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I am wondering what on earth possessed me to call this “My Life in a Nutshell.” These are enormous nutshells! I have always been verbose.

See, what happened was that I had about a month of non-stop activity and some major event every single day, including weekends, so I took a day off. I didn’t get out of my pjs and I slept 12 hours and then took a nap. And the next day I decided that I would write one blog post with several events in short paragraphs called “My Life in a Nutshell” but then it got a bit long so I posted it. And here we are on part 3 now. All of them full-length at least. Sigh.

Why part 3? Because, in case you care, chronologically this happened just after Part 2 but before the normally-named blog post “Things to Carry.” And I do regret the nutshell theme. But, in case you care, parts 1 and 2 are there to be perused. Of course the only connection between these is in my own head.

Today’s (final) installment is:
Henna Party

The day after the Eid party, Ilsa and I and all of our friends are invited to Mona’s for a henna party. We went once before, in September, and everyone had such a lovely time that we decided to have another one. “Bring your friends,” Mona urges. She lives in a small apartment and I happen to know she has invited all her children’s teachers plus all her teachers at the community college, where she is taking writing, communications, and grammar classes. So I let Ilsa bring one friend and figure that’s good for numbers. Mona is a little surprised that I didn’t bring more people. I forget the plate of cookies I’ve made on my kitchen counter. This is fairly typical for me, I’m sad to say.

When we get there, only 2 extra women have come—her son’s 3rd-grade teacher and one of hers from PCC—plus of course several other Iraqi women, all of whom I know from my class. The PCC teacher is French, so we talk a little in French, which reminds me of how quickly I’m forgetting it now that I’m not using it. Le sigh. I resolve to read some books in French and listen to French radio. So far, I haven’t done any of this. I call Ilsa in to chat in French with her lovely little accent.

First we dance. Then we eat. Then it’s time for henna. Mona and Sophie (Egyptian-American and bi-lingual) were very disappointed with the henna last time, and they have gone to great lengths to get good henna this time. They mixed it with lavender and tea-tree oil and it smells gorgeous. Again, we have bowls of glitter to sprinkle on. Mona starts with her son’s teacher, and we all stand around and admire, and eat too much, and the children (Ilsa and her friend, Mona’s twin daughters, Sophie’s daughter) grab their own henna packets and start decorating each other’s arms, legs, and necks.

refreshment table

It takes a while to do everyone. As before, some of us go a bit risque—I get Donn’s name written in Arabic on a part of me usually covered by my shirt. Last time Maude got an elaborate “necklace” on her decolletage but today there isn’t time. The other teachers leave; a 3rd one comes late. Maude has offered to go last, and by the time it’s her turn, Mona’s husband and son have come home so she only has a small one on her hand. Mona never does get to have her own arms decorated, but she assures me she doesn’t mind at all and we’ll do it again soon.

adding glitter

ilsa got her name in arabic on her hand

The henna is excellent quality and leaves gorgeous, deep brown patterns that last a long time. I have more pics but I don’t like to post pics without checking with people, so that’s it for now.


Bea climbs into my car and notices the foil-covered trays in the back seat. “What is this?” she asks. I smile. “Today we’re having a party during class for Thanksgiving,” I tell her. She is appalled. Why didn’t I tell her? She could have brought tabouli, quba, olives. “Please, Lisbeth, 5 minutes!” she pleads. “I bring quba.” I think she has it ready—wouldn’t you?–so I reluctantly turn around to her apartment. Class is already starting ½ an hour late because Maude’s kids have the day off school, and I am taking them over to my place to hang out with my kids, who don’t get off till noon. It’s been a complicated morning so far.

Bea returns, beaming, carrying 2 containers. She opens them to show me. One has the mushy rice and one has the spiced meat and raisin filling. I am mystified. Where and when is she going to put them together and cook them? The foil-covered trays contain simple foods like pumpkin bread, coconut tarts, tiny mince pies (I made some hallal mince this year—I didn’t put brandy in it).

