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EL MENOUFIYA STORY

by Pia Kurro

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Trying to find way to somehow systematize my first impressions of the life in El Menoufiya, there are so many, what about by factor of importance or how much one or the other influences our everyday life here, disturbing it or, perhaps also, enriching it? In that case the first on the list is undoubtedly:

NOISES
That life in Egypt is somehow noisier than it is up in the northern countries, that people here like their TVs and music louder, and really work their car horns – is not a surprise, but it is still a surprise after life in Sharm, how MUCH noisier everything is.

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First on the list are the most frequent intruders – the mosque loudspeakers. I deeply apologise to eventual muslim readers here but what I am writing is my honest and very physical experience. There are numerous small mosques near the house even though we live on a solitary road between a village and a town, and especially during ramadan they broadcast full services through loudspeakers, which last well over an hour several times a day or night. My husband says that “before” it used to be like this all year round but now outside the ramadan season in normal days they broadcast only the first 5 minutes or so of a service. In Cairo, I’ve been told, there are regulations now that limit the volumes mosques are allowed to use, which sounds hopeful, but here in El Menoufiya the volumes are turned to max. During our first week we happened to visit the souk during a service, and there it is broadcasted through loudspeakers all along the street so loudly it may make you deaf. In any case I grabbed my child and run for the taxi because I was afraid her ears would burst or other similar impairment happen. For the first time I felt really insecure in Egypt, almost afraid, because the volume pouring down on us was so aggressive, so cruel an uncaring that back at home that night I asked me – am really welcome here, am I safe? I try now avoid going to the city during service times and the tension in my mind has relieved a bit, but the whole experience has made me more wary.

Second by importance (or loudness) are perhaps sounds of marriage parties. There are a lot, especially August is THE month for marrying because evenings are pleasantly warm still while no more hot and the harvesting has not yet begun so people have time. A next popular time is the month that follows the ramadan.

A marriage party in the village means that some time around midday a small truck arrives and a crew sets to hang up colourful lamps, put up a fancy stage where the couple will sit and – of course – loudspeakers. As soon as these are ready, around 5 or 6 or 7 in the afternoon, the music begins although the real party starts at around 9 or 10. And because everyone should know there is a marriage and a party, then if you live in a neighbouring house you’ll feel as if living beside the main stage at a major rock festival.

Our neighbours across the street recently had 2 parties like this in one week – one for their daughter who got married, the other because they dug themselves a well for drinking water, which btw was made manually, using extractable metal rods which were turned around and around by 4-5 men until the deepest rod hit the waterline some 30 metres below the ground. Sand bags and small boys were used for applying extra weight.

Back to the noise of marriage parties, still, this kind of noise is a happy noise by character and the party I must say lasts only 2-3 hours and is normally over well before midnight.

Thirdly, since September is harvesting time, there is the noise of a kind of sawing machine or grinder that moves from house to house and grinds corn stalks into chips that is left fermenting for some time and then spread back onto the field as food for plants in the next season. Because there are just a few such machines or perhaps only one and everyone needs it, it works nearly 24/7, and the noise is really deafening. The first night they stopped at around 10 in the evening but there have been nights when it was 2 o’clock and they were still going…

This kind of noise is just as hard to complain about openly as the previous ones – the harvesting needs to be finished and machines are scarce. Thus, one has to endure, luckily the neighbours are not so many either.

Fourth is the noise of water pumps used to water the fields at the time when the crops are growing, which is most of the year, with a few weeks pause during harvesting times. There is nearly one per every house here unless two families are sharing. The 4 nearest are within 50 metres from our bedroom wall and when any of these work, day or sometimes also night, it’s like trying to sleep beside a huge and very loud tractor.

Then the (comparatively) small “everyday” noises – the honking of passing cars, tractors and other machinery – the bigger the machine, the more it honks to announce its arrival and free the road since it is one-way width here with only occasional places where one vehicle can wait the other to pass. The various vendors – the seller of gas “bombs”, he has a small boy running app. 200 m in front of him beating 2 metallic discs together, perhaps pot covers or similar, and announcing the arrival of the main cart, for anyone who need know and be ready. A lorry that buys and sells old stuff, announcing this over a loudspeaker from the open cart. Various smaller vendors that simply shout their business – sellers of karkade, fool, vegetables etc etc. All these pass once or twice daily.

