1001 Nights - Stories of Traditional Handcrafts from Egypt

History of Garagos Pottery and more ……….

Posts for Tag: Luxor Egypt

Monday 5th March 2012 - A stroll down Garagos Memory Lane

It's hard to imagine that we are already on our sixth day in Egypt, time has absolutely flown by. We seem to have been flying back and forth to Garagos and haven't had the opportunity to spend any time relaxing. This morning we are going back to Garagos for the rest of our stay, though planning to come back on Tuesday night so we can pack ready for my flight back on Wednesday afternoon. Peter will be staying for another week and already has most of his clothes in Garagos.

After breakfast, Peter phones Hamada to come and pick us up his car and take us to Garagos. He has to take his daughter to school so tells us he will be there at about 11 AM. In the meantime we take this opportunity to have a generous breakfast and to take a stroll around the hotel grounds. This is such a lovely, green and peaceful place. It's such a shame that we haven't even had a couple of hours to spend lying in the sun and swimming in the pool, especially as we have paid for a one week stay here. I take a little solace in knowing that we have spent less money by staying at the Sofitel than we would have if we'd have paid to stay at the Sonesta.

I always feel torn when I come to Luxor. I usually come with a real physical and mental need to relax and get some sunshine but at the same time want to spend as much time as possible with Peter's family in Garagos. I don't take for granted for one moment how privileged I am to be able to have experienced what I have during my stays in Garagos. I know I'm not the first Westerner to have stayed in the village. I know that visitors, usually connected to the church have also stayed here in the past. I don't doubt that they were offered the full arm of the generous hospitality that goes in hand with staying with an Egyptian family, but I stay here as an extended member of the family - and that feels to me, like something incredibly special.

I know we have a lot to squeeze into our last couple of days in Garagos but at least I have a couple of days to relax when I get home before returning to work on Monday. I had hoped to visit the village of Hagaza which is about a 30 min drive from Garagos. Hagaza is famous for its hand crafted wood products made from hardwood grown in the locality. Like Garagos, this project was developed by a French Jesuit priest called Father Petros. He taught the local Christian community skills needed to produce beautiful wood carvings and then to develop this as a business. In the 1950's Jesuits came and settled in and number of poor, rural communities, bringing education, training and health and welfare where it was needed. In the governornate of Qena, they supported a number of communities, each developing a craft that has now become unique to each of those villages. Garagos is famous for its pottery, Hagaza for its wood crafts, Naqada for it's linen and cotton weaving.

Peter and I are still allocating time to the 1001 Nights hand craft project but have not been purchasing the products in the volumes that we originally planned to due to the uncertainty of the current political environment. However, we are still both very interested in promoting regional handcrafts of Upper Egypt and will continue to discover more about the history of the traditional handcrafts and the people that produce them. At the moment any spare time we have, is being dedicated to what we are calling the Garagos History Project. For the last six months we have been doing a lot of internet research to try and document a timeline going as far back into the history of Garagos as we can. The earliest documented reference to Garagos that we can find relates to St Verena who we understand was born in Garagos in the year 279 A.D. We also read that she was born into a noble Christian family and was the sister of St Maurice who was part of the Theban Legion. St Verena's mother was thought to have supervised the tailoring of the priests and deacons outfits.

The next reference I have to Garagos on the timeline is a establishment of the church in 1879. It may be unrealistic to expect to find any documentary evidence relating to Garagos between these two periods of time as records were usually only kept in relation to religious or political events. However, it really is the contemporary history of the village that interests me most - saying that it would be interesting to find out more about the foundations on which the village was built.

Although I would like to have spent more time with Peter's family talking to them about Garagos, I know that the first important step is for them to understand what Peter and I hope to achieve from the project. Without this, the project won't go anywhere. At the very most what we can achieve during this visit is to plant the seed of thought – to just let them know that we would like to write the story of Garagos and the people that live here today. If they want to share their stories – great, if not – it's not a problem. There is an Arabic proverb that I learnt where I first started studying Arabic. In Arabic it is “Haba haba erkal einab”. This translates as “eat grapes one at a time” and simply means, take things one step at a time. You can never hurry an Egyptian as after nearly four years of marriage to one can testify!

Anyway, there's currently another Egyptian who can't be hurried and that's Hamada – it is now 12.00pm and he still hasn't turned up. We had hoped to have set off a little earlier today but at least we are able to spend a bit more time at the hotel relaxing.

Peter gets a missed call on his phone from Hamada to let us know he is here. Peter has already brought the large package from Ehab to the reception. He carries this and our bags out of the car. Hamada seems a little distracted but nonetheless we set off for Garagos once more. During the journey I try to make notes on the journey to Garagos so that I an describe the directions on how to get there in the future.  Unfortunately Hamada is driving very fast and I find it difficult to think of anything apart from whether we will get there in one piece or not. Hamada tells us that he has to be back in Luxor to pick his daughter up from school. He should have told us this before so we could have chosen another driver - which I would have preferred rather than endure this hair raising journey. Anyway, we arrived back at the village where Peter's father is waiting for us.

We all go up to the first floor where Peter's mother makes us some tea. It is a beautiful day today, the winds of the last few days has dropped and there is definitely an increase in temperature. Not warm by Egyptian standards, but warm enough for me! A little while later, Peter suggests that we go for a walk down to the farm and the green land. He knows only too well how I hate being cooped up in a dark room and also how I love being outside in the sunshine.

We turn left out of the house with Peter's father and take the short five-minute walk to the farm. The cow and the water buffalo that belongs to Peter's father are tethered to palm trees and graze on the freshly cut clover that is grown in the fields nearby. Peter and his father stroke and pat the two animals. Peter's father invites me to come and stroke the cow. Peter had previously warned me about the water buffalo which can be quite aggressive so I am less concerned about approaching the cow.

Also in this enclosure surrounded by a high mud brick wall is a donkey and another water buffalo belonging to other members of the family. There is also an old waterwheel that he used to be driven by donkeys or water buffalo to pump the water into the irrigation channels. This has now been replaced by a motorised pump which is a fraction of the size and takes considerably less effort to work. Various uncles and cousins come and say hello. They shake hands with us and exchange the usual greetings. We then walked together to another enclosure across the way which is where Peter's father has a banana tree, a mango tree, an old grapevine growing up a trellis and I particularly notice the mint growing rampantly underneath our feet. Last time we visited you brought Peter's father a large selection of vegetable seeds. He has the idea that this is where he will grow them though the soil will need a lot of preparation first - and I think he has Peter in mind for the job when he is in Garagos next week.

As we leave this enclosure, we continue down to track, following the irrigation channel to the end of the farmland. When we were there in September, we visited the new family home that Stephanos was building for his family.  At the moment only one floor has been built and currently houses chickens and sheep.  This currently sits right in the middle of the green land and is a completely peaceful place.  Fauzia is at the house and sees us coming and of course we are invited to drink tea. A plastic chair is brought out to me to sit on, everyone else sits on the doorstep, or the felled trunk of a palm tree that is nearby. Bit by bit other family members come to join us including Mina who has come to show off his bike to me. I am fascinated by the way that he has adorned this simple bike with a variety of home-made accessories made from bits and pieces that have been recycled from elsewhere. On the front is a plastic windmill and on the back is a rack to carry things. On the handlebars is a mirror he also has a buzzer which looks like it has come from a door. It is connected to a couple of batteries that are also taped to the handlebar. At the moment he's doing a small repair job on this, reconnecting the wires between the two components. He does this with such skill and ease. It makes me think about the children in my own family who have more than they could possibly wish for in terms of toys, bikes etc. Despite that, I do wonder whether they also miss out on some of the opportunities that Egyptian children have to develop skills that come from need rather than desire. The saying “need is the mother of invention”springs to mind and here in Egypt children are not spoilt with the abundance of material possessions that children are in the UK. But surely there is a richness of experience that comes from learning, doing and making for youself - not to mention the development of construction/engineering type skills at an early age.

I must admit that since being married to Peter I have become more aware of the difference between need and want. When we used to go shopping Peter very rarely bought anything because he “didn't need” it. Whereas when I went shopping if I saw something and I wanted it I would buy it. We have both moved more towards each other on this issue, though a gap still does exist. One thing that Peter used to do that drove me mad was the fact that he would never let me throw anything away, even if it was broken beyond repair. Old DVD players, old Hoovers that had given up the ghost, set top boxes that were now defunct, stuff that anybody would throw away. I would put things in the bin only to find that Peter had rescued them and hidden them elsewhere in the house. I would ask him what he planned to do with the broken bits of rubbish and although he said he didn't know, he wanted to keep it “just in case”. In Peter's family home there are cupboards, sideboards and whole rooms filled with things that appear to have no use. However, when I think of my mother who was a war baby she has a whole house filled with junk that we have tried to syphon off into the charity shops or recycling centres over the last 10 years!

