Sunday, October 12, 2014

Embracing the Dates

In a faraway hotel room in Cairo, Egypt we were checking up on the St. Louis Cardinals (we Shums are riveted baseball fans in September and October).  It is in these moments of remembering some of our former autumn rhythms (hosting World Series and Halloween parties, and going to pumpkin farms) that we feel the occasional pang of our former lives.   Could it ever be possible to not miss seasons, celebrations, and World Series?  Do we always have to alter, adapt to new surroundings, and not have all our longings met simultaneously?  Can't we just be in a few places at one time?  If you know me, you will know that I absolutely hate to miss out on anything....

Shallow, tranquil, calm, beautiful=The Red Sea
Before I left for Qatar, I listened to a friend musing on her expat experiences.  I had picked up some red and yellow leaves off the ground that were beginning to turn in early September, and was lamenting how much I would miss the fall foliage in St Louis.  My friend wisely said, "Instead of ruminating about apples, embrace the dates."

So today I will give you a snapshot of our day at the Red Carpet Resort on the dusty shoreline of the Red Sea, and how I am learning to "embrace the dates."  We arose early to make the two hour drive from Cairo, Egypt to have a "beach experience" after having faced the large crowds of Cairo and Alexandria for one week. When we entered the resort (to some it would appear a little bedraggled and needing some repairs), it seemed that most everyone was staring at us or trying to pretend they were nonchalantly looking our direction.  A few bravely waved and said, "Welcome to Egypt" as they have been saying all week to us at the pyramids and on the crowded streets.  I walked out to the pool area, and felt conspicuous, so out of place; I was not wearing a hijab--nor was I wearing a full length black flowing robe in the hot sun. 
Playing in the sand at The Red Carpet Resort
Everyone at the resort was ending their Eid holiday, and I almost felt like we were invading a large Egyptian family reunion.  When tourists are visiting pyramids and museums, we are much more of an ordinary sight.  But this was a resort, an Egyptian resort, where families gather to celebrate and make traditions--not a typical Western hotspot where tourists flock.  For the first time in my life, I was one of the most scantily clothed people on the beach in my one pieced swim suit.  But as I looked out on the azure, turquoise sea with the sun sifting through the clouds, this San Diego girl began to feel at home. The waves tumbled on the shore and children laughed as they dug in the warm sand--the duet of some of my two favorite sounds.   As I laid down under the thatched umbrellas watching my two sons and Joseph swim in the Red Sea, I could faintly trace the outline of the Sinai desert on the other side--somewhat covered by the misty clouds.  
Sitting there on the shore with the small waves lapping at my feet, I knew I was in a revered and hallowed place to several religions in the world.  Whether on this beach or another one nearby, much history had been made in this area.  No one really knows where the Red Sea was split, but it was on these ancient shores where the Red Sea parted as Moses escaped from the armies of the Pharaoh with the children of Israel.  Like a child, I pretended for a moment what it would be like to enter the water, and know that the wide expanse of water in front of me was my only escape.

I remembered this story as one of Joseph's favorites to tell the kids when they were growing up. I have heard him tearfully relate it several times.  In Jewish tradition, it is written that Moses and the children of Israel who got to the shore first when the soldiers were chasing them, waded into the water, little by little, with unwavering faith.  The water eventually reached their necks, and it was at this point when their next step would have been over their head--only at this time was the Red Sea parted. Joseph would always tell our children that sometimes one has to work to the utmost limit before the Lord can bestow His miracles upon us.
Walking in shallow water out to the Sinai
The beach was quite empty when we arrived, but happy holiday visitors began coming to fill the beach as soon as we settled in.  They chattered and laughed as they passed by.  I didn't want to interrupt their conviviality, but as they put down their belongings next to me, I said to them, not knowing if they knew English, "Isn't it such a beautiful day?  The water is so lovely."  One of the women turned to me and said in such a direct, candid way, "You are beautiful."  Wow!  I was a little taken back, surprised--not knowing how to reply.  