We’re also in the middle of a 3-day storm and it’s pouring as we drive through sodden, still bright leaves to collect Maude and her 3 kids, along with Fiona and another woman. They are all appalled. WHY didn’t I tell them it was a party? They would have brought things. “This is a party for you; you’re not supposed to work,” I tell them, but they are not convinced.

My phone rings; it’s Amy, who isn’t supposed to be coming today. I answer it, and get Suzi’s husband, telling me that he’s bringing Amy and another woman and where is the class? Usually there’s at least one person absent, but today everyone is there.

I pop into the church kitchen and make Iraqi-style tea and we serve the goodies, with me trying to get everyone to chatter in English instead of Arabic. They exclaim over my baked goods and everyone likes them, especially the coconut pies.

Later, during class time, we do Thanksgiving stuff. I teach a simple history lesson, glossing over the parts I don’t remember. We’re doing countable and uncountable nouns so I make a thanksgiving meal shopping list and we practice. At the end, we go around and say what we’re thankful for.

“The party,” says one person. “Thank you for the party.” “Thank you for being our teacher,” adds another. This is nice, but I explain that it’s not just supposed to be thanking me. I give them some examples. “I know you’ve lost a lot,” I tell them, “but we still have so many things to be thankful for!”

Runi, 72, smiles. “I am thankful to be in America,” she says firmly. Everyone agrees. “Thankful for safe,” says another. Yes, they all say. They are thankful for homes even though their current apartments are much smaller than the big houses most had in Iraq. They are thankful for children, as they know all too many mothers who still grieve.

Maude grins slyly. “I am thankful for rain,” she announces. We all laugh, but it’s true. We have no water shortages here, and she tells us how much she enjoys long hot showers, and not having to worry about the electricity being cut.

Afterwards, I take everyone home. Bea, who’s a 20-minute drive each way, wants me to come back to get the quba, but I am already late to a going-away coffee for a friend who’s moving to Australia, and I have something else after that. “Next time,” I say firmly.

“Eid Mabrouk! Happy Thanksgiving!” they all tell me as they kiss me goodbye. Later, mystified by Black Friday, Harold calls Donn and basically reads him the entire Walmart ad. He can’t believe the prices. Sadly, he has to work. I suspect I will get a lot of phone calls the day before, asking for rides to the mall. I’m not going.


In honour of the holidays, please pop over and read my review of Hurry Less, Worry Less at Christmas and enter to win your own copy! I write about some memories of Christmases Past. Go on! It will only take a minute.

This month I was both overly busy and lazy. I wore myself out by putting in a few 60 hour weeks (between teaching ESL and working with refugees) and then I crashed for a week. So my nightstand is a bit sparse. Never mind. I’m refreshed and excited to get reading again.

We Meant Well. It took me forever to write this review but go read it, if you haven’t already. A very important book.

Stasiland. Another review that took me forever to write. When I really like a book, it’s harder to review. I don’t know why. I loved this book, and gave it my first 5-star review. It combined fascinating subject matter with excellent writing. This is one you want to read. I admit I don’t actually know you, probably. But I still think you’ll like it.

Self-Portrait with 7 Fingers. This is a delightful book. It’s the sort of book you should buy if you have small children. If you don’t, you should buy it “for when friends when small children stop by” and keep on a high shelf, because children often have inexplicably sticky fingers and a propensity to tear pages. Basically, it’s a sampling of Marc Chagall’s paintings and original poems by Jane Yolen and J. Patrick Lewis about the paintings, along with some biographical information about the painter. And it’s just really fun and gorgeous.

The Last Dragon. Why yes, I have been cheating by reviewing books that can be read in 45 minutes. But this is another really fun one. It’s a graphic novel, a fairy tale about heroism and what makes a hero and how using even simple methods can have big dividends. The text is well written and the illustrations beautiful. All my teens liked this one and I did too.

Also, when I collapsed for a week and was sleeping ridiculous amounts of time like 14 hours a day, in between naps I read a lot of mindless library books. I read Wyndham Case and The Bad Quarto and Unnatural Causes. Enjoyed them all. Also some Agatha Christies. I like how her name has become a noun.

