The Rise and Fall of Merryland Park in Heliopolis

In the middle of the busy Heliopolis suburb in Cairo, Merryland Park quietly sways in the warm breeze. An oasis in the middle of the desert, it reminds me of a minuscule version of Central Park in New York City. Apartment buildings tower over the park in the distance overlooking luscious gardens and overflowing trees. During my visits to Egypt, Merryland Park was a wondrous place where as I child, I would play, eat at the many restaurants and cafes, and breathe in a breath of fresh air supplied by the hundreds of trees surrounding the park. But as I grew up, the park, too, grew up. It slowly deteriorated until it closed down and became a museum of memories for Egyptians, symbolizing a time when there weren’t as many cars, as many buildings, or as many people. A time when Cairo has looked after and well-maintained.

I used to visit Merryland Park during the 80’s when I was a young girl. There was a beautiful, large lake where my cousins and I would have fun on paddling boats and pose for our pictures to be taken. It felt exactly like home, being in a park in the middle of a busy city like London.

I used to love listening to stories of the history of the park whilst I sipped on my lemonade. How it was originally a race course during the time when Egypt was a monarchy. How horses used to run faster than we could even begin to imagine. And how it finally opened to the public, with an affordable entrance fee so that residents of Cairo could seek refuge in the shade during the hot summer days.

But like the fate of many parks in Cairo, Merryland Park became neglected and eventually closed down due to land disputes. These days the park is deserted, with only a handful of couples venturing in for privacy. Residents in the area jog around the park, since its perimeter has uninterrupted, leveled pavements; a rare sight in a haphazardly designed city. Now Merryland Park sways in the November breeze as a reminder of a glorious past, when urban planning existed for every citizen, much like the city of Cairo.

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My Top Few Favorite Things About Ain Sokhna: Cairo’s Nearest Red Sea Retreat

When the busy, overcrowded, and polluted city of Cairo gets a little too much, Egyptians flock to the nearest Red Sea resort: Ain Sokhna, or Hot Springs. Whether it’s the stunning mountains in the distance, the pleasantly warm and calm waters, or the peacefulness one finds with the knowledge that a noisy, polluted city is only over one hour away by car; Ain Sokhna is the perfect weekend getaway.

Ain Sokhna is very popular with families with young children because the sea is so calm there are hardly any of the waves that are present in the North Coast and Alexandria. Although the resorts and hotels scattered along the stretch that makes up Ain Sokhna have pools, the sea itself is enjoyed as nature’s swimming pool. Because of the Hot Springs nearby, the waters are always pleasantly warm.

There are many resorts and hotels to choose from in Ain Sokhna. Resorts can contain villas, chalets, or apartments for rent or sale and hotels. Most upper-middle-class Egyptian families like to buy property in Ain Sokhna, ideal for their weekend seaside getaway. It’s also a place where one can soak up a few rays during the winter when it’s still quite warm in this part of Egypt. I once got tanned in the beginning of February in Ain Sokhna, when it was still bitterly cold in Cairo.

 

There is a time during the day in Ain Sokhna when the most spectacular thing occurs: the tide moves out to sea, leaving miles of wet sand and shallow pools of water where just moments the sea had been. Small boats get stranded during this time. It’s an amazing feeling to be able to walk a distance with the knowledge that soon the water will be returning to occupy the very same space you’re walking on.

Even when the tide returns, the water is quite shallow a distance from the shore. As seen in this photograph, the water reaches the knees at quite a distance from the sea, making it the perfect playground for children and those who can’t swim.

Another magical moment that happens in Ain Sokhna is the moment the sun rises from the sea. I had to wake up extra early to witness this incredible moment, which was quite worthwhile. Watching the ball of fire rise from the sea is a million times more phenomenal than watching it set into the sea. It’s also so quiet during this time of day because most people are still sleeping, making it the perfect time for some reflective solitude. Because the sun rises from the sea in Ain Sokhna, it sets behind the beautiful mountains, which is another beautiful sight to witness.

Right after the sun rises, the sand on the beach tells a story of wonderfully bizarre signs of life also waking up and moving across the beach. There are patterns where crabs have dug out and moved out for the day and beautiful seashells adorning the beach where the sand is pristine and clean.

