Last week I interviewed Nasr Sherif, a 12 year old living in the Haram [Pyramid] neighborhood of Giza. He is the cousin of the son of my former landlord, attends a public school and only speaks a few words of English. Most of the questions come from a 6th grade class in Portland that I have been blogging with, and I am still working on the transcript of the interview. But here is a video I made of him and his really sweet siblings/cousins. Special thanks to Ahmed Nasr, my former landlord, for introducing and translating. All mistakes and pronunciation errors are my own.
Eid mubarak, kol 3am w entum b7er! (Happy holidays!) Every year, on the 10th day of Dhu al-Hijjah (the last month of the lunar Islamic calendar), Muslims around the world celebrate Eid al-Adha. Eid al-Adha is a feast commemorating the willingness of Ibrahim/Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael as the ultimate submission to God’s command, before God intervened and provided Ibrahim with a ram to sacrifice in Ishmael’s place. Muslims today often celebrate the Eid by visiting family, slaughtering a goat/sheep/camel (which is then traditionally shared with the poor), and feasting extensively.
For me, the 4-day Eid break provided a perfect opportunity to travel. Originally, a few friends and I had planned a trip to Beirut, Lebanon. But due to the violent protests that erupted there last week in response to the [Syrian-planted?] car bomb that killed 8 people (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-20006389), we had to postpone our trip to Beirut. And that is how I came to be in Amman, Jordan last weekend.
There are some people who do not think that Amman is the coolest city around. Those people are wrong. Amman is a delightful balance of historical flavor and modern convenience – the clean and traffic-free streets are a world away from the chaos and smog of Cairo. (Admittedly, however, the chaos and smog are part of Cairo’s charm.) Amman is spread out across 19 jabals (hills) that display the city’s architecture and many historical landmarks beautifully. But the city’s aesthetic appeal is nothing without mentioning the warmth and hospitality (and diversity!) of the people we encountered throughout our time in Amman. After only two nights in the city, my friend Mary and I had met multiple people who will inshallah (God willing) be lifelong friends. One of the most interesting things about the people we met – beside their being just generally wonderful human beings – was their diversity. 4 out of every 5 people we met were not native Jordanians, but rather Palestinian, Iraqi, and Syrian “refugees” (though they would not identify themselves this way – most introduced themselves to us as “Palestinians/Iraqis/Syrians living in Jordan”).
After two nights in Amman, we headed south to see the infamous city of Petra, considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Petra is an ancient city in the middle of the desert, believed to be founded circa 312 BC as the capital city of the Nabataean empire. Petra’s buildings were literally carved out of the massive red rocks that cover the landscape. Walking out of the Siq (the natural rock corridor leading into Petra) to be confronted by Al-Khazneh (pictured below) – an image I had seen so many times before in travel magazines and history books – was a surreal experience.
From Petra, we made the short trip to Wadi Dana (Dana Valley) Nature Preserve– a remote slice of heaven in the southwest corner of Jordan. As an Oregonian, I crave desolate landscapes and wilderness, and Wadi Dana provided just the communion with nature that I needed to recover from the bustle of Cairo. We spent the evening drinking copious amounts of tea and watching the sunset while a friendly Australian couple regaled us with stories of expat life in Saudi Arabia. We slept on the roof under the stars, and woke up to a breathtaking view of rocky canyons and untouched wildlife. In the morning, we ventured on a hike into the valley, where we encountered an unclaimed herd of goats and a group of Bedouins on donkeys who invited us for tea.
These four days in Jordan were truly some of the best days of my life – a tall order since I think I have a pretty good life in general. The genuine hospitality we encountered from the moment we stepped out of the plane has stuck with me, and I hope I will have the opportunity to “pay it forward” in Cairo.
Merhaba from Türkiye!
As of sometime last week, I am officially on the road to Egypt. I have been planning this trip for months, but somehow my final week in the country still caught me off-guard. Really moving abroad for two years is a lot different than talking about moving abroad for two years. Given that I generally have the travel bug so badly that I can hardly sit still, I was surprised by my own reluctance to leave home. It’s not that I ever doubted whether I was making the right decision, or whether I would actually get on the plane; it’s just that I finally acknowledged the magnitude of this next step. Two years is a long time to be away from one’s family, one’s friends, one’s home state, etc.– especially when the life that is waiting for you on the other side of the world is so unknown. All of this to say that I am a lucky girl to have had such an amazing life in Oregon surrounded by such exceptional human beings, which was –admittedly– hard to leave.
Now, almost two weeks into my travels, I remember all of the reasons why I love traveling and why moving to Cairo is perhaps the craziness (and best) decision I have ever made. I think it really set in for me when I first heard the call to prayer after arriving in Turkey. Something about hearing this sound–which I had grown very accustomed to the rhythm of while living in Morocco–made me feel at home. And I realized that I am going to hear that same sound, five times a day, everyday for the next two years. There’s something really powerful about such consistency. So here I am, learning how to find the rhythm of home in these [very much foreign] daily patterns.
