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During the summer of either 2002 or 2003, Donn and I took our 3 children to the village of Oudane for a month. We had visited this village during the month of February, when the moon was so bright that you didn’t need a flashlight to cross the rocky courtyard at night. Oudane is one of Mauritania’s historic cities. Built in the 1200s by 40 scholars, who lived in a madressa and left each morning to teach others the ways of Islam, it is situated on a rocky plateau that rises above the desert plain. At the foot is a large oasis of date palms, divided off by palm leaf fences to keep out the goats and where small plots of mint, carrots and potatoes are tenderly cared for.

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Oudane (aside: this is the frenchified spelling; in English it would probably be Wadan with 2 short a-sounds, emphasis on the 2nd syllable) is a beautiful place, but it is in the middle of the Sahara, 400 miles northeast of Nouakchott. Our goal in spending July 2002 (or poss 2003, but definitely not 2004) there was to really make progress in Hassaniya, far away from the city of Nouakchott where most people speak French. What we didn’t bank on was the fact that Oudane in July is a furnace. Exposed to the winds of heaven, which scour it daily, the village is an oven under a brazen sky with daily sandstorms. On top of that the entire family got intestinal parasites. I have written extensively of the experience, although I didn’t post it here since I had the idea of selling it to a magazine. (No one’s interested, even though the article starts, “I knew I had become accustomed to the desert when we tied the live goat to the top of our car…” which I quietly think is a great hook.)

We moved from Mauritania in July 2007 and the country kind of fell apart shortly afterward (no I don’t think these 2 things are related), with several Westerners killed, a suicide bomber just outside the French school, and many Western aid workers kidnapped and held for ransom. Last year, our first visit back, the capital felt different, unsafe in ways it hadn’t before. We had no way of knowing if this was our imagination or not, but it wasn’t helped by Mauritanian friends telling us to be careful and avoid certain areas, and official warnings not to travel outside the city.

This year, Nouakchott felt back to normal–dusty, bustling, busy, safe. I was happy about this. I wish my former home all the best and want it to succeed, and terrorism kills growth, along with so much else. The official warnings had been moved too. Now it was considered safe to go as far east as Chinguetti. Oudane is located about 30 km northwest of Chinguetti. And so, we decided to return to visit our friend Yahiya.

Since this is your introduction to a Mauritanian village, let’s take a moment to look at the houses of Oudane. First a wall is built around a rocky courtyard. On one side are 2 or 3 rooms, bare concrete with low windows, which makes sense for people sitting on the floor. (There are no couches or chairs here, just a thin rug over a concrete floor and a hard cushion for your elbow) The windows are simply holes in the wall with wooden shutters, painted a bright green and sandblasted to that country chic look so popular a few years ago.

oudane room

The side of the yard nearest the street has 3 tiny rooms. The kitchen is an unadorned square with a dirt floor; the shower is a tiny room with a slanted cement floor and a hole through the wall that drains into the street outside. Upon shutting the door, the room becomes pitch black until your eyes adjust to the small streaks of light leaking through whatever cracks there are. Usually there’s a bucket of water there. To shower, you dip cups in and pour it over your body in the dim, dank twilight.

courtyard

The third room is the toilet and it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Holes in the ground are common in Mauritania, but Oudane is built on a large rock plateau, and the ground is too hard for digging. Instead, you mount uneven rock stairs and come out on the roof, in full view of the village children, who wave and call to each other to come look at you, until you duck behind the low wall. Below you is an empty room. You balance yourself over it on rafters made of split palm logs, which creak and bend alarmingly, and relieve yourself into the dank below. When things get too smelly, someone dumps charcoal ash over the growing mound. When the rooms get halfway full, it is someone’s uneneviable task to open a door into the wall and shovel it out. I don’t know where it is then deposited, but my guess is that it is dumped into the desert somewhere, or possibly used to fertilize those tiny patches of mint. We were pleased to discover on this trip that the flexible palm trunks have been replaced in the newer homes by rafters made of rock. Much firmer.

tower potty

Would Oudane have changed in the 8 years since we’d been there? We’d heard they had electricity and cell phones now, which would be a welcome change from before. But, given the almost primative nature of a Mauritanian village, it was hard to imagine huge changes.

