Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Quest in Egypt

Asalamu Alaykom,

Living in Egypt is good for your faith.  It tests your patience and makes you pray to God more.  Even simple tasks or shopping trips become a myriad of tasks so complex that you feel like you're on The Quest for the Holy Grail.

This week, with coconut halves in hand, we set off to find elusive ink cartridges for my printer.  In the States, you head over to Best Buy, CompuServe, Savers, Target or any other big chain store and you pop in and you pop out with purchase in hand.  In Egypt it's a different story.


After El-Kid's morning swimming lesson and the Jummah prayer, we  went to Mall of Arabia on Friday.  It was December 25 (and as the song goes) it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

The mall  has seven likely sellers of ink cartridges but none of the stores carried what we needed.  We did, however, find two blouses for me

and a nice sweater for my husband at LC Waikiki 

...before eating a late lunch at Chili's.  That never-ending basket of chips was what we all needed!

It was getting late and I hadn't prayed duhr yet.  The mall has prayer spaces for both men and women.  This doesn't mean that everyone takes advantage of this blessing.  My Egyptian husband often feels like he'll "pray when we get home."  I dutifully remind him that we might never make it home; we certainly were not going to make it home before magrib.  He made one last grumble before I laid it on the line.

"Look, if I asked you for one more store, you could say 'no'.  If I asked you for one more restaurant, you could say, 'impossible.'  On the other hand, if I say I want to pray on time, that's between me and Allah and there's nothing you can say to stop that."

We left the restaurant and started the search for the prayer space.  He kept eyeing the door.  Then, he saw a free give-away.  It was a bottle of Fairy dish washing detergent.  Even though we needed to find the prayer hall, we stopped for the sales spiel.  Minutes were ticking by but I feigned interest so we could get the bottle.  My husband really wanted that teaspoon too and I had to make a request for it before we could grab it and run.

I reminded my husband that it was only because I wanted to pray that we had found the give-away.  He laughed.  God blesses us in many ways and somehow prayer does open up channels to receive.

Finally, we turned the corner and there the doorway stood.  My guys sat on the benches outside with the shopping bags while I went inside.  I took off my shoes and was going to tuck them inside my over-sized purse when my husband called to me to let him watch them.  I know I should trust praying women NOT to steal my shoes (but I don't).

There is something beautiful about praying with strangers who made an effort to leave their day to worship.  The mall has so much dunya and easy ways to forget Allah---especially with all the Christmas paraphernalia.  Yet, we stood in that quiet space for a short time as the sun would soon be setting.

I took one last incongruous picture of Santa in a Muslim country surrounded by snow in the desert.  The azan for magrib sounded and I felt some kind of bliss of being me.

We walked out in a good mood but I knew we'd probably have a fight.  There is something about the stress of getting home which always puts us at odds.  I want to take a taxi.  He wants to save money and take the bus.  The drivers started to fight over which bus would take us home.  I then walked away quickly and had another bus driver yelling at me to ride his bus.  My husband tried to pull us across the street and I yelled in fear at the approaching traffic.  The whole thing was tense.  

I've gotten used to it being as such.  This is part of living in Egypt.  No matter how much fun you have while you're out, the transportation back and forth can be a real torture. 

Alhumdulillah, we made it home safely.  I had made extra remembrance of Allah as we went (and held on to El-Kid next to me).  By the time we walked in the door, we were all over our upset.

That night had us watching A Charlie Brown Christmas (which my husband stayed awake for) 

and It's a Wonderful Life (which my husband slept through).  

It was a good mix of both worlds and a meaningful way to end a long day.


It was Boxing Day and I had to explain to El-Kid that the holiday had nothing to do with prize fighting. It was another swim lesson and afterwards another attempt to find the ink cartridges.  I really wanted to get them so I could print nifty labels for my spice jars.

It is probably haram how much I love my little spice jars.  I bought a specific jam for years just to amass the company's glass containers with squared sides.  I would soak off the labels before writing my own.  I even spray painted the lids green.  There they sit on my IKEA white metal spice rack.

They needed professionally printed labels so off we went again.

After another swim lesson, we stood on the road trying to get a ride.  My husband once again wanted a bus and I once again wanted a taxi.  None of the buses were going our way so a taxi it was!  A little further up the road was a frightening reminder of how dangerous Egyptian roads are.  One of the buses had crashed and victims were sitting in shock on the curb.  Subhanallah but for the Grace of God go I.

We were going deep into 6th of October.  I learned how really scummy the backstreets of 6th of October are.  Everyone talks of living in the suburbs---as if that is the answer to all of life's problems.  Really?  Every area in Egypt has high class and low class in close proximity.