On the other hand the everlasting background noise of passing traffic like one has in Cairo or even in Sharm is completely missing here, and there are many hours when nothing but birdsong disturbs the silence. During ramadan we once drove to the village for a (Christian) doctor’s appointment exactly during iftar, i.e.the first meal of the day the muslims have after the sunset, and the streets were absolutely empty. Not one person in this 200 000 strong village was out. The sounds cease as the iftar time approaches and if I go to the roof then, I can hear the movements of people on the field several hundreds meters from me.

But when there is sound, it is of really intruding kind.

SIGHTS
Just as noise is sometimes a negative factor but sometimes positive because it makes one feel more “involved” (and informed) so is what I see from my roof or balcony either negative or positive. I see a lot, indeed I do not even need leave the house because a big part of village life simply walks or rides or drives past me.

A few mornings ago I glanced down from the roof and there was a dead body in the ditch that carries water for the fields and also lines the main passway here – it is dug right into the middle of a future street with the aim to cover it later, but for now it is open and the vehicles climb forward on either “bank”, a 3 m narrow dusty strip between the ditch and nearest houses. (Indeed a normal taxi from the city often refuses to enter this 4 km bit of road, meaning we have to rely on a few trusted ones.) The body was of a full grown dog the size of a rottweiler or so. Of course no one does anything to remove it until it goes the way of all natural things in the world.

Next to it swim heaps of common consumer waste. I was suspicious and one day I actually saw it – the woman from the neighbouring house emptying the contents of her wastebin straight into water. I asked if there is no waste service then why not start one with a cart and homaar. Families who did it in Europe a good few centuries ago, are multibillionaires by now. My in-laws said no there is service and even by real compressor cars but the service “ends” 200 metres from us (as does the communal wastewater line) and there is no way of joining it. “No”is a word I hear a lot here, if back at home anyone of you is used to thinking that nothing is impossible then here clearly nothing is possible and it is not worth to even try open a discussion on it.

Ourselves we take our wastebags to the city when we go on errands, and leave them on a street corner. What happens next, I have no idea about. Bulkier things the family sometimes burns on an empty lot beside the house. That much about waste management.

Next there are the roofs, here an alternative wasteland for anything the household does not need now but thinks it might need later, and home for the household’s poultry. Corn that is harvested, is dried and kept here, old bread for chicken, old furniture and tree trunks that have been felled (because all wood is really expensive), and all this is mixed with old rags and whatever the wind has carried along. Here and there a more affluent or orderly household appears who has a clean roof with only lines for washing, or a quiet corner for prayers or, perhaps, for the household’s wife to escape from it all and have a peaceful moment on her own. All this stands in a healthy mix, one beside another.

Fields are an important sight, too, because the village is surrounded by them, here it is corn on one side and orchards with orange trees on the other. My husband says the corn is grown only for households’ own purposes as fodder for their animals, meaning the households gain no money from growing it. Since city is just 2 km away I guess most families make living from having a job in the city or some artisan job in the village – carpenters, plumbers, barbers, electricians etc etc, or work as government employees, and farming is just a supporting activity not the main occupation. Still, when we drive out to other villages or towns in the region we spot also what my husband says is cotton and linen fields, which I guess are grown for selling. Everything is on really small scale, 50 metres of linen alternates with 100 m of cotton which gives way to corn, then again linen or cotton or corn. The road to the largest local town Tanta is lined by plant schools since it passes a village that is a local centre for all horticulture. We buy 10 rose plants for 20 LE and return a week later to buy some more flowers and climbing plants for our roof pergola that is beginning to take shape, again 10 plants for something like 120 LE, including a small jasmin bush and a bush-like plant that spreads aroma in the dark but not before or after. Roses are called “baladi” or “peasant flowers” here and when we arrive with them my father in-law says “didn’t you find any real flowers”. Though he smiles of course, this opinion is honest from him.

Also other trades are readily displayed everywhere along the roads – the carpenters, gipsum shops making everything from ceiling ornaments to faux fireplaces and Roman pillars, or perhaps your own little Ramses, shops that disintegrate old houses or furniture and then sell the less aged details – mostly heaps and heaps of beautiful ornamented doors, second- or third-hand. This is how we acquired the wood for our pergola – buying second-hand and paying 40LE per beam. All-new would have cost 60LE which my husband said was “outrageous”, while third-hand would have been 30LE but this “low” we considered we would not go : -). The beams are well cracked and the paint is worn but, hmm… they fit the environment. We covered sparsely with new wood and bambus mats and are now waiting for the plants to pick up speed and go climb up there.

