You are currently browsing the monthly archive for June 2011.

Once again, I’m participating (somewhat late in the day but that’s my life) in the Five Minutes for Books carnival. That means you get a glimpse at the fascinating state of my bookshelves. Go on, you know you want to.

Last month, I read and reviewed:

The Map of True Places

The Art of Saying Goodbye

Forgetting English

Sisters of the Sari (click on the link and enter to win your very own free copy! Do it now! I really liked this book)

All 4 were excellent. I read some others too that I’m not telling you about, but if you go to 5 Minutes for Books and click on my pic, you can see all my reviews.

Last month, I took a couple of long afternoons to read some modern retellings of fairy tales, Winter’s Child and Before Midnight. Winter’s Child is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” It was okay; started good but slowed down. Before Midnight was a retelling of Cinderella, and I really liked it, although of course I already knew what was going to happen.

I also read Spinsters in Jeopardy by Ngaio Marsh, continuing my quest to read all that my library has of her. I’m making good progress.

The Eve Tree. A lovely story of a fragile woman who loves the land she lives on, her husband who loves her, and how they deal with a forest fire that threatens to destroy all they’ve got. Beautifully told. I’ll be reviewing it soon at 5MFB.

I am currently reading:

Black Milk: On Writing, Motherhood, and the Harem Within. I’m going to get a couple of blog posts out of this book, a memoir in which author Elif Shafak describes her worry about balancing the demands of motherhood with her career and avocation as a novelist.

The Bastard of Istanbul  This novel was also written by Elif Shafak. I got it from the library, wanting to see another example of her work. So far, so good. It pulls you right in.

The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris A fascinating memoir by an Australian living in Paris. It’s sort of a memoir/history of Paris/his thoughts on life. Good stuff, although it’s making my feet itch to travel.

To read:

(insert long sigh here. Although why? These are all books I’m excited to read!)

Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time. This is a combo history book and travel memoir. Looks fun!

The Art of Forgetting  I’m so excited to read this one. It’s about what happens to a long-lasting friendship when one woman experiences a head injury which changes her personality. This is actually one of my favorite things to worry about. I mean, not that my personality is all that ideal, but I am rather used to it.

Partitions: A Novel Set during the violent 1947 partition of India, about uprooted children and their journeys to safety (I just lifted this quote from the back cover. But doesn’t it sound interesting? I’ll let you know)

Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail
The true story of a Moroccan woman whose family was destroyed by King Hassan II (the current king’s father, from all accounts not a very nice man). Prob. banned in Morocco! I’m looking forward to it.

…in which I answer the question of where I’ve been lately.

Where to begin? I am really tempted to whine about how busy I’ve been—and you would be impressed, trust me, because I have been really, really, impressively busy—but I feel that might be boring. I do want to mention the 8-night period in which I had guests 6 times, although in fairness I should tell you that I missed Ilsa’s choir concert on one of the free nights, as I was too tired to do anything more strenuous than cook dinner for the family and stare at the wall for a while. Who needs TV?

You will grasp my level of busyness when I tell you that I am turning down free books.

It’s long been a dream of mine to have a secretary. I don’t want to work in an office, I just want someone to organize my life and bring me coffee. This remains a distant dream, but I have managed to get an intern for the summer. I’ve never had one before and I’m feeling very grown-up. Her name is Leslie and she is enthusiastic, energetic, and pretty much perfect. The Iraqis love her. We are putting on an ESL clinic for Iraqi women and children and she’s going to teach it. I’m her mentor (don’t laugh!), which so far involves me talking a lot and sharing all my opinions on life. I can see how this could be very bad for me. She also made me coffee once.

In addition to planning out our ESL clinic and curriculum and doing lots of visiting so I can introduce her to everyone, I have been picking up some hours at a couple of different English centers, since working with refugees doesn’t pay as well as one might think. Last week, I subbed every day at a center downtown, which ended up being a lot more fun than it sounds. For example, Wednesday was a day of private lessons, one after the other, and half of my students didn’t show and then we had an international potluck! And I got paid for it.

I would take the MAX train downtown every morning, teach all day, have Leslie meet me at the MAX station, and go visiting. Then I’d go home and work on getting ready to leave. The plan was that I would leave important things in piles near the front door, and on Friday, while I was at work, my family would clean the house, empty the garbage and the fridge, unplug the stove and coffee maker, put ALL the important piles in the car, no really, ALL of them, no judgement calls required, and then pack themselves into the car and pick me up from work. From there we would hop onto the freeway and make our way to Southern California, to spend two weeks lazing by my in-laws pool and hopefully getting over these daily tension headaches.

All went as planned. They met me downtown and off we went. We made good time and it was a gorgeous day, the distant mountains a deeper blue than the sky and the sun differentiating between all the many shades and textures of greens. We stopped for a quick light supper and kept going into the mountains.

And suddenly, on the pass between Oregon and Washington, the car started to die. We couldn’t get it to go any higher than 20-30 miles an hour. The enormous trucks were passing US. It was bad. We limped to the top and thankfully began whizzing down the steep downgrade on the other side. We stopped at the first rest area and could tell something was seriously wrong. The car shook like a washing machine on spin cycle, and we jostled uncomfortably inside.

A random guy at the rest area said it was our lifters. This made sense to Donn (but not to me). Just a couple of weeks ago, on my way home, the oil light flickered and went off. I stopped quite soon but not right away, and the car spent several days at the mechanic’s. This might be connected? Or not? I don’t know.

I don’t want to go into too much detail, which involved a LOT of phone calls and some wild ideas on the part of my father-in-law, who didn’t want their annual housecleaning to be for nothing. Basically we put some additive (?) in with some more oil and turned around and drove home, arriving at 3 a.m. totally fried.

