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).

Rouhi’s Rehab: Day 4- Dress in Egypt

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Yes, I know it’s been almost a month since I’ve returned home from Egypt. Nevertheless, I did keep several pictures from my trip, and I also made notes of what happened each day that I’m there. I think part of me wanted to have something to keep the memory alive when I came back here, and that subconsciously fed my procrastination in keeping these entries from being written.

Egypt is a Muslim country, so by western standards dress is pretty conservative. However, there are actually levels of dress that represent how “practicing” someone is when it comes to Islam.

Most women in Egypt wear hijab. Many wear loose, traditional Islamic clothing such as the abaya, and look like this:

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There are some women who are even more conservative than that, and wear a full face veil (called a niqab) and usually all in black. This is not the burqa, which is a shroud that covers the entire face including the eyes. A niqab is a light cloth that covers the nose, forehead and mouth loosely, but allows the eyes to be visible. Women who dress in niqab are often identified as “salafi”, a fundementalist branch of Islam. As such, they will often wear gloves to cover their hands and socks on their feet, as they intepret Islamic doctrine as requiring this extent of covering for a woman.

However, most young women in Egypt dress in a very modern style. Many of the more conservative muslims (including myself) don’t find this style to be modest enough, because it usually is in tight clothing or not fully covering the areas of the chest and rear. Here is an example:

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These women, some may assume, may follow the larger culture of wearing hijab, but religiously may not be as dedicated to all the daily practices.

Lastly, there are women who don’t wear hijab or modest clothing at all. They dress like any westerner, even in clothes that are very revealing even by western standards. One evening I was in a cafe with my husband, and two women came in wearing short, flashy, tight dresses. Since this is something very uncommon, I asked him what might be the occassion they are dressing for, because they looked like they were going clubbing. However, I was not aware of any clubs like that in Banha at all. He said they were most likely coming from a wedding reception. I told him that in the US, that kind of clothing wouldn’t be appropriate for a wedding at all. It would be considered trashy and tasteless.

Interestingly, many of the shops in Egypt sell clothes that are quite form-fitting or even risque. What was most intriguing to me was the amount of lingerie shops there. They are everywhere! Considering the most lingerie I will see is in Victoria’s Secret at the mall, I was actually shocked that it seemed to be so popular there. One would think that such a conservative society would keep things like lingerie out of view, but it is 10 times more available there than here in the US!

As for the men, the same type of distinctions follow. Some men dress in a traditional Islamic manner, and the more modern, younger ones favor trendy clothing. What tickles me is that the ‘trendy’ men’s clothing mostly consists of skinny jeans and tight shirts- a style that my oldest son was obsessed with back in 2010. Here is a photo showing the two extremes:

See the traditionally dressed man in the background, but the foreground shows the more modern men's fashion trends

See the traditionally dressed man in the background, but the foreground shows the more modern men’s fashion trends

Speaking personally, the only time I see men dressing this way en masse is if I happen to be among a community of homosexuals. I think the fact that so many Egyptian men dress like this, coupled with their open physical affection with one another, causes people to wrongly accuse them of being ‘closet gays’. Here are some more pictures showing the prevalence of the style:

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skinnyjeanman

While we are talking about clothing, I want to say that shopping in Egypt is way more affordable for westerners than shopping back home. Even shopping retail at the mall is going to save some money. I bought 3 silk skirts at a popular store in a high-end mall, and it didn’t cost me more than $50 USD. But what I like even more than that, is that Egypt keeps the tradition of tailoring clothes. I’m not talking about just fixing repairs, but buying your own fabric and enlisting someone to make the clothing for you. There are countless fabric stores to use for this purpose, and fabric there is priced ridiculously lower than what you would have to pay in the west. Not only that, but the fee the tailor charges is almost nothing in USD. Before I left, I had two light summer jackets made for me. The cost of the entire endeavor (fabric and labor fees) was about $40 USD. I would’ve paid much more than that if I had to buy something comparable off the rack. And if I tried to have it tailored here in the same way, it would be outrageous!

Long story short, I’ve decided that I’m going to try to secure all my clothing in Egypt from now on! It helps that I can find the Islamic style I normally wear here much easier there, too.