Dreaming of a Desert Garden

320393_163934253730761_359809319_nThe beginning of 2016 still finds me living in Dahab, South Sinai, Egypt wondering what I should be planning for the future. This time it is an oriental carpet of a thousand knots that has been pulled out from under my feet  to leave me wobbling in the middle of rocky track in a mountainous desert. There have been definite points in my life where there were stop signs, forks in the road and crossroads but this one is not so clear. However as Led Zeppelin sings in Stairway to Heaven, “There’s still time to change the road you’re on.”

The tourist market in Sinai, atrophying since 2009 when the European financial crisis hit, followed by the revolution, the Icelandic volcano cloud, the military coup, the backlash of insurgency, finally hit the dirt along with the Metroliner in October last year. It remains wallowing in dust.

The traditional tourist market for the whole of South Sinai – Sharm el Sheikh, Dahab and Nuweiba – has been strangled to a harsh breath that one hopes is not a death rattle. I was in Sharm el Sheikh over New Year and I stayed in a 90 room hotel that struggled to fill 9 rooms. Dahab lovers still manage to come in small numbers, very small numbers, but some are shocked to see such empty restaurants and few joyous parties as before. Foreigners living here are leaving in droves to return to European countries to survive. Many of my friends dislike being back in the material led “West” but they know it is their best option for now.

10400166_70827490814_4429309_nI have heard said, that for true love, it is best for one to not know the whole reason to be in love, there should always be some mystery that cannot be described or put in to words. That is how I feel about living here. I have good reasons to stay or go but my final heart desire remains hidden within me, even from me. I just know when I search inside myself to see where I truly want to be at this point in my life, it is here in South Sinai. I cannot, in my heart make the decision to leave.

It is time to search my “Dream Book” – a scrap book with pages dedicated to things that I want in my life where I add small pictures and words as I want. I created it some years ago when another rug was pulled and I hit a wall on the road of my life. One of the pages has pictures of plants – herbs, flowers, vegetables, trees because some years ago I decided I want them back in my life despite the fact I live in a desert. They had been prominent in my life in Aotearoa New Zealand where my last property had been six hectares of green organic garden many moons ago. I miss the sensuality of growing stuff – getting my hands dirty, the smells, the feasts for the eye and the mouth.

Mohamed, my Bedouin boyfriend of some years, told me he has found a place in the desert where he wants to grow fruit and vegetables so I have decided that this is the time and this is the opportunity for me too. Others have asked before if I was interested in “doing some business” with other gardens or bringing tourists but I could never see a green light.

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Beautiful gardens at St Katherine’s monastery

The garden is on the edge of Wadi Sa’aal just off the road that leads from Dahab/Nuweiba to St Katharine’s area. It was laid out and producing vegetables and fruit for some years previously but when the coup of 2013 happened the military got permission from Israel, against the agreements of Camp David, to have a greater presence again in Sinai so they decided in their “wisdom” that the garden could no longer produce so was abandoned. I won’t expound further but one can see satellite pictures of the garden and actually see where the trees were planted. There is still a functioning water well and holding tank so we know it can produce.

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Trekking in nearby Wadi Arada

The local Bedouin owner went though civil courts and now has his land officially designated as a garden but he no longer wishes to be involved in the day to day replanting of the garden. The deal is profit share and Haj has gifted Mohamed some land to plant as he sees fit, most likely in fruit trees. Everything has been done according to Bedouin law, not with paper but in discussion with witnesses. Bedouin tribal law is as strong as any and they respect it more than any other. They don’t even use paper for the toilet. Continue reading

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Iftar under the Stars

There is no moon like a Dahab moon.

There is no moon like a Dahab moon.

So it is over half way through Ramadan; the full moon having waxed, now wanes leaving less than two weeks until Eid. This year Ramadan has fallen in the middle of summer so some days have been extremely hot, 40oC plus, and the longer daylight hours mean longer fasts. Summer in the Scandinavian countries must be extreme tests of endurance, however I think they adopt times of more southern climes, maybe German. I have been invited to share iftar – literally breakfast – on a number of days for which I am grateful even though I am not Muslim and not fully fasting. Food I can easily forego but restricting fluids would just make me ill especially if I have to work riding the horses in this desiccating heat. As it is, I often add electrolytes to my water as a precaution measure; sweat dries off immediately so I don’t even realise how much fluid and salts I am is losing and the minimum result is a smacking headache.