Animals. I am glad my daughter will grow up knowing where milk and eggs come from. Beside the flocks readily displayed on surrounding roofs – chicken, ducks and geese, the four-legged animals pass us along the “street” all day – kamooza or buffalos, ba’ara or cows, donkeys, camels, sheep and goats. I see almost no cats or dogs, guess they would be an unnecessary burden to family budget or maybe there are government anti-measures or something. But on a usual day I can see cows and buffalos passing to drink from the well in front of a neighbouring house, a small boy riding a small camel carrying what might be earth in huge leather pouches, a few horses, and donkeys in all possible combinations – with carts single or double, without carts, carrying a lone rider or sometimes two girls or women on their back and once I saw an old man and in front of him an ewe sitting and riding on a donkey. Maybe the ewe needed a doctor or something.

The family is not entirely without animals either, ours specialises in rabbits that to my relief are kept relatively cleanly in a little room on the roof, on a clean concrete floor that is sometimes washed. How ethical it is to poor rabbits I do not wish to start discussing but my initial dream – no animals in the house – I have long ago dropped because it would be unthinkable to mother and family’s chief cook to go without this ready availability. The good side is they delight my little girl whenever Grandma is kind enough to pick up a few and bring out into the sunlight, by now she is not afraid of them any more.

Vehicles. The donkeys, horses and camels I already listed. Of motorized vehicles the motorbike is the most frequent. Considering it is the pet choice of a lot of ageing well-to-do men in Europe or North America – not to buy a sports car or SUV but buy a motorcycle as the most masculine and sexiest, the number of masculine sexy men in El Menoufiya must be one of the highest in the world. On a sunny morning driving to the city we encountered one such, fashionably unshaved, riding on his silvery hot rod, immaculate white galabeya riding up to the musculous hairy knees… you get the picture. I later saw the bike parked beside one of the humblest little huts on the village road, perhaps a son or near relative visiting.

Speaking of men and their baring habits, on another hot day I glimpsed a man walking in same village, with his galabeya raised well over the waist of his underpants! I guess it was so hot. Women at the same time are covered from head to toes under unshapliest heaps of clothes ever, each in own way, some donning their niqabs even when they need hang out the washing on the roof. In the city the dressing varies more and is also a lot more figure-following, especially in case of young women, but pants are still a relatively rare sight, a colourful flowing skirt with a couple of tight sweaters seems to be the local favourite for the young and galabeyas half covered by huge scarves for the older.

Of other vehicles bicycles perhaps come next, then tractors, then cars. There is a funny tractor and behind it what looks like a small bus without doors and windows and painted in all the colors of rainbow that passes twice a day or so, packed full with small children. It belongs to the local (muslim) nursery just a few hundred metres from us, a kind of “school bus” then.

I still need to mention tuktuks, yes, the same that you see in Thailand or surrounding countries, and are also imported from there, which serve as taxis in villages. Because the villages look something like towns in Italy (albeit much more poor of course) – with thousands and thousands of houses tightly cramped together leaving room for no more than a 3-4 meters street between, no other vehicle would easily pass through.

Buildings. Better expressed by photos perhaps but in case of oldest of them the total picture is slightly reminiscent of biblical scenes – low mud huts covered or surrounded by dried bamboo, often with an open cow shed beside. There is even an old waterwheel left behind one house which is driven around by two buffalos, it raises water from the big ditch to smaller ditches on ground level, from where it runs to the fields. But most families use the motorised pumps now.

The newer houses are all pretty similar red brick boxes, each with balconies and windows as creative as the owner’s thought and money stretched, and though they look unfinished now I would say they are rather beautiful actually, especially when will be painted after a few years when the families become more affluent. During our rides to other villages and towns I see a lot of quite spectacular balcony designs indeed, even villas with glossy glass and marble… again the picture is very varied and interesting to the eye. There are a lot of new half-finished buildings in the city as well, always a good sign showing the economy is on the rise if there is demand, or money, for construction. When I asked for prices, however, my in-laws suggested around 170 000 LE for a simple 2-room apartment in nowhere fancy surroundings, in a town that is not exactly a dream destination either, and that I think is rather high for Egypt where people expect buy apartments for 40 000 LE or so and even then they consider themselves rather well-to-do. In Alexandria I remember an apartment not far from Corniche, 100 m2 cost just 115 000, so have no idea why they are so expensive here, is the demand so high or what.

