I've Moved!

My new blog is called Reflections from a Global Nomad, in order to acknowledge that we no longer live in Maadi and that we are, in fact, global nomads, not staying in one place longer than two or three years. Please join me at http://DeborahReflections.blogspot.com

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Cleo's Perspective

I watch the woman as she goes into the forbidden room. The room where adventure awaits--so many options of things to do! If only I could get in there without her knowledge, I could gnaw to my heart's content on the bristles of the broom. I could explore behind the two large machines where she puts her clothes--one making them wet and the other making them dry. I could climb to the tip top of the wooden ladder, then jump over to the shiny silver tube that connects the loud, dirty machine on the wall to the hole in the opposite wall. That's the machine that the two men looked at earlier today. They said it was broken and they'd replace it tomorrow. I wish they'd never replace it--ever since it's been broken, the living room has been so nice and comfy and hot, not all cold like the bedrooms are. Apparently the similar machine in the room off the hall still works. Drat it, I wish it would break too! Then the whole apartment could be toasty warm and I wouldn't have to freeze if I follow her, no matter where she goes.

But the other machine still works. And she won't let me into the forbidden room. Even now, as she comes out with her arms full of clothes, she nudges me away from the door with her foot before she closes it. She walks off down the hall to the room where she sleeps. I follow her. I am haunted by the thought that if I let her out of my sight, she'll disappear forever. So is my sister, Isis, who trails along with me. I sigh as I pass through the invisible boundary where the functional machine takes over for the broken one, making the air chilly.

The woman dumps the clothes on her bed and starts to fold them one at a time. I jump onto the bed and walk over to sniff the clothes; I want to know exactly what those machines in the forbidden room do to them. But what is this? They're warm! This could be the solution to my problem. I lie down on the warm clothes and snuggle down into them. Oh, perfect, heavenly bliss! I'm warm, the surface underneath me is soft, and I can see her as she laughs down at me. I also see my sister, crouching by the door to another forbidden room--the one filled with shelves, shoes, and dangling pieces of fabric that are oh-so-fun to climb! She's hoping to get in when the woman opens that door, as she always opens it after bringing in clothes from the forbidden room down the hall. But I'm not tempted to join her; she won't get in; she never does, and meanwhile, I'm warm!

The woman continues to pluck clothes from the bed and fold them. She jostles me as she takes some clothing from underneath me. She seems to be picking up the big pieces first. It won't be long now--yes, there she goes. She's picked up a stack of folded shirts and is heading toward the forbidden door where my sister waits. She opens the door--Isis darts in--but the woman is too quick again. She grabs Isis with one hand, still holding the clothes in the other, and Isis is put back outside the forbidden room. I watch as the woman uses wooden hangers to make the clothes dangle temptingly toward the floor, keeping one eye on Isis the whole time. She comes back out of the forbidden room, closes the door, and pets Isis apologetically. Then she repeats the whole process with another stack of clothes and the door to the other forbidden room.

I get bored watching this process. I start to groom myself lazily. She comes back and starts folding the smaller clothes. As she pulls the clothes from around me, I get cold. I see one of the long, narrow tube-clothes that the man uses to keep his feet warm. Maybe it will work for me, too. I grab it with my mouth and place it against my neck and head. Aah, that's better. Nice and warm again--wait, what's she doing? That blasted woman just took that carefully placed piece of fabric away! She can't do that; that's mine! In anger, I bite her hand. Not hard--I don't leave marks or draw blood. It can't really even hurt her; it's just enough to let her know that I'm displeased with her.

But now she's displeased with me. She isn't laughing as she grabs the skin at the back of my neck and pulls me out of what's left of my warm, soft nest. She tosses me unceremoniously to the floor. "No biting!" She sounds angry. I know better than to try to reclaim my nest. She's now folding the clothes that I was lying on. I sit on the floor and watch her balefully as she puts the rest of the clothes in drawers--drawers that she always hauls me out of if I manage to climb in. She's no fair. I'm not allowed to go anywhere exciting or do anything fun.

