Monday, November 24, 2014

Spicing Up Your Life With Spices

At the Souq Watif, the open air market in Qatar.
An array of spice choices in any grocery store here in the the Middle East

I was pleasantly surprised the grocery stores offer entire aisles of spices and herbs.  You can buy many kinds of herbs to plant in the grocery stores here in the Middle East.

If you are a person who enjoys the pungent, fragrant flavors of spices and herbs, the markets and grocery stores in the Middle East offer a seemingly endless assortment of choices.  It is easily apparent that spices and herbs in their every variety are tremendously valued here.  I feel I have more of a connection with a place when I understand the spices and herbs they use--whether it is for their cooking, medicinal use, aromatic smells, or even to view their vibrant colors.  My own assortment of spices and herbs is akin to someone else's prized antique collection; I am always on the prowl to discover a new piquant flavor to add to my collection.

Since we have moved to the Middle East, I am even on more of a quest to capture new savory combinations of spices and herbs.  Interestingly enough,  I have found that it is a delightful way to enter into conversations and meet new people from other countries.  Some friendships have even developed because some people sense my genuine interest.  Strangers have shared recipes, childhood memories, and even old family stories that are conjured up by memories of herbs and spices.

Tonight at a dinner party at a friend's home in Abu Dhabi, Dana, a woman from India, immediately became enthusiastic when she talked about spices.  She told us that many Indian families have their own secret combinations of garam masala and curries. Her eyes lit up with fond memories of cooking with aunties and her grandmother--stirring and blending the fragrant, warm, and sometimes sizzling spices (reminding me of the movie, The Hundred Foot Journey).   One could almost smell the curry drifting through the window as she spoke.  Dana told us all, as she flipped her long gorgeous hair back, the benefits of spices--of health, and beautiful nails and hair.  The women all sat in attention as she spoke since we knew she had been a popular TV Indian actress,  and had done hair commercials in India.

Another guest, Mailyn, a Chinese woman from Malaysia,  recounted about going to the markets with her grandmother who was known in the area for her expertise in cooking and mixing spices.  She said, "My grandmother would take me to the market to buy the whole spices, (like cardamon, ginger, hot chilis, cloves, etc) for her curry, and then we would dry them outside on reed trays in the yard.  Since we lived in a tropical place and it would rain almost every day, she would then yell to her grandchildren, 'Go save the spice trays, kids, it's raining.' "

Mailyn continued, "The grandkids would gather the precious spices, and then I would volunteer to go with my grandmother to grind them by a skinny Indian man in the town.  Since we lived in a tropical climate, I remember he only wore a small loin cloth.  Spices of every color covered his skin, and I remember choking in the room with the hot dried chiles, but he was accustomed to it.   My grandmother was quite famous in the area, and would then bring home the spices where she had a cottage industry of mixing them together.   About ten of her grandkids would sit on the floor with small bags, and we would mix the secret blends, and then with a candle, seal the bags.  We cousins chattered happily, not knowing the rich heritage of food that our grandma was giving us."

I have discovered spices and herbs somehow bring to the surface some of the fondest memories of our early lives.  With the sense of smell, perhaps our most under appreciated sense, experiences come back with pleasant, and often times tender recollections.  Simple sights and traditions from our past weave together again.  Perhaps this is the reason I try to not only savor my own memories of herbs and spices, but to discover others' tales.   Spices and herbs offer me the chance to experience in a direct way another culture or family story.

Sometimes my own kitchen's aromas are like a global tour of different countries.  Depending on which day you come, you could be in India, Morocco, France, China, Mexico, or somewhere in the Middle East.  I believe you widen your own sky when you partake of food from other countries other than your own-- especially when creating new flavors.  It is an inexpensive way of exploring and discovering:  awakening new pleasures, enhancing healthy food,  and perhaps the most important, building memories with your loved ones.

Getting a new recipe in an Istanbul market.

 An excellent guide to spices and herbs from around the world:

Here is a fall recipe from my daughter who is a dietician.  Note:  I have even made it two times this week.  I used the Iranian pumpkins that we used for Halloween that were on my front porch.  (You can see the photo of them before they were "soup" in the post called "My New Pumpkin Patch).
                                                            Butternut Squash Soup

2 Tab unsalted butter
2 Tab olive or coconut oil
4 chopped yellow onions (3 large)
2 Tab mild curry powder
5 lbs. butternut  squash
2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
2 cups water
2 cups apple cider or juice

Saute butter, oil, onions, and curry powder together in a large stockpot that is uncovered. Stir until onions are tender.  Peel squash and cut up into chunks, along with the cored apples (I leave the skin on them).  Add the squash, apples, salt, pepper, cider, and water to a boil.  Simmer to a boil, and cook over low heat for 30-40 minutes until squash and apples are soft.   Puree squash mixture with immersion blender or food processor.  Add salt and ground pepper to taste.  We added a dollop of creme fraise that was tasty!
Enjoy!  Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Enchanting Egypt

Elation for Egypt!