Currently Reading:
Amazing Adventures of a Nobody This is pretty fun. Leon Legothetis was bored with a safe life in which he earned lots of money and had little or no risk or personal interactions, so he swung the pendulum pretty hard and decided to travel America from New York to Los Angeles depending entirely on the kindness of strangers. He basically asks people to buy him train tickets, feed him meals and put him up for the night. I wouldn’t have thought it would work, but so far he’s gotten to Colorado and hasn’t slept on the streets yet. He’s attempted, and failed, to rap for his supper, and persuaded a frat house to put him up if he streaked to the center of campus and kissed a statue. He’s also met a woman who is convinced “they” are trying to kill her, but she buys him a hotel room, and had another woman hand him her keys and tell him if he can make it to Chicago, he can stay at her place. It’s quite the adventure.

The Time In Between. An epic novel dealing with the events in Spain and Morocco during the 30s through the eyes of one woman, a poor uneducated seamstress who catches the eye of an unscrupulous con-man and ends up being swept off her feet. She ends up in Spanish-controlled Morocco, penniless, in debt to a nice hotel, and threatened with jail. It’s a long book, and I’m quite sure she’ll land on her feet. I’m also enjoying the fact that I’ve been to the places she’s describing, although they are very different now.

Baking with the Cake Boss: 100 of Buddy’s Best Recipes and Decorating Secrets: Ilsa is very excited about this. From paging through it, I’d say it’s a great book. Lots of instructions, explanations, etc. But I think I need to go shopping before I can turn her loose on it.

And now I need to get going–Thanksgiving Party for my Iraqi ESL students today! Not to mention we are having a fine winter storm, lots of wind and rain and threatened flooding and all. What are you reading? Anything good?

Monday morning. I am nursing a bad cold but I go round to see Maude anyway because it’s a long time since we’ve just hung out, the two of us, all the kids off to school.

Fiona* is there too. Maude decides that, although it is noon, I need to eat “breakfast” and she serves me an egg fried with green peppers in a lot of oil, and toast with cream cheese and jam. “It’s very nice,” she tells me, pointing at the cream cheese. So during the following conversation, you have to picture me eating, drinking tea, and occasionally flinging up my hands in horror, while the two of them encourage me to eat more, to taste the pastries, to finish the bread.

Fiona is fasting so she doesn’t eat. Maude doesn’t eat either. I feel mildly uncomfortable but not entirely, since I am sort of used to being the only one being fed. We sit round the table. For some reason, Fiona decides to talk about her past, and she launches into story after story. Her first language is Kurdish, her second language is Arabic, and her English doesn’t get much past the “Hi” “fine” and “thank you” stage. “I am learning English,” she said to me proudly the other day. I agreed, but she has a long ways to go yet.

Maude isn’t used to being a translator, so Fiona will talk on and on and on and then Maude will say, “She is saying that they walked for 4 days. In the mountains.” Then Fiona talks for another 5 minutes with Maude making noises of shock and horror. “Sorry, Isabet,” says Maude, and adds another single sentence. Thanks to my cold, I am only mildly frustrated, because I am so tired with it. But it is obvious that Fiona’s story is gripping, full of pain and horror and woe.

I have no idea what has prompted these recollections, but for some reason, Fiona’s topic today is living in Kurdistan under Saddam Hussein, when, as you may remember from reading the news, he decided to wipe them from the face of the earth. She likes to talk, and she’s is full form today. She begins by telling about how they fled to Iran, her family and 2 others. Her daughters were barely walking, her son had to be carried. (She has 9 children; I have met 3 of them. The others are scattered around the globe) After a 3 to 4 minute discourse, Maude breaks in to translate for me. Maude’s English is not that great, in spite of the hours I have spent with her working on basic tenses, how to form questions and negatives, the importance of modals. “She say walk 4 days, no food. They no carry food, they carry babies. They eat (motion of finding food; prob plants). In mountains. Snow. Mountains. They, babies, all covered in salt,” she tells me.

“Salt?” I say. Maude looks blank. I pick up the salt shaker. “Salt?”

