Olives, Yogurt, White Cheese and Tea

Yeni Mosque, Eminonou Istanbul
 “Yogurt. It’s TURKISH yogurt, not Greek yogurt.  It’s different…and it’s better” Ali says to me over a communal tub of thick sour yogurt. 

This is his response to the very open ended question What do I need to know about Turkey? And it should tell you the position that yogurt has in Turkish culture (pun only partially intended).

“And breakfast: If it doesn’t have olives, yogurt, white cheese and tea forget about it.  Just go back to bed.” 

Food, I learned in Turkey last week, matters a great deal.  But more on that later.   

I showed up to the five story studio and sometimes home of Ali and Betul at 10:30 for a lesson in Turkish marbling  (5 stories of about 10 square feet each floor, think wide ladder instead of palace).  Paper marbling is a process by which multiple colors of paint are dropped onto the surface of treated water, mixed around to create a pattern (though not mixed together) and then transferred onto thin paper.  You see paper marbling at the beginning and ending of old books and it looks like, well, multi-colored marble.   My bookbinding teacher in Jerusalem was a paper marbler and I’ve been fascinated by it for years though too intimidated to try it myself.  Turkey has a long history of paper marbling with a unique brand of embellishment including flowers and leaves.

"It's sometimes called painting with water”  Betul says to me from her top floor studio where I am torn between jaw dropping views of Istanbul and what’s happening in the seaweed thickened water on the table in front of me.  Betul makes it look easy and while there is a kind of natural flow to raking and fanning the colors, my lines are no where near as uniform as hers and my peacock pattern is laughable – squished flat like a heavy sandwich instead of full like a balloon.  But I thoroughly enjoy the afternoon selecting colors, dropping them onto the sludgy water to see them expand and moving them with metal awls and rakes of various sizes.  I’m only kind of embarrassed when she selects a generic artsy English language playlist on spotify that starts with Simon and Garfunkel and includes many songs I already know.  Is my “type” so knowable? I think, being sure not to drip ox gall infused paint onto my black jeans.   But then I don’t care and I discover what ultramarine looks like with powder blue and crimson red.  (Yes, that's me gasping in the video...) 
After our session Ali invites me to stay for lunch that Betul’s mother has made.  It is a simple meal of fresh green beans with ground beef and the ubiquitous “Shepard’s Salad” known by a million names throughout the Middle East and North Africa: tomato, onions, cucumber, parsley, lemon, olive oil.   Betul’s mother teaches me the Turkish word for thank you and delicious and I watch first when a pail of creamy yogurt is placed on the table and then dip my spoon in after each bite along with everyone else. 

“Why did you choose paper marbling?” Ali asks me, given the other options of calligraphy, felting, tile painting and sedef – traditional Turkish wood block carving and printing.

Happiest I've ever been...perhaps
“I like the colors and the patterns....and the possibilities”

“Do they talk to you?  The colors, do they talk to you?”

Unsure of how to answer I cock an eyebrow towards Ali.

“They will.  He says.  Send your husband away. They won’t talk if he’s there.  But send him away and they’ll talk to you.”

Well, you heard the man Max. 

It's not personal. 

Can't take credit for this one, Betul was really incredible


Your Comfort Zone is Imaginary

Bidding Season.

It’s fun, it’s stressful, it’s painful, it’s important, it’s inevitable.  This time around we have a bit more say in where we are posted and Max and I keep an ever changing list of available jobs on our refrigerator.  We have developed a few criteria that we
think are most important to us and we’ve been trying to evaluate positions based on that.  We’ve been trying to stop ourselves from saying things like “yeah, but that doesn’t sound fun” or “yeah, but It looks drab/boring/small/big/difficult”.   If it matches the criteria, it’s in the pool and we think about it. Basta.  Halas.  We are getting better at not tossing places out at first glance, but at first dismissed entire countries just on hunches.    

Location isn’t really one of our criteria and that is causing a bit of mental discomfort.  

It’s remarkable how comfortable you become with the idea of yourself based on location. We are Max and Brooke.  We live in the Middle East.  It’s become so much a part of how I identify and understand myself that the idea of living in other regions, while mostly exciting is also partly terrifying.  Who are Max and Brooke in Asia?  In Europe? In Africa? In South America? Not to mention questions like what do people eat/wear/think/value/speak in Asia/Europe/Africa/South America?  What are the historical/political/social factors that make up society in Asia/Europe/Africa/South America?  We will have to develop completely new tools of navigation.    