Whenever I leave a country that I have visited, I take it home in my pocket--meaning I read about it in current events and devour novels from authors who write about it.  I try to keep in touch with people who I might have met.  I might even attempt some recipes to bring the wafts of smell and sense of place that I felt there--a place that changed my opinions or sensitivities.   Truthfully, that country seeps into my skin, and becomes a part of me, and I am never the same again because of those direct experiences--particularly after meeting people whose lives intersected my own. That's what happened when we went to Egypt for our Eid vacation a month ago....

One of the huge assets about being an expat is the ready opportunity to travel-- to go places you never imagined you would visit.   Also, to make it even more enticing, students get some extended holidays off from school that we certainly did not receive in St. Louis, MO, USA.   Like us, most of the expat population at Eid were exiting the country for holiday excursions.  Since we dwell on this small peninsula off the coast of Saudia Arabia, it was the perfect time to escape the lingering summer heat.
So much wonder to think upon when you see the pyramids....
Typical of us Shums, we had not made any definite plans or bought any tickets for the Eid break--that was only about three weeks away.  To be fair, we had just barely arrived and unpacked in our new home in Qatar--plus started at new schools.   But there were two looming questions: where were we going for the Eid break and when would we buy the tickets?
Now I am glad I came!

We finally decided on Egypt since my husband grew up ravenously reading about ancient civilizations and archaeology and my son wanted to see the pyramids. Frankly, there were not many other local options.   Egypt was definitely not on my agenda.  I wanted to escape the burning sun, and see some lush, green forests--perhaps even feel some moisture?  

However, as is often the case, this new place and peoples began to penetrate my affections on the very first day; a whole unknown world opened up.  I became entranced with Egypt--the place that scriptures, literature, expeditions, crusades, wars have been intertwined with for millenniums. Amongst the noisy, bustling, even cacophonous crowds in Cairo, and the peaceful villages along the Nile, this place pulled at my heart.  I have to admit I even felt at home.

Some of my cherished memories include: misty images of the Nile River meandering through the fields at the date harvest, palm trees swaying breezily as a fiery red sun set over the dusty horizon, the spectacular iconic pyramids, the Red Sea in all its panoramic azure beauty, and the thousands of minarets (of many various styles--for another post)  intermingled all over the city with high rise buildings.  But what captivated me were the people.  Anyone can read books and articles about Egypt, but I want to capture a few profiles of real Egyptian people of our travels who live there now, not centuries ago.   They are people who obviously are struggling, but do it with immeasurable grace, humor, determination, and faith.  In a couple of minutes or hours, they became our friends.   Here are just a few:

There was a young, handsome, religious taxi driver named Makmud (about age 32) who was my favorite person we met in Egypt.  I can't find his picture.  He was our taxi driver for several days when we went to the Red Sea and Alexandria so we had time to talk.  His English was adequate, he had gone to college, and was expecting his third child.  His father had died when he was young so he took care of his mother in a seven story walk-up apartment.

When it was time to pick a wife, he asked his mom to arrange it for him because he was in India working.  His mom found a beautiful girl, he said, and she knew this young woman would make a wonderful wife.  His mom and wife called a few times on our drive--checking up on him.  He didn't seem to mind, and said his favorite thing to do was to go home and talk about his day with his wife. He drove us by his apartment, and we could see it was a very humble dwelling, but there was so much love, devotion, and kindness evident in his phone calls and family stories.
Here is another Makmud, an Egyptologist and our tour guide.  He told us that Egyptians prefer to see the glass half full, even with the struggles they have been going through.  When the water shuts down in their homes, they go to the mosques for clean water.   He said, "The mosques always provide for us in the neighborhood."  

See the horns the boys are carrying?  I will tell you that I have never heard such loud noise to celebrate Eid and National Egypt Day, which was on October 6.  One British diplomat we met said, "I needed earplugs for my earplugs."  Our tour guide said, "When Egyptians are loud, that means we are happy."

Since it was Eid, women were selling flowers everywhere so people could take them to their ancestor's graves.

My boys talking to some kids about sports.  Tourists are not as ubiquitous as they used to be in Egypt, and we were sought out many times to talk and pose for pictures.

