Monday, 30 June 2008


The best place and time to write a blog entry is in bed on a day off. You sleep in, stay in bed for fifteen minutes thinking about a couple of things you have been avoiding, quickly get up before they haunt your day, and have a good breakfast. Your father will be making all sorts of noise in the kitchen and you think you would pay a year of your life and be able to live on your own. Go to your room again, sit in bed with your computer on your lap, turn on the fan, play some music, and definitely use headphone or the same father will come to ask you “Where did you get this Bach concerto from? You know.. the first time I heard it. Your uncle Ahmed and I used to share the same room and he never liked classical music. But your uncle Hussein loved it. I was in high school when my dad insisted I had a violin tutor. You granny did not like it and told him “You’re going to ruin the boy’s future.” Have you heard Paganini’s … …”

Then you start writing. You have a topic on your mind and that is why you decided to write, no? Instead of being to the point, you start off writing an unnecessarily long introduction. You are still thinking about those same topics you thought you could avoid. You decide to go ahead and write.

Stop Bach and play Fayrouz. She is much more peaceful.

Last Friday, June 27th, at 5.30 pm, I was standing in front of her door. This meeting had been arranged two weeks earlier. I had received an e-mail titled ‘Muslim Female Study Circle.’ Having been looking for some place to attend Islamic lessons, I immediately e-mailed back.

Because the …

Oh no please not this song. Skip.

Because the e-mail was in English and sent by a lady studying at the American University, I assumed the meeting would differ in nature from those I dislike. At least people with good education do read a lot and tend to have a slightly more open-minded approach to religions, customs, and traditions.

I was received by the housekeeper. I walked in the living room to see five young ladies in their twenties. I said Salamo Alaykom and my name. They replied to my greeting and none said her name. I sat at the nearest chair although I wanted to sit on the floor.

It seemed it was one of my most silent days. I sat there saying nothing for almost thirty minutes not even engaging in their chat with eye contact. An hour later the hostess came in and I stood up to greet her and thank her for having me in her house.

She was a smiley lady in her mid fifties. If I was not told earlier she was Iranian, she would have undoubtedly passed for an Egyptian. She spoke very good English as she had lived in the States for over fifteen years. She was wearing a green embroidered dress and an olive green heard scarf. It took me a while to realize that she must have kept her head covered because there were a couple non-Muslim girls around.

By the time she started the lecture, we had become ten: two Americans, two German, five Egyptians, and one I did not know where she was from. She kept her eyes fixed to her feet and never uttered a word.

Oh, I love this song.

I decided to sit on the cushions scattered on the floor. I was now sitting on the side of the room that had the foreigners. It seemed that sitting there and having my hair styled into a funny way I was why I got asked if I were Egyptian!

The lecture was supposed to be on the ‘purification of the soul’. Half of it, though, was spent on how our hostess got married the first time and another time to a Sheikh who was already married to two other women and had nothing to offer. And how she accepted him because she wanted to learn about religion from him.

I had been warned by a couple of friends that this lady was so strict and judgmental. And before I came I decided not to throw in any of my ‘questions’ so that I do not generate digressions and confuse others. Besides, I was there to see if she was the kind of scholar I have been looking for.

“The happiest life you can ever have as a woman is one that is lead in accordance with what Allah has ordained for you. As Muslim women, surreeeeeender to God and do whatever He asks us to.” she said moving her arms in a gesture similar to that made by a boxing referee upon counting ten.

"So if Allah asks you to cover your head, you just do it because He knows what’s best for you. Allah says in His book …” and she recited a controversial verse from Quran.

I was about to jump in but the youngest among us was too fast. “But this verse was revealed only for the wives of Mohammed because Allah wanted them to be distinguished from other women,” she said. Her mom gave her that gaze apparently for daring to say something contrary to the hostess she had been videotaping.

“Yes, I know this incident and we will dedicate a whole lecture to Hijab later insha’allah” was the only reply.

“Your well being is like a triangle: physical well being, spiritual balance, and your mental peace. They are three tubes connected to each other. If there is a clog somewhere, you feel imbalanced.”

