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Children’s corner: A hidden-away bastion of Egypt’s agricultural heritage

In terms of the urbanization of Cairo, and the installation of concrete on agricultural land around the city, the trends are in only one direction. Everywhere, like in Mansoureya, farm land is being paved over and shabby high-rise blocks are rising in its place. In traditionally green districts, like Maadi, Zamalek or Shoubra, villas are collapsing, to be replaced with high-rises filling every inch of available land. We all know the joke of how dysfunctional Mohendessin was originally designed, as its name suggests, by engineers. I’m sure that you’ll agree that Garden City these days is similarly misnamed.

In the midst of all this concrete-ification (is it any wonder that the Sawiris cement company recently sold to Lafarge for billions?), there are a few, very few, voices heading in the opposite direction. Andrea in Maryutea still maintains a garden-like setting in an otherwise rapidly urbanizing corner of Giza. Fagnoun Art Center still maintains its rustic charm even as the locals do their best to make a mockery of the surrounding agricultural canals.  
Nowadays, contrarians who value and preserve the land–and the cultural heritage of bygone days in Egypt it represents–are so few and far between that we need to celebrate those that still buck the trends, valuing heritage over the quick cash of developers. Recently, on a trip with my daughter’s school, I discovered another one: the Sunbird Cultural Garden in Giza. Sunbird, the labor of love of Leila Sadiq, is a peaceful idyll in along an otherwise congested road through Delta land a stone’s throw from the Pyramids. No doubt it will be all but unrecognizable within a generation.  
Sunbird aims to preserve Egypt’s agricultural heritage. A wide array of vegetables are grown on the spot, without the use of chemical fertilizers. There is a traditional village home, complete with an antique brass bed and an astounding assortment of traditional furnishings, all lovingly described by Leila. An assortment of animals are sure to put a smile on any kid’s face, including rabbits, goats, fish, frogs, and an elegant donkey named Lady. Lady enjoys a double billing at Sunbird: she entertains the kids, but also still pulls the traditional shadouf, the traditional irrigation pump of ancient Egypt. A gloriously shady spread of lawn invites the kids to cavort in the shade of generations old bougainvillea. Each visit is concluded with delicious home-made fitiir.  
Sunbird’s name is derived from the traditional sunbirds of the Nile valley, invoking the agricultural heritage in all of the wondrous colors of Egypt’s past. On our tour, we were lucky enough to be guided around by Leila herself. This is a woman, it is clear, who has been guiding and inspiring kids for a generation. My daughter’s class of rambunctious 7-year-olds listened with rapture as Leila described the function of an onion's roots. The class’s ordinarily troublesome boys fell over themselves in competition to see who could best answer Leila’s instructional questions.  
Sunbird is not on the "A list" of things to do around Cairo with kids. But perhaps it should be. If you’re not coming with a pre-arranged school tour, you’ll need to phone ahead to make sure there’s a spot for you. But if it’s a mellow afternoon, steeped in the splendor of Egypt’s agricultural past, then Sunbird could be the excursion you’ve been waiting for.
Details: 25 Mansoureya Road, Giza.  Phone: 012 211 7552; 2795 8147; email: [email protected]  Entrance: about LE40 per child.  Entrance by appointment.

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