Book Review: Kabul Beauty School, by Deborah Rodriguez

I loved this book. I couldn’t put it down. I think it is very well-written, contrary to some reviewers who think otherwise. The narrator’s voice remains in character, and the language flows nicely. Though the writing is conversational, it does not succumb to the repetitions and irrelevant interjections that cause actual conversations to become boring.

This book is as much personal memoir as it is an account of how the Kabul Beauty School developed. The author’s personality weaves in and out of her environment in a fascinating account of cultural conflict, cultural engagement, and the remarkably unpredictable results that emerge when people do not let go of their own cultural orientation while trying to function in foreign country.

Deborah retains her American perspective on just about everything; she continues to smoke and drink in a Muslim society, looks forward to celebrating Christmas, and feels little need to adjust her behavior with men in deference to the prevailing attitude of quiet feminine subservience. In this way, she is different from the authors who accept the religious and cultural attitudes of their adopted countries.

At the same time, Deborah becomes profoundly involved with many of the women who attend the beauty school. She also marries an Afghan man, only a few weeks after she met him, and in spite of the fact that neither speaks the other’s language. Many readers will frown upon a protagonist who makes such a vital decision based upon none of the commonly accepted parameters that predict marital happiness, but this decision, probably more than her other decisions, displays her personality perfectly. She is a risk-taker, and willing to assume the consequences.

One wonders how it has fared over the years, but I suspect both of them will accept the influences over which neither has much control to strengthen or dissolve the marriage.

The beauty school closes and opens, and closes again, amidst accusations and rumors regarding what Deborah did or didn’t do with respect to taxes and other aspects of the business. Who knows, certainly not the reader of this book, but none of that is important to the purpose of the book, which is exactly what Deborah says it is– an account of the terrible circumstances of the lives of Afghan women, and how the beauty school gave some of them a chance to develop themselves in a way that most women of the world take for granted

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.

Serendipity

Serendipity

I liked the concept of arranged meetings for the purpose of evaluating potential marriage partners. Even though the meetings were stressful, they cut through a lot of crap that the American system of dating ensures before getting down to business. The flip side was that partners did not have much time to evaluate situations or personalities. They couldn’t really get to know each other before marriage.

“Oh, no! If people got to know each other before marriage, NO ONE would get married!” said an Egyptian friend, during a lively discussion comparing the cultural practices of finding a mate. I laughed, but lived long enough to learn the wisdom of her words.

My American friend– the one married to the Egyptian shiekh who had an Egyptian first wife –asked me to write a letter explaining what I needed in a husband. Her husband wanted to start a project to bring couples together for marriage.

I wrote the letter, indicating that these were my requirements:

1. The man must know English and Arabic.

2. He must not smoke cigarettes.

3. He must not already be married.

4. He must be educated with at least a bachelor’s degree.

5. He must want to move with me to the United States.

Somehow, my letter ended up with a Saudi man, a smoker, the owner of a small vegetable market who had a wife and children, and did not know English. He was looking for a second wife. The sheikh gave him my letter. I have seldom felt more discounted as a woman, or insulted as a person.

The grocer couldn’t read my letter, of course, but he remembered a loyal customer, an Egyptian man who bought fruits and vegetables every week, and who knew English. He asked this man to translate the letter.

Both men knew instantly that I was not a suitable candidate for becoming anyone’s second wife, but the Egyptian man recognized that he did possess the qualities I was looking for, so he contacted me, and we married after five months of whatever kind of courtship we could manage in Riyadh at the time. We moved to the United States after six years of marriage, and stayed married for six more years.

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?

Christ Stopped at Eboli– The Arab Connection

img_1441_edited-1Christ Stopped at Eboli– The Arab Connection

Italian language is a big part of my life these days. My study of it originated in Riyadh, in 1992, after I returned from my first trip to Italy, where I met distant relatives for the fist time, and felt as though I’d come home.

Back in Riyadh, I enrolled in an Italian class offered through the Italian Embassy. Our original class attracted a dozen women– an assortment of expats plus one Saudi – but by the end of the term, just six of us remained. We stayed together as a class for the next two years, studying, visiting each other’s homes, accepting invitations from the Italian Embassy,  and sharing our lives in broken Italian.

Our instructor was generous enough to bring a nice selection of books from one of her Italian trips. I ended up with an anthology of nineteenth and twentieth century Italian literature. I learned a lot from that book, but one segment, in particular, captured my attention– pages from a well-known book entitled  Christ Stopped at Eboli (Cristo si è fermato a Eboli), written by Carlo Levi, a Jew from Turin who had been exiled to southern Italy as punishment for holding anti-fascist principles. The fragments fascinated me, not only because of the poetic writing, but because certain aspects of the narrative sounded familiar, as if Levi had been writing about life in Saudi Arabia rather than the southern Italy of the 1930′s. I asked my instructor to bring me the entire book, and she did.