But I still can't let her out of my sight. Maybe she'll at least--yes, she is! She's going back down the hall, back to the cozily warm part of the apartment. She sits down at the desk and opens the lid to her typing-machine-with-a-screen. Oh, yes, I recognize that! She calls that screen "Blogger." Whenever she makes the machine show that, I know she'll be there for a while. Here we go ... I curl up in my basket, pleasantly situated where the warm rays of the sun would hit it if the woman hadn't stopped opening the curtains when the cold-making machine broke. But I don't need to be in the sun right now; it's warm enough, with that stupid machine broken. Oh, yes, so pleasant! I think I might (*yawn*) just take a little ... zzzz ... zzzz ...

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Private Message

I joined Expat-Blog so that I could list my blog there and possibly attract a few readers. Even though I joined the site just to list my blog, they offer other services as well. One service is the ability to send private messages to other members. This service can be useful if you want to ask a question of someone who lives where you're about to move, but you don't want to ask the question publicly on their blog. Unfortunately, the service also can be used for other purposes.

I recently received a private message. Do you want to read it? Here you go:

hello and welcome to Egypt

I am Arabic Teacher for the foreigners, I have certification from AUC ( American Unvi in Cairo ) about how teach Arabic as a foreign language, if u need help I am ready and with pleasure

Sister. I am Muslim person and looking for a foreign wife, cos i tread with them a lot, and most of my family are American, Sister i am swearing i dont need green Card or live in her country JUST marry for my God, this is my Intention, I don't care about her nationailty, i want nice and polite girl Really. Can u help me? I am swearing by Allah I am very kindhearted, handsome and polite soooo much

So, ladies, whaddaya say? Are there any "foreign" ladies who are interested in marrying this fellow?

No? Well, I guess he'll just have to keep soliciting help from strangers on the internet.

Messages like this are all too common on sites like Expat-Blog. Most men try to be a little more circumspect--they do offer help in language study, finding an apartment, or other things that expats often could use help with, as this guy offered. But they usually don't say explicitly that they're looking for a foreign wife. They masquerade as nice guys who just want to help, or as lonely guys who just want a friend to meet for coffee every once in a while. But their goal is to meet an expat woman and marry her.

Why are they so set on marrying a foreign woman? It may be one of any number of reasons.

For one thing, many Egyptian men think that western women are beautiful, more beautiful than Egyptian women. It's the "exotic" factor. Most Egyptians have dark hair, dark eyes, and olive skin, although there are some that have lighter coloring, mostly along the coast where there's been more interaction with Europeans. So they see a woman with blonde hair and blue eyes, or other light coloring, and they think she's gorgeous. Personally, I think that the Egyptian preference for light-skinned people blinds them to the amazing beauty of many Egyptian women. I can't vouch for the beauty of most Egyptian women's hair, since it's usually covered, but some of them have stunningly beautiful faces. But in any case, there seems to be a preference for women who look western. (Of course, I was the kid who, for years, secretly wanted black hair, brown eyes, and olive skin, so maybe I'm just expressing my own biases!)

Another contributing factor is the financial status that is required for marriage to an Egyptian woman. A couple cannot get married until the man has an apartment and can support his wife and their children. However, the Egyptian economy is in trouble, and jobs are difficult to come by. Even university graduates often can't find work or end up working in jobs that don't pay enough for them to save for an apartment, much less the wedding itself. I also have been told--but have no written source to cite--that it's customary for Egyptian men to give money to their brides; in the case of future divorce, this money remains with the wife and is used to support her. An Egyptian woman would be insulted if a man asked to marry her without being able to give her a substantial amount of money; it would be like saying she isn't worth much. Western women, on the other hand, just assume that they will be working and will help to provide and support the family home; most western women would be flabbergasted if her groom gave her money that was to be set aside for her use in case of divorce. So it's less expensive to marry a foreign woman than to marry an Egyptian woman.