We stumbled upon this woman named Maie, and she taught me how to make flat bread.

On a Nile River cruise one night when much of Cairo was blasting music, dancing on boats, blowing horns, and celebrating the week of Eid, we met a group of Indian Christian pilgrims on the deck.  They were on their way to Jerusalem the next day.  This is a picture of a family from the southern part, Karola, the section where most of the Christians live in India.  They had saved a long time to be in this group with people who shared their same faith. The group's Christian songs in Hindi inspired us for days.  After being with them for a few minutes, we were invited to India.

This is a picture outside the new Alexandria Library, about two hours from Cairo.  The first Mime School in Egypt was established recently, and these are some of the students performing outside the library.  Egyptians, we found, are extremely fun loving, affectionate (they always kiss you on both cheeks), and witty.  They prefer to not see life too seriously--having fun along the way.  For this reason, we felt at home--even when we were the only tourists around, which was most of the time!

This is a guard at the Roman Amphitheatre in Alexandria, Egypt.  E. (my son with autism) was climbing on a wall, and the guard got a little nervous for his safety.  He came down, and lovingly steered him away, even with only speaking a few words of English--no anger, just love.

At the Red Sea Resort where we were for one day,  Latifa led exercise classes, and ran the spa.  Her boot camp was fun, even though she could only drum up a few middle school  girls and me to come.  She lives near Giza, and she said the view out her bedroom window is... the pyramids.  She is 31, and lost both her parents in an automobile crash when she was in her early 20's.  Auto accidents are the leading cause of death in Egypt.  She is resilient, funny, and motivating.  She kissed the top of my forehead when we were done with boot camp.

These are cousins who run a family perfume business that started about 100 years ago.  He told us about his great-grandfather who began harvesting flowers to make perfume.  You can see the beautiful glass bottles in the background.  Since I like to mix spices together, I thought it sounded like a delightful business--to tend lavender fields, and smell lotus, roses, hibiscus, and other flowers all day.  They were very proud of the business their ancestor had started, and showed us old family photos of the flower fields.

Here is pictured a woman who has lived in Africa for several years, and hails from Alabama, US.  Her work is with human trafficking.  She has done much to alleviate this abdominal problem in our world in Africa and Asia.  My son said he could have talked to her all night about her experiences.

My sons had more photo ops than they would ever have imagined.  

Families were fishing, swimming, and picnicing on the week of Eid.

While the apple harvest is going on in Europe and North America, the Middle East is harvesting dates.  They are burning the branches that hold the clusters of the dates.

Maie is a 16 year old girl with Down's Syndrome who was walking around at Eid with her family.  Since one of my best friends has Down's Syndrome, we started talking, and became friends.
Sometimes I feel a little bit like Bilbo Baggins (probably no one believes this) in The Hobbit when Gandolf asks him to go on an adventure.  Bilbo replies,  "We are plain, quiet folk and have no use for adventures.  Nasty, disturbing uncomfortable things!  Makes you late for dinner!  I can't think what anybody sees in them."  But every time I accept the "adventure invitation," I am always surprised at how much I gain by meeting new people.  On this trip, the Egyptian people became more beloved than the pyramids.  I felt my heart enlargen, and the world shrunk a little more.... 

It always reminds me of the C. S. Lewis quote: 

"There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously - no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Experiencing Eid Al-Adha 2014 in Qatar and Egypt

Here are some of our young neighbors delivering bags of small toys and treats for Eid.  Their moms told me they had been waiting for weeks to visit neighbors in our compound.  It was Halloween--in reverse!  We were in Qatar for the prelude and first day of Eid, and then we traveled to Cairo, Egypt since the boys had the week off of school.   
Here is an Eid wish the children were delivering in their bag.  
It is a curious thing to be in the Middle East during a religious holiday watching from the sidelines--especially if you are the type who enjoys reveling in festivities and celebrations.  Although I am strong in my own faith, I enjoy trying to get a front row seat in the audience to view others' rites and rituals.  I have seen much beauty and light in the Middle East as I observe heartfelt yearnings to pray, touching family relationships, and giving freely to the poor.  It gives me pause for inspiration--and even some awe.

Eid al-Adha is the second Eid, the feast of the Sacrifice, and it commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, as an act of submission to God.  It is celebrated with the giving of presents and money to children and family.   Everyone cleans and washes themselves as a purification ritual for the occasion. Preparation for the holiday means buying new clothes to visit relatives, and even trying to go back to the ancestral home.  Also, Eid Al-Adha is when Muslim pilgrims descend on Mecca, Saudi Arabia for Hajj.  In 2014 there were 2,089,053 pilgrims who came from all over the world-- a journey that is required of the faithful. Children reenact Hajj, just as Christians have Christmas nativity pageants (see pictures below).

