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At the cutting edge

I have a new toy. And it’s great – a gardener’s dream.

No, it’s not an instant compost-maker (dream on!) nor is it the humane answer to the ongoing battle with the ants. But when old friends of ours from Doha days visited us yesterday along with their relatives, who are also our neighbours, they presented me with a power tool to die for: a hedge and grass trimmer.

It might seem odd to wax lyrical about a piece of garden equipment. But I had no idea you could get such things here in Egypt. I have never seen a gardener use one. All the hedges here, no matter how vast and high, are cut using hand shears, the gardener often standing atop the wobbliest of wooden step ladders while his mate stands and clings to the base of the ladder for dear life, in order to stabilize the thing.

The task of hedge cutting is also fraught with the usual uncertainties, the need to clarify terms and come to a precise agreement about what is to be undertaken being paramount. Sometimes, “cutting the hedge” means one side only; other times, it doesn’t include the top – this is what happened last time the Engineer organized the job. If you point out that only part of the task has been done, there is an aggrieved silence, a look of disbelief and a “Bess, ya Madam…” (Untranslatable – but you know you have to backtrack and find a better way.)

Tea sometimes soothes ruffled feelings; but, unless you have been clear right from the start, the payment metre starts ticking again and will go on into infinity if you don’t get a grip on the situation.

The thought that I may now be able to declare independence and handle at least part of the hedge-cutting process myself fills me with an odd sense of triumph: as if to say to the gardeners: “I’ll show you!”

Do I sense delusion setting in?

At all events, the gift was a wonderful surprise, and could not have been more appropriate. Usually, when people call for tea or a meal here, they bring something sweet and heavy such as “konafa” or “basbousa” to add to the calorie-fest. In a lethal modern twist, these traditional sweets, already soaked in syrup, are now further garnished with cream. The custom is to spend the meal discussing weight problems, analysing the failure of diets, and agonising over how to lose weight. I always feel there is a disconnect here, but can’t quite put my finger on the cause…

Of course, I could say that the answer is: gardening! Excellent exercise, guaranteed to get you moving, all in the fresh air. Just try not to fall off the step-ladder.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Magda #

    Very funny! Your encounters with the Engineer remind me of my own past battles with plumbers and electricians in various brand new villas in Doha where nothing worked or if it did, then not for long.

    As far as all those dreamy creamy sweets are concerned, why not offer some to the Engineer in part-payment for the services rendered? 🙂


    November 8, 2013
    • Hi Magda,
      We usually share the sweets with the security guards in our area – I think they need building up! All the gardeners ever want is tea with tons of sugar in it: the usual “chai mazbout” means a mug of tea with 3 or 4 teaspoons of sugar, but on occasion I encounter a workman who requests “sukar ziyeda” which means up to 6 spoons, by which time it’s hard to get the stuff to dissolve in the liquid. I hate to think what it does to the teeth…
      A snack is almost invariably a “fuul” (fava) bean sandwich – that’s the fuel that drives the human economy in Egypt!

      November 10, 2013
      • Anonymous #

        It took me some time to warm up to the idea of “fuul”. Apparently, my husband had it every day when he went to Cairo, and he first introduced me to it after he came back. I must say, I found it a bit bland and boring initially. Our wonderful housekeeper, Komla, who is from Kerala but has worked in Arab households, recommends adding a bit of garlic and lots of lemon juice to it. And I think that’s the way I like it now…

        As for sweet tea, Katherine has learnt how to make karak, very strong Indian tea with lots of sugar and condensed milk. It’s very popular among young people of various nationalities here. Once, a Qatari student of mine went all the way from Education City to Katara, the culture village, in Doha, to bring me, as he claimed, the best karak in town. The next day another student, who disagreed with that judgement, went somewhere else to bring me what he thought was the “best karak in town”. 🙂 And so it goes…

        Also, I have just remembered that when we were little, my dad used to make us what he called “bavarka” (Bavarian tea), half a cup of strong tea with warm milk and sugar.

        Must go now, need a cup of tea, karak, chai, or bavarka!


        November 11, 2013
      • The secret to good “fuul” is lots of lemon juice and a generous sprinkling of “camun” (cumin), plus a dash of olive oil. But, letting you into a secret here, I love it with butter… Quel horreur! Actually, I was thrilled to read recently, in a book about ayurveda, that butter is tonic for the brain: Oh bliss!

        I can’t believe that Katherine likes the tea – it’s almost undrinkable, to my mind. Memories of my early days as a journalist in Qatar include various interviewees who kindly arranged for me to have a cup of tea, being a guest in their office. Along came a cup of brightly coloured, super-sweet stuff where extra sugar had been added to the already very sweet condensed milk. My grimacing had nothing to do with the quality of the interview, everything to do with the drink – I could hardly swallow it!

        November 11, 2013
  2. Anonymous #

    I must try it with butter (though much prefer olive oil, not for any pretentious health-related reasons, just personal taste). Butter is tonic for the brain? Oh gosh, I’m in trouble…

    Katherine uses unsweetened condensed milk and adds maybe a spoonful of sugar so it’s not as sickly as the tea you had the misfortune to drink!

    November 11, 2013

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