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1. I am better! Yaay! Except still coughing and a bit croaky at times.

2. This is not the promised Sandwich Nazi post. To do that one, I have to find the cord to plug my phone into my computer to remove pictures. OR I could email them to myself. I will. Someday.

3. I was visiting an elderly Iraqi woman, who was very concerned that I’m still croaky. She had some advice for me. “Heat some milk up at night and put a large spoonful of butter in it and drink it.”

4. Um, no?

5. I pointed out that milk was supposed to increase the phlegm, but she was adamant. She said I could alternately heat lemon and honey and drink that. I said I was drinking lots of hot tea, but she was not impressed and said milk was better for my throat, especially with butter melted into it. I just wanted to share this because I’m hoping someone out there will try this for me and tell me if it’s as nasty as it sounds. Let us know!

It’s interesting to me to look at folk wisdom from different cultures. In Mauritania, they believed that sitting under cool air (i.e. fans or AC) would make you cold which would cause you to catch cold! This drove me crazy as it was usually over 100 degrees there, and I needed all the cooling I could get. Although Iraqis like cool breezes and AC, they seem to blame the weather for every single illness. No matter your sickness, no matter if it’s unusually cold or unusually hot or surprisingly pleasant and sunny–well, the weather has been different, and that’s why you’re sick. When I had the flu, it was because the weather was too hot. When I was still croaking, it was because the weather had turned cool and rainy. When my friend’s son had trouble breathing and his lips turned blue, yes that was asthma, but it was caused by the weather, which was its normal grey and temperate self that day.

6. We have had some torrential rain here in Portland this week. First we had an unusually dry (for us!) winter and spring, including an unheard of two-week-long spate of 80 degree days! Then we got all our normal rain in 2 weeks. We were supposed to have a picnic/barbecue with an Iraqi family yesterday, but I came up with a cheap rainy-day plan–we would go to the nickel arcade, let the kids play games to their hearts’ contents, and then go see a movie. Of course the actual day was sunny, but I can’t control the weather, people.

I’ve mentioned the Avalon Theatre before, but I’m sure you’ve long forgotten. Movies (second-run) are now $3, and all arcade games are a nickel. We watched the new Oz, in spite of their 10 year old choosing the R-rated movie from the “now showing” posters as his choice for all of us, including his 6 year old sister. It wasn’t bad and I think everyone enjoyed it. Do people actually like all that CGI? I don’t, but I thought James Franco was inspired in his role as Oz the Magnificent. That cheesy grin he would get when he was getting his bluff called!

I cooked all day and at the end, realized that I’d really only produced what would be an average amount of food for an Arab household, inviting us over on any given Saturday. In fact, less. That’s a discouraging thought.

We invited an Iraqi family over. I’ve mentioned them before–Harold and Maude, the people we went camping with, the people who showed us home movies both of their child’s circumcision and their time at an Egyptian resort, Maude pretty much fully covered head to toe, Harold in Speedos. They arrived pretty much exactly on time. Usually, they’re an hour or more late when they come to us, but if we’re more than 15 minutes late going to them, they call to see where we are. Today, we said come at 3 and they came at 3:15.

Things were going swimmingly in the kitchen. An hour earlier, we’d gotten a phone call that another friend was stopping by. I took it in stride. There was a time this would have thrown me for a loop, but I’ve been in strict training for a couple of years now. Someone stopping by, who will expect to be served something to eat and drink, an hour before another family is coming for Thanksgiving when things are at their height in the kitchen? No problem! I ran upstairs to apply my make-up, talking to my brother on the phone, and then pulled appetizers from Trader Joe’s from the freezer and popped them into the oven, underneath the turkey. These frozen appetizers are a lifesaver. I recommend the Mushroom Turnovers and whatever else you can find that looks good that doesn’t have pork or alcohol in it. Keep in your freezer, practice continually saying “No you can’t have those” to your kids (they love those mushroom things, and they won’t even eat mushrooms) and you, too, can react calmly to unexpected guests. The house was even already clean! We were way ahead of the game.

I served out cranberry-pomegranate juice and the mushroom things and these sort of Indian things that came with coconut chutney, frozen in a little packet. Our friend ate and drank a little, and gave us gifts. That’s why he’d come. His wife recently traveled, and she brought us dates, and large  jewelry for Ilsa and I, but she was too tired to come in person. He didn’t stay long, which was good as I wanted to set the table before they arrived. He left a small mound of salt on the couch, from all the nuts he ate.

