20 things that I never did before living in Egypt

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I eat things I never ate before.

This includes things as simple as plain peanuts (thanks to a traumatic experience I had when I was 9. When I tried them then, and didn’t like the texture, I spit them into an ashtray that was full of ashes, and they blew back into my eyes and burned them); and as exotic as spleen. The spleen I tried and didn’t really like, so I don’t think that will be a part of my main diet here. I have also had head meat (but not yet brain), pigeon (really good!), and drink honey like a beverage. Once upon a time taking a spoonful of honey was something I avoided, so that’s quite a change.

I don’t use JUST toilet paper.

Every toilet here has a bidet, so toilet paper is just for drying (when available). Honestly I don’t know how I could ever go back to ‘toilet paper only’ ever again.

I walk into roads while there is traffic.

The truth is, if you wait for traffic to clear before moving, you will wait forever. You have to start walking and sidestep cars, motorcycles, other pedestrians and carts pulled by animals as necessary. The vibe here is “keep moving”. Everything will either move around you or you will move around it. Abrupt stopping or waiting for clearance is more the exception than the rule.

I ride without a seatbelt.

No one does. I am not sure how many cars even have them still installed.

Along with that, I sit with my daughter on my lap when we are travelling.

There are no carseats. But before anyone gasps, I want to reassure that I have not yet ridden with her on a motorcycle or let her ride in the back of a torocycle (picture half motorcycle in the front, half truck bed in the back) unaccompanied. Yes, it does happen here, frequently.

I sleep through the loudest noises imaginable, even ones taking place after midnight.

Things like people banging with hammers, power saws, jackhammers, someone going through the street with the megaphone on full volume advertising what they are selling over and over, people yelling, car alarms, and other strange noises I can’t identify. And yes, I sleep with my windows open.

I don’t keep the air conditioning at my ideal comfort level.

In the US, I adjust my heat or air to exactly what I feel best in, and don’t mind what it costs me. I was never one of those people who kept it warm in summer or cold in winter to save money. But here, I do. Not because I can’t afford to pay for the cost of the air, but because blasting it can add pressure to the electric system and the more that happens, the more likely a power outage will be. Also, for some reason, I don’t feel like it’s a suffering. I don’t mind to keep the air temperature near 80, or even go without it at times.

I wear the same clothes without washing them for up to 8 days at a time, sometimes for a few consecutive days.

This is not unusual here. And what makes it even more interesting is that clothes get dirty hear 10 times more easily than they do in America. The reason for this one is partly because access to washing them has not been easy to get so far, as our washer is still not hooked up in the apartment.

I drink tea that is not in a teabag.

Tea is usually served with a spoon of the ground black tea leaves directly stirred into the hot water. The grounds settle on the bottom, leaving the regular tea sippable above it. If you live in Egypt, tea will be what you drink most (even more than water!).

I don’t hug or kiss my husband in public.

It’s socially taboo, and borderline illegal. We often hold hands when we are sitting in a café, and when walking in the street it’s arm in arm. But that is the most PDA we show.

I sleep with a long pillow.

People in America would call them a “body” pillow, but it’s the standard here. Beds have one long pillow for your head that is shared with whoever is sleeping in it.

I get home by 10:30 PM, every night.

Here in Egypt, especially in conservative Banha, women are less inclined to go out alone (meaning, without female friends, relatives, or children) even during the day. But after maghrib, it’s even rarer. In America I thought nothing of going to Walmart at 11:45 and then heading to Taco Bell at 1 AM. Here, even if I am visiting at my friend’s house, my husband calls me a car to be home by that deadline. If I were to deviate from that, I would be seen as a loose or cheap woman, and that would attract attention of men who don’t have the best intentions…which could even be dangerous for me.

I skip the tip at restaurants.

It’s not that it couldn’t be done, it’s just not as socially encouraged as it is in the west. Waiters are not offended if you don’t tip them, because their compensation is included in the total price of the check and their wages are not strictly tip-based.

I care what my neighbors think.

This isn’t because of insecurity in me, or a feeling of needing to please others. Egypt is a very class-based society. If I do something against social norms, it not only reflects on me and my level of modesty, but also on my husband and his family. If it seems that my husband married a woman who doesn’t know how to conduct herself, he will be less credible, which could impact his work. It could also come back as vicious gossip about his parents, who “apparently didn’t know how to raise a son who knows how to find a good woman”. Being criticized by their circle of friends and acquaintances could be fatal at their age and standing in the community, because it’s all they have.