…to be continued

 

In Mauritania, there are probably 4 main dishes; chebojan (fish, vegetables and rice), yassa poulet (chicken cooked in a mustard-onion sauce, with rice), mafe (beef or chicken in a peanut-tomato sauce, with rice) and poulet-frites (chicken served with fries and onion sauce, eaten with bread). Out of these, my favorite is probably the yassa, and last year it seemed that everywhere we went, people served us yassa or poulet-frites. It was really good. But we only ate chebojan once, and I missed it. This year, it’s the opposite. I’ve eaten chebojan at least 3 or 4 times already, and I’m longing for some yassa.

Fish is the theme of the week, definitely. We went to visit H. She was out of the country last year when we visited, and came to greet us joyously. “Can I hug Donn?” she asked me. “Sure,” I said, but she didn’t–it would be wildly inappropriate in this culture. She took us to the permanent tent her family has set up in the courtyard–the frame of the tent is metal and the sides are wire mesh to keep out animals, but open to the breezes and strewn with rugs, matlas and cushions. It’s a very pleasant place to spend an afternoon. We recline on the matlas and are served bissum (deep bright red, slightly tart, made from hisbiscus) and tajzhma:a (I don’t know what it is but it’s tasty; made from some dried pods or something. Debbie, help me out in comments) and zrig (milk, sugar and water). Her mother came to greet us. H’s brother is a very close friend of Donn’s, and this family has known us for many years. Their big disappointment was that our kids weren’t with us. I showed pictures of how big they all are now, like I do everywhere we go. Her mother said I had to be Mauritanian, and gave me a purple muluffa, which they draped round me.

Lunch was served in the tent. Large platters of food were brought, along with a muksul–a plastic bucket with a lid and a teapot on top, to wash your hands. Their nanny brought it, and poured the water over my hands while I soaped up and rinsed, then moved on to give everyone the opportunity to wash up. We tore pieces off a long baguette and ate with our hands, an entire fish served on a bed of french fries, and chunks of beef on the bone, also served over fries. “I decided to do fish instead of salad,” said H. “Don’t eat too much–there’s chebojan coming too.” We protested, so she agreed to wait a couple of hours before serving the chebojan.

muksulThis badly-framed picture shows the chebojan and the muksul, so I thought you’d at least appreciate that.

After eating a lot of bread and fries, I felt sleepy in the afternoon heat. The nanny brought round the muksul again, then served us each a large class of Coke, then the guard brought the requisite 3 rounds of sweet mint tea. We lay back on the matlas–that is, Donn lay back and I lay on my side or stomach, because it’s rude in this culture for a woman to lie on her back in public. (I’m sure I’ve forgotten lots of other things but I remember that one). After a while, Donn left, but I stayed for the afternoon, reclining in my purple muluffa, enjoying the light breezes and chatting about anything and everything with my friend, so happy to see her again. Soon enough the muksul reappeared and then the chebojan, and although I wasn’t hungry yet, I ate some to be polite. Later that evening Donn and I went for dinner and I couldn’t eat a thing, just ordered a ginger drink.

When we lived here, I asked my Mauritanian househelper to teach me how to make chebojan. It’s very complicated, and I never did really learn, but I vividly remember her showing me the amount of oil she used. She took a small Coke bottle and filled it full, dumped that in, and then added another half bottle. (In American measurements this would prob be close to 2 cups of oil) I suspect that H’s cook, and Aicha’s too, are using similar amounts. It’s not surprising that I go through my days with my stomach feeling slightly upset.

Some days I feel like there are only 2 food groups; carbs and oil. Of course that’s not true. I’ve visited my Palestinian friends twice now and they give me food much more like the Iraqi food I eat in Portland, complete with lovely salads. Last night, her father was at the beach when I arrived, and he soon came with armfuls of freshly-caught fish which they grilled and served with bread and salad. There’s nothing like eating a fish that was alive less than an hour earlier, and it was delicious. But spending my days eating carbs and oil, then lying back on matlas and relaxing, is not doing my waistline any favors. It’s too hot and dusty to walk much, and besides we’re busy. When we get home, we are both going to need to go on a strict diet. I’m kind of looking forward to it.

fish hHere’s our first round of lunch. Yes these pictures were taken with my phone. You can tell by the high quality, right?

