Arriving in Cairo...And There Are Birds

It's a pretty intimidating drive. From the Cairo airport to downtown. Hours through hundreds of people sardined together and as many cars and busses just as close. The buildings raise up from every direction, most half finished and surrounded by rubble and sand. 

This is the time of year when pollution swarms through the city and gets trapped between brown cement buildings. Combined with street exhaust, transatlantic jet lag, and car sickness, my first foray into Cairo was a little overwhelming. Where will I get food? Walk the dog? Get fresh air?  

When we reached our new apartment, I took a bath, lay down and fell immediately to sleep. There is only so much you can take in in a day.

But I woke up just after dawn and made my way to the balcony. The streets were empty, but I could hear Cairo slowly waking up. Small radios flickering to life, buckets of water sluicing over sidewalks, motorbike engines sputtering.  

And birds chiriping. When I looked up into the trees framing our street I saw flocks of birds soaring between branches and resting on rooftops. Birds. Lots of them. 

And I remembered the look on the face of the Egyptian woman sitting across the isle from me in the plane as we made our descent. She beamed with pride as she gazed out over the city. Fierce pride. For some reason it almost brought me to tears. 

The birds flourish and the people are proud. Certainly, I too can thrive. 


Buying Bangkok

Chiang Mai Night Market

I hate sentences that start with "I got this beautiful "X" and it only cost me this much!" or "Have you been to "Y"? It has the most amazing "Z" and it's so cheap." When conversations start this way I usually discover an urgent need to pee. Or get a drink. Or "Hey look! Someone I'd better say hi to on the opposite side of the room."  

I firmly believe that places are more than our purchases. 

And yet, here I am in Asia's biggest open air market with more bags than I can carry. I've purchased a painting that I have to come back for at the end of the day and I've already made plans to have a Thai silk dress made before I leave the country in 24 hours. 

Chiang Mai Night Market
These beautiful this's and amazing that's will later stuff my suitcase to the point of seam bursting proportions. I will have to negotiate with the baggage handler to get them all on board, shifting things from one bag to another in the airport lobby. But I have to because now I'm committed to my tiny Buddha amulets, triple pack of paper lanterns, sack of scarves, new printed tablecloth, wooden candlesticks, woven bag, tacky t-shirts that I love, ubiquitous baggy Thailand pants, and two new watches. 

To consume means to use up a resource and in some cases to completely destroy. As in a fire. I imagine myself a blazing, sucking ball of greed prowling the streets of Bangkok. Flaming lassos reach out for shiny things in my periphery. All of the shiny things. Consumption was defined as a "wasting disease." A wasting of. A wasting away. I don't want to waste, to be wasted. Will I cherish all of these things in my hands or lose them, break them, become embarrassed of my pillage and hide them? 

I think about all of this wasting, this consuming during a massage later that week. Yes, this is true. The irony of contemplating excess while relaxing through your second massage of the day is not lost on me. 

But then I have these glowing moments where the haggling, the inspecting, the exchanging of money for goods and services so firmly root me in place. I snuck out one afternoon and found a busy noodle shop full of after work Thais. Not much more than a shop face, I squeezed past the steaming cart of broths and delicate rice noodles stuffed in a glass window. 


I point. 

"Tom Yum? Spicy?" 

I slurp and enjoy and savor and panic when I hit a pepper. It's so delicious. The sun is streaming in through the tiny, open store front and people flood the streets to buy things. Peeled durian wrapped tightly in plastic wrap to mask its gasoline smell, sacks of broth and noodles to feed the family at home, toasted peanuts, fried duck chopped on a wooden cutting block, fresh juice. T-shirts, flip flops, toys, DVDs, office supplies. 

Pink Pad Thai! 
And I realize it's not just me out there eating and spending money - all of Bangkok seems to be buying and selling, squeezing melons and demanding lower prices.

After my throat of fire is soothed by a Coke, I push back onto the busy street. My shoulders brushing against Thai shoulders. All of us carrying something in our hands. 



Jebel Shams Balcony Walk & Misfat Village

Jebel Shams
Jebel Shams
Last week an Omani told me that he wanted to build a new home with a great big yard. "To host the moon and the stars at night." My gosh Oman. You are great.

Here are two more great things about Oman: the Jebel Shams Balcony Walk and Misfat Village.

The Balcony Walk is just what it sounds like - a thin ledge that leads you around Oman's "Grand Canyon." A small village is tucked into the rocks as the canyon horseshoes. Had the spit scared out of me a time or two.
Clearly, we were owning that ridiculous adventure stance 
Misfat is a lovely mountain village with a functioning falaj system. 

Misfat Falaj


After Dinner

There is a Bedouin adage of sorts about hospitality, it goes like this: If an unexpected visitor arrives at your door, he should be welcomed, fed and given rest in your home for three days. He is your esteemed guest. Only after three days can you ask the person's name, where he comes from, and what he wants. 