For the same reason, I dress up when I go out.

This isn’t “dressed up” by local standards, but by western. The dresses I wear here are what I might consider something for a professional or formal occasion, but here they are simply for being out in public. Because of the class divisions, high middle and upper class families are expected to present themselves tastefully when among others. Even poorer families are seen as more respectable if they are dressing well, so someone who doesn’t is definitely noticed and often treated as second class.

And also for that reason, I think about every subtle movement I make with my body.

The way I walk, eat, move my hands when talking, turn my head- I know all of it is being watched as though I were a celebrity. The fact is, I am very noticeable in Banha. It’s not very often that foreigners come into this area, and someone with my traditional western features (fair skin, light eyes, rosy cheeks etc) is hard to ignore. I am on display whenever I am in public, and I have to be so careful that I don’t do anything to draw further attention to myself or worse- appear as though I am inviting romantic advances from men. Since so many eyes are already on me, it would be that much easier for even a subtle gesture to be misinterpreted by others.

I send my daughter to her nanny with pants and a jacket, even if it’s in the 90’s.

For some reason, there seems to be a belief among Egyptian women that babies are born with cold blood and don’t attain warm-bloodedness until several years later. Children are bundled up when it’s “cold” in the 60’s. Weather in the 70’s and even 80’s still isn’t warm enough to go with simply a short sleeved shirt. If it’s in the 90’s, it’s good to have a jacket or pants around in case the temperature drops a few degrees. If this isn’t bad enough, the heat was into the 100’s over this past weekend, and I saw TWO women carrying babies wrapped fully in blankets while walking around outside. One of the blankets was a thick winter one!

 I share eating utensils with strangers (yes, even unwashed!)

Sanitation standards here are quite different from the west. Most restaurants don’t even have automatic dishwashers or sanitizers. Whether you’re at home or out, dishes are washed by hand….and of course the standards of what makes a dish “clean” is left strictly to the subjectivity of the cleaner. But I’m not talking about dishes at restaurants, I am talking about when you are sitting in a business and offered tea, or even a spoon of honey.

One day my husband was taking care of some business and sent me and my daughter out to a particular café to wait until he was finished. The café in question had closed down, but he didn’t know it. I found myself with nowhere to go, and didn’t want to stray too far from the building he was at so we wouldn’t get lost from each other. So I decided to wait outside until he was finished.

After a while, a woman from the building next to where he was came out and brought me and Shukurah in to sit, where it was cooler. She offered a cup of water to Shukurah, and tea to me. She then brought me into another room to sit with her and her coworkers, 4 other women, all working for a medical clinic. After a while she offered me a spoonful of honey, which I accepted. She reached over to her coworker’s desk, grabbed a spoon which her coworker had obviously been using for something else before my arrival, and handed it to me with a jar of honey. I took it and ate some honey. Later when she offered me water, which she poured into the cup she had been using at her own desk, I accepted that too.

I keep up with the local news

Paying attention to the Atlanta news was never a need for me. Usually it’s just a litany of violent crimes and consumerist fluff. But here there is corruption, political turmoil, and a threatened economy. In Egypt life is undeniably real, and one would be naïve to be living here and not keeping up with what’s going on around the country and nearby governorates. While America often represents itself as a victim and under constant threat, I’ve never had to worry about whether going to downtown Atlanta might be risky to my safety. Here, going to Cairo when things are tense could prove dangerous.

I wash my hands wherever I can, even in the toilet tank.

I wouldn’t have been able to add this one until earlier today! We are just transitioning to our apartment now, but it’s still mostly in the “fixer upper” state. For one, there were some plumbing issues, once of which is a valve that is open and sprays everywhere in the kitchen when the main water line is on. So, we have to keep the water line off, except periodically when we need to use the restroom and do other cleaning.

So when we had dinner tonight, the water was off. Neither of us felt like going outside to turn the main water on so we could wash our hands. And boy, we really needed to wash them- because dinner tonight was brought in plastic bags and very, very messy when eaten with the hands (it was stewed okrah and chicken).

