Monday, November 22, 2010

MAKING HIJRAH 12 "Finding a Place"

I made my way to the school for my first face-to-face meeting with my new boss.  All possible illusions of me being a tourist just visiting Egypt started to fade.  I was not a tourist.  I was not visiting.  I was on hijrah; a permanent move to an Islamically-based country.  I was here to start building a new life for my son and myself.

The upper middle-class Egyptians strolling in and out of the school gates made me feel underdressed by comparison.  I was not in the same league.  I couldn't be!  My clothes were now a couple years old and not nearly as sharply pressed--ok, they weren't pressed at all. 

Good thing I don't embarrass easily.

Waiting in the reception area for the principal reminded me of so many past on-line relationships made real.  I knew this lady from emailing and one phone call once I landed.  I had no idea what she actually looked like. 

Was it her?  I'd straighten up a bit on the couch.  That lady would walk past.


Did the principal wear hejab?  I had no idea. 

Could she be that one? 


Turns out that my new boss was an elegant lady with this great warmth.  From the moment she came to introduce herself, I knew that I had made the right choice in keeping my commitment with the school.  She would do her best for me.  I felt that.  I felt the comfort of that.

I signed up and walked out of the gates as if I was worth a million bucks.  It had nothing to do with my outsides.  It had to do with all the calm and happiness I felt inside.  Happiness is an inside job, afterall.  My job was going to be OK. 

So, my boy and I headed back to the hotel.  I looked around our four walls with the trepidation of a baby chick crampt inside the eggshell but not ready to peck its way out.  Yes, this was a teeny-tiny room but how could I really leave it after two days?  I couldn't.

I arranged for another day and asked for a driver who knew the area.  I had to search for a new place to live.  The old, experienced driver was over charging so I got the number of a young driver instead.  While I liked the old man's courtesy and decorum, I found myself unexpectedly laughing with the substitute.

The days had been so frought with survival tactics.  I had been tense without even knowing how much.  The visit to the school released so much of that tension and it came out that night as I toured the local neighborhoods.

Somewhere I would find a place to live.  It had to be close to the school.  I knew that other American teachers typically lived in Maadi.  I had no interest ZERO in living in an ex-pat community.  I wanted real Egypt.  I wanted cheap, safe and close to shops, restaurants and sights.  Location, location, location!

None of the recommended local places interested me.  It was very dark, late, and I was both tired and a little loopy.  My driver was standing out of the car making a call.  He came back with a new idea.

The young driver took me to his family's home, not far from the hotel, and we consulted with the local know-it-all perfume shop owner.  Yes, he knew of a place.

This was a furnished two-bedroom with air-conditioning.  And what?  Immediate satelitte and high-speed internet hook-up?!  I thought of agreeing on the spot but I held back.  I actually did want to pray istakarah. 

It wasn't the best...the furniture was old and tired...dirty and junky...but then what wasn't dirty and junky in Egypt? 

That's how I felt then---I have since come to view things differently, as homes in Egypt can be absolutely spotless with the right care.

I left that possible apartment with much uncertainity and headed back to that evening's eventuality.  I had spent three nights in a hotel room, with each night eating up a large chunk of cash.  It was filled with clean, new furniture and








That sunk in.  I would have to give up hotel living (with all of the helpful people I'd come to know).  I would have to get my butt in gear and really hunker down in Egypt.

I would have to accept that apartment as the best I could do. 

Sometimes, we take little steps forward and it feels so bad because we don't want to be in that spot.  We know we aren't meant to be there for long.  I felt that.  I felt that the apartment was wrong for the long haul.  I needed it for now but not forever.  That hurt. 

I didn't want yet another short-term residence.  There had been a long list of emergency shelters.  I wanted somehow to land in Egypt and discover a lovely gem of a place which would become my home for the next 40 years.  I wanted a fantasy.  I couldn't have that.  I had to face the truth.  I would be staying in a temporary place until I knew of somewhere better. 

The next day was Friday.  Still fasting.  Still having a fair amount of culture shock.  I called the landlady and agreed to rent her downstairs apartment.  I called the young driver and he helped us with our carload.  After lots of carrying bags down to his car, we took a short drive, and then carried lots of  bags up to the apartment--my apartment.  I was in.

I was in my new my new life. 

That night my son and I curled up together in the big bed and I listened to the sounds of the street.  It was overwhelming; all that I had done

...and all that I had left to do.

Chapter 13

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sheep Slaughtering on Eid

These are the Days of Eid.

Happy Eid.

Eid Mubarak.

Eid Sayed.

For believers, this is the time of remembering the sacrifice we need to make in our lives to serve Allah.

