You are currently browsing the monthly archive for October 2011.

It’s that time again! Pour yourself another cup of coffee and let’s gather round our screens to share what we’ve been reading this month, and what we’re about to read.

We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (American Empire Project) I kind of think everyone should read this book, no matter your political views. It’s a realistic view of the state of things in Iraq and our (as in the Americans) botched attempts at reconstructionism, as it looks when the people in charge have nearly unlimited funds and are only there for a year and need something that sounds good on a resume, whether or not anything is actually done. We come across as sort of bumbling Keystone Cops types, only with actual weapons. It’s a really depressing book, although the writer has a delightfully snarky style. I’m working on my review for 5MFB so I won’t go into detail now, although I suspect I may write a blog post about it at some point. But in the meantime, go get a copy and read it, and then we can discuss it in comments. It’ll be fun.

John Keats It’s autumn. Time for poetry. I have been rereading “Ode to Autumn” and then “The Eve of St. Agnes” for good measure. Also, the similarly spelled but not rhyming Yeats. I read several of his poems aloud to Elliot, who didn’t really listen. I find that changing seasons often inspire me to read poetry. Do you? Who are your favorites? Do they change by season?

A Double Death on the Black Isle (Aside: when your daughter’s name is Ilsa, do you know how hard it is to type Isle? First I wrote Ilsa automatically, then I changed it to Isle. Sigh…) This is linked to my review. Go read it. Also, Keats wrote a poem to Ailsa Rock, which is a place in Scotland, and we nearly named Ilsa Ailsa instead. Isn’t that a fun connection? Welcome to the world of my mind, where such things amuse and entertain. (i.e. I am reading Keats, and I read this book about Scotland’s Black Isle, and I can’t type “isle” because of “Ilsa”, and Ailsa Rock is in Scotland… Never mind.)

All Men of Genius Also linked to my review. It was a really fun book, but a little disappointing in that it should be a YA book but there are enough bits of it that I’m not going to be passing it on to Ilsa anytime soon. And this makes me sad because honestly, she would love it. WHY can’t people write YA books for YAs?

The Woman Who Heard Color This book basically lives the adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” I chose it based on its description, which is accurate, but when it came in the mail, I looked at it and wondered why I’d said I wanted it. The cover shows a woman, dress disheveled and loose, holding a dried rose against her creamy skin. There’s a quote by Nicholas Sparks, whose books I’m proud to say I have never managed to stomach. I sighed and decided to give it the old “50 page” try.

I’m halfway through and I’m pleased to say there are no disheveled dresses and I have no idea why Sparks liked it, unless he judged it by its cover. It’s not a romance. It’s a story about a young woman, Hanna, who flees the family farm and ends up married to rich Jewish man named Moses, but it’s also very much about art. Moses runs an art gallery and counts as personal friends people like Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky. Hanna learns about art and develops her own eye, prompted in part by her synethesia, which is a mixing of the senses so that she literally hears colours. I’m at the point where Moses has died and Hanna is dealing with the build-up to WWII. The story is sort of being narrated by their daughter, Isabella, now an old woman living in New York, to Lauren, an “art detective” who is hunting for proof that Hanna collaborated with the Nazis in stealing art from Jews. I’ll finish it soon and write a proper review, but it’s carefully written and interesting and I’m enjoying it.

Aside: books do seem to go in trends, and Nazi-art thieves–modern paintings is a kick I seem to be on. There was Telling Lies and I feel like there was another one but I can’t think of it now. I read too much, possibly. Have you read any Nazi art thief stories lately?


The Time In Between

Amazing Adventures of a Nobody

Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall

I’ll tell you about them NEXT month–I’ve got to get going! Where’s my travel mug?

This week, I started up an ESL class for Iraqi women again. You may remember (or possibly not—why should you remember my life? It’s hard enough to keep track of yours!) that I did a class this summer, because I had an intern who needed something to do. (She never did make me coffee. I regret this. I may never have another intern) It was a roaring success for the 3 who came and when it ended, they were shocked, in spite of having been told the end date when we started. “What? Why?” they said. “Why no class?” I sighed and realized we still had a long way to go, and promised I would do my best to offer it again.