So my husband tells me we can just go ahead and dip our hands in the clean water in the back of the toilet tank and swish them around a little to rinse them off. Of course, I know that when water or resources are scarce, you just do what you can.

After all, this is Egypt, and that’s how we do!

Fun Times and New Friends

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The past two weekends have been so fulfilling. The reason why? I have been living a normal life. Really I have been living the life that I should’ve been living all along- the one most women my age are already living, but Allah wrote it to be in this way, here in Egypt. Alhamdulillah.

I made a dear friend here when I was last visiting in April. My husband teaches her daughter English, and introduced us. She and I clicked very well. When I returned here (and got over my jet lag) I started spending weekends with her, learning how to cook Egyptian dishes and talking about how to raise daughters.

A week ago Saturday I was over at her house, where I tried koshary for the first time. Koshary is probably the most famous Egyptian dish known by outsiders, but I still was very unfamiliar with what exactly it was and why it was such a big deal.

I am finding out now that spaghetti noodles are a fixture in many recipes here, besides breakfast sharayah. It’s in koshary too….

…along with two other kinds of maraconi noodles….

…and rice…

….and lentils. I think that finally suffices the starch requirements!

So basically, koshary is a mixture of all of the above, served with a thin tomato sauce and (in my case) a small bowl of chili sauce. I was a bit surprised at the small sauce servings, when they were being paired with massive bowls of the noodles/rice mix. I was thinking American, figuring a decent amount would be needed to properly douse everything.

But I was wrong. The thin sauce is loaded with flavor, and when it’s stirred into the starches it actually distributes itself in a deceptively effective way. And the chili sauce…let’s just say you don’t need even a full teaspoon of that! The result is a dish that is packed with flavor and beloved by locals (and thankfully for me, in my efforts to cook well for my Egyptian husband- easy to make!)

Then on Sunday, my friend and I went to visit her husband’s cousin’s wife, also a dear friend. This woman, known as “Om Shady”, has her own private hair salon in the back of her apartment. She was such a sweet woman, and brave enough to take a look at my hair which hadn’t been touched by a professional in 7 years. (The reason for that is because that is when I started being serious about hijab, and there were no salons where I was living that were private enough to go for services).

Masha Allah, she did an amazing job, and it gave me quite a new look! I am really please with her but even more, I was glad to get to know another sweet woman with a heart of gold. While we were there, she also served us dinner (koshary again, but she made hers with fried onions to mix in). While visiting, a third lady arrived named Hala who had a passion for crocheting.

It was a really lovely evening, and for the first time in many years I felt like I had a normal life again, and that feeling only deepened over this past weekend.

On Monday there was an event called “Spring Holiday”, I guess to celebrate the beginning of Spring. I was here when it was being celebrated last year, and near where I was staying was a local carnival and kids playing everywhere. It was a very festive, family-centered celebration.

This time I didn’t go out, but Shukurah and I stayed home and visited with family. My brother in law has 4 children- 2 boys and 2 girls. They all spent the night and I got a chance to get to know the young ladies one on one.

I have never been an aunt. In my previous marriages, either my siblings in law didn’t have children- or the children were too distant to be a meaningful part of their life. My own brothers and sister have no children.

So getting to know these two beautiful young ladies was the first time getting a real taste of that. The oldest likes to sing, which reminded me so much of how I was at her age. Her younger sister is a bit quieter but no less adorable. After they left Sunday evening I resolved to make sure I had a guest bedroom ready for them anytime in our own apartment here.

Now that Ramadan is a month away, the local shops are starting to sell the Ramadan lanterns en masse. I can feel everyone getting more lively now that spring has arrived and the biggest Islamic holiday will soon be here. Until Ramadan begins, I hope to share more of what life is like here “normally” so that the turned up version of it during the holidays will be that much more delicious!

 

 

 

 

Interesting bits

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There are some interesting new things I’ve learned since being here in Egypt (of course every time I come it is a learning experience!).

One time I heard my father in law calling my husband’s name. Except, my husband wasn’t here at the time. Instead, my mother in law answered. This happened a few times. I found out that there is a thing here where men can be so sensitive about drawing attention to their women, that they get in the habit of calling them by one of their son’s names when strangers are around. I suppose this is a way to keep unwanted attention from non mahrem away from a beloved wife. That’s kind of cool, I thought.

