Apples for Eating, Apples for Cooking

When leaves turn yellow, red and orange, and the temperature dips, I look forward to buying apples from one of the area orchards. I love eating apples, but only if they are crisp, sweet and juicy; my favorites are organic Fujis.

Whenever I bite into an apple, I remember my Egyptian mother-in-law, whose ideas about eating apples are different from mine.

She came to stay with us in Riyadh for awhile. I was happy, because she did not speak English, and I’d finally get my chance to learn Arabic.

The first few days, neither one of us said much. She took control of the kitchen, and there we found some common ground to focus on, linguistically, other than  my husband. I would begin by asking her, “Eh da?” and she’d tell me the Egyptian words for the various foods and utensils in the kitchen. I’d repeat the words, and eventually, she taught me enough so that we could converse about anything having to do with the kitchen, but not much else.

One day, my husband brought home a huge box of apples. We couldn’t possibly eat them all, so my mother-in-law and I decided that we’d separate the apples into to piles– one for cooking, and the other for eating. Each of us would pick up an apple, squeeze it gently, and put it either in the cooking pile or the eating pile.

After we’d made some progress, I noticed that each of the apple piles included both hard-fleshed apples and soft ones. I assumed I’d misunderstood, so I said to her, in Arabic, “Eating apples here, and cooking apples there?” and I indicated with my hand the directions we had agreed upon.

“Aiwah” she said, and we continued sorting. Still, the hard-fleshed apples ended up with the soft-fleshed apples, and I repeated, “Apples for eating HERE, and apples for cooking THERE?” Again, she said, “Aiwah.”

This time, however, she picked up an apple, squeezed it and said, “Shoofi, nashfa,” and tossed it into the cooking pile. Then I realized that she thought the “dry” apples, that is, the hard-fleshed apples, were for cooking, and the soft ones were for eating!

I was designating the hard-fleshed apples for eating, and the soft ones for cooking.

I realized this was probably another one of the ways in which Easterners did everything opposite of Westerners. We laughed a bit, and l pulled out some choice specimens I hoarded for my own eating pleasure, and by that time, we reached the end of the box.

I don’t remember what we made with the pile of “cooking” apples, but I avoided the “eating” apples. She fed them to the kids. I managed to show the kids that hard-fleshed apples tasted very good, indeed (preferable, actually). I don’t remember their reactions, but I am satisfied that I opened their tastes a bit, even with respect to the simple apple. I hoped the lesson would be applied to the larger choices in life, and, in fact, it did.

Reverse Culture Shock

Reverse Culture Shock

{Also called “Reentry Shock”} 

A few days ago, my cousin paid me a compliment. She said,”I think your years in the Middle East have caused you to lose touch with mainstream America.”

I had been worried that I had slipped further back into the American mainstream than is healthy for me. Repatriation had its challenges.The completion of tasks to re-establish a working relationship with my culture of origin needed several years. Now that I’ve lived in the States nearly as long as I lived in Riyadh, I look back at the early years of repatriation. I was definitely living a “double” life, if only in my mind. I smile now, but at the time, it didn’t feel so good. Here are the salient points of my readjustment process during those first awkward years “home”:  

Hair: Though I did not cover, I felt irritated by the sight of all the other women in public who naturally did not cover. I drew mental scarves over every one of them, for months, yet did not cover myself. Maybe I merely disliked the hairstyles, which had become less arranged, less sculpted, and less styled over the years. Eventually I got used to seeing all that hair, but I still don’t like the contemporary American hair styles.

I also realized that the messy hairstyles reflected the fact that most women work (in addition to caring for families), and therefore do not have time to style their hair.

Language: I got very sick of hearing everyone speak English with an American accent. Every time I caught the drift of a foreign language or accent, I had to check out who had spoken. My own English had become inflected, talking to so many Arabs and other assorted non-native-English speakers. Several people in the US asked me where I was from. Eventually, I lost the Arabic accented speech, but I still love to hear other languages. I still get sick of hearing English all the time.

Driving: It wasn’t as difficult as I’d imagined it would be, except for the changes that had taken place in carsways in which cars had evolved. The first car I bought after repatriation was six years old, and ten years newer than the last car I’d owned. While most people were enjoying CD players, I was thrilled with a tape deck and air conditioning. Electric windows seemed like the height of technological advancement. 

I was a bit befuddled with all the bells and buzzers. One afternoon, I drove downtown  to visit a Muslim family we’d just met. The bell sounded when I opened the door. I thought it meant the door was open. Later, I discovered– the hard way– that the bell was supposed to alert me that the headlights were on. I hadn’t known they were on in the first place.

Shopping: I scolded a young clerk in a convenience store for overcharging me for a can of soda. He asked for  fifty cents, and I said, “Are you kidding? It’s twenty-five cents!!” His face fell, and I realized that the last time I’d bought a can of soda at a convenience store, it was indeed twenty-five cents, and some years back.

