Friday, November 11, 2011

The Greatest Show on the Nile!

Dear Ellie,

Eid Mubarak!

This week was "Eid al-Adha," one of the biggest holidays in Egypt. The holiday itself lasts four whole days! Like our Christmas Vacations, students get a long break from school and Mommys and Daddys can stay home from work. Because of this, most markets and shops and neighborhood restaurants are closed during the day so that people can spend time at home with their families. On the first day they have a feast with lots and lots of meat, something many people don't get to eat here very often. And like Christmas, people save up their money the entire year in order to celebrate with rich foods, luxurious sweets, and new clothes.

People also use this time to take their families and friends out for a night on the town. The streets may be quiet and deserted during the day, but at night they come alive, bursting with excited patrons. Hundreds of teens gather outside the cinema, waiting for the ticket booths to open so they can be the first to see the newest release. Families flock to the malls, eating at fancy American chain restaurants and trying to take advantage of the best sales. Parents take their kids out for ice cream and juice. And over 15,000 people go to the zoo in the first two days of Eid alone!

For the first night of Eid, Moe and I celebrated with our closest friends. We all wore our Eid best and ate at a fancy restaurant, which we followed with milkshakes and fruit cocktails at our favorite neighborhood juice stand. On the second night, though, we--along with hundreds of Egyptian parents and kids--went to what is sure to be the greatest show on the Nile: The Cairo Circus!

After squeezing our way through the masses of excitement, we found ourselves inside the circus grounds. Outside the big, blue and red striped tent, colored lights connected the trees while old men sat and drank tea underneath. We shared a scoop of chocolate ice cream (on a Nanna cone!) and a box of popcorn before heading to our seats inside.

Candy vendors, balloon sellers, and tea boys circled around the tent as we waited for the overhead lights to dim and the show to begin. Parents bought their kids flashing light-up sticks and sweets while teenagers posed in front of digital cameras, demanding to see the picture on the tiny screen immediately after the bright, white flash flashed. Two men walked towards our plastic seats--one holding an old fashioned looking camera and the other a baby lion! I turned down the chance to get my picture taken with the sedated cub, but I'm sure it won't be my only chance.

All this bumbling and flashing and sugar would have satisfied our cravings, but then the show actually began! We sat for an hour and a half with Omar, a five year old there with his family, our eyes glued to the circus ring.The band jammed and the spotlights swirled. Men juggled. Little girls climbed ladders balancing on the bottom of a man's feet. Ladies swung on rings high in the air. Teenage boys clad in black satin and rhinestones jump roped to 90s techno. A girl in a white wig winked as her doves hovered above her head and her cocker spaniels leapt over one another. A magician and his assistant wooed the crowd. And the ringleader fed a thin but nonetheless royal looking lion raw meat from his mouth as two other lions and three tigers--each looking equally as hungry--calmly looked on. It was amazing.

I hope your Eid was just as exciting!


Aunt Em

Saturday, November 5, 2011

memories of fishing

Dear Robert,

I have these memories of being a little girl and fishing with my dad and sister. We'd pack up the boat with a cooler full of turkey-Miracle Whip sandwiches and pop, Dad's tackle box, a little styrofoam cup-o-bait, lifejackets for all, and my red Snoopy fishing pole. I was always eager to spend a quiet day on the lake, basking in the warm sun, waiting for my red and white bobber to plop unexpectidly under the surface.

Being too young to really help, I'd wait off to the side while Sarah assisted Dad in getting the boat in and out of the water. She'd hold the boat close to the dock as he'd tie or untie the ropes to wooden poles, and direct him as he backed the green Aerostar and the boat trailer onto the launchpad in the twilight of the night. I'd squat off to the side--out of the way--with my arms wrapped around my bare legs, damp in my swimsuit, a bit tired and a little cold, but always pleased with our day and our catch and the stories we'd tell Mom when we got home.

