Saturday, May 27, 2017

Ramadan Greetings.

 The wind today is hot and dry, enough to parch you from the inside out, and it is the first day of Ramadan. My staff are mostly fasting and given that the temperature is over the 35 degree C cut off level, they are resting (sleeping) in the shade of their reed hut. The temperature limit for work was initially created for the horses who have a hard time cooling their core temperatures when the ambient temperature is too high. Humans do much better cooling themselves, but honestly once the temperature hits over 35 degrees C, aestivation becomes a very interesting word.  Aestivation is the heat-induced version of hibernation wherein an animal becomes very quiet and rests in the shade to avoid the heat. It is mainly considered a habit of reptiles, but it makes sense for other animals too in Egypt in the summer. The weather forecasts say that the temperatures should drop day after tomorrow, which will be a relief to everyone.

Ramadan is moving gradually into the cooler months of the spring, winter and fall in the weird backwards crawl of the Islamic calendar through the Gregorian calendar. Subsequent Ramadans will be cooler, have shorter fasting days, and will require a different kind of patience because it is harder to justify the long naps on shorter cooler days. This is more or less the end of our string of summer Ramadans for a number of years. The adaptation of our society to this fasting requires an adaptation of its own to the difference in the length of the days. But the fact is that no matter how long the days, the month of festivities that mark this month in Egypt is disruptive to routines.

When my children were young and were learning about Islam I was fasting with them and preparing iftar every evening. Ramadan was one of the few times when my husband would actually be home at dinner time, unless he had social iftars are almost every evening. Later I found that I had an issue with highly reactive blood sugar and was warned by my doctor that fasting in general wasn't good for me and I stopped doing it. But during Ramadan, our family routine did not change that much. We were not addicted to the Ramadan television festival that keeps people up all night. There was school and work the next day, so everyone turned in at a reasonable time. We also didn't change our diet much during the month, having a light evening meal without any sweets at the end of it.

Now that I am living alone at the farm, my Ramadan schedule is even quieter during the summer fasts. Visitors to the farm usually come in the morning to be able to head  home before the pre-iftar traffic insanity. Driving during the two or three hours before sunset is essentially something that one only does because it is absolutely necessary, so no one is going to be traveling out here at that time. My staff live nearby and they go home just before sunset, having taken care of the evening meals for the animals. Of course the wives and mothers have done all the work for the iftar. I remember my riding friends in Alexandria who used to invite me to ride before iftar...their way of distracting themselves from hunger and thirst. It was a nice idea, but I had to point out that they all had wives who were getting their meal ready and in my case I WAS the wife who would be doing that. The lightbulb would switch on over the heads and there would be a rueful shrug. I don't bother with iftar since I am not fasting, but my diet is lighter during Ramadan and I have something very simple and easy. If anything, Ramadan is a bit of a holiday for me since the work of visitors to the farm is much less.

This year the general happiness that characterises the Egyptian approach to Ramadan has been sadly tempered with the tragedy of the attack on the Christian families in the south and the news that Egyptian planes are bombing in Libya in retaliation. The connection between these two events is not entirely clear, but then most things in Egypt aren't generally entirely clear. Perhaps some clarity will come later, but perhaps not. While the month is one of fasting which seems very solemn, Egyptians focus on the breaking of the fast with friends and family, which makes Ramadan here almost like a month long Christmas season with gatherings at night, special meals, and a huge emphasis on family. The fact that this season has been started out in blood has not been lost on us and we are all mourning. I hope that it will not also end the same way.

copyright 2017 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Monday, May 22, 2017

Changing Gears

 Six years ago things happened in Egypt that changed much of how we saw ourselves and how others saw us. All of a sudden with the alleged Arab Spring in early 2011, the eyes of the world were on Egypt and other countries in the Middle East. To say that things didn't exactly work out as planned or hoped (since there really wasn't much planning involved in the events of 2011 and the following years) would probably be the understatement of the century. At the time of the unrest my children asked me politely but very forcefully to stop blogging for a while. I like my children and I could understand their concern (like if I got deported I would be driving them out of their minds) so I went along with it. Meanwhile I was trying to make sense of the political activity in the area and was doing a lot of research with journalists on Twitter and other forums, and I was sharing that information on Facebook for friends of mine who had lived in Egypt, visited in Egypt, or who were just interested in Egypt. My Facebook feed turned into a news service of sorts where odd bits of information are shared with the world about life in the Middle East. That was the original goal of Living In Egypt, after all, to give people outside the country an idea of what it was like to actually live here. But after six years of mostly doing the news, life has changed again in Egypt and I've decided that it is important to document this change.