COPING WITH LIFE
What concerns normal everyday life then the environment is easy enough. Starting from the most unescapable – food – there are no major supermarkets here so normally we tour the “top 4” that are about the size of let’s say Zaza in Delta Sharm, and all carry some of the items we need. There is even fresh milk sold in ordinary plastic bags tied with a knot and tasting really surprisingly good (and getting spoiled very fast). Fresh meat we buy from any of the butchers and bread from bakeries and green things from the souk, the supermarkets do not carry these.

For the more intricate supplies, and any kind of alcohol, Cairo with its Carrefour etc is just exactly an hour’s drive away. No chance for a can of beer or bottle of wine here about, and even our nearest family although they are Christian and it is in no way forbidden, decline any consumption of it. So I guess some habits are geographic rather than religious, as is the way of dressing. The girls in our family do not wear hijab exactly, but they are covered from toes to neck outside of house and only once have I seen a local girl wearing trousers here – all wear skirts or frocks available in most imaginative designs. A curious exception is the engagement and wedding parties that classify as soiree here and where every woman who can afford and has a financial or family status that demands so, wears a shoulder-baring evening dress richly embroidered and bejewelled with fake stones, rented for that evening from one of the multitude of special shops.

I normally wear trousers though, as a foreigner I am allowed looking, well, “foreign”.

Most goods for house are available in lavish choice and good quality, even advanced type of kitchen furniture with built-in swivel shelves etc, and steel cookingware, though most locals prefer aluminium, because it is cheaper, or enamel, for its prettier designs. It is tricky to find anything without lavish design or without a golden rim. I’ve been searching for good simple everyday juice&water glasses for ages now – all are kind of narrowish small (because you do not serve juice to 5 or 6 guests here, you serve to 20 or 30, my in-laws explained) and lavishly decorated. Equally tricky was to find simple cheap faience for our first months until we finish renovation and get any selves for storing anything more lasting. Most families use plastic or enamel plates and bowls and these are also what are usually available in shops. Though lots of shops carry hideously expensive and complicate and overdesigned dinner sets for 12 or so, that every young couple buys or receives as present for their wedding, they then simply display it in the dining room cupboard thereafter, perhaps never taking it out in fear of breaking a piece. We discussed china with some people and they said “yes we have it!” and what they brought was first an Arcopal bowl : -) and then a faience plate.

A typical local housewife owns perhaps hundreds of small plastic or enamel or aluminium plates and bowls because all dishes are served separately. At the same time there are perhaps no personal plates on the table so everyone just picks from plates nearest from him/her and if you are lucky then the number of these equals that of eaters but not necessarily. Also water is placed on the table in just 2 or 3 glasses for 6-7 people so who is first and lucky can grab it. I guess those tall water glasses are rare and intricate to wash and then also drinking anything to a meal is not so common here. People eat the food dry and then drink a tiny glass of incredibly strong (boiled) tea after.

We readily find everything we require for finishing our apartment – the ceramics, the paints, the bath and all numerous pipes and bends required to set it all up. A Cleopatra jacuzzi bath I noticed only costs 3000LE here that I think cost 7000 in Sharm. My pet horror when shopping is passing the bedclothes shop because they have really fast turnover and almost always display something new. I already own two quilted bedspreads – one beige cotton one with tiny embroidered flowers, made in Egypt, one of flowery chintz made in China and looking very properly “baladi”, and one nice thick cover of oriental brown and blue chenille with sky blue silky borders and tasselled pillows, made in Syria. All come with matching “display” pillowcases.

I also glimpsed heavenly unbleached natural beige towels bordered in one end with 15 cm hand-crotcheted lace on our first shopping spree but did not buy and now they are gone but I hope perhaps something better will appear instead.

I keep seeing too many beautiful linen galabeya shirts, perfect for wearing with jeans or during the hot season and a far cry from the “quality” sold in Sharm for blue-eyed tourists. The ones here are really lasting and the designs and colours are nice enough even for wearing in Europe.

