Amira’s Karkaday Stand.
By Nadia El Abdin.
In Egypt, in a city called Cairo, lived a young girl named Amira.
Amira was eight years old. She lived on a busy street, in a building with her parents and two younger brothers Ahmed and Ameen. Her father, Sayed (or Abu Ahmed as some people liked to call him) was the caretaker of the building they live in. They all lived in a room beside the entrance to the building. Their room wasn’t the grandest of places, nothing like the lavish apartments in their building, but it was their home and they took great pride in looking after it.
Early each morning, while she and her brothers slept, her father and mother would fill their plastic buckets with water to clean the tenant’s cars before they all left to go to work. They would fill and empty their buckets countless number of times before they had cleaned all the cars. Making trips up the front steps of the building, to the room next to the elevator, where the tap was located. The sound of the water hitting the plastic of the empty bucket would often wake Amira up. Before the blazing sun had even reached its highest point in the sky, Amira’s parents would already be tired and drenched in sweat. This was just the beginning of their working day and daily chores.
Once all the cars had been cleaned, her father would then pick up his straw basket and take a ride in the elevator to the top floor of the building to collect all the garbage that the residents had left outside their apartment doors the night before and walk down the eight flights of stairs with his basket slung over his shoulder with all the trash in it, ready for the garbage man, A’am Hassan, to take later that morning.
When her father had done that, Amira’s mother, Dalal (or Um Amira as some people liked to call her), would have a pot of hot tea and breakfast ready for him and the family to have.
After breakfast, her father would go for a walk up the road to buy fresh beladi bread from the bakery, for the family and some of the tenants in the building. Amira and her brothers would clean and wash up after breakfast, while her mother swept the floor, beat the carpet and aired the pillows outside.
Once that was done Amira would help her mother fill the bucket with soapy water and bleach. Her mother would then take the elevator up to the eighth floor, with bucket and cloth in hand, where she would start to clean the landing area of each floor and the stairs. After each floor her mother would bring down the bucket of dirty water to empty and refill it again with clean soapy water. This continued until her mother had cleaned all eight floors and stairs that lead up to the elevator and the entrance to the building. Amira’s mother would be exhausted and very thirsty by the time she had finished. Amira would bring her a plastic bottle of cold water from the fridge while she stopped to catch her breath.
Amira couldn’t help but think how much easier it would be for her parents, if they had a long hose, to help them clean the cars and the inside of the building, rather than having to keep filling buckets of water.
It would save them a lot of time and many trips back and forth to the tap. Perhaps then her parent’s wouldn’t have to work so hard or be so tired all the time.
Her parent’s chores continued throughout the day, running errands for the tenants, delivering the bread and newspapers, helping to carry up bags of shopping, buying vegetables from the vendor’s cart, preparing food and keeping guard of the building until the late hours of the night.
A few weeks later, Amira and her brothers went to visit their grandparents in a small town called Banha, a short train ride away and not too far from Cairo, with their mother. Amira loved going to visit, it meant she would see and play with her cousin, eat her grandmother’s tasty food and listen to her grandfather tell them stories about when he was a young boy growing up.
During one of the days she was there, she was outside playing with her brothers and cousins in the street, when she saw a man selling a red colored drink, packed in small clear plastic bags with a straw sticking out of it. She stopped her cousin and asked her what it was he was selling.
“He’s selling Karkaday” she said,” It’s a sweet drink, made from the dried petals of the Hibiscus flower, Siti makes it for us all the time. Khalitna Seeham, Siti’s sister in Aswan, dries the petals herself and brings a big bag with her every time she comes to visit.”
Amira watched as people passed by and bought the bags filled with the cold drink from him. When she went home she asked her grandmother how to make the red colored drink.
Pleased that her grand daughter had asked and had taken an interest in making something she volunteered to help her make it for the family to drink with their dinner later that night.
“My mother taught me how to make the drink when I was a young girl, and now I will show you how to make it, ya bint Dalal. First you get a big pot and put it in on top of the stove. Take a handful of dried karkaday leaves and put it into the pot, then you add sugar to sweeten the taste, otherwise it’s very bitter. Then pour hot water into the pot and over the dried petals, so that the flavor and color goes into the water. Now turn on the stove, stir gently until it comes to boil. Once it has boiled leave it to cool and then drain the water into a bottle and put it in the fridge to chill.” instructed her Grandmother. “There are many ways to make the drink and many uses for the petals. In Sudan they leave the petals to soak in cold water for two days”. Then she took a petal and put it in her mouth and ate it. “You can also eat the petals, some people like to put it in their salad, some people use it as a spice when they are cooking and others use the petals to make jam.”
Fascinated with the new information, Amira listened to her Grandmother intently.
“When I was a little girl and still lived with my parents in Aswan, my sister, Seeham and I would pick the flowers a month before the holy month of Ramadan and leave them to dry in the sun for days, so, that we could make karkaday to break our fast at sun set, and have at Iftar time.” She said closing her eyes with a smile upon her face. “There was nothing better than a nice cool, sweet, glass of karkaday to break your fast with, after a long day of fasting, my father would say.” She said.
“Back in those days we didn’t have a fridge, we used to put our drinks in clay ula pots to keep cool. My father, God rest his soul, would probably enjoy the drink more, now that we can keep it in the fridge.”
Then without warning, her grandmother got up. “Enough talking now, there is work to be done and food to be cooked if we plan on eating at all tonight.” She said over her shoulder as she walked over to the other side of the kitchen.