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I am with my new Moroccan friend and we go into an Apple store. She wants to buy an iPhone to take back to Morocco with her. Donn and I saw them for sale when we lived in Morocco, in the medina, but they were expensive and we never really looked into them. It makes sense that if you want one, you get it here if you have the chance.
My friend speaks English well, but with an accent. She is dressed in what I describe as modern Arab woman—modest, but Western clothing, in a certain specific style. I think you can tell she is foreign, but maybe my eyes are sharper to this than most.
A young man comes up to ask if he can help us. She tells him she is interested in a phone and asks what she will need to do to use it when she gets back. “You change the code, yes?” she says.
“What?” he says.
“The code? Is that the right word? You change it?” she explains. She is obviously sincere, honestly seeking information.
The man’s face flushes right up to the roots of his short, messy blonde hair. “If you are talking about jailbreaking and codebreaking, we don’t do that of course!” he says loudly. “If you are talking about BREAKING THE LAW we don’t do that!”
I notice my friend’s face flushing as well. She looks distressed. I step in. “She lives overseas,” I explain. “She can’t buy a plan.”
“She HAS to buy a plan,” the young man practically shouts as us. He is obviously very offended. “The only way for her to use the phone is to buy a plan. But you’ll pay HUNDREDS in roaming charges,” he tells her, turning to her again with a withering glare.
After that, she just wants to leave the store. She is humiliated. She has been shouted at for asking an innocent question. Later, in Best Buy, I talk to the guy selling phones and he explains to me the Apple salesman’s reaction. Apparently it is illegal to buy/sell/use iPhones overseas. (Never mind that Apple has an excessively overpriced store in downtown Rabat, which I wish I’d remembered before now. I would have brought it up to that guy). “You can break the code though; I’ve done it on mine,” he offers, pulling the phone out of his pocket. “It’s not illegal anymore.” “Jailbreaking” isn’t either, I learn from Wikipedia later (after first learning what it is), although it voids Apple’s warranty, and understandably they’re not too thrilled about it.
My friend is too traumatized to look at cell phones anymore though. I do my best to cheer and comfort her, and I hope she ends up forgetting it.
As humans, we assume that other humans have basically the same code of right and wrong as we do. Oh sure, they may choose to live by different standards, but they know in their heart that they’re making bad choices. Right? When we see them breaking what we KNOW is right, we get angry.
I had this explained to me by someone during our first years in Mauritania. It helped me understand why I got angry when I saw men peeing by the roadside, not even really hiding it. I was angry because it offended something I saw as absolute, basic. You don’t openly urinate where innocent passersby might see what should be hidden. I have the right to walk to my children’s school without seeing this. I didn’t though. And the guys I kept walking past obviously subscribed to a different point of view, like, it’s better than wetting your pants. After all, this wasn’t a place with public toilets.
I understood why the young salesman was offended. He assumed that it is illegal in Morocco to break the code, that my friend knew that and wanted to do it anyway, and was asking openly, blatantly, shamelessly, for his help.
But I also knew my friend had no idea. I don’t know if it’s even illegal in Morocco to break the code and use an iPhone; I suspect it is not. This is a place where pirated DVDs are sold openly, and indeed there is no place that sells non-pirated DVDs. You can’t just buy them on Amazon either, as Amazon detects you are in Morocco and refuses to complete your order, just in case you’re not who you say you are.
He made an assumption about her, that she had been exposed to the same standards as he had, that she had been taught as he had. He was wrong. I don’t even fault him. I think we all do this, in daily life. I know I’ve done it plenty of times. But as someone who has crossed cultures and now works to help others cross into my own home culture, it made me a little sad. It’s easy to assume. It’s harder to really look and listen, especially when you think you see just another customer, just another foreigner wanting to cheat you.
(note: In case it’s not clear, this happened the night that they all came for dinner. It needed its own post though)
I’m not going to write two reviews for every book I read. But I happen to have read two very intriguing books in a row. (Although this afternoon I kicked through a nice, light murder mystery. It was fun but I’m not going to double review it.)
Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing is writer Alan Paul’s story of moving his family to Beijing and living there for 3 ½ years. His wife was offered the position of chief of the China bureau for the Wall Street Journal, and they both felt it was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up.
Naturally this book appealed to me. When my kids were still preschool age (ok, technically Elliot was in Kindergarten), we moved them to North Africa. I could relate to so much of the expat experience as he described it, including the driving (and how it’s kind of fun, in its own death-defying way) and his 3 blonde children being petted and admired and photographed everywhere they went. Paul and his wife, Becky, approached their time in China rather as Donn and I did our overseas time; they wanted to embrace it to the full, learn language (uh, we were only semi-successful at best at this although in our defense we did teach English, which insulated us somewhat), travel the country, escape the expat bubble and really immerse themselves into local culture as much as was feasible.
One big difference was that his wife had a job with an international company and an expense account, so their Expat Land (his term for it. Love it!) was different than ours. We worked for a small humanitarian company that paid the same no matter what rent we paid or where we put our kids in school. His expat experiences were more in the English-speaking world, putting his kids in a British school and going to their baseball games. Our expat experiences were more mixed; we had friends who spoke French and Arabic but no English (well, everyone speaks at least a little English…), and we didn’t get invites to embassy parties. Still, like him, we spanned at least two worlds; our English-speaking friends were Scandinavian and Turkish and Korean and American and British, our local friends might have had roots in Sudan or Libya or a small mountainous village in Morocco.
The title of the book refers to Paul’s band, and the heart of the memoir really is him finding his wings as a musician. Although he was sort of a musician and sort of a writer (and more successful at both than I am, for example, although he felt his career was “meandering” before they went overseas), it wasn’t until he left his own culture that he found the opportunity to really succeed at both. Some of this was no doubt the freedom one has to reinvent oneself when one arrives in a new place, and some of it was the opportunities that arrive when you are one of a few (native English speakers, for example, or expats who have experienced a particular culture). Regardless, while I enjoyed that aspect of the book, the parts I really enjoyed were the parts I could most relate to. They came home for the summer and everything was familiar and strange at the same time. They went back to China and everything was dustier than they’d remembered. They wanted to stay; they wanted to leave. Their friends were constantly moving on.
They experienced things that were magical, incredible—some of their trips to the interior, for example. Their kids will have great memories. (I don’t know why we always say that. It’s true my kids have great memories of growing up in Africa, but I do too, and my memories are better…that is to say, more accurate.) And Paul’s band, composed of him, one other American, and 3 Chinese musicians, gave him an in to the culture that was unique.
It was a fun book and brought to mind the question I’ve been asked countless times: why did you move overseas? There are many answers to that question, but I would agree with Alan and Becky Paul’s reason: it was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. It broadened our vision exceedingly; it changed our lives in countless ways; in some ways, it defines us.
Read my actual review of Big in China here.
I can tell you what’s, well not on my nightstand exactly, but on the table next to the big chair where I do most of my reading. A big stack of books! I’ll share just a couple with you.
Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale, an Activist Finds Her Calling and Heals Herself. This is a review copy for 5 Minutes for Books and I’m really excited about it. Well, you know what I mean. I’ve already read the prologue and it had me in tears but it was hard to put down. It’s a book about sex trafficking, written by a woman who was in the system herself and now works to help other women and children. Her focus is underage girls. I expect it to be terrible to read but worth it.
As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda. This is going to be another tough read. I don’t know how I could handle living next door to someone whom I knew had murdered friends and family members. I have enormous respect for the people of Rwanda. I recently read a long article in an old New Yorker magazine about Rwanda and was amazed at how far they’ve come.