Street decoration for Ramadan, Dahab

Street decoration for Ramadan, Dahab

I have seen many a tourist complain of food poisoning when I suspect they are actually suffering the effects of dehydration which include vomiting and diarrhoea due to severe electrolyte imbalance. Drinking only water exacerbates the problem because the body voids water to try to keep the salt balance. They rapidly end up on drips administered in hotel rooms by the experienced local doctors. During daylight, those fasting try to stay as quiet as possible, sleeping in the shade until late afternoon. I often see Bedouin men lying in the palm covered beach arishas built close to the waters’ edge to catch any breeze. Luckily Dahab, as a renowned wind surfing spot usually has wind and the men lie on stripy blankets with their heads completely covered by their shaals to keep any annoying insects at bay. Women generally remain at home as they have the doubly difficult task of fasting and preparing food for everybody, however the men do contribute, helping prepare meat, shopping etc.

It's a free life for Bedouin children in Dahab

It’s a free life for Bedouin children in Dahab

Children, who are not expected to “do Ramadan”, play unattended on the streets or the beach. They have about four months summer holiday a year during which time they become progressively more feral and problem causing. Late in the afternoon, people start to stir and wander home to prepare for iftar. Even in Dahab there is a pre iftar rush which in Cairo is apparently manic – everybody rushing to get home, ready and out to wherever they have been invited for iftar. In this respect it is a social month of reciprocal meals at friends’ and family houses. In Dahab things are on a much quieter scale but there is still noticeable tension. This irritation could also have something to do with the fact that they are strung out from no liquid, food or smoking during the day as nothing should pass their lips. By late afternoon they are like grumpy lions. Even the driving becomes more erratic, which is saying something considering how badly many drive on a normal day.

Minaret of Mosque Sheikh Jameer, Dahab

Minaret of Mosque Sheikh Jameer, Dahab

The mosques call quietly as people go to their respective places. Mohamed invited me to eat with him at the local communal breakfast. The women’s circle of privacy is sacrosanct and as I do not know any of the women in this area, I ate with the men. The meal took place on an open sandy space in front a house under construction. I didn’t see any signs of current work so maybe it will take a year or so to complete. The owners live in adjoining properties linked by small gates and there is one double door opening on to the sandy lane where the goats congregate during the day. One evening a few of the cheeky kids actually hopped through the door and started to nosey about. They were efficiently shooed back to the lane, skittering and leaping about.

Sheep and goats loitering in the lane waiting for any opportunity to find food.

Sheep and goats loitering in the lane waiting for any opportunity to find food.

Rectangular rugs are laid out to sit on in a five metre square centred by a small charcoal fire. These are not matching or in any particular pattern although Bedouins often use colourful striped rugs hand woven out of goat and camel hair. Each person leaves their shoes outside the square and sits cross legged facing inwards. Food is served on large metal platters, usually a main course on a bed of rice or circled by bread. These vary depending on which woman made them –vegetables, chicken, meat, fish – there is no requirement. You essentially share what is in front of you with those next to you although in my case, Mohamed always tries to find something he knows I prefer, but I don’t want to feel privileged. However Bedouin do pride themselves on hospitality so certainly take no offence by it. He also placed me close to the elder men because, again as a privilege for guests. Boys and younger men poured cold drinks into plastic containers and distributed these around everybody – you end up with water, tamrahindi, juice and cordial on the sand in front of you depending on what has been contributed. The group changes every night with the local family interspersed with visitors. One night the men who drive trucks of animal food from the Nile Delta were breaking fast in the group and Mohamed managed to negotiate that I purchase their remaining bales of hay at a cheaper rate. Another night an old man with an opaque eye who wanders the streets begging for a coin here, a coin there joined the group – probably one of the richest men in town!

Dates ripen on the palms over a Dahab street.

Dates ripen on the palms over a Dahab street.