We are using the local carpenters, I am now waiting for a wooden folding screen that I saw in a magazine, to protect us from the sun in summer and wind in winter, and my husband said yes they can make an exactly similar one, with beautiful latticework patches, though since wood is still expensive it is going to cost around 1000LE so not exactly a bargain as one might expect from work here. Pretty bamboo chairs from a nearby village on the other hand cost just around 100LE if you bargain a bit, bamboo grows locally here. We bought 6 to use for dinners in the roof pergola and were shown a full catalogue of various other designs that they were also willing to make for us, even full wickerwork sofa sets complete with cushions for 2000 or so.

Next come a bed and a work table for me, am curious to see how the carpenter will cope with designs and what the quality will be. The cupboard we hastily bought for our temporary kitchen from another shop cost just 350 full 2 meters but the quality was most terrible – came with mountains of sawdust, blotches of varnish and the inner surfaces are totally untreated rough as they emerged from the sawmill. I guess though that local people would rather save a few pounds than ask for better quality so perhaps there is not much motivation to finish them nicely. In any case, we plan to retain all local and old furniture left over from previous generations in the house and use it for what we call our “baladi” floor where we plan to house all perspective guests – more interesting for them! I am now sitting on a hideous big faux Louis XVII (or so) style sofa but you know it is still good full wood and the cover is real thick cotton gobelin, so if we can get off the golden paint somehow and replace it with a romantic pink or blue or white, the set might look quite nice actually. The chairs due their size are really comfortable to sit in, too, and built with real steel springs inside.

That’s about it. The first month went into fixing a temporary apartment by installing a/c, buying an oven, cupboard, new matress for bed, more bedlinen, everything for cooking and eating because in Sharm of course we did not have nearly anything own. Then we spent some time building the roof because it is the only spot where we can spend time in the sunlight and fresh air. Because every meter of land outside is valuably used either for building or farming there are no yards or gardens around houses here, not even Hadaba size strips.The street starts from the door.

Next we started the work with the new apartment, the electrician, the plumber, now we are waiting for a carpenter to install a new door where there was window, for added light in main bedroom, and my husband just surprised me by finding iron flowerpot holders for me in the city and doing the heavy masonry required to install them into balcony walls. As every woman here I will be hanging my washing outside the balcony but, as the trendier women here, I will have round loops for flowerpots on the rods that hold my lines : -).

Next will come the painting, Jotun is present here, then the ceramics and the wooden floors. The latter are an almost unheard of luxury again due to high price of wood (all is imported and 1 m3 costs around 2500 LE) but we thought it might help against winter chills since the house has no kind of heating of course beside the a/c and perhaps an electric battery for the worst days. We are contemplating building a fireplace but the question is from where to find anyone to make it, it is not exactly something to practice one’s hand with. (And what would we burn – bamboo? : -)

The good side of living in a village is we know exactly whom to ask to perform any of the jobs – in most cases they have worked for the family for years and years already. The bad side is you cannot really criticise the work because they get offended; and if someone starts anything, another man will not come to finish it because they do not want “steal” work from each other. And they are mostly pretty busy, too. In general you need to treat them with good care and lots of respect, and feed them well : -), because in general one is very very dependent on craftsmen here and they (seemingly) less on you. Thus, we needed to wait 3 weeks for the painters to come because at first there was ramadan and when that ended they still had previous orders going. After them again a pause of 10 day until the ceramics man found time to squeeze us in. The carpenter has had our order for 2 months by now and has barely begun… though my husband goes and has tea with him every week to keep him “motivated”. There really seems no lack of work here in Nile Delta, at least for those who know how to use their hands.

It is harder to find help for simple jobs – carrying or cleaning or even babysitting because the poorer the man the prouder he is so in no case will he work for his neighbour because that would mean he would be inferior and the other one superior, and it is not good tone either to stick out as too “rich” or uppish or whatever and then use this kind of help.

The craftsmen are an interesting source for local gossip, since they move from house to house and love to “complain” about previous clients, while secretly being proud of coping with the new or outrageous demands. This is how we learned there is at least one more “girl” from Europe here, from Switzerland, who lives about a kilometre from us and is also renovating her house. Our electrician told us he’d had to change the whole power system in that house three times, sounding pretty proud of working for a customer with such demanding standards : -).