Because it’s so close to Cairo, the weekends are usually the busiest times to visit Ain Sokhna, which is Thursday and Friday, or Friday and Saturday. It’s also a popular holiday destination for Egyptians celebrating Christmas, the lesser and greater Eid, or the Egyptian Spring Sham El Neseem, which means prices for accommodation triples.

Approximately 120 kilometers east of Cairo, Ain Sokhna is a popular destination that attracts tourists wanting the convenience of visiting the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx nearby, but the population remains predominately made up of Egyptian families and couples wanting to escape the oppressiveness of city life.

Ain Sokhna
Red Sea
Egypt

Ain Sokhna Hotels

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The Cruelty of Pet Shops in Cairo

Pet shops in Cairo are a terrible, cruel place for cats and animals alike. Not only are the cages too small, leaving the cat little room to move, but they often look sick, their coats showing signs of mites eating away at their fur. It hurts to pass by pet shops, seeing large cats in small cages, as though prisoners for a crime they did not commit. My eyes usually zero in on the cage’s latch, and I often see myself freeing them.

But where would they go? Although living on the street would give them the freedom and movement they crave, it wouldn’t guarantee frequent meals, safety from cars, dogs, or serious diseases.

When I passed by a pet shop when one of the cats meowed out to me. It had no room to run or stretch, or basically be a normal, happy cat. Large pieces of cardboard acted as a lining for the cage’s base so that the cat could urinate and excrete out in the open. The pet shop staff looked like they had no intention of cleaning the mess anytime soon, although they weren’t busy with customers. Because of the lack of hygiene, swarms of flies filled the pet shop.

Pet shops in Egypt don’t require a license to sell cats and dogs like they do in the UK. With no laws to exert on pet shop owners, the animals are left in terrible conditions, until the day comes when they are bought. And the older the cat is, the less chance it has to find a loving owner. With most Egyptians preferring to purchase white, blue-eyed Persian kittens, the nightmare continues for cats, and animals alike, across the country.

Most people in Egypt laugh when someone complains and tells them of the animals’ rights, reacting with a popular statement, “Are there human rights here for there to be animal rights?”

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Eid Al-Adha’s Sheep Fest in Egypt

Muslims across Egypt began celebrating the first day of Eid Al Adha this morning. Right after dawn men and women gathered to pray the Eid prayer in the mosque, where the Eid ‘song’ filled the morning air through microphones. After the special Eid prayer, Eid Al-Adha’s Sheep Fest in Egypt began, and people who could afford to began to slaughter their sacrifices to God; usually sheep or bull. Oblivious to their fate, these animals will be on a dinner plate before the day ends.

For the past few weeks herds of sheep have been arriving on the streets of Cairo, where butchers or shepherds set up camp on a pavement or on the side of the road. Butchers usually put a wooden fence around the sheep in front of their shop to prevent them from running off, but shepherds arriving from the country usually keep them on a pavement without a border and the sheep don’t try to escape.

Although Cairo is eerily quiet on Eid, butchers around the city are busy with queues of people waiting for their sheep to be slaughtered. The city is also very busy with beggars arriving from different parts of Egypt, waiting for their portion of meat and money. Luckily for these sheep, the land in front of the butcher’s was spacious enough for them to walk around.

To be honest, it’s hard for me to see animals being slaughtered, however humane it is carried out. But I guess this is the test we must endure, hoping to be obedient to God like Prophet Abraham.

What surprises me is that every part of the bull or sheep is eaten, almost nothing is left to spare! Speaking of bulls and sheep, these two had a bit of a brawl. I will testify that the smaller fellow started the fight first, ramming his horns into the bull. The bull provoked him for several consecutive rounds, however, but because he was tied up, it didn’t get very far.

Most of these sheep liked posing for the camera!

Although many people slaughter their sheep at the butcher’s, many others prefer to slaughter their sacrifice in either their apartment building’s garage or outside their house, hiring a butcher that comes right to the premises. They weigh the animal, and the price is set accordingly.

They’ll either rent a truck to carry their sheep or bull to wherever they’ll slaughter it. I have also seen many people put their sheep in the boot of their car!