I was really proud of my family. We were all bitterly disappointed, but we all made the best of it, even though it was very late and people could have legitimately been grumpy. We may often be curmudgeonly and not at our best in everyday situations, but we do well when faced with life’s disappointments. When life gives us lemons, we get sarcastic and laugh a lot. The atmosphere in the car, as we sped home through the black Oregon night liberally besprinkled with stars (and my does Donn get tense when I lean out to look at them! I knew that curve was coming!), was warm and loving.

I wasn’t too surprised to note, next morning/afternoon when I got up, that the garbage had not been taken out, nor had the fridge been emptied. Carpets had been vacuumed though, and I guess one can’t ask for more. Also, everything made it into the car, which was the main thing.

So we’re home. Maybe we’ll make it down later; maybe not. Regardless, my goal is keep my life simpler. As Nancy Reagan used to say, “Just say no!” I’m working on it.

The day I learn how to make dolma, my hands smell of the spiced meat-and-rice filling for hours afterwards. It’s my first time visiting this family, although they’ve been here a while. I am invited to sit with Donn and the husband in the living room and I do this for a couple of minutes, but then I head off to the kitchen where the wife, Bea, is working nonstop. She’s chopping, she’s mixing, she’s mincing, she’s stirring. A feast is coming together in that kitchen.

When she sees me coming to join her, she puts her arm around my shoulders and calls me “daughter.” I have obviously done something right. She guides me down the hall to a cramped room with stained wallpaper, and sits me on a couch. We mostly stare at the floor, since her English is no better than my Arabic. I see her eyeing my silver bangles, obviously unimpressed. She herself wears gold from elbow to wrist, as befits her standing as a honoured wife and mother of several. It’s evident my husband doesn’t value me properly, since I am not similarly dripping. I make a mental note to at least wear my gold rings next times I go. I also make a mental note to guilt-trip Donn into changing this situation. After all, I gave him twins. That should count for something, right?

She calls in her daughter, 18, who has just finished at a local high school and can talk to me. Our chat turns to Arabic coffee, which I love. “I make it very well,” she tells me. “Come, I will teach you.” We join her mother in the kitchen, where I learn how to make Arabic coffee. Bea feeds me; a sort of lasagna made with spiced lamb and cream sauce, baklowa (Iraqi baklava, made with pistachios). She has guests coming that night, and before I know it I’ve volunteered to help make the domla. The daughter shows me how to fold up the brined grape leaves. It’s not hard, placing a handfull of filling into the center and tucking the edges in around it, but afterwards my hands smell for hours. Their youngest daughter joins us, and between our mix of languages we manage to chat and laugh.

Donn sits out with the men. This is a traditional house, so the men and women stay in separate parts, but I don’t envy them, sitting in a cloud of cigarette smoke while Bea brings them tea and other refreshments. The kitchen is where the action is, and I’m glad to be a part of it.

I am sitting on Suzi’s couch. “Tea or coffee?” she says to me, heading into the kitchen.

“Oh anything,” I say.

“I don’t have anything—I’m sorry,” she says. “Only tea or coffee.”

I suppress a smile. Tea it is, then.


We squish on the couch—like most refugees, their furniture is other people’s cast-offs, and couches are often missing springs or have broken frames. We tend to fall towards each other, but I’ve learned over my years in the Arab world that my comfort space is much larger than theirs. I’ve learned to relax, ignore their hand on my knee or their elbow in my side. And really, once you get used to it, it’s a nicer way to be.

Suzi spends the morning showing me pictures of Iraq on her computer—former Iraq, she specifies, not current. She shows me ancient monuments, a modern city with streams of traffic, a waterfall in either the north or south of the country (she gets directions mixed up). We try to find her old house on google earth but we can’t get it to work. “And now…” she pauses, lost for words. “Terrible?” I offer. She nods. “Every day I cry,” she says. She hasn’t seen her family in 5 years; they’ve never met her youngest.

This is what I’ve been noticing a lot lately, as the clouds lift and the sun shines in Oregon—the terrible unrelenting pain my Iraqi friends carry. I’d noticed manifestations already, in the countless trips to the clinic, for unspecified aches and pains. Beka bled for a year, she told me. Eve gets back aches. When they came for lasagna, while her husband and Donn were off discussing art and photography, it all came spilling out—stories of gunfire strafing her house, of death threats specifically against her because she wouldn’t allow a militia access to her roof so they could shoot her neighbours in the street. Her husband having to argue for her life, while she was frantic about whether or not he would return. They all carry such a burden of memories with them. I want to help them lay that down, but there’s not much I can do. I listen as they shape their mouths around unfamiliar syllables, struggle to find words, occasionally lapse into their own language out of frustration.

I read this article recently and found myself nodding in recognition.

“It is estimated that some 4.5 million refugees have been uprooted from their homes since the Iraq conflict began in 2003 and escalated in 2006… approximately half of whom are children and adolescents. In many cases, they are neither able to go back, nor forward with their lives, as experiences of torture, kidnapping, severe violence, and grief continue to fill their lives.

The lack of psychosocial support means that Iraqi refugee families are left unaided to cope with the trauma they have faced in Iraq…Insecurity and hopelessness due to an uncertain future all have a significant impact upon the family unit, which in turn affects the health and well-being of the younger generations of Iraqi refugees.”

The article was focused specifically on the diaspora in Syria and Jordan (and can you imagine fleeing war in Iraq and being in Syria now?) but I found it very applicable to my friends here.

June 2011

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