I have been here in Luxor now for nearly two years now and it has been an education! I learned to just be a witness rather than try to change things because I learned that it is very difficult for anyone to change centuries worth of beliefs in a short space of time, no matter how frustrating it is to watch how those same beliefs just don’t work!
Living in the middle of Egyptian society is very different to living an ex-pat life and I have had no desire to become involved with the ex-pats who live here, except for two ‘foreign’ wives of our next door neighbours whose husbands are related to my husband! We meet for coffee and a ‘vent’ and exchange the stories of our lives and what we are experiencing. Its always interesting to see how our experiences match each others and how we feel about them.
Its not easy to live here. In fact it can be infuriating, expecially when you see how things are run, or not, in most cases. The corruption, across all levels of society is rife. Traditional and Islamic beliefs create a mish mash of cultural life which is hard to keep up with sometimes. Much of it doesn’t make any sense. But I have been trying to understand the origins of certain beliefs, the sources of certain behaviours, both dysfunctional and healthy, and that activity keeps me interested. But it can also drive me crazy!
When I first moved here it didn’t take long for me to see how things could be done differently. So I tried…and met with huge resistance. In the garden I pruned the apple trees, just like I did with my trees in the UK. I trimmed all all the suckers from the Guava, orange and Lemon trees and Omar and I managed to get some of the garden to grow potatoes and onions. No-one actually believed that we could do it. I had been growing veges since I left home at 19 years of age. I know how to grow veges! But I was a foreign woman and obviously knew nothing about anything!
It was very difficult. The one thing that drove me nuts was that no-one ever waited for things to be ripe before they would just pluck them from the trees. Lemons, figs, guavas, pomegranates and apples all disappeared. The kids and women just helped themselves. There are four flats of people here in our building plus Mother and Father. Four sons and their wives and children occupy the flats, ours being one of them. If something was grown in the garden people just helped themselves without considering anyone else’s needs. I couldn’t understand it.
I looked back to my own childhood and my Grandmother’s orchard. Mick, the gardener grew everything there and if my grandmother wanted anything she sent someone up to tell him and he would give her what she needed. Woe betide anyone who took something without first asking for it! To my mind this was how it should be. There was always food for the kitchen. Things were ripe and ready to be eaten. But here, as soon as it appears it is picked, unripe and unready! Nothing had a chance to grow so nothing was shared either. Everything was so mismanaged! How did these people ever survive?
I gave up on the garden and my role in it after a very clear message from one of the older brothers that my ‘work’ was not appreciated. After pruning one side of the apple tree, I left one side the same as it was just to see the difference, this older brother saw me and said “What are you doing with my apple tree?” It was said in a ‘jokey’ way but it felt nothing like a joke. This was the brother who never set foot in the garden I might add! I laughed, taking it lightly, and replied “Just wait until next year and you will have lots of apples”. This little apple tree only produced small quantities of apples, 5 -6, when it could have been producing lots but it had never been trained or pruned.
Two days later Omar and I were in the garden again and the brother appeared with an older man. They went straight to the apple tree! The old man was checking out the tree and my pruning. The message was loud and clear and I felt it in my stomach like a kick! “This is MY tree and you have ruined it”. Omar obviously picked up on his brothers intentions too and so he asked the old man how my pruning was. The old man replied that I had done a good job but I had pruned it back too hard. But it was good. (They only take off dead leaves here and the tiny tips of branchces when they prune).
Even though the old man ‘approved’ of my work I felt completely gutted. The brother’s actions were telling me clearly that I had no ‘rights’ in their garden. It upset me for the entire day and I made a decision that I was just not going to get involved in the garden again. What made it even worse was that the other brothers defended this brother’s actions even though it was also clear as a bell to them what his intentions were. But no-one stood up to him!
So I turned my attention to chickens. We bought our chickens and converted an unused mudbrick shed into our chicken house. Omar’s mother kept her chickens and ducks in another shed along with the sheep. I bought my chickens ‘proper’ feed from the shop and gave them scraps as well. A few days later ‘Mother’ told us that rats were stealing her hens eggs and so, innocently, I suggested she keep them with our chickens. Bad move. Although I fed them they were now no longer my chickens. She questioned every little thing I did and undid everything too! The other women would send their children to get the eggs without asking so we told htem that when there were enough eggs we would share them with everyone. One wife refused any eggs at all because she couldn’t just go and help herself! Then another brother felt so quilty that the other wife wasn’t getting eggs that he refused the eggs as well. It was ridiculous.
There was a constant battle for control and I became so fed up with the whole thing. Nobody else could see what was happening, or rather they chose not to. We decided to build another chicken house below our flat. Our flat is above the ‘apple tree brothers’ flat. Omar made mudbrick walls and put a door on and just before we were about to put our chickens there the brother kicked off again. He ranted that he didn’t want chickens outside his house! That was the end of that idea!
I went to the UK for two weeks and when I came back I decided that I was going to take back my power and my control and take care of my own bloody chickens! So we put a lock on the door. Mother got one too..lof course. Totally defeated the object but one can’t reject mother!
The women, who were feeding them scraps, threw these scraps over the door and it stank. We told them to put the food outside the door rather than throwing it over the door and leaving a horrible stinking mess as you walk in to the coop! Nothing went down well. Mother was out of the loop! But the scraps were still thrown over the door!
We bought three ducklings, two of which died when someone let them out of the palm run they were in. So we put our last remaining duck in with the chickens. But two days later Mother bought ducks and where did she put them? She threw them over the door and in with our chickens, which effectively meant that she could now enter as she liked.
I gave up and gave her all the chickens to look after! I had had enough. She was not pleased as it now meant that she had to feed and water them everyday. I no longer paid for their food and had nothing more to do with them. She complained that she still wanted me to look after them, which really meant she wanted me to pay for their food! We said OK, but didn’t act on it, leaving her with the responsibility! We still own our duck, which she looks after, but most of the hens have been eaten. In the winter we are putting concrete stairs up to the roof and we will build houses for our birds and rabbits. Then I will do it my way…hopefully! But before doing that I will make sure that ‘the brother’ doesn’t take control of that idea too! It he does then I will not build the stairs but will wait until I have my own farm someplace else!
But there is a point to this blog. These incidences of power and control taught me about how women’s lives are here in the poorer parts of Egypt. How people can all live together and how the power dynamics between men and women, and the women themselves, make or break a family. I will write more about this in the next blog.
PS. The little apple tree died in the end and produced nothing at all after all its little apples were eaten. Everyone thought it was a case of ‘bad eyes’ after the pruning fiasco! Too much negative energy etc. All the other trees we took care of are now producing more fruit than they ever have. Hey ho!