For non-believers, this is the time the sheep are killed.

Well, it's true that sheep are slaughtered.

"Why do you kill the sheep?" asks the mom with the Happy Meals.

OK, good question.  Muslims slaughter the sheep to remember the time when Prophet Abraham/Ibrahim (peace be upon him) thought he had to kill his beloved son.  The prophet obeyed and the moment before the knife was to enter, Issac was spared.  Subhanallah!

"Wait a minute!" calls out the guy grilling the steak, "That's our story!  That's from the Bible!"

Right.  It is from the Bible and from the Torah and also from the Quran.

However, in the Quran,  Ibrahim is NOT asked to slaughter his son.  In a dream, The Prophet sees the sacrifice and upon waking thinks that he must carry out what he has seen.

Haven't you done that?

"Sure," says the kid chewing on a Slim Jim, "once I dreamed there was a dracula in my kitchen and when I woke up I had to go open all the cupboards just to make sure he wasn't in there."

Right, dreams are not reality.

In many ways, Happy Meals, steaks on the grill, and Slim Jims are void of reality too.  Those are meat products which came from an animal; a real, living, breathing animal.  Someone had to slaughter it. 

Yes, Lady munching the chicken Cesar salad, that meat arrived at your house on a styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic, but it started out as a cute baby.  That baby animal grew and when it was big enough it was killed.  It died.  You ate it.

Why did you eat it without considering the source?  It came from God.  Was it slaughtered in the name of God?  Before you ate it, did you eat it in rememberance of God?

Muslims do all that.  We are far from barbaric in our treatment of animals we slaughter.

OK, I don't personally slaughter animals myself.  I've witnessed one slaughter and that was enough for me.  I'm the chick who stayed---not just once but TWICE---on Scottish sheep farms so I could be close to the fuzzy fellas.  But last year, I witnessed a sheep being slaughtered so I could see and feel the moment of sacrifice.  For most of my life, I wouldn't eat mutton but now, I do.  If I was willing to eat it, then I wanted to be willing to see the process.  The animal's life ends so that we can live. 

The most amazing moment for me was seeing the slaughtering process stop.  The sheep was on the ground and it was scared so the process was brought to an immediate halt.  The animal was raised up and given water and calming words.  When it lay down again, then and only then was the sharp knife quickly brought down with "Bismallah". 

The sheep and the goat in the picture were real.  I really loved visiting them.  I gave them our food scraps.  I named them.  They were slaughtered this Eid.  They are gone.  I may or may not be able to eat their meat.

Next time you eat meat, please take a moment to remember the reality of life and death; of sacrifice.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

MAKING HIJRAH 11 "Finding Iftar"

Asalamu Alaykom,

This was going to be a moment of truth. 

Yes, I had found us a place to stay for the night and arranged for the morning's suhour.  I had managed to find the largest pyramids on the planet.  We had negotiated through the Land of the Dead in a carriage.  I had been able to carry my sleeping son out of the heat and back into the cool of the hotel.

But like some two-parter  "Amazing Race"  episode, I had another challenge.  I had to find iftar. 

Finding food in America is soooooooooo easy.  Want something to eat?  Any place!  Any time! 

In Egypt, during Ramadan, everything closes.  BAM!  the aluminum shutters roll down like so many garage doors and the stores are locked up.  If you want food, you had best find it before sunset. 

So, even though I was dead tired beyond any fathomable level, I had to stop napping, push myself out of the bed and head back downstairs.  I thought to check out the hotel restaurant.  That would be easy!

Sure enough, the hotel manager showed me the menu with a special iftar dinner for only...WHAT?!  50 pounds?!  Are you freakin' joking?  I knew that 50 pounds was a ridiculous amount of cash.  Yes, if I stood there and calculated the amount in U.S. dollars, then it was only $10.  But, I was determined to keep my spending down and to think of the pounds as stand-alone currency; not in reference to a place I no longer lived.

I walked away.  I wasn't going to pay it.


I had felt the inner resolve to walk away.   At the same time, I faced the frightening fact that I didn't know where I was going.  Where should I go?  I had a short time and a big city.  Where was the food?

This tourist location had thousands of real people so where were the real shops?  No, I didn't want papyrus, T-shirts with camels or King Tut statues.  I wanted bananas and grapes.  I wanted chicken and bread.  Where was it?

I walked out of the hotel, crossed the crazy-busy street and started on a mission to feed us.  There was the sweet shop and I thought about loading up on basboosa.  No!  Iftar had to be healthy or I really couldn't get myself to break my fast with it (as I knew from past experiences). 