Or, we'd climb into the minivan without the boat (but with similar snacks and supplies) and head to a pier, preferably the one in Frankfurt with the big, white lighthouse. We'd walk for what seemed forever on the cement runway, past dozens of men and their sons sitting on buckets, casting their feathered and brightly patterned lures into the choppy waters at least twenty feet below. Eventually we'd find our "spot" and settle down for a bit...or at least until Sarah accidentally kicked the bait into the water.

Here in Cairo, men sit along the banks of the Nile every night, dangling their hooks into the water from up above. Some men have multiple rods precariously propped against a railing, with tiny green lights marking the ends of their long poles. When a fish decides to take a nibble, the lights bounce and up and down in the darkness, dancing like lightening bugs in summer. I'm not sure they catch much with all the florescent pop-music-blasting falukas (river boats) powering on by. I'm also not sure they'd want to eat anything they catch (the Nile certainly isn't known for its freshnes). But I'm sure they go back to their wives eager to tell tales as long as their fishing lines.


Miss Emily

Saturday, October 22, 2011

my new school

Dear Lucas,

How do you like Florida? How is your new neighborhood, and your new school? You are in kindergarden now! Do you like your teacher and your new friends? How is it different than your preschool and your old teacher, Miss Michelle? I know how much you liked her and how much she taught you.

Well, guess what! Here in Cairo, I'm a preschool teacher, just like Miss Michelle! And everyday, parents drop off their children to my classroom, where we sing and dance and color and draw and read stories and play with puzzles. We talk about colors and shapes, and fruits and vegetables, and animals and people. We practice our counting and sing our ABC's. We even sing some of the same songs you learned at school, like "Old McDonald," "Bingo," and "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." At the end of the day, I gather the drawings and projects each student has made and write their names clearly on top so that they can take them home to their moms and dads, just like Miss Michelle would do for you when she put your crafts into your purple canvas bag.

But there are many differences between Miss Michelle and me. She is much more experienced and has proper training, and has been a part of her school's community for quite some time. I don't have a lot of experience teaching little ones, nor do I have proper training. And I'm so new! I've only been teaching here for about a month, and at least once a week I will have a new-to-me-but-not-to-anyone-else student I've never seen before!

The biggest difference, though, is that she spoke the same language as you. Only one of my students speaks English at home. His name is Andy, and his parents are Americans working in Cairo. For the rest of them, however, English is brand new. Imagine, going to a school where your teacher understands only a little bit of what you say and you an even smaller bit of what she says! It's hard for both of us.

Other than Andy, I'm the only one at the nursery who spoke English growing up. All of the nursery workers know a few words here and there, but their native language is Arabic. Most of my students speak Arabic at home, too, making it easy for them to connect and communicate with the sitters and principle and other students.

I do have one student, however, whose family is from Sri Lanka. Natasha speaks Arabic with the other children and with the ladies at the nursery, but at home she speaks Sinhala, and with me she speaks English! It's incredible to see her switch between the three. She goes from Sinhala with her mom, to English with me, to Arabic with the other children, to English with the other children, to Arabic with the ladies at the's amazing! But it also must be confusing for her. I can often understand what she is trying to say (whether in Arabic or English), but her sentences are stunted. She connects her nouns with basic verbs, and often forgets to say "am." "I angry!" she'll say (which is exactly how you say "I am angry" in Arabic).

Putting sentences together is difficult for many children, and it certainly can be for me in Arabic! But some of my students are so young--some as young as Olivia!--that they don't yet know the names for basic things around them, especially less common fruits and vegetables. They have to learn everything twice: once in Arabic, and once in English. One of my students, Omar, cannot remember the word "grapes" unless he says the Arabic word first. And though he certainly knows the word "banana," he'll automatically say the word in Arabic, because it's what he's used to.

But the idea is that by simply being around me, they can absorb some English and, most importantly, pick up my American accent. Here in Egypt, strong English speaking skills are essential for success in the future. Though I find it so sad that Arabic doesn't hold a similar weight--and one reason why it is so difficult to speak Arabic as a foreigner here--I know that it is beneficial to them in the future, that no matter what they do, speaking English well will give them more opportunities and open more doors for them and their families.