My farm went into the Arab Spring period as a place where people came to do equestrian tourism. We had visitors from abroad who would come to stay for a week or so in Egypt and would ride our horses seeing Egypt very much up close and personal. Immediately after the uprising in 2011 we still had a few visitors but the numbers fell quickly to nothing. This was, to say the least, a very difficult period. Not only were there no visitors from abroad but many companies, embassies, and schools in Cairo were extremely nervous about their people even traveling around the city, fears that most of us living here found quite baseless...but no one was asking us. Financially we managed, but for me the most difficult issue was how to keep a group of bright young men occupied while most of our work languished. The opportunity came up with The Donkey Sanctuary to have them trained as farriers and vet assistants, so I decided that if they weren't working much, they might as well learn. At first they were reluctant, but realising over time that they had real skills and knowledge was a powerful push for them to learn more. These were young men who had never finished primary school, having been told that they weren't smart enough...but it was not the case at all.

 In 2011 we began a goat breeding project at the farm to add the characteristics of some European and Middle Eastern goats to the local baladi Egyptian goats to improve the production of both milk and meat. We are now on about our third or fourth generation and our herd is a mix of Syrian, Saanen, Alpine, Nubian, and Boer goats along with the baladi base, which is important for its hardiness. We have since branched out into breeding Sudanese sheep, which are a short-haired sheep that give very nice milk for cheese. During a period of serious power cuts in 2012 we began looking at improving the viability of electricity and water at the farm. There is no provision for water supplies out here in the countryside and the electricity is somewhat eccentric to say the least. We arranged to dig a new 40 meter well closer to the animal paddocks than the original 20 meter well behind the house and I contacted a friend of my children's who had come back to Egypt to work in the alternative energy field about installing solar power. That began a four year project to gradually provide solar power to the farm and to ensure that we had sufficient water supplied for all the animals and our growing agricultural projects.

With all of these projects going on, we also started an initiative to provide free veterinary care to the local farmers who were becoming increasingly harmed by the inflation in gas, electricity and medical costs. Vets work with us and most of our work is caring for wounds and doing maintenance on the farm animals to teach the farmers that it is easier to keep their animals healthy than it is to fix them when they are broken. Even with the demise of tourism in the Cairo area, we were keeping fairly busy, and once the panic over security dropped we found a new source of income and visitors in the schools and families from Cairo who wanted to come to the farm to learn about animals, plants, farming...or just to take a nap under a mango tree. With the general stress level for Cairenes increasing as well, a quiet spot for relaxing in a green space has been very appreciated.

So living in Egypt has definitely become a new game. We are dealing with ferocious inflation here, insecurity about what is going on in the region in general, disillusionment with the hoped for social changes in the country, and concern for what will come next. The political sphere is ephemeral and uncontrollable it would seem, so I see no point in commenting on that. Here at Al Sorat Farm we are concentrating on doing agricultural research and development introducing new varieties of vegetables which we grow organically (one of the contributions of the many horses and other livestock at the farm) and then harvest seed to provide seedlings to other growers. We are experimenting with goat, sheep and buffalo cheese. We have increased our selection of unusual trees with lychee, longan, pecan, neem, karob, and sapodilla trees in the garden. So the focus in the blog is going to narrow a bit to life on the farm and our activities here. This is only appropriate since as I approach my seventies, I am less and less interested in subjecting myself to the craziness of Cairo traffic, the crowding and the pollution, and all the other urban problems. This blog has always been about my life in Egypt and these days it is more about plants, animals, and people in the countryside. For old readers, I hope that you enjoy my posts, while for new ones, I hope that they give you an insight into another lifestyle.

copyright 2017 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Friday, June 05, 2015