We stay for about 20 minutes, various people come and go. Peter's father leaves and we tell him we will follow shortly. We begin to make our way back to the family home. We walk back down the mud path, back along the irrigation channel and before we reach the enclosure with fruit trees, we see someone in an adjacent building waving to us. Peter tells us that it is his Uncle Saieed and we have to go and say hello. I haven't met his Uncle Saieed before which surprises me considering the close proximity of his home to the farmland which we visit regularly. We enter an oblong room about 25 feet long and 15 feet wide. The room has a mud floor and cane seats along both walls. There is a small television in one corner. We receive a very warm welcome by Mr Saieed and his wife. I am also introduced to his sons Romani and Abd Naseer, his daughters Eva and Rose and his niece Danielle and Danielle's mother. I am being careful not to use the names of the women of the household as a matter of courtesy. I mentioned in my blog from the previous trip that once a woman reaches a certain age – or maybe once her son reaches a certain age, she becomes referred to as – The mother of (and then the name of her oldest son) and not by her first name.  Peter seems a bit vague on the point at which this becomes practice.

Tea is offered and accepted. Peter tells me that Mr Saieed also used to have a pottery in Garagos. This also comes as a big surprise as another pottery in the village has never come up in conversation before. As the conversation progresses I ascertain that Mr Saieed used to work at the Garagos pottery but for various reasons he left to set up his own pottery. Not only did the family do pottery but weaving was also parts of the crafts they produced. Danielle's mother goes into another room and comes back with a necklace made from seashells which she gives to me. The necklace is lovely and I thank her for the gift. She tells me that they used to make them and sell them when tourists used to visit the pottery.  I ask how long it is since the pottery was here and Mr Saieed says about four years.  When I speak to Peter later he tells me that it was much longer than this.

I'm not sure whether Peter told Mr Saieed that we were interested in researching the history of Garagos but before I knew it, a table has been put in front of me and Romani brings from another room a large bag of photographs. We spend the next hour or so going through the photographs which we both find very interesting. Romani periodically disappears into another room but then brings back a piece of pottery. These are also given to us as gifts. The pottery that we see here is similar to the Garagos pottery but Mr Saieed's work is more detailed – more artistic.

He tells us that he did exhibitions in America and Russia and shows us the corresponding photographs with various dignitaries he met at the events. I have seen some of the family photographs before as they appear in the albums of Peter's father. One photograph that is very interesting is one that was taken in Peter's family home. It features various relatives, Father Montgolfier who established the dispensary in the village and also commissioned the building of the Garagos Pottery by the architect Hassan Fathy, a Catholic sister, Peter's father, Peter's grandmother and also his mother who is holding a baby. The baby is Peter.

Although I have seen this photograph before, it now strikes me as really fascinating. I had spent the last few months trying to find out more information about Father Montgolfier via the internet (and not really discovered anything) that I had almost forgotten that this man (who had become a legend in my mind) was a very big part of lives of Peter's family.

These photographs speak volumes about this place in a particular time. We are  shown further photographs of the weaving looms, traditional musicians, a Sukkah who is a man that walks the village selling water from a vessel strapped to his side. There is a photograph of Peter's grandfather Zakria weaving palm baskets – this photograph was part of a display that Uncle Saieed used at his exhibitions. The photograph is described as “An Egyptian peasant makes a basket from palm branches, an ancient Egyptian tradition.”

I think by now we have been hear for nearly two hours and know that Peter's father will be wondering where we are. We say goodbye to Mr Saieed and his family and walk back to the family house. We go up to the first floor where Peter's father looks at me and raises his hands as if to so “where have you been?” Once Peter tells him that we have been looking at old family photographs with his Uncle Saieed he seems happier. Margreet had been to the house with the twins but had returned home as we had taken so long.

There is now only Peter's parents and us in the house – unusual as there always sees to be visitors. We spend the rest of the evening watching the television – mainly the political channels. The occasional debate between Peter and his parents take place but they never agree when it comes to politics and Peter knows they will never find common ground so knows when to quit.

It's beginning to get chilly so we go to bed about 9.00pm.



Wednesday 29th February 2012- Arrival in Luxor

This was a normal trip to the airport. Nothing unusual the taxi was on time but must say there were very long queues by the time we arrived. We waited in the queue with some anticipation, thinking back to our experience in October with Monarch. Our luggage had been overweight and we have been charged £120 for excess luggage. The check-in assistant had been somewhat surly and didn't really get the holiday off to a good start. Here at the Thomas Cook check-in we have yet another unhappy looking assistant who to our disappointment asks us to put our hand luggage on the scales first. Both of our hand luggage was overweight by 1 or 2 kilo's so we are told to transfer some of the contents into our suitcases. I am left with my bag and the laptop in a laptop bag and this is still overweight. I have no choice but to put my hand luggage bag in the suitcase and just carry the laptop. If I'm going to blog while some away on holiday I really must think of the more effective way of carrying equipment. I have already forsaken my beloved SLR camera but since my last trip we have sold the net book and I only have a rather heavy laptop.

Not to worry, we managed to sort the luggage and make our way through passport control.

This is a rather dull and ordinary flight. it seemed longer than usual maybe because there wasn't any in-flight entertainment. We come to the conclusion that is just one of the cutbacks Thomas Cook has had to make since getting into financial difficulties. The seats are also incredibly crammed in and this leads a rather uncomfortable flight. They are definitely a step down from Thomson and we make a note to ourselves to consider in more detail next time which airline to choose – regardless of the £100 - £200 saving by using Thomas Cook or Monarch.

As we fly over Greece I am always interested to look at the islands below and wonder which ones they are - are we passing over any of the 30 Greek islands I've visited in the past?  I wish there was an iPhone app that work in airplane mode that could show exactly where I was in the journey - only some airlines show this but it certainly helps you tick the hours away.

We arrive at Luxor airport and as usual Peter is greeted by an array of friends and ex-colleagues. We go straight through passport control and wait for our luggage. Peter suitcase arrives off the carousel quite quickly however we are waiting at least 45 minutes for my suitcase-we think there must have been her problem somewhere and later discover the belt had got jammed. Before my suitcase comes off the carousel Tony arrives and greets us both. As we leave the luggage collection area we go to head out towards Duty-free expecting to be stopped by the customs as we usually are. Unusually after a few words with Peter and joke with Tony we are let through without any demands to see the contents of our suitcase.

We make a few purchases from duty-free-gifts for family and friends and then we make our way out to the car that Bob has arranged to pick us up. We head out to the Sofitel Karnak – we haven't stayed here before but again there was a bit price difference between staying here and our usual hotel the Sonesta St George. Peter's brother Michael who is an accountant at the Sonesta had tried to get us a discount to match the price of the Sofitel but had been unable to. The Sonesta is currently running at 28% occupancy – up 13% from when we were there in September. We find it difficult to understand why the Sonesta isn't willing to negotiate and would prefer to have an empty room – anyway, we pull Michael's leg about this a couple of times.

I realise after we had been travelling for sometime that I completely misunderstood where the Sofitel Karnak was. I remember going there ages ago in the tourist bus to pick other tourists up for the airport. In my mind it within walking distance of Karnak Temple but I got this a little wrong. The hotel really is some way out of town, a little resort all of its own. We check-in to the Hotel and the receptionist tells us that we have a very good room. Apparently Mr Sabri the Guest Relations Manager from the Sonesta has phoned the hotel to ensure we get a good room. We are both touched by this gesture and again demonstrates the importance and benefits of the social network in Egypt.

We walk through a series of archways, the complex is no more than two stories high and spread quite widely overweight space. When we arrive to the room the first thing I do is to open the balcony door to check out the view. It is dark and we can't really get a sense of where we are in relation to the Nile. Peter tells me that we have a Nile view but all I can see in front of me is a row of trees. The room is small and quite basic, certainly not the same standard that we have at the Sonesta. It reminds me of the red Sea resorts where the focus is usually on the outdoor area, the swimming pool, and the activities on offer rather than the standard of the room. Anyway, a nice touch, we have a fruit basket in the room which is most welcome.

We are both exhausted but Peter has to go to the flat and pick up some of our things as we will be leaving to go to Garagos in the morning. I go to bed and Peter heads off into Luxor.  I am excited about the prospect of doing more research into our next project - writing the story of Garagos!

3rd October 2012 - Return Home

We go home today. I wish there was a flight that left first thing in the morning as I can't stand hanging around – the anticipation of the inevitable. I don't dislike going home – I really look forward to seeing my family again. Nonetheless it is always a little sad leaving Luxor – even more so for Peter.

We go down and have breakfast. We say goodbye to the staff who we have both come to know well through our many visits. We go back to the room to finish the last bit of packing. It's hot today so I stay in the room under the air conditioning, taking in the last views from the balcony. Peter goes to say goodbye to friends in the hotel.

At lunchtime Peter's father comes to the hotel to say goodbye. He has travelled from Garagos to see us off. We go out of the hotel to a coffee shop. In the few minutes it takes us to walk to the coffee shop I very quickly lose the benefit of sitting in air conditioning all morning – the heat is exhausting. Whilst in the coffee shop we notice a Monarch rep having coffee. Although we haven't met him or been to the welcome meetings, we know that when he gets up to leave, we should also think about heading off to the airport.

The time has come. It is difficult saying goodbye to Peter's father. Tony has sent a car for us so we say our goodbyes to Alfons and walk back to the hotel to have our luggage put into the car. On the way to the airport we stop off at the Menf Travel office to pick up Tony who will escort us to the airport. The manager and a couple of the other staff are in the office so we go in and take tea with them. Mr Mourad offers us his Mercedes to travel to the airport in but we explain that Tony has already taken care of the travel arrangements.