Living standard accordingly is rather intricate to understand. Most families seem to live from nothing since a usual salary is a few hundred pounds for most “city” jobs, and in houses that look strictly elementary from the outside. Still, copious sums are found and spent on weddings and setting up the house for the young couple, for at least 3-4 children in each household. How do they cope? Beside the entrepreneurs whose income is defined by their business success, and the craftsmen, it seems lots of people here have some kind of alternative source for income. My father-in-law, for example, a retired school inspector, keeps bees. Another family headed by a physics teacher gains (my husband says) perhaps 5-7000 pounds monthly from private lessons he taughts after the normal school day. Who would take extra lessons in physics?? It seems lots of parents do because school classes are 60-70 children large and no one has time to ensure all of them understand the material. Similarly, a doctor working mornings in a government hospital continues in the afternoon at a smaller private hospital in a nearby town and returns by the evening for still a few hours of consultations in his own private office in the village. He may make as much as 1000 LE per day, but at least several hundred.

There are about 4 ATMs in our town and it very often happens that none of them works, I suspect they simply run out of money, in which case if we need cash badly we take half an hour’s drive to Tanta where some bigger and multinational banks (CIB, HSBC etc) also have offices. Nowhere am I able to pay by card yet.

During one such drive I spotted small boys, perhaps 10 years old or so riding on the roof of a passing train! I asked if they do it as some special proof of courage or something, no, my husband said, they do it to escape paying the fee. He had used this handy solution himself at a similar age. :-O

MARRIAGES
Of local traditions so far marriages are what I know the best, because these happen all around and because a near relative is about to be engaged. Luckily the Christians at least do not have the habit of marrying near cousins though there are remarkably many variously impaired children in families so it might have been so before. Instead, the priest, abona, often acts as a “referent” here. Normally a concerned father of a bride or groom asks his nearest abona whether he knows any suitable young people of opposite sex, and the priests exchange that information. The young people then meet each other and the family and if they like each other and the family likes them, a next meeting is planned where both families (mainly fathers) meet to discuss the economics – where the young people will live and which side will provide what or pay what. Normally the groom’s side stands for the home and the bride’s side for its furnishings – all from furniture to utensils to bedclothes etc. Or then they divide it somehow. And the bride’s side holds the engagement party and the groom’s side the wedding, though the muslims party twice – at both families.

Next comes the customary buying of jewels, shabka, that each groom must present to the bride. It is an event of itself where both families are represented up to uncles and aunts with their children and it ends with a meal in the bride’s house. The jewelry set itself is traditional too and consists of a necklace, earrings, bracelet and 2 rings of which one is the engagement/wedding band. Some may choose differently but usually this is what everyone buys. The price depends of affluence but is in any case at least at the level of the groom’s 1 or 2 year’s salary, quite outrageous burden all this. Then come sets of meetings to discuss the engagement party but before the invitations are set out both young people must pass medical checking that they are of good health in any way important for the offspring and otherwise – since the Copts do not or nearly do not divorce, but hiding one’s health impairment is almost the only legal reason for divorcing for them, this is important. The exact content of these checks I am too shy to inquire about but in any case when the answers come and are satisfactory only then does one start discussing the dates, invitations a s o.

The engagement involves signing a contract between two parties and supported by that the families can then start preparing the home and when this is ready the couple can marry and start their life fully supplied with everything. The sums spent are enormous compared to income and lifestyle, again, so I am mostly awed all the time. To rent a special room for the party, complete with a decorated stage and round tables for the guests can cost from 2000-7000 LE easily, here in middle of nowhere, for 3 hours and with only a piece of cake and refreshing drinks served. Parties are enormous, 200 people attended the engagement we were involved with, of 250 who were invited. The car for the day, necessarily the latest model, costs around 3-400 pounds, the rent of dresses for the bride and her sisters if needed, around 3-400 per piece, services of a photo studio 150 for an elaborate album and several ultra-large framed photos to display in parental homes of the bride and the groom, the cameraman around the same. The bride starts preparing herself days before, visiting the beauty salon at least twice during the week for glossying up, and finally around 7 hours on the real day for a most elaborate hair and make-up, that service is also extended to her mother and sisters. Since fair skin is highly valued, girls end up looking something like geishas – with faces powdered toothpaste-white and eyes painted jet black, but that is what is expected, too. During our engagement another couple used the same photo studio as us, arriving in a car of exactly same make and decoration, with bride in exactly similar dress, perhaps the season’s newest model then that everyone was after. The main difference between the engagement and the wedding outwardly seems to be that the bride wears a coloured dress for the first and a white one for the second.