Categorising Ourselves And its Price

The recent controversy surrounding Caitlyn Jenner's coming out as a transsexual has brought up some extremely important issues in human interactions in general for me. A good friend posted an article by Nuridden Knight looking at a comparison of the issues body image and self love for black people and for transsexuals. I personally would not have made those comparisons, but then I am about as WASP as they come in terms of my externals and have always enjoyed the benefits of belonging, at least as far as surface characteristics apply, to the privileged class in this world. I think that she has made some excellent points in this article and the viewpoint interests me because I have never been able to view the world as black/white even with shades in between because I was raised to believe that the colour of a person's skin was one of the least important attributes of that person. It was an issue that was never brought up in our family, although we had very few friends who were persons of any sort of colour other than vaguely pink partly due to my father's job as a Navy scientist (this was in the 50's and 60's) and partly due to where we lived. But considerations of colour or ethnicity were also not applied to Hispanic families in our area either and to even parrot a word of discrimination was to bring the wrath of the parental units on us.

My first boyfriend when I was growing up was of mixed race and ethnicity and it was a massive shock to me to encounter people's animosity to us as a couple in the early 60's. I moved to Canada in my early 20's where "black" people were from the Caribbean for the most part and very different in culture from the "black" people that I'd known in the US, which to me validated my parents' teaching. After all, how could the attributes of "black" people be so different if they were determined by skin colour? My late husband was Egyptian/Sudanese and the reactions of people in Louisiana to him when we visited New Orleans in the 70's was at once hilarious and horrifying. He was sporting a fairly impressive afro and was pretty dark from a lot of time in the sun, but as the nephew of the first president of Sudan he had no preset option for being of a lesser status due to the colour of his skin or the curl of his hair, and people we encountered, who on seeing him initially as "black", generally were very taken aback at his complete ignoring of that category in his interactions with them. Happily, he was a charming individual and things never got difficult, although it was extremely unsettling to a lot of people there in Louisiana. So the binary of "black" versus "white", while as a couple we probably exemplified it, was simply not workable.

I've always felt that while we see sex as being a are either a man OR a isn't really. That word "or" is a dangerous one. While working in Vancouver as a cocktail waitress to put myself through university, I was lucky enough to meet a number of transsexual individuals who while they might look like a man or a woman externally definitely gave off the "opposing" vibes, but how opposing were they in reality? As I grew older I realised that just as one's personal mannerisms were not a binary, neither were one's sexual preferences. For women sliding across sexual preferences can be easier than for men. After all, as mothers we are as loving to our sons as to our daughters, or at least we should be. It is quite natural to us to hug other women to comfort them as it is to hug men, and the division between simple interpersonal caring and loving sexual behaviour isn't a fence but a pasture or sometimes a forest.

Perhaps because men have not been so much a part of the parenting/nurturing culture in western society, it is easier to see their sexuality as binary, but it is also a continuum...or there wouldn't be so many strong male bonds. Despite being married and having children, I know that I have characteristics that might be labeled as male, and here in the villages of Egypt, I have indeed been called a "man" as a compliment (which I find rather odd and sometimes uncomfortable) because I am happy to be living on my own, running my farm, and taking responsibility for my people...and because I don't scare easily or back away from a confrontation when I feel I'm right. But is that really the behaviour of a "man" or is it the behaviour of someone who is simply certain in my own role, responsibility and power within my community and family? As well, I've been blessed with many nurturing, gentle male are they womanly or even, gasp! gay? Not at all. They are, however, more complex and interesting individuals than those who block away that aspect of the personality.

Life is so much simpler and less taxing to us when we categorise our world into little boxes, but in reality we dribble outside those boxes all the time. Living without our category boxes is infinitely more work. We actually have to pay attention to the individuals with whom we are interacting and see them in their glorious complexity. This takes time that modern society and human laziness often would like to avoid, so we categorise them. But what happens when we don't avoid the reality? Our world is so much larger and full of possibility and promise. With my work with our veterinary/farming charity that operates out of my farm, I have gotten to know the villagers, both men and women, as well as their children, as individuals rather than as inhabitants of that large box of "fellahin". There are those with whom I really enjoy spending time, others that I could cheerfully toss into the nearest canal because they refuse to open their eyes and ears to new ways of caring for their animals and families...but this is to be expected. Not all humans, dogs, birds, horses, or cats are enjoyable companions for every individual, and there is usually someone who likes the individuals that I do not like.