The driver didn't actually know where the store was.  He dropped us off where it should be----but it wasn't.  We headed down the road, but then realized that we weren't where we needed to be so we bought some juice and Cracky snacks to sustain us as we retraced our steps.  The sun was shining and it was a pleasant day.  It was almost like being a tourist (except we weren't in any place you'd want to be).

We headed up the road and I started to think of the last time we'd been on this stretch.  That's when I saw the Syrian sweet shop.  YES!  We had spent a small fortune the last time we'd been there.  It was wonderful to see it again.

Sample after sample welcomed us back.

I felt badly that we had ever spent money on any other sweet...

when we could have gone to Salloura's.  

We bought three boxes of sweets and treats.

 At the cash register, my husband spent a long time talking to the man in charge.  His intention, I know, was to reach out and be kind.  He told the man, "We are all Egyptians."

I piped up, "I'm not.  You don't have to be Egyptian.  Being good here and wanting good for Egypt is enough."

Really?  Those Syrians who run the store and I have a lot in common.  Ya Rab they find happiness and peace here.

We walked on.  Even though we found a stationary store, it wasn't the one we wanted and they didn't have any printer ink.  It's a funky store that I was in two years before.  They sell all this strange merchandise you never see any where else.  I bought a smiley face board eraser (!) and a wooden model of the Cairo Tower to make with El-Kid.

Cleverly, my husband had spent the whole time getting information from the employee of that store on where to go for printer ink.  It would mean another bus ride.  We were headed far away.

When we reached, I swear that I didn't want to get out of the Suzuki.  It didn't look right!  It was all industrial equipment:  tools, chains, machines.  This was the place for computer ink?!  In we walked amid the gruff men.  My husband learned that we had to go up the stairs.  I held on to my son as we climbed.  I half suspected we'd find a dead animal on the landing.

At the top of the stairs was a doorway into a narrow passageway.  As soon as they saw us, many people began beckoning to us as if they hadn't seen any customers in a long time.  It felt a bit like a creepy hashish den from the movies.  El-Kid spotted the word, "Cannon" and we headed left.  Sure enough!  As sure as if it was a shining golden chalice, there hung the box of printer ink.  In fact, there were many boxes and I wanted to buy three.

They were 150 LE each.  We had spent so much at the Syrian sweet shop, my husband told me that we could only get two boxes.  Life is funny, isn't it?  I talked with the man about how hard it had been to find him.  While Egypt seems to have everything you could ever want, you certainly do have to make some effort to get it!

Once again, we were out on the street, too tired to argue about bus or taxi.  When a nice vehicle pulled up, headed for the Pyramids, we took it.  When we reached our area, it was one more micro-bus home.  He had Bert and a sphinx on his dashboard.  He brought us back to our street and it was as if we'd been gone for days and days.

Our quest was over.

If you really think about how simple my needs were and how hard it was to get those needs met, then you'll feel how it is to live here.  At the same time, that push to get out and get something gave us two days of excitement.  It wasn't all easy but it was all real.

That's a good way to end my posts for 2015.

It wasn't all easy 
but it was all real.

Friday, December 18, 2015


Asalamu Alaykom,

Waking for fajr has many benefits.  Today, there was a very surprising one.

After praying, my husband and I got to spend some quiet time together before he went back to bed.  I started the weekly wash and then El-Kid got up.  That's when we spent our time together watching one of those wonderful National Geographic Live! travel talks.  Author-Explorer Tim Cope is very inspirational and his story of crossing the trail of Genghis Khan made me feel so connected to what is real and true.

When the show was over, I went out to the kitchen to make us some tea.  Up until this point, every moment of my day had been fulfilling and worthwhile but totally normal.  Yet, through the kitchen window came change on the wind.  I stopped what I was doing.  I had to get quiet enough to hear that very small but very persistent sound.

It wasn't a bird.  It wasn't a kitten.  It was a mix between the two and suddenly it registered in my head what I was hearing.  I left the kitchen in a hurry and entered into the dark bedroom.

"Ahmed," I called trying to wake him up.  "Ahmed, is there a baby on the roof?


"Listen," and I unlatched the bedroom window.  The cold air rushed in.  At first, there was nothing.  Then there was a faint cry.  I lifted my finger and nodded.  Didn't he hear it?  I looked at his face and nothing was registering.  I waited.  There it was again and this time he jumped out of bed and out the door.

Up the stairs he ran.  He was only gone a moment before he ran down again.  He needed a cloth.  He started to run up again and then remembered, "Matches!  I need matches too!"

I searched around my rag bag and found an old, torn school uniform shirt.  I grabbed the matches too.  Because I was in a track suit, I threw on a more modest coat and a winter wrap.  It was going to be cold on the roof but that's where I was going to see the new baby goat.