Last night we were in a car coming back home from an errand. Another car passed by us going the opposite direction, and a huge cloud of smoke followed him. The smoke was so thick it was like driving through literal fog! I thought, man, that is a terrible exhaust problem- truly the worst I had ever seen.

But it wasn’t exhaust. It was insecticide of some sort. Apparently when it gets to be this time of year, these trucks drive around town releasing it to keep the mosquitos and other pests down. My immediate thought was, isn’t that a bit unhealthy to be blowing it all over people who are coming and going on the street? I realized that was a silly question because when it comes to pollution, Egypt is terrible. Just terrible. Don’t even try to live healthily here because it’s pretty much impossible. Yet, Egypt’s cancer rates are lower than many developed countries. Hep C rates, on the other hand….well I think we are coming in at the worst for that.

One of the more personal lessons I’ve gotten is about looking around in public too much. To be honest, I never really noticed that I look around so much. It is really a mindless habit that developed easily over my years growing up in America. As long as I never stared, I was never urged not to look around at my surroundings.

And especially while here, while I am taking in what is still a relatively new culture, I tend to look around maybe a bit more than usual (being the curious sort I am sure that’s quite frequent already). What I learned, however, is that a woman constantly looking around in public tends to be interpreted as a woman looking for attention- particularly from men. Certainly that is not the impression I want to give.

So I have been working on disciplining myself in this manner, but it isn’t easy. I find myself doing it thoughtlessly, often. I guess it is one of many things that I have grown up with no practice of self control over, and that in itself is a bit of a frightening thought. How little self control over my innocuous actions might I really have? It’s been something I have been reflecting on a lot lately…but that’s what exposure to another culture will do. It puts a mirror in front of the way you’ve gotten used to doing things, and puts it under a light of examination and re-evaluation.

One of the nice things about being in Egypt at this time is that the economy is so bad, that my US dollars are exchanging at a rate over 10 times higher on the black market. The economic state is causing some stirs around here, because it’s only gotten worse quickly in the past several months. The government recently devalued the pound before my arrival, but I don’t suppose they can do that repeatedly. We don’t hear a lot about Egyptian goings-on in America but when I am here I hear about things that are truly significant, like that whole scandal with the murdered Italian. Between that and the economy, Egypt’s international standing has gotten a lot more shaky (not that it was most secure before). So it will be interesting to see how things progress.

 

 

 

Unsettled Egypt

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My husband told me about a line he remembered reading in an old arab poem about Egypt where it was written to say something like “Egypt, the land of everything and its opposite”. What that means is, Egypt is a bit inconsistent and dichotomous; and hence, chaotic.

And so it is and will be with my life here. We left the 10 day rented apartment….but….still have not been able to start moving into ours. There are issues.

Here in Egypt many apartments in a building share a main drain pipe for waste. In fact, in the last apartment I just came out of, I remember when I would go make wudu in my bathroom as soon as salat time came in, and I would hear the echo of draining water in my own floor drain. It was coming from the water of others making wudu in their own apartments.

So why do I mention this? Our apartment is on the first floor. The apartments above it share the drain with us. One of the families was pushing things (of whatever sort I don’t know- and don’t want to know) into it to jam it. What ended up happening is the backup would flow into our apartment (this was when it was uninhabited). This created a mess. The mess drew fleas.

Alhamdulillah, the drain in that apartment that connects to the main shared one has been plugged. Fortunately there is a second bathroom we can use with its own drainage system completely separate. But the residue and flea infestation now needs to be cleared out. In the mean time, I am back with mom/dad in law, eating well:)

The good news is, we got our kitchen appliances:

APPLIANCES

The washing machine, in the middle, is called a “two cycle” model. You put the clothes in one side to wash, and then when that finishes you load them in the other side to rinse and spin. This was a more affordable option than the “single” cycle model that is used in the US.

In the back you can see the cute water heater (with a face, I like to think). I really appreciate that they don’t use the tank versions here. This saves a lot of space and money. To be honest, all of these appliances- purchased brand new- cost less than $650 USD. You can’t beat that!

And So It Begins….

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I’ve officially completed my first week here. By now I can say I am more adjusted and starting a routine. Despite all the beloved familiarities,  I am still learning and experiencing new things, masha Allah.

