Our March speaker Janet Diamond gave members a fascinating talk on the joys and difficulties of her time as a European expat in Cairo, writes Juliet Eberle
At the first mention of Egypt many of us immediately think of the pyramids and the ancient Egyptians and the extraordinary artefacts left to us by Tutankhamen and his forbears together with the powerful and complex culture that thrived on the banks of the Nile for many thousands of years.
Janet Diamond presented a talk on her own life in Cairo in the 1980s as a young wife with a husband and 19-month-old son living through the hardships and joys of everyday existence while at the same time delighting in the many rich, intermingling cultures in which she was immersed and still having the time to delve into the history of ancient Egypt.
Through a thoughtful presentation of slides, both from her own experiences and from photos taken in the 1930s of a very sedate city, often with European architectural influences, we gained an insight into the circumstances in which she and her family had to live and how she observed the atmosphere in the streets deteriorate, evolving into the more chaotic, noisy Cairo that we know today.
Janet explained the political backdrop against which they found themselves: what conditions were like under President Nasser from 1956-70, how President el-Sadat had very different policies, and how the Egyptians and expats worked hard to rebuild infrastructure, to put right the frequent power cuts, the lack of air conditioning.
Janet explained how there was no fresh milk available, and when just one chance presented itself to stock up on milk powder she stocked up for the rest of her stay in Egypt.
There was no municipal collection of rubbish but this service was very efficiently provided by the ‘zabbaleen’ – a name which means ‘rubbish collectors’ – a section of society collecting rubbish in wooden carts and surviving by recycling from what they collected.
Wine, but of limited variety and quality, and only flatbread was available. Flies, mosquitos, heat and diarrhoea were free and plentiful.
There were some wonderful benefits to Janet’s time in Cairo: she had the service of a delightful hard-working Egyptian; wonderful horse rides into the desert, galloping on the plateau around the Great Pyramid; access to historical sites – some now no longer permitted; many hours and days spent browsing through Cairo’s deeply fascinating museum; and getting to know Egyptologists.
How different Janet’s tour from the Valley of the Kings to the Valley of the Queens was from today’s guided coach tours became apparent as she described the hair-raising donkey trail her guide took her on over a perilously high mountain with loose shingle. She was forced to place her trust and her life in the hands of her guide and a very sure-footed donkey.
These experiences, together with others equally terrifying, make for indelible memories and wonderful stories both to relate and listen to. Janet held the members present spellbound for a good hour or more.