Looking at the question of how we accept the variety of individuals in our world whether it be through the lens of colour, sexuality, sex, gender, or social class clarifies the same issues at stake here in Egypt with the tendency of many to divide Egypt into social classes. We have the wealthy, theoretically educated (since they have financial and social access to "good" schools) and we have the poor and uneducated who have been told that they cannot be judges because their father was a farmer or trash collector. "City" people ascribe attributes to "country" people that don't necessarily fit in the actuality of individuals in these categories. And the opposite is also true. "Secular" people ascribe attributes to "religious" people that are equally without a good fit. Recently I've had groups of women who wear niqab bring their children out to the farm because my staff (who are mostly men other than myself and my housekeeper) are considerate and will stay away from the garden so that the women can enjoy the air without the black veil that they choose to wear in public...and they are well-read, well-travelled, interesting, questioning women, fascinating to talk to and very enjoyable as companions. Once you lose the category of Darth Vader clones, they are marvelous people. I do not necessarily agree with all that they believe but I do find them to be people with whom I am happy to spend some of my time, and I feel that I have been enriched by this interaction. The important point here is to appreciate the differences and enjoy them rather than to block because of them.

In her article, Nurredin Knight talks about learning to love herself as a black woman and accepting her entire being as what she is and what she should be. She questions whether sexual reassignment surgery is such a good idea. Wouldn't it be better just to accept on a societal level that just as there are people of different heights, weights, colours, athletic abilities and so on, there are also people of different aspects of sexuality and gender? When my children were young, one of their favourite books was called Leo The Lop and it was about a rabbit who had floppy ears who felt that somehow he wasn't normal because his ears didn't stand up like other rabbits. This is, of course, an oversimplification of a massive issue that touches every aspect of human endeavour. What is "normal" anyway? Much of the sectarian strife in the Middle East is rooted in the idea that there is only one "normal", just as sectarian issues in North America, while not necessarily expressed in religious terms, are also. One group can not decide that it is "normal" but no one else is. In this world, we need to lose the categories, all of them, and look at people as individuals who are individually kind, productive, inclusive, and honest...or they are not. And individually as people they should be part of our lives...or not.

Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

June 5, 2015

Sunday, March 08, 2015

On Bombs

Yesterday I was greeted on opening Facebook, one of the best sources of information in Egypt, by a post by the daughter of a close friend saying that the police had shown up in a very timely manner to take care of what appeared to be a bomb near their apartment building in Maadi. She had been contacted by a neighbour who informed her of the arrival of the police and her boab (the doorman to the apartment building) told her that someone had seen something near the large electrical box on the corner that had wires and looked very suspicious, so the police had been called. There subsequently was  a small boom, then a larger boom, and the problem seemed to be sorted.

Today her mother called me before bringing a friend visiting from Finland to see me here at the farm and we were talking about the incident. Naturally, everyone is very happy that the object had not blown up the electrical connection or caused any injuries, and she was very happy that she and her friend had been at the beach at Ain Sokhna, thus missing the excitement. I asked if there was any further information about what exactly was involved and what had  happened. She told me that while the object had looked suspicious, as far as she knew there was no official statement that it had been a bomb. Apparently the police brought along a big metal box into which they placed the offending object and then performed a controlled detonation. It might well have been a bomb, but now it is in a thousand bits, so it would be hard to tell. On the other hand, she pointed out that the piles of garbage that were usually surrounding the electricity box on the corner were now gone, so perhaps it was a plot by the neighbourhood to get the spot cleaned up. As usual, no one really knows.

There are odd homemade bombs going off in various parts of Egypt, this we do know. Today one went off at Carrefour in Alexandria killing one and injuring six. Most of these are aimed at the police, much like in the 90's when the police and Islamists were in an informal war. Most of us who live in Egypt do our best to avoid the police or government buildings if it is at all possible (also like during the 90's), but then we try to avoid them most of the time since contact with the government and police is almost never very pleasant. I have to go into the dreaded Mogamma (the abyss of state bureaucracy in Tahrir Square) sometime soon to renew my residence visa, but I keep putting it off simply because I don't want to go there, not out of fear.