As the sun sets, dates are distributed and it is customary to have a few in your hand to break the fast as the prayer starts in the mosques; dates followed by a drink then food. It is idyllic to sit in the open air at dusk with palm leaves swishing, people grateful for their first drink and food in more than twelve hours as sohour, the last meal before dawn, had been at about 3a.m. When the meal starts everybody gathers around the platter of their choice, moving off the rugs if necessary. There is little talk and I know from experience Bedouins eat fast – even faster after a fast! However there is absolutely no pushing or aggravation. It is extremely bad manners to eat from any area of the platter other than that directly in front of you. No picking the choice bits. For guests, the hosts surreptitiously watch what you like and place extra pieces on your section of the platter so it never seems like you finish. 189   None of the food is strong flavoured and some cooks are obviously better than others but I enjoy the simple food. I tentatively try anything new because swallowing is obligatory but I certainly never go away hungry. Bedouin eat most things with the fingers of their right hand but I usually use a spoon to avoid looking completely inept at feeding myself otherwise Mohamed is tempted to put a bib on me. Last night there was a shallow dish of what looked like reddish coloured porridge. It was served with rayeb, the yoghurt drink that helps keep intestines happy. The dish, I later discovered is made with wheat kernels, was quite bland but not unpleasant. I preferred the Bedouin style vegetables directly in front of me with farisheer bread tucked around the bowl. The meat in the dish had a slightly kidney flavour which I didn’t feel like so I just ate the potatoes (Egypt has great tasting potatoes), peas, carrots, onions, etc cooked in a tomato based sauce. Next to me Mohamed ate some freshly grilled fish on a bed of rice.

Sunset over the pink granite mountians of Sinai

Sunset over the pink granite mountians of Sinai

As soon as anyone is finished they stand away from the platters and go to wash their hands and mouth out. I am always one of the last eating and Mohamed admonishes me if I finish too soon out of politeness. He says no one will notice if I am the last but I don’t believe him; they quietly notice everything, not that they would judge – they know how fast they eat! After iftar some of the men pray facing Mecca on the clean sand next to the rugs, while others relax smoking and drinking shai . Bedouin tea is made from a mixture of black tea and herbs, usually mint flavoured hbac or sage like marmareya. Last night some of the little girls who been eating next door with their mothers wandered through to see their dads. At about 3 or 4 years they are cute and cuddly. Mohamed gave me some coin to give to them, a custom to promote generosity and luck. I am not sure about that desired outcome though as sometimes I see it translate to expectancy and rudeness in the older children on the streets when dealing with tourists.

Date palms still tower over homes although less than before.

Date palms still tower over homes although less than before.

The fire flares a little, the tea is offered around, the stars are shining and the palms still swishing as most of the young men and boys slope off to do whatever young men and boys do. Cushions miraculously appeared for the remaining men to recline with their elbows resting on them. Topics of discussion ranged from politics to making a living in this difficult recession. I only got the gist of conversations but I was pleasantly surprised to hear Mohamed talking about supporting Egypt and local manufacturers; that afternoon we had had a discussion about buying local and not supporting the likes of Swiss Nestle! That company is in the process of buying access to water rights all over the world denying free access to locals. There is even a perfectly drinkable Sinacola but not many of the shops stock it. It was another happy evening outside under the Sinai night sky.

Lighthouse Bay, Dahab at sunset.

Lighthouse Bay, Dahab at sunset.

The cats here eat cucumber…

The cats here eat cucumber. And tomato. I don’t just mean nibble the edges or lick the surface. They actually eat salad vegetables. The first time I noticed this I was sitting at a restaurant on the shore and the cats had jumped up to steal food off an abandoned plate. The cats stole not only the bread but the cucumber and tomato. “What’s that all about?” you may well ask. I think it is because here there is no grass so they are instinctively attracted to vegetation and moisture.

All the restaurants that ring rhe bay, or any where for that matter have their resident cats. It would be impossible to get rid of them because the restaurants are all relatvely open with no doors or secure areas. The cats come and go as they choose. And they are smart. When they smell that someone has been served food worthy of their attention they sit quietly on the floor sussing out their prospective meal provider – the hapless tourist. Expert body language decipherers, they know who they can disconcert, whom they have to obey, whom they can cajole and smooze. Generally they are not too cheeky, politely waiting.

They know the instant you put your cutlery down as finished. You can eat and leave your cutlery on your plate between bites and they don’t move a muscle but as sson as you have taken the last bite, they know and they are sitting in the seat beside you in a flash. If the diner leaves the table before the plate is cleared, it is free for all. They jump up at the table and make a grab for the scraps – order of preference would usuallly be protein – fish, chicken red meat, then bread – hamburger, pizza, then cucumber and tomato. The only remains are lettuce and lemon.