MISS MOLE (VIRAGO MODERN CLASSICS). Donn and I went on a date the other night (yaay for us! We finally used a gift card we’d had since September. Why is it so hard to carve out time to go out together?) and we ended up, as is our wont, at Powell’s, the magical city of books. Miss Mole was written by E.H. Young and was published in 1930. The title character is unmarried and 40 and works as a governess, but she is witty and intelligent and has a sense of fun and irony. I’ve got two other books by the same author, discovered while browsing the stacks of Powells over 20 years ago now. This is why bookstores must not die! I would never have discovered her on Amazon! (even though I am hoping you will click on my links to amazon and buy books and then I will receive a tiny smidge of their profit, but it’s cumulative and eventually I might get $10 from them! Oh the joy!)
Ok it’s not like I need more reading material. But tell me anyway. What about you? Read any good books lately?
“She has no friends at school,” says Beka* sadly, speaking of her daughter. They’ve been in the US for 4 months now, and her daughter is turning 18. I’ve met her several times, and she’s a delightful girl—smiling and friendly, kind. But I’ve heard a similar refrain from several Iraqi mothers and children. It’s hard to make friends at school—in part because they spend most of their time in ESL classes, with other immigrants. Beka’s son tells of turning out for the soccer team, being asked if he was Mexican, and being told there was no room when he said he wasn’t.
“All the players and the coach were Mexican,” he says. I have no idea how accurate his perception is, but I do know that these refugee kids feel isolated.
It’s Beka’s daughter’s birthday today. I’ve been wanting to introduce our children to each other—I am particularly interested in getting Elliot together with her son, who’s about the same age—and today there was no school, because it’s the end of the trimester.
So I told Beka we’d be stopping by. Ok, she said. Come about one and stay one hour. I told her we’d bring a cake for her daughter’s birthday and I’d bring my kids.
We got there about 1:30 (yeah. Don’t ask. It wasn’t pretty). We had no cake because the cake had not turned out, at all. It tasted okay but was just a mess, half of it still stuck in the pan. I stopped by the store on the way there to pick her up a small gift, which I didn’t wrap, just left in the bag.
As soon as I walked in the door, I knew it was a party. There were the platters of cookies and candy, and a chocolate bakery cake. (Aside: a lot of their food comes from food banks, so a frequent treat is day-old baked goods.) I was so glad I hadn’t brought a cake! I was so glad I’d brought a present! I had clearly told Beka I’d bring a cake; had she not understood? Had I not understood her response? Life is just an adventure when you’re crossing languages like this.
We went in and I handed Hana* the bag with her present. (I’d chosen a necklace and earring set, in case you care to know) We introduced all the kids to each other.
Soon we were called back to the kitchen and seated round the table with its chairs held together with duct tape, and we were presented with a feast. There was biryani and qua’boo (or something like that. They are like samosas with a curried meat filling and the exterior is rice and potatoes and saffron and they’re deep fried. They are exceptionally tasty and have become my new favorites) and samosas and salads and yogurt (leban) and olives and pickled cauliflower and several other dishes, including meat in a tomato and garbanzo bean sauce. We all ate and were satisfied, and then the doorbell rang and it was my friend Susi’s 3 daughters, all of whom are much younger than Hana. Another woman and her 11-year-old daughter were there; she and Beka are related.
We moved away from the table and they all sat down and ate.
And then it was time for the party! Elliot, Abel and Beka’s son went off to his room which left the woman free to dance. Hana was wearing a tight, bright pink shirt and a long swishy black skirt that was sheer below her knees. (Ilsa adored this outfit) Her long black hair reaches her hips and she is gorgeous. She tied a black scarf with coins round her waist, cranked up the arab pop music, and began to dance while her mother ululated with joy. “We do this at birthdays and weddings,” she told me. “I know but I can’t make that sound,” I replied (although I have tried a few times in the shower. I sound like a weasel being strangled)
The party lasted several hours. All the girls and women danced; the males were secluded and not allowed even a glimpse of the festivities. And as I let my afternoon’s plans slip away and just relaxed and enjoyed myself, I realized: it’s like I’m not even in America. I am in Iraq right now, and I feel like I’m in Mauritania in Rana’s living room, watching her and her sisters and friends dance to the same music. For this short time, the incessant rain and the alien trees, the mold-stained ceilings and broken chairs, were gone: this was a time to celebrate. Everyone danced together and it was beautiful.