Yesterday, while this excitement was going on in Maadi, we had a couple of families at the farm with their children to play in a wading pool and romp with dogs and baby goats. Neither family was particularly concerned, though one had been redirected when driving near the site of the bomb that cleaned up the corner electrical box. I'm sure that somewhere in Egypt people are very worried about all this, but to be quite honest, I don't know them. Most of us accept the fact that much of this falls into the "Shit Happens" category that we really can't do much about in our daily life. You take reasonable precautions, pay attention to the news, and get on with your life. Many people say that they'd rather deal with the odds of these random bombs than the possibility that some unbalanced individual might decide to shoot them over some imagined slight or something.  Death really is one of the unavoidable things in life, so losing time worrying about it doesn't seem terribly logical.

copyright 2015 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Monday, January 12, 2015

Catching Up To Myself

The last few months have been a whirlwind of strangeness in the Middle East. I keep up with the news on my Facebook page for friends who have lived here and perhaps left but who are still interested in an area that is a weird kind of black hole in the normal media. People hear about either the most irrelevant or the most horrific things that might happen here, but when you live in MENA (short for Middle East/North Africa) the real news runs the gamut from things that make you laugh out loud, although not nearly often enough these  years, to things that are simply hard to believe. This range is normal everywhere, of course, but to people who are not getting MENA news from fairly ground level sources, only the really huge stories manage to force their way to the surface of television or newspaper news.

I became a news addict in 2011 when during the revolution/uprising/disturbances/readjustment in Egypt when the divergence of reality from the broadcast was so amazingly huge on television here and initially I found myself becoming impatient with the slowness of the updates on the major networks covering Egypt. I'd signed up with Twitter years before and followed a few friends who were luckily for me good journalists. I began working my way down to street level activists and journalists in order to see what was happening in Egypt in a more timely fashion and to see where it was being reported. Then came the work of trying to make sense of patterns to understand what events meant and to try to guess what might come next. I have to admit that I'm not the best guesser in the world, but it has been interesting to try. I realised today that the work I've been putting into my Facebook page has seriously cut into my blogging, along with some reasonable anxieties about posting anything political in the modern Egypt...and these days EVERYTHING is political in some way. I decided to post something, opened Blogger to write and found the post below. It's about four months old and sadly enough it is still timely. It's winter in Egypt now and nights are cold but today the sun was warm, friends stopped by the farm to visit and in general life was good. I think that is the most important thing to remember when life at large looks pretty frightening. Just back things back down to a manageable scale, like a garden, a kitchen, a walk with a child, a game of ball with a dog, and it isn't nearly as frightening but it is just as real, in fact, perhaps more so.

I woke up this morning to the sound of bird song and the beautiful wind chimes that I brought back from the US this last trip. The air is fresh and cool, the sky blue with those wandering puffy white clouds that signal the onset of blessed autumn in Egypt, with its relief from the relentless heat of the summer that simply drains every shred of energy from your body. I came out to my desk and turned on the computer after the inevitable crash of a late night power failure and Twitter was the first tab to open for me. I found this tweet from Hussein Ibish, who is someone whose comments I've learned to pay attention to:

Hussein Ibish @Ibishblog
. @hisham_melhem best article yet - and he's written some really great ones - but this is truly superb

So, sipping on a glass of water, I opened and read one of the best and worst articles on the ills of the Arab world that I've ever seen. I'm not sure what to do now. I feel as though Hisham Melham has summed up all the monsters that have been crawling around in the darkness at the back of all of our closets here in our turbulent part of the world. And having examined them we are left to try to shut the door and pretend that somehow keeping them in the closet will be enough.