Now I am switching from Christian to muslim or maybe Menoufiyan traditions spotted from our own house when the neighbours wed their daughter. First, a week before the wedding contract is signed, all the bride’s belongings are transported from her home to the future common home. All relatives gather and the women, maybe because men are away at work, carry everything out of house and into the car, on their heads. The heap of bags and boxes is really huge and includes perhaps then also some furniture items or kitchenware or whatever the bride’s side is supplying, as also a full set of new clothes for her because one is not supposed to wear old clothes in the new life.

Next comes the signing of marriage contract followed by a party at the bride’s house, following which the couple still continues to live&sleep each in own parents’ house because as my in-laws explained, it is not so much the contract that makes the marriage legal for the muslims as it is the fact that “everyone must know”. That these two people now belong to each other must be made as public as possible. After one week then when everyone should sufficiently know, party at the groom’s house follows, again everyone eats till drops except the couple who sit on public display on the stage and are not supposed to eat anything (I specifically asked about this). Then the couple leaves together to their common new home where they are not supposed to be disturbed by anyone until late afternoon the next day. Then, a procession starts from the bride’s house again, this time the women carrying food on their heads – mountains and mountains of foods – meats, vegetables, breads, cakes and sweets, crates with Cola and Sprite, whatever. I asked whether the people will then stay there and help eat it all, no they do not, the couple simply stores all they cannot consume (if are still alive and not dead of hunger, especially since during all the time the bride to prepares herself at the hair salon she also does not eat).

Of gold, food and flowers (in order of importance)

A recent 1st birthday of our daughter opened my eyes to some more local customs. We expected some 30-40 guests, all of them near relatives, so I thought there will be lots of flowers (since flowers are really cheap here) and prepared a pail with water to which my husband laughed heartily but did not say much. In fact, there was just one bouquet from a family we had visited before and I had insisted taking flowers to them so they “knew” one should bring flowers. Indeed, when we discussed with husband what to take with us to a dinner invitation, I suggested flowers, mostly because I love flowers myself and we use a lot of flowers in Estonia for own home or as present. No no no my husband said, this would never do, they would take it as offence, as if we did not have enough money or did not regard them highly enough to bring something useful, i.e. mostly food like cakes or fruit or chocolate. Flowers simply are not something a housewife here appreciates because even if families are relatively well off food is still, perhaps culturally, the first concern (and source of joy). In Cairo it may be quite different my husband said, but depends of the family and their exposure to the outside world or simply modern ways. Since I insisted to take flowers because I said I am Estonian and plan to remain so and need them get used to me behaving my way just like they are free to behave their way, my husband bought a bouquet but he also made a stop at a fruit store and bought 2 kilo of mangos, as a compromise. As it was, the mangos were received with many thanks and were happily consumed at the end of the dinner together with 2 kg of figs that that the family had bought themselves, whereas flowers caused a lot of surprise and were then forgotten onto a cupboard. Dry flowers are perhaps a better bet because the family can display them on a commode in the dining room, but if you take a fresh bouquet they will dry and display that one also, probably dry it first and display after.

The most common gift is still a box of cakes which should be huge, at least 12 pieces if you go visit a family of 2 or 4, but 36 is also a good number, and it can happen that if you pay just a quick visit no one has time nor appetite to even touch these so most are just thrown away but it does not matter and you cannot question this “tradition”, it has always been so and folks would be disturbed if you tried to break it. Our house is full of giant chocolate boxes, we all mostly hate chocolate and no one eats it but still most often a visitor arrives with one more such.

So, if you need visit someone outside of Cairo and you want your gift be appreciated as well as useful, a fruit basket, maybe with some more exotic fruits like pineapples or kiwi included if you need to make it special, is your best bet, though a chance exists that they will leave the kiwi untouched as something a bit too “new”. Or bottles of better kind of fresh juice, e.g. they make a delicious sweet and golden fresh pineapple juice at Carrefour Maadi.
A box of cakes comes second, but in any case whatever you take better have it big.

