Qurna Homestead update. September 2014.

I haven’t written here in quite a while so I thought I would share how things have developed during the past 6 months.

DSCN9417Omar is still working the eight Kirat field down by the Nile and we are still eating the onions he grew there last winter. However, our flat is the only flat where there are still onions, because the women here have no idea of how to store things and will use veges, etc. in huge quantities as soon as they get their share of the harvest. The result is they have to buy their onions from the souk within weeks.  Omar tells his mother proudly  that I still have most of mine. Bad move!  Mother then goes and tells all the other women who then come to my door asking for onions! We’ve now put a stop to that! I budget my produce so that it lasts me until the next harvest, which is still six months away! I am not giving any away, especially as they received twice as much as we did to begin with. They’ll have to learn just as I did.

We now have a bull calf and cow, 5 ewes and 1 young ram, 4 white ducks, 11 white chooks and 1 beautiful cockerel and 3 hens…and a partridge in a pear tree. No, we don’t have a partridge…or a pear tree…but we have considered quails…

We eat bread made from the wheat Omar grew over last winter’s season, and corn meal from last year’s 2014-04-27 16.21.14maize crop. It is hard to find a mill that still grinds the corn into meal for human consumption, there are a few for animal feed though. Since last year’s harvest Mother had kept back some corn cobs while Omar sought out a mill, but he had no luck finding one. Then, a few nights ago he had a dream where he was given detailed instructions on where he might find one. He woke up telling me about it and wondered if it was real.

At the souk, the following week, he randomly asked a friend he met there if he had ever heard of a mill that ground corn meal in the place he had been told of in his dream. His friend said that there was! Omar couldn’t believe it! He took the bags of maize and took a tok tok (A motorbike with a trailer) to Bairat, (another village a couple of kilometres away) to find the mill. It took him two hours, but he came back with hot meal, freshly stoneground in the only remaining mill to grind flour for human consumption on the Entire West Bank! His mother was elated. She had been dreaming about Bettaw, a sourdough cornbread, which she knew from years ago. She was going to make some in the morning. Omar told her to wake me up so I could see how she made it. 2014-09-03 08.28.04

The following morning she woke me up and I went down to the bread oven, which she was firing up with the straw and dung from under our cows and sheep. All the kids were there watching too. However, mother was guarding her secrets and had already made the Bettaw mixture. Sharing is not a word in her vocabulary, unless of course everyone is sharing with her! I got Omar to ask how she had made it and it took ages because she avoided giving the right info, etc. until Omar became confused and didn’t understand any more. I pushed until I understood that it was just a basic sourdough cornbread! Her final remark, as she put the breads into the oven, was “Of course you have to cook them in this oven…you can’t cook them in your  ‘gas oven’. This is because I bake all of my bread in my oven upstairs and never use the clay oven! I have mastered my oven’s idiosyncrasies! Cheap rubbish from China! But, this was Mother’s way of owning her Bettaw-making! She is the only one who can make it…or rather, was! Mother likes to be the only woman in the house who can do anything…or own anything.

A few weeks ago she did a sneaky thing with me. She has her chicken house and I have mine. Mine is in with the animals and none of the kids are allowed in there unless they are doing a chore. Because of previous disempowering episodes with Mother I decided to push myself into the 2014-05-02 11.19.53space of this house. If we are paying so much to support the twenty people in this house then I want to be able to use a part of it, especially when it benefits the entire household. I refused to be pushed back up into my flat anymore, just passing out finance when they wanted it. It took quite some pushing!!! But, we built a chicken house and Omar bought me some day old chicks, which I raised upstairs until they were old enough to go downstairs. All the women in the house bought some too and we bought some for one woman who had no money. But the tom cats decided that unguarded chicks in boxes on top of fridges in houses with no doors, made a very good meal. The result? A lot less chicks!  So the women gave me their birds to raise upstairs until they were old enough to come downstairs. When they were ready I told the women, but they asked me to keep caring for them, as I do a good job of it, and they have nowhere to keep them  So all the chickens went into my hen house.

2014-06-26 12.46.50All was fine for a while. Omar went to the souk to buy me three ducklings and came back with twelve! So I decided to give each house three. Amira, the eldest girl in the house, and daughter of the brother who everyone thinks of as the ‘Authority’, took hers and kept them with her mother’s chickens. Her mother generally takes care of her own as she keeps herself quite separate to the other women. Mother does not like her because she gives Mother nothing! However, when they saw how well our ducks were doing Amira’s mother said to put them with mine in the garden to fatten them up! At my expense. They were not being fed properly and were half the size of the others. We had made a separate pen in the garden and put a hole in the wall so that the ducks could come out and swim. They spend the day there, while the chickens stay with the animals pecking around in the ground. Good for the cattle and good for the hens!

