Monday, January 28, 2008

Hayam's Om A3li

Om A3li (translating to mother of Ali) is an Egyptian dessert that is made of bread, whole fat milk, lots of ghee, sugar, and anything you like such as raisins, coconut, nuts, etc. that is baked in an Egyptian clay pot in the oven until it turns golden brown and bubbles over. The best way to describe it is to liken it to bread pudding. It is the epitomy of Egyptian comfort food.

The best Om A3li I've had in Egypt comes from Hayam's kitchen. Hayam is Shaban's wife and she makes the best Om A3li. I watched Hayam make Om A3li from scratch only once, and it stuck with me ever since. From frying the phyllo dough to adding the milk and nuts and raisins. It is delicious.

My mother always made desserts from scratch and never used anything out of a box. So if I'm going to learn how to make something I want to know how real the real cooks do it, not the box cooks. My experience with cooking in Egypt does not use much in terms of measuring cups or spoons, rather the eyeball method.

If I want to cook something badly enough, I will do it no matter what no matter how it turns out. I think it turned out well considering a foreigner made Om A3li from scratch from memory. It must have turned out well because Mira ate it for breakfast and it was gone.

CAUTION: It is extremely fattening.



Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Winter Weather is Relative

You might wonder if it ever gets cold in Cairo? It was August 2005 and I was on a "field trip" with teachers to go shopping for school supplies. It was hot as Hell outside so of course I could never imagine winter in Cairo. I thought "Wow, winters here must be beautiful, warm, sunny, no rain." I asked one of the teachers who is Egyptian/Armenian/American if it ever gets cold. She answered "No, it gets freezing. Especially out here in the desert where the hallways in the school are exposed to the weather elements." I didn't believe her, although I should have just taken her at her word.

My first winter felt really warm. To Egyptians it wasn't warm at all, but to me a new transplant from the good ol' US it was warm, well relatively warm. Egyptians looked at me as though I was crazy perhaps "the crazy American."

My second winter was a little bit colder. I was dressing warmer, of course I was wearing hijab so I thought I would be warmer automatically because my head was covered. Not!!

And now to my third winter - it's cold, cold, cold, here. I can never get warm. I wear my union johns - well Hassan's union johns that just happen to be red, as my first layer of clothing followed by 2 additional layers of clothing, two pairs of socks and slippers.

As for outerwear, I wear a pink polarfleece jacket my one sister gave me last year. I just love it and it is my signature piece for the winter.

OK so you wonder how can it get so cold?

For starters the building walls are about 6 inches thick made purely of concrete. There is absolutely no insulation. The floors are ceramic with area rugs scattered throughout the flat. Our flat faces north and south. We live on the 4th floor - the top floor in our building and the large windows in our flat face north -- needless to say they are not insulated either. Our smaller windows face south, so I heat myself by sitting on my south-facing balcony for about 30 minutes everyday - trying to absorb as much heat as possible before I go back into what reminds me of my grandmother's fruit cellar.

The AC/Heaters that we have do not work efficiently when it gets this cold. This cold? How cold you might be thinking -- ok - it was 7 C the other night. A friend of mine told me that last week it was -5 C in Rehab in the middle of the night. No wonder I can't get warm.

Then I start thinking -- how can I stay warm? Hmm, maybe I ought to break open the liquor cabinet and heat myself from the inside. No, it doesn't work well because I would be warm but drunk and still have to deal with Mira.

I decided to move the two space heaters we have from room to room. We had three space heaters but one caught fire it was about 20 years old I think - or at least it looked like it. Now that I think about it I could have improvised and made it a fireplace!



Saturday, January 19, 2008

I Love My Computer

I can't imagine not being able to communicate with friends and family without the internet and my mobile phone through SMS. I have met some really wonderful friends on the internet (you know who you are).

I am so grateful for having DSL here in Cairo. It keeps me in touch with so many people, and yet it amazes me how "invisible" people can be when it comes to chatting online. I leave my messenger open sometimes 24 hours at a time, and while I know this is not ideal -- many times it happens by mistake because I fall asleep. I am so surprised though how I can send 'offline messages' and get no response in return.