‘I like this tube idea. But what if some of your spiritual ideas cannot pass through the mental tube?’ I did not ask.

“If you were married and you spent six hours cooking a meal for your husband. When he comes home he says I do not like all this food. I would rather have a cheese sandwich. What do you do? You smile warmly, go the kitchen, and make him a sandwich. What if he looks at this wall and says that this tree in the painting depresses him? I would immediately walk to the painting even if I liked it and take it down.”

At this point, I and the three foreigners sitting around me had been nervously shaking our feet for too long. I felt the ‘feminist vein’, that someone once told me I had, starting to pulse harder. Again I was too slow. The lovely Italian next to me started talking nervously.

“But iif my moother or my faather diid not like anysing in zee house, any of zem will change it. Zey boos respect each oozer and listen to each oozer. It iiz not always my maama. Zey may joke aboutiit but she does not have to change the decoration only because she iiz zee wooman,” she said.

One of the Egyptians replied that the woman would do it out of love and in order to please her Lord.

The American by my side whose face had already turned tomato red said “But why doesn’t he do the same and respect her choice and also attempt to please HIS Lord?”

“I guess it goes both ways. But woman tend to compromise more in general. We have an Egyptian proverb that says ‘A ship with two captains will sink’. So if the woman always wants to be equal to a man in a relationship, things will never work. There are major decisions in life and those need a man to make them,” the Egyptian mom replied.

At this point I knew how the rest of the conversation will go. I walked over the hostess to thank her and kiss her goodbye.

“Thank you so much for having me over. I will try to be here next time insha’allah. I just wanted to tell you that you made a grammar mistake while reciting one of the verses in Quran and you know this is not really accepted at all. You either know the verse well or you say the meaning. And the Prophetic tradition you mentioned is weak one actually. You also gave a bad example to everyone here calling your first husband and the father of your children an ‘idiot’ three times. This is in no Islamic. And actually I think your lectures will do harm to those young Egyptians. You’re consolidating what their moms have been teaching them: be submissive to your man so that Allah is pleased with you. At the same time, you are confirming what those foreigners think of Arab and Muslim women.”

I only said the first two sentence and left in disappointment and frustration.

Friday, 27 June 2008

No, I am not. I am still alive.

"I hope this message brings you comfort and not grief. I just felt I wanted to talk to you.

To my family: You were my life. I always kept you in my soul, my eyes, and my heart. I tried hard to make you proud of me and hope I could do that somehow. I know I made you worried sometimes and I am sorry I did. Yet, I want you to know that I was always strong and managed to find away to hang in there. If I was to choose my family, I would have never chosen any other family. You always supported me, cared for me, and loved me. Nothing was warmer than going back to you on every hard days of my life. Nothing was better than your hug, dad, your prayers, mom, and your pure heart, brother. I wish I tried harder to make you happy. I still love you more than anything in the world.

To my cousins: I loved you and cared for you more than you thought I did. I forgive those of you who were hard on me sometimes and I hope you do the same.

To Marwa: You were the sister I always wanted for myself. Please be strong and do not get married to the first loser that comes your way. You deserve a real man. Please take anything you want from my stuff and give the rest to charity. If you still have the Euros I kept with you, give them all out to charity as well. I love you more than you know.

To Rania: I love you and do not remember anything except our happy days and our all night long chats.

To my Turkish friend and two American friends: I totally believe God sent you my way because He knew how much I needed you then. You are nothing but special and I know you will have nothing but the wonderful life that you deserve. I always found refuge in you and comfort in your words. Your pride in me was at times one of the very few good things about my life. I love you.

To those I once upset… Please forgive me for God only knows I never meant to. Anything I did or said was wither sincerely meant for your good or unmeant to hurt you.

To those who made me dearly cry: I did not forgive you at the time I wrote this because I knew there was not reason for you to make me sad and yet you never said sorry. I knew I was special but you did not. But I know I now forgive you. I just hope you do not make more people cry.

To President Mubarak, I do not forgive you for all what you did to me and my loved ones; Egyptian people.

