Egyptian Vignettes; The Speedy Bee, 1992:
Visiting a computer show
Lunching in the beeyard
Ramadan: No more lunches in the beeyard
Papyrus: Where are the honey bees?
On Translation: Speaking beekeeping and one’s own language
VISITING A COMPUTER SHOW
The rain fell in sheets and a wind howled through the corridors between high rise hotels on Alexandria’s corniche (quay). The water stood several inches high in the streets and drowned out cars were being pushed out of puddles everywhere. Adding to the commotion, the Mediterranean sent swell after swell crashing over the sea wall, further dousing the streets. In this melee, I found myself driving a small standard shift Peugeot at night in Egypt with no valid driver’s license. I was actively praying to the ancient Egyptian gods not to be stranded in a water pool or worse, rear ended by one of the many cars that zoomed around me at breakneck speed in spite of some of the worst driving conditions I had ever seen.
It started innocently enough. It was my second week in Egypt and all day the February rains had washed out the plans we’d made to inspect more honey bee colonies in the countryside. We sat around the unheated building, blowing on our hands, discussing implementation of a subproject to develop beekeeping in the new lands being reclaimed from the desert. I made some remarks to Hanan, the administrative assistant in the office, about computers. She and I discussed electronic models of bee colonies that were being developed and some of the extensive databases of apicultural information also in the works. I concluded with my favorite subject, electronic worldwide computer communications via the Internet. She, a student in electrical engineering, suggested we take in a computer show at the five star Ramada Inn. I jumped at the opportunity.
Hanan picked me up at my hotel, but the fellow who was supposed to drive us never showed. When I got into the car, I didn’t realize that Hanan, the age of any college trained graduate in the United States, was a neophyte driver. I soon found out, but unfortunately during one of the worst rains mixed with hail ever recorded in Alexandria; this storm system also dumped snow that night as far away as Jordan and Israel.
Under normal conditions, Hanan would have reached the hotel with ease. She was almost too careful, driving tentatively and not keeping up with traffic. In Egypt, this is a recipe of disaster given the number of cars on the road and the aggressiveness of the drivers. We had several anxious moments getting to the Ramada Inn, but it was still daylight and the conditions had yet to deteriorate to chaos.
Once inside the hotel,I momentarily forgot the storm. The array of computer technology was astounding. Some of the most interesting displays were new software packages that write in Arabic script from right to left. The letters are made with great flowing flourishes, they are works of art in themselves, adorning Egyptian mosques rather than paintings of prophets. The script was handled well by the new EGA and VGA monitors on display. Other technological wonders included CDROM and MIDI for musical instruments. In addition, the presence of note-book-sized 386 computers, unimaginable just five short years ago anywhere, and now available throughout the Third World, was surprising.
For the record, there was a total lack of Apple/Macintosh technology; it was all MSDOS machinery, principally IBM clones. The drone and hum of all those computers, printers and CDROM drives was somehow comforting, and we had a pleasant interlude drinking a glass of Coca Cola® before the show closed down. Back on the street it was another story. The storm’s intensity has obviously increased and darkness had descended. After Hanan churned through two puddles where the engine almost sputtered to a stop, I made an on-the-spot decision to drive. To top it all off, we had to gas up. I’ll not forget the old Egyptian gas station attendant pumping fuel beneath a flimsy piece of plastic and giving us a few soggy bills in change. Then with Hanan telling me which streets were one way (I couldn’t read the Arabic script!) and where the stop signs were located (many of them are ignored by drivers anyway!) we arrived back at my hotel, shaken but alive. In the morning, I was far more appreciative of the professional driver who ferried me around the rest of my time in country.
LUNCHING IN THE BEE YARD
We sat around on empty supers discussing treatment of Varroa bee mites. I had just finished one of the many glasses of aromatic, sweet tea Arabic style that I was to enjoy while in Egypt. The host announced it was time for lunch. We repaired to a small, covered enclosure made out of thin bamboo, thatched with mud.