So, I kept my head looking all around as I walked further.  There was a shop in a little sidestreet.  I could see it was a hole-in-the-wall shop.  I starting walking towards it.  I tried to talk to a man...or was it a woman?  I tried to talk to someone and they gestured towards that shop.  I could see someone working there...a man in galabiya.

We walked up and I did my best Arabic to ask for "moses wa aynab".  Alhumdulillah, it only took four tries to be understood.  The man explained that he didn't have any but he called over a girl and talked to her.  He then explained that the girl would help us find food.

Now, in writing this story for the whole wide world, I can sense how many people might be reading this and feeling fear.  A woman in a foreign country has to trust many people she doesn't know.  Hey, I know how it scary it sounds and it feels even scarier when you are living it!  Sizing up people has to be within seconds and trust has to be established immediately or else the person has to be dismissed immediately. 

For me in that moment?  I decided to trust these people and I let this girl walk with us.  She was tall and lanky with a pony tail that swung as she walked--no hejab and she wore jeans.  To a lot of people, she was dressed like a "bad" Muslim.  However, if you are determined to get help from only the "good" Muslims in the world, then be prepared to spend a lot of time alone and helpless.

We backtracked on the main drag.  This girl helped us cross the street as if she were the mom and I was the kid. She took charge of us as if our lives depended on it---and it probably did!

Like the scenes from, "Aladdin" we entered into a narrow street; really more like an alley.  Finding the hide-away world would have been nearly impossible.  We walked a little further in from the main road and the local's stores began appearing on either side.  Yes!  We were nearing success.

She brought me over to a man with a donkey cart---a far cry from the posh restaurant.  There was the fruit I'd asked for.  I did my first transaction by the kilo.  I didn't want so much piled onto his scale and the girl tried to help mediate. She took the money out of my hand and talked to the man.  I had that hesitation  in my head.  Was she really helping me or was she scamming me?  I decided that it didn't matter as long as I got dinner.

Buses were zooming past us.  People were hurrying by.  It was time for everyone to head home.  Cars clogged up the road with drivers honking.  This was a happen' spot!  There was a juice stand.  There was a snack stand.  There were chickens turning on a spit---jackpot!  We headed over there.

At first glance, the restaurant owner saw an opportunity to do business with a tourist.  You could see that in his eyes.  I tried to explain to the man that it was just my boy and I, so we didn't need so much food.  His eyes softened and he accomodated our needs and put together a dinner fit for a queen:  chicken, bread, tahina, salad and pickled vegetables.  Price?  14 pounds.

Even with the cost of the fruit, our dinner came to under 20 pounds.  I had saved our money and come up with a healthier, tastier evening's meal.  What's more, I proved to myself that I needn't be beholden to the tourist trade.  I could mix with the locals and buy from them.  Truly, that was priceless.

I was going to buy a phone card (since mine had quickly been used up making a call to the school principal).  The girl stopped me.  She told me that I could buy one from her uncle back at the shop.  I agreed.  After all her help, I had not bought a thing from her family.

We walked back and I bought the phone card to recharge my minutes.  As I was getting out my money, Mr. Boo was trying to ask me for a little bag of  "Jelly Cola" candy.  Normally, in America, gelatin-based candy is filled with pork but I knew this was halal---what a change!  I was going add the candy to my bill, but the girl's uncle gave it as a gift instead.

Her father helped me recharge the card.  No, I didn't always know what I was doing but I did know how to ask for help.  Alhumdulillah, I was getting help and it was from Allah.

We went back to our hotel room as the night's sky began to fade.  When the azan sounded, we were safely inside with our meal.  Alhumdulillah.

Later, I would look back on this first day in Giza with so much amazement.  Like a birthing experience, I went through some really trying times but after all was said and done, I was stronger for my courage to enter into a new and unchartered world. 

Little did I know, but one of the men from that first day would become a major figure in my our new life.  It's funny because, since we were both fasting, neither one of us were really attracted each other whatsoever.

Alhumdulillah for all the people we meet; some we help and some help us.  Everyone is exactly right for us at that exact moment because God's plan is amazing.

Subhanallah.  God's plan's is the best.

Chapter 12

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

MAKING HIJRAH 10 "Ancient History"

Asalamu Alaykom,

At three in the morning, I was awakened by the front desk.  It was one of those disorientating moments when you know that you are not where you should normally be--but you don't exactly know where you are.

I readied myself for the suhour.  It was on its way!  I was so hungry.  The massive tray came with meats, cheese, breads, foul medamnes and olives along with yogurt.  I ate my half.  The other half was for the sweet boy asleep in the bed.