At different points in this process we have found ourselves really interested in a few posts and became comfortable with the idea of our future life among their palm trees/skyscrapers/snow clouds/curries.  Over a matter of weeks what was once foreign nestles in our brain and feels a little more do-able.  But as the jobs change we refine our criteria and new places emmerge, causing us to to go through the mental gymnastics of “getting right” with a host of new places all over again.  Where we are excited about changes daily as our braveness waxes and wanes.  And I am keenly aware that this is all mental at this point - the process of actually moving to one of these places and “getting right” in person will be much more intense and mentally stretching.  

My point is this:  I hope I have enough mental flexibility and strength of character to accept wherever we end up. Most days I think I will…but ask me again in 8 months.


Akbar's Shop

I parked my car in front of a sign slung across a shop filled with men that read “Live Chickens”.  I secured my top button, lowered my sleeves, rolled my long strawberry hair into a bun and tucked five years worth of saved prints, paintings, poems, fabric swatches and photographs under my arm before heading across the street. 

“Glass Crystale Mirror” It says above the door and inside giant pieces of dusty glass lean against walls that surround a carpeted tabletop.   The table is piled with frame pieces, tape, old receipts, general filth, glass and a black and white photograph of someone’s mustachioed uncle, softly blurred around the edges. 

While I discuss with Akbar which pictures would be best with a simple frame and which need a mat, a teenage boy enters the shop with a plastic cup of tea.  He pops a hole in a can of milk and pours half of it into the steamy cup before discarding the tea bag and handing it to Akbar.  I’ve come back a few times now, around the same time, and there is always a tea bringer bringing tea to Akbar and sometimes his friends that guard the entrance in their plastic lawn chairs.      

In my excitement to have these treasures framed – papyrus from Cairo, two handkerchiefs from Max’s Scottish grandmother (probably carried over the pond with her) marbled paper from a friend in Jerusalem’s surprisingly large paper arts community, and Max’s commission signed by the President of the United States – I left the painting I’d come to pick up from the day before.  When I turn around to confront the hurried footsteps behind me Akbar is scuffling across the road – painting in hand. 

“You give me 40 rials next time” he says.

An absurdly low amount for everything I’ve just dumped on his table.  I turn my mouth down at the corners and shake my head to indicate agreement – a serious agreement.  One in which he has offered me only slightly more than his normal price and I have only haggled a little bit. 

The picture he hands me is one my dear friend and college roommate painted as some sort of a value study in one of her watercolor classes.  It’s the face of David, painted in bold blues, greens and pinks.  Across his face in cheap pen she has written 

“Sorry for being Oscar this morning ” 

She left this next to my bed one afternoon when, evidently, we had had a rough morning. 

We used to stay up nights in our college apartment – across from each other in our narrow twin beds – and plan completely reasonable unreasonable trips to New York where we’d stay at the YMCA, spend everyday for a week or two in the MOMA, eat hot dogs from carts and walk everywhere.  We estimated that airfare and change would get us through one or two bohemian weeks in New York.   We established (she established, I seconded) the three essentials for a successful morning:  toothbrush, bra, eyedrops.  We made tapes for my now husband who was living in Brazil, we wore cut off construction orange sweatpants, and we listened to dozens, hundreds of new songs in our years together.  She worked in a candle factory  run out of the basement of two free spirited South Africans.  Our room smelled of lemon verbena, brown sugar, sandalwood and we learned how to remove exploded wax from carpet with an iron.   

I went back last week to pick up 30 more framed photographs from Akbar and with a flick of his chin Akbar sent four of his coffee mates out to my car carrying the load.  They fussed and fiddled about the best way to secure the glass frames in my car for the ride home.  They were silent and serious and, at the brief expense of my sex and bad stereotypes, I couldn’t keep myself from making a small joke.

“Make sure you secure them tightly”  I said, snapping the seatbelt they had just fastened around three 18x24 prints.

“I might be a bad driver.”

This procured the desired laugh from all four men and they returned to Akbar’s shop a little less dour.

Why did I say that?  I thought on the way home.  I don’t actually believe women are bad drivers.  I think I just wanted to find someplace that our seemingly different worlds could meet even if just for a moment.   Some place of common ground between the Pakistani coffee drinkers of Akbar’s frame shop and the American children’s librarian with diplomatic plates.  But in a weird way Akbar’s posse knows more about me than many of my colleagues from the almost 50 stories and places and people Akbar has framed for me this past month.  Each time I brought something new we talked about my family back home, his family here, my visit to the Dome of the Rock, how long he’s been in business, my dog, his neighborhood.  In his little frame shop next to the “live chicken” sign filled with men.  Where my stories and my places and my people meet Akbar’s.



