March 17, 2012

Winter is the best time of the year in Cairo

Winter is the best time of the year in Cairo. It starts in November and the dry, refreshing winter air usually lasts until March. Winter is followed by the Khamshin season, “khamshin” being the Arabic word for “fifty.” It is called this because frequent sandstorms scour the city during this fifty-day period. The sand colors the sky ochre and a fine yellow dust hangs in the air, covering everything, getting everywhere. The sand gets into one’s ears, nose and pores. Even the precaution of keeping doors and windows closed during this hot season does not prevent the sand from sifting into the house, and filtering into clothes shut up in wardrobes and closets. Landing at Cairo Airport during Khamshin, one gets the impression that the city is at the bottom of a yellow lake. When Khamshin conditions are too bad, flights are cancelled.

Winter in Cairo
The air in Cairo tends to be dry all year, and everything becomes dehydrated as the water in the atmosphere evaporates. One’s throat seems to be permanently dry. As a result, whenever friends call on each other in Egypt, the host immediately offers his guest coffee or tea. If coffee, it will be the thick Egyptian coffee known as “ahwa”. The heavy dregs of ahwa sink to the bottom of the cup and one drinks only the liquid that floats on top. Not only do coffee and tea soothe a parched throat, they also help replace some of the body’s continuously evaporating water.

Coffee and tea drinking is a serious business in this desert city, so conversation does not begin until they have been consumed. Then the well-bred Egyptian guest asks his host a multitude of questions in rapid succession. The questions generally cover the state of his host’s health, what his wife is doing nowadays, whether hischildren are taking their schoolwork seriously, if his hens are laying and so on. This kindly interrogation is an extremely important factor in establishing friendly relations in Egypt. It is one’s duty as a friend to make pleasant conversation over a cup of coffee or tea. And when the last of the coffee is drunk, there is the chance for even more chatting as the coffee grounds, like tea leaves, supposedly indicate the future. Coffee and tea are not just thirst-quenching drinks, they mean much more. In Egypt, they are the lubricants which keep the wheels of human relationships rolling smoothly.

Egyptian Street

The dry climate creates extremes of temperatures. Temperatures rise quickly during the daytime, and fall with equal rapidity after sundown. It can become suprisingly cold in the evenings, so it usually is necessary to wear extra clothing.

Each day dawns fine and bright. Because the weather is consistently good, it seldom becomes a topic of conversation—except on those rare days when it rains, and then quite a commotion is made about it.

I recall an incident that occurred when I was rushing by taxi to the airport to catch my plane. It started to rain, and because there are no drainage ditches in the roads in Cairo, the road to the airport soon was flooded. I shut the car window against the downpour, but the rain found a crack and began to seep in. Before long, water had gotten into the engine, and the taxi came to a sloshing halt. All I could think about was missing my flight.

The driver got out, propped up the hood and began mopping the rain water with a rag, puffing his cheeks out as he did to blow the raindrops away.

“This must be a real old junk heap if a drop of rain puts the engine out of order,” I growled. Worried about making it to the airport in time I thoughtlessly began to be abusive. But the driver took it all in stride and replied, in all seriousness, that I was mistaken. There was nothing wrong with the car. It was the rain that was causing all the trouble.

Even now I have to smile when I remember the driver’s explanation. Rainfall is something Egyptians do not really understand. Their lives and their awareness have become attuned, over thousands of years, to clear skies and dry weather. I know of no shop in Cairo where it is possible to purchase an umbrella or overshoes, although every third shop sells either clothes or shoes.

The clothing stores overflow with goods made of Egyptian cotton, the finest cotton in the world, and tourists frequently buy Egyptian cotton shirts to take home as presents or souvenirs. Egyptian-made leather shoes, however, are not in the same category. At first glance they appear to be well made, but the moment they get wet, they start to fall apart. They seem to be made only of leather and glue, and only for fair weather.

No one carries an umbrella in Egypt, and anyone who does is the object of curious glances. When it rains in Egypt, the thing to do is to stay indoors. Everyone is so used to the weather being fine, that their only reaction is to wait for the sky to clear up.

However, there are more clouds in the sky than there used to be, and the number of rainy days is increasing. Some blame the increased humidity on the Aswan High Dam. The completion of the dam increased irrigation facilities for the fertile land around the Nile. The additional surface area of water in the region means that more evaporation takes place and the extra water vapor created in the atmosphere forms clouds.

The increased humidity has already begun to affect life in Egypt. A major problem that has arisen is the preservation of the country’s ancient monuments and excavated relics which are of such great historical importance to Egypt and the rest of the world. Some believe that the more humid conditions will intensify their erosion and that the monuments, which have been preserved for thousands of years by the dry climate, will crumble away. One step that has already been taken to preserve the valuable information yielded by the country’s ancient monuments has been the establishment of the Documents Center within the Ministry of Culture for the specific purpose of gathering and cataloguing material on Egyptian relics.

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