There had been two twin beds for us but we crammed into one.  Co-sleeping is best at times of stress and I'd say that moving half-way around the world and leaving everything and everyone behind would qualify as stressful.

The azan sounded and I prayed.

I prayed for a good start to our new life.  I prayed for that elusive commodity of peace.  I prayed for protection.  I prayed for the people I had recently left on the coast and for the people I had left in America a week ago.

It had already been a week; a week since I left.  So much had been resolved by my visit to the family.  It was such a blessing to reconcile feelings of guilt and sadness; of wanting my son and me to be accepted and loved.  Ultimately, I realized my need for independence.

I had to start my new life on my own.  I fell back to sleep and planned on a nice long rest---which of course was not at all my son's plan.

"Mommy!  The sun is up!" was the news report he delievered to me.

"I know, Honey, but mommy needs more sleep."  I knew that I had to bribe him.  "When I get up, we'll go see the Pyramids."  And then I rolled over.

"I can see them now."  Mr. Boo calmly told me.  "They're out there!"  He pointed towards the window and sure enough (when I pried open my eyes) there were the Pyramids looking in our hotel window.  Amazing!

That woke me up with a start.  I might have been confused in the dark before the dawn, but this gave me no doubt.  I was definately in Giza.

The last time I had been in Giza was to see the Laser Light Show on the Pyramids with AbuBoo.  He hadn't wanted to do much in the way of sightseeing so I had pleaded.  We went that night and ate our chicken dinner while watching the show.  It had been fabulous---even with Italian narration---but it had seemed too surreal.

On my first day back in Giza, I wanted to remedy the past.  I wanted to walk through the Pyramids.  I needed to touch the hand-hewn rocks and feel history through my skin cells.  I was fasting but I was going to push myself in order to experience life full circle.

We walked out of the hotel without anyone asking where we were going.  Just like a teenager with new found freedom, I felt both the elation and the anxiety  What if something happened to us?  Would anybody know or care?

I walked to the corner and then realized how knowing where the Pyramids were and knowing how to get to them were two different things.  I backtracked to ask the hotel guard for directions.  It seemed close enough.  I just had to cross the street---

Wow!  The streets were so busy!  I was taken aback by the amount of speeding traffic.  It occurred to me that this would be a horrible way to die.

"She was trying to take her young son to see the Pyramids when she miscalculated and was rammed by a garbage truck.  Can you imagine?  It was her first day in Giza.  She was going to start a new life.  Sad..."

Alhumdulillah, no unfortunate accidents happened crossing that street or the next.  The sun beat down on us and I started a new fear of fainting from the exertion. 

Really?  I was going to live a life of fear?  As I walked with my boy, I knew that I had to conquer my fears and quick.  Things in motion stay in motion and allowing myself to be fearful would truly do me in more than any actual danger.

I could now see the gate to the Pyramids and it was uphill.  UPHILL?  I mean...sure it's the last remaining World Wonder but did it have to be so hard to view?

Just then, a young man approached and offered a horse carriage instead of a walk.  I had my money and was ready to pay but not as much as he was asking.  I had to bargain.  The dude was kind of a jerk and wouldn't believe me that I wanted a short ride for little money. 

In stepped an older man who agreed to take us for half the time and half the cost.  We climbed in and we started up the hill.  Oh, this was going to be grand!  Riding in style around the Pyramids!

"Ticket," the man told me in English.  Then he pointed to the office which was selling tickets.  I had to buy a ticket for my boy and me. 

OK, I'm not sure if I can blame this moment on fasting, jet lag or plain stupidity but I had not really realized that I had to buy a ticket in addition to the horse carriage.  I hadn't counted on it!  Suddenly, I had a carriage, very little money and no ticket.  In fact, I didn't have enough to buy the tourist rate tickets of $60.

I approached the windows and listened to all the American couples bicker and I brooded.  Hoovering around the couples were hopeful tour guides ready to be helpful (and paid for their helpfulness).  I was really a different commodity standing there; neither fitting in with the Americans nor the Egyptians.

My turn.  I approached the window.  The following transaction was in Arabic:


"Where are you from?"

"I'm from here now.  His father is Egyptian."

"You're not Egyptian.  $60."

"I didn't think it would be so much.  I only brought enough to pay like an Egyptian."

"Where is his father?'

"In America.  I'm here staying at the hotel and I'm fasting.  Please don't make me go back to the hotel for more money.  It's not possible for me to come back."

"Where is your Egyptian passport?"

"Him," I said pointing to my son.  "He's all the truth needed that I married an Egyptian."