 

The jet lag, it is wicked. Pervasive. Illogical.

How can jet lag be a thing? How can I lie in bed with my eyes glued shut, feeling like my body is metal and there’s a magnet under the bed holding it down, pulling it fast, and yet not sleep? How can I crave sleep with all of my soul and yet find it so elusive?

We left Tuesday but didn’t get to Nouakchott until Thursday at midnight. Friday, we were up till 3, then we got up about 11, which seemed right. We’re staying at a guesthouse and we’re the only ones here so there’s nothing to wake us and no one else to worry about. We’ve been having slow mornings, with coffee and pain au chocolat.

guesthouseoutside the guesthouse

Saturday, we decided to really fight it. In the early evening we went to the beach with some other expatriates, and has that experience changed! When we lived here, a large group of us would head out every Saturday, to a location about 15 kilometres north of town. We’d bring a large tent and set it up for shade, and everyone would gather underneath it and share snacks, hang out, and chat while a large group of kids boogie-boarded and chased each other through the dunes. We were always the only ones there, except for the rare occasion when a fisherman passed by or an SUV drove down the beach.

Now there are businesses there, about 10 kilometres out, and that’s where everybody goes. There are little straw huts, open-air restaurants, and strangest of all, local people. In an extremely modest culture where locals are covered head to toe even at the beach, it’s more than a little uncomfortable to be running around even in a modest maillot. Regardless, we had a lovely time, catching up with people, swimming in the warm, salty Atlantic, and eating fresh grilled fish at the little restaurant.

We got home about 9 p.m. and arranged to meet a Mauritanian friend called Mohammed for coffee. He picked us up and we drove around, finally settling on a place that was here when we lived here. They used to be the only place in the city you could get whole wheat bread. We ordered coffee and sat and chatted for a while. Then he had a suggestion. Did we want to join him and his friends to drink tea on the dunes? We would leave around midnight. Sure, we said. After all, we weren’t sleeping till 3 anyway. And who’s going to pass up a chance like that?

We had a lovely time. Nouakchott is very hot this year–temps have been around 104 every day, with a dry hot wind, and my hair looks like straw by noon. But the nights are lovely, with temps around 80 and pleasant breezes. We walked a short distance through the sand and sat on a rug spread with cushions and met several faceless people, all of whom seemed really nice. It was very dark. I watched in some bemusement as one of the women built a small fire on the sand and starting fanning it with a bit of cardboard. “This is going to take forever,” I thought. That is a thought I often have in Mauritania, where life moves more slowly. I remember arriving for lunch once and watching the men take away a goat to slaughter for our meal.

It didn’t take forever, but it wasn’t fast either. That was good. It was pleasant to sit under the stars, enjoying the breeze and listening to the women chatter, joining in occasionally. I hadn’t met any of them before but they were really welcoming.There were about 12 of us there, and I was amazed at how much tea the woman was able to produce from the tiny pot. As is typical here, we stayed for 3 rounds of sweet, minty green tea served in small glasses.  We got back to our guesthouse at about 2 a.m. I was tired, but didn’t sleep till 4.

tea on the dunesThis high quality photo was taken with my phone (the camera sucks) in the dark, with a flashlight from another phone shining on it. I really shouldn’t even post it, but I’m going to anyway. I wanted you to see that tiny teapot on the fire on the sand. The cushion is to block the wind, and you can see a blurry hand waving cardboard at the tiny fire.

And somehow, this has become a habit. Every night, we meet Moh for coffee. Last night it was Turkish coffee at 12:30. Tonight was early–espresso and steamed milk at 10:45. It’s barely past midnight and we’re home.

turkish coffeeThis was the Turkish coffee at the Turkish restaurant. I am coveting these cups. The little lid! The cool design!