As refugees, the women are entitled to free classes at Portland Community College (PCC, or if you’re an Arab speaker just learning English, BBC. Your choice), so why would they bother coming to me? The classes at PCC are much better funded, in actual classrooms, with more curriculum and resources. But I offer rides to class, I’m also free, and in the summer at least, I had friends standing by with tea and biscuits, providing a break for conversation in the middle of the 2 hours. I’m more fun!

Plus, I am willing to honor them by visiting their houses and eating with them. You may think I’m making a joke, as I used to joke about entering whole-heartedly into Mauritanian society’s view that fat women are beautiful by scarfing down the dark chocolate. But I’m not joking. In Arab society, I honor you by visiting you and letting you feed me enormous, ridiculously elaborate feasts. It’s a role I can live with. I’m doing better at being honored too, although that’s still stressful and tiring. (And indeed, the compliment is to protest and say, “You have made yourself very tired Why?”) But my point is that I develop friendships with my students, which isn’t something they can really do at PCC, and when you are recently-arrived in a new country, you need friends.

I have a new student (well I have several, but she is the topic of this post. All that time you’ve wasted on what is only an introduction! Sorry…) who isn’t at the same level as the others. That’s another difference between me and PCC—I don’t really have the luxury of screening, of teaching a group who are all basically the same level. Instead, I get whoever wants to come. And Fiona wants to come! She is about 70, from the north of Iraq, already speaking 2 languages but launching with great enthusiasm on her 3rd. She’s brown-skinned with a narrow face framed by an immaculate white hijab (headscarf), sweet and spunky at once. Although her level of reading consists of “s-t-u-d-e-n-t” rather than “student” (in other words, she can’t even put the letters together just yet), she wants to come to what is really a lower intermediate class.

This wouldn’t be a problem if she viewed her role as just listening. But she is the oldest in the class, so everyone needs to make sure she feels welcome and comfortable by stopping to translate to her everything I’ve just said, including all the examples in English I’ve given. Also, every so often, she will decide it’s her turn, and she’ll just go off—about her life in Iraq, her children (she has 9 of them, scattered around the globe), what she thinks about languages, her thoughts on cooking, and other things. This, in turn, has to be translated back to me, so I, as the teacher and therefore deserving of respect (and also as their friend), do not feel left out.

On the one hand, our class is a little casual. Sometimes, this summer, we had a baby. Sometimes we only have 2 students. When Leslie taught, sometimes I would correct the homework that I’d forgotten to get to between classes. On the other hand, my students really need to learn English in order to function here. So I’m a little torn.

On the second day of class, Maude mentioned that she’d gotten fresh grape leaves from my backyard. (My neighbours grow them, and they hang over the fence.) Next thing I knew, Maude, Fiona and I were standing in the rain filling plastic grocery bags with leaves. Fiona took home 2 bags stuffed to bursting, and told me to come back at 5 to pick up dolma, made specially for me.

I was late, but I did make it. I sat and ate with her and her daughter, just a little. Her daughter chatted animatedly, telling me she ran 3 offices in Iraq but here works at a convenience store. We talk about how she finds Portland, which is a rainy, liberal city with a high percentage of tattooed citizenry, unlike her home town. Then I am given a large tupperware filled with dolma—which are grape leaves, tomatoes, onions, and zuccini, stuffed with a mixture of meat and rice and spices. “It’s so healthy,” the daughter tells me, which makes me laugh. Their food is always “so healthy” while at the same time dripping with oil. All natural ingredients though!

I return home and feed my own family, dolma yes but also my own version of healthy food, mother’s cooking being a constant across cultures and languages.