After the butcher has completed his work, a portion of the meat is usually given to the poor and needy, while the rest is cooked for the traditional Eid dish Fattah. Those who weren’t able to slaughter a sheep on the first day of Eid do so on the second day. Because most of us have been up since dawn, a little nap is usually in order before gathering with the family in the evening for the Eid dinner, where most people overdose on meat. It’s that kind of day.

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Curfew in Cairo: Before & After

Cairo and many parts of Egypt have been under curfew since Wednesday. With curfew hours starting at 7 pm and ending at 6 am, it feels as though I’ve been transported to London where shops close early and silence fills the night air; quite unusual for a busy city.

An hour before curfew I visit Rabaa. Traffic was sprawling through the area, the police and army have allowed cars to pass through. A green tent has covered the mosque, presumably while renovations are carried out.

A man stands in front of a destroyed flower shop. I used to buy flowers here. Behind the flower shop are the Rabaa apartment buildings; the sit-in was right below these apartments and stretched out across the road. It was here that there was a strong stench of excrement and urine.

Scaffolds are being erected against the Rabaa hospital. We asked the doorman — captured in the distance — if he had been present during the clashes. He nodded wearily at us. When we asked if he saw who torched the buildings he replied, it was the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi.

This a poster was found at multiple locations around the street. It translates to: “Martyrdom Project”, visually preparing supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi to die for their cause.

The residential buildings in the background are opposite the Rabaa mosque. Being at the site of the sit-in, these residents have expressed that they experienced the most stress. But this is not only a residential area, these buildings contain many doctors’ clinics, offices, and a private tuition center. A friend, a doctor who owns a clinic in one of the buildings, hasn’t been able to make a living since the sit-in closed off the area.

Many people driving by would momentarily park in front of the burnt buildings and take photographs on their mobile phones. They looked bewildered, saddened and upset by the sight. One bearded man with his veiled (niqab) wife also taking photographs told us to curse the people who had ruined the whole area. Strangers spoke to each other on the street, a silent sadness written all over their faces.

Life before the curfew was busy. The roundabout in the middle was always filled with cars trying to get to their destinations until the wee hours of the morning.

Shooting the same roundabout during the curfew has rendered it into a quiet, ghost-like street. There are, however, a few curfew breakers, as the white light shows a car passing after hours.

Being locked in at home forces one to look upwards to the sky, especially during clear nights like this. I had a go at photographing this star using a tripod, but for some reason, it came out looking like an icy ring of fire. How fitting, I thought to myself, it’s as though nature is reflecting exactly what is going on down below and shedding a silent tear.

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Adam’s Doner & Grill: A Divine Tandoori Experience

“I thought you said this was a doner kebab shop?”

It’s on the evening of the first day of Eid that I’m standing in a small shop my brother has brought me to. He was craving a doner kebab and had read reviews recommending Adam’s Doner & Grill. The only problem is that it didn’t smell of a doner kebab shop as I step in and read items listed on a chalkboard behind the counter– very London-Turkish-Kebab-shop style. It smells of the most delicious Indian spices. My mouth is salivating. One look at the menu and we both realize they not only serve doner kebab here but tandoori. We look at each other and smile. This is turning out to be a very good Eid.

It takes half an hour to wait for our order, so we know it’s fresh. We can see the staff behind the counter working hard on our food. I’ve chosen the tandoori with rice. I could have chosen it with a wrap or salad, but I’m in the mood for saffron-colored basmati.

The seating is outside with quaint canteen-style wooden bench tables on the pavement in a quiet street in Heliopolis. They’ve even put marble counters around a couple of pillars in front of the shop with stools to sit on. I could see myself relaxing with friends and family whilst gathered around one of the tables and enjoying a meal.

“Doesn’t it feel like we’re in London?” my brother tells me as he leans against a noticeboard Adam’s has put up that has all sorts of adverts and postings. On the glass door, there is even a London underground sign that warns “Mind the Glass”, as opposed to the “Mind the Gap” signs found in London. It’s almost a shame that we are taking our food home.