Do a lot of your new friends speak Spanish? You should try to learn a little bit from them! Though it's difficult, learning a new language is so important. It can give you more opportunities for work, like English does here in Cairo, but it can also introduce you to a different culture and to another life, to different peoples and new ways of thinking. Studying Arabic is what sent me to Jordan and to Morocco. It's what introduced me to delicious foods and rich traditions and beautiful literature I never knew of before. It's what brought me to Cairo, and to Mom's Nursery. And though it's been almost unbearably hard at times, I'm so glad that I'm here.


Miss Emily

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Egyptian Spaghetti

Dear Olivia,

I know how much you and your brothers love to eat spaghetti. And what a mess you and Lucas make when you eat it! While Robert continues to exercise his skills with a fork, the two of you have decided the best way to eat spaghetti is to dig in directly with your bare, should-have-recently-been-washed, hands. For you, I'd often cut the long noodles into smaller pieces, allowing you to grab fistfuls of the slippery, saucy strands and stuff them into your mouth--or, at least, get them close to your mouth, but mostly on your nose and cheeks. Lucas, sitting across from you, eats his spaghetti noodle by noodle. After finding the end of a single spaghetti strand, he plucks it up between his finger and thumb, tilts his head back as far as he possibly can and dangles the line until it hovers directly over his wide, open mouth. Like a fish eyeing bait, he waits for the precise moment of stillness before closing his jaws, simultaneously returning his head to it's normal, forward looking position, and slurps the worm until it is completely in his mouth (and all of the tangy, red sauce is splattered across his shirt, his chin, the table, the walls, and sometimes even you!). I'll admit it: when I was little I also preferred to eat my spaghetti this way, begging my parents to take me to that one restaurant with "sucky spaghetti" (which may or may not have been Bob Evan's).

There is something about spaghetti that appeals to everyone. For one thing, not much is cheaper than a pound of angel hair pasta and a jar of your standard tomato sauce. It's also so simple to make, and essentially takes no time at all to prepare. It's also quite yummy and filling.

In Cairo, I can buy noodles and sauce at any market. But unless I go to a more westernized, fancy-ish restaurant, I will never find our beloved spaghetti and sauce on a menu. Instead, I'll find koshry.

What is koshry, you wonder? It's like spaghetti and sauce, but it's so much more! Instead of just one type of noodles, koshry is a mix of many different shapes of pasta--spaghetti, macaroni, vermicelli, and rigatoni, just to name a few--in addition to brown lentils and white rice. The pastas, pulses, and grains are each cooked separately in huge, drum-like metal steamers, then scooped into one bowl and mixed together. It is served with a mild, universally appealing tomato sauce (sometimes on the side and sometimes poured on top), and topped with tiny fried onions to give it a perfect crunch. If you like (and I like!), you can season your own personal bowl with the chili oil and garlic vinegar found on your table.

Koshry is certainly different than spaghetti. For one thing, it combines different shapes and textures that we often have in America, but always eat separately. And unlike spaghetti and sauce, it is rarely made at home! You of course, could make it, but it would take a lot of time, patience, and skill (and many, many pots and pans). I have seen women, however, stop by a restaurant and buy the noodles and lentils and rice to be served with their homemade, secret-recipe tomato sauce.

But the biggest difference of all is that there are restaurants that serve only koshry. There is even one famous place downtown, Abu Tarak's, that is five stories tall! Imagine going to a huge building in downtown Austin, illuminated with neon blue and red lights, packed with families from all around town, and ordering only spaghetti! Some koshry joints are fancier than others: some have more varieties of pasta to serve; some have sodas; others have your standard Egyptian desserts, like Umm Ali and rice pudding. But, recently, Maurice and I went to a place that served only koshry. It was the only item on the menu. That's it. Nothing more to choose, except the size of your bowl: regular, medium, and large. We both ordered regular--though with extra sauce--and were stuffed a mere 8 Egyptian Pounds later (about $1.30). So yummy, so cheap, and so filling. I bet you'd love it.