They are also thieves so some vigilance is required especially if seated at a bedouin style restaurant with mattresses on the ground. They sidle up to you like coy children and sit very quietly beside you eyeing your plate with one eye and your vigilance with the other. As soon as you so much as glance away, they pounce hauling whatever they can off your plate and bolting off. I now have no doubt how cats have enough speed to catch mice considering how fast they hunt pizza. I have seen a whole pizza being snatched to the ground by a lightning paw. In that case the loot was too heavy for the cat to escape with but once it had touched the ground, game over. The guest did not want to eat it anyway.

Fresh water is also a big problem. The water that is sprayed around on the pavements is salty and there is no rain so there are never any fresh water puddles. Kind tourists often fill up clean ash trays with drinking water for them.

The restaurants run a running battle with the cats, not wanting lose their custom to feline con artists so some restuarants to discourage them (the cats) will provide guests with spray bottles filled with water . A few sprays in the face and the cats quickly learn it will not be pleasant dining at that table. Some guests go over board though, sparying every cat in sight regardless of innocence. Or they encourage the chidren (whom I would rather see sprayed than the cats in most instances) to run around the restaurant spraying every cat in sight.

Some people are so afraid of every animal I can’t believe they live on this planet with fellow creatures. A cat or dog only has to look at them and they start screaming. A friend of mine has a theory that people who can’t relate animals also have problems relating to humans and they are sexually repressed. A cat looks at them and they jump up aaahhhh. Everytime we witnessed someone overeracting to contact with animals, we would smirk at each other knowingly rolling our eyes, “Yea, definitely sexually repressed.” Get over yourselves people! You really aren’t that important in the scheme of things.

The sad thing is these cats live and love around the retaurants so there are always constnat supply of kittens. Cute as, but problematic for the continually burgeoning cat population. No one likes to see skinny starved cats so the restaurants encourage the children to take the kittens and then sell them to tourists. The tourists don’t like to see the kittens being mistreated so they pay for the kitten and release it. The kids have a new business of taking and selling kittens and puppies who then have no mother and usually die anyway. Or worse, the unsupervised bored children torture them to death. Horrible.

Or the restaurants catch the cats put them in boxes and dump them in the deserts where there is little hope of food and no hope of water. I once found a poor mite crying pitifully in a rubblish dump some kilometres from town.I wrapped him up in a sweater, carried him back on my horse and put him the tack room where he ate and drank. Of course my ‘work’mate who is allergic to both work and animals let him out (or kicked him out) before I came the next day…cat disappeared. It would be nice to think he survived on the rubbish bin at the corner but it wasn’t long after I noticed that particular nauseating stink of death. I suspect he went off somehwere to die. I really dislike my sexually repressed stablehand, lazy male.

There are not many expats living here that escape without adopting some pet, be it dog or cat…unless they are sexually repressed of course. I currently have 4 cats at home, 4 cats at the the stable and 2 dogs….

“There was a table set out under a tree in front of the house…”

So we are half way through Ramadan, this month where Muslims are expected, exhorted, shamed, encouraged, forced, coerced and also choose willingly to fast during daylight hours. Nothing should pass their lips during this time – sans food, sans drink, sans cigarettes, sans sex and maybe a few other things I don’t know about. As you might surmise, having nicotene addicts who are often the oppressed sexually obsessed having to deny natural urges in 40oC heat does not do wonders for their tempers nor powers of concentration at work. However I won’t dwell on the negative aspects of this ritual. Ramadan is also a month of celebration and socialising with a bonhomie akin to western Christmas. This is often followed by feasting during the whole night time until call to prayer in the early morning. People actually put on weight in Ramadan. I don’t think this would have been the original plan delivered by Mohamed but you know how it is, humans will be humans. We love to eat.

Ramadan follows the phases of the moon, starts when the new moon can first be seen, which isn’t difficult to predict in this cloudless sky and finishes when the following new moon is sighted; about 29 days? So it effectively falls two weeks earlier each year – someone told me about a 30 year cycle before it falls on the same weeks. This year it is in July and August, some of the hottest months in the Sinai and the longest days. So these fasters are not drinking from about 4.00am until 6.30pm when they break their fast at the meal fitar, which means literally that, “break your fast”.