And so I think we’ve got the jet lag licked. The caffeine addiction/wakefulness? Not so much. Of course, who can tell the difference?

I’m sitting here wondering when, if ever, this cake will be done. I was supposed to be at Noor’s an hour ago, the cake was supposed to be finished 38 minutes ago, and the center is still soggy and the pick inserted is most definitely not clean, if somewhat delicious to lick. I suppose it’s my own fault for making one giant cake, to be carefully cut into two layers, instead of using two pans as the recipe instructed. It just seemed easier at the time.

Today is Elliot’s 3rd birthday celebration this year alone, which ought to tell you how thoroughly he is spoiled. He turned 19 last Friday, and I got up and went berry-picking and made him a breakfast of French toast (pain perdu, for my overseas readers) with blueberries and marionberries, maple syrup, bacon, and lashings of hot coffee even though it was approximately 185 degrees outside.

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Then he had to go to work. He has a very good summer job at Fred Meyer’s, which is a local store sort of like…well I think they’re sort of unique. They are first and foremost a grocery store but they also have apparel and home goods and garden centers and they sell nearly everything, for good prices, and they have great customer service and manage to treat their employees well too. I am a loyal customer. He worked till 10 that night, so we did his birthday supper (carne asada and home-made guac) the following night.

Tonight, Wed, he is having some friends over to conquer the world. I should have known, when we got him started with LOTR Risk at the age of 10, where this would end up. Axis and Allies is a super-boring game, with instructions that fill a literal book, and it takes up my entire dining room table, but it makes him happy. So tonight is cake and homemade pizza and frankly, I could not have picked a worse day to have my oven on for extended periods of time.

photo 4

We are having an unusually hot summer, in case I haven’t made that clear already. Today it’s about 93, which is unusual for the Portland area. I took one of those quizzes on Facebook about what kind of career is ideal for me, and surprisingly it didn’t mention “person who complain incessantly about the heat.” I know you are thinking that I lived in the Sahara Desert for nearly 6 years, so surely I can handle a little oppressive sun and windless air. And you’re right–I certainly have a different perspective than I used to–but I also still manage to get off a few “It’s SOOO hot!”s in every hour or so.

Well the cake is finally out, although it’s rather alarmingly cracked on the top. I will frost it with ganache and candied orange slices, and it’s Elliot’s very favorite cake because it’s really rich and tastes a bit like one of those Lindt dark chocolate-orange bars, also his favorite. I’m off to Noor’s.

Did everyone (in or of America, that is) have a nice Thanksgiving? We did. This year we went to Heather and Paul’s, and it was very nice to just make a few sides and a pie and call it good. There was an amazing amount of food and people under the age of 20. I did not take photos. Just imagine a big table with a lot of food and lots of good-looking people gathered round it. See? You have it.

Elliot arrived the night before looking very fit and furry. He’s lost weight and grown a beard, and he didn’t bring home all his dirty laundry. In fact, I don’t think it had occurred to him. I offered to do laundry and he said, “I can just take it back.” I pointed out that it’s free to do it here. He’s so weird.

The day after, we celebrated Black Friday is our typical fashion. We slept late, ate French toast, and sort of just sat around on electronic devices or watched TV and drank more coffee. Donn’s friend Ed stopped by and mentioned they were getting their tree that afternoon. “Oh we never get ours this early,” I murmured from behind my 3rd cup of coffee. “You should come with us,” he said. “Meet at my mom’s. She’s making turkey sandwiches.”

Long story short, we did. Elliot was home, and Thanksgiving was late this year, and why not? It’s handy having Elliot along when getting trees.

e under tree

I’m not totally thrilled with the tree. It’s too small and it actually cost more than our big, full, beautiful tree from year. But it is beautiful. The needles are a sort of frosty blue with golden tips, so the effect is green.

ilsa

“It’s short and fat, like our family,” said Ilsa. Here she is guarding another tree we briefly considered, in spite of the fact that no one else was at the tree farm except our group.

