My view from Terrace Hostel
I spend the afternoon wandering. Though I leave without writing down the address of the hostel or grabbing a map, the town is small and I wander freely and safely for a couple hours before easily finding my way back.
A central street which seems to separate the market and bus terminal from the rest of town.
I stopped in a little restaurant on a side street. There were a couple tuk-tuk drivers, but no other gringos. This meal of chicken and rice cost 13Q–less than two dollars and much less than food near the hostel.
Back at Terrace Hostel the volcano smokes as travelers conglomerate for talk and drinks.
There are always a few animals visible in my neighborhood–donkeys, stray goats etc, however tonight, walking home from an Egypt-style Thanksgiving, an unusual amount of cows, sheep and goats stood tied in the streets.
Tonight is the eve of Eid-al Adha or “Festival of Sacrifice, a Muslim holiday commemorating biblical Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son to God. Many families who can afford to, will kill animals around 7:00 or 8:00 a.m (after the Eid prayer) and not eat more than 20 percent of the meat themselves. According to Islam, the rest is divvied up between the poor–i.e. the sacrifice.
As I began snapping pictures my Egyptian friend began getting defensive about the tradition. My purpose, my curiosity is in no way to criticize Islam or the practice. For me it’s not about religion at all, but rather about making the connection between what we eat and where it comes from. Though for months I’ve walked past hanging animal carcasses nonchalantly, I have not seen animals killed or the whole carcasses butchered. Though in the States I often look for cage free and organic labels, like many I am happy to eat meat without much thinking about where it comes from or how live beings turned into yummy dinners.I have never looked into the eyes of an animal that would later end up on my dinner plate.
Here’s some of the animals I saw walking home tonight. They’ll be killed, prepared and and feasted on tomorrow. (PS This post was Mostafa’s idea).
Diagonally across the street from my office there is a juice stand headed by “Captain Jack.”
It took me months to start going here because there is another, bigger, juice-stand next store. But after going the first time, with the preference of a coworker, I never went next-store again. (Though I still wave “hi!”)
Also interesting, we’ve discovered Captain Jack and crew are coptic Christians while the guys next store are Muslims. Nothing to do with the deliciousness of their juices of our preference, but I wonder if it contributes to competitiveness, rivalry or other customers’ choices in any way.
It’s the end of another long workday at RLAP, I rise from my laptop, in conversation with another coworker across the room. As I walk by *Samira, a favorite Iraqi woman who has worked in our office as translator, in St. Andrew’s library and most recently as one of our start cooking teachers, pokes my right hip.
“Ahh you are getting fat!” she scolds me.Her inquisitive eyes look over my stomach, covered by a thin purple t-shirt and draped with a veil going down to my thighs. She shakes her head with concern. “Your form, ” she mourns, “it’s because you sit at a desk all day,” she concludes.
Our legal director, Stephanie, and the other remaining intern in the office look on horrified.
After being in Egypt, and in particular with Iraqis, for over 6 months I’m neither concerned or surprised by Samira’s remarks. At a party a couple months ago a different Iraqi woman poked at another interns fat and similarly advised a course of action. Once, twice in a day, clients asked Stephanie if she was pregnant when she wore a slightly baggy shirt.
A former figure skater and someone who takes pride in her body, I’ve reached the point where these comments are amusing rather than traumatizing. Though I don’t go to the gym here, (no time!) I do yoga at home (occasionally,) walk a lot and eat a relatively healthy array of foods. (Well if you subtract all the oil and frying). Plus, I cannot be too concerned since my clothes still fit!
Not limited to Iraqis, I’ve had similar experiences with Egyptians. After not seeing an Egyptian friend for a couple weeks, he greeted me with an enthusiastic, “You gained weight!”
“What?!” I said, not reacting with the same nonchalance I showed to Samira today.
“No, it’s good,” he tried to assure me. “It’s in the right places. Egyptians like women who aren’t too skinny.”
Though I explained how my American culture typically views weight, how the youngest boys know women don’t like to hear such comments, he was only amused.
As we walked out the door moments later he commented on how my butt filled out my jeans.
Though my Egyptian friend might have approved, Samira is having none of it. ”You must do 10 minutes of Arabic once a week,” she prescribed.
“You mean aerobics,” I correct. “But I don’t think it will help. If I’ve gained weight it’s because you cook me too much delicious food.”
Brendan, a fellow Northeastern student and coincidently RLAP legal intern, draws her attention to his stomach. Our Iraqi friend is undeterred.”You’re a man. It’s Ok…but Lily! ” Laughing, trying not to, I nod seriously in agreement. “Obviously women like men with bellies.” Missing my sarcasm, Samira insists any weight Brendan gained is inconsequential.
I ask Samira if the aerobics can be belly dancing and she raises her hands and slightly shakes her hips.
“So, is your only concern my stomach?” I ask, remembering another time when an Iraqi commented that my cheeks looked fuller.
“Yes,” she verifies, seemingly slightly concerns I’m stuck on the subject. “Here in Egypt, you’re normal, you’re how they like it.” Unlike my Egyptian friend, she at least has one part of American tastes right. “In America they like skinny,”
She does a model walk, raising her hands and shaking her hips slightly. “You must walk like this in your bathing suite in America. I’m tempted to point out I’m destined to spend the next few months in freezing Boston. Instead I just smile, nodding at the severity of my new challenge.