To Egypt: I never hated you. I got angry with you sometimes, but was always happy to walk around you and talk to you.

To everyone else I know: I am grateful to have known you. You made me smile, think, wonder, learn, work, laugh, believe, give, love, and be strong.

I loved my life and always felt lucky and privileged. I did not hate anyone.

I am sorry if this message is sad. I think it would have been so even if it were all jokes.

I still have my smile."

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Molokheya with whatever

If you would like to learn how to make one delicious Egyptian dish, you can google 'molokheyya' and find the whole history of the dish as well as a list of recipes. If you want to try it, print a recipe out, buy a frozen pack of molokheya at a supermarket, and give it a try.

But if you would like to make REAL molokheya, listen to no one but me.

To serve four hungry people, you will need half a kilogram of molokheya leaves, a crushed half head of garlic, a lot of patience, stock of a happy chicken, ground coriander, things to think about for half an hour, strong lungs, three spoonfuls of margarine or butter, and some excitement.

OK, first wash the molokheya leaves well and spread them on newspaper sheets. Choose the pages carefully because they do affect the taste. You can also leave it to dry on a big towel. Tasteless, though, if not the towel of someone you love. Keep flipping the leaves over until they are dry. Everything else should be ready to start the fun part.

Use your kitchen counter top. Oh, I forgot to tell you, you need a special knife called 'makhrata'. Using the makhrata is a skill that you will be surprised by how fast you have developed. Take the leaves a handful at a time. Think of the things you would like to do in your life. Get them step by step. You cannot go fast now. Once the big molokheyya leaves have become medium sized ones, you may now go faster. Remember people you love, tell them things you were never able to say before. Tell them how much you love them and want to be there for them.

Keep moving the knife up and down, from side to side. You will automatically be put on a tedious soothing mode. Surprisingly enough, your hips will start moving with the pace of the knife. Do not stop, just keep working on it until you have managed to think over the problem that is on your mind now.

Molokheya is now less than quarter the size you started with. You will feel happy about the dark green color it has changed into. Boil the stock. Add the molokheyya little by little till it gets into the thickness you want. Too slimy is not good. Keep stirring and smiling. In a sauce pan, put butter, ground coriander, your sorrows, and crushed garlic. Stir till it all smells real good, and if you have flu, till it is all dark gold.

Ready?! Pour the fried garlic onto the molokheya and give the loudest gasp you can ever make, one that shows how strong your lungs are. Why? So that when your neighbors smell your food, they will get busy thinking what must have happened to cause the gasp rather than give your cooking an evil eye and your molokheya goes bad.

If you do not believe Egyptian women do this while cooking molokheya, you can ask one. Do not forget to ask them why they do not sing in the bathroom.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Back Back Then ...

On a hot afternoon, they stood shoulder to shoulder at the window nothing separating them except forty three years of age. They probably had nothing in common except a pure heart. They were lowering a basket for the keeper of the opposite grocery to put the two chilled Seven-Up bottles my mom had ordered earlier.
I was helping in the kitchen and whenever I walked back into the apartment, I heard them talking non-stop. Once about cars, another about Jamal Abdel Nasser, healthy dieting and weightlifting, football, religion, and who knows what else they managed to find of common interest. I have always been amazed at how easy it is for my father to talk to people of all backgrounds, ages, and mentalities. I do still envy him.
I looked at my dad and my young cousin standing by him and discovered how old my dad’s back has grown. His salt and pepper hair never told me he was getting old. It is his back. It has gladly carried the burdens and responsibilities of supporting a house throughout the years.. and it still does.
It is the same back I knew in my early childhood. Every weekend, as we left my granny’s house, we used to walk to the bus station for ten minutes which felt like ten hours. My dad would give me a piggy back and talk to me all the way to the station. It was a lot of fun seeing the same people who once seemed huge change into creatures shorter than me.
It was even more fun in the sea. I climbed this same back and felt as happy as a free dolphin. This is how I first loved the sea and later learned how to swim, .. hmmm .. or rather not to drown.
It is the same back that used to keep me warm and secure on cold winter nights and carry my school bag on chilling mornings.
It is the same back that I used to walk on. After a long day of working two jobs, my dad would ask me to walk on his back. Although I used to feel a bit shy, I enjoyed the game and giggled at the feeling of my small feet walking on moving muscles.
It was once the back of a sixty eight kilogram student at the institute of physical education, a field hokey player, a boxer, a physiotherapy specialist, a piano and violin player, an army officer during Sadat’s time, and a teacher at a high school.
It is the same back that still helps him get up early in the morning to ask me if I will take lunch to work or needed a blouse to be ironed.
More than forty years ago, these two men standing at the window would have probably competed over girls in the family. They would have compared whose back is wider than the other. I looked at them and wondered how old I look and feel. As I walked back to the kitchen, I tried hard not to even glance at my mom’s back.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Shower gella