I persevered reading that book for three months, surrounded by two dictionaries and three grammar texts, every day, even on weekends. Not only did I learn Italian, but also some of the history of the area of my ancestors. I never knew that Arabs had colonized southern Italy way back in medieval history. Levi’s portrayal of the character and customs of the people left no doubt in my mind that Muslim Arabs had indeed spent enough time in Southern Italy to leave strong marks– genetically, culturally, and religiously.

Notable was the way in which the Italians practiced Christianity, as if Islam had been superimposed on top of it. Distinct gender roles prevailed there, as did the prohibition of mixing of the sexes. Women were  accompanied by their male relatives if they had any occasion to be in the company of other men. When moving about in public, women wore black dresses and black head scarves. Every aspect of their lives was governed by their interpretation of Christianity. These similarities testify, almost superficially, to the melding of the two cultures. The entire book weaves Italian and Arab culture, not deliberately, but as a matter of essence.

Ironically, Rome had evolved into the world seat of Christianity, but the title of the book refers to the villager’s conclusion the teachings of Jesus did not penetrate into southern Italy. The southerners  endured extreme poverty, while the rest of the country developed economically. They knew that true Christians would not have abandoned them, yet there they were, isolated and scratching the ground for survival.

My intention here is not to give a review of the book, but to draw attention to the connection of the book, and of southern Italy, to Arab and Islamic culture. Although Arab influence can be seen throughout the history of Europe, it remained distictive in southern Italy until after the 1930s. Even the people of today bear such a striking resemblance to Arabs that they could pass for each other in any country.

Anyone having an interest in both cultures will be enriched by this book.

The book can be purchased from Barnes and Noble: http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Christ-Stopped-at-Eboli/Carlo-Levi/e/9780374503161

and Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Christ-Stopped-Eboli-Story-Year/dp/0374503168

The movie version does not do justice to the book, and should not be watched as a substitute for it.

Cristo si è Fermato a Eboli was my first full length Italian book. I am now on my third! Slowly but surely, I am becoming comfortable in this language. I thank my Riyadh days for giving me a good start.

Diversity Sessions

fractal compliments of Susie of Arabia

Like many large, American organizations, the one I work for recently decided that diversity in the workplace needs to be celebrated. We now attend semi-annual meetings for the purpose of learning to appreciate diversity. Our group is sizable, allowing for five separate sub-groups to meet over a two-week period.

Each group also contains men as well as women, a few blacks, an occasional Hispanic, and perhaps a gay or two, but I wouldn’t know about that; if gays are amongst us, they are not out of the closet. All speak English with an American accent.

At our first meeting, the facilitator handed out colored cartoon drawings of animals: a rabbit, a chameleon and a pit-bull. We were asked to “take a few minutes” and determine which animal characterized our personal style of conflict. The rabbit runs from it, the chameleon pretends to fade into the background, and the pit-bull attacks. None of us needed a few minutes.

We were then asked to sort ourselves into groups—the rabbits on one end of the table, the chameleons on the other end and the pit-bulls in the middle. Then we talked about how a conflict might look when a rabbit encounters a pit-bull or a chameleon, or a pit-bull meets another pit-bull, and so forth.

This is what they call diversity?

I suppose it is a sort of diversity, the kind that is visible, observable in behavior, and predictable in outcome, but it doesn’t approach the kind of diversity that underlies it, the diversity that gives rise to such behavior in the first place.

Ann, sitting on the other end of the table with the rabbits, is dealing with a mom whose Alzheimer’s is getting worse by the week. No wonder she sits with the rabbits.

Kathy, a smiling pit-bull, is working nearly full time while studying nursing full time and raising a daughter without a husband. That kind of stress will bring out the pit-bull in anyone.

Steve, a chameleon, is on the transplant list, though for what organ I do not know. I didn’t catch all of the conversation upon which I was eavesdropping last week. I, too, blend in with the chameleons, and they’ll never know why or to what extent.

Jessica is the only one of us who weighs in excess of three hundred pounds, with two-thirds of it distributed evenly on either side of the great divide. She refrains from joining a group.

I suppose the concept of diversity is flexible. By all standards of definition, I lived more diversity during my years in Riyadh than these people will see in their entire lives.

Three groups of people staffed my section in the Riyadh hospital in which I worked: Westerners, Filipinos and Arabs. By Westerners, I do not mean Americans, I mean people who came from English speaking countries. By Arabs, I mean people who came from Arabic speaking countries, and there were many of them.

The official language of the workplace was English, but that didn’t mean we didn’t listen to various Arab dialects, Tagalog, or English inflected with accents so thick that newcomers had difficulty understanding each other. Language, however, proved the least of our challenges.