Mother bought 100LE worth of older chickens and put them in her hen house. But they started dropping like flies. So she put the remaining ones in with mine, thinking that it was the food or something. They feed their birds household scraps, which also DSCN9640includes rusty wire wool from cleaning the saucepans and plastic wrappers from the stock cubes! One by one, all of mine started dropping like flies also. Wasn’t the food! We bought some Dettol and completely cleaned both houses and put Mother’s back in with hers. She had one survivor!! We had quite a few more!!! Thank God! Then Mother began to make her take-over bid, just as she did last time. But this time I was on to her. She wanted me to keep her one cockerel in my house, then she started to feed the ducks and her one cockerel, in my hen house, with the same rubbish she feeds hers with. She kept doing it, purposefully and defiantly. It was her way of saying ‘she owned it’. But we fought her at every turn and put her birds back in her house. If she was going to try and play nasty games with me then she looks after her own birds. Being nice here is not an option! I have lost far too many chickens to that woman!

Everything was fine, Mother was being nice, even swapped her cockerel for a hen but insisted that we keep the hen with ours…again! We looked after her two Muscovy Ducks when one of hers died and fed them. We are still looking after the women’s birds and their ducks for 200LE a month! Mother was singing my praises telling everyone how I had saved her duck and her cockerel. Then the following day Mother has nearly forty new chickens in her hen house, not including the little white ones we had all bought in the souk the previous week. When Omar investigated, it turns out that all of the women had banded together, even the one who didn’t get on with Mother, and had bought fourteen chicks each, which Mother has complete control over in her hen house. But no-one had told me.  I was very hurt as they had all discussed this behind my back and had done everything without thinking of asking me if I would like to have bought some too. Mother was up to her tricks again.. Omar was furious as everything we do is to benefit all of the women and children, and the women know that they are free to take their birds whenever they want. They know we do nothing for ourselves, we have very little compared to what we give them. But because Mother was jealous and wanted to be in control she did a nasty thing.

DSCN9625On one level I was glad that the women all had birds now. Before I came here Mother was the only one who had birds. Now the women are thinking ahead. That’s a good thing. But the way it was done was mean. The woman I had sold our ram for, so she could pay for her C-section, felt guilty when Omar  said that no-one was to come to our door and ask for anything again. She said that walahi (I swear) she bought the three naked-neck chickens for me as she knows how much I like them. A month later however, I still have not received them. I didn’t want them, but the offer would have been nice as it would have meant it was genuine.

Omar and I made a selfish decision then. We decided, that from now on, we keep birds only for ourselves. So the women were given their ducks, which they all promptly ate without so much as a thank you! I still have the original hens, we have four as so many of ours died when Mother had her hens with ours, and I divided the survivors equally between the three women as I didn’t know whose had been killed. One woman has only two, the other has four, which mother sees as hers also, but that woman has since left and I don’t know if she will return. But Mother is not getting her hands on them if she doesn’t,  the eggs will be shared with everyone. We have one cockerel, which we call prince as he is so handsome, and three hens. More than enough for our use.DSCN9632

We have four ducks left, two pairs, and Amira still has one male, which she will kill and eat when her Mother is ready for it, or until it is bigger!!! Mother now knows that my hen house is under my control and even though I share freely I won’t be manipulated or conned into giving her what she wants and more. I know all of her tricks now. But it is all so bloody exhausting.

However, I have learned some valuable lessons! Being too generous and putting ourselves last is not a good idea here. No-one will ever think of us, they will only think of themselves, so its OK to be selfish and take care of ourselves, so long as we are not taking away from anyone else. This is stuff I learned before I came here, but because of the apparent poverty it is hard to be selfish. But we have to be. Or we will have nothing left for ourselves.

Keeping really strong boundaries is a must here, as no-one seems to have any!! (But that will be another blog!) Using personal power wisely is also a must, not allowing myself to be manipulated or controlled by lazy men and selfish women. Its a sad fact that the good women in this house just do not last here. They can’t cope with the games. I have to develop a really tough skin to survive here and stop looking for approval. All of those wonderful things I was learning about on my path of self-discovery become necessity here!!!

You really do have to ‘walk your talk’!! If you don’t, you will be walked on, just like the proverbial doormat!

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!