Egypt-based blogger Maryanne Stroud Gabbani started blogging in 2003 at the age of 54, after becoming frustrated with trying to answer people individually regarding how it was that she was so happy living in a place that the news said was so opposed to “western women”. She figured that hopefully a blog would reach more people and give Egypt a human face and has never looked back since.
Following is our interview with her:
Q. Who is Maryanne Stroud Gabbani? What are you doing in Egypt and why and when did you start blogging?
A. I am an American emigrant to Canada (during the 70's) who met and married a Sudanese/Egyptian emigrant to Canada while we were both grad students at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario. My late husband was my connection to Egypt and the fact that his businesses were keeping him in Egypt more than in Toronto after our kids were born was the reason for moving to Egypt. I got tired of shoveling the snow alone, I guess. I also had the odd notion that it was better for children to see their father once in a while. Moving to Egypt was entirely my idea and Diaa was actually quite against it as he could see that there were definite material advantages in living in Toronto. Our children were attending an excellent private French school and we had a lovely house in Etobicoke, but it just wasn't quite right, so we agreed to try living in Egypt for two years starting the summer of 1988. The family voted to stay in Egypt before the end of the two years. We lived in Alexandria for the first five years and then moved to Cairo as the demands of my husband's businesses dictated more and more time in the capital. We lived in Maadi to be near the American school where we transferred the children from a French school in Alex, Ecole Champollion in Ibrahimeya. As Canadians, we figured that they needed a bit of both languages and cultures, and as Egyptians they were quite settled in the new country, partly because we didn't travel back and forth every year like many ex-pat families. Instead, we spent time exploring Egypt, Europe and the Mediterranean. The kids only got to know North America again when they were getting ready to go to university.
I think that we got the internet in about 1996 or so, and I immediately began searching for email groups for riders/horse owners. I had two mares at Sakkara Country Club at the time and I was looking for more information on horse care and training. I found a group for general equestrian interests and another for endurance riding, two groups that I still belong to over ten years later. It was the administrator for one of these lists who gave me the link to the famous Baghdad Blogger in 2002/3. I'd never heard of blogging before and I was struck by the immediacy of his writing from Iraq. At that point I was relatively newly widowed when my husband was killed in a flying accident, and my kids were in New York at Columbia University. In fact, both of them were there the morning of 9/11 and I was the one who called them from Cairo to warn them to stay on campus as we had no idea what was going on there.
The endurance riders (an interesting group of lunatics who think that it's fun to ride 50 to 100 miles on horses) had contact with the Gulf Arabs because the families of Dubai and Abu Dhabi had taken up endurance in the 90's, and by some weird fluke I had found myself the manager of a 120 km race that was Egypt's first international endurance race sponsored by Mohamed Maktoum in the spring of 2000, just before my husband's death. I was the only person on the organising committee formed in Cairo for the race who had even the vaguest idea what endurance was, though it was entirely academic and my friends abroad helped to coach me through the ordeal. Some of the endurance people had visited Dubai for races and they had a lot of questions following 9/11 regarding my life in Egypt and the lack of conformity between what they were seeing in the media about the Middle East and what they'd experienced. I can't count the number of times I was asked, “But how are you, a North American woman alone, coping in that country that is so anti-western?” and I got sick of answering individually. That was when I decided to start writing my first blog, Living In Egypt. My goal was to talk about ordinary day to day boring life in Egypt so that people could see that it really wasn't all that different from other places and that it really wasn't so scary. I had no idea that I'd still be writing it four years later.
Q. How many blogs do you maintain? What are they? Can you briefly describe each one of them and explain why you set it up?
A. I now have three blogs, Living In Egypt, which is still about just that. Early in 2005, after I'd moved out of the city to the countryside, I began Turn Right at the Sarcophagus, which is about riding and horses in Egypt. The name for that blog came from a quote from an endurance riding visitor from the US who went off into gales of laughter as we were talking about a riding trail between Sakkara and Dahshur. The trail crosses a railway and turns right where there is a large sarcophagus lying by the tracks. Where else can you have a set of directions like that? My third blog is the Cairo/Giza Daily Photo, and I was invited to participate in the Daily Photo group by members who liked the photographs that I published on my other blogs. I started the Daily Photo blog early this year. It involves publishing a photo daily or as close to daily as can be achieved with a short explanation of what is in the photo. I tend to choose photos of people doing interesting things rather than buildings or landscapes on the whole.