My first few days here were spent at my mother and father in law’s home, mostly recuperating from the travel and enjoying some of the best food I’ve ever tasted. My mother in law is one of the best cooks I know, wallah. Already I am missing the varied vegetable and meat dishes, with plentiful rice and bread.

One of the new things I had the chance to try was a dish called ‘sharayah’. Basically it is cut spaghetti noodles, that you add milk and sugar to taste and eat for breakfast. It wasn’t so bad! Definitely filling.

Even though I hadn’t spent much time with my parents in law before, being there felt so comfortable and homey. In the evenings sometimes Tant Amal (mama’s BFF who lives on the floor below) would come up and together we would watch dramatic serials on TV. Their favorite seemed to be an Indian-produced one (voiced over in Arabic), whose main heroine was named ‘Solani’. It warmly reminded me of the days in my very early childhood when my own mom would watch her soap operas after I came home from school.

Shukurah has been reunited with her nanny who is really an unofficial auntie by now. She has small children of her own who play with Shukurah; she adores them. She spends plenty of time with them while I work during the week, so they really are like an extended family (which is so much a part of the main fiber of Egypt and Eastern countries in general).

On Saturday my husband and I shifted to a furnished rental apartment for 10 days. The main reason for this was because I was supposed to start back to work, and the internet connection at his parents’ home isn’t strong enough for it. Our permanent apartment right now has been in the process of renovations, so it is not yet equipped for habitation; but in shaa Allah by the beginning of next week we will be transitioning over there. A couple days ago we went and priced appliances to get the main things we need for basic living, then will add furniture and décor in order of priority over the coming weeks.

Interestingly, this temporary apartment is in the same building and is the same floor plan as the one we stayed in last April. In fact, the sofa set and bedroom furniture is identical as well! So that is a nice sense of nostalgia also.

Right now my routine consists of working from 4 PM to 1 AM Monday through Friday, spending weekends with family, and playing with Shukurah during the day before my shift starts if not running errands and getting things done for the apartment. There will be a lot of exciting details to share starting next week, in shaa Allah. Until then I am doing my thing, resting and getting ready for the fun of decorating a new home from scratch!

 

 

A New Life

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I spoke to someone recently who remarked, “life begins at 40”. They couldn’t have known how true that is, if you look at it from the perspective of the Quran which says,

“…when he attains full strength and reaches forty years, he says: My Lord! Grant me the power and ability that I may be grateful for Your Favor which You have bestowed upon me and upon my parents, and that I may do righteous good deeds, such as please You, and make my off-spring good. Truly, I have turned to You in repentance, and truly, I am one of the Muslims.”

(Aayah No. 15, Surah Al-Ahqaf, Chapter No. 46, Holy Qur’an).

Why am I mentioning this? Because this year, in 72 days, I am turning 40. And yes, my life is actually beginning at 40. My brand new, wonderful life with my beloved husband!

When I first started this blog, I did it therapeutically. That “peace in the freefall”? That was something I was trying to attain, and it always seemed out of reach. Over years and events I have grown and journeyed. I have taken risks and made choices others might not have made, or would make as I make them now. But I believe I am on the path Allah chose and sees as best for me for two significant reasons:

  1. I have found more peace than I ever had before
  2. My character has improved in exponential ways

…For me, those are the most important achievements I could ever hope for in this life.

It’s been nearly a year since I have written anything current here. In this past year, I have been tested with incredible things. I have faced challenges with all of my sons, friendship, my own mental health…and those are just things sourcing from my side of life. There have been even more tests coming from the life my husband shares with me, as well (not HIM- he is a gem! Circumstances beyond control, and too personal to mention here). But Alhamdulillah, all of these things have only helped to enrich my life, strengthen my purpose and resolve, and clarify my values. And those benefits are what I use as a foundation to go forward, to choose wisely, and to help further understand what Allah wishes for me in this life.

So what does my new life look like? Masha Allah, it’s beautiful. Next week I leave to go back to Egypt where I will remain and live until October. I will continue to work for the same company, which I will celebrate 10 years of service with just after I arrive back to the states.

While in Egypt, in shaa Allah I will be celebrating my 40th birthday, going with my husband on Umrah, fasting the blessed and holy month of Ramadan, celebrating my husband’s birthday, celebrating Eid ul Adha, enjoying my lovely Egyptian friends and family, and giving my daughter a good dose of traditional Islamic culture.