More goodbyes follow and we are now on our way to the airport. When we arrive there are a few large queues but I am asked to take a seat whilst Tony and Peter take care of the checking in – I must admit I am a little nervous about the weight of the luggage after our first experience of flying with Monarch. Peter comes over with a man that I haven't seen before. He is introduced to me as the manager of Monarch – though not quite sure what that means in real terms. He is quite clearly someone in authority by the was he is greeted by staff. Peter and this man go over to Tony who has taken our luggage to an unmanned check in desk, however a member of staff give Tony our boarding cards and our cases are put onto the belt without being weighed! It's not what you know ….................. It just goes to show that when it comes to luggage allowance at Manchester Airport – No Negotiation. In Luxor Airport – everything is negotiable!

This has been a great trip. Whilst I wait for Peter I take some time to reflect.

The trip to Cairo stands out in my mind as one of the highlights. As soon as you leave the airport and make your way into down-town Cairo the disparity between wealth and poverty is only too apparent. The skyline as you drive across the freeway is impressive - typically Islamic with mosques and minarets protruding from all directions but with the occasional church cross breaking the pattern. The old palaces despite the layers of dust and pollution damage still remain regal with their grand balconies and arabesque shutters. I'm always reminded of the Cairo Trilogy books by Naguib Mahfouz when I see these old houses.

The day in Khan el Khalili was a real adventure. We met some very interesting characters and got to see some things we haven't seen before – the view from the roof of the merchants house was stunning with the silhouette of the Citadel sitting on the skyline.

I also remember Peter took a phone call from Kamal from the Mameluk Glass Factory in Cairo. He told Peter that we must be a lucky charm for them as since our visit, a local TV station has been down to film the factory – hopefully an opportunity to raise the profile of the factory and the craft. We wish them all the best.

In the Khan el Khalili we got the opportunity to see the close collaborative work between craftsmen and the social network on which they all rely. This can be observed in almost any setting in Egypt as everyone is reliant on a social circle or network of some description or another whether it be the family or the people in the community or in a work/business setting (legitimate or not). Thinking back to the fiasco at the Sheraton Hotel in Cairo it is also shows how when one piece of the network is missing, the system can collapse. Regardless, whatever you want you can get here – usually for a price but there is usually someone in the network who can help.

Back to Luxor, always etched in my memory is the view across the River Nile especially from the balcony of the Sonesta. Such a contrast to Cairo. I remember watching the galabeya'd women working in the fields on the Westbank. The gentle drone of the motorboats working the river is occasionally superseded by the low engine sound of a passing cruise boat. As the cruise boat passes the water is churned up from the rear. Small fishing boats take advantage of this and paddle themselves into the wake and cast their nets. It's so peaceful here.

Thinking back to our visits to the various crafts producers a common theme was identified - that the younger generations are leaving the craft to seek employment elsewhere.  In some cases they had been given the opportunity to have a good university education and have aspirations beyond working with their hands.  Others have gone to work in one of the Red Sea resorts which post revolution, still has a bouyant tourism industry - not like Luxor.  Nobody seems to know what will happen once the older generation are no longer around - but nor do they seem to be applying much thought to this issue either.  Maybe it's a case of parents being in denial about the inevitable or a belief that it's in Gods hands.

Everyone is perturbed by the unrest.  There are increased incidents of violence and particularly attacks on tourists.   When I first came to Egypt it felt like one of the safest places in the world.  We have seen ordinary people carrying guns in the street apparently 'to protect themselves and their property.'  It seems to be generally felt that the lack of police presence has given the red flag to some sections of society to behave badly - possibly a result of years of oppression, lack of opportunity and having the apparent 'wealth' of tourists flaunted in their faces. 

On a more positive note my fondest memory is of Garagos and the family that have welcomed me into their home. In this community the doors to the family homes are always open and you will always be welcomed with open arms, a friendly smile and plenty of food to eat and tea to drink.

I've been fascinated by Garagos and the stories that I've been privileged enough to have been told. This has been the inspiration for our first project where we hope to recount the history behind the Garagos Pottery and the people that have been involved in it's establishment.

Now home to do some research.

30th September 2011 - Another Visit to the Garagos Pottery

We wake up at about 10.00am today.  I slept a little better last night with the improved ventilation through the balcony shutters.  I must have been too exhausted to hear the misguided cockerels.  I remember hearing the call to prayer at 4.30am but must have fallen back to sleep shortly after.

We get up and go downstairs where Peter’s mother is already cooking.  Peter’s father has taken the water buffalo’s back out to the field.

We eat breakfast.  On the table is boiled eggs collected from the chickens that morning (unboiled at the time!).  Large chunks of bread, roasted spring onions, cheese, fuul, date jam and mish – a homemade cheese made from the milk of the water buffalo. http://articles.latimes.com/1999/jul/14/food/fo-55996

Although I’ve never been brave enough to try mish – probably because it is stored in a clay jar and kept on the roof of the house in the sun for a number of months – everyone in the family love it.  Also on the table is tameya, tahini and Peter’s father also brings in some freshly picked rocket.  Peter’s mother heats a pan of buffalo milk and places it on the table.  I’ve always disliked the smell of boiled milk.  It takes me back to my childhood somewhere but can’t quite pinpoint the circumstances.

After breakfast Ehab, Margreet and the twins come around.  This morning we are going to the pottery.

Ehab, Peter and I set off for the pottery which is a short walk away.  As soon as we are out on the street children spot us (or me) and start following us – some on foot and others on their bicycles.  Peter suggests that I don’t respond to any of them if they speak to me as it could get out of hand.  Although it feels odd ignoring children who only seem to want to say hello in English, I trust Peter’s judgement and do as he suggests.

We walk past a field that has dates laid out in large squares.  They must be at different stages of the drying process as each square is a different shade of red/brown. 

It isn’t long before we reach the pottery – a small complex built within the confines of a high mud brick wall and consisting of a number of separate buildings.  Behind the pottery buildings is the shell of a large unfinished building – probably five or six stories high.  I remember Peter telling me that before 1997 when tourists were stilling coming to the pottery, the Catholic church funded the building of a hotel.  The hope at the time was that a hotel would be developed where tourists could come and stay, spend more time at the pottery and in the village and ultimately develop the small tourism economy in Garagos.  The building has never been completed.  Everything came to a standstill after the Hatchepsut shootings and travel to more remote areas like Garagos became difficult for tourists.  The ground floor of the hotel is used as a nursery but apart from that remains empty and unfinished. 

I shall write separately the story of the Garagos Pottery and try to do it more justice than I have in this blog.  However, an interesting thing to note is that the pottery was designed by famous architect Hassan Fathy known as Architect for the Poor.  http://www.hassanfathy.webs.com/ .

We enter the first building that, amongst other pieces of equipment, houses two potters wheels each located in front of a window that provides good light in which to work.  Ehab’s father Mr Riad arrives and I also recognise Amjad and Louis from my previous visits.  I’m introduced to Mr Abd al Masir who is working on one of the wheels.  We watch him as he ‘throws’ a lovely curved pot. Once sliced off the wheel with a wire he places it on the side of the bench.  Ehab takes some clay and begins to throw it on a bench, mashing it down with his hands to soften it.  I’m then invited to take Mr Abd al Masir’s place at the wheel. 

The seat is wooden and slopes at an angle downwards.  As I try to put my feet on the kick plate I feel myself sliding down the seat.  I find it difficult to balance myself on the seat without sliding down.  I could do with some platform shoes or legs that are at least three inches longer.  Once I start pushing the kick plate back and forth I find that holding on to the seat with one hand helps keep me stable.  Anyway, a lump of clay is chucked onto the wheel by Ehab and I doubt I can attempt this with one hand.  I shuffle myself onto the seat again and start working the kick plate back and forth – I’m not sure what the optimum speed is for this.  I ask Ehab to start me off with the clay and after shaping and working the pot up a few inches he hands over to me.

I dip my hands in a pot of water and attempt to shape the clay into something that resembles some kind of receptacle.  Ehab does have to rescue it a couple of times but I must admit – I do much better this time than the last.  I place my pot next to Mr Abd al Masir’s and we all laugh at the comparison! 

 We spend a bit of time here watching everyone complete different parts of the process.  A small machines squeezes out long thin sausages of clay which are cut into fixed lengths.  These form the handles for cups.  The machine looks like a grown up version of something from the Playdough factory – clay goes in one end and as the lever is pressed a long thin tube of clay comes out of the other.  Matta attaches the handles to cups with slip that have already been left to dry.  We are joined by a cousin of Peter's, Yousef and his little boy – another member of the family.  His late father, along with Ehab’s father Riad and three others co-own the pottery.  Yousef also used to work in the pottery but similarly to the others of his generation now works in tourism on one of the Nile cruises.  Yousef seats himself at one of the pottery wheels and begins to produce a very intricate pot that curves in and out along its length.  His son sits on the windowsill in front of him watching – so comfortable where he is that he’s clearly sat and watched his father many times before.

