
It was eight forty five. I was wearing something that followed the dress code on the boat. A white blouse with white satin collar and cuffs. A touch of make-up and off I went. The restaurant was almost empty as I expected.

I walked in and the two waiters, who were my students, greeted me with a big smile. One of them walked over and tucked the chair under me while the other brought the menu.
I made the order and waited.
Less than five minutes later, the appetizer arrived. And ten minutes after that I was having my soup.
“Hey, Ayman. Sorry, since you’re not busy now. Would you mind explaining the unexplainable presence of this amount of utensils? I assume this is for soup. But what is up with the others?”
“SURE, Miss. My pleasure,” he said and in less than thirty seconds he enthusiastically explained the order in which the knives and forks were used.
“Oh, ok. I am glad it’s not a seven dish menu,” I said after thanking him.

The following day, during a quick chat during lunch, I discovered that this waiter, Ayman, came from a village in the Nile Delta called Tonoub. A name that has an unforgettable place in my heart. It was where my mom’s aunt used to live. We visited her almost every summer. I believe this place is what made me so in love with the countryside.
“Small world, Miss. This is where I come from,” he said pointing to his chest and his face brightened up.

Five days to remember

It was one of the very few times in my life that I received something I needed without asking for it. You know that feeling when you have been walking under a summer’s sun for an hour and you finally you decide to make a turn and find yourself walking through a narrow shaded alley?
That is what happened to me over the past few days.

A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by a previous employer and asked if I was interested in teaching a Tourism English intensive course on a boat in Luxor. “I am in for it!” was my reply without asking about any details.

I spent five reviving rejuvenating self-assuring days of my life. I was given a chance to step outside my current self and see her through others’ eyes, the thing I had been trying to do for months.

I headed to the airport on early Saturday morning. On the airplane, I sat next to and behind a group of French tourists who seemed surprised why I was not as excited as they were. I was just still hot with the two hours’ walk in the sun I told you about.

At Luxor airport, I was met by a quiet Mr. Khaled who was holding a sign with the company’s logo. He greeted me with a broad smile, carried my laptop, pushed the trolley to the micro bus and, in less than ten minutes, escorted me into the reception of the boat. These things never really happen to me in Cairo. At least not getting anywhere from the airport in ten minutes.

Day 1: Abercrombie & Kent Sunboat III. Cabin 108.

I can never describe how warm the boat and the cabin felt; it was one of the places that immediately make you feel home. That could be one reason why Sunboat III is more expensive than the more modern Sunboat IV. The boat can accommodate for thirty two guests only and the friendly staff can and do take excellent care of every single one of them.

“No, Miss. We’re talking abut VIP’s. The First Lady, ambassadors, the owner of CNN, the Chief of CIB, Naomi Campbell, Gulf Kings and Princes, etc. With A&K, you expect ZERO mistakes,” a tour operator and one of my students once told me.

I was still at the stage of testing the waters. I did not leave my cabin often, nor wandered around.

In the evening, I took a walk by the Corniche, listened to the quietness of the city and watching the sunset.

Day 2: Moroccan?
“Yes, speak some Arabic please. People here are already debating whether you are Moroccan or Tunisian, Miss,” one of my students said teasingly. It seems that being silent made them think I was trying to be mysterious.
“No, my color can only be that of someone from Aswan, no?” I answered.
“No way! You are Aswani?” his eyes gleamed.
“I have Aswani roots and my dad is your color,” it felt proud to say so for some reason, although I have never been to my dad’s village, nor was he born there.
“That’s what I thought. You can’t be but from here. You look so much like my fiancée. Same everything. I call her Nefertary,” he replied.
“And you are Ramsis II?” I asked him.

Friday, 8 August 2008


Today I revisited the hairdresser I told you about in Shower Gella and for the same reason: to have some fun, but I am not sure if I did.

I walked in and there was no less than eleven women crammed into the little shop. I spotted the girl who usually attends to me and she was having lunch as usual.

“Should I come by some other time? I think you are busy today,” I asked her, feeling claustrophobic.
“No, no. I’ll be with you in a minute,” she replied

I squeezed my body between a mom with two little girls, one of who was jumping up and down like a chimpanzee, and the other, a five year old, was getting changed! The other lady was taking up one third of the seat that was made to accommodate two only.

Oooh, wow!! A bride. How nice. Hmm, she is not smiling a lot. She will probably smile later.
The hairdresser and owner of the shop, Om To’aa, was taking care of the bride, for who else would dare to handle such an important client? The bride's make up was done: tons of foundation and powder that must have blocked off the oxygen from the bride’s skin. And, of course, the point was to make her look as fair-skinned as possible. She had dark fuchsia and blue eye shadow and a thick layer of mascara. She looked pretty anyway.

My granny used to think that God brightens up a bride’s face no matter what. I think she was right, for I have never seen an ugly bride in my life.

