Luxor Life.

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.

Full Moon over The West Bank.

Full Moon over The West Bank.

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!

garden

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.

Virginia Creeper clad walls of Mount Brandon.

Virginia Creeper clad walls of Mount Brandon.

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?

Orange blossoms on the tree...

Orange blossoms on the tree…

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!

Water Fowl. Keeping Cool.

Water Fowl. Keeping Cool.

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!

Two remaining ducklings!

Two remaining ducklings!

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!

Boundaries

One of the things I have recognised here in Luxor is the way that children are raised, in both poorer families and better off families.

Having been raised in a culture where Catholic, Irish, values are imposed on children and where God is seen as the ultimate authority, being here in Islamic Egypt feels surprisingly familiar! Father was the law-maker and the punisher, the one who you had to take seriously. Mother, on the other hand, was more manageable. It was easy to bamboozle her, to manipulate her or to lie without feeling too much fear. The fear came with her statement “Wait until your father comes home”. Then you knew you were in trouble and had overstepped the mark, the boundary line drawn by your parents.

Dad’s Home…

 My own father had been brought up in a very controlling family and he had attended a Christian Brothers Boarding school in Limerick where abuse was rife.  During  the 70’s, when I was a teenager living in Dublin with my father, he replayed his own history with me. Boundaries were very strict and abusive and it always felt to me like I was in a boarding school too. My mother, who lived separately to us, gave me very few boundaries; so while raising my own children in the UK in the 90’s I was very confused and vacillated between being too strict or too lenient. I found it very difficult to find the right balance with discipline.

When I was training to be an abuse counsellor I did many parenting courses in an attempt to find this balance. But I had started too late, as my girls were now teenagers and their patterns were already set. However, living now in Egypt, I recognise how important setting boundaries early in the child’s life is.

Told off by Mother….

Children have few, if any, healthy boundaries. There are invisible boundaries, which seem to exist in the parents mind but which are unknown to the child… until they are overstepped. When they are overstepped the child is physically beaten and is subsequently left in a permanent state of fear, still unsure of where the boundaries lie. Nothing is explained to them about what boundaries were overstepped or why they are being punished.

Young Girl from Upper Egypt carrying Rice.

For boys this is even more so. Girls are usually being trained from a very early age to be wives and mothers, so they do much of the Mother’s work, fetching and carrying, going on errands or making tea all day. They help to look after the younger children and all day long they are called by one person or another  to do this or that! The adults rely on the girls to do the things they don’t want to do. The boys also do errands but not as much as the girls, because boys are going to be husbands, telling their wives what to do!

Young Girl from Upper Egypt taking care of younger brother.

Boys flounder more as their roles as young males is not as clearly defined as that of young girls.  With the introduction of the internet, mobile phones and satellite television young boys spend most of their free-time using these technologies in the pursuit of excitement and girls! Their adrenalin levels are always raised, but they have no healthy outlets for all of this wild energy. Boys as young as ten years old are left to amuse themselves, sometimes going to bed at four in the morning because no-one tells them to go to bed! They float around in their young lives and try to find strategies for survival, usually though avoidance and lying. They have no direction and no purpose. Many are illiterate because even the teachers don’t care and their undirected energy spills over into violence and uncontrolled anger.

The effects of this way of life last into adulthood and many men end up living lives where they do not recognise boundaries, especially with women. Men continue their childhood survival strategies, lying when they think they are going to get into trouble and avoiding, by manipulation, denial and not taking responsibility for their actions.  They also act out their childhood anger with their wives, who act it out with their children.

Passing it down.

The result is also addiction, to alcohol, marijuana or sex. The men float around looking for direction, and work, from their government and local officials.  They feel powerless and direction-less because they get nothing from these father figures. Men are not taught to be independent and self reliant. They are taught to be completely dependent, and scared of authority.

This cycle continues down through the generations. In many ways it is no different to the cycles of abuse experienced in the West except that there is no education or help for these dysfunctional family relationships here in Upper Egypt. These dynamics are the norm. Without free therapeutic help and parenting education these cycles will continue. In Cairo there are more and more centres being set up offering help and advice to people but very little here in Upper Egypt.

It will take years to change these dynamics but it has to start somewhere. Making sure that education is improved would be a good beginning…