With the delicious aromas wafting around the car, we’re thinking it wasn’t a good idea to order take out. This food was made to be eaten right away. The drive home is a very long, agonizing journey and it’s very hard not to reach over to the back seat and grab a bite. And then there’s getting home and having to photograph the food before I can devour it. While I took a couple of photographs I pinched a chip from the small packet and had to sit down. Adam’s chips are by far the best I have tasted. They not only taste oven cooked, although I saw that they were fried, there is an incredible seasoning of paprika and salt that sent my taste buds to heaven. It’s a shame that the small packet is expensive for its tiny size, 10.00 LE, but worth every penny. I did not want to share.

The food is in a plastic take-out container which is a good, generous portion for one person, although to be honest, it’s the portion of the rice that is generous. The tandoori has been cut up and scattered over the basmati rice, with some fried crispy bread, slices of tomatoes and garnishing.

The chicken tandoori, 20.00 LE, is delicious. The spices are perfect. Although mild, there is a container of yogurt on standby. To think I had to visit a doner and grill to find the perfect tandoori spices in Cairo, not an Indian restaurant.

The crispy bread pieces provide a crunchy texture, giving the experience an extra dimension. Everything was perfect except for the basmati rice, 18.00 LE. I think I felt it tasted more of the factory it was previously in. But it is great that Adam’s offers choices, so next time I could order the tandoori in a wrap if I felt the rice hadn’t improved. On the menu, it does mention they add garlic mayo sauce to the tandoori wrap, 28.00 LE, so I would definitely request they hold the mayo so I could specifically enjoy the taste of the best tandoori spices — and chips! — I have had in Cairo.

Adam’s Doner & Grill
3 El Mamaleek Street
Off El Marghani Street (Opposite Heliopolis Club),
Heliopolis,
Cairo
Tel: 02 22 58 42 79

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Orphans of Egypt – Adam’s Story

Rays of the sunshine stream into the room I walk into, its white curtains floating softly like the wings of a guardian angel embracing the cot in the corner. Leaning over soft cotton sheets and the fragrance of baby powder, I am introduced to two month-year-old Adam as he wriggles quietly in his cot, a smile playing on his face. Watching the vigorous movements of his arms and legs, I can’t help but imagine a few swimming medals in his future.

But behind Adam’s innocent disposition lies a tale of danger and misfortune, one he experienced on the day he was born. On a cold January morning, a stranger carrying a black gym bag cautiously approached an orphanage in a middle-class suburb in Cairo, casually placing the bag underneath the orphanage’s large bus. “Our guard saw a bag sticking out from the other side of the bus at around nine in the morning,” explains the orphanage’s owner. “But he assumed it was garbage from the street, so he didn’t think to investigate.”

Because Adam is an unusually quiet boy, he remained unnoticed until midnight- thirteen hours after he was left underneath the orphanage’s bus. “My husband and I were spending a late night at the orphanage. It was a freezing night and we were all eating popcorn and cocoa to warm up. At around midnight we said goodbye to the children and prepared to leave,” she shares, her voice catching as she remembers the night they discovered Adam.

“Before we left, my husband wanted to move the bus out of the street and inside the orphanage’s garage. But although the car started up, it wouldn’t budge.” With what is described as a miracle, the school bus remained stationary, the husband investigating the wheels to see if there was an obstruction. “I still have nightmares where the car starts and I drive over the baby,” the husband admits. “As I inspected the bus, I noticed the bag sticking out from the passenger’s side. I called out to my wife when I realized there was a baby inside. I knew it was meant for us.”

As they tentatively unzipped the gym bag, they were stunned to find a cold baby boy wrapped in layers of expensive designer clothes, with expensive baby formula placed next to his tiny head. The couple describes how overwhelmed they were, not only for finding a baby but very nearly driving over him. “But this wasn’t the case of poor parents desperate to get rid of a child because they couldn’t afford to keep him- this baby belonged to someone wealthy,” the owner shares dejectedly. “People’s hearts have turned to stone,” the couple passionately state in unison.

I watch baby Adam wriggle silently as he is lovingly stroked by those around him. Although he was saved twice that night, Adam would be growing up in an orphanage with the sounds and drama of fifteen nine-year-old boys. Female supervisors would be breezing in and out with commands, often replaced without notice, acting as surrogate mothers between the school and the orphanage. The door of the first-floor apartment would remain open to welcome visitors who dropped by. And the owner of the orphanage addressed as “mama” by the boys, would pay a visit every other day for a few hours, mostly spending the time in her office tackling paperwork before leaving to visit the orphanage’s other three branches scattered around Cairo.

