We are about ten days into the wintry month of “toba”. This is according to the solar Coptic calendar, itself based on ancient Egyptian custom, which to this day is used as a guide by many of Egypt’s farmers.
It can come as quite a shock to the system. After bright and sunny winter days, the weather has overnight turned chilly, blustery and dusty. As the temperature slips down to single digits and the wind whistles through the garden, the cold reaches the bones and turns old ladies into a shrivelled and shivering huddle: “el-a’agooza karkooba” as the traditional saying goes.
Looking out from the rooftop of our house, I rather wonder where we are. Wisely, the bees are keeping a very low profile, after emergency measures to wrap the hives against the terrible wind and sandstorm:
You will notice the complete absence of any bees at the entrances to the hives in the photograph taken this morning. This is very unusual.
“Toba” is the first month in “peret”, the season of growth that followed the Nile inundation. I use the past tense because all this changed with the building of the High Dam near Aswan in the 1960s. The traditional method of regulating agriculture according to the ebb and flow of the Nile waters no longer holds.
In other respects, too, agriculture in Egypt has changed hugely in recent decades. You see extensive greenhouses for cultivating flowers and exotic crops, techniques such as hydroponics have arrived, and there is locally grown produce rarely or never encountered in the past (apples, avocados, fresh mushrooms, and new varieties of courgettes, tomatoes etc).
But a blast of the “toba” wind has reminded me how precarious the lives of those who cultivated the land in Egypt always was. And how difficult it can be to manage even a garden on a modest scale in the C21.
So I have just covered with plastic sheet the pots of seedlings in the micro-nursery on the upstairs balcony. They were sown over the past couple of weeks in line with the biodynamic calendar: sweet peas, nasturtiums, petunias, cosmos, all now germinating nicely.
Choosing the transplanting time is going to be a challenge: the northern hemisphere time (NTT) starts on Thursday 21st; whether I can work with it will depend entirely on local conditions.
Meanwhile, how do Egyptians cope with the chilling blast of “toba”? Typically, the produce of the field helps. To take one example, sweetcorn is barbecued over hot coals on street stalls up and down the country, as seen here on the banks of the Nile in downtown Cairo:
Or sweet potatoes are baked in portable ovens that pop up all around town in the cold weather:
This stall was in the heart of Islamic Cairo, Shari’a Mu’ezz li-Din Allah: no customers at the time we passed by, but no doubt they would come as the workday ended.
But back to the garden: the seedlings may have to be cosseted for a couple more weeks before I can plant them out, perhaps on the first two days of February when we are still in an NTT.
Just one thing: it will, in addition, still be “toba” – the month goes on until about 7th February!