I had a fresh turkey that dry-brined for 3 days in the fridge (well, 2 1/2) with fresh herbs. I had massive amounts of mashed potatoes since I usually don’t have enough, given that the twins adore mashed potatoes and I hardly ever make them. I had 3 veg and gravy and home-made cranberry and dressing and all that good stuff, just like you. I made fancy-schmancy individual salads with fresh mozzarella and home-made smoky tomato vinaigrette, and turkey bacon, just because.  We got out the china that Donn’s great-aunt bought in Japan during WW2, when she was there with General MacArthur. We were ready.

Maude walked in carrying an enormous dish of food for me. “You don’t need to bring food on Thanksgiving!” I told her, but she said, “No, no! Just a little something, because you invite me to your house.” Sigh. I squeezed things aside in the fridge to make room. Later I check, and she’s brought me turkey and rice! A LOT of turkey and rice! She’s an excellent cook, so I know it will be delicious. But in addition to my own Thanksgiving leftovers and Maude’s offerings, I also have leftovers from last night, when another Iraqi friend sent us an enormous amount of food, just because. My fridge is so full right now, you guys. Please come over and want leftovers instead of Trader Joe’s appetizers.

I really wondered if people would like the food. On the one hand, I didn’t care. We’d invited them for an American Thanksgiving, and that’s what they were going to experience, like it or not! But I also didn’t want to waste food, especially when everything turned out so well. I needn’t have worried. The kids didn’t really like much, but Harold and Maude managed to find plenty of things they liked, from the brussel sprouts cooked with turkey bacon and onion, to the butternut squash roasted with butter and brown sugar. They were very unsure about cranberry sauce–sweet sauce with meat? Was I sure?–but ended up liking it, or at least liking it okay. But it was a very strange moment when I looked at my table, groaning with food, and realized I had probably made less food than Maude had made last time we were over there.

We had dessert. Their daughter felt comfortable eating the whipped cream straight from the bowl with her finger, but that’s the beautiful thing about being 5. Most people liked the pumpkin pie, and the American coffee (decaf) served in china cups. We had coconut pies too (really tarts), and chocolate-filled pralines.  There was a lot of food. At one point, Harold said, “I feel I gained 5 pounds!” We assured him that was the proper American thing to do.

The plan was this: I would drive with Maude and her kids (she still has her permit but is doing well and should have her license soon), and Donn would come with our kids and another couple who don’t drive. We, along with many, many others, would meet at AS’ new house, which is far away–nearly to Washington State!–around noon. We would admire the new house, present them with a housewarming gift, and then we would all head, en masse, to Blue Lake park for an enormous picnic. We were supposed to be out at Blue Lake by 1:30. Blue Lake is far away too–far from our homes in the suburbs on the west side of Portland, far from AS’ new house in the north. And traffic round here around noon on Friday, on a bright summer day towards the end of August, well…

Maude was running so late that I wondered if we should just skip the first part and go directly to the park. By the time she’d changed twice and finally decided on a long, dark pink ensemble augmented with gold earrings, bracelets, and necklaces, and topped with a fancy pink hijab with fabric roses from Egypt, I was reconsidering my jeans and sandals.  Her daughter was wearing a tutu and butterfly wings. We had to drive through the neighbourhood to collect her son from a friend’s and wait for him to take his bike apart and fit it in the trunk. Now I know that American ideals of timeliness don’t transfer to very many countries, and that suits me just fine. I am habitually very late by American standards. In spite of this, I still thought we were really pushing it by this point.

We found the new house no problem, after I sped through traffic. And, of course, we were the first to arrive, even beating Donn. Maude pointed this out and we laughed about it–she’s always a good sport. We admired the house, which is adorable and nicely decorated in a sort of leopard-print and Swarovski crystal theme, as interpreted by “Ross Dress for Less.” AS’ wife kissed us enthusiastically and gave us a tour  and then served us tea and cake. She was wearing jeans, it’s true, but she was also wearing an ensemble–blue and leopard-print and white, with high heels and floating shirt and thick eye makeup. As others began to arrive, I noticed a theme. The men and boys were in shorts and t-shirts. The women and girls were in layers of finery, with armfuls of bangles and bracelets and millions of sparkles. Maxi dresses were definitely popular, in multi-colours of blue and pink and turquoise and orange. Everyone looked their best. Except me, the representative American. Oh sure, I had a few sparkles on my grey t-shirt, and I was wearing eyeliner and Ilsa had even put a little sparkly gold on my eyelids. But it really wasn’t the look  for a picnic at a state park. You would have thought I’d have known that!