Through the wooden gate, I entered into the animal's sheltered area.  Someone had just had a baby.  It was plainly the black goat who wailed in grief at being away from her newborn.  The sound was almost human in its anguish.  My husband was a short distance away amidst a pool of amniotic fluid and straw.  He was crouched down next to a tiny black figure.


I do love this aspect to my life here in Egypt.  In America, it is all about cats and dogs.  Here in Egypt, I am connected to so many more animals and to their cycle of life.  At our house alone, there are sheep, goats, chickens, ducks and geese.  On on street, there are horses, donkeys, and camels.  Yes, there are also the stray dogs and cats.  Often, the cats jump onto our roof and roam our stairs looking for food or mice (which they are welcome to).  Really, as an ecologist's daughter, I am enlivened by being a part of the web.

So, there was the baby goat and he or she (I wasn't sure) was wet.  You know that phrase "still wet behind the ears"?  That baby was still wet behind the ears, on top of the ears, along the sides, on every was a mess.  I felt that the mom really should be cleaning him or her up, but since she wasn't, it was my husband wiping off the mess with the old shirt.  He then told me to get his mother.

My mother-in-law loves taking care of the animals.  I've seen her happy when there is a new addition, yelling when a bird gets injured and crying when an animal dies.  Every Spring, I  call her "UmKakoot" for being a mom to the little chicks she holds in the valley of her long dresses.

The thing is that she and I haven't really talked much since there was trouble at the house.  It wasn't my trouble to being with but my involvement later on made me an expendable.  Since October, I have been marginalized and it's been OK with me because I'd rather be on the fringe than in the fray.

There I was, two months later, ringing her doorbell downstairs.  She's a little very hard of hearing.  Once she came to the door, I tried to greet her.

"Asalamu Alaykom."

She didn't understand that.  The first two years of marriage, she didn't even know I was trying to speak Arabic.  This was going to be a tough gig.  I had a mission and that was to get her upstairs to the roof.

It went something like this:

"There's a baby goat on the roof."

"You want something to eat?"

"No, there's a goat on the roof.  A baby."

"Who?  Mohammed?"

"No, an animal---a goat.  A mom had a little baby."

"Where's Ahmed?"

"On the roof."

We went.  Up and up we went.  She's older than when I first arrived.  That's dumb, I know, because NO ONE is getting any younger.  This week, I've been lamenting how my right knee has been acting up when I've been climbing the stairs.  However, I was now with a woman who had to stop and ask God for help to get her up another flight.  That gives a person a new perspective.  She probably still had no idea what awaited her on the roof.  I walked behind her.

Despite any problems we have had and (and there have been many), she is closer to me in many ways than I am to my own mother.  The decision was made last night that I will not be traveling to the U.S. to see my mother during my Winter Break.  I am here.  I will be here seeing my mother-in-law.  She would be the woman to accompany me to Hajj inshahallah.  At the end of our lives, she and I will share a grave inshahallah.

We climbed, united in our wish to be helpful and good in this world, we climbed together.  I let her take the lead.  When she stopped for a breath, I stopped.  I placed my hand gently on her back and encouraged her to wait a moment.  She would soon push on.

Eventually, the three of us were on the roof together:  my husband, his mother, and me.  They worked together to build a bed of straw.  I kept saying that the mom should be with the baby but she wasn't going anywhere near it.  There the new baby goat sat alone and cold.

I went to the little black goat, picked it up in my hands, and gave it warmth.  Its impossibly long legs and ears were especially cold.  Really, it wasn't all black; its muzzle had a wide white stripe.  I shifted the tiny body in my hands and realized that it actually fit completely into one hand.  I held it there in my left hand as it stopped bleating and felt some relief.  I helped.  It is a beautiful thing in this world to make a positive difference.  Alhumdulillah, I was given the chance today.

The dried corncobs were lit in a big pan so that the new mother and her kid could have a warm room on the roof.  We argued a bit about the placement.  I was concerned about the window pulling the smoke across the pair.  My husband listened to me and moved the location so they'd be smoke-free.

I had to leave.  Tears were running down my face from the smoke.  It was a relief to be back in our warm home.  No matter how appreciative you are in your home, you don't really appreciate it until you've been out and you come back.

The baby, by the way, is a boy.  I name all the animals here (mostly because no Egyptian would be so daft as to name animals we're going to eat later).  This one is "Tigon" in honor of Tim Cope's dog.  Here's a picture of him

I'll get a picture of our Tigon tomorrow inshahallah.  It's been a few days and I made my way back up to the roof this sunny morning.  I brought my camera.

Our days can be so stupendous.

