Photos from the bead souk

Pearls on walls

I promised pictures from the bead souk - even on a Sunday when most shops were closed it was spectacular. You can see the beginning of a wall of pearls with a glimpse of turquoise behind. There was amber below.

A glowing wall of coral

I couldn't get over how wonderful the colours seemed in the corals. They may well be chemically boosted. Somehow I don't really care. It reminded me that I tell my students to use every red, not just one or two, if they really want a piece to glow.

About one quarter of the turquoise wall
About one quarter of the turquoise wall

This is not a picture with a lot of impact as the details are but I really want to get across the scale of this one shop. Add in the walls of amethyst, carnelian, peridot, malachite, lapis, coral, pearls and multiply that by perhaps another thirty shops in the streets nearby and you are getting an idea of the possibilities here.

The better quality
Better quality turquoise with the rough rocks at the bottom.

My favourite are the oddly greenish turquoise of the lowest grade with almost as much rock as semi-precious stone.

Smaller turquoise
The little ones.



We went to one of the most astonishing bead shops I have ever seen one in a street of closed shops. Walls of turquoise, walls of pearls , walls of coral. Semi precious stones all mixed up in huge vats – treasures I can hardly bear to think about. I priced two necklaces. One has a thick triple strand of amethysts and a heavy silver pendant. Fifty dollars Australian.

The other had four ropes of lumpy turquoises of that strange shade between green and turquoise which I love, and a heavy pendant greenstone mounted in silver, with delicate flowers and leaves twisting sinuously over the pendant front. It was seventy dollars.

In the street around the corner was a row of shops with sterling silver – findings and glorious beads.

Most of the shops in both streets were closed for Sunday – it is obviously a Coptic area. I can hardly believe what it must be like when all of two whole streets are open for business, all with the same sorts of beads. The choice must be breathtaking.

“What are you looking for?” from the urger in the souk.


“We have nothing. What colour would you like?”

We had to go to the licence registry to organise an Egyptian licence. I had organised something else, but arranged to meet my friends later so we could go – most paper work is a long and complicated process in Egypt, and can require several signatures in several different locations.

I was told it would be ten minutes. I rather cynically assumed about forty.

We drove to the area – and the traffic was heavy so that was complicated.

We realized Ashraf, one of the Embassy drivers was standing at the entrance, elegant in his suit and waving.

The car was waved straight in. It pulled up, we stepped out and followed Ashraf. We went straight into a room so packed with people that I couldn’t see how we could get through. A word from Ashraf to a man at the end and they all melted away like water on a hot bonnet at Bondi.

We moved into a small crowded room at the end, and once again, as we entered everyone vanished. They closed the door. I sat on a row of chairs at Ashraf’s suggestion, and the whole thing tilted back dangerously. I sat a little more gingerly.

They asked me to move to another chair almost immediately.

I did, my photo was taken, then Bob’s, and we were out. It must have taken a maximum of three minutes – and Ashraf stayed to organise the paperwork while we went off with Mohammed, another Embassy driver. I now have a licence to drive here. Our car is now registered, and in a few days we will have coped with insurance. Then I have no excuse not to drive.

Our favourite restaurant in the souk, Naguib Mahfouz, was booked out completely by a tour group.

We headed for another coffee shop nerby.

They came to take our order. We asked for mezze with Aish Balady (local bread). No Aish balady, but they had other bread.

What did they have.?

“Potato, falafel, and ful.” The latter is a broad bean and garlic mix common here as a breakfast dish – and it would guarantee you a seat of your own on most buses at home!

We asked for one of each and sat to enjoy our little dishes of food.

What we got was three sandwiches – half a piece of local bread, one filled with falafel and salad, one with ful medames, and one with potato – mashed!


Cough Medicine

We have had computer problems - and though I have been writing I have not had internet access that would allow me to update. So - there are three separate logs in rapid succession and one has some very weird symbols! Keep reading.