The last two times we’ve visited Harold and Maude’s (why not?*), we’ve watched home movies. Theirs. It’s kind of surreal. On the first disc, we saw their son get circumcised, and then we watched them go swimming—Maude fully clothed head to toe, Harold in Speedos. It was quite the evening for us. Neither of them can swim, I should clarify, but in the pool they went nonetheless. The two events took place years apart, but all was compressed onto a shiny DVD and spun in the computer’s drive and revealed to us, years later and thousands of miles away, in a brand-new culture and place.

Harold and Maude are lots of fun. I really really like them. Plus, they just make me laugh. When we went with a group of Iraqi friends to the waterfalls last summer, there wasn’t room for Harold to make the left hand turn out of the gas station into lane behind us all, waiting to turn left onto a divided highway. He pulled up beside us. “No problem, I wait you,” he said. How? we wondered. The other lane was right-turn-only. We watched in bemusement, okay and amusement too, as he totally cut in front of everyone in the left turn lane and triumphantly turned left from the right hand lane. It was totally Arab. No one even honked; I suspect because they were too stunned.

Last time we were there, we watched their wedding video. To American eyes anyway (Ooh! I just had a fun idea. Please leave a comment with your nationality. I’d love to know who actually reads this thing! Please? I’ll remind you at the end), Arab-style is awfully cheesy. Harold and Maude personify this a bit with their apartment decorations as it is—photos of themselves made into clocks, or holograms that show two different family pictures depending on where you are in the room. Their wedding video begins with a montage—Harold looking thoughtfully at the camera as Maude’s face, stern and almost sulky, floats in a sky filled with puffy white clouds. A red heart grows from the center of the screen, enveloping them both. The music swells. There are red roses with fake droplets of water. It is wonderful.

It’s fun watching the wedding. Maude doesn’t smile through most of it. I ask her about it—in Mauritania, it’s considered shameful for the bride to be happy—and she tells me she was happy but tired. Harold’s family dances exuberantly. “They’re all married now,” he tells me, smudging the screen as he points to various children and teens. Maude’s family sit in chairs, eat cake. There is an enormous candle, tall as a person, which Harold tells me will burn continuously throughout the first week. (I think, anyway. His English isn’t great yet and the music was loud) They open their presents on the 7th day, I think it was. It’s fascinating to see their families, people they talk about. I peer eagerly at the computer screen, to see their mothers, their sisters and brothers, their friends.

There’s even a slow dance for the happy couple. Also, everyone shoots silly string. Maude looks annoyed as she picks it out of her hair, but I don’t blame her. Silly string? Really? Bubbles or rice are much nicer, except if you’re a bird.

Arab weddings (now that I know 3 Arab cultures at least a little, I feel qualified to make such sweeping generalizations) don’t have a ceremony. The two families sign the contract and then there’s a party. In Mauritania, the bride wore a black muluffa (or possibly it was deep purple). Maude is dressed in an elaborate white gown, stiff with layer upon layer of lace. In Morocco, the bride has 7 to 9 outfits that she changes into throughout the evening. One is a white gown, Western-style, and the rest are fancy Moroccan caftans, embroidered and highly decorated. In all 3, brides wear geisha-amounts of make-up, and resemble nothing more than old-fashioned dolls.



Maude wants to learn to drive. She asks my friend to teach her. “I can’t,” whispers my friend to me. “What if I don’t do a good job?” I point out to her Harold’s breezing through the intersection, leaving a long line of cars in his dust. “Can you do worse?” I ask, and she laughs. Tomorrow I will drive Maude to her second driving lesson. I’m just glad it’s not me. I can do ESL classes, but I’m already grey enough without adding in driver’s ed.


*not their real names. In case you were wondering.

OH! Don’t forget to leave a comment that includes your nationality!