Turtles in a Half Shell

Junn Island, Damaniyat Islands Oman
On a moonlit night we followed our Omani guide to the beach at Ras Al Jinz, shoes crunching softly on the gravel and then softer as the ground beneath turned to sand.   His white dishdasha swooshed, like holy tent flaps in the wind, and he illuminated the path for those behind with a small flashlight.  This is a route he has taken dozens, hundreds of times over the past few years since the Sultanate of Oman reclaimed the area as a nature preserve to stop tourists from disrupting crucial nesting periods of the endangered Green Turtle with garbage, noise, light pollution and the ubiquitious white range rovers that cruise the peninsula.     

Our Driving Route
Ras Al Jinz and its neighboring Ras Al Hadd are some of the most important sea turtle nesting beaches in the world.  The magnificent coral along 2000 kilometers of Omani coastline, including these two spots, provide important feeding grounds and Oman’s relative geography is integral to the migratory route these critters undertake each year.  Although 5 species of sea turtles can be found in Oman (Green, Loggerhead, Olive Ridley, Hawsbilll, Leatherback) Green are most common and what we saw that night.

A mother turtle, at least 70 pounds, heaved out of the ocean and slowly, very slowly, dug herself into a nesting hole with her flippers.  The beach is pocked with holes like this ranging from 3 to almost 5 feet in diameter.  Egg laying complete, we watched a few turtles make their way back into the ocean, disappearing into the waves and the night.  On a 4 AM run back to the beach we saw two baby turtles scamper, that’s really the only word, into the surf for the first time.  Mothers lay up to 100 eggs each of three nesting trips a year before leaving the turtles to hatch and make their way to the sea. 

Or not. 

Some estimate that in natural conditions only 2 or 3 hatchlings in every 10,000 survive to maturity.  Seagulls and desert foxes await the new turtles on the beach and once they enter the sea a new band of predators stand guard. 

To get to Ras Al Jinz, we drove south along the coast from Muscat, past crags of limestone that nosedive into turquoise oceans below.  Sand pale and fine where it isn’t made up entirely of ground shells.  On an earlier day of our Winter Break we swam in the Bimmah sinkhole a few miles inland from these beaches – water saltier than the ocean and clear blue/green until the caverns below disappear into the earth.  The depths of the sinkhole caves are unmeasured and largely unexplored at this point.  Back on the beach we set out a picnic under a limestone crag at low tide and hunted for shells, sea urchins, octopus and hermit crabs.  

Bimmah Sinkhole
On our way back from the turtle reserve we stopped at the only remaining traditional dhow shipbuilding yard in Oman and saw a few massive sea vessels being built.

 The Saturday before our winter break ended we set out for one last adventure at sea and spent the morning snorkeling around the Damaniyat islands, 45 minutes north of Muscat.  I’d heard stories of whale sharks lurking in the coral but didn’t see one this time around.  My locally produced snorkel guide assures me that whale sharks surrounding Oman aren’t dangerous to sensible humans….  But on an early trip out, floating above hundreds of fish popping in and out of coral, Max and I saw a turtle not 2 meters away from us.  Having been “trained” in the ways of turtle observing at the reserve a week before we were cautious, but being excitable humans we were also curious and followed him.  We kept out distance behind and never touched him (big no no) but the thrill was incredible.  We saw quite a few more turtles in the reef and then beached ourselves on the sand to take it all in.


How Do You Feel...You Know...As A Western Woman?

I've been asked this question a few times over the last few months.   In short my life feels very normal - I walk my dog, I go to work, I eat out.  My fears are normal - doing a good job at work, getting lost on the freeway, over pruning my tomatoes - placeless stuff that in no way comes from my environment.  This isn't to say that I'm not continually amazed by new experiences and wonderful opportunities.  But I, in this moment in this place, feel very much normal.   

It's hard for me to say if this feeling of normalcy comes from a few years spent in the Middle East now or the extraordinary nature of Oman.  Either way, it occurred to me that YOU might not understand the extent to which my experiences in no way match up to many of the sterotypes about the Middle East and Westerners and Women specifically.

So here we go.