Finally, there is the reason that the author of my private message explicitly denies: the reality that marriage to a foreign woman is the quickest way to get a visa to move to another country. With jobs difficult to come by, and salaries low even if work is obtained, the solution to financial woes often is perceived to be a new life in a new country. Convincing that new country to let you in, though, can be a problem, particularly if you want to move permanently rather than just visit, and if you don't have a job or a relative already there to sponsor you. If, however, you marry a citizen of that country, you'll almost certainly be allowed in. Single western women are warned that men may marry them just for the visa; once the happy couple moves back to the woman's home country and the husband is granted permanent resident status, the divorce can follow quite quickly. That certainly isn't the case for all Egyptian-western marriages, or even for most of them, but it happens.

And let's not forget the Egyptians who want to marry foreigners, but not westerners. I met one Egyptian man who was very anxious to travel to ... where was it, Libya? I'm not sure anymore ... to find his wife. When asked why he was so anxious for a wife from that country rather than an Egyptian wife, he said that it was because the women there were more pious Muslims. So Egyptian women just can't win!

Of course I do need to add a disclaimer ... not all Egyptians prefer foreign spouses--most Egyptians marry another Egyptian, after all. Some who did marry foreign spouses did so for love of the individual, not merely because of physical appearance, finances, the possibility of a visa, or perceived religious piety. I have met western women who are very happy in their marriages to Egyptian men. These women know others in similar situations. They have struggles in their marriages at times, as we all do, but overall, they are content that they made the right choice.

But I am pretty sure that they did not meet their husbands by responding to a private message such as the one I copied above!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ramadan Kareem

I believe that today is the first day of Ramadan. It's supposed to start on or around today, but you can't know for certain until the night it starts. You see, Ramadan is a month in the Islamic calendar, which is lunar. The month begins when religious authorities see the first sliver of the new moon with the naked eye, and it will end when religious authorities see the first sliver of the next new moon, probably around September 19. It was anticipated that it would be seen last night, and if it was, it will have been announced via TV, radio, and newspapers. But since I don't watch Egyptian TV, listen to Egyptian radio, or read Egyptian newspapers typically, I would have to make a special effort to find out, and I just haven't done that yet.

So why does it matter if Ramadan has started yet? After all, for most purposes, Egyptians use the same calendar we do, so I don't even know the names of the other Islamic months, much less care when they start or end. But Ramadan is special.

Ramadan is considered a holy month by Muslims. It is the month in which they believe that the first verses of the Quran were revealed to Mohammed by Allah. One of the five "pillars" of Islam concerns the month of Ramadan: Muslims--at least the ones who are not prevented by health reasons--are to fast from sunrise to sunset during this month. They are to refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, and having sex during the day. The fast is supposed to turn their hearts and minds toward Allah and spiritual concerns, including prayer and worship. It disciplines their bodies and helps them to regain control of their earthly desires. Because of the benefits of observing Ramadan, a typical greeting is "Ramadan kareem" (Ramadan is generous). The appropriate reply is "Allahu akram" (God is more generous).

The fast is broken each evening. The sunset call to prayer signals the end of the fast; at that time, the iftar meal begins. (I believe that iftar literally means breakfast, but I'm not certain of that.) Traditionally, the meal begins with a thin soup followed by a main course of fuul (a yummy bean dish) and/or meat served with vegetables, starches, and pickles. Drinks include karkadeh (hibiscus tea), tamr hindi (tamarind tea), and 'amar il-din (apricot juice). Dessert is always very sweet: konafa (a raisin and nut cake), 'atayif (a crepe with syrup, usually stuffed with nuts and raisins), or khushaf (fruit and nuts soaked in apricot juice). Iftar often is celebrated communally, with extended family, friends, and neighbors. It is popular among those who can afford it to go to a restaurant for iftar, as restaurants often have special menus for Ramadan. (If I were a Muslim woman, I'm pretty sure I would prefer going to a restaurant for iftar--can you imagine preparing a feast when you're hot, thirsty, and hungry, yet you still can't have so much as a sip of water? I do sympathize with Muslims who work in restaurants during this time!)