Q. What do you blog about? What are the topics closest to your heart?
A. Over the years I've realised that I have a passion to show the human face of Egypt to the world. When I met Diaa and learned that he was Egyptian my first response was to laugh and ask where his little skirt was and why he wasn't walking sideways. And then I was stunned at how little I knew about modern Egypt other than a few bullet points like the nationalisation of the Suez Canal or the building of the Aswan High Dam. I felt very stupid even though I'd spent an entire year at Berkeley as an undergrad studying Egyptian art and architecture. When we were first together, I put in quite a lot of time on reading historical, sociological and religious books about Egypt and the Middle East. I had been working on a PhD (never finished) in social psychology, so the research came naturally. Later, once we'd moved to Egypt I began collecting a fairly extensive collection of books written by explorers, visitors, and Egyptians about Egypt. The media blitz against the Middle East and Islam in the wake of 9/11 was, for me, a serious slap in the face. When I tried to find ordinary information about Egypt on the net, it was almost impossible, so I hoped that Living In Egypt would become a source for ordinary people who wanted to know about ordinary things.
It's hard to say what topics are closest to my heart. Anything that can show the richness and diversity of culture, tradition and language in Egypt (despite Nasser's attempts to extinguish it) lights me up. Sometimes I will write about politics but I really believe that political events are not what take up our time and anguish during our days, no matter where we live. On the other hand, trying to find a particular teacher for our children or working through a social morass of the sorts that confront extended families…these are the things that occupy our minds and thoughts, and most of the time they meander into issues of ethics, morality and tradition. Perception of social situations is important to me and the way in which the reality is often not perceived because we get too carried away with our own assumptions. I've always said that I never actually quit social psychology…I just moved my lab. Having raised two multicultural children of two multicultural parents (my husband was Sudanese/Egyptian and I'm American/British) I have been sensitized to issues of identity and cultural assimilation and change. All of this can be found in a discussion of regional cooking, literature, marriage customs…almost anything.
Q. You write about personal and general issues. Which are the issues which show the real face of Maryanne Gabbani?
A. I suspect that I am closest to the surface when I talk about families and children. I worked three different jobs simultaneously while I was pregnant with my son in Toronto. We had to cancel my classes for the next week from the hospital. But my husband had to travel a lot and we felt that children needed one full-time parent…even if that was made up by two part-times…and since he wasn't going to be there, I took on being a mother as a full-time job. As our family was Muslim, however relaxed we might be in observance, I had to raise my children within that tradition. I wanted them to reap the benefits of the North American culture along with the benefits of the Egyptian/Sudanese cultures. It was a quite a tightrope to walk for a number of years and not the easiest job I ever had. The hours were terrible too. The issues were compounded when we moved to Egypt and the Egyptian family found interactions with the children to be a bit odd sometimes. Our kids were much more independent than their cousins, much more outspoken (God forbid!), and critical of their surroundings. They came by these traits quite honestly having learned them from both parents, but as members of a Middle Eastern family these characteristics were not always appreciated by members of the extended family.
As the children grew up, the issue of just what exactly they were emerged. Were they Canadian, Egyptian, or Sudanese? Well, they were perfect Canadians though they didn't live there and their affinity for sunshine and warmth made it a bit unlikely that they would in the near future, but they had to work out for themselves what they felt that they were. I still remember how my daughter shocked her Egyptian friends on the first day of school when they were told to stand with people from “their country” and rather than stand with her Egyptian or Canadian friends she went to stand with her Sudanese cousins. Additional issues of being “not really Egyptian” came up for them because of my being Canadian. I always found this a bit silly considering the ethnic pearl that the modern Egyptian is, having layer after layer of immigrant blood. But it's an issue. While my children where in middle and high school I worked as a substitute teacher at the American school in Maadi where a lot of the children were of mixed backgrounds or had moved so many times that they were having to manufacture their own cultural identity. It was something that fascinated me. Our children are our future and I believe that being a conscious and conscientious full time mother is a very honorable job.
Q. As a Western woman living in Egypt, how do you associate with the women around you and how do you portray them in your writings?