Out of nowhere, two huge metal trays appeared. Where they could have come from and whose hands had been involved in making this repast remains a mystery to this day. I sensed feminine involvement, but women mostly remained out of sight during my visits to Egyptian beekeeper’s houses. The trays were laced with bright, green leaf lettuce, and interspersed with various cheeses and butter. Sometimes a cup of extremely rich cream stood out in the display and always a bowl of fresh, aromatic honey. The meal was accompanied by fresh chewy pita and at times a thin, crusty slab of bread that resembled, but could not be compared to, saltine crackers. The bread served two purposes, an ingredient of the meal and a universal utensil.
For someone who was used to spoons, forks and. knives, and culturally conditioned that eating with the hands was inherently unsanitary, this was at first a shock. However, hunger replaced reluctance as we all broke bread and dipped it in cream or honey or used it to grab chunks of cheese. Water was also served in the same manner, one pitcher and one communal glass. I usually declined, waiting for the hot tea that I knew would follow.
After the meal, cigarettes were offered. Not the hand-rolled Turkish tobacco stuffed ones that I thought I might see in Egypt, but mostly Marlboros, full of Virginia tobacco. I was served many good meals in Egypt. At one home, delicious, cold chicken accompanied spicy hot vegetables and onions. I could not get enough milk-soaked rice cooked in its own special pottery container. But no matter how elegant the food in other venues, there was nothing more delightful than lunch in the bee yard with a group of beekeepers sharing food much like the bees themselves do.
RAMADAN: NO MORE LUNCHES IN THE BEE YARD
It was 4:45 a.m., the chanting from the mosques crescendoed; I woke with a start. The Suhoor was over; the daily fast had begun, to end when the cannon sounded at six p.m. This would mark Iftar, the feast to break the period of abstinence. Every year in the Islamic world 30 days are set aside to fast from dawn to dusk. This the holy month of Ramadan. It is a lunar event and, thus, does not occur every year at the same time. Instead it crosses all seasons, not insignificant when there can be no eating, drinking nor smoking from dawn to dusk. In a desert country like Egypt, Ramadan is a lot easier to endure in winter and spring than in summer and fall, when the heat is far more intense and the days longer.
For one not accustomed to the idea of Ramadan, it can be strange. Yet it is similar to other religious holidays around the earth in one way; some people observe the traditions more than others. I remember a cab driver in the Sinai, for example, sucking gleefully on dates; another (a Pakistani who drove me from Dulles Airport to downtown Washington, D.C.) said he didn’t observe Ramadan while he was single, but now did so to save face with his new wife and her family. In the Islamic world, the religion is the law, and those disregarding Ramadan can at best be ostracized, at worst, jailed.
For myself, there were adjustments to be made too. The wonderful lunches in the beeyard I had been enjoying suddenly ceased. Even if not actively observing the traditions of Ramadan, one cannot help but be caught up in its wake. The work day was necessarily affected. It began later, and after fasting for over nine hours and staying up most of the previous night so as to eat as near dawn as possible, people often were unable to concentrate on tasks. This is not an insurmountable problem in most situations, but considering the care required to safely drive in Egypt, it was an imporant consideration. I also noticed more intense fights caused by irritability during traffic jams.
Finally, few restaurants were open during the day and so if one chose to eat, it had to be planned well in advance. I functioned by carrying around fruit and candy bars, guiltily downing them when nobody was watching.
Like many religious practices, over the years, the idea behind Ramadan has been compromised. The reason for fasting is to ensure that all may know the feel of hunger. It is presumed that this experience will generate some empathy by the wealthy towards the poor. However, what has happened is that because of the timing of the meals, many people in Egypt eat much more during the Suhour and Iftar than if they spaced meals throughout the day. In fact, the breaking of the fast seemed like a month-long thanksgiving dinner. Restaurants advertised it as Christmas or Thanksgiving are promoted in the United States. I was glad to be in Egypt during Ramadan in spite of adjustments that were necessary. It is a colorful, uniquely Islamic event and provided me with a better understanding of cultural differences and similarities that can exist around the world.
PAPYRUS: WHERE ARE THE HONEY BEES?
Before me lay a long, dark green stem. It was topped by a spike of tiny florets. The reed had just been taken from the water by Ahmed. He deftly sliced it several times lengthwise and pounded each piece with a wooden hammer. The water ran off as the fibers were crushed flat, the first step in making Egyptian paper out of papyrus. I was in one of the numerous papyrus institutes around the storied pyramids of Giza. Next Ahmed showed me how the fibers were woven together before being dried.