After iftar, life often turns to what would be normal during the day at other times of year. Many stores stay open until midnight or later (often not opening until late morning or afternoon, and closing during iftar), so people do their shopping then. They also socialize and celebrate until the wee hours.

Just before sunrise, Muslims eat another meal called suhoor. Suhoor usually is a lighter meal than iftar. It consists of fuul, yoghurt, fruit, cottage cheese, and/or eggs. Wise Muslims also will drink water at this meal, since they won't have any more throughout the long, hot day!

During the day, life is much slower than it is at other times of year. Many will go back to sleep after suhoor, since they stayed up so late the night before. Many businesses have shorter hours during Ramadan, and most restaurants (at least those that don't cater mostly to expats) will close. Traffic is very light in the mornings, which makes for the easiest and quickest commutes ever known in large cities. However, non-Muslims would do best not to leave work in the evenings until sunset, because traffic in the hours preceding iftar--beginning around 2pm--is at its craziest as people race home. For the unlucky ones who are not able to make it home in time, it is common to see people standing on street corners around iftar time, handing out bottled water and dates (a very popular food here, particularly during Ramadan) to passing motorists at no charge, as a charitable activity, which is one of the pillars of Islam. Wealthy individuals also support the ma'idat al-Rahman (literally, "table of the merciful"), which are iftar feasts held in public venues where anyone--particularly the poor or homeless--can come to break his or her fast.

The end of Ramadan is marked by Eid al-Fitr. During this 3-day "Feast of Fast-Breaking," parents give gifts of money and clothing to their children. Families and friends share large meals. Large congregational prayers are held. Small villages hold fairs. Jeff should get two of those days off work (it'll probably start on a Saturday, so the last two days will be embassy holidays).

Last year during Ramadan, I had only been here for a few short months. I was still getting used to being in Egypt at all; Ramadan was simply a month to get through, waiting for things to get back to normal so I could continue adjusting. This year, I probably still won't do much in observance of Ramadan--after all, I'm not Muslim. However, I would like to participate in an iftar meal as a cultural experience (maybe even skip lunch that day so it feels a little more authentic; I won't even pretend that I would fast all day or not drink water, though). Some of Jeff's friends from work are planning to go to a restaurant together for iftar one evening, and I'm looking forward to that. Other than that, my "participation" in Ramadan probably will consist of not eating or drinking in public during the day, although I'll eat and drink normally at home, and I won't avoid going to restaurants that are open during the day (I will avoid outdoor seating areas and window seats, however). I'll also be extra-careful when out and about between around 2pm and sunset--I've gotten accustomed to Egyptian traffic, but during the race-home-for-iftar rush, it reaches new heights of insanity.

I don't know if any Muslims read this blog, but if so: Ramadan Kareem! (And I whole-heartedly agree, Allahu akram.)

Information for this post was taken from two articles in the 20 August 2009 issue of The Niler (the newsletter for the "mission community"--everyone associated with the U. S. mission to Cairo). One article was a management notice providing information to mission members about Ramadan, what to expect, and appropriate behavior. The other was adapted from Egyptian Customs and Festivals by Samia Abdennour.)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Hijabi For a Day

Not too long after we arrived here, I started thinking that I would like to have a very conservative Egyptian outfit. Very conservative. As in, I wanted not only hijab, but an abaya. Actually, I wanted niqab. I wanted one outfit that I could put on and totally disguise the fact that I'm Western (at least until I tried to speak and my shwayya-shwayya Arabic gave me away).