*not her real name
As my head finally hit the pillow at 1 a.m. last night, I thought to myself, “I wish I could open the window. This room stinks.”
But I’m starting at the end of my story.
Last night, a former student from Mauritania was in Portland, Oregon (where we live now) on a tour with the State Department. We hadn’t seen him in 4 years. Donn went to his downtown hotel to pick him up, and I got a phone call. “The people he’s traveling with are really nice. There are about 6 women that I think you’d love. Shall I bring them all back with me?”
I had a lamb tagine simmering on the stove, and I’d made two kinds of samosas, but there was no way this would be enough. The house wasn’t clean enough yet either; I’d had a busy day of teaching and had been gone since early morning. There was an enormous pile of clean laundry on the couch.
But…what could I say? Of course I said yes. I turned down the stove, asked Elliot to vacuum, and threw the clean clothes onto my bed.
I had to drive downtown as well since we couldn’t fit everyone into the one car. (We have two Volvo sedans, both black, both given to us. Yeah, it helps to know the right kind of people) By the time I got there, the group of invitees had dwindled to 5. Ok then. I took the 3 women in my car; Donn took 2 men and Abel.
One woman was from Morocco! I shared with her that I was insecure about serving her lamb tagine, which I was pretty sure would be nothing like her grandmother makes. She laughed and kissed me on both cheeks. The other two were from Sri Lanka and Bahrain. Donn was with our Mauritanian friend as well as an Algerian man who proved to have a great sense of humour. He kept telling jokes and had the kids in stitches.
First, though, we took them shopping. They wanted more luggage, so we went to Ross, then to Best Buy as one wanted a new laptop. They raved about Oregon, its greenness, kind people, and the free transportation. They loved our lack of a sales tax, and complained about high prices in Washington D.C., which was their first stop. They claimed not to mind that it had poured, bucketed rain most of the time they were here, including while they were on their river cruise. “There are mountains here, behind the clouds,” I told them, and they laughed. “Come back in summer,” I urged, and they all murmured “insha’allah!” (if God wills)
After much time shopping and at a time when it was raining sideways thanks to a ferocious wind, we drove them to our house. Donn promptly departed to get more food but one of America’s downfalls is that culturally we think we are children—we eat at 5:30 and go to bed at 9. So if you want to get some rotisserie chicken at Safeway at 8:45, you are out of luck. We had several frantic phone calls back and forth and then he bought some frozen pizza (which was much nicer than you might expect) and peanuts and more Coke.
We put out peanuts and olives, passed around the samosas. We sat around on the floor and laughed and chatted like old friends. We took pictures in all possible variations. The kids chatted in French with the North Africans. They all presented us with gifts, no mean feat considering that they didn’t know they’d be visiting us until right before they came. (Aside: I kind of hate this. One woman gave me a plate I know she’d bought for herself. She obviously loved it, but I don’t really like it much. I wish there was a way she could have kept it)
The Moroccan woman said our house was more Moroccan than hers is. “This is just what I needed; I was feeling very homesick yesterday,” she said. The woman from Bahrain urged me over and over again to visit her, all of us, and stay with her, and her husband and 6 children. “When it is calm again, insha’allah,” she said. She is quietly frantic about the fate of her family while she is halfway round the world and they deal with a state of emergency and the army firing shots into the population.
I heated up the pizza and we passed round small squares, along with glasses of Coke and Fanta Orange. Salim and Elliot discussed North African history. We spread a cloth on the floor, since our table isn’t big enough and we knew this would work for most of the cultures represented in our living room. I brought in an enormous platter of tagine and a big basket of bread and we sat round and ate, dipping our bread in the sauce (which was too saucy—I don’t know what I did wrong.)