Continuing with food habits, when we started discussing the menu for the birthday, I initially thought (I am still naive) that they would expect something European and different from me, that they would be curious (=that healthy curiousity to know and to learn exists in Egypt, but I am not so sure any more) and in any case I do not like the fuss around food so I said no way shall we spend all day cooking and then stop sweaty and tired at the moment the guests arrive. I’ll just bake some cakes the day before and make a cold potato salad the German way and we can grill sausages because grilling meat to 30 people really requires hiring a separate team (and a huge grill). Anyway, I hope everyone will come to rejoice over our little girl and not for eating as main purpose, I said. Are you kidding they said, in fact we almost divorced over that topic, the family will be coming for the good food of course and better make more of it because the uncles will be grumpy otherwise. It had happened so to my mother in-law (who also married into the family so we are nearly soulmates) that she had thought to have an “easier” birthday when my husband was still a toddler, so she had offered sandwitches and Coke and cakes. They still recall it sometimes, she said. So in the end to solve the situation she said since she is the grandmother and it is her first grandchild, she’ll prepare the party with all “right” ingredients. And thus it happened like always – with mountains of food most of which will be thrown away, and a huge chocolate cake which we almost succeeded in eating up, except that the guests brought 2 more….
There should be food, a lot, and it should be Egyptian, too.

Lastly of the importance of gold – so we did not receive much flowers, but our girl, still 1 year old, already owns 2 gold rings and one little gold chain with a pendant. The rings are so tiny they are exactly her size now (but she would eat them if I let her wear them) and will be too small by the time she is old enough for them but the in-laws said I can always then go exchange two tiny for one larger or something. They said gold is the most customary gift to a baby here, especially when the baby is born, when all the relatives visit the mom and baby and all bring gold.
The importance of gold for the bride I already described, indeed women wear most of it daily even if otherwise wearing their dirtiest galabeya, and “weigh” each other by how expensive the other one’s pieces are. A popular Egyptian TV series depicts a historic criminal story from Alexandria where 2 women searched women wearing the best, nicest jewellery, at the souk, and then tricked them into their house and killed them and hid under the floor of their house, for years. Actually, there are 2 versions running simultaneously, one set up as a comedy the other as a drama.

One should buy at least 18 carat gold, which they say almost retains its value over time, but 21 is preferred if one looks at it as investment (as nearly all do). 14 carats I think is not even represented here. Men, or families, spend copious amount on “jewels” as it is called, and the local jewellery store we visited, which sides with the souk and the poorest areas around it (there is of course a whole long street filled with jewellery stores plus numerous ones elsewhere) carried more diamond rings than I think you can find in the whole Estonia, with of course just a gap where the center diamond should be which everyone can pick according to own purse then. I read in another forum, a post by a bitter young man, that pickier girls in Cairo expect their grooms present them rings with diamonds worth at least 30-40 000LE, a real knock-me-over stone.

Roaches or sarasiir

Sosaar in singular, sarasiir in plurar it is a most helpful word to know which I somehow never learned in Sharm though I made my first acquaintance with them there. Still, it was nothing compared to the frequency and the healthy sizes here that in the end brought me to the state where I simply sat down and looked up a site on roaches in the Internet because I wanted to know what is the food that draws them and how often they produce the young ones (how feverish it will be) and how to control them as best as we can. One such with photos, if you have a strong heart, is here:

http://www.doyourownpestcontrol.com/orientalroach1.htm

It appeared that whereas in Sharm only American roach appeares (from what I saw), here Oriental species is dominating but we have both of them (sigh). They live only a year or so (not interminably as the stories go) but every female produces at least 100 young ones during that time. I thought they might been drawn by oily food and meat mostly (all this deep frying…) but instead it is starchy foods – any cereals, even old newspapers. I had a first hand proof of that when we recently arrived from Carrefour one day with a bunch of these freshly baked long baguettes, and early in the morning I sneaked into the kitchen to steal a bit, then what jumped out of the baguette bag was the siziest oriental roach I have yet seen anywhere, I think it was some 4 cm huge. Either it was a visitor or then the wisiest of the “old generation” that could not resist the smell of fresh bakery I do not know because we had thought we had got rid of the big ones during our first week here already (that contained some really terryfying night encounters for me) but anyway already baby size roaches 2 mm are appearing from time to time so I guess this battle is continuous.