Grocery shopping was an adventure. The big warehouse stores had grown up while I was gone, and I loved wandering up and down the aisles. I still do. Meat became an issue, of course. Pork popped up everywhere, but worse than seeing it was having to leave the smoked pork hocks in the grocery store. I used to adore eating smoked hocks and beans! It’s the one pork dish I really miss, all the more because it is now in front of me.

Conversation: This was difficult, because my speech had become so mixed up with Arabic injections that I sometimes let slip an, “Insha Allah,” or “Humdullilah,” or even a,”Yellah!” I had to stop prefacing people’s names with, “Ya.” Eventually I learned to add those lovely Arabic phrases in my mind only, and to stop them before they settled on my tongue.

Much of the new slang sounded odd to me, and excessive. I dislike slang in any event, but I was especially irritated hearing it during the first years after repatriation. I also dislike the regional accent with which my fellow citizens speak. I have consciously tried kept my speech free of it.

Dealing with Men: At first, I could hardly look a man in the eye, and certainly did not care to prolong conversation with one. I must have appeared rude. I disliked shaking hands, and still do. Before living in the Kingdom, I didn’t mind casual physical greetings, but I do now. Eventually, I relearned how to interact with men, and in the process realized that I had became very comfortable with gender segregation in Saudi Arabia.

Culture: I did not know the new TV shows, movies, or actors, and I couldn’t have cared less. It was embarrassing though, when people would talk about some show or movie I did not know about. I remember the evening I spent with a group of Americans at a game of Trivia. Someone asked me if I liked Jonnie Depp. I replied, “Who is Johnnie Depp?” Everyone fell silent and stared at me.

That was OK, though. I still don’t care much about American entertainments, but I know who Johnnie Depp is, and I think he’s handsome..

Dress: No problem there. Since I became middle-aged, I stopped dressing in anything but the most modest styles and colors. Head covering never posed a problem  because I never believed in it, anyway.

Friends: I’ve made one friend in the entire ten years I’ve been back. My Riyadh years, coupled with my conversion to Islam, formed a barrier between me and most Americans, beyond which I wouldn’t go, and they didn’t want to go. I have no interest in the things that engage them, and have no interest in my concerns, either.

(Thank goodness I discovered blogging!)

Work: I did not know how to use a computer when I repatriated in 1998. I had no idea that “Windows” was a sort of system that allowed you to use other programs. That lack of knowledge hurt both me and my husband in the job market. My husband then bought a home computer, to the tune of $2300- the same model today costs $399.

A friend connected all the wires and plugged everything into the correct holes. Later that evening, I cultivated the courage to poke around on a few keys. I nearly fell off the chair when the computer emitted a sort of melody. I didn’t even know it could make sound.

I picked up enough skill to fool people into thinking I knew how to use Windows, and I got hired. Learning the specific applications really challenged me, and I tried to poke around the keyboard and figure things out for myself, but I’d frequently have to ask someone how to do something. Since everyone thought I knew basic Windows, they’d rattle off a series of finger maneuvers that would magically pull up the desired “page”. Then, the person would vanish, leaving me sitting like a lump, no further along and still wondering how I was going to do it.

Now, I’m addicted to my computer. My family refers to it as my “husband,” since I am so devoted.

I learned not to talk about my expat experiences while at work. People in my community think a seven day Caribbean cruise is a big deal, and a two week European tour the epitome of travel. Their lives are filled with work, families, ball games and plans for the next holiday or ball game. I’ve learned, over the years, how to talk to them, without having to to join them. They  bore me silly.  Some people think I am a snob. I wouldn’t deny the possibility.

Ya Mamma, Ya Babba

Ya Mamma, Ya Babba

When I read Bedu’s recent post, Saudi Arabia- Understanding Umm’s and Abu’s, I became inspired for this post. I suppose I should say it is a rant, but I am genuinely curious about how the following custom got started and what it means.

I’ve noticed that many Arab parents address their very young children as ya Mamma and ya Babba. Both parents will address their daughter as ya Mama and their son as ya Babba, but I’ve also heard mothers saying ya Mamma to both sons and daughters, and fathers addressing both sons and daughters as ya Babba.

I understand the “ya” part, as a sort of a polite equivalent to, “Hey, so-and-so”, for people of any age,  I’ve picked up that custom myself, but the Mamma and Babba part still stumps me when I hear it addressed to children.

In fact, it grates my ears, and I was mortified to hear one of my daughters begin addressing both her kids as ya Mamma and ya Babba, right from the cradle. The poor little girl still thinks her name is Mamma, and the boy is too small to know his own name, much less anyone else’s.

I would never criticize my daughter or anyone for following a harmless cultural custom, but I wish she would realize how ridiculous it sounds when she says it here in the States, especially in public.  I’ve asked various Arabs about this custom, and I’ve heard various answers, none of which make sense.

One Arab father said, “Because I want my kids to know that their babba is talking to them.”

An Arab mother said, “Because my kids will grow up and becomes mammas and babbas.”