But what other options did baby Adam have? The following three hours at the local police station, the couple enduring tiresome and lengthy bureaucracy to adopt the baby boy, proved how challenging it is to adopt a child in Egypt. “This is the first time it has ever happened to us,” the owner explains, looking at her husband. “I usually go to the hospital to choose an orphan; I have over thirty in my care. But this was a completely different case; we had to prove that the baby was discarded in front of our orphanage.”

Asked by the policeman handling their case if they were sure they wanted to adopt this baby, the owner was certain. “I may have chosen all the orphans under my care, but little Adam was sent to us and saved by God. How could I ever turn my back on that?”

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Finding Respite in the Quieter Corners of Cairo

I fall asleep to the sounds of a dog monotonously protesting his lost youth, complaining of neglect, followed by a chorus of dogs howling in agreement; trucks startling my senses with deafening honks directed to no one in particular, screeching tyres of a car racing through the street—as though punctuality is a number one priority in a city as laid back as Cairo—the murmurs of a neighbour’s television set seeping through the ceiling, and sometimes even the loud chants of protesters echoing the darkly-lit streets.

I awake early to the sounds of children at play in the local nursery’s garden next door; builders drilling incessantly at the newly built apartment block nearby; the doorman and his wife below yelling at their children, and the maid upstairs beating her anger and frustrations into the carpet she’s hung over the windowsill.

I need caffeine as I wipe my cloudy eyes and I trudge my way to the kitchen, yawning as though it were bedtime and not the start of a new day. With the kettle reaching its boiling point, I watch the white puffs of steam gently roll underneath the cabinets, calming my mind slightly, taking it to where I knew I must go to escape the commotion.

Offering the senses reprieve from hustle and bustle of the city and its sandy terrain, I feel the noise, chaos, and panic of the city that never sleeps fade behind me as I enter a retreat in the form of a country club. I close my eyes for a moment and smell the cleaner air; the only sounds that reach my ears are of the gentle fountains cascading onto the curved lake, birds chirping melodiously, and the trees rustling softly in the wind.

As I walk through the manicured paths, I think of how grateful I am to be a member of a club, just to be able to find peace and quiet in the weekdays when children are at school. I walk around, admiring the wonders of Egypt’s nature, its birds, plants, and flowers; its warm spring climate and generous sun. The spring breeze tickles the flowers I stop to touch, blushing under the sun’s warmth, blooming at the tender love it receives.

But it’s not just my nature walks which I find so appealing, re-charging my battery for when I leave the club’s gates and return to the commotion. What is also appealing is that I can do so much at the club without the fear of being harassed, or overwhelmed by the chaotic rush of the city where many seem to be playing the role of the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, with the words, “I’m late! I’m late!” plastered across their frantic actions.

I have my morning breakfast or late lunch, running on the track without the fear of harassers attempting to prevent me from my workout and without the fear of being run over by inattentive drivers as I try to cross the street to get to the block I walk around when I’m not at the club.

I catch up on my reading in the shade, play tennis, pretending the ball to be all the nuisances I find in the world outside. I can run on the gym’s treadmill, relax in the steam room and plunge in the refreshing women’s only pool. I can invite friends over with a friend pass and enjoy a time spent eating at the club’s restaurant, or just lounging in the cafe, taking advantage of the free WIFI on our mobile phones and laptops.

But it’s the meditation walks I love the most. Just taking my camera with me and walking around the club, noticing beauty in the simplest of things, like a bud that has yet to open up to the world, or a rustic-looking lampshade. A smile often plays on my lips like shiny reflections on a lake as I unwind and think about this alternative side to Cairo, and how I now understand why everyone I know is a club member at the hundreds of clubs scattered across the city.

A club is where my seventy-five-year-old uncle, obeying the doctor’s order, studiously goes every evening to walk around the track. He wouldn’t be able to walk around his apartment block, for the lack of pavements and uneven surfaces would hinder him from doing so.