I ask Mr Riad if he thinks there will be another generation of family to take over the pottery.  He is unsure.  All of the sons of the current owners, although trained in the pottery since childhood, work in the tourism industry – out of economic need rather than choice.  Mr Riad says that to work in a craft such as pottery, you really need to love the work.   I ask Ehab at what age he started learning to make the pottery.  He says he was about 8 or 9 years of age.  They used to come after school and during the holidays.  It never felt like work to them but almost like an art class.  One of the first things the children are taught to make is a palm tree.  He then takes a framed black and white photograph down from the wall.  The photograph is of Ehab, his brother Andre, a couple of other children and Yousef’s father Sabit teaching the children to make the palm trees.  Ehab takes the opportunity to show us how to make a clay palm tree! 

We go next to another outbuilding.  I remember that this is where the finishing is done – Louis hand paints the pottery in the traditional designs of the Garagos pottery in blue/grey, green, turquoise, browns and yellows.  This room also serves as a display room.  The walls house shelving and cupboards stacked with examples of the wonderful pottery from floor to ceiling.  Cooking pots such as Egyptian style tagines, baking dishes, tea sets and Arabic style coffee pots. There are a collection of figures representing local life – groups of musicians playing traditional instruments, figures standing by waterwheels and women carrying waterpots on their head.  There is a collection of nativity scenes, large fish shaped platters – some glazed and some not and a massive variety of different shaped vases and jars.  As always there is also a large box of Ankh’s glazed in dark blue or turquoise and another of Coptic crosses.  I have hundreds of photographs of the pottery - please look at my Flickr page to see more.


Matta asks us if we would like a cup of tea.  Of course we accept.  Ehab, his father, Peter and I take a seat and Mr Riad starts to tells us some of the stories of the pottery.  Again I will leave a lot of the detail out at this stage and save it for the story of the pottery.  But Mr Riad tells us about Father Montgolfier, a French Jesuit priest who came to Garagos in the 1950’s.  He had been working in village to help the locals attain better lifestyles by helping  to improve skills, health and the physical environment.  There was also Father Ackerman who had a nephew in France who owned a pottery.  It was this connection that brought pottery to the village of Garagos.  Mr Riad tells us that at the time the village had a lot of scorpions and they were a big problem.  If anyone got bitten by a scorpion their life chances could be slim as the village was so far away from a doctor or a hospital the poison may have killed them before they received medical attention.  Father Montgolfier used to pay the local people for collecting the scorpions which were later disposed of – only a few piasters each but this helped to significantly reduce the amount of scorpions and ultimately the health risks to local people.

There were no roads in the village at this time – just mud tracks.  Father Montgolfier owned a car – the only one in the village and everyone was amazed to see this vehicle enter the village for the very first time.  Father Montgolfier oversaw the building of an asphalt road leading to the pottery.  For decades this road was known as Montgolfier Road.  There was no street lighting but local men would walk ahead of the car holding lanterns to light the way.  The road that we walked down past the drying dates was this very road.  One thing you notice is that the roads and the rest of the village is elevated some five feet above the green land.

I ask Peter why the roads are so much higher than the land.  He tells me that when the roads were built, the soil was taken from the agricultural land and banked up onto the roads before they were asphalted.

I’m going to save the rest of this story for another time. 

We all walk to another building – the store room.  As we approach this building we walk past the kiln which is still cooling down from the last batch of firing. 

The store room is just floor to ceiling shelves stacked full of pottery – some glazed and some unglazed.  Ehab tells me that they leave some unglazed for two reasons.  Some customers want to specify their own design and others just prefer the terracotta look.  We spend ages routing through the shelves and photographing the products.  Ehab reaches up onto high shelves and brings down pots and jars so that we can see them¸ feel them and admire the beautiful colours.  I love the shape of the old style Arabic coffee pots. 

Thinking about our luggage allowance and how we got stung on the way into Egypt, we carefully select some products to take back with us.  Ehab goes to fetch  a pair of balance scales with kilo weights to help us determine how much we can take.  Peter and I have already decided to leave clothes and toiletries here to accommodate any samples that we want to bring home.  It’s very difficult deciding what to take and chop and change our minds several times – so much to choose from!  We settle on a number of ceramic Ankhs and Coptic crosses and also some nativity scenes which have a charming hand-made appeal.  We have got about seven kilos of pottery in total.  Mr Riad packs it tightly for us – that’s Peter’s hand luggage accounted for!  As Peter pays for the products Mr Riad tells us that this will cover the cost of the salaries for that week.

We actually spent most of the day in the pottery.  It’s nearly tea time and we go to leave.  As we walk out Amjad, Louis and Matta are preparing the kiln for the next batch of pottery to be fired.  Not everybody gets to see this part of the process Ehab explains, as they need to have enough pottery to fire to fill the kiln.  This is an electric kiln which is expensive to heat up so every spare inch of space is utilised.  Shelves of pottery are stacked on top of what look like ceramic egg cups or short candle sticks.  Once a shelf of pottery has been inserted, more ceramic legs are placed along the edges of the shelf and another shelf stacked on top.  We leave the guys to it and say our goodbyes.

As we leave the confines of the pottery we walk down Montgolfier Street and pass a row of men sitting with their backs against the mud brick wall.  They are drinking tea and smoking shisha.  I notice from the corner of my eye that one of the men has a rifle between his legs.  Although I’ve been told about the amount of guns being carried by citizens this is the first time I’ve seen a gun being openly displayed by someone who’s not from the authorities.

Peter tells me later that guns have always existed in the village but now the police are scarce people don’t care about carrying them in public.

We continue walking home, the children spot us again and one starts circling me on his bicycle.  Ehab tells the boy to go away.  We arrive home and Peter’s mother makes us a cup of tea.  Cousin David pops in and asks us if we are coming to see their new house.  We also need to go and see his Aunt Matilda and family so we go there first.  Ehab, Margreet and the twins walk with us until they take a right turn to go home and Peter and I continue another twenty yards to the house of Labib and his Aunt Matilda who is the sister of Peter’s father. 

This large house is surrounded by a painted wall to form a small courtyard.  Tall bushes of Rahan (basil) grow next to seating area – I still remember this fragrance from previous visits.  As we arrive we are greeted with handshakes and kisses.  I notice that there are two moustachioed young men sitting at a table facing the members of the family.  Everyone is sitting opposite on palm seast covered in brightly coloured rugs and cushions.  The two men are from a water filtration company and have come to give a demonstration of how their system works.  On the table are three glasses of water.  Two of the glasses have a brown slimy substance in them and in the other the water is crystal clear.  I don’t really need to understand the language too well to understand the demonstration.  The ‘audience’ is given the opportunity to ask questions – which they do and shortly after the two men pack up their sales materials, and after handing out their business cards say goodbye and leave.

Matilda brings out a large tray of tea for everyone.  There is Labib and his son Kissinger with his two young sons Mina and Shenouda.  Mina has grown a lot since I saw him last.  Labib’s other son Gerges who has just got engaged is with us.  There is also Shoaib and Ayad both younger siblings of Kissinger and Gerges and shortly after we are joined by sister Yvonne.  Peter’s cousins David and Madios are also here (sons of his Aunt Mariam – another sister of Peter’s father).  Michael is here too.  Although during my previous visits to Garagos I have been introduced to a lot of family members in a short space of time, I remember everyone easily, their bright happy faces always smiling.


As we drink tea and hold conversations on a variety of topics – the standard of hotels in Egypt, the benefits system in the UK and of course the subject of the Egyptian uprising takes centre stage.  Everyone is in agreement that the uprising has left the country in a terrible state.  Mubarak was a dictator but he kept stability in the country – and now he is gone everything is in chaos.  Labib tells us that today in Cairo, they are holding the protest to end all of the protests.  People are gathering in Tahrir Square which has now become the iconic location for the revolution.  He says that there has been trouble during the protests and that there was concern that this may spread to other parts of Egypt.  I detect a sense again, just the same as when visiting family in Cairo, that this is another family that feels unsafe, even within their own community.

Matilda says that she wants to cook for us and asks if we can stay to eat.  Unfortunately we have to decline but say that next time we hope to stay longer.  David and Madios had left earlier but we follow shortly in their tracks to go and see their new house which is currently being built next door to their existing house. 

Two minutes around the corner we arrive at the new house.  Wasfy, Mariams husband has been laying a new concrete floor in preparation for tiling.  We are shown around and shown the ceramic tiles.  Wasfy is a carpenter and has completed most of the work on the house himself.  David arrives and takes us to their existing flat next door.  Mariam greets us and invites us to sit.  It isn’t long before we are joined by Wasfy and sons Madios, Maximus and Bishoy.  Also there is Gerges and Michael.  They all speak in their thick, heavy sa’idi accents.  I know Peter speaks fast but the Arabic words are being shot out like rounds from an automatic weapon.  Peter told me some time ago that his Aunt Saffa used to call him a barbarian because of the way he spoke – particularly the speed.  They find themselves reminiscing over their childhood adventures.  Peter begins to recount a story about a particular fight he got into with some other local boys.  He describes how a gang of 50 boys were chasing him through the village and how he feared for his life.  His cousins roar with laughter and all shout something to each other then start slapping each other’s hands.  At this point I didn’t know what was being said but David who seems to have taken over from Peter as translator tells me that Peter is exaggerating and that there was only a handful of boys chasing him on this particular occasion!  Most of the young men in this group speak English and all have impeccable good manners.  Most are university graduates and all speak of the lack of employment opportunities for young Egyptians.  However, Peter’s family is more privileged than many others.  David teaches in the morning and then runs his own computer business outside of these hours.  Madios works for the  insurance company Alico and the only brother who isn’t present is Matero who is a tour guide and had left for Hurghada a few days earlier.