One of the tour guides pushed the man at the window to simply take my money and let me in.

The ticket seller asked, "Where is your money?"

I pulled out my few coins and a five pound note.

He took it and let us in.  I now had only a couple of coins left but I had made it in to see the Pyramids.  I truly rejoiced in that rewarding moment of stubborn determination paying off. 

We turned the corner, headed up to security check point for the guards to x-ray our bag and Mr. Boo decided to jump on the conveyor belt.  OH MY GOD!  What kind of crazy child jumps on the security guard's conveyor belt?!  The men completely freaked.  I guess not too many people had tried that!  Maybe we were both of us were uniquely pushing the boundaries of acceptability on that first foray into Giza. 

Our carriage driver was waiting for us.  Once Mr. Boo was done with the conveyor belt, we were allowed in the area.  The driver asked how much we had paid.  I told him and he laughed and laughed.  The sun was so hot.  I knew I had made the right choice to be under the canopy.

It occured to me how this Pyramid area was not meant for human life.  It was meant for the dead.  I felt the life being sucked out of me by all the heat and shadeless landscape. 

We stopped for a camel photo op which was way cool until the camel's owner got my half pound coin.  He hadn't figured how cheap I actually was.  I saw him again when we rounded the corner and made sure that he wasn't angry with me. 

Up and up we went.  As much as I wanted to stay in the cool of the carriage, I knew that my trip would not be complete without touching the stone.  I had to touch the stone. We got out. 

Plodding through the sand, I realized that sandals aren't really good for sand.  It was rocky and unmarked and I marveled how a tourist attraction 4,500 years old could still be so undeveloped. 

Never mind.  I was close enough to touch so I did.  I made Mr. Boo touch the stone too.  So many people dream of going to the Pyramids and here I was.  I hadn't walked amongst them before and felt like I had missed out.  But now?  Now, I had really lived.  I took a picture of our hands on the stone. 

I was offered a trip up stairs.  I declined.  My boy eagerly bounded upward.  I was worried.  What was up there?  A locked door?  GOOD!  Now, I wanted him down. 

Back at the carriage, the driver agreed to take a Pyramid picture of me.  Otherwise, my three-feet-tall  photograher's camera angles deform me into giant with huge nostrils.

We continued all the way to the Sphinx.  It was then that the driver told me that he was not going to wait for us.  If I got out to look around, then I was on my own.  That sucked!  I told him that I was fasting.  He told me that he was too and that he wanted some extra money to wait.  If I didn't want him to wait for me then he expected a tip.  What was my choice?  I got out and gave him the rest of my cash---it was under 5 pounds.  I was not going to feel cheated again by not really exploring.  I needed to feel the moment.

We got out and it was worth it.  The Sphinx is so historical.  How can you not?

The only problem were the souvenier sellers.  They were often pushy.  As we were heading out (both of us hot and tired and only one of us able to drink water), one souvenier seller tried hawking his wares and I declined saying, "Mafish floos".  I didn't have any money.  I really didn't.

He started meanly berating me and I lost it.  I told him, "Wallahi," meaning I was swearing to God and then I teared up.

I don't know why exactly.

It was the build-up of fear; of real dangers and of the unknown.  It was culture shock and adjusting to being on my own in a foreign country.  It was the realization that I'd been here before and I'd been taken care of then (but not now).  It was being Muslim in a Muslim country and having a Muslim treat me badly.

Another souvenier seller appologized for the previous man's behavior.  I didn't stop to say a word beyond, "Shukran" or thanks.  I felt so exhausted that I had to leave for fear that each minute in the noon sun was zapping my strength.

Mr. Boo, in my arms, had now fallen asleep.  I was fasting and carrying my four-year-old in the hot sun.  Not a good plan.  In addition to that, I wasn't totally sure where I had ended up.  Where was I?

Lots of taxi drivers offered to take me to the hotel but I was too scared to get in with no money.  I couldn't be that far away, right?  So, I started walking.  I walked and walked.  I walked until I couldn't walk any more.

I sat down on a step and got myself together.  I had to have a firm conviction.  I could handle this and get us back to the air-conditioned splendor soon enough, inshahallah.

I started off again.  All the shops looked vaguely the same.  I had to keep the Pyramids in view to figure out where I was.  I was heading in the right direction, but where was the hotel?!

It took seemingly forever to make it back to the hotel but we did make it.  Mr. Boo was like cement!  In we went and I was so happy to feel that air conditioner.  Mr. Boo was deposited on the bed and I took a cold shower to revive.  I would be able to get some food for our iftar dinner after I cooled off.

And then I remembered, "inshahallah."

Chapter 11