After the cake, we headed out to Blue Lake, where we would help reserve a large picnic area for everyone else. By the time most people had arrived, there were probably close to 60 people there. If I was hosting a party that big, I would do a potluck or hire a caterer. Not AS and family. They didn’t show up till about 4:30, and then it was time for the party to begin.

We had naturally segregated by gender. There was an enormous picnic area, with the women sitting round one group of picnic tables and the men round another. Someone commented on “how Arab” that was, but I pointed out that Americans do this too, although to a lesser extent. “Really?” they said skeptically, but it’s true. And at barbecues for both cultures, the men do the work.

There was an enormous bucket of meat. One man dumped in onion and parsley chopped in teeny-tiny bits ahead of time, and plunged in his hands to mix it up. Other men shaped it into kebobs, which are formed around flat skewers and cooked quickly over a very hot fire. There was also something new (to me anyway)–hawoshi (I’m pretty sure I’m forgetting the actual name. There was another name, something like ariez), which was meat with green pepper and tomato spread very thinly in the middle of a piece of Arabic bread and then fried or barbecued or something. It was so good–the bread thin and crispy, the meat savory and flavorful. I suspect there was extra oil involved–why is oil so delicious? It’s gross by itself. No this wasn’t health food, but it was awfully good. I was handed a hawoshi and another piece of bread filled with kabobs and salad. Afterwards there was more tea and more cake. There was so much food that the men were cooking until nearly 7:00, which was okay as more people arrived.

It was a perfect afternoon. You know how the light gets in late August, heavy and golden and almost saturated? The trees were glowing in it, and the lake sparkling. After we ate, I took a walk and sat under a tree with one girl, comfortable, in silence when we wanted to be and talking about real topics when we felt like speaking, as if we were old friends. Donn and I walked around the lake in the sunset. The boys played soccer; Ilsa strolled with various friends, learning Arabic phrases that she proudly showed off later to the women, who called her “Habibti” (my love) and kissed her.

When the sun was nearly down, we gathered everything together again and drove  home in the pink afterglow of sunset.

 


I have a friend named Tiffany who is really fun and excellent at finding the good things of life. She’s the one who lets you know when teens go free to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry; she’s the one who, when invited to dinner, finds that Costco has real French cheese that actually tastes like something you’d buy in France, and brings you a huge wedge of it. She’s the one who invites you all to her kid’s birthday party and you all want to go, because either her husband is barbecuing salmon or they’re holding it at a really cool water park. And so, when she told me she’d bought me tickets to a chocolate class put on by her friend Pete, I didn’t hesitate an instant.

There were 4 of us, and we all crowded round his coffee table, which was stacked with books about chocolate. This guy is serious. I don’t know what else he does in life, but the man knows and loves his chocolate. He even has a cocoa tree in his upstairs bedroom. We started with drinking chocolate. Now I don’t really like hot chocolate. It’s too sweet or too rich or something. I’d brought coffee with me, just to cut it. But this chocolate was so good, so perfect in fact, that I drained my cup and asked for more.

We looked at a chocolate bean pod and dried beans, which are fermented. I won’t tell you all about it since I’m sure you could learn a lot more from Wikipedia, and my goal is mostly to make you envious, not informed.

Note the bean with its shell removed.

Then we all trooped into the kitchen, where we learned to make ganache. And then we made truffles that were just excellent, because he had all the right stuff. We made dark chocolate ones coated in cocoa powder, the classics, but we also dipped white chocolate truffles in chocolate and then rolled them in demerara sugar, for example, or dark chocolate dipped in chocolate and rolled in crushed smoked salted almonds.

fresh ganache. why yes, I agree, I should be a professional photographer.

I didn’t photograph this part, because my hands were covered in chocolate. And also because I was too busy sneaking samples.