After a lovely weekend laying on the beach in The Bahamas, I arrived in Istanbul last week ready for my next adventure. I don’t speak any Turkish and most Turks don’t seem to speak much English and/or Arabic, so it has been a week of emphatic hand gestures and elaborate sign language story-telling. The first four days I spent CouchSurfing (www.couchsurfing.org) with an eclectic group of ex-pats and travelers from around the world. We spent a lot of time exploring the city and drinking çay (tea) and watching the boats sail by on the Sea of Marmara. Istanbul is a lively, interesting city. With a population of over 13 million and a rich history dating back thousands of years, I felt like I could have explored in Istanbul for years and still never completely gotten my head around it. As someone who studies the Middle East, I found the confluence of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and European cultures especially interesting. There were young Turkish women in mini-skirts walking side-by-side with hijabi women; and, while we heard the call to prayer five times a day, we also had no trouble getting a beer in the midday heat of Ramadan.
After four days in Istanbul, I left my new friends for the Turkish countryside, where I had arranged to work on an organic farm for a week through an organization called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (www.wwoof.org). So far, my time here has been wonderful. It’s much cooler here than in the city, and everything seems to move at a much slower pace. Not slower in a “this is so frustrating, why can’t we get anything accomplished?!” way, but rather in a very natural “things will take as long as they take, no need to rush” sort of way. Generally, I am always rushing around doing a million things at once, so it has been nice to be forced to take things slowly. It has given me time to catch up with things and go for long runs through the village and do yoga and journal (and blog!), which are things I can never find time for in my normal routine.
Only one more week til I will be moving into my apartment in Cairo!
The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is now half-over, and I have loved being immersed in the strong community that binds everyone together during this time. During Ramadan, Muslims abstain from eating and drinking anything (including water!) from sunrise to sunset, in order to cleanse their souls and remind themselves of how fortunate they are to have food to eat, when there are others in the world who are not so fortunate. It is also a time of being with family and giving to charity.
Amman slows down quite a bit during the day, when those who are fasting (mostly everyone) would rather stay inside and relax than go out into the Jordanian heat. Many shops and nearly all restaurants are closed during the day, when their owners are fasting and their customers are probably opting to stay in as well. The city comes alive around 7:45, when the call to prayer sounds from the mosques, meaning that it is time to break the fast. The meal held at this time, called “Iftar” usually begins with a large glug of water and dates. Restaurants are overflowing with people and the waiters move swiftly from table to table passing out dishes to the starving and impatient customers.
Last night I ate Iftar with a friend at Mat3am Hashem, a popular and inexpensive restaurant in the heart of downtown Amman. Some of the best meals I’ve had here in Amman have been the most simple–with freshly cut cucumbers and tomatoes, olives, hummus and foul, and pita bread, it’s hard to go wrong.
For many, Iftar is also a time to pull out all the stops when it comes to food. Sometimes people spend all day in the kitchen preparing Iftar. This was certainly the case with another Iftar I attended last weekend, at the home of the aunt of a student on my program. His mother was in town, and she just happens to be May Bsisu, author of The Arab Tale, a recipe narrative. They may also have the most beautiful house I’ve ever been blessed to eat dinner at. The spread was absolutely incredible; I did not have nearly enough room on my plate even to sample the entire offering.
On a completely different note, I also went last weekend to the farm and vineyard of our program director. She is an American woman who married a Jordanian man, and they now own their own land near the city of As-Salt, where they grow their own grapes and bottle wine on a small scale. We were invited to visit the farm, pick grapes, and have a barbecue. I had never really been to a vineyard before (how is that possible? living in Portland? I have no clue), so this was an exciting experience for me.
We had a great time picking the grapes, bottling the wine and then partaking in the wine and delicious food for Iftar. The view from their farm was incredible, and I will never forget watching the sunset over the Jordanian hills, with Palestine not too far in the distance.
After a few days of wandering around in the Old City of Jerusalem I made my way to Bethlehem, a Palestinian city about five miles south of Jerusalem believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus. Bethlehem is also one of the Palestinian towns in the West Bank surrounded by the separation barrier being built by the Israeli government. The town itself is incredible and my friend and I happened to visit on an especially exciting day. After a taxi showed us to the various Banksy graffiti around town, we went to the Church of the Nativity (a less popular destination than the graffiti, our taxi driver claimed). Whatever I was expecting to see when we pulled up, it was not little Austrian children in traditional costumes parading around the square across from the church. It turns out we stumbled upon the inaugural Children’s Festival in Bethlehem. Below is a little video I’ve put together of the parade, music and, perhaps most surprisingly, the Palestinian Circus School.