Why yes, her hair is a different colour than it used to be. This is what happens when you have a 16 year old daughter who, while she may be short, has a big expressive personality, and you leave her home on one continent while you go jaunting off to another. In Mauritania, we had a hard time finding access to the internet. One afternoon we were at a friend’s. It was our one chance to see some people, but first we checked our mail and texted the kids on the iPad. We got texts like this:

Ilsa: Hi Mom! Marisa’s mom is a professional hair stylist and she says she will dye my hair if I pay for the product so can I dye my hair please? please? (only put this in txt. I didn’t want to confuse you)

Ilsa: Hi Mom! Abel’s ripped his last pair of jeans and he only has one pair of pants left and he won’t let me wash them. Tell him to wash them or let me wash them. They are gross.

Me: Wha????

Ilsa: So please? Mom?

Me: What colour?

Me: What do you mean he only has one pair of pants? How?

Ilsa: What is the point of laundry? I hate laundry. It is vile, evil and pointless.

Me: Well the point is clean clothes I suppose…

Ilsa: So can I?

Me: what colour?

Me: Let me talk to Abel. How can he only have one pair of pants? Why won’t he let you wash them?

And on it went, while all our friends laughed at us and said we were very brave to leave them alone on the other side of the world. We said she could colour it if it wasn’t too extreme, with the proviso that if Donn didn’t like the colour, he could shave her head. She already shaves a triangle on the side, so she wasn’t too alarmed. This picture makes it look brighter than it is–in real life, it is within a shade or two of a colour that might occur naturally on someone’s head.

She loves it. Everyone at school loves it. (That was a relief!) I even like it, although I’m dreading the grow-out.

abelwe tend towards long hair in our family…

Also, this is still his only pair of jeans. Turns out he has two pairs of pants untorn and intact, and we still haven’t gone shopping.

The Sunday before graduation was Elliot’s party. Here is a copy of the invitation with our address whited out, since I’m the one writing this blog not Abel. (Sigh. I don’t mind having these conversations about internet safety with my children; what I mind is how often I have them)

Grad announce 2

I invited everyone I could think of, and managed to forget several important people I’ve thought of since. My problem is that the people I know and love are scattered, not all gathered about around one location (for example, a home town or a home church), but here and there from our nomadic existence.

I spent the weeks ahead of time stressing. I imagined people judging me for my back yard (with some excuse, I will admit) or for the fact that you can sort of tell at a glance that although I can clean my house, I own far too many books to be a really good housekeeper.

The nice thing about moving every 2 years or so is that you never have to reorganize closets or move the fridge on a regular basis. We’ve been in this house nearly 3 years, and our housekeeping habits are starting to show. In short, we did need to move the fridge. It was disgusting back there. I mean, really nasty. (I suspect I need to clean out my cupboards too. Darn it.) I scrubbed it clean, and I also scrubbed floors and counter-tops and made dozens of Welsh cakes which didn’t turn out well at all, due to my using baking soda instead of baking powder, like an idiot.

We were finally ready. The house looked fantastic, the yard looked almost as good as the day we moved in, and we were ready. I woke up Sunday morning and showered, and was making the bed when suddenly my lower back seized up with excruciating pain. I hobbled downstairs and sat down, only to find I couldn’t stand up again.

This was a problem. I still had things to do. Two of my Iraqi friends had gone far beyond ordinary friendship and spent their Saturdays cooking up a storm–I had 80 chicken schwarmas (I cut them into 3 pieces each), and mounds of homemade falafel and dolma, not to mention about a gallon of homemade humus. I needed to cut up Arabic bread to go with the humus and heat things and stuff like that. But I could barely move. I swallowed ridiculous amounts of ibuprofen and texted my friend to pray for me, forgetting that her husband is a doctor. He came to the party and talked to me and prescribed muscle relaxants. I found that as long as I didn’t sit down, I could function. But I dropped something on the ground, and it took me 5 minutes to pick it up. Not exaggerating! (well maybe a little. But not much)

The party was a huge success none-the-less, thanks mostly to other people. Ilsa did the fruit platters and Donn and Elliot took care of putting ice in the cooler, putting pop cans in the ice, carrying the large water thing with ice and lime and mint, and all those sort of things. Friends carried large platters to the table and took care of refilling things.