Then we made something called mendicants, which are when you dribble a base of chocolate into a mold and then drop in assorted dried fruits and nuts, like macadamia nuts and dried cherries and blueberries and golden raisins. These are really good. Like really really good. Again, I sampled rather freely

Then we dipped dried fruit in chocolate. Figs, crystallized ginger (my absolute fav), dried apricots, etc. Then it was salted caramel, which was then topped with rock salt (pink, from the Himalayas) or a roasted salted almond.

Told you the man was serious. I mean, how many of you have a ChocoVision in your kitchen? It keeps the chocolate perfectly melted or something; to be honest, my mind was fogging at this point.

Then it was time to sample chocolate. I know what you’re thinking but you’re wrong–he meant we were supposed to taste and compare brands. I did this. I loved the chili chocolate from Moonstruck (started by Tiff’s 6th-grade teacher. I don’t think my 6th-grade teacher was ever that cool. Perhaps this was instrumental in making her the person she is today? Pay attention to your kids’ 6th-grade teachers, is the lesson I’m getting from this.) and the ginger chocolate with a poem printed on the inner label. Also the chocolate from Madagascar. I’m pretty much a dark chocolate girl, so I stuck to that, although Tiff likes the toffee/caramel combos so there was a good representation of that.

Then we packaged up the truffles, and the mendicants, and the dipped fruit, and the salted caramels. Because apparently, these were for US TO TAKE HOME. Sorry to shout, but that was amazing to me.

I drove home, already starting the chocolate hangover. I actually adore dark chocolate, but I usually eat one square. I’ve exaggerated a bit–I didn’t actually sample all that freely, except for maybe the crystallized ginger–but between tasting and smelling and drinking chocolate and all, I felt a little overwhelmed. It was totally worth it though. I came home and my family greeted me ecstatically and devoured much of it. There’s still some left though, especially because I hid it where they’ll never think of looking.

Just in case, I’m not telling you where.

I don’t even know where to start.

So I was all ready to post a silly happy post, about my crazy day where I left the house at 8:30 and didn’t really return to relax or anything until 11:30. Er, p.m., that last number, and a.m. the first. I really am not that impressed with myself when I only put in 3 hour days. Actually, that would be so rare that I would be impressed. Bring on the 3-hour days! Whither afternoon naps?! Let’s bring back the obligatory nap of childhood.

So, as you all know by now, I review books over at 5 Minutes for Books. Last Saturday I got Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West in the mail, and looking at the accompanying info, I realized the author would be at Powells tonight (Thursday)(ok so I’m a little late posting). We decided to go as a family, which meant everyone had to read the book quickly. In real life, that meant Elliot and Ilsa finished it and I mostly finished it, but with homework and dance team and work and managing to avoid doing laundry, we didn’t all get a chance to read it.

Frankly, if I’d read it first, I might not have let Ilsa read it. But then author/journalist Blaine Harden quoted from Elie Wiesel’s Night: A teenager should know no more violence than he gets from literature. His point is that growing up in the North Korean camps, Shin didn’t even know that literature existed, but I also took the point that my teens are plenty old enough to know what goes on in the world.

The book looks at the gulags in North Korea, through the eyes of Shin Dong-hyuk, who was born in Camp 14. His parents were given to each other in a “reward marriage” which meant guards allowed them to spend 5 nights a year together. I don’t think his mother loved him, and a result, he didn’t love her or even know what the word meant. His life contained no love, mercy, kindness, dignity. All he knew was hunger and competition for food, and the rules of the camp, which taught him to snitch and then stand by as other children were beaten to death. After he informed on his own mother and her escape attempt, the guard took the credit for the information, and Shin was kept in an underground prison for 8 months and tortured unbearably. He was 13.

The description of the camp is nearly unbearable to read. But, frankly, even more heartbreaking is his description of the painfulness of learning to live free. He spends time with a Korean-American family in Southern California, and the more he learns of how loving families interact with and treat each other, the worse he feels about the kind of son he was. He feels incredible guilt because he’s survived and escaped, and there are tens of thousands still in these camps. “I escaped physically, but not psychologically,” he says at one point in the book.