I do not have to cover my head in Oman.   Most local women do - more than any country we've been so far - but it is not the law and Western expats do not cover.  I dress modestly (no tank tops, super short sleeves or shorts) and do not feel more uncomfortable walking down the street here than I would in D.C. or New York.  

I walk about freely by myself and there are no driving restrictions placed on women here.  I make the work commute like everybody else.  Sure there are areas of town that I wouldn't go to by myself, but that is true for almost any city.
I feel incredibly safe here.  There is virtually no violent crime in Oman and I hear very few stories of petty theft.  I'm not naive about some of the regional threats, but Oman has managed to maintain peace, order and safety to an incredible level.  

I am free to worship with my Christian congretation each week.  The government of Oman has given land to Christian churches throughout Muscat and, for the region, is remarkably tolerant of other faiths.  The Sultan has had some pretty inspiring things to say about tolerance and Islam.  In a Muslim country I am free to practice my religion.

I do not have to claim to be something other than American.  I have never, not once, had a bad experience in the Middle East after telling someone I was American. (I was spit on by a little boy at the Kalendia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah once, but I could have been a moon person for all he cared - he just wanted me to buy his gum.) It usually comes out after we've talked for a little bit and by that point we've both established that we are humans first with more in common than not.  Any kind of potential political conflict is pretty much swallowed up in the person to person exchange.  I've had someone in almost every country say to me a version of "We can disagree with your government's policies and still like your people."  The first time I heard that in Jordan it kind of blew my mind.  I'd accepted the narrative that They don't like Us and perhaps We shouldn't like Them and hadn't even thought to approach politics, nationality and identity with such nuance.  It was a good lesson to learn early on.

And on to the desert...

Yes, Oman has a desert and camels are a big deal, but it also has mountains and many miles of fantastic beaches and clear springs that gush down deep canyons and through Oasis'.  White sand beaches are not what you think of when you imagine the Middle East, but that's exactly what I'm talking about.  And it's not just Oman that's different.  Every place we've been in the Middle East has defied stereotypes in some way or another. 

So that's all, I guess.  

Junn Island, part of the Dimaniyat Island chain off the coast of Oman


2013. Whales. Numbers. Roadtrips.

2013 was a whale of a year.  As in, at times we felt like we were inside the belly of one, perhaps stuck to its giant fleshy tongue, being shuttled from one place to another in the pitch black.

OK, so almost all of those places were our choosing and we’d planned for months before each one, but still.  

I like what numbers can say (and what they inevitably leave out) about time spent so here we go for 2013:

Miles Driven on Three Month Home Leave:  6385
Hotel Rooms: 22
Nashville Fried Pickle Plates Eaten: 1
Letters to the IRS about “Overseas Automatic Extension”: 4
Deserts Explored: 2
New Cars Purchased: 1 Letters Written To Congress: 12
Number of Sea Turtles Observed in the Wild: 10 
Food Poisoning Incidents: 1 
Number of Jobs Between Us: 5
Friends Caught Up With: Many
National & Parks Visited: 14
Writing accepted for 2014 Publication: 1 and counting
Dollars Worth of Pork Products Purchased in one trip to Dubai: 100
Cities Visited: 61 *
Giant Foam Replicas of Stonehenge Visited: 1
Journals Filled: 3 
Number of Times I Was Given a Small Treat At the Register Instead of Change: 1
Miles Flown With Dog Under Seat In Front of Me: 21,656
Gardens Grown: 2
Countries Visited: 5
Nights you had to stay alone in a murderer’s hotel when flight got delayed: 1
*We have to have eaten a meal there for it to count. 

Last summer Max and I took a 1500 mile road trip to see parts of the American Southwest we'd grown up hours away from but never seen.  We camped, we hiked, we read oodles and learned a lot about history, geology, and the Native Americans who first lived there.  When I recall what that trip sounded like my memory is filled with complete silence.  Maybe I hear the currents of the Colorado from time to time or a turkey vulture circling above, but my memories are almost completely silent.  We relearned how to be still and find happiness in the most basic things -shelter, water, food, nature, discovery.  I filled pages and pages in my journal about it and took hundreds of pictures but couldn't bring myself to blog a word of it.  Along with visitors to Morocco it was definitely the highlight of my year.   

This year I'm looking forward to 365 days of not moving.    
Hiking by Fisher Towers Outside Moab Utah
Leading into the La Sal Mountains, Utah
Grand Canyon, Arizona

Kodachrome State Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon, Utah

Bluff Utah