The party was supposed to go 3-5, but it was 10:30 before everyone had gone. By that point, I’d taken scary amounts of ibuprofen and was still pretty miserable. I took a muscle relaxant and went to sleep. In the morning, it took me about 5 minutes (not an exaggeration) to get out of bed. I’ve never had anything like this before. Of course Donn’s parents were arriving about noon.

I had about 3 days of excruciating pain, and then we settled into a routine of 4 ibuprofen every 4 hours, which isn’t so good for the liver but made life possible. All Donn’s family were here, which meant cooking for 11 people. It really wasn’t an ideal time but we managed. I wondered a lot about the all-extended-family camping trip planned for that Friday though. How on earth was I going to handle camping?

Oh you want to hear about camping? All right. Next post.

First there was this:

Elliot toesucker 1

Then this:

schoolbot

And suddenly, this!

elliot and donn grad

It happens like this, life. Children grow, parents die, and I am for now in the middle. Elliot graduated last week, and it was a joyous occasion, in spite of the school principal going on and on and ON about how first of all it’s Cheerios and bedtime stories and then they’re teens and now it’s time to learn to let go, like he was trying to make us get sentimental and teary. I was ready to get up and slap the man, except that he was too far away. Because there were approximately a million people there, lots of proud parents and grandparents and bored siblings and extra people who like sitting through speeches about believing in yourself and going far in life and eating Cheerios blah blah blah. Seriously, graduation was very nice but there were about 500 graduating students and those bleachers were not comfortable.  We were all supposed to give just one clap for each student, and overall we did, and you could tell where each student’s family was sitting.

Afterwards it took us ages to find him. There were a lot of people there! Eventually we did, and gathered the happy grad, his friends, Donn and I, and all of Donn’s family, who’d come out for the occasion. The only people missing were the twins, who had gone to find Elliot and had instead found lots of their other friends. I had a really hard time finding them again. Short and social is a bad combination in crowds.

I have been waiting ages to post this, for Donn to remember to email me the first 2 pics, which were on his computer not mine. I need him to email me one more thing, so I’m going to post this and write about the grad party in another post. Keeping it short and sweet, that’s me (for a change…).

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.

I am going to start out by telling you that I have no pictures, although just glancing with your eyes up and down this page could probably have told you that. At first I was having fun exploring the limitations of the iPhone camera, but I’m currently going through a stage of “this camera isn’t really a camera and wow, those are some limiting limitations.” Also, does anyone know how to get hipstamatic prints to anywhere else other than the app? I suppose I could google or ask my sister-in-law (basically the same thing). But I am lazy.

So, Halloween. Last year, 2 families came to my house and I took their children trick-or-treating in my neighbourhood. I mentioned one family who left the following day. They’ve just returned (YAAY!!!!) and are trying to settle in again, this time for good.

This year, the two original families assumed this year would be a repeat. Ok then! I ended up inviting 2 more families, so that no one would feel left out. One showed up with their 4 month old as the cutest Snow White ever–chubby cheeks, enormous black eyes with lashes out past her eyebrows, and all. Her mother found the outfit for $2 at Value Village, and makes jokes about how she’s really Snow Beige, and takes pictures of her with an enormous red apple. I want to post these pictures for you very badly, but I won’t cuz she’s not my kid. Just picture the cutest baby ever in a Snow White costume.