As for downloads, the music is awesome. I don't know how I lived here without listening to the music I miss so much. Anyone who knows me knows the important part music plays in my life - it always has. I have my Dad to thank for that because we always used to sing together. He introduced me to so many different types of music; although I must admit his easy listening phase was quite a challenge for me when I would ride with him in the car -- it would always give me a headache. Imagine that.

I have been downloading an obscene amount of music lately. Mira and I drive through the streets of Cairo listening to Heart's "Crazy on You" which she absolutely loves to play air guitar to, the Dixie Chicks "I'm Not Ready to Make Nice", and of course the immortal Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobbie McGee." Sometimes we talk about the music we're listening to: how Heart's song is just a great song to sing along to and play rock and roll star, the real meaning of "I'm Not Ready to Make Nice" and how I remember "Me and Bobbie McGee" as the first song Valerie learned on her guitar so many years ago when she started taking guitar lessons.

And then there's the Egyptian Arabic music. I like to listen to Tamer Hosny and Moustafa Amr among others. Even though I can't pronounce the words I fake it as best I can - to the point of making the kids in the car laugh at my lack of Arabic. Oh well, at least we're having fun.

There are so many memories with music. It picks me up when I'm down, and gets me through the low times too. When I'm down I think of the movie "Adventures in Babysitting" where someone says "No one leaves here without singing the blues." I understand that -- at that point I put on Bonnie Raitt.



Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Personal Accomplishments

Living in Egypt does not allow me to be shy or inhibited. For so long I relied on Hassan to do the shopping, get things fixed around the house and take care of just about everything. Since being on my own now for one year I had to become more outgoing and less shy as I deal with Egyptians on a daily basis. And the fact that I'm not working full-time makes me want to re-coil and live in my own little bubble, but it isn't always possible.

Lately I've been seroiusly contemplating moving back to the US and just re-starting life over there, but the thought of it is too daunting of a task after having moved here almost three years ago.

This leads me to my latest small victories. Here in Egypt it is a necessity that your car be cleaned everyday because of the sand and dust. It's not your ordinary dust or sand, it is a fine small sand that many times cannot just be wiped off. In Rehab they have a staff of men who wake up at 6 am and start cleaning cars in the parking lot, if you sign up at the Rehab offices. When we first moved here Hassan took care of it, and then let it expire so we went without getting the car cleaned for a long time - two years now. Since Hassan left one year ago I have been watching the same men clean the same cars every morning and I'd say to myself "I'm going to sign up to get my car cleaned today." Right. Well, yesterday I finally did it.

My cleaning lady was here and her pass to get into Rehab expired so she asked me to get her a new pass. OK, I thought this will be easy. So I went to the office and I knew the procedure because I went 6 months ago with a friend to get a pass for her cleaning lady. So while I was in the offices I mentioned the car cleaning in my best Arabic/English. The people in Rehab just loved it because if you meet them halfway they will meet you halfway. They are shy to speak English but believe me their English is much much better than my Arabic. I went and took care of the car and of the entrance pass. I was so proud of myself; not for signing up but for having the courage to go into offices full of men speaking broken Arabic.

Questions they asked about the car cleaning (in Arabic of course): What kind of car? What is your tag number? What is your address? What time do you want your car cleaned by everyday? I answered them in my best Arabic - numbers aren't a problem but connecting the words to form a complete sentence are still impossible. Questions asked about the pass were: Do you own? Who is the owner? (OK this was tough because they just like everything in the man's name here) What is your address? Easy peasy.

It wasn't difficult communicating, however, it was difficult actually going there and having my inner voice discourage me from taking care of business. When I finished doing what I had to do, I felt as though I had climbed a mountain and was standing at the top looking over the valley.

I can't imagine how I let Hassan handle things here for me for so long. I think this living arrangement was meant to be in order to get me to stand on my own two feet in a world where language is not the only barrier, but also where most business is taken care of by men. I mean come on, Egypt needs to change -- it's not a man's world anymore.