Mariam brings out plates of sunflower and pumpkins seeds and also a bowl of salted popcorn.  This is followed by glasses of a green fizzy apple flavoured drink.  Shortly after she brings out a sweet bread that tastes and has a similar texture to brioche.  A tray of tea is brought to everyone – Mariam (as with all other Egyptians) is surprised when I say I don’t take sugar  (and this isn’t the first time I’ve had tea at her house) – everyone else piles sugar into their glasses – even Peter who doesn’t have sugar in his tea at home.

We have another visit to make that evening – over to Mr Riad’s house to see Ehab, Margeet, the twins and the rest of the family.  We sit outside on the palm seats again and drink beer, chat, and feel the benefit of the fresh air circulating over the green land.  Lizards dart across the warm bricks at the front of the house and we are serenaded by a chorus of grasshoppers.  A donkey brays occasionally in accompaniment. 


29th September. To Garagos

I think we really benefited from an early(ish) night and wake up feeling refreshed.  After breakfast Peter bumps into an old friend of his Hamada, who he used to work with years ago.  Hamada works in one of the shops in the hotel.  I can see how they embrace that they are good friends and delighted to see each other.  We are invited to his shop to drink tea.  They reminisce about old times and talk about the terrible state of the country.  I become adept at putting the appropriate expression on my face depending on the tone of their voices.  With only basic knowledge of Arabic I could come a cropper if I don’t pay attention!  Another man enters the shop – yet another old friend of Peter’s.  They greet and then he tells Hamada that the ‘Big mother’ has phoned.  I ask who the big mother is.  I’m told that she is the mother of the owner of the hotel.  She phones every day to see who has turned up for work  - even though there is hardly any business.

We are to go to Garagos later that day.  Hamada offers to drive us.

We go back to the room and pack (yet again) – enough for a few days.  Hamada picks us up and we set off again through the rural landscape until we reach Garagos.  Being in a new air conditioned car people stop to look.  Everyone watches everything and they want to know who is entering their village.  Herds of scruffy goats scatter and children skid to a halt on their bikes.

We arrive at the house again – family from several houses come to greet us.  Peters father invites Hamada in to drink tea but he declines – he has to return to Luxor.

We settle in again.  It’s late afternoon and Peter, his father and I decide to walk down to the farmland before the sun sets.  The twins Sara and Susanna come with us.  We firstly call to see the waterbuffalo – a mother and her baby – well no longer a baby.  She was a baby when I saw her in December but is quite a size now.  The buffalo are kept in a mud brick walled area that is shaded by date palms.  On one corner of the space is an old fashioned water wheel that used to be driven by cows or buffalo.  Near the entrance  is a motor pump that draws water from underground – the source being the canals which are fed by the Nile. 

We then walk to another area surrounded by mud brick walls.  In here is a date palm, a banana tree and a mango tree.  Also growing is mint and basil – a slightly different basil to the type we have in the UK.  The Egyptian basil (rahan) grows into a bush – it’s more shrubby and the taste is different.  We did grow it in England from some seeds that Peter brought home but it didn’t survive the winter.

After this we follow the irrigation channel down to the farm land.  All the farmland in this area belongs to various members of Peter’s family and has belonged to them for as long as they can remember.  Through the generations the land is left to the children and some plots divided between them.  Not all of the land is together – it is spread out over the village.  Not all of the children want to remain in the village and work the land, so the responsibility is handed over to another member of the family.  I wonder how many of the younger generation will stay in the village in the future to work the land.  I know this is a passion for Peter’s father – he loves working on the land.  I don’t think this will be a passion for the next generation.

As we continue walking along the irrigation channel we come across Ebanob who is working the land.  He wields a large heavy hoe and strikes the earth with all his might.  Peter draws my attention to the hoe and before he speaks I think back to our garden and when Peter told me that we needed a strong tool to dig our heavy clay soil.  I knew the tool he was looking for so bought one from B&Q.  When I got it home and showed it to him he laughed.  Now looking at the size of the implement that Isaac is holding I can see why the B&Q hoe amused him. 

Zakir – the brother of Peter’s grandfather (but known as his grandfather not great uncle) is with a young boy Makarios who I remember from a previous visit.  They join us – everyone greets each other with a handshake.  Peter takes the hoe from Ebanob and begins to strike the earth.  He hasn’t laboured on the land since University so doesn’t keep it up for long. 

The sun is now setting.  A short distance away is a single story house that has just been built adjacent to the irrigated land.  The house has recently been built and belongs to Zakir’s son Stefanos and his wife Fikria.  So Stefanos is the cousin of Peter’s father.  We are invited to go to the house and drink tea. 

Mats made from woven date palms are laid out on the mud track that divides two plots of land, one growing sweetcorn and another green plant that is grown as animal feed.  More family members have joined us now – about 15 in total.  Everyone is seated on the mat.  Children play in the field, Sara and Susanna delight in tormenting a grey kitten.  When fed up of this they come and join the adults feeling equally comfortable with any of the uncles, aunts or cousins.  Whatever the differences are here between the roles of women and men, it doesn’t apply to playing with the children.  In fact when the men aren’t at work they are more likely to be making a fuss of the children.  Fikria brings out a tray of tea for everyone.  Sugar is generously spooned into the glasses – expressions of surprise when I don’t take any.  Everyone chats until the sky turns black – a deep dark black that is only seen in remote locations not polluted by artificial light.  It would be an unusual day if the night sky was clouded – the stars are bright and the crickets in the field are the loudest I’ve ever heard.  At one point a cricket flies out of the field onto my shoulder – I jump and scream which everyone finds hysterical.  I feel a bit of a fool but take some comfort when one of the other women sitting with Fikria also makes a fuss about the flying insects.

It’s so much cooler out in the fields.  The dry crinkled leaves on the sweetcorn rustle in the light breeze.  Apart from the crickets and the chatter of voices it’s silent.  It’s almost as though the fields absorb the sound of any external noises or a vacuum has surrounded us.  I defy anyone to sit where I’m sitting now and not feel a sense of peace – around them and inside.

Ehab now joins us – Sara and Susanna run to him.  I think the rest of the family are expecting us at his house.  We say thank you to our hosts and goodbye to family and head off back down the path, following again the irrigation channel and back out onto the street.  It’s only short walk around the corner to Ehabs house.  A lively scene greets us.  Everyone is sitting outside this large house that opens out onto yet another field – again it’s cooler out in the open that indoors.  Several of the men sit around a table playing dominoes.  Others and family members from neighbouring houses sit on one of four palm sofas chatting.  There is also a large stone mastaba covered in hand woven rugs.  We shake hands, embrace those we know, get kissed by female relatives I haven’t met before.  One of the ladies I haven’t met before is introduced to me as Sister Rita.  Sister Rita is a warm and engaging young lady.  Her English is excellent and she tells me that she is belongs to the Comboni Mission.     a Catholic mission named after Daniel Comboni who came to Egypt in 1857. 

Rita has recently been working in Kenya and Dubai and the following day was to leave for Ethiopia to continue her work.    I enjoy talking to Rita.  She asks me about our trip to Cairo and I tell her how the family tried to feed us so much food.  She laughs and says that there are two things that go hand in hand with Egyptians.  They love their food and they are very loud.

Ehab approaches us.  He says that he want to challenge Andre and Zakaria to a game of dominoes but he doesn’t know whether Peter is a reliable partner.  He says that Peter is out of practice at playing dominoes and he really wants to win the game.  I told Ehab that he couldn’t have any better partner than Peter and that he should put his faith in his brother in law – they will easily win.  Peter and Ehab join the rest of the men at the table and I continue chatting with Sister Rita.

Unfortunately she is called away to see to something and I expect that may be the last time I meet her.  I felt drawn to Rita and wanted to talk to her more and find out about the work that she does with the mission.  Hopefully another day.

Various members of the family come and go, some are new introductions, some people I already know.  Andre’s wife Marmar and her daughter Lola sit next to me on one side and Margreet sits on the other with Sara – Susanna still has bags of energy and is running from adult to adult.  Marmar who speaks a little English asks me if I remember the chicken that she cooked us last time we came to stay.  I did remember the chicken and the meal we had had.  Ehab gives me regular updates on the dominoes match – he and Peter are winning so far – the outcome will be decided on this last game.

A cheer goes up and Peter and Ehab have won the game of dominoes.  Ehab and Zakaria laugh in disbelief.  Ehab tells me that I was right and he should have had more faith in Peter in the first place.  Margreet goes into the house and brings out a tray of cold cans of beer which is received gratefully by everyone.

We chat and laugh a little further into the evening (Egyptians always seem to be laughing apart from when they are discussing politics or religion).  The laughing echoes up and around the houses that form an L shape around one corner of the green land. These large houses are 3 stories high ­– a floor is built as a flat for each of the sons of the family and their wives.  In this case both Margreet and Marmar live and work in the house together with the mother of Ehab.  I can’t imagine living in such close proximity to two other families.  Although the young wives have their own flats with kitchens, most cooking is done on the ground floor in the kitchen of the mother.  I’m sure that this semi communal living has its benefits but as for me I love my solitude, my downtime where I can please myself when I cook, when I clean and what I do. 

The children begin to fall asleep.  People begin to drift off, wishing “Tispah all kheir”.  We also say our goodbyes and Ehab walks us around to Peter’s father’s house.

They have arranged for us to stay in another room in the house with a balcony. Hopefully with a bit of ventilation and the ceiling fan the night will be a bit more comfortable.  Tispa alla kheir.

28th September 2011 - Luxor

Last night we didn’t even get chance to wash the Cairo dust out of our hair – we just collapsed into bed.  In the morning I wake up with a start – no noise, no uninvited alarm calls.  I just had a sense that it was late and we might miss breakfast.  It was 10.10am and breakfast is served until 10.30am.  We decide to chance it and just throw on some clothes, give hair a quick brush and wipe off the remaining residue of yesterday’s makeup (my makeup not Peters).

We make it, and relish in the luxury of having breakfast on tap.  Eptisam looks after us and makes sure that are cups are filled with tea until we leave.

We go back up to the room, shower and then begin to unpack our bags from Cairo.  We both need to charge our iphones but can’t seem to find the charger.  Peter automatically thinks it’s been stolen – I tell him to phone the Sheraton and see if anyone found it in the room.  As I go through my things I notice that a video camera is also missing.  Peter is now convinced they’ve been stolen.  I remember Peter was very meticulous about checking all of the drawers and the rest of the suite before we left so now I was thinking the same.

Peter phones the Sheraton and he is told to phone back in 15 minutes as the room service manager isn’t available.  Now the next bit is a bit of a palaver so I will make it brief.

Peter phoned back and the room service manager puts him through to lost property.  Lost property tells him to phone back again whilst they check.  Peter phoned lost property back again.  They say they have found the charger and the video camera but they don’t have the key to the safe.  They tell Peter that he needs to send someone for the items the day after tomorrow.

I think Peter is dumbstruck.  This is supposed to be a 5 star hotel and the only person with the key to lost property is off work.  Things don’t seem right.  Thinking back I don’t remember seeing the iphone charger or the video camera for the last few days of the Cairo Trip – we agree that skulduggery is afoot.  Peter says he is going to do a write up about this on Trip Advisor. 

After this pantomime we decide to go to the pool.  Later that evening we are going to dinner with friends Tony and Nasreen which could be a late night so we make the most of what’s left of the day.

We stay by the pool until about 5.30, just before the sun begins to set.  We go up to the room, shower and sit on the balcony and drink a glass of red wine.  From the balcony we see a line of people carrying things down to the pontoon.  A DJ greets the staff with handshakes and kisses and carries what looks like speakers.  Chef’s carry trays of food on their shoulders.  A local woman dressed in black carries a basket of bread on her head.  We see them take the steps down to the Nile and Peter notices that a large tent has been erected on the island further down the river.  They must be having an Egyptian night with belly dancers and musicians.

An hour or so later we are ready to go to Tony’s.  We leave the hotel and are deluged by calls for taxi’s.  We take one go over to Sawagi. As we approach Tony’s flat we can hear loud wedding music coming from the street behind.  We are greeted by Tony and Nasreen.  Their two young daughters Hannah and Jenna play.  We chat for a while – the music from the wedding can still be hear.  We go out onto the balcony and above the music we hear gun shots.  Tony tells us that it is very common nowadays to hear guns being shot at weddings.  Firecrackers are usually lit to celebrate a marriage but on this particular night we can hear a handgun and also an automatic rifle.  Tony says that he didn’t know whether it was safe for us to come to his flat as there are a lot of guns being carried by local people since the lack of police on the streets.

Peter had already told Tony about our things that need to be collected at the Sheraton in Cairo.  Tony had already contacted one of the drivers who works for the same tour company.  He was currently in Hurghada but was to pick someone up from Cairo and bring them back to Luxor.  He would collect our things from the hotel and bring them back for us.

Nasreen has cooked a large meal for us.  Rice, salad and 2 plates piled high with what looks like chicken – like chicken but the meat looks like a different colour.  Peter tells me that it’s pigeon stuffed with freek.  http://www.whats4eats.com/poultry/hamam-mahshi-recipe There is also kofta and potatoes and bread – so much food!

After the meal we drink tea and mangoes, apples and pears are eaten.  Hannah (two and a half year old) entertains us with some belly dancing.  It’s a lovely evening but we don’t stay too long as we still need to catch up on sleep after the Cairo trip. 

Reflecting on the evening I remember noticing how Nasreen kept feeding Hannah at every opportunity – even after we had left the dining table.  I remember Tony telling me that Hannah was quite poorly when she was little and they didn’t think she would survive.  As I’ve discovered on my many trips to Egypt and especially when visiting the family – feeding people is a given.  I don’t think that it’s just about hospitality (although this is important) – not when it’s your own children.  More of a desire to ensure the children are well fed and therefore healthy – even if they are from a middle class family.

Having suffered with bad stomachs on my trips to Egypt I find it difficult when I am presented with piles of food.  The heat really supresses my appetite and I also become over faced with the amount of food placed in front of me.  You know there are always eyes on you – especially from whoever’s cooked the food seeking approval by seeing you tuck in.  The bad stomachs don’t come from the food – I honestly believe it comes from the heat but it is always best to be careful about what you eat.


24th September 2011 - Arrival in Cairo

What a day!  It started at 4.30am – we had already packed for Cairo and now had one hour to get ready before Bob came to pick us up for the airport.  All done – at 5.30 Bob arrives and we make the 15 minute journey to the airport.  We say our goodbyes to Bob who will be leaving Luxor later this day to start his new business venture in Hurghada.  We wish him the very best. 

We check in – everything is on time and we board a rather packed plane to Cairo.  This is my fifth trip to Cairo and in the past have flown on rather spacious planes that usually had many empty seats.  Our original flight had been cancelled and changed to an hour later (which was better) but it seems that the luxury of flying on half empty planes is over.

After a short wait in the lounge we board the plane.  The safety instructionsare relayed in both Arabic and English and the plane takes off.  As the plane increases in altitude we can see the landscape below change immediately from the green irrigated land to the soft undulating sandstone terrain.  Dried up river beds snake along the valley floor and the repeating scene of the desert below feels hypnotic .  We follow the River Nile north towards Cairo.

It’s a nice short flight to Cairo – 1 hour.  We begin to feel a drop in altitude.  As I look out of the window the terrain below begins to change again.  Instead of the instant change from green irrigated land to desert, the view below goes immediately from desert to densely populated metropolis.  Tower blocks poke out through a thick layer of smog.  (always more visible in Cairo in the early morning when the temperature is a little lower).  It’s only once in Cairo that you realize the source of all the smog  – the traffic here is like nothing else on earth.  I remember the first time I came to Cairo on an organized trip – our tour guide told us “We don’t have rush hour in Cairo – we have rush day”.

Abdul is waiting for us as arranged.  It has been 3 and a bit years since we were in Cairo and the same since we saw Abdul.  Peter and I were in Cairo to get married – that’s another story!

As we drove from the airport to downtown Cairo, Abdul asked us if we noticed anything different.  Looking out of the car window at the broad tree-lined freeway everything seemed quite familiar.  As we drive through affluent Heliopolis we pass Baron Empain’s Hindu style Palace - it’s unusual architecture still looks out of place – but also perfectly at home.  http://curious-places.blogspot.com/2011/03/baron-empain-palace-cairo-egypt.html   

I couldn’t think what Abdul was referring to.

“No pictures of Mubarak!” says Peter.  That’s right, Mubarak’s face used to be on hoardings all along the airport road.  I wonder what other changes we will notice during our trip. 

 I can feel how much cooler it is in Cairo than Luxor – by cooler I mean 27 degrees instead of the 40 in Luxor.

We drive through Ramsis, Tahrir, over the Kasr e Nile bridge where the Egyptian revolution first began.  T shirts saying “Free Egypt” “I love Egypt” “25th January, Tahrir Square” line the roadside railings.  All seems peaceful now.

We arrive at the Sheraton and check in.  It will be 45 minutes before the room is ready so we decide to head straight out to our first appointment of the trip, to the Mamluk Glass Factory next to Qaitbay Mosque.  We were to phone Kamal before we set off which we did.  He wasn’t in the factory so we would pick him up on the way.  Off we set with Abdul.  The traffic in Cairo is notorious.  There is an order to the road system but also what appears to be absolute chaos – cars cutting across each other within centimetres to spare.  It can be quite a terrifying experience for first timers in Cairo.  At first the constant beeping of horns can be interpreted as a ‘telling off’ – much like we’d use car horns at home.  However, the horns are a subsystem – a language between drivers (and pedestrians) that interspersed with various hand gestures is completely understood here.

We pull off the freeway into a short dusty side street along Cairo’s Eastern Cemetery or City of the Dead.  (The cemeteries are yet another story for another day).  Peter phones Kamal and we meet him at the bottom of the street and then proceed onto the factory.