Many families ride on scooters, even five at a time, around Cairo.  Everyone was traveling somewhere to visit their relatives--any way they could get there.
 Since Allah spared Ishmael's life and replaced it with a lamb, animals are slaughtered to eat with family, and  given to the poor.   Cows, sheep, goats, rams, and camels are killed to remember the sacrifice of Abraham.  It is intended that one who an has abundance and/or perhaps has been given more temporal blessings that year, gives more bounty to the poor.  

Here are two boys in a Cairo market taking some sheep to be slaughtered for Eid.  Every where on the streets, alleys, and even large highways, animals were being transported to commemorate the sacrifice of Abraham.
This scene is not for the faint hearted, but it was a common sight everywhere in the streets and markets in Cairo on the week of Eid.
  In the week before Eid, I visited some schools where they were teaching and preparing the children in their Islamic Studies classes for the holiday.  Since I have a son with autism,  I happened to be at Awsaj Academy, a school for children with special needs, funded by the Qatar Foundation that serves mainly Qatari children.   I was lucky enough to be at the school on the day the students were dressed up and reenacting the Hajj pilgrimage.   These students have learning difficulties, including autism and Down's Syndrome.   It was particularly touching to see the parents proudly looking on as their children reenacted the Hajj rites for them to see.

This is my favorite picture of a mother or teacher pushing a child with special needs around a makeshift Ka'aba, the most holy site in Islam where the pilgrims walk around counter clock wise.  When they are walking around the Ka'aba at Hajj, there are more people congregated in one place than any other place in the world.  I found in my reading that the inner circle for walking at Hajj (closest to the Ka'aba or ancient cube) is reserved for an "express lane." This lane for walking or pushing is solely for people who have disabilities.  

The girls and boys were separated as they prepared to observe some of the rites of the Hajj.

These young boys are preparing for Ihram, a spiritual state that requires different clothing.  For this occasion, the men wear two white sheets with their shoulders showing.  The girls cover everything, except for their hands and faces.  Everyone is dressed in simple, humble attire, poor and rich alike.  They must be washed and put on these robes before they come to the area for Hajj. 
The children were throwing balls at this makeshift cardboard well, memorializing the event when Abraham stoned the devil.  The Qur'an teaches that Abraham was able to make the devil flee after he threw stones at him.  You can see the kids haven't picked up the balls yet....  Ha!

This is the Alabaster or Hanging Mosque in Cairo.  Large clusters of families could be seen everywhere, the young and old together, just visiting and going on excursions around Cairo.  They continually greeted us, "Welcome to Egypt!"  We were the only tourists around.  I felt like Angelina Jolie for the next week. Everyone wanted a picture with us.
On the first day of Eid, Muslims are required to go to the mosque early in the morning to pray and reflect. There is an Islam tradition that they return home a different route from where they came that morning.   I find this custom both interesting and instructive--showing that our journeys should be passageways to new beginnings.   When we arrive home, we have hopefully trekked two journeys:  one with newly encountered scenery never viewed before, and secondly, a resplendent and renewed soul.  Now that is worth being a pilgrim for....


Monday, November 3, 2014

Fleeing Qatar with Bach Fugues

The "stage" at Katrin's house

Tonight my husband and I attended a musical soiree at my cello teacher's house, a gathering of about 40-50 people to hear a concert.  There would be no cost, she said, but just bring some food to fill a long table.   When we entered the patio entrance to her house, she had unrolled a red carpet on the front steps, with rows of candles on each side glistening in the darkness.  People from many areas of the world had intersected at this home to be transported to another place tonight, to hear Baroque music that would fill their souls.

Katrin, my teacher, who is from Dresden, Germany, is a professional musician.  She thrills in gathering not only audiences, but also other professional musician friends together to perform.  Her musical preference leans strongly to Bach since she directs the Bach Oratorio here in Qatar.  Upon our arrival, we noted several other Qatar Philharmonic string players were standing in front of her harpsichord, ready to play some some Bach fugues.
Katrin, the cellist in the Baroque Ensemble
Her two small children slowly pulled the chords to open red curtains, unveiling the "stage" for the performers.  A few toddlers rustled, and even whimpered, but the Baroque music eclipsed any commotion.   Everyone sitting on make-shift benches and chairs in Katrin's living room were transformed to another place, another world--far from the desert of the Persian Gulf (fugue in Latin actually means "to flee").  As they played the various melodies that wove together in counterpoint, there were smiles and nods among the performers, and at the end, Katrin wryly said, "We made it.  If you get lost in a Bach fugue, you will never catch up.  You will be lost forever."  I guess you could say we fled to another place, but we didn't get lost....  