The saddest part is that, while this sums up the Arab world's issues pretty clearly, it doesn't look beyond that part of our entire battered, bruised and bleeding human world, which seems to me to be almost as much a hopeless case. All of the concerns of fundamentalist sectarian issues are equally present in the "West" with religious leaders pushing political carts that are loaded with the baggage of the corporate leaders of what currently pass for democracies in Europe and North America. Africa is seething with equally damaging issues while being attacked from within by one of the most frightening diseases humans have seen in a long time, Ebola virus, which while it may not decimate human populations, will most certainly decimate economies. China and the far east are struggling with both economic issues and similar sectarian battles, however little we pay attention to them. The only area that seems relatively free of these damaging religious/sectarian/political feuds looks like South America, but this area has been pushed hither and yon by corporate pressures stemming from the north including the drug trade and who knows if they can bring themselves to a position of stability and leadership in a world that seems to totally lack both. Years ago when my ex-husband and I were looking for a haven from the insanity of the Vietnam war, we thought of New Zealand, at least partly from a wholly selfish view that it has some of the best trout fishing in the world, and aside from its rather unfortunate tendency of late to massive earthquakes, it is still seeming like an odd haven of sanity and peace. Heaven knows that Australia is writhing with its issues of why a country of immigrants who treated the indigenous population with massive brutality should deny haven to the next wave of immigrants.

I'm sure that there are pockets of peace and sanity in the world. There always are. There are happy farmers' markets taking place throughout the world where people can forget that they are being pushed to purchase and eat food-like objects that will ultimately harm their health so that some corporation can count their imaginary wealth. I can get on one of my horses and meander through the fields out here greeting neighbours who are planting cabbages and clover. There is a ground level reality that can sustain our hopes that life is worth living and perhaps it's just best not to look up the food chain too far. I think I will be doing some gardening today.

copyright 2015 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Learning To Live And Living to Learn

 I was talking to a friend today about this blog post and he told me that there is an Egyptian saying "If you do something, you might make a mistake and be punished, but if you do nothing you can't make a mistake."

Once a social psychologist, I suspect always a social psychologist. I went off to graduate school at the University of Waterloo in the mid 70's with a lot of illusions, but mostly I went there because they had a very short application form and one of my peculiar oddities is a horror of filling out forms. I can always think of other ways to answer the questions on them, ways that won't fit into little boxes, so I'm always left with a feeling of failure and confusion. Probably Waterloo wasn't the place for me academically, but it was where I met many beloved friends and where I met my late husband who was, in traditional Egyptian fashion, an engineering student. The social psychologists were experimental social psychologists, people who basically played experimental tricks on people to find out things about social behaviour. My advisor, Dr. Melvin Lerner, was an archetypal Jewish psychology professor and specialised in a field that studied victim blaming. He would undoubtedly be turning in his grave these days seeing my stand in social media for a just peace for Palestinians, but that is neither here nor there, because the parting of our ways came as I decided that I wasn't cut out for academia. I was interested in studying the development of verbal concepts of fairness in children, a topic that he didn't find very exciting, and his lack of support made me realise that this was not to be my life. When the graduate officer in our department asked what I was going to do next, I told him that I was considering opening a Mexican restaurant in Toronto...which, by the way, I never got around to. But much of what I learned to question and the concepts that helped me to formulate questions have continued to be useful to me in my very checkered career as a corporate wife, mother of multinational children, unwilling prisoner of corporate life and now living on the farm.

Dr. Sergio Forapani demonstrating dentistry to my staff
Before January 2011 many people in Egypt and beyond the borders never thought that the Egyptian people would rise up against the military rulers of the country. The reasons for this assumption were usually framed in terms of the "eternal patience" of the Egyptian people, citing millennia of authoritarian rule. But having watched methods of childrearing in Egypt, I had my doubts.  My in-laws, who were more or less upper middle class educated Egyptians, found it odd that I spoke to my children from the time that they were infants, explaining the reasons for my decrees as to what was acceptable or unacceptable behaviour.  I was living in Canada most of the year but would spend a month or so every winter with them in Cairo, during which time I drove my mother in law in particular rather mad by insisting that children under the age of three had no need of additional sugar in their diet, so her boxes of candies went untouched, or by refusing to allow a child who passed up a sandwich at lunch a couple of cookies later.  "But he's hungry!" she would cry. "If he were that hungry, he would have eaten lunch, but in the meantime he can have a carrot or a piece of fruit." was my cold-hearted response. I was terrible, I know, by refusing the request for a random toy when we went to a store. "But you have plenty of money!" "But they have to learn that you don't get everything you want it when you want it. Sometimes you have to work for rewards; it's called delay of gratification." She was utterly unappreciative of the value of a master's degree in psychology and thought that everything I did was completely mad, until one day she complimented me on my 16 year old son's skill at being a host at a family iftar and told me that she'd always thought that I was crazy but had decided that perhaps I knew something. I took the compliment with good humour, knowing that was as good as it ever was going to get.