4 families meant 20 extra people to feed. I planned to race home from class, which ends at 1, but I ended up having to borrow a van, take 6 people home, take one woman for coffee because she was sick and had an appointment at 2 and I felt terrible leaving her at the dr’s office to waste 45 minutes, and then return the van. So I got home at 2:20, in plenty of time to make pizza and white chili, both from scratch, by 5, right? Or maybe not so much. Truly my organizational skills leave much to be desired. I started the beans using the Quick Method found in my handy “More with Less” cookbook (total aside: I love this cookbook. Some of the recipes are weird, but where else will you find poems to bread?), where you bring the beans to a boil, cook them for 2 minutes, let them soak an hour, and then cook them for 2 hours until they’re done. (See? Plenty of time. And my friend Debbie thought I couldn’t do it!) I got them soaking, ate my lunch, started the pizza dough, went out to borrow costumes for little ones from my friend with the costumes, came back, kept cooking. The kitchen looked like a flour bomb had gone off in it. I make the dough from scratch and the sauce from scratch, because I got in the habit of doing this in Morocco where I needed to do this, and now we all like the taste so much better and I’m so used to it that it really doesn’t take all that long. One family only eats hallal meat (that is, meat slaughtered the Muslim way and sold at special stores) so I had to wait till Donn got home with the hallal chicken before I could finish making the chili. Luckily everyone was late.

In fact, everyone was so late that I decided to go trick-or-treating first. We had 3 parties. Ilsa went with the older girls and some of her friends from school, Abel went with the older boys. I went with 4 moms and 5 kids aged 1 to 5. We had 3 princesses, a Spiderman, and an Indian. They were all pretty darn cute. We set off, leaving the men to sit around the living room and sample the candy instead of passing it out to the kids. Donn had to run out and buy more! In the meantime, the 3 older kids (5, 5 and 3), all of whom had experienced Halloween the year before, remembered that this was fun and meant candy. They began to race from house to house, occasionally tripping over their costumes, competing as to who would get there first, shrieking with laughter. It was pretty awesome to watch. Soon the other 3 year-old, who was shy at first and hanging back with his mother and refusing to try to say trick-or-treat or thank-you, was shouting THANK YOU and racing with the others.

At first, my heart was warmed. They raced ahead of us, and we followed more slowly, the one year old princess toddling with us. Then, I realized they were all ringing the doorbells, each as many times as possible. The formerly-shy 3 year old had discovered that he could open people’s doors and walk right into their houses! He didn’t go far, but each time he was getting a little bolder. “This is great!” you could see him thinking. I did my best to disabuse him of the notion, as did his mother, but in fact from then on I had to run along and keep up (in my boots with their 3-inch heels) and when necessary hold his hand to prevent him from continuing this combination of trick AND treat!

We returned about 8:30, even the mothers dragging with exhaustion. I realized that in spite of the huge pot of chili and stacks of pizza and cornbread I’d made, I probably didn’t have enough food. “So! How’s that candy?!” I urged the children, hoping they’d fill up and then go home and be hyper with their parents, not me. We started serving soup, putting pizza on plates, urging cornbread on people (they were suspicious, as they’d never tried it before). The soup was too salty but was nonetheless a hit with most people. The pizza slowly disappeared. I had a brilliant idea and made pizza bread with a loaf of bread I had in the freezer, and told my kids to fill up on that and cornbread. We had just enough food. It wasn’t totally Arab (where you have massive amounts of leftovers) but it was okay.

I made tea. I put out a dessert that one of the moms had brought (I hadn’t made one, as I figured there would be enough candy in the air to suffice). One of the children spat out the marshmallow-type candy she was eating, as it wasn’t hallal (gelatin has pork products in it. No kidding). Her mother sorted through the rest of her candy.

Elliot, age 17, had afro’ed his hair (he can do an impressive afro. I will post a picture. Here he is), stuck drumsticks in it, put on a leather coat and sunglasses, and gone out to collect cans of food for a food drive that Ilsa’s class is doing. She gets extra credit, but wanted to collect candy for herself, so he volunteered to help. Then later that night, while I was serving tea, he went into that disaster area of a kitchen and cleaned the whole thing himself, leaving it with shining, spotless countertop and a gleaming floor. I told him that he was my favorite child and he was on no account to leave for college next year. Seriously. I need him and it’s not at all creepy to keep your child from leaving home and growing up and becoming his own person, just so he can do your dishes.

Everyone left by about 10, given that it was a school night. I can’t imagine how lovely the children were next day; I know my 3 teens were exhausted. I know I was exhausted, come to that. Nonetheless, I feel we have established a tradition. I’ll let you know how next year goes. If we double again, that’ll be 8 families. What are the chances of me actually making enough food?