[Okay, I'll translate that last paragraph for you ... Hijab refers to a modest style of dress that many, if not most, Muslims believe is required of them. For women, that means covering the hair and all skin but the face and hands, as well as a few other requirements. The word "hijab," though, is more commonly used to refer to the hair covering itself. "Hijabi" is someone who is wearing hijab. I found a blog that had several pictures of hijab here. An abaya is the long, loose, dress-like outergarment worn by conservative Muslim women. You can see a picture of a woman in a traditional Saudi abaya here, and you can see a couple of pictures from an abaya fashion show here. When combined with the head covering, it covers all but the face and hands. Niqab takes the modesty one step further. Niqabis (women who wear niqab) cover their hands and faces as well. There's a good picture of a niqabi here. Usually, the face covering is a veil that leaves the area around the eyes visible, but some veils actually have an additional, very thin, optional layer that can be worn over the eyes, so that no skin at all is visible. The women can see through this thin layer over their eyes, but no one can see them. These ultra-conservative women usually wear gloves as well, so that their hands are not visible. Oh, and "shwayya-shwayya" means "little-little." It's how I answer when someone asks if I speak Arabic.]

Like I said, I had toyed with the idea of niqab since I arrived here, even before, actually. But I never bought the outfit because I didn't know where to go, what to ask for, how much it should cost, or even how to put hijab on. I mentioned this desire for niqab when I first met Molly, the Multicultural Muslimah, and she kindly offered to help me shop for it. We were going to make an outing of it after I returned from my R&R, since I was leaving just a few days after I first met her. By the time I got back and we were able to try to get together, things were in full swing for Molly getting ready to move back to the States, so I really didn't think it was going to happen. But I'm lucky: Molly likes me, and she made it a priority to go shopping with me before she left. We went just last week.

Molly asked me if I minded wearing hijab while we were shopping. She recommended that I do so because it would look very odd, to say the least, if an "uncovered" (non-hijabi) woman was interested in buying not only an abaya--which could very well be needed by any woman traveling to Saudi--but particularly the veil, which is worn by only the most conservative women. I had no problem wearing hijab; before I arrived in Egypt, I thought that I would be wearing hijab all the time. I hadn't realized how common it was among expat women and Egyptian Christians, and even a few Egyptian Muslims, not to cover. So Molly offered to lend me hijab.

We met at a bookstore over on Road 9. I arrived wearing my natural linen shirt--very loose with long sleeves--and a pair of trouser-cut jeans. Molly had brought me a brown ... I don't know what you call it, but it's like a headband that goes under the scarf to keep the scarf from slipping and to cover all the loose hairs around the face. So she brought me a brown one of those and a brown and cream plaid scarf. We went into the bathroom, where she showed me how to put it on. She secured the scarf with a single pin that she pulled out of her own hijab. Apparently, it only takes one pin to secure it, although many women wear two or even three for extra security and style--the pins are often colored or sparkly, so they can be a fashion statement.

Then we went to eat lunch. It was interesting eating with the hijab on. The brown headband goes under the chin, and the scarf wraps around the neck area--part of hijab includes covering your neck and chest with the scarf. As I ate, the brown thing inched its way forward on my face until it was shading my eyes. Molly noticed and told me to just put my hands against the side of my head and pull it back. The really interesting thing, though, is that the waiter pretty well ignored me. He looked at me only when I spoke to him or when he was required by his job to speak to me. I even had a hard time catching his eye from across the room to signal that I needed something, although that part could have just been poor service. When I've been in similar restaurants before, uncovered and with another uncovered woman, the waiters always have been friendly. They're respectful, but they usually smile and engage in a tiny little bit of small talk. I don't know if it was this particular waiter or if it was the fact that I was in hijab, but this guy was purely professional.