” You’re Ok now,” she confirms. “But I like you. I want you to be number one!”
The last word: I’m looking forward to some belly dancing classes!
*I’ve changed her name in an effort to not put her on the spot. Though, I actually think she’d be flattered by the attention.
Ten students (American, Canadian and Norwegian ), our Iraqi teacher Azhar, a couple Iraqi friends and myself, are squeezed into St. Andrew’s modest kitchen. Some students jot notes, while others cut onions or mix a concoction containing surprising amounts of garlic, spices and oil.
It’s RLAP’s second Iraqi cooking class, a fundraiser to support out work providing legal, psychosocial and cultural advising, as well as English classes to refugees in Egypt.While working as a legal advisor can become completely consuming, we’ve got to escape our endless interviews and piles of testimonies once in a while. Cooking delicious food and earning money to sustain our work seemed like the perfect break from the routine.
One of the best perks of my work Resettlement Legal Aid Project (RLAP) is the constant flow of sumptuous and inspiring Iraqi food. From frequent parties on weekends–whether a birthday, holiday or a resettlement case won–to homemade lunches sent to work, there always seems to be something to celebrate and a willing Iraqi ready to prepare the goods.When the topic of fundraisers arose it seemed natural to share our wealth of food knowledge with the wider Cairo community.
Some highlights of our first two classes are: 19 students (and me!) with hints about Iraqi cooking and newfound lust for Iraqi food, expats buying meat, (there’s a stereotype here that many expats never learn how to cook and buy meat in Egypt) hilarious translation bloopers (the first teacher who taught only speaks Arabic), new friends and connections(everyone seemed to leave the class with someone’s contact info).
And what caught me by surprise?
Cooking was only one of two draws to the class. More than one student loitered outside the kitchen, questioning our Iraqi friends about their lives rather than the culinary traditions. Working and socializing with Iraqis on a daily basis, it seems I’ve lost all sense of what thoughts about Iraqis and Iraq conjure for many other Americans. Will I get a reality shock back in the States in a few weeks?
Classes and menus are arranged on a weekly basis. Let me know if you’re in town and want to reserve a spot.
Otherwise, you better hope I feel like showing off my newly acquired skills the next time we meet =)
After all the kindness our Iraqi friends had show us, and maybe because we were so far from the U.S., Steph and I got an unexpected wind of patriotism.
We wanted to show Egypt how Americans celebrate Independence Day.
Without a BBQ in sight, we decided to cook up a feast at my apartment and bring it to Al-Azhar park–the greenest place I know in Cairo.
We drafted the menu in the micro-bus on our way home from the 6th of October.
Green salad, fruit salad, a pesto pasta, hummus, baba-ghanoush, bread, mashed potatoes, Lousi’s(a co-worker) got the fish, chocolate chip cookies and apple pie.
We’d get a Frisbee and toss that around too.
The morning of the 4th found me off to the market, stocking up on supplies for our cookathon.
Steph was bringing processed ingredients, like chocolate chips and salad dressing from the grocery store in Zamalek. I was picking the fresh stuff from the markets surrounding my place.
Fruit and veggies in hand, I confronted the challenge of pesto. We knew we probably couldn’t find basil, so anything green and fresh looking was a contestant.
“Aye ida?” (What’s this?) I asked a woman selling something, which looked green and rather fabulous.
The irony of learning Arabic is, as long as I have to ask what something is, I probably won’t understand the answer. This green plant, was clearly not in my vocabulary.
She told me it was, “helwa, helwa owi,” very great.
Off I went with it.
Back in my apartment we confronted another problem.
Hey Karen….do you know if the stove worked? I asked my roommate.
She hadn’t used it, AJ hadn’t either. We tried to light it with no luck.
Hey Louis, I called my coworker, can we come over and use your stove? You can cook the fish there too.
I just checked and there’s a sign on my stove, which says do not use.
You never used your stove? ( Did you ever go in your kitchen!?)
Oh boys, oh appliances in Cairo.
Steph is our legal director for good reason.
Why don’t you make them on the burner like pancakes? She suggested.
I poured a bit in a pot on top of the stove. The bottom began to burn, the middle wasn’t cooking.
I poured the rest of the batter in. I grabbed the spatula.
I mixed and cut until the batter was cooked and then pressed the thoroughly chocolately substance into a baking dish, which I put in the freezer.
Obviously we pre-empted and tasted a bit. We were all fans.
Meanwhile, Steph was busy playing with the leafy greens in the blender.
One was turnip the other, something extremely bitter.
We added limes sugar, cheese and tomatoes, mixed it into the pasta and fed it to my roommate AJ.
How do you like it?
He told us was delicious and tasted grassy.
By grassy do you mean fresh? Hmmm…
We dismantled our dishes into tubber-ware containers and headed off to the park.
To be continued as 4th part II
“People think Egypt’s just a desert.” Friends and interview subjects alike have expressed this frustration to me.
Fellow students have also said they’re surprised by how “Western,” Egypt is.
If you know where to look, you can find anything in Egypt.
Last night we went to Sequoia, a posh restaurant on the Nile to celebrate Christina Petrucci’s 20th birthday.
The sushi was fabulous.