How was your Halloween?

On Friday, one of my friends had a baby and another had a miscarriage. I wasn’t there for either of them. I was across town with another family, who were being presented with their new home from Habitat for Humanity. There was a ceremony, and a lot of Iraqi food, and a hot wind blowing around the yard.

It was a long day.

We spoke on the phone with both of them. A couple of days earlier, I’d spoken to the new father-to-be. “It’s happy for my wife, but a funeral for me,” he said. I laughed. “I don’t believe you at all,” I told him. “I know you’re really happy and you’re going to love that new baby daughter of yours so much!”

When he called, I didn’t hear my phone so he left a message. “You are right–I’m so happy,” he told me. We saw the baby the next day and she is gorgeous; tiny and perfect and welcomed by her grandmother, who recently arrived from Iraq, as well as aunts and big brothers and friends. I sat and held her while her big brothers and some of their friends tried on the enormous (on them) bright blue gloves left so temptingly in reach in those full boxes on the wall. I cringed as I saw a small child take off the gloves and thoughtfully put them back in the box.

The previous evening, we spoke to our other friends on the phone. They’d just gotten released from the hospital and were home, resting. Although we know Arab culture says you go then and there, we suggested that we come the next day. The husband agreed. “She is finally resting,” he said, relief in his voice. Sometimes the habits of your own culture are hard; this is true no matter what culture you come from.

We were really impressed with the husband, so thoughtful and caring, worrying only about how his wife was doing, willing to do whatever necessary to help her no matter how uncomfortable it made him, putting her needs above his own. We weren’t surprised; it fits what we know of them. But it was beautiful to see.

They were having such a difficult time. No one knew what to do, including us. None of us had faced this situation before and America is far more regulated than Iraq, where cemeteries are basically free according to our friend. They called the mosque, which initially said they couldn’t help because the fetus wasn’t viable–she was only 12 weeks along but had seen the baby on an ultrasound, heard the heartbeat, wanted a small spot of earth where she could visit. We called around too, quickly found a church willing to help but needing to check legality before definitively saying yes. Eventually someone from the mosque called back and agreed to help.

We visited them after leaving the hospital to see the newborn, stopping on our way for a picnic with two other families. That is, the original plan had been to have a picnic, but the baby (2 months old) was sick, so instead we spent a gorgeous fall day crowded into a small apartment, feasting. Our hostess had managed to out-do herself yet again. It’s okay though–it was both lunch and dinner, so my calorie intake didn’t climb through the roof, unless we want to think about the log-shaped baklava. Let’s not. It was really good.

We left the picnic a little early so we could go visit the friends who’d had the miscarriage. I didn’t tell them why we were leaving early, pinning the blame on Elliot who has college application essays to write and Ilsa who is taking AP classes. It took some nudging to get Elliot to fuss about his homework. But I didn’t know if the couple wanted everyone to know just yet.

Later, I asked her about it. “That was so thoughtful!” exclaimed her younger sister. Arab culture tends to be rife with gossip, but I didn’t think people minded because they’re so open with me. I’m finding out that they don’t want me to share certain things though. (Question: so is this blog lame? I do change names and some details, and for this particular post am being pretty darn vague. On the other hand, I am sharing other people’s lives with you. Discuss in comments.) It turned out I’d made the right decision not the share the events with the families at the picnic, even though they are all friends. Whew! It doesn’t always happen like this. So often I make the wrong decision, it seems.

She’s doing okay. Obviously she’s still grieving, but she has other things in her life to look forward to. We talked privately with her husband, and we all agreed that her life has had so much turmoil and sorrow already that something like this would hit her especially hard. You tend to think “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” (and yes, I know you’ll be hearing that ear worm for the rest of the day–you’re welcome) and while that can be true, it’s also true that you get weary of being battered by life. Sometimes, what doesn’t kill you simply weakens you for the next thing. She’s surrounded by people who love and care for her though, and she’s in a safe place. I have high hopes.

August 2022
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