After lunch, we went to a couple of shops near Road 9 and then to Maadi Grand Mall. We went all over the mall. First we looked for the abaya. We checked in several shops. Molly showed me one that was all cotton, with a modern design that had several zippered pockets. It was loose but more form-following than more traditional abayas. I decided to go with a more traditional one, so that the veil wouldn't look out of place and so that it would be more appropriate if I can ever convince Jeff to take me to Saudi. (He insists that I really don't want to go there, but I would love to go see what it's like.) We visited a Saudi abaya shop in the mall that had very soft, very thin, and therefore as-cool-and-comfy-as-possible-in-the-heat abayas. But the abaya itself cost more than the amount I'd brought with me for the entire purchase, so that was a no-go. Finally we ended up in a shop that had a variety of abaya styles. There were colorful Lebanese ones that had attached hoods, "soiree" ones that serve as evening gowns for fancy parties, and a variety of conservative black ones, which is what I wanted. It was very interesting to see how even the all-black ones had different styles. Some were a little looser than others. Some had various patterns stiched on them with black thread. Some had zippers; others had buttons. We found one that fit me well and that I liked. It was on sale (woo-hoo!). I bought it.

Oh, something I found strange: there was a fitting room for trying on the abayas. The abayas that go over your clothes. I guess maybe it isn't all that strange if a woman who always wears abayas is shopping for a new one. She probably wouldn't just take off the old one to try on the new one in the middle of the store. Especially if she's one of the women who actually aren't fully--or modestly--clothed under the abaya, since it's hot and the abaya covers everything anyway. However, it was strange for the sales attendant to show me to a dressing room so that I could have privacy while I put on an abaya over the clothes I was wearing out in public for all to see.

After I bought the abaya, we started the hunt for a black headband, scarf, veil, gloves, and scarf pins. We also decided to get the "sleeves" (tight armbands that cover wrist to elbow) that most abaya-clad women wear so that their arms aren't visible when the loose sleeves flap open. So we visited several more shops. In every shop, Molly greeted the sales attendant in Arabic while I smiled, nodded, and in general tried to behave like I wanted to be friendly and polite but didn't speak enough of the language or understand enough of the culture to do it well. I assume that most of them believed that I'm a recent convert (or revert, as Muslims consider it) to Islam. Had any of them asked, both Molly and I would have told them the truth. However, none of them asked, so we made our purchases without discussing why we were making them.

I quickly became accustomed to wearing the hijab. It didn't feel particularly hot or uncomfortable, although Molly kept apologizing because she didn't have a lighter-weight scarf for me to wear. But the strangest thing was how completely comfortable it made the shopkeepers. When I've gone to that mall before, I did not feel comfortable even stepping foot in an abaya shop. I was an uncovered, Western woman who really had no business being in a shop that targeted conservative Muslim women. It was totally different as a hijabi. Part of it, I'm sure, was that I was trailing Molly, and she obviously was comfortable and competent in these shops, both with her Arabic language skills and with her familiarity with cultural norms. But there was more to it than that. We were welcomed as those people for whom the shop existed. When I've been in that mall before and went into a scarf shop, the sales attendant looked at me as if I were a Martian. When I went in as a covered woman who was shopping with another covered woman, however, the sales attendants were very friendly and helpful. I wasn't a tourist or an interloper checking out an Egyptian mall; I was a customer.

Even walking from shop to shop within the mall was different from when I was there before. Before, I was with my husband, so no men spoke to me other than shop attendants who were helping us--and even they spoke mostly to my husband. But that didn't stop them from looking. When I went back as a hijabi with Molly, I'm pretty sure I didn't get any second looks. I was safely anonymous, even though my fair skin made it obvious that I was a westerner. I was a covered westerner, and that made all the difference.

My favorite reaction, though, was the one I got once I arrived at home. Molly came with me. She was coming up to my apartment to help me put on the whole ensemble so we could see how it looked and so we both could be confident that I could put it on by myself. She asked me if I wanted to remove my hijab before I arrived at my compound, since I had expressed a little discomfort when I first put it on about how I would feel if other westerners saw me wearing it. But by that point, I was comfortable with it, and besides, I knew my hair would be sweaty, tangled, and matted to my head, so I'd just as soon keep it covered until I could brush it out.

