The garden of our oasis near the Dahshur Pyramids
'I have a farm in Africa', to quote Meryl Streep in 'Out of Africa'. My husband and I indeed own a small farm 45 kilometres south of Cairo. We have some livestock but mostly produce mandarins and mangos. This has, for more than 20 years, been our weekend escape from the hustle and bustle of Cairo and is much loved by Egyptian and overseas friends alike. If we walk up a hill to the east of our land we have an incredible view of the vivid green fields of alfalfa, an important forage crop, which gradually meets the desert and ends in a panoramic view of the Dahshur Pyramids.
We originally bought 3 acres of land and built one small room, a tiny kitchen and a minute bathroom all with wooden beams. We used to spend the day there and return to Cairo for the night. Over the years, we have expanded and added to both the land and the house, and now have a somewhat sprawling property of 9 acres and a one-storey rambling house with a domed sitting room, two bathrooms, 4 bedrooms and a much larger kitchen. We did not construct a villa in the style of many Egyptian country properties which are built to flaunt personal wealth as we felt that such ostentation would be inappropriate in an agricultural area where many families live in mud brick houses and whose sole possessions are often a single donkey and a few chickens. We designed it ourselves and used local materials and builders. We also created a swimming pool built of concrete and coated with white crushed mosaic in the style of many of the natural spring pools that can be found in oases such as Siwa. The garden is lush with greenery and the pool is always dappled with the reflection of the surrounding foliage. There are some beautifully untamed and uncut palm trees (
dactylifera) whose branches bow under the weight of vast quantities of dates during the months of August and September. Phoenix
Unfortunately our environment has been somewhat spoilt in recent years as small plots of land have been bought up adjacent to our land and, even though this is strictly an agricultural area, bribes have been paid to the local police and, as a result, an iron workshop has been constructed to the north of the farmhouse blemishing the landscape and adding noise pollution. To add to this, our farming neighbours whose family has greatly multiplied over the years, also managed through bribery and corruption to build a four story house 5 metres from our southern perimeter and overlooking our swimming pool. Happily we had the prescience to plant some ficus trees but by some miracle a gigantic, fast-growing white berry tree suddenly appeared which flourished so well and so rapidly that it now almost conceals the hideous, tasteless edifice which had become the blight of our lives.
Further north of our farm is an enormous mango plantation owned by the El Gabry family, who are also movie producers and own a number of film studios; they have, during the last forty years, acquired and reclaimed acres and acres of desert land. Much of this land was purchased from the state for very small sums of money through the usual channels of bribery. To the south of our farm the Imbaby family, who own automobile showrooms, also possess very large tracts of reclaimed desert land. As an additional money-making device they have also, for some time, been extracting pebbles and sand from the desert which they sell to construction companies in the same atmosphere of bribery which has been omnipotent in Egypt for the last forty years.
On the afternoon of Wednesday 23rd February, my husband received a phone call from our guardian in Dahshur announcing that there were some suspicious looking people camping out on our land. After a number of phone calls and further enquiries it became apparent that these men were hiding from the army; however, at that point we had no more details. By Thursday afternoon it was obvious that these men were not going to leave so my husband leapt into his Jeep and roared off to investigate the matter, leaving me behind. I was greatly put out that it was deemed too dangerous for me to accompany him but he pointed out that my pellet rifle would not act as a suitable weapon even though I am an excellent shot.
However, when he arrived at the farm the men had already fled. It eventually transpired that, in the previous few days, members of our rural population had begun to invade the lands owned by the El Gabry and the Imbaby families, had deposited themselves there, armed with kalishnikov machine guns, and were refusing to move. The above mentioned families asked the army to intervene in order to protect their estates; they army arrived and there was an exchange of gunfire and the men in question finally took flight and hid in our leafy grove to the great consternation of our guardian. He in turn called the army, at which point there was another exchange of gunshots and the men in question disappeared once again.
There are many incidences like this occurring all over Egypt which are the result of the fall of the regime and its brutal, thieving police force and the civilisians' ever increasing realisation and confirmation of the sheer magnitude of bribery and corruption at all levels in this society. Everyone wants a piece of the cake which has been attainable only by the privileged few.
In the meantime, we have observed another momentous day in Tahrir Square where, yet again, enormous crowds of both Muslims and Christians have met to pray and to voice their discontent with the caretaker government. The demonstrators were a little thin on the ground early this morning and I was somewhat worried that we might be losing our momentum but happily I was proved wrong.