It was after 10 by this point. We sent the kids to bed and Donn made tea. The Moroccan woman was very impressed. “Tea made by the hands of men is very special,” she told us. It was good. We discussed variations of tea in all the different countries.
Suddenly the fire alarms started going off, at the same moment as a large black cloud billowed into the room. BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! Everyone was alarmed. In their countries, noises like this might be less innocuous. We opened the back door and spent some time trying to get the alarms to stop beeping.
You know how when you’re frantically cooking for 5 unexpected guests and you leave a cookie sheet and a pan containing sugar stickiness left over from boiling prunes and apricots in sugar water on top of a burner? And then your husband accidentally turns on that burner instead of the one he meant to? And then the sugar attaches itself permanently to the one pan with a lid that you have and your cookie sheet ends up with a hole burned into it? That’s what happened to me.
The good news is that I have wanted a new cookie sheet for a while. This one was at least 10 years old. I remember taking it to Mauritania with me.
The bad news was the smell and the acrid smoke.
We got the situation calmed and sent the kids back to bed. Then we drove them back to their hotel, where we said goodbye with much profession of friendship and goodwill and promises to keep in touch on Facebook and offers of places to stay.
It was a great evening.
But when we got up this morning (I slept through my alarm and the kids were nearly late for the bus. Abel had to wake me up), the house still stank, a strange mixture of acrid metal and lamb. We lit candles and opened windows and baked muffins and now it’s back to normal. Except for a burned spot on the floor and my former cookie sheet.
front of cookie sheet
back of cookie sheet
cookie sheet reincarnated as modern art
me: Donn, where are the bits that fell off the cookie sheet into the burner?
Donn: in my study. I want to photograph them.
me: let me see them.
Donn: be careful!
me: It’s my cookie sheet.
Donn: it’s my artwork.
EDITED TO ADD: I found them later in Ilsa’s room! Guess I’m beset with artistic types who see beauty and potential in bits of molten metal.
All parents curse their children. “When you grow up, you’ll have a child just like you,” they say. I didn’t take it too seriously. After all, I was a delightful child, easy-going, charming, and pretty darn compliant if I do say so myself.
I did wonder if the curse had slipped, turned sideways, when Elliot acted a lot more like my brothers than me. I remember vividly when he was about 3. He was an engaging toddler with brown curls and brown eyes, chatting up the old ladies at the supermarket who paused to comment on him. He just liked people. And people liked him. “What lovely curls,” they’d say, patting his springy head. “What beautiful eyes.”
Not surprisingly, he couldn’t quite tell what areas of the body were appropriate to compliment and which weren’t. So I had to endure several months of him complimenting women on what was eye-level for him. “I like your bottom,” he told one woman. And he patted another one’s knees. “I like your legs,” he told her. The women gave me looks that obviously questioned our home life and parenting abilities.
I am pretty sure I never put my mother through anything like this.
However, I might deserve what I got this weekend. I do actually remember having a lot of, er, um, extra energy in junior high. I remember giggling and giggling and giggling with my friends. And now I have Ilsa to reflect my former self back to me.
Thanks, Mum & Dad! Guess your wish has come true after all.
This weekend we celebrated Ilsa’s birthday. No she did not want a combined party with her twin brother. She wanted to have a scavenger hunt at the mall with 11 of her closest friends. What did I mean, 11 was a lot? She had already pared down her list to the absolute minimum.
Luckily, only 9 could make it. Ilsa was crushed. “It’s good for you so I’m happy,” she said in a tone of voice that meant the opposite. Because each friend was vitally important. She had already pared the guest list down to the essentials.
Ilsa was very very very excited about her party. Saturday morning found her bouncing around and giggling nonstop. Saturday afternoon found her bouncing around and giggling nonstop. Saturday evening found her quiet, crashed out, and wanting to lie down somewhere and moan loudly to herself.