“OH. No,” says Maude. “You know, what you put plants in…” “Dirt,” I say, my face clearing. “They were covered in dirt.” Fiona takes off again for about 5 minutes. Maude makes horror stricken faces and noises. Finally, I say, “What? What?”

“They were those things,” says Maude. She makes a pushing gesture than the universal explosion gesture. “Rockets?” I guess. “Yes,” agrees Maude. She tells me how Fiona watched as a rocket took the head off one of her neighbours, who was carrying her baby on her back. Both were instantly killed.

Maude and I are both horrified, but Fiona is only warming up. She tells of her nephews, 3 brothers who were taken captive because they were Kurds and tortured. She counts them on her fingers. Ahmed was never found; the others were eventually freed by American soldiers years later. She tells of mass graves, of 150 people buried alive. She tells of boys and girls taken as sex slaves for Saddam’s army, used and then killed. She tells of people shut up in jail cells and tortured; her uncles, her nephews, others who weren’t released and wrote their tales of suffering on the walls in their own blood, to leave a record of what was done to them. She tells of germ warfare–”you know,” she says to me, and I do know, I remember. I read about it from halfway around the world, in the years just after the First Gulf War. She tells of poisoned water that made people break out in bloody blisters. Worst of all, the thing that made her flee over the mountains to the questionable safety of Iran, was watching in horror through a slit in her door as soldiers took a baby from her neighbour’s house and fed it to their dogs.

Maude and I are horrified, shocked, dumbfounded. “Where was I?” she says in Arabic. I feel the same way. But it turns out that Americans came in and helped, and also the French. “They brought food, small items, soap, oil,” she tells me. I figure out she is talking about the UN. Now we are sitting on couches, and she is telling me that many French men wanted to marry Kurdish women, and even converted to Islam. One neighbour married a daughter to a French convert, but Fiona wouldn’t allow her daughter to marry a Frenchman even though he asked to. (This is the daughter who hosted the Eid party)

Finally the conversation turns to other topics. Maude wants me to go with her next day to a parent-teacher conference for her daughter, who is in Head Start. She wants me to give her a ride. I agree; we can finish before class, and then I’ll have a cup of tea with her before I go to pick up the others.

I say I must go and we kiss our goodbyes and I head out into the frosty air, looking at trees looming up out of the fog, their leaves still bright. I drive home, still sort of stunned. I am only home about 30 minutes before I head off to see another Iraqi friend, teach another English lesson. I hope, as I drive, that she doesn’t share her story with me. There is only so much I can carry.

* not their real names. I change them for their privacy.

“I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself the king of boundless space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”

Well that was Hamlet. I am not currently having bad dreams—in fact I’ve been sleeping great, when I can manage to find the time. Here are some snapshots of my life, spread out over several days because you don’t have time either. Part One here.
Eid (Feast) al-Adha (of Sacrifice):

This weekend (well, technically Sunday through Tuesday) marked the biggest feast of the Muslim year. We still have fond memories of seeing the streets literally flowing with blood, as every family who possibly can slaughters a sheep and shares the meat with neighbours, especially those in need. It’s a time of visiting family, new clothes and presents for the children, special sweets.

Our Muslim friends here in the US didn’t slaughter any animals in their yards or neighbourhood streets, but Donn did meet a friend who is well-placed in the community going door to door with a large bag of sheep, distributing bits to various people. Ilsa and I were also invited to a women-only party on Saturday night (and I was thankful it was on Sat, as it was nearly 1 a.m. when we got home). Donn had some of the men over for a barbecue in the rain at our place.

Our hostess met me at Maude’s apartment and gave me rapid-fire instructions in heavily-accented English. Turn left, then right at the stop sign, then left, then right, then right again, then straight. I say, “Can’t I follow you?” Yes, yes, she agrees. By the time I have pulled out of my parking space with Maude’s daughter safely in her carseat behind me, she is nowhere to be seen. I remember the first two directions so I set off bravely, and catch up with her by the second left.