This spirit of warmth and welcoming has, almost without exception, been our experience in the Middle East over the past decade. I was reminded of this a few nights ago as Max and I shared sushi, of all things, with an Omani friend. 

"In the region of Batinah, where I'm from, you must first share a meal together before asking about serious things. After the meal is cleared you can ask how is your family? how is your health?"  If you just sit down and ask about someone right away, he continued in broken English, this signals to your host that you are anxious to eat and then leave their company as quickly as possible.

Sure enough, after eating he leaned back and we talked about politics and shared stories for a few hours.

Throughout our years in the Middle East, Max and I have been welcomed into dozens of homes by people who were often not much more than strangers. They shared their traditions, asked about our families, and offered us their best meals. They lived Islam in a way that exemplified generosity, moderation, and sincere devotion.   

In this season of gratitude and reflection, I’m thankful for the many meals over which I’ve come to better understand Arabs and Islam. For the many friends we’ve made in the Middle East who have taught us how to build relationships on shared values despite coming from very different places. I’m thankful for the space it’s made in my brain and my heart.

If you are having a hard time separating the heinous acts of groups or individuals claiming to represent Islam from the regular folks with the same concerns and joys as you, lean on my experiences for a while. And if you have the chance to make real life connections with people who believe differently than you –don’t turn it down. In fact, seek after them. You’ll be surprised how much the people you get to know are different from the narratives we often accept about them. You’ll learn about their daughter’s acceptance into University. You’ll learn about their bad bosses and their favorite picnic spot. You’ll learn about their best chicken recipe and their retirement plans. You’ll find you have a lot more in common than you thought.   

All after dinner of course.  


Light Over Darkness

This week Hindus celebrate Diwali. My Indian colleagues explain it to me as they light  diyas or small candles. On the first day they wear new clothing and shining hair as they fill a banquet table full of Diwali sweets: Maaladu, Ladoo, Burfi made of coconut, almond and cardamom.

“We celebrate the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair."

During the five days of celebration I contemplated the symbolic timing of Diwali  - the first night coincides with the darkest night of the year.

I have been thinking about this all week as a kind of beautiful, hopeful defiance. In the darkness they put on their best clothing and light candles – small acts that some could argue won’t make a difference to the overall status of mid-winter despair. They recognize the realities of light and dark, good and evil, and symbolically participate in the gradual return to light, goodness, hope, wisdom.

Today I awoke to the terrible news of terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut. Over 120 dead in Paris, over 40 in Beirut and many more wounded. Borders are tightening up and people are, understandably, afraid.

And I thought about that phrase “light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair.”

I have to believe it’s possible.



Why yes, I did study Medieval Manuscripts in Graduate School
“Blend in, adapt.” He says while kneading gnarled, woodworkers hands. "That is what we did when we moved here 30 years ago. We didn’t want to change things, we wanted to understand, to add our lives to whatever they were already doing here.”

The elderly couple before us seem as central to this small town as anybody we’ve met over the last few years of visiting, but he went on to describe the not so subtle warning spoken over the pulpit their first week in town “We don’t need nobody with college degrees coming to our town and tellin' us what to do!"

Our new friend was the former director of the Anasazi State Park in Boulder Utah and even though we had walked the packed gravel road to find a notary for some important mid-vacation legal work, we spent a good portion of that morning talking to the historian and his wife about Ancestral Puebloan funerary rites, uncovering ancient burial plots, the national woodworking conference from which he had just returned and their life in this small town. I couldn’t help but comparing their philosophy to that of those he spent his life studying.  Adapt, study the local flora and fauna, expand on the strengths of your tribe and find a way to make your identity compliment your circumstances. 

Last year, after returning from home leave I felt that familiar expat split: part of two worlds and not really sure of either. But as each year passes I’m getting better at integrating my experiences into something relevant and meaningful in the present.  My past selves into one life, one identity.

Last week back in Muscat we fought the terrible traffic to little India and picked up a 100 year old book press My husband’s family unearthed in Salt Lake City a few years ago. Literally unearthed. It was hidden under the porch of the century old family home and covered in rust. I’ve packed this beast from DC to Morocco to Oman hoping that I could someday use it in my bookbinding studio. This year we found a metalworker who could grind off the dirt and rust, paint the turning wheel, lubricate the spindle and re-attach the press plate. Suresh, from Bangladesh, finally fixed our early 20th century cast iron book press once used by Max’s English Great Grandfather. With my new excitement over the press, I just started teaching a bookbinding class, a skill I first learned in college before studying with a bookbinder in Jerusalem.

A palimpsest is a manuscript that, as textual needs and circumstances change, has been prepared and written over again and again. Much of the previous text is altered or erased, but there is a still a trace of the preceding texts in the final product. Over the centuries a medieval manuscript could have acquired four, five, six different surface writings – all previous writings mostly hidden from view but still part of the integral makeup. In fact, the building up of the text surface can make the book stronger. Unusual, perhaps, but more able to receive the next text and maintain its usefulness and beauty.

I should be so lucky.