At some point, watching her friends watch her in amazement, as her hyperness had passed beyond normal bounds even for junior high girls, I had sort of a flashback. Although I was not looking in a mirror, I recognized the expression on my face. I had seen it on my mother’s.
And I realized the curse had come upon me. I had a daughter who was just like me.
Luckily, this should mean that soon she’ll outgrow it and settle down to be curmudgeonly. But I passed on the curse just the same. I can’t wait to watch her deal with my giggling grand-daughter at some point in the future.
Ilsa decorating the table with her best friend before the party. She is laughing so hard she can hardly breathe.
I just finished my first book for review and it was excellent! I posted my review over at Five Minutes for Books, but I wanted to make it about twice as long because I had the hardest time choosing which quotes to use and which examples to give. Then it occurred to me: I could post a review over there, and then review it AGAIN here and use other quotes. So you should go read my post over there first, and then come back and get more details here. There’s still a lot I’m leaving out, so you’ll want to read it yourself.
A Mountain of Crumbs: A Memoir is a memoir written by Elena Gorokhova, who grew up in Soviet Russia in the 1960s and 70s. Although she’s got the horror tales—like when her uncle tells an old, mild joke about not needing to get book for a superior because he’s got one already, and is taken away and shot for being subversive—this is ultimately the story of a life. As such, it deals with her relationship to her older sister, her memories of running away from nursery school, white nights in Leningrad (which is of course now again St. Petersburg), with its lace ironwork and pearly domes. She beautifully recounts a summer in the family’s dacha, her father going fishing and her mother cooking raspberry jam in the heat, her father caught in a storm once and returning late, while the family was so worried they couldn’t speak. She tells of his death when she was 10; after her mother petitioned and petitioned the local communist party, they finally allowed her father—who’d been a member for more than 40 years—to be admitted to hospital. In fear, her mother has Elena call for an update. A disembodied voice announces to the child that her father has died.
The writing is sparse but often beautiful, with descriptions that transport through space and time. I love how she sees the story of her country echoed in her own mother’s life. Her mother is approximately the same age as the communist government, and for Elena, the parallels are evident. Both are overprotective and short-sighted and overbearing and all-encompassing. It is only when she leaves both of them, marrying an American and moving to Texas, that she is able to make peace with the relationships. Yet she has glimpses of a different mother, in a portrait from when she was a teenager, and in an old journal she finds. How did it happen? How did her mother change so much? she both wonders and worries.
Her country is no longer the land of the tsars reflected in the great literature of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and as she reads Russian classics, she and her classmates have a hard time picturing their descriptions of chestnut curls against lavender dresses, and grand salons and balls. . From an early age, Elena questions the party-line crammed down her throat by the communist party. Even in nursery school, when she and a friend dare explore outside the school courtyard and are scolded with the words, “What makes you so special, so different from the rest of the collective, that you think you can run off?” By third grade, when the polyester red scarf symbolizing her membership in the Young Pioneers is tied round her throat, she already recognizes the hypocrisy and hype. I wonder how much of it is an unusual perception for her age, and how much of it was typical, especially since throughout the book runs the theme of vranyo, pretending. ““My parents play it at work and my older sister Marina plays it at school. We all pretend to do something, and those who watch us pretend that they are seriously watching us, and don’t know we are only pretending.”
Donn visited Russia (the far east) in the late 90s. He brought back these painted wooden cups that I love, one for each member of the family. Unfortunately somewhere along the way, we lost one of the kids’ cups. (How is this possible? We would always have packed them in the same box. ??? For those of you who don’t believe in malignant fairies, think again! Or possibly universal black holes opening at random whenever people are in transit. Seriously. Related: how could we lose half of Abel’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid Box of Books, when we packed all his books in one box?) The reason I bring this up is that the cover of A Mountain of Crumbs: A Memoir matches the cups! How cool is that?