Not many strangers declare that women in their 50's are beautiful.  I then responded to her,"All women are beautiful."  All of them, young and old, in the large family giggled and nodded in absolute agreement.  I began to feel that I was not encroaching on their holiday.  Perhaps they were just as  shocked to have us be the only Westerners in the resort as we  felt to be the only ones there.

Soon thereafter, a young Egyptian woman came to invite me to an aerobics/yoga class that would begin in about an hour.  I was thrilled because I have been missing my St Louis yoga friends.  She had great emotion in her voice and her hands were flying with excitement (Egyptians are very expressive with their hands. They joke that if their hands were tied, no words would come out). She then said, "Egyptians love to have big breakfasts, and then sleep, and then have big lunches, and then sleep, and then have big dinners and sleep.  No one wants to do my classes.  Will you come?  It is free."  How could I refuse that offer?  

Get on your magic carpet and fly to The Red Carpet Resort
An hour later, four middle school girls and I were her "boot camp" students.  To hear her instructions in Arabic and then occasional English was hilarious.  I was laughing to myself the entire time, having a marvelous time with these young girls.  We chuckled, and tried to imitate her demands. One mother, clad in her black robe, called to her daughter from a nearby balcony.  I am not sure what she was saying, but she did not forbid her 13 year old daughter to do an exercise class on the grass between the pool and the beach.  I think she saw we were all having too much fun in our strenuous boot camp, and she didn't pull her away.  Egyptians are very playful, fun loving people; surely, they have had their political struggles, but they prefer to see the humor, hear the joke, and enjoy the moment.  

On the beach, schwarmas were being eaten for lunch, and even a waiter carried a tray of Egyptian coffee and tea, along with soda and water for the customers on the beach.  Loud Arabic music was blasted next to the pool, and as the music played, I spotted a girl of about ten years old dancing next to the speakers.  I was intrigued because she was so completely absorbed in the music as she danced.  Everyone else was swimming in the pool, and she was the only one dancing.  As I approached her, I saw that she was a gorgeous little girl who was immersed in her own world, as she swayed and stepped to the music. She motioned for me to join her, and I too began to be enveloped by the music.  We clapped to the rhythm of the music, and moved, turned toward each other, just this little ten year old girl and me--smiling happily in our own blended dancing dream. 

Dancing with my new Egyptian friend

Harvesting the Dates
As I danced with her, I recollected the happy memories of past family reunions where we traditionally have a family dance.  It is always one of my favorite activities of the reunion where we all dance together, young and old, to about six or seven decades of music genres--twirling and turning as we laugh together.  We are all at one on the dance floor.

As I looked at that beautiful Egyptian little girl, I felt like I was dancing with one of my own beautiful nieces at the auspicious Red Carpet Resort. I am not a trained dancer in any way, but it was a marvelous moment I would not have wanted to miss when cultures, age, differences blur, and then are completely erased.  

In St. Louis right now it is apple picking season.  I have so many fond memories of happy moments with friends and family romping through the apple trees filling our sacks.  But in the Middle East, it is the date harvest time.   We have seen the dates being plucked, cut, and dried on the ground as we have driven in the country roads outside of Cairo.  I think the tour guide was surprised how interested I was in the date harvest process.

Remembering my friend's advice, I am beginning to understand that it is possible to cultivate new layers of experiences--even creating meaningful memories that enrich the previous ones.  I am trying to learn to shed the apprehensions, fears (like walking across streets with no traffic lights, with trucks, taxis, donkeys, cars, people, and even sheep and goats all around you) that can eclipse the magical moments.  I am enjoying the dates, and would even pronounce they are quite delectable.

Meanwhile, I think I will host a baseball party this week in Qatar to watch the Cardinals (sorry to my SF friends).  We brought some Cardinals attire to Qatar.  Do you think anyone will want to come?  You are invited.  Come on....  It's free.