Aicha likes America, which surprises her a bit. When she first came, she panicked if her young son got out of arm’s reach. “I just didn’t know what was safe and what wasn’t. It was all so new,” she told me. This makes sense to me. The twins were about the same age when we first went to Mauritania, and I had no reference point to know what was okay and what wasn’t, whether people would kidnap sturdy blonde toddlers, whether people would feed them hard candy that might choke them, whether people were glaring at them or smiling. I’ve also heard from others of people who got their refugee visas to America but were afraid to come. One man told me he put off the decision for months. He likes to watch movies and he’d watched a lot of American films, and he thought we were a violent people, our streets full of high-speed car chases, our cities full of explosions in slow motion, our banks constantly under siege and filled with hostages. He expected everyone to be packing heat.

That was last January, when Aicha panicked about her son. Now she puts him on a school bus and sends him off to Head Start without a care. “I don’t worry about him,” she tells me. He went to a preschool in Baghdad, but she says she took him there herself and called every day to check on him. Helicopter parenting? Not exactly. “The teacher would yell at the kids and beat them, and it upset him,” she told me. “The other kids were very rough and sometimes he’d get hurt.”

She’s relaxed and settled into life here. She was in my summer ESL class, and when I asked her what was something she liked about America, she said “Freedom.” That sounded a little too much like the perfect sound-bite to me, so I asked her what she meant. Societal freedom, it came out, like the right to show a bit of hair underneath your scarf without all your neighbours gossiping about how immoral you were getting, or the right to hold differing opinions without threat. The ability for women to get out on their own without being constantly criticized by their families.  Aicha wanted to study medicine at a university in another city but her mother wouldn’t let her go. She has a degree in computer science from the local college instead. The thought of a society that expects parents to let children travel, to fulfill their dreams, to become what the child wants to be instead of what the parents choose–that is breathtaking for her. She feels free and unjudged as she walks the streets to nearby shops or waits for a bus to take her to the community college, where she’s continuing her English studies. Ironically, since she’s invariably dressed in a long robe and headscarf, she is probably garnering a lot of attention. But the stares slide right off her back. And indeed, I am learning that the long robe is invisible to her, like my daily wear is to me. We went down the Columbia River Gorge and hiked in to some falls, and she scrambled across the creek and up an enormous boulder to the top, where she posed proudly with her purse over her arm for some pictures, wearing her long robe, her black socks. Although not a wisp of hair showed, she was smiling broadly.

(I also asked what she didn’t like about America. She said all the dogs and how people kept showing her the bottoms of their feet on the bus. Dogs are considered unclean, and most Muslims I know are scared to death of them. And of course, showing someone the sole of your foot is a great insult. She knows the Americans aren’t insulting her, but it still feels rude, just like I know she’s not insulting me when she insists on using her middle finger to point to words, but it still feels a bit strange)

She is also relaxing as she learns how inaccurate American television can be. She was surprised at how Ilsa talks to me, how she checks in with me about her plans and asks permission to go places. “I thought she could do whatever she wanted,” she says, breathless with the newness of it all. (She, too, has believed American television, especially bratty kids on sit-coms) She asks me advice on parenting, and presents hypothetical situations. What would I do if Ilsa, at 14, told me she was in love with a boy at school, whose parents I didn’t know? What would I do if Ilsa wanted to go to college far away, not another city in Oregon, but a university in another state? Do I care what Ilsa studies or does Ilsa get to choose? We have some great discussions.

Ironically, she may have to leave the Land of the Free because of societal norms back home. Her husband’s mother is sick and demanding he return, since he’s her favorite, out of her 11 children, 10 of whom are still local and could look after her just fine. I’m annoyed. On the one hand, I don’t fault her–I can’t imagine never seeing one of my children again. But she already worked through this when they left last year. Why would she bring her son and his young family back to a place where their lives will be endangered because of where they’ve been living?  And my heart breaks for Aicha, who loves her new home even while she is still adjusting to the strangeness of it all, and who longs above all to be free to make her own choices.

October 2011

I’m now also at:

A Perfect Post – January 2007

Blog Stats

  • 348,978 hits


<a href="">
Expat Women - Helping Women Living Overseas
living in Morocco

Books recently read:

Elizabeth Jones 's  book recommendations, reviews, favorite quotes, book clubs, book trivia, book lists
No Princess Alone button