Yesterday just before sunset my neighbor A. and his daughters arrived unannounced and loaded us all into the donkey cart to go to their garden. It is less than 10 minutes ride away but like all the gardens here it feels like a world away – a lush greenness and shade after the constant sand colours and daily increasing glare, now the heat is here, of the Siwan streets.
I have realized I must always have cover for my arms ready in case anyone comes to the house, due to Siwan codes of modest dress for women, but I now also realize the dresses that are ideal for me to walk around in are mostly not suitable for putting one foot up on the large wheel of a donkey cart and hoisting your other leg over and into the cart. A and T looked the other way while I lifted my dress, showing off far too much leg, and settled myself with the girls in the cart. So as well as a long sleeved top that also covers any cleavage, I need to have ready to wear at no notice some long pants for under a skirt or dress, which is what the Siwan women wear.
The next revelation was that as the men sit up front on the driver’s seat, the girls get smoke blown backwards over us as we travel (most Egyptian men smoke). When T handed me his cigarettes to put in my bag, the eldest daughter and I discussed in our mix of Arabic and English the option of throwing his cigarettes out instead, but we decided the wrath that would result would not be worth it. It is amazing how easily two people thinking the same thing can come to an agreement with little shared language, and it is lovely to have a young woman with a lively sense of humor, especially when it comes to the men here, to joke with or share condolences with over their sometimes impossible behavior.
As part of our tour of the garden, A. climbed a date palm to show us how they are fertilized, I had seen this done before but T had not, and for readers benefit I will explain – there are male and female palms and part of the male plant is placed in the new fronds now evident on the female palms, to ensure that in October there will be a harvest of dates. Each tree can produce about 100 kilo of dates when in its prime, this may drop to 30 kilos as the tree ages.
Aside from date palms, A’s garden also has the usual Siwa mix of olive and other fruit trees including several beautiful fig trees with the green figs now half full size. I benefit from the garden every few days as he brings me a large bunch of fresh rocket, which is eaten with meals here simply washed and put on a plate, still with its roots attached, for eaters to pick leaves from, rather than being copped and mixed into a salad with other leaves as we would in Australia.
There is a fruit apparently unique to Siwa which looks and tastes like a very sweet round apple, but a miniature apple – each fruit is the size of a cherry and has a similar seed inside. When I have previously been offered this fruit it was mostly hard and rather bland, but those in A’s garden were softer and sweet, a delicious, cool and crisp treat. T. likes these so much he climbed a tree and shook it to get more to fall, and the girls collected them for us all to enjoy.
The baby girl was shy and would cry when she saw me the first few times, but this time she was all smiles, and let me lift her from the cart and carry her some of the time on the garden. She said “Hello, hello” in English (T thinks it is amusing when I answer the phone with a drawn out “Hello”, as the Egyptians say a sharp “ullo”, or something in Arabic) and she has also picked up and adds to the conversation “mmm” “mmm”, because that is the noncommital sound I make when I am not really sure I understand what I am being told by her sisters in Arabic. Later in the evening when she saw my cat Habibi come out to eat, she repeatedly called out “Bibi! Bibi!”. I think that being at the age when children imitate everything adults say, as their way of learning language, she will learn English faster than I learn Arabic and Siwan.
The garden has a small spring pool, about a metre long by half a metre wide, cool and good tasting, and she loves to be held over this with her feet dangling in the water, and cries when taken away from it. Watching A. do this with his daughter reminded me of a photo I have of me at this age, with my Dad dangling my feet in a pool. She let me hold her like this for some time too, reaching forward to touch the water with her hands as well.
It is a lovely, peaceful hour in the garden,m with T and the girls teasing and playing with each other, and hopefully we will go again soon, a great way to unwind at the end of the day. On the way home the sun was setting and the moon had already risen, so I learnt the Arabic for full moon and crescent moon. The family has another garden further out in the desert which will also visit some time.
As women are not to be photographed here, I am wary of taking photos of them, even though they are young, but hope in time they will trust me to do this. I can’t imagine what it would be like not to have pictures of your growing up with your parents and siblings.