It was seven in the evening and I would usually take a shower to change my mood. This time I decided to try something new: go to a cheap hairdresser's and have fun. Coiffeur Nancy for Ladies, the sign read. My brother once asked me why I go to those salons around our house and I was never able to tell him that the real reason was to sit and watch that style of Egyptian women talk and act. I usually say I am tired and do not want to drive in traffic all the way to my coiffeur. Well .. he is definitely right. Although he has never been inside one of them, he knew that at that sort of salons, you usually hear and sometimes see things you do not normally hear or see in your everyday life. Anyway.. I went to "OK, my heart" hairdresser's. That's how the owner addresses me. "What do you need today ya 'alby?", my heart. This, and other forms such as beauty, moon, honey, sugar, and sweetie, are the equivalent of miss or mademoiselle I usually hear elsewhere. So after being greeted by the owner, I walked into the female only section. I drew the curtain to see a strange creature attending to one of the poor customers who wanted to have her eyebrows trimmed. But the pain of unplucking was not the problem. Part of the problem was the hairdresser herself. I don't usually comment on people's appearance, but hers was really provoking.

She was tanned with hair dyed hazel brown with gold highlights, cut short and straightened. She was wearing tight jeans and a T-shirt that showed all details of her body and defined it into blocks unevenly distributed around her upper part. She was standing bare feet in the middle of dusty hair strands and curls they never sweep. Now you can picture how dirty her dark red nail polish looked on her toes.

The other and main part of the problem seemed more serious .. to me. As she was doing her job she was talking to the girl between her hands and laughing with her trying to 'win a customer'. In the middle of this, whenever she laughed she would put both her hands around the customer's neck. I thought to myself .. "Hmm! I'll be serious from the start and she would not dare touch me like that". She kept repeating this and with the loudest laugh she gave, she threw herself over the customer's chest. At this point, I jumped off my seat and started to leave. "Where are you going, beauty?" she asked. "The beauty is going to go run some errands and maybe come back later." I replied.

I left the salon with one regret of not having a hidden camera somewhere on me.

The second salon I went to made me regret not having a voice recorder. A camera would not have worked well there. You are first met and lastly bid farewell by a burning smell and intense smoke. You see no one but could only hear voices of all music notes talking at the same time in the four by six meter shop. There was one fan in the middle and it looked as dizzy as everyone else, which strengthens your belief that a gas bomb has just been thrown in.

I walked in carefully trying not to stumble into anything or anyone and finally saw a place to sit down and wait for my turn. I heard a voice asking me "What do you need 'ya asal'?", honey.

I sat at the far end of the room. I was sure that whoever walked in could not see me sitting there because I did not see them. Five minutes later I started to choke on the smell and was about to leave after advising them to open a whole in the wall rather that buy the air condition they were talking about. Suddenly, a lady walked in and I instantly recognized her voice. She lives in apartment 13 on number 29. I live in apartment 12, same building. Her children are my brother's age, married with children.

She happened to be a regular customer and everyone knew her. She seated herself by the door and started talking and everyone laughed non stop throwing comments back at her to keep her jokes going.