A sports club is also where my aunts take their children, encouraging them to have extracurricular activities such as swimming, tennis, basketball, or football. The activities are endless, with some clubs even offering trips to places around Egypt, and even countries abroad.

Being a member of a club doesn’t mean one has to be an active member of a sport, however. One can simply go to spend quality time with family and friends, or have a well-deserved ‘me’ time, be reading an enjoyable novel, walking along the beautified paths, and worshipping God through one’s senses by marveling at His creation.

After I return from the peaceful prayer room, I sit in the shade and sigh, wishing I didn’t have to leave my oasis. I watch a bird perch on a chair in front of me, with a twig balanced in its beak, the erratic movements of its head calculating which direction it should go to build its nest.

And I think, I too feel like a bird who chose to build her nest in a land as enchanting as Cairo (with my head moving around as erratically as the bird’s as I try to calculate the quickest escape route to a quieter haven); a land that has many hidden delights, a land where I can find a place like a country club to cleanse my mental, emotional, and spiritual palette, essentially re-charging before re-entering the busy, bustling, magical city of Cairo.

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Processing My First Burial in Egypt

Treading on new ground is always a little uncomfortable, especially when there is an element of uncertainty. Learning my grandmother’s sister had passed away and was to be buried in Cairo, I realized England had acted as a barrier and emotional buffer my whole life, preventing me from facing such circumstances. Because this would be the first time, I didn’t really know what to expect.

I could imagine my aunt as a young girl, traveling to Egypt with her family, full of hope for a brighter future, seeking the peace they could not find in Syria. She married and moved to a city outside of Cairo, she gave birth to several children and raised them well. She celebrated their marriages, deep inside relieved her babies had flown the nest, yet wistful that time seemed to have flown by.

She was blessed to have held her grandchildren in her arms, smiled at their graduation ceremonies, their weddings, and to have then held her great-grandchildren in the very same arms that had held her children. Although time took a toll on her health, she was thankful she lived a happy, fulfilling life; a life full of family, love, loyalty, and commitment; things she always used to say to us.

Despite the fact that I didn’t know my aunt well and only met her around four times, all in the past year, I was distressed at how much she was suffering. But still, even then she was admired as a fulfilled woman who had carried out her mission in life with strength and perseverance, completing it gracefully.

Because she had passed away in the city she had lived in since she was married, the distance from there to Cairo meant we were going to wait at my grandmother’s house for a while, with relatives gently streaming in, offering their condolences. I watched my grandmother’s brother-in-law delicately write out an announcement to be printed in the newspaper of the passing of the deceased, who she was married to, a brief version of the family tree, and where and when the funeral would be held. Interestingly, the deceased’s name wasn’t going to be included, and would instead be, “The wife of so and so passed away” which caused quite an upstir. It depends on the family’s traditional ideas of “modesty”, is what I gathered from the debate, as many families choose to put both name and photograph of women, and newspapers’ obituary sections testify to this fact.

When the deceased arrived in a coffin in Cairo, we made our way to the mosque for the funeral prayer, which would be performed after the obligatory afternoon prayer. The mosque was quiet, filled with people who were especially there to pray for her soul. It is hard not to tear-up during the funeral prayer, not only because of the nature of the prayer, but because one day a group of people will be praying for your own soul. In groups of cars, we headed towards the cemetery after the prayer, to the same family burial ground where so many of my relatives have been laid to rest.

Watching the burial wasn’t as overwhelming as I imagined it was going to be. I felt quite a matter-of-factly about it as I watched — this was the inevitable, the only certain thing in life. The stone that closes the vault shut created such a thundering noise as the undertaker slid it open, as though even the earth was waiting for the certainty of death.

As a few male relatives gently took the shrouded body out of the coffin, they lowered her into the dark chamber, taking off their shoes before they entered. Those of us who had ventured inside the family graveyard had our eyes glued on the dark pit, as though we needed to witness every detail so that the world would not distract us from where we were all one day going to be laid.

Because my grandmother’s place was previously her father’s house, it was only right that she hold the wake after the burial. Like a typical wake shown in American and British television shows, food is prepared and guests come to eat and pay their respects, especially the relatives who had come from outside of Cairo.