In just over a week we have done trips to Alexandria and Al Arish and Wadi Hitan (with whalebones). We have hardly had a night at home with the highlight being a wonderful dinner in our honour with the Irish Ambassador and his wife – who are very nearly Australian as they have three children in Australia. We have held three parties at the Residence – one for forty five people. We had a dinner theatre invitation for tonight at the British Residence, a dinner with a friend from the US Embassy tomorrow night, and a recital from a classical guitar player followed by a reception on Saturday night – and I have just pulled out of the last three.

I have had a cold for more than ten days – which is really too long, especially as I feel worse today than I have before.

I had a call from Bob this morning telling me he had organised a doctor. He knew very well that I would have refused if he had checked with me first. Now for the real evidence that we are no longer in Australia. The doctor would come to the house at 5.00 pm.

At 3.30 there was another phone call. The doctor was a little earlier in his appointments than he had considered. Could he come between 4.00 pm and 5.00 pm?

At 4.20 there was a ring at the doorbell. Bob opened it to find it was Gamal – our gardener who had knocked off at 3.00 pm because it was Thursday (Friday is the day off in Egypt and most Moslem countries). He had a large and gift wrapped parcel in his hands, which he gave to Bob. It was cold and very hard, but impossible to guess from the shape. He kept telling us that it was a ‘batta balady’ and indicating me.

Seeing our total mystification he charged through the house and to the cleaning cupboard. He pulled it open, dived into its depths, and emerged holding a box with on of those gadgets that tucks in the sides of the toilet to ‘clean and deodorize as you flush’. ‘Batta’ he said, indicating the picture on the front, which showed a fat and happy duck!

He had brought me a frozen duck to make me strong again. ‘Balady’ means local.

He has a small farm on the roof of his apartment – a pigeon house, some goats, chickens and ducks. After dinners I give him plate scrapings, and vegetable trimmings and leftovers that we won’t eat to take home for them.

I was so incredibly touched. He lives a long way out of town, and went home and came all the way back as he had heard me coughing and was worried.

The doctor arrived shortly after Gamal left.

He looked the consultant physician he was in his perfectly fitted pin-striped suit with one button fastened, pure white shirt and yellow tie. He had dark hair silvering at the temples – just enough to say ‘trust me, I’m a doctor’. His English was perfect, his manner professional. I was quickly but thoroughly examined, and diagnosed as having a secondary infection in the lungs. With a lot of pneumonia around he didn’t want it to get any worse so I am on antibiotics.

There was another odd moment when he asked me if I preferred my antibiotics to be ‘front door or back door’. I was prepared to believe that the chemist would deliver (and I know that they do), but thought it was oddly worded.

Then I realized what he meant. The French influence here lives on and he was asking if I would prefer a suppository.

It is hard to imagine that anyone would!


Trip to Al Arish

Trip to Al Arish

The photo of the dune was taken from the car (stationary) on the way to the middle of nowhere.

I am writing this sitting in a small hotel room in Al Arish. The Mediterranean is licking softly at a white beach only thirty metres away. I think it would be an accurate guess that no-one reading this has been here, unless you are in Australia's armed forces and have had an MFO posting.

This is a small town on the top end of the Sinai Peninsula, nuzzled in a friendly way against Gaza (unlike the occupants of the countries).

I would like to say it was an interesting drive. Most of it really wasn't just flat scrubby desert with an occasional small town until we reached the bridge over the Suez Canal.

Then it became sand dune after sand dune, encroaching on the road in sly drifts, a strange light to medium landscape that was somehow more like the sea - grey sky, grey road, and wave after wave of sand. The water table here is high, and now and again in dips in the sand were date palms, or even more strangely, sheets of very still water lying in silver sky-coloured ribbons beside the road. Houses in the occasional tiny town were poor with shutters and no windows.

Al Arish means 'the feather' - a great name.

The road to Al Arish
The road to Al Arish

Just to show you what I mean - this is a shot taken from the window an hour after we left. Nobody said that every picture had to be good. Even taken from a Mercedes.

and again....

This one was another hour later.

And more.....

The road ahead half an hour after that.