- I'd like to change my hair blond and have blue eyes.
Do you want blue lenzez? We don't have any. Plus didn't you have it dyed black two weeks ago?
- Some sisters told me that religion says black dye is forbidden.
To be honest, it's all wrong and change in the way God created you. So it's all forbidden.
- But doesn't religion ask us to take care of our husbands? I wanna spoil the guy.
Yes, that's because you don't know how to spoil him any other way.
- You know nothing, girl. He doesn't leave my arms.
Because he's stuck.
- No, because he can't resist me. He doesn't even leave home. He sits there to look at me.
Really? Good for him.
- And I don't let him go out that often. He looks like .. what's his name that movie star? .. Oh, Hussein Fahmy?
So your husband has straight blond, with blue eyes, and an Italian mother.
- No, his mother passed away so I can't lie about her. Do you want shower gella? I have very good brands.
My husband says it's a waste of money.
- Of course it's not. If you get him used to doing this, he'll never let you buy anything you like. And shower gella is very good and smells beautiful. My children once thought it was mango juice and drank it. Anyway, I have to get going or the man feels lonely.
Stay with us, woman. Give the poor guy a break from you.
- Well, you'd better take care of your own man and leave mine alone. It's not because I told you he was Hussein Fahmy you start roaming around him.
Shut up. My husband is THE man. Keep yours to yourself.

Everyone in the shop was laughing out loud at everything she said. I do not know if this was because they liked her, thought she was ridiculous, or knew that her husband had afro hair and a belly bigger than three watermelons put together.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Coptic or Muslim?

For some reason, I met him four times in a row this week.

I usually see t him once or twice a month around seven in the morning. He usually carries both a school bag and his worries and urges one of his daughters to hurry up. He has been doing this for twenty years, and it’s a new daughter every couple of years.

This time I met him in the afternoon as I was coming home from work. He was wearing one of his gallabeyyas that, to me, have all always looked brown, oversized, and shorter that should be. His shoes made the sound I never failed to recognize whenever he walked up or down the stairs. They were getting too big, probably because he has walked in them for long or because his feet have grown thinner with age and fatigue. He has looked the same to me over the years, even while being supposedly dressed up for Christmas Mass. I don’t know which daughter he was talking to; I have lost track of his kids since the one my age got married. He had always managed to have the time, energy, and place to make children somewhere in the five by seven meter room up on the roof of my building. I believe that my mom is one reason for the overpopulation of Amm Marzou’s family since she talked the landlord into renting him an extra room.

It was a hot summer’s day in Cairo; one of these days when you’d prefer the cool floor of your building’s entrance to your own bed. As I walked in, I saw a shadow resting at the first stair landing.
“Go ahead, Amm Marzou’. You first” I said.
“No, my daughter. You go. I’ll take my time.”
“It’s ok. I’m not in a hurry.”
“May God bless your time, keep you safe, and grant you peace of mind.”
“Amen, Amm Marzou’. Amen!”

What else would I ask in life more than what he prayed for me?

His prayers have always been the most sincere, heart-felt wishes I receive. There has been no instance in my entire life when I met him without hearing him pray for me. There has been no instance in my entire life when I doubted that his prayers were not one reason why God kept me from being harmed. I listen to him utter the words and see them go straight to Heaven. There was not a time when I thought that the God he asks to protect me is not the same as my God.

Sometimes I think that the “Are you Coptic or Muslim?” question is as silly as it could possibly sound. I wonder at it because my grandma has peacefully lived in her house in a neighborhood called Deir El Malak – The Monastery of the Angel. The name has never sounded foreign to my ears. On the contrary, it has always brought images I see from granny’s roof; images of crosses and crescents standing proudly side by side. I go visit her and hear her talk of Rose, her Coptic neighbor who is her lifelong best friend. Granny would go on and on telling me stories of how Rose used to come and help her bake cookies for the Feast after Ramadan. She would tell me of the day when my dad had a fight with Rose’s son and how she scolded my dad saying “How dare you fight with your brother?”

She reminds me of my childhood friendship with Marriane who lives in apartment nine on the same floor as mine. We used to play cards and read together when we were young and study all night long as we grew older. She made the best omelets ever.

It all reminds me of the wrinkles filling Amm Marzou’s face, which never kept him from making his voice warmly smile at me.