Out of all the details that will be forever ingrained in my mind from the day, I can’t help but remember looking up and noticing the birds that were soaring high above the deep blue sky like a butter knife spreading margarine across a canvas.

I couldn’t help but notice the trees planted outside the graveyards that were rustling in the cool, spring-like wind, imagining another portal was open that we could not see or fathom.

And I can’t help but remember how strangely enough, I felt an emotion akin to hope, that maybe our lives could be as fulfilled as hers; that at the time of burial, my soul could look back on my obsolete body and say, yes, I lived my life completely, with God at the center of it all.

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Orman Gardens, The Bride of Cairo that Once Was

I am immediately enchanted as I pass through the grand gates of Orman Gardens in Giza. A mere five minute walk from Giza Zoo, the frantic traffic with its drivers honking repetitively, swearing under the scorching sun; motorcyclists revving their engines aggressively, using the pavement as an improvised lane to avoid the wait; pedestrians huddled together at make-shift bus stops on the road, talking to each other at levels louder than normal — this all fades away as I step into this reclusive oasis.

Named Orman after the Turkish word for forest, copious trees planted over a century ago sway as gently as two people in love dancing to the soft tune of ancient leaves rustling in the cool, spring breeze.

Reportedly twenty-eight acres, the garden hosts an annual spring festival every March for a month, where hundreds of companies elaborately exhibit plants, flowers, ornaments, and garden equipment, enticing visitors to add color to their patios, rooftops, or gardens, creating a pleasing contrast against the backdrop of Cairo’s sandy landscape.

But I find myself moving away from the manicured exhibits, roaming deeper into the forest. Listening to serene bird-songs, the madness of Cairo traffic seems a distant memory.

I admire the still pond with its bridges creating soft, wavy reflections below, like the train of a wedding gown, adorned above with the delicate arches of branches flowing softly towards the earth like a veil framing the face of a pretty bride.

Treading softly on the creaking bridge that seems to be strong enough to carry the burden of several bodies upon it, my mind tries to picture the garden in the early 1900s when it was founded.

I could see younger trees competing with one another to rise towards the sun; I could see defined manicured lawns sparkling like jewels, caressed with droplets of water; I could see a pond that shone with pride under the ever-giving Egyptian sun, colorful fishes calling it home.

A distant noise brings me back to the present and as my eyes focus I see what the garden is a century later. Although still retaining its charm, I find myself wanting to go back in time in my mind’s eye and see the garden in its former glory.

Only trees and various plants have survived, growing strongly and firmly. Like a ragged bridal dress neglected in the attic for moths and mice to eat away at its purity, the garden’s pond is decorated with so much litter, not one bird dares to venture in for a bath, not one duck calls this its home, not one frog and other such creatures are found among the plastic bags that suffocate the promise of it ever becoming a home to wildlife.

The once manicured lawns have given way to rough patches of dried grass, worn out from lack of maintenance. The bridges and buildings look tired, having seen enough neglect over the decades.

It is only the trees and plants that are self-sufficient, able to survive the neglect of man. The abandoned, rusty playground is a place where I see ghosts of the past, transparent children screeching on the swings as they beg their parents to push them higher, just so they could embrace the Egyptian sky.

I am no longer in control of where my legs lead me as I wander through the acres of land, admiring the trees that branch out, touching each other in an embrace I thought only mammals knew of.

I see young couples shyly pick at the contents of their lunch as they laugh on old benches under the shade. I see a family walking through the tired, littered paths.

I meet another couple carrying school books in their arms, leaving behind them, albeit outdated, sanctuary of the Orman Gardens, heading back into the real world, negotiating with oncoming traffic to cross the road just so they could make it to their next lecture at Cairo University, opposite the garden, in one piece.

Though I am lost in time and space whilst I roam the tarmac lanes spiralling through the gardens, though I am captivated by the peace and quiet I am pleasurably engrossed in, though I cannot help but feel so humbled underneath the towering trees above me, I cannot help but see, much like how I see Egypt, what this graceful garden once was, and what it could be, if only…

Orman Gardens,
Next to Cairo University and Cairo Zoo,
Giza,
Cairo.

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