Miss Emily

Spaghetti and Sauce

It's hard to believe that something so delicious as spaghetti and sauce is so easy to make!

Here's what you need:
-a large pot
-a box of spaghetti
-jar of spaghetti sauce
-a bowl or sauce pan
-large bowl or serving platter
-serving spoon or fork
-parmesan cheese

Here's how:

First, boil some water in a large pot (or, ask an older friend to do it for you if you aren't allowed to turn on the stove by yourself) and sprinkle in a little salt. After the water is boiling and bubbling, add the brittle, raw noodles, letting them cook for about 10 minutes.

While the pasta is cooking, heat up your sauce. I prefer to use the stove top and a sauce pan, but the microwave works just as well--just be sure to cover your bowl with a paper towel so the sauce doesn't splatter all over and make a huge mess!

Now here comes the tricky part (it's not so much tricky because it is difficult, but because you have to be a little strong to do it): place a colander in the sink, and pour the pot of boiling water and pasta into the colander, allowing the hot water to drain from the noodles. Then, rinse with cold water, shaking out any excess liquid.

Next, place the noodles into a large bowl or serving platter.

The final step is up to you and your family: you can either mix the warm sauce in with the bare noodles, or, serve them separately (and with parmesan cheese!), allowing each person to use as much or as little sauce as they like. I like lots and lots of sauce. But my mom barely likes any at all! She lightly waves a spoon of the universally palatable red sauce over the spaghetti, barely moistening her plate of yellow pasta.


Other than being easy and cheap, I like to think of spaghetti and sauce as medium to express and experiment with our creativity. Like a page from a coloring book, we are able to leave it as it is and have an outlined image to appreciate. Or we can color it, make it our own. With the outlines as a guide, we can do as we like. We can color as much or as little of the picture as we want. We can also decide how we will color it, with markers or crayons or pastels. We can decide to make the sky blue and the grass green, or we can make the sky red and the grass purple! We can stay within the lines or venture away from them. We can even add our own drawings to the picture. Our final art piece to hang on the refrigerator can be as simple or as complicated as we'd like.

And spaghetti is the same way. We can change the shape of the pasta. Instead of long, thin noodles, we can use bowties or shells. We can try whole-grain or the colored varieties, too. We can add veggies to the sauce, season it with spices, add cheese. Though it takes more time, is a little more difficult, and requires more experience in the kitchen, I like to make my own sauce. I cut up whatever vegetables I can find (eggplant and roasted red pepper are my favorites) and allow them to simmer and stew with chunky tomatoes, garlic, onions, and fresh herbs. The result is different every time: sometimes it's sweet and sometimes it's spicy, but it's always rewarding to taste the concoction that has been producing mouth-watering smells in your kitchen.

للصحة (Lil-Saha!) To Health!

image from BiteDelite!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Moe and a Train

Dear Ellie,

What is it you like about Thomas the Tank Engine? Is it because of his big, friendly smile? His bright blue body with red trim? The way he his wheels glide along the smooth, steel tracks, safely sending him along his way in the great, open air? Or is it his eager attitude? His willingness to help, to have an important job and role in the lives of others? Is that why you always want to show him to Maurice?

Well guess what? Maurice and I get to ride a train everyday! Unlike Thomas, it does not have a big, friendly smile. Nor is it painted blue with red trim. And it rarely runs in the open air! Our train, painted gray with pink and purple stripes, is located a few levels underground. Instead of gliding throughout the countryside, it reliably chugs below the cluster and chaos of the city, booming through tunnels and crowded platforms. It works hard to send passengers from their homes to their places of work, from their schools to their churches and mosques, from the busyness of Tahrir Square to the tranquility of quiet gardens and parks, from the east bank of the Nile to the west, or even from the airport all the way to the Great Pyramids at Giza!