After the concert, Katrin came to me and said, "Don't you have two boys here, and one with autism?"  I wanted to meet them, especially the one with autism.  Please bring him next time."  And then she said again, "Please, " with a pleading look.  I was touched by her repeated invitations for him to come.  I told her that indeed he would be there next time.

One of the great gifts about having a child with disabilities is that one can see more clearly into the souls of others.  I always consider it a blessing to view the kind, gentle, loving ways of people who   pull my child with autism into the fold.  Katrin is a mesmerizingly remarkable musician who knows how to gather people who love music and want to flee, if just for an hour, to a European concert hall. She is also a gifted teacher.  But more importantly, she is, in my opinion, an amazing human being.

As a mother of a boy with autism, it is one of my favorite windows to view: people who deliberately throw out the net, so to speak, to gather all who will come.   These glimpses never fail to choke me up every time.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Unexpected Sisters

Some Ommi dolls that are popular with the expats here.

One of the best parts of living abroad is bridging disparate cultures, and developing unexpected friendships.  I have experienced close, loving relationships in unfamiliar settings many times--in Southeast Asian refugee camps where I taught, and with people who spoke little to no English in other parts of the world.  However, when a friendship develops with someone who is so vastly different than myself,  I am always happily surprised; the joy of these connections never eludes me.   I love my new neighborhood of expats for this exact reason; it is a crossroads of divergent people from many cultures, backgrounds, and languages.   There are not many places in the world where you could find so many countries represented.  Every day I find it a delightful adventure to try and understand their worlds.

When my next door neighbor, Abier, who wears a burka, reached out to be my friend, I would not have realized the joy that her friendship could have brought to me.  She is a strong-willed educated engineer with five small children who come from Palestine.  If she hears about any children who are not doing well in math, she wants to tutor them.  Every day she fills up her large SUV with her own children, and several others in the compound to take them to school.  With her wry, witty sense of humor, she calls them her "customers."

Abier and I share walls in our compound.  She lives on the right side, and I live on the left.
A few weeks ago, she decided that she was going to help me get my driver's license (it is not an easy feat for Americans).   It has been one of her foremost goals, you might say, to get me officially behind the wheel again.  She repeatedly tells me, "I am going to learn you to drive."   I told her I have been shuttling people around for decades.   She laughs when I tell her one summer that I drove 8,000 miles around the US to go visit family and friends with my kids.

 I must say it is a wonderful advantage to go to the driver's school with an Arabic speaking friend to navigate the Arabic signs, procedures, and to communicate for you.  As we walked into the several rooms with hundreds of people, she in her long black abaya and burka, and me in my colorful skirt and scarf, most heads turned our way.  We are not a common duo to see out in public.

When we reached the office to the director of the driver's school (a very kind Jordanian man),  she motioned for me to sit in a chair while she spoke to him.  I did not reply and sat quietly because I knew she was trying to navigate this Qatar driver's license maze for me.  She looked at me with her unusually gorgeous eyes, and I could perceive she was saying, "Don't say anything.  I got you here this far.  I can handle this." And then another glance came the way that I could also intuitively understand.  It meant, "You can do this.  I know you can."  No words were said between us in the office.  I do not understand any Arabic, but I comprehend her wordless messages to me--with only her eyes speaking to me.

While we waited for the test, she quizzed me on a few questions, and then when my name was called, she said,  "I will hold your purse. You can do it. I know you can."  A few minutes later, I came out triumphant, and I glimpsed her waiting at the door for me--to hear that I passed (at least the written part).  When I saw her so joyous, a tear came to my eye, and I gave her a big hug.  She squeezed my hand when I expressed thanks for helping me, and then waved off my gratitude by saying, "I am your neighbor.  We are sisters."

It is a most wonderful feeling to collect unexpected sisters in unforeseen places.  As I said, I have known the feeling of unanticipated sisterhood before, but I have never had a "sister" who wears a burka. Abier has taught me that I do not have to be uncomfortable when I see women who wear burkas; they are not formidable to friendship.  And furthermore,  I know now that I have the capability of communicating with people--even if I can only see their eyes.  It is indeed true that the eyes are the window to the soul.