When one of those days is given to you, remember to thank God.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Elephant in the Family House

Asalamu Alaykom,

After having life go very badly, life is going well now.


After hardship, there is ease.

Life in the family house took a sudden turn for the worse.  After two years of living with a difficult woman, there was a full-scale manipulation to make our life miserable.  This is often the only way an Egyptian woman can feel powerful.  Astragferallah.

This wouldn't be the only time this has ever happened to me.  If you look back, you'll see that Abu El-Kid's first/current wife already put me through my paces.  At the time, I thought it was unique to only her, but I've come to see that it's part of this patriarchal culture for jealous women to play mind games since men hold all the cards.

Alhumdulillah for those life lessons that you fail and then Allah gives you another chance to pass.

I swear to God, if you are ever in the unenviable position to lock horns with an Egyptian woman, walk away---no, RUN AWAY.  You will not win.  You won't!  They battle to the death for what they want and they battle in ways you wouldn't ever dream of.  They rope everyone into their game and they spend all their energy on this fitnah.  In the end, you will be the loser so it's better to just let them have their dunya and hope that you have akhirah.

Now, my husband and I are starting our lives over as an independent unit.  We used to do so much with the family and for the family but in October that all changed.  We are now living in a family house without living communally.

One of the reasons I wanted to marry my husband is that I liked his large family.  Ironically, I am not really part of their lives at this time.  Growing up, I was the only child of a single mom and I always craved a family.  After the twists and turns we've been through, I am cured from this craving.  Alhumdulillah.

Eating dinner together means just the three of us.  My husband and I take turns cooking.  We not only spend more time cooking and cleaning up, we spend more money on food than we used to.  Yet, there are great rewards.

We are healthier.  Alhumdulillah.  After many attempts to get the ladies of the house to cook with less salt, oil, and sugar, we can simply cook to please ourselves.  It's been two months and we have all lost weight.  I feel better.  I look better.

We are at peace.  Alhumdulillah.  There was always so much friction downstairs with yelling moms and screaming kids, snubbing, and teasing.  The noise and upset used to make my stomach ache from all the conflict.  Now, we can just relax.

We are more united.  Alhumdulillah.  One of the after effects  of pulling away from others is that we are more committed to making our own little family successful.  It wasn't an immediate result.  In the beginning, when my husband was losing his mind, I honestly looked into moving out to stay sane.  Instead, after praying istakarrah, I stayed put.

We then both talked of moving out together---of getting out of this home that was causing us so much grief.  I then remembered Dr. Phil (whose name makes my husband laugh because in Arabic it translates to Dr. Elephant).

Dr. Phil said to get out of problems by doing the next smallest step not the biggest leap.

For me, I rationalized that this is our apartment that we've been piecing together for the last six years.  It is our home.  If we used our energy to search for a new place, then move and start again, we would not be able to continue building our lives.  We would be going backwards not forwards.

The smallest step was to pretend that we moved into a new apartment surrounded by strangers---the very same apartment we've been in since 2010.  Thus, we have a new life in our old place.  We can continue to grow together, grow our boy and grow in our faith.  Alhumdulillah.

Is it awkward?  At times.  There is an uneasy truce.  There was a psychological war fought against us and we lost.   I apologized for whatever I could and then I walked away.  However, I am a big fan of seeing the big picture.  In the long run, that victory will be inshahallah  Pyrrhic.  I have patience and my life goals go far into the future so that painful time in the past is no long my focus.

Why share this?

Back in the States, there was a Muslim sister that I loved very much.  She and I both shared our plans of that day when we would make hijrah---she to Morocco and me to Egypt.  After I left for Egypt, I received news that she had left everything to join her husband's family.  Later, I found out that she had quickly returned to the U.S.  She told me that she couldn't handle it.  She had almost lost her mind living with them.

It's not easy.  Communal living and multi-cultural family relationships are fraught with issues.

This sister didn't feel that she could be open and honest with me.  The fact that  I was still on hijrah while she was not drove a wedge between us.  She felt like she had failed---not just living in a foreign country, or living with her husband's family but failed part of her faith.  She stopped being my friend because she felt we could no longer understand each other.

I understand.  I really do.

Whether she reads this or someone like her reads this, it's for the benefit of sisters who make such a big move and then face a shock.  Whatever you are clinging to in the dunya will be your downfall.  For me, it was family.  That's a big one for Americans of my era because many of our families were fractured.

Remember the big picture.  Remember your life goals and not just trying to get through this day or this week.  Don't let someone else crash your future.  At the same time, surrender whatever is not really important.  Whatever you lose, let it go (let it go) and trust that it was no longer yours to have.  God will give you better.  Really.

Say "Alhumdulillah" for whatever remains and build from those remains a better, stronger life.