So we showed up at my housing compound--two covered women. We had to ring the doorbell for admittance, because I don't have a key to the front gate, which is always manned by a guard. No one--not the guards, not the groundskeepers, not the domestic help, not the residents--no one is accustomed to covered women seeking unescorted access to the compound. No residents cover. Most of the maids and nannies don't cover. The guards and groundskeepers are all men. Most of the groundskeepers and maintenance men, and all of the guards, know the residents on sight. The guards would let us in without question no matter what we were wearing. But the guard on duty that day was new. He didn't know me. He--rightly--didn't want to let a non-resident in unescorted. He stood in the gate, mostly blocking it. I stepped around him, greeting him in Arabic. He became concerned. I'm not sure what he said, because my attention was diverted to one of the groundskeepers, who knows me and my husband and who was standing near the guardhouse.

At that moment, he was holding out a hand toward me (the polite Egyptian form of pointing at me), and he had the biggest grin on his face that I have ever seen. He started talking at the same time the guard did, and I couldn't understand either of them. Remember, my Arabic is only shwayya-shwayya, and they both were speaking Arabic. The groundskeeper knows shwayya-shwayya English and always speaks to me in Arabic (he helps teach me), and the guard probably didn't think about it, just spoke Arabic to two covered women because covered women in Egypt always speak Arabic.

By then, Molly and I were inside the gate. I stopped because I knew that Molly, as a guest, needed to sign in. The guard was still trying to figure out who I was and what made me think I had the right to waltz right in when he obviously wanted me to remain on the sidewalk outside until he knew who I was and what I wanted. Finally I realized just how confused he was. For some reason, it was natural to me at that moment to speak in Arabic instead of English. "Ana sakna henna," I said. ("I live here.") He asked, in Arabic, what apartment I lived in. The groundskeeper--still grinning--and I both said my apartment number, in Arabic, at the same time. The guard took his word for it moreso than mine, I think, and allowed Molly to sign in before we went, unescorted, to my apartment. I would love to have overheard the conversation at the guard booth after I left! The four or five men who were gathered there at the time probably got an earful about that crazy woman who's trying to learn Arabic and who apparently is willing to defy the American diplomat norms by actually wearing hijab. Oh, if only they knew what I had in my shopping bags!

Molly and I went up to my apartment and I put on all my new clothes. Molly was kind enough to take a picture of me. What do you think--could I pass for Egyptian? Maybe even Saudi?

This is probably the only picture of me that will appear on this blog. My husband doesn't want me to be too recognizable on the street. Somehow I don't think this particular picture is a risk!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Mmm Mmm Good!

Back when I was just a kid, in maybe 5th or 6th grade, I went to this "camp"--actually a conference center--with my church youth group. The camp was called Ridgecrest, and it was a wonderful, wonderful place. We spent a week there, in large group worship sessions, small Bible classes, and just hanging out with each other and with new friends that we met there. It was a great time of worship, learning, and fellowship.

A lot of that fellowship occurred in the house that the church rented for us. It was across the interstate from Ridgecrest itself (don't worry, there was a bridge). There were several houses there that were rented out to different youth groups. I believe they all were owned by the same people. Everyone who stayed in one of those houses ate breakfast--possibly dinner, too, but I don't recall--in this one huge dining hall. The food was excellent, but best of all was the bread. It was homemade every morning. There were different varieties--white, wheat, raisin, cinnamon--all served fresh from the oven at breakfast. I had never had bread so good in my entire life!

I never expected to have bread so good again, either. But then we moved to Egypt, and I stopped working outside the home. I started reading blogs. I was inspired to try baking my own pita bread, and I was pretty happy with the result. I thought that maybe, just maybe, I'd try making some "real" bread sometime. That's where I ran into problems. I found plenty of recipes online, but so many of them just said "dump the ingredients into the bread machine ..." That's all well and good if you have a bread machine. I wasn't so sure about buying one when I wasn't certain that I'd use it a lot. Other recipes called for complicated starters that take days to make, or worse yet, assumed you had a starter and didn't bother telling you how to make it at all. Then I started reading comments on bread recipes and discovered that whole wheat bread, which is what my husband and I prefer, apparently is more complicated to make than white bread because the whole wheat flour absorbs more water or some such thing, making it more difficult to mix, easier to burn, more likely to turn out hard, and the problems continued. I gave up in frustration and started talking to my husband about buying a bread machine after all.