When I return to the states after that time, perhaps my job will let me continue going back and forth splitting the year like that. Perhaps it won’t, and that will lead to other choices to consider. Perhaps my first ex-husband will have stepped up and become the father he should be to his sons, or perhaps they will stay in foster care. Perhaps my oldest son will be incarcerated for the four criminal charges he was just arraigned for, or perhaps he will be on probation.

I can’t see the future, and I don’t need to. The one Who created me and loves me, He is in control. He has not let me down this far, and I know He won’t as long as I submit to Him as best I am able. What I do know is that all that matters in this life is how well we strive for that.

I hope to continue writing here while I am in Egypt. I think the treasures I live there are definitely worth sharing. There will be many adventures and happy moments in shaa Allah…no better way to begin life at 40!

 

 

 

Rouhi’s Rehab: Day 5- Sentimentality and Dining Out

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This was an interesting day for me. It was my first day back to my husband’s academy, where I spent the duration of my first trip to Egypt back in November. In a sense, it is like a second home to me. I truly never expected to get so attached to such a place, so the emotional pull I felt once I came back was astonishing.

What makes it more suprising is that the academy doesn’t even look the same since I was there last. It’s been renovated and repainted. The decorations are different. But still, it feels like it belongs to me. Really, the visceral experience was so deep, it couldn’t have been any deeper had I grown up there. I’ve stayed lots of places in my lifetime, some I certainly liked very well, but nothing else has this dramatic effect on me except perhaps the house I actually did grow up in (which I haven’t been in for years; it was sold over a decade ago).

My husband and I tried a new cafe for dinner called Lino’s. I like Lino’s because for one, the decor is crisp, modern, and tasteful (except for the Harley Davidson plaque- that really doesn’t blend well with red velvet chairs accented with white rhinestones, modern light fixtures, and austere white walls). It turns out that Lino’s is just an international franchise, and some stores exist in the US even. Nevertheless, there is still an Egyptian spin on the menu, like this ‘cheeseburger’ I ordered on another visit:

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So let’s talk about the dining experience in Egypt. Most restaurants are small cafes or shops crowded into the street level. Coffee and tea is usually a highlighted specialty of the house, if not the sole purpose of the place’s existence.

Sheikh Shwarma is a sandwich shop,  perhaps a distant relative to Colonel Sanders!

Sheikh Shwarma is a sandwich shop, perhaps a distant relative to Colonel Sanders!

I can guess why this place isn't franchising in the US!

I can guess why this place isn’t franchising in the US!

Most cafes serve some variety of mediterranean cuisine such as kofta, Kabob, shwarma, and similar dishes. Most meat dishes come with rice, a cucumber/tomato salad, a basket of bread, and a bowl of tahini. If you are looking for a familiar American dish, it’s better to go to a identified western franchise. I tried burgers at many of the places I visited, but only the the fast food restaurants or western-modeled restaurants made it as I knew it (meaning, with a hamburger bun, with a round patty, etc).

It was hard finding a restaurant that had high chairs for Shukurah. Most places simply don’t have them. Another thing that they don’t have is dish sanitizers. Most cafes wash dishes by hand, or use machines that wash but don’t actually sanitize. I realize that in our modern, western time of everything being so very neat and germ-free, this is unthinkable. But the reality is, every society hand washed dishes without sanitizers until within the last several decades. Even now, many countries function similarly to Egypt, and life goes on just fine. One of the things I love about traveling is that it really makes you think more deeply about how you live your own life, and what is really necessary or not.

Speaking of necessity, I think food delivery is one of the comforts of western living that I most enjoy. There is nothing like ordering a pizza on a busy night for the kids, and I have always wished more restaurants delivered regularly for times we DON’T want pizza. But check this out, Egypt has totally gotten the point! EVERY restaurant delivers in Egypt. It doesn’t matter if it’s a classy sit down affair, or a fast food joint like KFC. Every place has a little motorbike outside with a delivery box on the back, like this one:

Sheikh Shwarma to the rescue :)

Sheikh Shwarma to the rescue:)

But despite all the perks of dining out in Egypt, that only captures one aspect of food availability. In coming entries I will detail more about street food vendors and indiginous flavors that cannot be found easily in the US (much to my devastation).