I don’t want to review the book here–I will link my post at 5MFB when it goes live. (Um, when? I guess check back on Tuesday, which is when I’ll recap what I read and reviewed this month) But I want to reiterate that I think this is a tremendously important book to read. I’m not sorry I had my teens read it, even though parts of it made me want to close my eyes and not breath, or scream and rage at the injustice of it all. It’s heart-breaking. But the thing is, we read Night and Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl; we view those as hard but important and even necessary; but this is not like that. This isn’t history–this is current events. You can go on Google Earth and look at these camps, which the North Korean government denies exist. (Note: I’m sort of quoting Harden at this point. I have not, for example, gone on Google Earth to see for myself)

So you should go read this book. It’s only 200 pages. 3 of us, with normally full lives, managed to read it in 5 days.

I’ll be back soon with a normal post. In the meantime, here is a photo of Elliot getting my copy signed. Why did I take a photo? Because he can get school credit (not academic credit, but he has to put in so many hours of extracurricular stuff) for this. I totally support this.

The date of the reading coincided with the date of our arrival in Nouakchott as a family for the first time. 11 years ago, we started this life of being global nomads. Even though we’ve been settled in the US for a year and a half now, even though I stayed in the same country for the entire calendar year of 2011 (and very depressing that was), we still view ourselves that way. Live overseas for long enough and you basically ruin yourself for normal everyday life in your home country; you will always be a bit of a misfit. But I’ll leave that for another post. To celebrate, I made couscous for the first time since we left Morocco. It was awfully tasty. It was ready just when we needed to leave for the reading, so we scarfed down some hearty snacks, and ate it at 10 p.m. Which was sort of appropriate.

It’s not nearly as pretty as Khadija’s was, but then, she’s had more practice.

I just found a new-to-me blog in which the writer keeps emphasizing that she posts 3 times a week, MWF. I thought that was good. What if I posted that often? Who would care? No one. You don’t have time to read all that’s in your feed reader anyway, right? Right.  No guilt here.

Last week we went to a conference in Indiana. It was a lot of fun, believe it or not. Usually this sort of thing is either interesting and informative or deadly dull, but rarely is it fun. This one was. We met a lot of really cool people, connected with some old friends, and went on a bunch of hikes by a creek filled with limestone boulders for scrambling over. I didn’t find out that this region has copperhead snakes till the evening before we left, which meant my heart was relaxed and calm as I leaped happily from rock to rock. (I will post pics either Monday or Wednesday)

The weather was sunny and there were even Adirondack chairs on a breezy, leaf-strewn lawn, and it was easy to snatch an hour or two with a book. Seriously. Best conference ever.

(Ok but how was the coffee, you’re wondering. Frankly, it would have been okay (Douwe Egberts from a machine)  except that it was served in styrofoam cups, which I thought were illegal but I guess not. Do you live in a region where they still exist? Do you care? Do you feel that nothing tastes all the good out of styrofoam? Did you feel that way long before you knew they were even bad for you and the environment? Discuss in comments)

Several of my Iraqi friends were worried about the kids, who stayed in Oregon and went to school as normal. “We can bring them food,” they told me. I explained they were staying with someone else. “Tell them to call us if they need ANYTHING,” they urged.

On Wednesday, I got a call in Indiana. Mona wanted the address where they were staying. She had made falafel, qubba, and dolma for them. She delivered it all on Thursday. She called me tonight. “You didn’t get any, so I’m making some more for you,” she told me.

But I don’t need it. Today another couple brought me dinner, since I’m “tired.” (aside: I’m not really that tired.) They showed up at my door with an enormous plate of briyani, a platter of baked chicken with potatoes and vegetables, and another plate of fried…something delicious…possibly fish?…and french fries, garnished with parsley. Also there’s a salad.

“It’s like we get paid in food,” Elliot commented.

But I’m feeling the love. I think food is definitely a love language. Last week, I allowed myself to be talked into staying at Bea’s for lunch on Wednesday, mostly because Fiona wanted to meet Bea’s visitor, who’s from the same region in Iraq as she is. When I thanked Bea for the amazing (and delicious) spread she’d put on, she touched her heart. “Oh Elizabeth, it makes me so happy when I can cook for you,” she said. And while Arabs always win at compliments and hospitality (seriously, if you are American, just try and top them. You can’t! We’re raised wrong), I sensed she meant it. It brings her joy to feed me. (It brings me joy to eat too, sadly for my jean size…) I feel very loved by my full fridge, knowing that while I was gone someone went out of their way to make sure my children and my friend who was hosting them got their full of delicious, home-made Arab food. (And I heard from my friends how wonderful the food was.) (Also apparently I’m addicted to parenthetical comments. I believe it’s a sign of a lazy writer, which is another reason to be happy I’m not posting 3 times a week).