A. Most of my friends in Egypt are either Egyptians or women like myself who have invested themselves in this country. Since moving to my farm, I've begun taking people out riding in the farming area and the desert near Abu Sir and some of my ex-pat clients have become very dear friends, but in the end they always have to leave. The women in my particular area are for the most part the poorer farming women and I always take the time to say hello and ask how they are when I'm out riding. Some of them have become quite good friends as well. I honestly can't say that superficially I have anything at all in common with them other than the fact that we live in the same area and are able to talk together, but at a deeper level we share a lot as wives, mothers, widows. The basic facts and issues of our lives at that level are very much the same. We worry about our kids, their educations and futures, we puzzle over husbands or we mourn them. The basics of human existence really are so similar. I have a lot of respect for the fellaheen women. They work tremendously hard to maintain their families for the most part. And they can see that I like and respect them, so we get along very well. The beautiful flash of a smile under a scarf always lights up my day.
On a practical level as well, the local women are important to me. Riders in Egypt ride in the desert for the most part. They don't bother to train their horses for the interesting obstacles that might be encountered in the farm area and even more important they don't want to deal with the farmers. When I began riding in the countryside in order to rehabilitate a couple of injured horses, I was told that I'd hate it. The children would drive me crazy asking for money or pens or whatever and the people weren't nice. Huh? Well, I had no other alternative so I decided to try anyway and I made a decision that I would never give the children anything other than conversation, but that I wouldn't be stingy with my time. Sure, at first the cries of “baksheesh” were annoying, but they usually stopped when I'd stop my horse and suggest that in fact they should be paying me for providing them with entertainment. Occasionally I'd meet rude children, but I never lost my temper. I'd turn to the nearest woman and suggest very mildly that if she were to come by my home and my children were to speak to her like that, I'd probably beat them. Howls usually ensued. Essentially, I made the women my allies. I made sure that I let them know that I appreciated their help and simply by rigorously observing the rules that dictated that I, as the traveler, should always greet them politely, I showed them respect. I hope that my respect for them shows in my writing and photography.
Q. Who are your readers and how much feedback do you get from them?
A. I have to admit that I never really check the statistics for my blog. I get emails from all over the world and occasionally I even get requests from people visiting Egypt who want to meet me and see my farm. Some of my posts elicit more in the way of comments than others but when I have had connection problems and not been able to post, I'm amazed at the number of people who write to ask if I'm okay. The highest compliments to me have come from Egyptians abroad who write to tell me that they read the blogs to imagine themselves at home again. If I can do that as a foreigner, then I must be doing something right.
Q. How are your family and friends reacting to your blogging?
A. My family uses my blog to keep track of me, as every so often I get an email from a brother or sister or friend to ask a particular question about a particular post. My children don't like to admit it, but I know that they read the blogs from little things that they let drop. I don't blog about my children and only mention them occasionally. It isn't their blog after all and they have the right to privacy. I also don't usually blog about my friends for the same reason and there are vast components of my life that I also don't talk about, particularly the years after my husband's death, which were very difficult. My blogs are about Egypt and how I relate to Egypt and I try to keep that focus. They aren't really about me at all. I do hope that my friends and family enjoy the blog, but I've never really asked them.
Q. What has blogging given you and what have you given it?
A. Blogging has given a lot of focus to my perceptions of what is going on around me. It has sharpened me and made me more attentive to my life. It has also given me a marvelous outlet and one that is utterly selfish. It's free, I don't have to please an editor, and I can talk about whatever I like. What more can a writer ask…well, of course for readers, but I've been lucky enough to have those as well since quite early on when Blogger slotted me in to Blogs Of Note one day. I was astonished but delighted, I must admit. As for what I've given blogging, my initial response was “not much”… but when I started Living In Egypt there weren't many nonpolitical blogs about Egypt available. Now when I do a search for blogs, which I do occasionally just to see what is going on out there, I find quite a few. I'm not worried about competition at all, since we all see different things. On the contrary, the diversity is wonderful and I'm beginning to think that we are able to present a mass of information to counteract the shallow biased news reports.
Q. What are your future plans with blogging?
A. I'm hoping to keep it to just three, but I have no plans to stop. I seem to be one of the “friendly” bloggers in Egypt as far as I can tell. The only notice that I've gotten from the official public was a fairly positive article in Al Destour a while back which had nice things to say about my blogs although the writer wasn't all that familiar with English and made some rather amusing mistakes. I have no plans to leave Egypt and no plans to stop writing so I think that people are stuck with me for a while and I think that as I get older my experiences here will also be of interest to people. Old age in Egypt is not the same as it is abroad in that here the social network is stronger and more supportive. It should be interesting.