Can anyone enlighten me further, or agree with me or disagree that the expressions sound silly? Has anyone addressed a child as ya Mamma and ya Babba? If so, why, and what does it mean to you?

Learning Tajweed, Part Five

 Learning Tajweed, Part Five

My tenacity brought a big blessing. I inserted myself firmly into that madrassa, never missing a day, and always fully prepared for the lesson. I was surprised to discover that most of the ladies had no problem learning the special rules of tajweed, but all of us had problems discarding the accents of our native languages.

The other women were Arabs, but from various Arab countries.  A Pakistani or two, an Indonesian, and I, rounded out the group. As you know, the various dialects of Arabic are different from one another not only in word usage, but in pronunciation of letters. The two letters most distorted by dialect are Qaf and Geem. The dialect furthest from classical Arabic is the Egyptian dialect, and half of the ladies were Egyptians.

So, I did not feel as odd as I expected I’d feel. My pronunciation issues were not more severe than theirs.

I practiced every day at home, when my husband was at work and the girls were at school. I derived an inner contentment from reciting the Qur’an, as opposed to reading it, or reading the translation of it. I started paying attention to the various recitors; some were easy to understand, and some had melodious voices.

Ahmed Al-AJami became very popular at that time, but I knew people who did not like his style because they thought it was too close to singing. I must confess, I liked his style for that very reason!

During  the year, I discovered that my one and only neighborhood friend, an Egyptian woman, also studied at the same madrassa and was enrolled in the highest class available, with the best teacher. This was the class I wanted to enter, but the waiting list was long, with the requirement that you finished all the other classes first.

My friend spoke to the teacher about me, and I was allowed to sit in. Then I was allowed to read for the teacher, and she invited me to join the class!  I’m not sure she was  comfortable with me, but she  recognized my diligence, desire, and accomplishment to date, thanks to Allah.

I spent the entire next year in that class, learning more than I’d ever expected to learn. To this day, I thank Allah for the blessing of putting me in that class. I am not worthy of it, especially since I’ve neglected the Qur’an since repatriating. The good news is that my solid foundation still stands.

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Introduction to Arabic

117.jpg  Before going to Saudi Arabia for the first time in 1986, I bought an Arabic phrase book with a cassette. The words to be learned were written in  both transliteration and Arabic script. Even then, I ignored the transliteration. What kind of language was this that was written from right to left, with curls and curves, decorated above and below with dots and double dots, and sometimes dashes? I tried to learn the alphabet, but could not figure out why the words did not look like the letters of the alphabet. I listened to the clear, slow enunciation on the cassette, and I mimiced the sounds I’d never heard before, but couldn’t figure out how to put those sounds in the middle of a word. Much mystery resided in this language.

I didn’t hear the language in its perfection and beauty until the evening I boarded the airplane for my first flight to the Kingdom.  I’d heard snatches of conversation by the Arab passengers, but I wasn’t able to listen well until everyone had been seated, and the airplane was about to  accelerate down the runway. The pilot announced that we’d listen to a recording of Mohammed’s travel prayer.

I did not understand the travel prayer, of course, but I felt its meaning, and its sounds touched my heart. I loved the idea of public prayer, of prayer on an ariplane as it hurtled toward the dark horizon at the end of the runway.

During my first months in the Kingdom, I quickly discerned the difference between conversational dialect and Fusha– the formal language of the Qur’an and news announcers, the overarching language of the entire Arab world, understood by all, superseding every dialect. This was the language I loved to hear, but no one spoke it.

“No one speaks like that,” I was told repeatedly. Conversational Arabic unfolded in the dialects of  speakers.  I wasn’t able to differentiate dialects for several years.

“Why does no one speak in Fusha?” I asked my first Arabic teacher, an Egyptian woman.

“It would sound odd,” she told me.  

So, I’d have to learn two languages?

Unfortunately, I never learned even one. Oh, I studied, formally and informally, for years. I achieved a fluency of sorts, in kitchen talk and market matters. I learned grammar, reading,writing, and how to recite the Qur’an with tajweed, but I never achieved the kind of fluency that carried me out of the kitchen or the suq. Maybe I asked for too much. Westerners are notoriously challenged with respect to learning Arabic. I attribute this difficulty to the respective structures of English and Arabic.

English is like a geometric plane, extending as far as the user’s vocabulary and imagination, but Arabic is like a cube, multi-dimensional, deep with shades and colors. It is qualitatively more difficult than any Western language, yet oh, so beautiful to the ear. I can only imagine the subtley and depth of meaning as perceived by one who has mastered it.

When I repatriated in 1998, I gave up studying Arabic, because I was ashamed of myself for not achieving fluency, and I knew my opportunities would be severely curtailed in the United States. I put my Arabic textbooks at the bottom of my storage box, and I turned to the tasks of repatriation.  I wouldn’t feel the pull of Arabic language again until 2006, the year my father started running serpentines between good health and critical illness.