 

PS Thanks to all who  voted for Elliot’s essay, and those who tried. He didn’t get enough votes to advance to the second round, sadly, but it’s all right–there are a lot of other essays out there to try for.

 

Happy New Year!

This year, I have resolved not to make any resolutions. So far I am doing well. I have been to the gym, once, and I have not said no to another mince pie, since they need eating up.

We welcomed in the New Year with a party. It’s sort of a tradition–more years than not, we have a party. We had parties in Mauritania, where guests came from Abu Dhabi, Sudan, Morocco and Switzerland. We had parties in Morocco where everyone was from America. This year, the bulk of the celebrants came from Iraq.

For some reason, I got a wee bit irrational about the food. I cooked for 2 days. I made 5 dozen coconut pies (tarts, really), and 3 dozen mini-quiches, 6 dozen chewy ginger cookies, and guacamole and chips. I made thousands, it felt like, of small pizzas, topped with mozzerella and hamburger cooked with onion and garlic and home-made sauce and crust. I gave myself a massive headache. At the last minute I made a batch of espresso/chocolate chip “muffins,” just in case. I made Donn and the kids do all the cleaning, including the last-minute frantic “Quick! Take that stack of books and stick them on the floor next to my bed! Close the door!” Luckily, none of the guests went anywhere near my room.

Everyone brought food. We had masses of food. Entire villages could have eaten their fill off that table. 5 days later, we are still eating food from the party, and everyone left with some to take home too.

This is only half the table…

The bright orange thing that looks like a dead muppet is called “kanarfa” or something like that. It is shredded pastry with food colouring, filled with cream cheese and pistachios, and it is delicious. Plus, you feel subversive, like you’re eating Snuffleupagus or Animal or…who’s bright orange?

Leslie made marionberry-filled mini chocolate cupcakes with marionberry-cream cheese frosting.

We had, in deference to the fact that my friends are Muslim, only sparkling cider. But it was very tasty!

We had some fun introducing these young arrivals, soon to be Americans, to an indispensable part of American life…Looney Tunes. First they watched some cartoons, then Looney Tunes – Back in Action, which has some very clever and funny parts but really, in my opinion, you only need to watch it once. My kids disagree.

It was a fun party that went until about 1:30. I think a good time was had by all. I know my headache lasted well into the new year, but it’s gone now, and so is the baklava, and the goulash (which isn’t soup–it’s this meat pastry thing that is delicious) and the qu’ba (deep fried meat and potato pastries…a big favorite round here). There are still a few coconut pies left though. Who wants to come over and help eat them up?

Happy 2012 to all! What did you do to celebrate?

