Daily Life in Giza, Straight from the Horse's Mouth

Sunday, February 17, 2019 | Nazlet El-Semman, Giza, Egypt

Amr with Sukkar, a hard-charging stallion
This is the second in a six-part series on my 2017 trips to Egypt. Read the first here: "To Egypt, At Long Last".

If Nina had told me, when I first met Amr Ghoneim, that he was Omar Sharif's little brother, I probably would have believed her. Not just because he was Egyptian, or sported a similarly dashing mustache, but because like the famed actor, Amr exuded an unspoken charisma. He used his words sparingly, preferring to let his demeanor do the work of inspiring servers, porters, neighbors, and friends alike to scramble about in anticipation of his bidding.

Amr is the doyen of a vast lower-middle-class family in Nazlet El-Semman, the neighborhood just adjacent to the pyramids of Giza. The area was an outlying village during Amr's childhood in the 1960s, and he and his neighbors still call it "the village", though in reality Nazlet El-Semman has long since been subsumed by Cairo's rapacious spread.

It was here that my Egypt experience began. Wisely, Nina had suggested that we spend three days in Amr's care before heading into central Cairo, where she would attend a conference while I explored. Those days in "the village" gave me a chance to get my cultural bearings before the onslaught of downtown.

It was here too that Nina's own Egypt experience had begun, several decades earlier. Back in the late 1980s, her family had settled here, just down the street from Amr's home, after moving from Munich to Cairo for her father Johannes's job. Soon after, a friend invited Nina's mother, Carla, to come try horseback riding at MG Stables, which was founded there in the village, a stone's throw from the Sphinx, back in 1922, then passed down to the founder's three sons.

Although Johannes never much took to it, owing to a horse allergy, trips to the stable became a daily ritual for the rest of the family. There Carla took lessons from Zaki, one of the three brothers who co-owned the stable, riding small Arabians or local baladi horses into the desert around the pyramids.

Still just an infant, Nina would come along for the rides. "Everyone tells me Zaki used to prop me on the saddle between his knees," she says, "and I would just fall asleep right there."

* * *
Amr with grooms and friends at MG Stables
When Zaki and his brothers passed away, ownership of the stable fell in turn to their sons, leaving Amr, their sister's son, with nothing. Although he had little formal schooling, Amr had taught himself English and displayed both the business acumen and the horse sense that might have made him a natural choice to manage the stable. But here, rigid traditional inheritance rules trump other considerations, so Amr was obliged to make his living elsewhere (mostly by transporting and trading in horses), supporting various family members for years while his cousins presided over the stable, which gradually declined from its glory days.

Amr lived in a simple but sizable home a few blocks from the stable with his two unmarried sisters, brother Nasser and his wife, and their young sons Mohamed and 'Amm. The boys seemed to accompany Amr everywhere he went, day and night. A trickle of cousins and other relatives visited the house regularly.

During our stay, Amr gave us his room, the only one with an air conditioner to fight off the sweltering July heat. Ducks and chickens lived in pens on the rooftop, waking me each morning with their clucking and scratching overhead. From the roof, we could peer over the neighbors' garden at the Great Pyramid. A five-minute walk brought us in view of the half-smiling Sphinx.

Each morning and evening, we rode into the desert around the pyramids (while succumbing at midday to the heat and the accompanying desire to nap). From the dunes, we watched the sun cast a pink glow over the pyramids and the hazy metropolis beyond. (Cairo's pollution is so extreme that the city is almost always obscured by a grey fog. It's so close, yet barely visible.)

A novice rider by the most generous of descriptions, I was duly assigned to ride Boussi (Arabic for "kiss"), the horse that Nina's mother had bought for her back in middle school. Once a trained circus dancer, Boussi was now a literal "old gray mare" renowned for being slow and comfortable—in short, just what I needed. Nina described her as "a sofa on four legs," and Amr confirmed: "Yes, this one's very quiet."

While I flailed about atop my unlucky circus prancer, Amr and Nina rode barrel-chested stallions, which they steered with practiced ease over the dunes in a thunder of hoofbeats and snorts. Eventually I grew more comfortable astride Boussi, though for weeks afterward I still winced whenever I sat.

* * *
All but a few local horse and camel owners are now cut off by fencing from the Giza pyramids complex.
Nina and her older brother had learned to ride at MG Stables, where the grooms and fellow riders became a second family. She had often reminisced to me about raucous summertime water fights in the stable yard.

Returning as an adult, Nina was dejected to see the stable's state. It was much smaller than during her childhood (owing to divvying up in the inheritance process) and no longer rigorously maintained. "It used to be so clean here," she lamented when we first entered, glancing across the yard at some stray plastic bottles. A colicky mare and several camels lolled in the stable yard, their coats caked with straw and dung.

But the stable hands were inviting and eager to converse, laughing and joking over lunch. They all rushed out of the stalls to greet a Kuwaiti prince who rode past; the few Gulf royals who don't already own their own stables currently represent the best business in town.

Nazlet el-Semman was once home to quite a few stables like MG, though their numbers have declined (along with the wider community's fates), in part due to governmental actions. First, the Egyptian state built a high fence around the pyramids site, ostensibly providing the ruins with greater protection, but inadvertently complicating the livelihood of hundreds of residents overnight. (Plus, as Nina points out, "Wherever you put a wall here, it becomes a place for people to dump trash." Sadly, mounds of refuse now line the base of the fence.

The workers who those stables sustain have suffered particularly since the village's tourist trade dried up in the wake of Egypt's 2011 revolution. All around the pyramids site today, pits fill the desert, dug at night, Amr says, by modern-day looters. Though it's hardly a new trade in Egypt, looting has seen an uptick of late, seemingly fed by new levels of desperation.

In these tough times, the only ones worse off than the people might be the animals themselves, whose owners struggle to feed them.

During our rides, we saw construction underway on a grand new entrance pavilion to the pyramids site, which the government is building on the complex's far side in a move that is likely only to cement the community's marginalization, perhaps for good.

* * *
Nina and her brother grew up with Muhammad and Ibrahim (pictured) and other MG Stables grooms.
At the end of our visit, Amr's family—who had known Nina since she was a toddler but were initially shy around me—invited us to join them for tea on reed mats in the courtyard. With Amr's help, I served as Nina's translator, filling them in on details of our lives in Algeria in a broken mix of Arabic dialects.

The family was used to speaking with foreign tourists, and to conversing with Nina's family, but had encountered few Arabic-speaking foreigners. (Only Nina's mother had developed and maintained a substantial Egyptian vocabulary from their years there. Incidentally, when I first heard Amr speak, he instantly reminded me of Carla, who had learned not just Arabic but also English during those early years among the stable hands in Egypt. She still speaks the two with a degree of overlap, endearingly peppering her speech with "yaa'ni", an interjection that Egyptians use the same way Americans use "like" or "you know.")

The family seemed to enjoy meeting someone who could speak fairly fluidly, if inelegantly. I struggled to suppress Algerian words and dredge up my once-solid classical Arabic, plus what eastern colloquial words I could still recall from my time in the Levant. (Our trip to Lebanon earlier the same year was helpful in that regard at least.)

After several fascinating days of introduction to Egypt and some of its people's daily joys and struggles, we said our goodbyes and headed down Pyramids Road, the long straightaway that leads from the village to the heart of downtown Cairo.

At a local pastry shop, Amr and his nephew 'Amm pick out sweets.
My Rolleiflex photos from Egypt are available in two albums: 2017 Rollei - Egypt I and 2017 Rollei - Egypt II. Nina's photos from our first trip are here: 2017.07 Egypt.

Coming next: impressions from Cairo proper.

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