A short stop near the power lines
A short stop near the power lines

And again - aken on a leg stretch I the middle of the Sinai.
Then suddenly there was traffic banked up ahead of us before the gates and checkpoint that would let us onto the bridge. A large US ship was going under the bridge, so they had just closed it. Bob chatted to friendly guards, I sat in the car and read a book.

The Sinai Peninsula was much more interesting with large sand dunes encroaching on the road, scrubby growth, very poor looking towns without even glass in the windows of the houses, and surprisingly prolific gardens - though most of it looked the same. A large number of power poles followed the road through the sane dunes, and it looked odd - just sand and sky and masses of power poles, with the odd glimpse of grey sea. Bob is a historian (by interest) of the wars in this region, and enlivened the trip with stories of the campaigns in the towns we drove through, and the problems they had keeping enough water and food coming in for men and horses. I looked at the region we were driving though, and wondered why anyone would want to fight for it. The answer was, of course, control of the Suez Canal.

We are staying at a "resort". The room is fine - sparse and clean with two large beds. I have a heavy cold and I am recovering form a couple of days of the Pharaoh's Revenge. Bob went off for his meetings and helicopter ride, I walked the beach, and then the bed looked very inviting. Five am starts are just not my thing! The bed was very solid. I reached for the pillow and could hardly lift it!

The dining room in the middle of nowhere
The dining room in the middle of nowhere

We left again at 5.45 in the morning. I doubt if I will ever be used to these very early starts - but next time I am going up in the helicopter!


Breakfast at Alexandria

I promised more about Alexandria. Several days late, other than a truly spectacular seafood dinner at Abu Ashraf's the thing that has most lodged in my head is the oddity of our breakfast at the Windsor Palace Hotel.

We sat down for breakfast at a table with five seats, as there were no small tables left. Bob collected what he wanted quickly while I cruised an excellent buffet. When I returned he nodded quietly towards a plate with a single segment of orange on it, and a half cup of black coffee.

“She has been to the table twice and hasn’t yet acknowledged my existence.”

Then a gentleman sat down in the seat beside me. He didn't look at us.

In good Australian style I said ‘good morning’ and was ignored.

Then the lady (blond and slim enough to snap if she attempted to pullup her socks) came back with a half piece of burnt toast on her plate.

Bob waited till she was seated and very clearly and loudly said “good morning.”

She did not even look our way, but sat and gave all her attention to the man beside her.

Both began chatting loudly and very enthusiastically, with lots of nodding and ‘ja, ja’.

Bob said loudly “It is odd being ignored isn’t it?”

I nodded. The conversation had reached a rattling pace on the other side of the table. He was eating, she toyed with her half piece of burnt toast, then examined the segment of orange carefully, peeled off some stray white bits and put it back on her plate. She didn’t actually eat even one mouthful.

Bob said “I couldn’t keep up this level of conversation at the breakfast table.” He couldn’t either – he tends to move into business mode at breakfast, and ask me things like “What’s on your itinerary for today?”

He smiled across the table as the woman almost glanced our way, then her eyes skittered away like a frightened pony. She went back to talking with animation to her partner. It was all I could do not to just sit and stare, as it all felt so peculiar.

It reminded me of a time when I had dinner with an Austrian friend while living in Jordan. After the meal she rounded on me and accused me of terrible table manners, and said that was very bad for an Ambassador’s wife.

I was a bit non-plussed, and asked what I had done. She pointed out that while eating soup I had my left hand in my lap, not resting at the wrist on the table as it was supposed to be.

I pointed out that it seemed to me that hardly anyone had a wrist on the table, and she said “but they are not cultured, you are supposed to be.” I pointed out that I suspected that it was European manners, and was not known in Australia or Jordan and she said that she was glad she had told me so I could get it right in future.

Anyway, it suddenly occurred to me that this couple at the breakfast table was probably as appalled at our bad manners in acknowledging their existence, as we were appalled at theirs in not acknowledging us! Both of us were breeching etiquette according to our customs.

She ate nothing through a long breakfast, just reduced everything on her plate to very small pieces. We left without them ever even looking at us.