A year ago last week, we moved back to the US. I don’t think it’s any secret that I wasn’t happy about it, but it was one of those tough, unavoidable things. I had no idea how things would work out, that a year later my life would be nearly as Arab as it was in Morocco. I had no idea that this summer would find me busy but happy, doing work that I love.
It’s Ramadan now, the Muslim month of fasting. I read an article in Time titled “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Ramadan” but they were wrong—I knew them all. I told someone that this was my first Ramadan in America but obviously that’s not accurate. What I meant was that it’s the first time that Ramadan has impacted my life in America.
Ramadan is tough on non-Muslims in Muslim-majority countries. Restaurants aren’t open. It may or may not be technically illegal for a non-citizen to eat or drink in public, but either way you aren’t going to win any friends if you choose to do so, and will most likely get harassed. Taxi drivers are grumpy. Your friends are exhausted from fasting and cooking all day and staying up and feasting all night, and by about the third week, everyone is bleary-eyed and not at their best.
Obviously, it’s easier for us non-Muslims here. The rhythm of our daily life isn’t interrupted at all. But, I wondered, would it be harder for Muslims? For one, the support of knowing that everyone in your society is fasting, not to mention the pressure of it being expected and almost forced on you, would make compliance easier. Also, we’re farther north here, and it’s summer and the days are longer. There’s no call to prayer to announce the second that you can raise a glass of cool water to your lips.
So I asked my friends. No, it’s not harder, they assured me. Well, maybe a little bit. They print out lists of times to eat, each night a little earlier. (One of the things I knew about Ramadan is that it moves throughout the year. This year it ends Sept. 1, but our first year in Mauritania, it ended a few days before Christmas) They go on with their lives. “The Eid (feast at the end) was hard last year,” a young friend confides. “We are used to having to get up very early so we have time to see everyone all day. Here, we just sit home and no one comes.”
In spite of not fasting ourselves, we have managed to get invited to several F’Tour meals, as well as hosting some ourselves. This is the meal that breaks the fast, served at sunset. For those fasting, first you drink water and eat dates. Then you eat soup. Then you pray. Then you eat an enormous meal, full of lots of special foods made only at this time. If you are not fasting, you still get to do this.
When I had Suzi and her family for F’Tour last week, I made harira, the Ramadan soup of Morocco. In Morocco, you can take a pot to a restaurant at sunset and they will fill it with soup that you can take home to your family. It’s made with a bit of lamb, and chick-peas and tomato and parsley and cilantro and lemon juice, and it is very very good. I made my own version and I was very happy with how it turned out. Suzi and her family were, too. “It’s Arabic!” exclaimed her husband in surprise.
Tonight we are going to their house for F’Tour. I’m hoping for Ramadan desserts—crescent horns filled with almond paste and covered in sesame seeds, dates stuffed with walnuts, and much more.
I visited a family the other day who is fasting. They insisted on setting plates of cookies and glasses of juice before Donn and I. No, no, we said, but they persisted. We smiled and said thank you, but then we didn’t take any of it. We just felt awkward. At the end, the man praised us. “It’s nice to not eat or drink in front of someone who is fasting,” he told us.
And are they all keeping the long daily fast, without societal support and societal pressure? Well… I’m certainly not going to judge them! Some are, some aren’t. The excuses are pretty funny though.

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.

On a rare sunny May afternoon in Portland, I drove with the windows down, flipping through the stations on the radio. I was on my way to see the artist’s wife, whom I’ve decided to christen Eve since I’m tired of referring to her as the artist’s wife.

Eve isn’t young, and English isn’t coming easily to her. She is also, like many women of indeterminate age, set in her ways and not one to mete out grace. “Argh! I just can’t get it!” she says when she makes a mistake or forgets a word. She’ll hit her forehead, berate herself. And yet I’ve never had a student as dedicated as she is, bar none. She works ahead. She asks for more homework. Yet she often misses class; her days are also filled with doctor’s visits and dental work. She is losing most of her teeth, will soon have dentures but in the meantime, ashamed, wears a mask to cover her toothless grin.

Eve is 65. Her husband is 70. They have an interesting story that she has alluded to several times, although her English remains more of a barrier than an aid to conversation. She chose him, which isn’t typical for Arab marriages especially of her generation, and they come from very different backgrounds. They are in many ways an atypical couple, and I’m enjoying getting to know them.

I’ve invited them for dinner before but she has refused. I’m not sure why, but I think it is a form of shyness, even politeness. She’ll say odd things. “I’m not a good woman,” she told me, but I understand that she doesn’t mean exactly what she says. I think she means she’s not a good cook, but I’m not sure. She hints at problems in their marriage. I believe she needs a friend.

So, last week when Donn and I were both there and we weren’t really doing much English class, we invited them again. “Please?” I said to her. And she cried. “Look!” she said, pointing to her eyes. “I’m crying.” I don’t know why a simple invitation for dinner would make her cry, but at least this time she has agreed to come.

I’m also getting to know her daughter, who lives nearby with her husband. If I were to believe even half of what Eve tells me about her son-in-law, I would detest him, but I take it with a grain of salt. But her daughter, Daisy, seems fine with him. “But he needs a friend,” she tells me. “He doesn’t know any Americans.”

We should probably have invited all of them, but given Eve’s reaction, I think it’s best to go slow. Eve and the artist lived in Italy for 4 years when they were first married, and her Italian remains much better than her English. (I can often figure out the Italian word by relating it to French, so our conversations are sort of English-Arabic-Italian-French. What would we call such a language?) I’m making a lasagna, since she doesn’t currently have enough teeth for pizza. Green salad, bread. What else? Suggestions? Also, does anyone have an absolutely amazing recipe for lasagna? I hardly ever make it.

September 2020
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