The final act in this “free” show was a tour of the gallery. Here one could choose from a host of finished papyrus products, numbered and signed by artists, available at varied prices, depending on size. Ahmed insisted that I was not required to buy anything, but the pressure was obviously on. Most of the sheets I saw were adorned with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, a mixture of animistic and other symbols. I stopped in front of one that I was to see in many other places. A large, black beetle–the sacred scarab–surrounded by a sea of gold.
When I informed Ahmed I was an entomologist and admired the beetle, his eyes lit up, ready for a sale. But it proved to be a disappointing day for both myself and the papyrus salesman. For there was not one work in the gallery, or any other one I visited, which showed either honey bees or beekeepers. Like so many other traditional arts geared toward the tourist trade, decisions made as to what to portray on Egyptian papyrus are based on what is perceived to sell, not on what might be intrinsically interesting or of significance to the society from whence the technique arose. Apiculture was important to the ancient Egyptians at least as much as the scarab beetle. As I told Ahmed, here was one fellow who wasn’t going to purchase a beetle rendition just because it was the only game in town. I doubt, however, that my small protest will result in any tangible effect. When I return to the papyrus galleries, as I hope to do, I suspect the honey bees will continue to get short shrift and yet another sale to this apiculturist will be lost.
ON TRANSLATION: SPEAKING BEEKEEPING AND ONE’S OWN LANGUAGE
Only in the heat of the process, does one discover what it means to be translated from one language to another, We all know how messages can get distorted as they pass through the filters of other’s experiences, even if there is no language shift. Imagine then, a trained person in beekeeping trying to explain to another beekeeper some concept about a complex, social insect, when the message first must go through an intermediary who has no beekeeping experience. A whole host of questions arise. Is the message understood and on what level? Should the message be amplified or perhaps given a different focus? And the list goes on.
I had some excellent and some poor translators in Egypt. In either case, however, it still was a strain for all concerned. Basically, any translator in the trade must not only know the vernacular, but also the vocabulary of the topic in question. I don’t know an answer to this sticky situation except for the consultant to speak two languages fluently: their own and that of the beekeeper.
That’s probably not going to happen anytime soon as more and more U.S. volunteer beekeeping consultants are recruited for duty in Egypt and other areas of the world. I know one technique that will help, however, that is to learn to not only listen, but look at the translator’s body language. And if there’s ever a doubt about the communication process, the consultant must insist on getting his story across or untold harm will be done.
TURNING THE TABLES: SELL AND DON’T BE SOLD
I have to admit I got pumped up when visiting St. Catherine’s Monastery deep in the heart of Sinai. There was something rare in the air, and it was a cool, clear desert spring day. So when the camel drivers descended, I caved in and bought a ride. A short one it turned out to be, but it set a precedent. The foreigner who rides once is not left alone to savor the experience. Instead the cries from the other drivers of cheaper, longer, more exciting rides crescendo to a fever pitch.
I have learned a few things being a tourist. A primary goal is to make a negative experience into a positive one. One fail-safe mechanism to do this is to turn the tables on the would-be seller of touristic folderol. Instead of being a buyer, become a seller. So, in the case of one camel driver who simply wouldn’t let me alone in the monastery’s environs, I finally seized the initiative. I offered to sell hime my old pair of binoculars.
At first, he gave me a jaundiced eye of disbelief. He was further confounded when I told him the inexpensive price. I even showed him it was broken; I didn’t want him to feel cheated. The focusing knurl had long ago given out, its threads stripped away by too firm a twist. To focus, I communicated to him, one must move the eye pieces with both hands, the reason the price was low. This took some colorful sign language as no interpreter was present. My outlook changed radically as I exhibited the binoculars and unabashedly promoted them to the fullest. The camel driver looked very hard and called on some of his compatriots to examine the merchandise. Several gave sage opinions as to quality and value, although I didn’t understand the nuances, being in Arabic. He finally made a counter offer, usually a sign that the transaction would be consummated at some price between the initial ask and give. Alas, I wasn’t aggressive enough, and the sale finally fell through. I was reminded of the incident when one of my companions on that day sent me a picture of the bargaining in process. It also provided the impetus to put the idea on paper and perhaps help change another tourist’s negative experience with one far more potentially memorable.