Even one of my husband's uncles, a celebrated gastro-enterologist, told me flat out that it was pointless to talk to children under the age of four because they couldn't understand anything. I asked him how children were taught behaviour in Egypt and he just shrugged. Obviously, he'd never troubled himself with this problem, but his wife certainly had since his children of his first marriage, who were good friends of ours, were lovely people. When I moved out into the villages, my children were independent adults living and studying in the US, but I enjoyed the chance to watch parent/child interactions in the villages. One of the patterns I noticed was a sort of benign neglect. Children ran about under the more or less watchful eyes of parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents and older siblings, but they were not engaged in conversations by individuals older than them. They might talk to each other, but in general they would answer a simple question from an adult with a wide-eyed stare and no comment. This was true of my questions and I noticed that it also happened with most other adults. In my book of upbringing, not to answer a direct question in some fashion would be a major fault, but it seemed fairly normal to most of the adults. The children could speak when they wanted to, that was abundantly clear watching them together, but they rarely spoke to or were spoken to by adults. When I asked how the rules of life were learned, one father told me that people figured that by the age of ten or so a child was assumed to have learned them and would be punished for breaking them.

This fascinated me. Rules were almost never delineated or explained but breaking them brought punishment. It reminded me of the old learned helplessness experiments I'd learned about many years before. Basically, these experiments involved shocking or imposing other unpleasant experiences randomly to individuals in a learning task with the end result that the individual seemed to decide that it was irrelevant what he/she might choose to do because something bad was going to happen no matter what. The individual would no longer seek to do "the right thing" or try to avoid "the wrong thing" because it didn't matter. Essentially outcomes were random and uncontrollable, so why try. That essentially was the life for many children. They weren't told what sort of behaviour would bring a particular response....they had to find out for themselves and the outcome might not actually have anything at all to do with what they'd done. If Dad came home in a bad mood, you'd get hurt, no matter what the behaviour. Since the parents had also been raised in the same fashion, it all made a sort of perverted sense to them.

When I began looking around at day to day life in Egypt, the same random response pattern showed up. Even things like taxes for companies have no cut and dried rules, but are negotiated with someone, with the outcome completely unpredictable unless you figure out the right amount of lubrication to be applied. Students at universities and people competing in sports often find that who you are related to has much more to do with your success than what you do. One of my friends who visits me in Egypt from New Zealand on a regular basis always posts a blog of her trip and one year it was entitled "Egypt: We Do Random Well", so it isn't me who notices the tendency to random outcomes, punishments and rewards. The Egyptian school system is a prime candidate for the imposition of learned helplessness. In the first place, most teachers are just people who couldn't get another job. They aren't trained in any way at all. They are certainly not qualified to impart knowledge since their main qualification is a lack of qualifications for any other work. The curriculum could honestly be said to have been created by that famous room full of monkeys with typewriters. I've tutored village children with their English homework, and it is utterly insane. One little boy was given a text to read that went something like this:
"Fatima and Hamza are brother and sister. Their father is a doctor who works in a hospital and their mother is a teacher who works in a school. Every day they go to school, study their lessons and come home to do their homework after school. On Friday their father washes his car and then the family goes out to the park or perhaps to the swimming pool."