I was invited to share fitar with some bedouin women a few days ago which was a welcome experience. The women and men eat separately, especially on occasions such as this; there were about 5 adult women, a few teenage girls and children seated on the on mats outside their simple concrete block dwellings. Men of the family are not banned from the area , the sexes just don’t eat together.

Mohamed had encouraged me to wear traditional style dress although I am not Muslim. I had long black pants and top, covered by a black abeya – a long coat that domes up the centre to the neck with long sleeves made from a heavy polyester that drapes beautifully is very comfortable to wear. I also wore a taraha loosely wrapped over my hair but not tied tight like a hijab – my hair was still showing.

When I arrived at the yard entrance the women were already seated cross legged on mats circling around a cloth laid out on the fine gravel in their yard, rather like a picnic. I envy their flexibility being able to squat and sit easily cross legged well into old age but sport injuries have taken their toll on my knees so I sit legs to one side. It is considered impolite to sit with your feet pointing at anyone. Shoes are always removed and left on the outside of the mats.

They quickly made room for me in their circle and encouraged me to try the various dishes. There are no such thing as food courses – everything gets offered at the same time but to initially break their fast they usually eat balah, dates and drink some sort of juice. This particular night it was banana – pureed and thinned with water or a little milk to make a pleasant drink, followed by saffron flavoured rice, salad of tomato and cucumber, penne pasta with a tomato sauce, potatoes mixed with a small pasta that resembles grain, a dish that looked like porridge and another, yellow of similar consistency that they wanted me try saying it was “Good! Good!” but to me tasted rather like a bland baby food. I prefer my food crunchy or with texture but I politely ate more than a few spoonfuls.

Muslims always eat with their right hand, often with their fingers, rolling the rice deftly into balls and dropping it delicately in their mouths. Although I am improving in this skill, I would not put myself to the public test (in fact I think Mohamed despairs I will ever learn – he jokingly wants me to wear a bib) so I ate with a spoon, as did a couple of other women I might add. You can forget that knife and fork thing! Actually after living here for 5 years, eating with a knife nad fork is foreign to me – like sitting in chairs.

Bedouin eat fast, very fast and as soon as they were finished they said “Il hamdo al allah” – thanks to God and stood up to wash their hands and rinse their mouths out. No lingering conversation here! They did not return to the food seating. As I don’t eat very fast, this was noted so they made me stay until last because they were sure I had not had enough to eat. I too went in to the sparse kitchen that had produced delicious food to wash and politely rinse my mouth at the kitchen sink.

After the meal the older women and teenagers laid out their prayer mats out in the immaculately kept gravel yard and prayed in the direction of Mecca in their own time.  This is very casual with no self consciousness or hiding away and some eve stopped to comment or talk. The children ran around playing with each other.

Despite it being still in the mid twenties oC there was a s small charcoal fire burning in the centre of the yard in a shallow fireplace made of bricks and cement. Open aired and clean burning, these fires are the eternal hearth focus. A metal teapot was sitting on the edge of the coals. I was offered hot sweet shai in a small shot size glass, black tea with bedouin herbs, the ubiquitous drink here. There is something about shai that is very thirst quenching.

I was also offered a hand rolled smoke popular with bedouin women made from desert herbs. My hostess was at pains to point out that the herbs contained no nicotine so is perhaps less dangerous to health – haha! However I didn’t find the taste pleasant so I won’t be buying a bag of smoking herbs any time soon. With a twinkle in her eye she said “People sometimes think I’m smoking grass.”

Two young looking women were bickering, one being of older teenage years. Another who spoke English well enough, said to me “They fight like two wives married to the same man.” She said they were in fact mother and daughter but the description gives some insight into polygamy and how it is often not a peaceful arrangement, especially if the women have to live together.

Mohamed came to the yard entrance without peering in, “psssting” to get my attention. It would be considered the height of rudeness for a man to look inside another family’s yard even though the walls are not high and the was gate open except for a couple of boards to discourage goats entering during the day. He beckoned me to come and retreated back from the gate.

I hadn’t finished my cigarette but I thanked my hostesses and left quietly happily cocooned in their welcoming hospitality.

On a more unsettling note this appeared in one of the national papers http://www.egyptindependent.com/news/dar-al-ifta-no-eating-drinking-public-during-ramadan