Today I went to visit my friend W with a pan of cinnamon rolls. I had made Pioneer Woman’s recipe for the twins’ birthday (only modified. She seems like a nice woman but I believe she wants to kill us all, with her “use whole milk or better yet, full cream” and “pour the melted butter on…use a whole cup.” Yeah. I use skim milk and about 1/3 cup of butter and they are still wickedly indulgent and everyone loves them. Also I don’t like her icing…waay to sweet. But I digress, rather long-windedly. Let’s start this post over.)
Today I went to visit my friend W with a pan of still-warm cinnamon rolls. “No! You have made yourself tired; why?” she scolded me. I ignore this, recognizing it as polite protestation, and kiss her in greeting as she takes my coat, sits me down on the couch, and embarks on a long explanation of why she has to go somewhere. It’s a wild journey into the perils of pronoun abuse; I’m told about my husband’s car and how my husband is too busy and my friends will come. No, his friends. She means her friends and her husband. It gets really confusing when she introduces a third party to the conversation, but I hang in there, mentally substituting the pronoun I think she means for the one she says. I manage to work out that her husband is going for his driver’s test today and that her friend is coming to pick her up and take her to meet him there. “How is my family?” she asks me. “Fine, fine,” I tell her. I know what she means. I do help her with English, but this is a social visit and ends up being very short, and I also try not to overwhelm, working on a few things at once.
I sometimes love pronoun trouble because it’s so cute. Donn helped another Iraqi man get his driver’s license a couple of months ago, and afterwards he sat and drank tea in his home. His wife was curious about me. “Is my wife American? Is my wife at home?” she asked Donn.
I have written before of Arab hospitality, and how hard it is, as a fairly hospitable American, to keep up. Several weeks ago, we invited W and her husband and 3 kids for dinner. I tried to go all out; I made tagine and zaalouk and samosas and salad; I served good bread and put out fruit and cookies. We started with a sweet orange drink, and afterwards made tea.
They responded well. “Yummy!” their 9 year old kept announcing! (He is very proud of his English and shows it off whenever possible) W stuck her fork in the salad. “Spanish?” she asked, and it took me a moment but then I nodded. It was a spinach salad. She gave her daughter a bite and then stuck her fork in again to spear an egg slice for herself. They were a relaxed combination of single-serving plates and communal eating, not hesitating to stick their forks in the serving bowls, but mostly eating individually. They ate heartily and seemed to enjoy everything.
Then they had us over. We had olives and leban (yogurt) and biryani (rice and vegetable dish)and kefta (spiced ground beef) and salad and samosas (hers were much prettier than mine) and chicken and pickled cauliflower and grilled vegetables and 2 kinds of bread; homemade Middle Eastern flat bread, and whole wheat pita bread. The table practically groaned under the weight of it all. Then we had home-made baklava, called baklowi in the Iraqi dialect, with pistachios and a hint of rose water, sooo good. I used to not like it too much because it’s too sweet, but the home-made Iraqi version has changed my mind and it’s become something I can’t resist. Plus tea, made with cardamom and schwaia min sucre, a small amount of sugar, and freshly-squeezed orange juice, and other things I’m forgetting. I’m sure it took them all day to prepare it. When we were leaving, they pressed gifts upon us—we came home with baklowi (yeah like I needed that temptation round the place) and other foods.
I should have sent them home with gifts.
I should have shrieked in protest at their hard work, instead of smiling and saying things like, “Wow!”
I should have cooked more.
But I think it’s okay. When the woman I’m teaching English to (the artist’s wife) presses a brand-new package of Najjar coffee into my hand, after I’ve admired the coffee she makes me, it’s a way of paying me for class. I might feel awkward that I’ve brought her nothing but I forget—yes, I have. I have brought my expertise, my teaching experience, my lesson prep.
I do still worry a bit though. Do you think that, behind our backs, they talk about how stingy and ungenerous the Americans are?