Two and a half years ago, when I started gardening in New Cairo, I would have said that it was the most important part of my life here – without question a higher priority, and far more pleasurable, than trying to get the house in order or any other aspect of settling in to life in Egypt.
But by this stage, I have come to the conclusion that it’s in second place. Far more important is my yoga practice: breathing, physical exercises and meditation. It’s a daily “must” and I can’t imagine life without it.
How has this happened?
To a large extent, it’s a function of the strain of living in Egypt.
Thirty-five years ago, when I first came to the country as a graduate student, daily life was a challenge. Before President Sadat’s “open door policy” and, arguably, before the main rush of remittances from Egyptians living in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, trade and commerce were limited, consumer goods in short supply, imports expensive, and telecommunications and other infrastructure in poor shape. Yet, from my experience, the great majority of Egyptians were kind and helpful, their lives shaped by a combination of work or study, family life and piety. If life was at times constrained, still they knew how to enjoy themselves – at the clubs, at football matches, by the seaside and, as we students discovered, on hilarious university outings travelling third class to far-flung parts of the country.
Now, the infrastructure has improved, the internet is pretty good, everyone has a mobile, Carrefour has arrived… and conspicuous consumption is rampant. Private schools and universities, hospitals and clinics have mushroomed – there’s a whole colony of them in our area. The old favourites of the well-to-do, Chevrolets and Cadillacs, have been replaced by BMWs and even Porsches. But there is no discernible sign that the poor have seen any change in their fate, which is largely to shift for themselves.
And what of the qualities I once admired? I rarely encounter them. Let’s take driving as a representative example. Roads here have never been easy to negotiate, but they are now a kind of killing fields. To drive out of our little town is to put your life on the line, no question. Or even within the town: the other day, my car was hit as I waited my turn at a roundabout. The guys who did it decided they couldn’t be bothered to wait so they barged through. My car was in their way.
Mini-bus drivers are next to lethal, pick-up truck drivers generally certifiable, lorry drivers to be avoided at all costs. Minor roads are impassable (owing to the parked cars), major roads worrisome, the Cairo ring road truly infamous. So defensive driving is the order of the day, all day every day. By night, we know that our friends in the above vehicles may not have a full set of lights, or may choose to use them only occasionally, or may drive along continually flashing them on and off. It’s wearing and upsetting, and the only way through is… the way of yoga.
And if the worst comes to the worst, and you are involved in an accident? A friend of mine tells me, from her extended family’s recent experience, you should pray that it isn’t on a Friday (no doctors available), that you have enough money on you to pay for the medical treatment (no payment up-front, no treatment, or take your chance with a government hospital), and that you don’t need urgent attention (the above take so long to solve, you’ll have missed your chance).
So why am I obsessing about planting by the moon? Have I gone mad – or are the others mad?