She’s been here a while and lives in a gorgeous house on a hill. When we arrive, she is wearing a fuzzy leopard-print short jacket, leopard-print palazzo pants, and leopard-print heels. She is tall and thin, with long black hair parted in the middle. She greets us warmly and is soon calling us down the hall to a sumptuous feast. She is the daughter of a woman in my ESL class, and most of the other members of the class have been invited as well, with their daughters, but there are a few women I don’t know. One has brought her 13 year old, and she and Ilsa hit it off and quickly make friends.

I find myself staring at the woman. How could she have a 13 year old? She looks about 22, but I know from talking to her that she also has an 18 year old son. I know Arabs tend to marry earlier than Americans, but still. Finally I ask. She was 14 at marriage and 14 when her first son was born, 9 months later. She’s a widow now, remarried, living in America where her 13 year old goes to an American junior high and probably has very different life plans than her mother had at her age.

After eating our full and more of shish kebobs, lamb and okra stew, chicken, quba (rice and potato mix stuffed with curried lamb and raisins and deep-fried and one of my favorites, so good), lamb and zuccini stew, salad, bread, rice, Iraqi lasagne (meat and cream sauce and pasta), haunches of venison (just kidding) and more that I’ve forgotten about, we move into the other room where we fill in the gaps with tea, baklowa (Iraqi baklava, made with pistachios), dried fruit and nuts, and nougat candies. Then it’s time for dancing. At all the Arab parties I have ever gone to, it’s always female-only and there’s always dancing.

Since our hostess and her family are Kurdish, we do Kurdish dancing. This is sort of line dancing; we hold hands and hop back and forth, sort of. Our hostess goes up to change and emerges in a red and gold caftan, shot through with glittering threads. There is typical Arab-style dancing (rather like belly-dancing) and then there is a kind that is new to me. The women hop back and forth and turn in circles, then whip their hair back and forth in frantic wheels. The 13 year old and her mother are experts at this. They both have hair all down their backs, and they stand together and do this until I am afraid they will bonk heads and hurt themselves. Ilsa laughs and then does it herself, revealing a hidden talent. I knew she liked to dance, but I didn’t know she could do that with her neck. The music switches to more American-style and Ilsa proves herself to be good at the moves. The women all applaud her—dancing is a skill learned by all Arab women and much admired. Our hostess says what she is wearing is all wrong for American dancing, and goes upstairs to change into jeans and a tight black t-shirt embossed in silver.

I usually don’t try to dance; I’m not good at sensual moves and wiggling my hips. I was raised Baptist. But I think I can hop and turn in circles while wagging my hair, so I give it a try. Everyone is encouraging me on–finally something I can do! But the carpets are uneven and I give my ankle a nasty twist, so bad I am afraid it will swell and I will have to have ice and go home in only my socks. It finally stops hurting and I manage to get my boot on.

I sit on the couch and talk to my hostess. She left Iraq in the mid-90s, after she received death threats when she was critical of Saddam Hussein on a radio show. She tells me of her father receiving a visit from the police, who told him to get his daughter to stop. “If you will pay me her monthly salary,” her father agreed. “I need what she makes, so you’d have to make it up to me. That’s only reasonable.” I laugh. It at least bought her time to get out, move to America, where she married someone she met here and has made a life for herself. “I don’t want to go back; that part is over,” she says. “I don’t care about the politics, or anything. That country broke my heart,” she adds, and I wonder about what she’s not telling me and how true her expressed opinions really are.

Things are quieting down, but although I make several moves to leave no one takes me up on them until finally, at just after midnight, I insist. That breaks up the party. I give a woman a ride home. Ilsa claims she is going to sleep in the car but instead we have a good conversation, getting home just before 1 a.m.

The next day my foot still hurts but it’s okay. Then on Monday, I develop hip and neck pain. I feel very old. It takes me 2 days to connect it to the twisted ankle and hair-whipping. Sigh. I think next time, I’ll go back to staying on the sidelines.

Note: at parties, women often put on youtube videos to dance to. This was one we watched on Sat night. It shows the hairwhipping moves and also the sort of hopping and twirling (watch the woman in turquoise a few minutes in).

