Monthly Archives: May 2016

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!