Then I was reading a blog--I think it was Terry over at Breathing Grace, or it may have been Antique Mommy--and she (whichever "she" it was) was talking about a simple, delicious recipe for whole wheat bread. She provided a link to the blog that had the recipe, which I of course followed, just to see what she considered "simple." I'd been surprised before at some of the "simple" recipes out there ... maybe simple if you've been baking bread since you were six! But this one looked manageable. So I bookmarked it, thinking that one day I'd get around to trying it.

"One day" turned out to be today. I actually had all the ingredients on hand, a fact that testifies to my increased domesticity since we've moved here. I never would have had whole wheat flour sitting in my kitchen cabinet or active yeast in my fridge back home! But anyway, I tried the recipe ... and it really was easy. It took some time, but most of that was letting the dough rise or rest while I did something else. So I followed the instructions and then set the two loaves of freshly baked bread to cool on my makeshift wire racks (actually two roasting pan inserts for my toaster oven, thus allowing air circulation ... one of them was even wire). I went back to my ironing--and the smell coming from the kitchen drove me crazy! I had smelled the bread baking and had been anxious to try it then, but it got so much worse when I knew that it was out of the oven, sitting there on the counter. So as soon as I finished the ironing, I went and sliced myself a piece. I took one bite ... and cut myself another piece or two. I felt like I was back at Ridgecrest for breakfast!

They came out a little short and flat, not to mention a little lopsided, but I'll just have to do a better job at shaping them next time. There certainly wasn't anything wrong with the taste! I know myself too well to say that I'll never buy bread from the supermarket--or the commissary--again; I can be lazy at times. But I can say this: I won't buy it again thinking that I'm getting a good deal either on the price or on the taste. It's so inexpensive to make it yourself, and it really does taste much better.

For those of you who are interested--and for myself, because I have this fear that the original post will be moved and I'll lose the recipe--here's the recipe I used:


3- 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1 package active dry yeast (I used 2-1/4 tsp active dry yeast from a jar)
1-3/4 cup water
1/3 cup packed brown sugar (hey, I didn't say it was healthy!)
3 tablespoons butter or margarine
1-1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups whole wheat flour


In a large bowl, combine 2 cups all-purpose flour and yeast. Set it aside.

In a medium saucepan, combine water, brown sugar, butter or margarine, and salt. Heat until the butter almost melts. Apparently if you let it boil, it will kill the yeast.

Add sugar mixture to flour and yeast. Beat on low for 30 seconds, then on high for 3 minutes. The original post said that the batter would climb the beaters, but mine didn't.

Using a wooden spoon (or silicon, as I don't have any wooden ones), stir in the wheat flour and remaining 1-1/2 cups of all-purpose flour. Or just knead it in, like I ended up doing.

Put the dough on a floured surface. Knead it until the dough is smooth and elastic, not sticky. This takes 6 to 8 minutes. Shape the dough into a ball and put it in a lightly greased (or sprayed with cooking spray) bowl.

Leave it alone to rise for 90 minutes, being sure to keep the kittens entertained away from the kitchen in the meantime :) You know it's risen enough when you can stick your finger into it about a 1/2 inch and the impression remains.

Punch down the dough and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide it into two, cover each half, and let them rest for 10 minutes, again keeping the cats away from it.

Shape the two pieces into loaves and put into greased pans. Cover them and leave them alone to rise for 35 minutes. In the meantime, get the oven started preheating to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Bake them for 35 minutes. Cover them with foil for the last 10 minutes so the crust doesn't become too brown.

Take them out of the oven and let them cool on wire racks, or whatever you have lying around.

Slice and serve. It tastes great alone or with a little margarine ... probably also with jelly or used as a sandwich. I'll have to experiment and let you know.