This one shows the line dancing. I can manage that. Although my outfit wasn’t nearly as colourful and dangly as the ones the girls in the video are wearing.

“I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself the king of boundless space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”
Well that was Hamlet. I am not currently having bad dreams—in fact I’ve been sleeping great, when I can manage to find the time. Here are some snapshots of my life, spread out over several days because you don’t have time either. We’ll begin with…

I had the bright idea to take two families trick-or-treating for their first American Halloween. That is, to take the children of the two families. This involved finding costumes for everyone (and I have two very generous friends to thank for this—they got everyone set up), getting the costumes to everyone, getting everyone to my house, and other logistical nightmares.

Hasan, 8, is whining that he doesn’t want to go. He refuses to get dressed up. I make him come to my house (he can’t stay home by himself and his little sister is resplendent as Belle and his brother is ready to get candy) but tell him he can pass out candy to the other kids. Sure enough, after about 20 minutes of that, he is ready to go himself. He happens to be wearing camo pants and tshirt, so I figure that’s good enough—he’s a soldier, right? I think sometimes everything is just too new, too nonstop for these kids.

My neighbourhood is great for Halloween. I think they bus kids in for trick-or-treating, because although there are normally a lot of kids here, this was excessive. We bought massive amounts of candy (at 5 p.m. on Halloween because we are nothing if not hyper-organized) and still ran out. People go all out for decorations, enlisting family and friends to hide in the bushes and laugh creepily at small children, or dress as witches who cackle as they pass out candy. They drape cobwebs over bushes and hang cages of skeletons and ghosts from trees. There are fog machines, cauldrons filled with dry ice, elaborate costumes. My Iraqi friends love it. I take picture after picture of them posing with witches and mummies, adults admiring and children uncertain. (the pictures do not come out. I hate my camera) I mention to some people that these are my friends from Iraq, that this is their first American Halloween. Some people just smile and nod but a lot of people come through. “Welcome!” they smile. They give us extra candy. They pose happily with my friends.

It’s a bittersweet occasion. Aicha’s two children are the cutest Spiderman and Cinderella ever, but it’s her last night in Portland. She and family spend the night in our family room and we take them to the airport in the morning, where things are nightmarish. Maybe that’s where the bad dreams came in? (see intro quote) Although we have called twice and talked to two separate people to ascertain their luggage allowance, when we actually arrive everything has changed and no one can do anything about it. Two people on two different occasions said they could have 8 cases for 4 people, but the man at the counter, who can’t be bothered to even pretend he cares, informs us that it’s 4 cases only and $70 per case after that, and that we should have known that US Airways was going to use United and we should have called United, although that is nowhere on their tickets. But it’s obviously not United’s responsibility, right? He does his best to make us feel like idiots. I can only assume he is crashing from too much sugar the night before.  We have a fun few minutes frantically emptying cases and manage, by presenting 2 smaller cases as extra carry-ons and getting rid of some things they had planned to take with them, to avoid paying the airlines any extra money. The man eventually takes pity on us and comes to offer advice. It’s fine that each airline has their own standard, but if you are going to have the kind of relationship between companies where you switch tickets people have bought, you ought to honour the guidelines of the original airline. Don’t you think? Or am I just hopelessly old-fashioned?

Aicha and I cry. The children are oblivious. We wave them off, and later they call us to let us know they’ve arrived safely, which makes me feel even more like family.

We return home and I’m hopelessly late to ESL class but it’s okay, as all the women knew Aicha. I explain everything, several times. Maude, who has one of the higher levels in the class, takes it upon herself to explain to the others my story. It’s a long day and I return home in a haze of tiredness at about 7 p.m. (after lunch with one woman and homework tutoring with another) to make supper. We have an extra child for the week, one whose own mother usually feeds him at a normal American time, but he does well with our chaotic household, eating dinner at 9 p.m. with a good attitude. (Probably subdued through hunger, but he hid it well!)

No pictures, please!

Ilsa and her haul

a little unsure of the scary men…

November 2011

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