My first job was just to see if any of this made any sense to this boy. No women in his household worked outside the home. It is considered shameful if they do. Of course the fact that there is little in the way of transportation that could take women to jobs and even less in terms of jobs out here might also be a factor. None of the children in our village have a doctor for a father. Most of them rarely see doctors. Their fathers are labourers or farmers. In Egypt, NO ONE but possibly a cab driver washes his own car! If you can afford to buy a car,  you can afford to have someone else wash it for this part of the story is fantasy. And finally, the little boy had to ask what a park was. He'd never seen one. He's seen pictures of swimming pools and maybe even seen one once but he's never been in one.  How could a primary school child make any sense of this, especially considering the fact that probably the teach was mispronouncing the words so much that the language hardly resembled English at all? And then,  even now corporal punishment is still common in schools and most of the people I've spoken to from our area experienced it and, in fact, quit school because of it. When I asked them why they quit, often the answer was something along the lines of "I could get hit at home, so why go somewhere else and have a stranger do it. I was too stupid to learn."

Dr. Sergio Forapani chatting with Dr. Mohsen Mohsen (right)
Dr. Sergio (left) and Dr. Mohsen (right) at a clinic
I have a staff of ten at my farm, five young men in their mid-twenties, three younger boys whose parents asked me to take them on to teach them, a housekeeper and my late husband's driver who is now my right hand after twenty years. Only Mohamed has any education. The rest never finished school and were convinced that they were too stupid to learn. I had often talked to them about going back to school but the answer was always the same....they thought there was no point.  After the revolution, when there was no work in tourism for us, I noticed that the guys were getting really, really bored with just the daily chores, so I sent them  out in ones and twos to work with the Donkey Sanctuary to learn to trim donkey feet. At first they were very reluctant, sensing another evil experience with the dreaded learning situation, but they came home energised and enthusiastic. The vet they were working under Dr. Mohsen Mohsen, is a skilled teacher who encouraged their learning instead of punishing their every mistake. They were happy to realise that the training I'd given them in horse and donkey care actually made them quite experienced in the field, which gave them more confidence.

Italian farriers showing the best treatment for a donkey at a clinic
Egyptian and Italian farriers demonstrating for my staff at a clinic
One of the biomechanics classes with farriers, vets and grooms
A biomechanics class with Dr. Sergio and vets, farriers, and grooms
After some months, after talking to some large animal vets who were saying how the gas price increases and increases in veterinary medicine prices were making it almost impossible to work with farmers who didn't have the cash to pay increased fees, a vet friend and I decided to try setting up a veterinary charity in our neighbourhood to help the farmers with their animals. We got a number of vets to work with us, both experienced and fresh from school. My guys were amazed to find that while they didn't have the technical knowledge of the new graduates, they did have much more experience and much more comfort in handling the animals, who ranged from pigeons to even the odd camel, with the majority being donkeys, goats, sheep, cows, water buffalo and poultry. This again was an enormous morale boost. We've been doing our work now for two years and every day farmers and cart drivers bring animals to the farm for treatment. We've had master farriers and a professor of veterinary science from Italy come to stay and give classes and practical lessons, often extremely technical work, and the guys are there for every class and every lesson, even coming in on their days off.  One of my gardeners has set up a chicken raising project for his wife and other women in his family to supplement their income, and they are raising some wonderful chicken. Friends from town make the trip to come to buy them, and there is an ego factor in knowing that professors and such are making a special effort just for your produce. Their veterinary knowledge is being used to raise better, cleaner, healthier animals and to teach others how to do it too.

I've watch typical learned helplessness victims turn their lives around and change their attitudes completely with giving them the chance to learn and use their knowledge to help others. One of the most impressive things, and something that I think has been extremely important, is the fact that they are not being paid for their veterinary work. It is all voluntary, even the work that occurs almost every day after working hours at the farm. This is a point of pride. Not only do they know things, but they can help people and do so without benefit to themselves. It isn't enough to give them knowledge...much of it they had before we started the veterinary work...they need to use it too.

copyright 2014 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Losing A Voice of Reason in Egypt

 A young man died yesterday who by any reasoning should still be here with us. Bassem Sabry was a writer, analyst, activist of the highest ethical standards whom I first encountered online during the winter of 2011. At times, reading the discussions on Twitter, Facebook and other social media, I was struck by his strong wisdom and innate kindness. When he published this on his blog I was stunned to realise how young he was, only 31 at this death, and how wise he was beyond his years. I posted many things that he wrote because he did it so much better than I did. I would urge everyone to take a moment to read this post from last May and think on it. If we all learned as much as he did in his thirty years, surely this world would be much better.

copyright 2014 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani