1001 Nights - Stories of Traditional Handcrafts from Egypt

History of Garagos Pottery and more ……….

Tuesday 6th March 2012 - I Fall for Garagos!

Today we are going to visit the pottery and Peter has already made arrangements with Mr Riad to meet us there. We have to be there early as Mr Riad is going to a funeral at 12 o'clock. This morning we skip breakfast but drink tea to give us the little kick start we need. Before we leave the first floor Peter's mother offers to lend me something to wear – I guess that she means something that completely covers my body. I am already wearing full length trousers and a tunic that has a round neck and three quarter sleeves. In fact it is the top that I have worn before which seemed perfectly acceptable and I can't imagine how much more I can cover up. I decline her offer but do put a tunic with even longer sleeves over the top of my other top. I always dress modestly in the village but there seems to be more concern than usual about adhering to an appropriate dress code – not within the family but in other parts of the village. It's now about 9 am and we make our way down from the first floor to go outside. In front of me on the granite staircase is Peter and his father. The stairwell is dark, as we don't bother to switch the light on. The next bit, is a bit of a blur, as I misplaced my footing, thinking that I had reached the bottom of the first flight of stairs, when in fact I hadn't. All I remember is falling forward, landing with full force of my weight on my right knee.

My first thought was what a fool I must look in front of Peter's father, scrabbling around on the floor – not very elegant at all! I stand up and take a few moments to assess how I feel and where it hurts. Peter and his father are asking me if I'm all right and I repeat a couple of times that I am OK. To be truthful I just needed to get out of the dark stairwell and go and lie down. I felt a little odd, at first I couldn't quite describe it, but then as the blood drained from my face I knew I had to get off my feet as soon as possible. I could walk back up the flight of stairs okay, so I kind of guessed that my leg wasn't broken but it did hurt like billyo!

I lay down for about half an hour. Peter's father asks if he should call a doctor. My leg is throbbing but at this stage I don't feel it requires a doctor. I'm also not quite sure to what lengths they would have to go to bring one here. I will be back home tomorrow night so can assess how my leg is then. I know that we are going back to Luxor later that day so I also don't want to miss the opportunity to pick up a few more pieces of pottery to take home - regardless of a certain curiosity to check out the local health service! Peter's mother brings in a tube of cream for my leg. It says in English that it is for trauma caused by falls. I'm not sure if it can help, but rub it onto my knee anyway.

When I get up I find that I can walk but can't bend my leg. I imagine I'll wake up tomorrow with a massive bruise on my knee.

We set off again to the pottery. Once Peter's father has seen us down the staircase (safely) he turns left to go to the farm and we turn right to go to the pottery. I limp along the street slowly. Peter had told me before we left not to speak to anyone – especially the children if they approach me in the street. During our trip in September, in the short walk from the house to the pottery we had a small crowd of children following us trying to talk to me in English. It couldn't be described as threatening but it did at times feel a little uncomfortable.

This time there are very few children around – they are probably all in school. As we walk down “Montgolfier Road” I notice that the fields to the right that had been laid out with large squares of dates to dry September, were now home to well established wheat crops – land is never left fallow very long - it's too much of a valuable resource.

Mr Riad greets us at the Garagos pottery. He wants to take us over to the kiln to show us some pottery that has just finished being fired. It isn't possible to see all stages of the process when you come to the pottery but by now I think we've seen it all. Mr Riad tells us to listen to the pottery singing and sure enough, like a clay choir, each piece took a turn to make a high pitched 'chink' sound as it's body temperature acclimatised to the cooler air.


We know we don't have much time to spend at the pottery today so go to the store room and pick out a number of pieces to take home. Mr Riad offers us tea and Mr Louis brings it for us. We spend a bit of time talking to Mr Riad about the development of the pottery again. He confirms bits of information that we already have but again I think that we need to have some concentrated time with Mr Riad to talk in more detail – but as I mentioned before – bit by bit.

Before we leave the pottery we decide to go and visit the kindergarten which is located in a tall building behind the pottery. This building was built by the church, originally with the idea of developing it into a hotel for tourists who had come to visit the village. This was at a time when many tourists were coming to Garagos. Unfortunately this was no longer the case after the Queen Hatchepsut's atrocity. The building was never completed, however the ground floor has been converted into a kindergarten for the local school children.

We walk into a large open grassed area where children are playing. We are greeted with a large radiant smile by Sister Mariam who oversees the day to day running of the kindergarten including the administrative duties. We stay outside until the children have finished their playtime. Some of the children come and say hello to me in English – one little girl holds her arms out to me and kisses me on the cheek.

We go inside the building and Sister Mariam introduces us to some of the staff working there. We are shown around the two classrooms which are for KDG1 and KDG2. Shortly after a female relative of Peter's comes into the room to say hello to us. Sister Mariam invites her to join us and offers to make tea telling us that “our house is your house”.

Time is running by. We have quite a few more visits to make so decide to make tracks back to the house. We say goodbye to Sister Mariam and Peter's aunt and walk (or hobble) out of the pottery and kindergarten complex and back down Montgolfier Road. As we turn off this road past the wheat fields, Peter tells me that he has noticed a couple of people videoing me on their mobile phones – they're not used to seeing Westerners in the village. I imagine video's of this strange limping woman being posted onto Youtube!

We hear the loud, booming voice of Peter's Uncle Romani who is standing in front of a shop – when I say shop this is more of a roadside shack. After greetings we are invited back to his home for tea. Mr Romani's house is just around the corner – all the family live in such close proximity to each other. We walk into a bright hallway where two elderly ladies clad in black sit on chairs shelling nuts. They are introduced to me as the mother of Romani and the mother of Romani's wife. This is a large house which is decorated beautifully with gold embellishments along the cornice line. There are long cane benches along three of the main walls furnished with blue and yellow cushions – clearly the house of a successful man. Mr Romani is clearly proud of the room as he asks me what I think of it and I tell him that I like it very much. Dominating the room is a large photograph of William Mr Romani's son who died tragically in a car accident at the age of 22.

This is another visit that ends up a longer stay than we planned as we begin talking about the family history and Father Montgolfier. Peter's cousin Maged joins us and he speaks good English which is a relief for Peter who is suffering from interpretation fatigue. We spend over an hour talking about the history of Garagos and then another talking about politics (I'm not involved in the latter). This is broken up by a short break to eat a lunch of boiled eggs, bread, cheese Maged's father pops in at one point briefly as does a couple of other family members. Uncle Romani has given us lots of information this afternoon – not all of it new information but it is helpful to cross reference it with other things we have been told. It's now early afternoon and we had planned to leave at 2.00pm to go back to Luxor. I sort of had a feeling that we wouldn't be going back today so start calculating in my mind what time we will need to leave Garagos in the morning if we still need to pack and check out by 12.00pm.

Maged offers to take us to the village flour mill which is owned by Mr Romani, Maged's father and another member of the family. We turn left out of the house and walk no further than 20 yards to a large building. Firstly we are taken around the back of the building where Maged shows us an old disused water pump – Mr Romani's business (as well as government work in a school) is installing industrial water pumps for both agricultural and domestic use. The mill, the only one in the village used to pump water as well as mill the grain to produce flour. He points up to the roof to a whistle which used to be sounded to let the villagers know that the next batch of freshly ground flour was now ready to purchase.

Maged then takes us into a room in the back of the mill which houses a large engine - from the metal plate it indicates that it is of German construction.

We then follow Maged around to the front of the mill where a couple of elderly ladies dressed in black are filling bags with flour straight from the mouth of the tube connected to the milling machine. This has been very interesting to see and we thank Maged for showing us. We all walk back together to Mr Romani's house and Om Romani is sitting outside on the cane bench - Peter chats to her for a little while before we return back to the family home.

We go up to the first floor where Peter's Mother and father are watching television. I've taken the stairs one at a time as I can't bend my right leg and wonder now if we should have called a doctor after all. Anyway, I need to stop harping on about my knee!

We are offered food and tea but we had recently eaten at Mr Romani's so opt just for tea. We are told by Peter's father that Ehab is home from Safaga and that there is going to be a party for Sara and Susanna's birthday this evening. We tell them that we have already decided to stay until the morning but will need to leave early as we need to pack and check out by 12.00 lunchtime.

It's now late afternoon and we still haven't managed to visit the families that we said we would. Because the average visit can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 3 hours we decide to go and visit Peter's Aunt Matilda and her husband Mr Labib. This is always a lively house to visit with several generations of family living together in this large house. The house is a two minute walk. Along the way neighbours greet Peter and vice versa.

We first walk through an entrance to an outdoor area which has a hedge of Rahan (Egyptian Basil) growing. The aroma seems to peak in early evening. To enter the large double doorway we have to climb over a mound of sand that has been tipped in front of the doorway – I don't ask but assume building work is in progress somewhere. I grab hold of the metal door and haul my body over the sand hill dragging my leg behind me!

Mr Labib is sitting at a table in the large room reading a paper. Also in the room is cousin's Shaib and Aiyad. After exchanging greetings we are told that Peter's Aunt Matilda is out milking the cow but will be back shortly. Other family members come in to greet us – cousins Yvonne, Akmel and his two children Nardine and one year old  baby  and Akmels wife Katerine. Also Kissinger and his sons Mina and Shenouda. Gerges also pops in briefly but can't stay as he is meeting his fiance that evening. Matilda returns with a pale of milk. She speaks little English but we converse better in limited French (limited on my part as Matilda speaks fluent French from living with and being educated by French nuns).

Nardine, Mina and Shenouda play in the other side of the room. We watched them join hands and move in an out of the circle singing a song called "Eftahee ya warda" The song is about the opening and closing of a flower.

Peter's father has now joined us and it isn't long before the discussion turns to politics. It appears to be quite an involved discussion and I have no idea of what is being said but the children have brought out a box of plastic figures which they proceed to step out onto the chair in front of me. We occupy ourselves - the children asking me what the name for a certain object is in English and in return I asked them what the name for it is all in Arabic. And Matilda asked us if we would like to stay something to eat but Peter tells her that we have been invited to a barbecue at Mr Riad's house to celebrate the birthdays of Sara and Susanna.

Before we leave me take a few photographs of the family group and then make way to Mr Riad's house.

As we enter the house there are a lot of activity going on. Ehab is hanging balloons around the room, Margreet and Mr Riad's wife (Om Osama) along with Andre's wife Marmar are preparing food. Waseem tells me that he's going to be the chef of the night and is going outside to get the barbecue going and Sara and Susanna are playing with new birthday presents - a toy laptop each.

The men of the family take out tables and chairs to a passageway between their's and the house next door. We are invited to come and sit outside and and have a drink whilst the food is prepared. Michael has now joined us and along with Peter, Waseem and Andre they all take turns at trying to get the barbecue going.

Shortly after, a turbaned gentleman appears at the bottom of the alley riding a donkey. I am told this is Bakheet, a cousin and uncle somewhere in the family. Bakheet tethers his donkey to an empty gas bottle at the front of the house and comes to join us.

It isn't long before Mr Riad brings out a bottle of whiskey and offers it around. All of the adults except for Michael who is fasting, accept a shot. Several rounds of whiskey go around the group, and although I don't particularly like blended whiskey I accept the third glass of whiskey, explaining that I am taking it just for the pain!

I think the whiskey has gone to Bakheet's head because Mr Riad explains that he won't be going home on his donkey tonight but will stay here – apparently he can see three donkeys!

I looked down the alleyway and can hear excited laughter from Sara and Susanna. Ehab has climbed onto Bakheet's donkey and Peter has lifted Sara and Susanna in front of him. He takes them for a short ride up and down in front of the row of houses. When they are lifted off the donkey the stand on the mastaba at the front of the house – Sara happily plays with the donkey's ears but Susanna seeks refuge in the arms of Peter, clearly a bit more cautious about approaching the donkey. Riding on it is one thing but stroking it is another.

Waseem has done a good job of cooking the chicken on the barbecue however, it has turned a little chilly so we decided to continue the party indoors. Plates of food are brought out from the kitchen and put onto a long table. Egyptian tables are clearly built with large families in mind and most of us managed to squeeze around. Those that don't fit take seats elsewhere in the large room. There is barbecued chicken, macaroni, soup, fresh bread and salad on offer.

After the table is cleared of plates, two large cakes are brought to the table. They have been decorated with cream and fresh strawberries and are adorned with decorative birthday candles. The candles are lit, the lights go out and “Happy birthday” is sung in English and then Arabic to Sara and Susanna.

Time is running very quickly. It is now nearly midnight and we have to be up early in the morning to return to Luxor to pack before checking out. It's been a very enjoyable night and great to have been able to share in the birthday celebrations of Sara and Susanna. We probably won't have time to see anybody in the morning so we say our goodbyes now before leaving Mr Riad's house. We walk with Peter's father and Michael back to the house. Peter's mother is already in bed and Peter and I go straight to bed without a shower. 

I reflect on the trip with Peter.  One week has gone by so quickly.  It has been a real joy spending time in Garagos again but I think next time we will need to spend more concentrated time here.  I have probably learnt more about the village than I realise.  Not necessarily about it's history and it's development through the Catholic Church but about how far more conservative it is than Luxor - and Luxor is in comparison to Cairo and Alexandria, very conservative. 

The family are very willing to talk about Garagos but they all have slightly different versions of events from each other, but regarding dates when the Jesuits came to the village etc we can verify this with the church itself.  On occasion I have detected slight tensions from within the family particularly around religion.  Although all Christian, the family is still divided on some beliefs between the Coptic Church and the Catholic Church.  I'm sure Peter's parents will talk to him more next week about a number of issues. 

My knee has now swollen to quite a size but there is hardly a mark where I expected to see bruising. The village dust has permeated every pore of my skin and for now I imagine the luxury of a full-on bubble bath tomorrow morning back at the hotel.