I think the word factory conjures up an up an image of a large industrial unit.  The Mamluk Glass Factory is a small enterprise but none the less a very productive one.  Kamal takes us in.  The walls are lined with shelves full of various glass products – not an inch of space goes unused. 

The factory is no longer than 10 metres and about 3 metres wide.  At the bottom is a furnace and one of the glass blowers at work.  However much I had been relishing the cooler temperatures of Cairo it all went to pot upon entering the factory – the heat from the furnace was incredible.  The worker had just two electric fans to keep the temperature bearable!  We watch with great interest at the skill deployed to produce a glass jar with a water spout with a twist of glass relief around its body.  I‘m invited by the craftsman to have a go at blowing some glass. I’m handed the metal tube that has a blob of molten glass on the end.  As I blow into the tube it is turned for me (it weighs a ton!) and a large glass balloon is produced.  Certainly nothing usable so it is knocked off the end of the tube to be melted back and used again.   By now my face felt like it had melted.  Any benefit of the cooler Cairo climate and Abdul’s air conditioned car was now truly lost!

Kamal invites us to drink tea outside.  Kamal tells us that this is the fifth generation of his family to have this factory.  A picture of his father blowing glass hangs over the factory entrance.  Kamal brings us a selection of books and magazines that have articles about the glass factory – one of only five in Cairo.  As we drink tea and look through the books I read an article that says Kamal is an engineer.  I point out this section of the article to him and he says he works as an engineer in the morning and comes to the factory in the afternoon.  He says it needs his generation to maintain the family tradition or the business and the skills will be lost forever.  All of his family work in the workshop – all also university educated.  The females in the family sort the glass and decorate the finished pieces and the men are involved in all other aspects of the business.  I ask Kamal where the glass comes from.  He tells us it comes from the Zabaleen.  Zabaleen translates directly as Garbage Collectors.  They are a large Christian community living in the foothills of Maqattam in Cairo.  They go out into the city collecting all manner of garbage which they bring back to their homes and sort by type, ready to sell to recycling companies.  Peter and I visited the church of St Samaan on a previous trip to Cairo and drove through the area where the Zabaleen live.  We can talk about this another time as this visit left quite an impact on us.  You can find out more information about this fascinating community through Google and also a very good (award winning) docu/film called Garbage Dreams.  http://www.garbagedreams.com/

A little later we are joined by Kamal’s father Hassan, a fine figure of a man with an imposing presence.  We shake hands and Mr Hassan offers us further drinks.  Someone goes to fetch coca cola. 

Peter talks about the Garagos pottery and how the business has been affected by lack of tourism.  Kamal tells us that since the uprising the government say that the glass factory isn’t in a suitable place for tourists to come.  He says this isn’t the case.  The area is safe and being one if Cairo’s oldest areas should be considered as a key tourist destination.  The Qaitbey Mosque itself is 700 years old.  They feel that the government don’t support local businesses such as this even though they are traditional trades in danger of being lost.

We have another look around at the products.  There is such a good range here and we tell Kamal that we would initially be interested in purchasing some hand blown Christmas decorations.  We don’t discuss price here.  It’s not the time or place.  We ask to purchase one of the glass hand painted Christmas decorations but Kamal will accept no money – we must take it as a gift.  .

We say our goodbyes and Abdul takes us back to the hotel to finish checking in and to freshen up. We are given a room on the 17th floor of the Sheraton.  We have amazing views over the city and the river Nile.  The island (Gezira) sits in the middle of the Nile.  Directly in front of us Cairo Tower located on Gezira seems like a stones throw away.  I can’t venture very far out onto the balcony before vertigo begins to set in.  But I can’t resist straining my body from the patio doors to look at the amazing view below and across Cairo.  The noise of the beeping is relentless but fades down to background noise after a period of adjustment.

We freshen up and go out to Abdul who is still waiting for us.  He is one of the taxi drivers for the Sheraton and business is bad so we know he will still be available for us.  We drive over onto the island and head over to leafy Zamalek.  This is home to some of the foreign embassy’s and also several private schools.  Zamalek is like a little oasis compared to the rest of the city and the wealth of it’s residents is quite apparent.  Tree lined streets and high walls provide privacy to large colonial style villas, a legacy of the French and British occupations.  http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/zamalek.htm

We head off first to a great bookshop called Diwan.  It’s a must visit shop when I’m in Cairo and have picked up a good selection of Naguib Mafhouz books and Yousef Chahine films.  We also search for a couple of the books that Kamal showed us earlier as one of them although in Arabic had a feature on the Garagos pottery.  We don’t find the books we want but staff suggest we try the Cairo University bookshop – which we do.  We find at least one of the books on our list so go away happy.  We then go in search of a gallery called Alef.  I came across this gallery on the internet before we left home and it sells a fantastic selection of handcrafted items – clearly to the wealthy residents on Zamalek!  I don’t have the address with me and after driving around for a while we decide to leave it for another day.

We invite Abdul to join us for ice cream at Groppi’s in downtown Cairo.  After Peter and I go married three and a half years ago in Cairo we went to celebrate in Groppi’s before leaving for Alexandria for our honeymoon.  Abdul was with us then.  He had been an absolute star in driving us everywhere we needed to go to get permissions from one ministry, official stamps from another.  Also driving us out to Heliopolis to get permissions from the office of theCoptic Catholic Patriarch. We hadn’t know at the time we needed this permission as we already had permissions from the priest in Garagos and the priest in Luxor – what a palaver that was!  It delayed the marriage (ceremony is the wrong word) for a day but we got there in the end with the help of Abdul.


 Here the three of us were - sitting in Groppi’s three and a half years later.  We all asked the question – where does time go?  We had ice cream and drank tea.  Abdul phoned his wife and son Mohammed and put them on to speak to us.  Again we agreed time goes by so quickly.  Abdul invites to his house for dinner.  It is my birthday today and we had planned to eat out in a nice restaurant downtown but it seemed rude to refuse.  We accepted the invitation an after trying a few more bookshops we set off to Abduls home the other side of Imbaba in Warak.

Imbaba had seen violent clashes between Muslims and Christians in May this year.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-13325448 Imbaba and Warak are local neighbourhoods (as Peter describes it).  He means areas where tourists don’t usually venture.  I vaguely recollect this journey from last time we came to have dinner with Abdul and his family.  I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking photographs in this kind of area – it seems almost voyeuristic and I’m sure wouldn’t be well received by the local people.

We turn into some tight alleyways, go past small shops that sell items ranging from spare parts for cars to live poultry.  We arrive at Abdul’s flat and are greeted by his wife.  I remember her telling me that she is 'quite high up' in the Ministry of Agriculture.  This is apparent upon entering the flat which is clearly the home of Cairo’s middle classes.  Their sons Mohammed and Mahmoud aren’t at home – they are currently working but Mohammed phones and tells us he hopes to catch up with us before we leave Cairo.  We are invited to the dining table where plates upon plates of food are brought to the table.  A large plate of roasted duck, another of roasted chicken.  A large tourine of soup, a bowl of rice, a plate of bread, a dish of sliced,roasted potatoes in a tomato sauce.

I struggle to eat in the heat.  My appetite decreases when it’s hot and we’ve just been to Groppi’s for ice cream.  I am given a bowl of soup, a duck leg and a chicken breast.  Shortly after my plate is piled high with rice, potatoes and bread and yet more meat.  I have to keep insisting that I can’t eat any more but we make a good attempt at it.

We retire to the living room and fresh mangoes are brought in with tea.  Again discussions are had about the revolution and how the country is in a terrible state. (The conversation is in Arabic and Peter translates). Mahmoud has put in an application for a visa to America. The cost of living has increased and it’s no longer safe to walk the streets. It seems that it is everyone’s dream to leave Egypt and it’s current chaotic state.  After a while we make a move.  It’s 9.00pm and Abdul drives us back to the Sheraton.  As we go through Imbaba we see a fight outside one of the coffee shops and we also clearly see a man wielding a knife.  It’s a bit of a shock to see this first hand but this is now normal as there is no longer any significant police presence on the steets.

We arrive back at the hotel and ask Abdul to wait whilst Peter goes to fetch some small gifts we brought over for them – an England mug for the men and some Belgian chocolates for Mrs Abdul.  Small gifts but with so many family to buy for we have to prioritise.

I stay in the hotel room whilst Peter takes the gifts out to Abdul and also pay him for his driving services for the day.  When Peter comes back he has an odd look on his face.  I ask him what is wrong and he tells me he is a bit taken aback.  I ask him at what and he tells me his is shocked at the amount of money Abdul has charged for driving us for the day.  We know what the going rate is.  Peter has colleagues who arrange drivers for tourists through travel agencies and also friends who own tourists cars.  A days hire for a car in Cairo is about 150le.  We had had Abdul for around 12 hours so counted that as 2 days so expected him to charge around 300le.  He had asked Peter for 600le.  Peter had paid it but he felt that Abdul had taken advantage of us.  We had used Abdul on 2 previous trips to Cairo and money had never been a problem. – his prices had always been fair. After a bit of deliberation we decided to use Abdul the following day but to see what his costs would be.