The Cairo Metro is an essential piece of the public transportation puzzle for a city of 20 million people. It's true that a lot of people ride the public busses, especially students for their daily commute to University. Most of these busses, however, are old, hot, dusty, and slow. And with the endless traffic, it's a wonder they are not always hours behind schedule. It's also true that many people drive cars. But the cars are much smaller and older here than they are in Michigan, and unlike those in the US, it's as if they are able to change size! Always squeezing in and out of tight spots, making a fifth or sixth traffic lane on a road built for three, and piling more people inside than what seems to be possible, they seem to shrink and swell as needed, like the shoreline ebbs and flows. There are just as many motor bikes as there are personal cars. A few nights ago, walking along a bridge that crosses the Nile, Maurice and I saw a family of four comfortably riding one bike, constantly weaving in and out of the congestion composed of pedestrians and machines. Even more people take taxis, but unless you are lucky enough to hop into a newer cab with a meter, you have to haggle with the driver, predetermining the worth of your ride before you even sit inside.

Luckily, Maurice and I live just a short walk away from the Metro! And for less than twenty cents, we can travel from the new, modern sections of Cairo to the old, traditional neighborhoods; we can explore the city like tourists; we can ride to the library or universities like students; we can commute to work, visit friends, or go out for the best fiteer (Egyptian pizza) on the other side of the Nile. It's amazing. I wish Moe could show you this train.


Aunt Em

Friday, July 15, 2011

fresh fruit

Dear Lucas,

I haven’t eaten strawberries with you in so long! I haven’t folded the green leaves between my fingers before taking a bite of the deep red fruit. I haven’t had the juice of a particularly ripe one run down my chin, or the tiny yellow seeds get stuck in my teeth. I haven’t picked out the biggest five from the plastic container to put on your plate, and I haven’t dunked them whole into a bowl of cool whip.

I can’t even remember the last time I saw a strawberry! Or any kind of berry for that matter! Morocco doesn’t seem to have much by the way of berries. There are no strawberries, no blueberries, not raspberries, and la samah allah, (God Forbid!) no blackberries! On Fourth of July I couldn’t make a berry-flag cake if I wanted to, and I can’t make us a single banana-berry smoothie!

It’s not that bad, though. The abundance of other fruits make up for the lack of berries. And, more so than their abundance, their quality really makes up for it. The other fruits here are so wonderful, so fresh, and oh so flavorful. You can’t eat an orange without needing to wash not just your hands, but all the way up to your elbows afterwards. There are figs that are bright green on the outside and pink on the inside. The peaches aren’t as good as they are in Texas (and no one has ever even heard of peach cobbler!), and I’m sure not as good as they are in Florida, but the nectarines are unlike any other nectarine I’ve ever eaten. They are so ripe the skin peels right off, and I always have a puddle of sweet juice left on the table that, unfortunately, never made it to my lips.

But the best fruit here, by far, is the melon. No question. Not only have I never seen so many mountains of melon before, but I’ve also never tasted so many different kinds! Of course there is watermelon and cantaloupe, but here is also “yellow melon” and the most delicious, juicy, wonderful honeydew I’ve ever tasted. I didn’t even know honeydew could taste so good! And regardless of what they look like on the outside—like a cantaloupe with brown little ridges or like a smooth, yellow colored football—I’m always excited to see what they’ll look like on the inside. Sometimes I think it will be honeydew, but then it turns out to be the milder, firmer yellow melon. Other times I expect it to taste like cantaloupe, but it ends up being honeydew! And I’m not the only one who is confused. Everyday at lunch when we are served melon for dessert, I ask my speaking partners what it is called. Without a doubt, there is over a debate: is it honeydew or yellow melon? Cantaloupe or simply just “melon?” No one can ever agree!

But everyone knows what watermelon is. There is never a question with watermelon. Its size gives it an automatic royal status. It is usually cut into manageable, handheld pieces, but is served by itself on a grand platter. My host family will always serve it with pride, and share its glory with our neighbors.

After we’re full from our watermelon dessert, we say alhamdallah (thank God!), and lean back into our cushions, hands on bellies, eyes on the rivers of pink juice spotted with black seeds flowing on the table in front of us.


Miss Emily