Om To’aa had tied the bride’s hair into a pony tail and was now rolling thick hair strands to transform the bun into a fountain of hair, a do I last saw in the 1980s something. Then she decorated the bun with small white artificial flowers and glittery gel.


And she sprayed the poor girl’s hair as if raiding a cockroach’s colony. The girl did not object. She still looked pretty.

“This is for when you take it off for your husband.” Take what off?!
Suddenly, the hairdresser took a glittery ornamented triangle shaped white piece of cloth and started tying it over the hairdo. Ok, a veiled bride. She still looks nice with the glittery veil.
Another layer, another layer, a pink flower here, a chiffon veil over her face. Her friends started taking pictures of her, asking her to pose here and there.
Why is she not talking or smiling?

After ten minutes, her family was outside waiting for her.

“Yalla, hurry up. Give it to me,” Om To’aa took a rectangular piece of ornamented silk cloth that had two holes in it. It turned out to be a face cover. Oh, ok. A niqabi bride. Hmm.

“No, no. My brother is not going to like this. It’s too attention seeking,” the bride said.
“Are you crazy? Nothing is showing of you, and you are a bride, and you are nineteeeeeeen,” one of her friends, who seemed to had had enough, started to shout.
“Still. He’s going to get angry. Let me use the side with no glitter.”
“Oh, what’s the point of coming here then? I swear nothing is showing, not even your eyes.”

She finally put the face cover on and went out to meet her groom and family. In less than one minute she was back into the shop. No one said anything and I did not understand what was going on.

Usually, it is just the groom being a bit late. This time, it was the brother being an @#%$^$& (Yes, seven letters). He insisted on going home to get something to COVER his sister. I had no idea how he was planning to cover her because she was already covered head to toe. I could only imagine him bringing a white bed sheet.

It occurred to me then that Muslims also use plain white sheets to wrap a body before burying it.

I also remembered something else I learned lately: people we feel sad for can be the happiest on earth.

I do hope she is one of them.

Monday, 4 August 2008


"If you keep thinking about what you've left behind, you'll never be able to see what lies ahead."
Chef Gusteau to Remy ~ Ratatouille

Saturday, 2 August 2008

A Scoop from Paradise

We arrived there at quarter to one in the afternoon.

“Are those a sample of the tens of virgins good men are going to get in paradise?” I said to my friend upon seeing the bunch of girls standing by the gate to receive guests. They were in their mini-skirt-and-tank-top uniform having all sorts of hair styles and colors. They seemed to be so professional, dancing to music at the reception.

She laughed at the comment and we got off the car, leaving her husband to drive around Marina and find a beach to stay at. We got the tickets and walked behind the straw walls that had earlier made it impossible to see what was behind.

“What are these three guys doing in here?” it felt good to ask in that tone you know.
“They're cleaning the beach and will leave at one pm, Miss. Please have a seat or go get changed till they leave,” the female security officer answered.

Four hours later the beach was packed. It was the first time for me to see so many female bodies in one place: swimming, singing and belly dancing, smoking shisha, laughing, chatting, sunbathing in their bikinis, lying down in hammocks or on the grass, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. All in no more than a six hundred meter square beach. A female only beach called Yashmak.

My friend and I went into the sea, chatted, laughed, and sunbathed for a while before she left to spend some time with her husband. I read a couple of pages of the new book I brought along, went back into the sea, and lied down in the sun. It was not long before a crusade of women came to occupy my friend’s sun bed and the space around it. I still have no idea how many there was of them.

No, I’m not going to swim today. I have skin très délicate.
Oh, I love your bikinis, très joli. Where did you buy them?
I bought them last time I was in Italy. They were two hundred Euros or so.
Lilly? What do you think of my new hair color?
It’s suits ta coleur a lot. A couple of highlights would make it even more beautiful.
Well, my coiffeur suggested I do that when I get bored. He knows that I’d be back soon asking for a color change?

Yes, that was the only bad thing about the day. Being on a female only beach has its advantages and disadvantages, you know?

I have to say it was one of the few good days I had in a while, though. The company was as good as sunbathing for the first time. My friend is one of the coolest girls I know. We get a long very well. She is funny, outgoing, smiley and smart.
She kept code switching between Arabic and Spanish talking to me and her husband.

The three of us decided on Chinese food for lunch at around five thirty. At the table, her husband talked to me for the first time.
Enti modarresa?
Wow, you speak Arabic?
Shwayya. (a little)
We chatted in Arabic, had lunch, and started the drive back. They both switched back to Spanish after a while. I enjoyed listening to the long strings of incomprehensible lively Spanish utterances mixed with the many strings of thoughts passing my mind.

Yes, I am still conservative and I do not mind, rather, I enjoy it as much as the tank-top uniformed girls enjoy their lives.