We sit inside the suite with the balcony door open.  It’s 10.00pm and Cairo hasn’t even begun to come alive yet.  The traffic is still incessant (and the beeping of the cars) and there is a hive of activity along the water front.  Café’s are heaving and steams of people stand along the railings on the bridges that cross the Nile.  Tourist boats sail up and down and the next shift of street sellers pedal their wares.  I read in the in-flight magazine with Egyptair that Cairo is ranked number 3 in the world in the table of 24 hour cities!  I’m exhausted! 



23rd September 2011 - A relaxing day in Luxor

Well it’s now Friday morning.  It’s 7.30am and I’m sitting on the hotel balcony overlooking the view that never fails to take my breath away. 

I think today will be a relaxing day.  I’ll sit by the pool, take some photo’s or video’s and maybe pen a bit more for the blog.  Peter is going to Egyptair and also to the Vodafone shop to buy a wireless dongle to save us making the trip to Snack Time to upload the blog.  Later we’ll pack for Cairo.

20th September 2011 - Relaxing day and then to Garagos

It’s Tuesday and we start the morning with a fantastic breakfast. We both start with a glass of kirkaday (hibiscus juice). Peter has meat, cheese and salad with a good helping of Egyptian fuul – fava beans flavoured with cumin, lemon juice and tomato puree. I have melon and pomegranate seeds followed by an omelette and tameya (falaffal) with tahini. This is all washed down by copious amounts of tea!

We spend the day by the pool – well I did. Peter was busy doing errands and going to the bank. However, Peter can't usually walk very far in Luxor without being greeting by friends, family, acquaintances. I know when he says he'll be an hour he'll be several.

Anyway, it’s nice to spend a bit of time shaking off work and trying to acclimatise to the heat. It’s 38 degrees today – way too hot for my liking. I lay under the shade of a parasol and swim in the pool to keep refreshed. Every one sitting by the pool is able to get a lounger in the immediate area – nobody has to locate themselves further down on the pontoon. Nobody has to queue for a drink at the pool bar. The pool staff are very attentive, ensuring that those of us who don’t want to be in the sun are protected by the parasol at all times. The numbers are clearly low in the hotel – and if it’s low here it will be low everywhere in Luxor. This is very sad to see.

Later that evening Peter’s father comes for us with Andre – the brother of Ehab (Peter’s brother in law) to take us to Garagos. We have packed enough for a few days and our hand luggage bags are filled with colouring books and bottles of whiskey – the latter always welcomed and shared generously at family get togethers.

We head out of Luxor along the dusty airport road which is lined with flowering hedges of bourganvillea and jasmine. Peter’s father and Andre give updates on events in the village. We turn off the airport road and start following a road that takes us North of Luxor. We cross several small branches of the Nile which are encased in rows of date palms – many of them have self- seeded in the shallow edges of the canals themselves. Every so often we’ll hear the ‘phutting’ of mechanical water pumps, forcing water from the canals into the irrigation channels that are etched like veins across the agricultural land. The further we get out of Luxor, the narrower the road gets. Egyptian drivers whether in rural backwaters of upper Egypt or the metropolis that is Cairo have a ‘need to speed’. Andre slows down only to skirt around a pot hole or negotiate passing another car or the occasional dok dok (a cross between a scooter and a Reliant Robin).

We pass mud brick houses, very simple dwellings. People of all ages sit clustered together in the shade. Some straight on the bare earth outside – some sit on the traditional palm seating which often doubles up as a bed. On some nights it’s far more comfortable to sleep outside. Washing hangs from rope washing lines strung between date palms and dogs bark in the distance.

After crossing the train track we arrive in Garagos. As we drive into the village we pass rows of local shops – small shacks providing a range of essential items and services. Although only 25km from Luxor many of the villagers haven’t travelled outside of Garagos – especially the women. Local produce is grown on the extensive farm land in and surrounding the village and most families will keep livestock such as chickens. We approached the family home down a network of tight alleyways. The road once ashfelt is now encrusted in years worth of dust and resembles a dirt track rather than a modern road.

As soon as we arrive at the house we are deluged with a huge wave of family members coming to the house to say hello. Huge smiles, beautiful and handsome faces with warm, welcoming handshakes (four kisses from closer family members). I never fail to be taken by the way children come to the house and shake the hand of everyone like little grown ups. The mother of Nasira brought 2 dozen eggs – I’m told it’s traditional to bring gifts like this for visitors who have travelled from afar. Peter tells me afterwards that the mother of Nasira is very old – she had walked from her house with the eggs but couldn’t make it up the step into the house. The lady is referred to as the Mother of Nasira as a mark of respect – Nasira being the name of her eldest son. I’m not sure at what point a woman is no longer referred to her by her name – I’ll ask Peter later.

Soon after we arrive Margreet arrives with the 2 year old twins Sara and Susanna. They have grown so much in 9 months. It isn’t long before we are asked if we are hungry. Peter’s mother has been preparing a meal for us and regardless of whether we are hungry or not we must accept the offer of hospitality and eat.

Although a large house with good ventilation, it isn’t long before the heat exaggerates my existing exhaustion. We are given a room on the first floor and after a shower we retire for the night. The heat of the night was tortuous. The ceiling fan seemed to recirculate hot air and cockerels across the village seemed to have no concept of night or day. Time was marked at 4.30am by the voice of the muezzin calling to prayer from the minaret in the mosque less than 20 yards away. I think of the air conditioning in our hotel room.

I love being back in Garagos. Nonetheless we may need to schedule our visits in winter when the evenings are cooler.

19th September 2011 - Arrival in Luxor

Peter and I travelled to Egypt on Monday 19th September. We flew from Manchester Airport where we arrive at 6.00am with 2 suitcases crammed with presents for the immediate family members and the children – including 12 colouring book packs. These have probably ended up being the most expensive colouring books ever thanks to Monarch’s very strict luggage weight rules. Between us we were 6 kilos overweight and the very ‘surly’ check in assistant charged us £120 – no negotiation! Not a great start to the holiday but I can safely say this is the first and the last time I fly with Monarch!

A very busy itinerary is planned with 4 days in Cairo and of course time with the family in Luxor, Garagos and Cairo. If possible we will also try and squeeze in a day or two by the pool!

As we arrive in the airport terminal in Luxor we are greeted by various airport staff and tour reps in the hall – colleagues that Peter knows from his previous job as a tour rep. Peter’s good friend Bob has arranged for one of his cars to pick us up from the airport. Before we exit the airport we pay a visit to the duty free shop - whisky is always a welcome gift! We make our way out of the airport terminal to the car park, trying to resist the offers from porters to carry our bags - eventually one takes our trolley and pushes it for the remaining ten yards to the car.

The first thing we noticed upon arriving in Luxor is how quiet the place is. Michael who is an accountant at the hotel where we stay tells us that the hotel is currently at 15% occupancy rate – eighty guests where full capacity is six hundred. The uprising has affected tourism dramatically. We are told us how difficult things are for all businesses here as Luxor is very reliant on tourism. Many of the hotel staff have been given reduced hours working half a month on and half a month off. Although the high level of customer service at this hotel is what brings us back each time, upon arrival we can already see how standards have definitely been cranked up a notch. We are thinking about how we can allocate tips fairly!

It’s so good to be back. We have a lovely Nile view room with Jacuzzi bath. A basket of fruit awaits us on the coffee table.

The moment I look forward to more than anything is opening the balcony doors to a most magnificent view. A view that really defies adequate description and a view that my description could never do justice to.

The River Nile flows slowly northwards - from where I'm standing that's left to right. The odd boat passes by and green footed egrets paddle along the shallow edge of the river. Opposite, on the West bank of the Nile, water buffalo and the odd camel graze the green land. I can just about make out several galabeyaed workers hoeing the land and tending the animals. The magnificent backdrop to this scene is the Theban mountains, standing proud with a frill of date palms and banana trees at its feet. It's not a particularly huge range of mountains but what is housed within those unassuming hills still makes me shake my head in disbelief.

Most famous is The Valley of the Kings, home to the tomb of Tutankhamun and great pharaohs like Ramses the third. Also within the mountains is the Valley of the Queens and the Valley of the Nobles. From my balcony I can make out the remains of Old Qurna village and the exposed entrances to a row of tombs located in the Valley of the Nobles. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurna


If you ever get the chance to sail down the Nile on a cruiser or a felucca, you won’t have to imagine too hard what it would have been like in pharaonic times – the landscape has hardly changed. You will see clusters of mud brick houses along the banks of the Nile. Some painted in traditional Nubian colours of turquoise blue but over the years have accumulated layers of desert dust.

Also from the balcony I’m hit by a familiar smell – smell of burning fires. On most evenings you will see smoke rising from small fires on the agricultural West Bank. I think farmers could be burning stubble from recently harvested sugar cane – but can’t be sure. There’s also another smell – a smell that resonates from the heat rising from the land. I can’t describe this smell. All I know is if it could be captured in a bottle, it would be that smell and that smell alone that takes me back to Luxor and this view across the Nile.

The sun begins to set behind the mountains. As the red sky turns indigo blue, the only sound remaining is the faint engine of a boat crossing the Nile and the echo of birds ‘whooping’ as they soar across the Valley. The Theban Mountains are now illuminated. I try to imagine what adventures will befall us during this visit and how quickly two weeks will disappear.

Until tomorrow.