When Noura, a Saudi university student, came to us for training, some of us wondered how we were going to work with a woman who not only covered her head in black, but half her face as well.

There was Ibrahim, a Saudi man, who called in sick too often, but knew every theory and principle behind every procedure in the book.

The assorted Arabs thought they need not report to work promptly at 0700 every morning. It took more than a year to impress upon them that punctuality was more than a quirky American character trait.

The Filipinos worked like donkeys, never called in sick, always responded pleasantly to tasks at hand, but were most resistant to observing the English-only guidelines of the section. Non-Filipinos would complain about having to listen to Tagalog, secretly suspicious that the Filipinos were talking about them behind their backs.

The Westerners did not refrain from talking openly about their latest escapades into the forbidden fruit of social mixing.

Then we had the great religious divide, the Muslim/non-Muslim dichotomy. On the non-Muslim side, only Christianity existed, because Jews were not allowed in the Kingdom; Hindus and Buddhists were not even acknowledged. As for Christians, the various denominations lost all significance whatsoever. This dichotomy did not run parallel to the national dichotomy, as some Arabs were Christians, and some Westerners were Muslims.

None of us needed diversity sessions.

 

Walls

taquastruction.jpg  I squinted at white marble walls everywhere, as they reflected the brilliance of a Riyadh morning sun. Set at various angles, they somehow joined five separate buildings together in one geometrically shaped compound. Each building gave access to its tenants by marble steps, cleverly constructed so that no entrance could be seen from its neighbor. I would have loved to photograph those angles, but photography in public was socially taboo in Riyadh, except for civic purposes such as newscasts or education.In the lobby, protected from the intensity of the sun, I found relief. My husband knocked on the door of the ground floor apartment. The door opened just wide enough to let us in.

Stepping across the threshold was like stepping into the bottom of a swimming pool. Glossy, turquoise walls enveloped me and floated me down the hall, like the cushion of water that suspends one at the bottom of a dive into the deep end. I stared at those walls as I drifted inside, fascinated. I would have never dared to paint walls the color of a nine foot surge of water, and I had never seen such a color in other Riyadh apartments.

We rented it on the spot. My husband did not object to the walls or the royal blue carpet that joined each other at the floor.

Most interior walls in Riyadh apartments are painted white, as were the other four rooms in our apartment. The previous tenants must have had turquoise paint left over, because the fifth room had two turquoise walls that glowed when the morning sunlight fell upon them. That room had been a child’s room. Crayon marks remained, and I tried to remove them from the glossy surface, but ordinary soap and water did not do the job. As a temporary measure that lasted the entire six years of our tenancy, I placed two beds and dressers to block the sight of the previous tenant’s excesses.

Riyadh walls are made of thick concrete, rendering them cold in winter and hot in summer, but wonderfully soundproof. I never hung anything on ours, unfortunately, because I didn’t know how to pound nails into concrete. Sending my husband out for a concrete drill was too much trouble in a city that didn’t have yellow pages or numerical addresses on buildings. At first, I tried to find other ways to hang things on walls, but gave up. Our walls, like the sands of the deep desert, remained unmarked except for the shadows that fell on them as afternoon sunk into evening.

One wall of each room, including kitchen and bathroom, gave to the outside. This architectural device allowed for two important elements to be built into the larger rooms—a small window for light, and a rectangular opening into which tenants installed combination air conditioners/ heaters– – industrial strength. These dark rectangles dotted the sides of all walls in all apartments of all residential buildings in Riyadh. I never learned why central air hadn’t caught on except in hospitals and shopping malls.

Our kitchen window faced our bathroom window, because the apartment wrapped around an open space, and enclosure extending three stories up to the roof, allowing for natural light and air to permeate the rooms while protecting tenants from street intrusions. The second and third floor kitchen windows above ours also faced the bathroom windows above ours. During the change of seasons, when the air neither scorched nor froze the skin of anyone in those rooms, all tenants opened their windows. The odors and noises generated in those rooms—heard by all— wafted up and down the enclosure, but the rare luxury of gentle breezes, enjoyed just several weeks a year, inspired us all to tolerance.

This is what I remember about that apartment– its luminous exterior walls, its cool blue interior walls, and the lovely breezes carrying testimony to all our lives, the breezes that knocked down the other kinds of walls so firmly erected in Saudi Arabia–the walls of privacy and insularity by now well known, ironically, throughout the world. These walls are more difficult to penetrate than the concrete walls of the apartment buildings. The windows through which a foreigner can understand the life of a Saudi in Saudi Arabia are narrow, few, and far between.

There are walls keeping men away from women, Saudis away from foreigners, and Muslims away from non-Muslims. These walls are visible in the black drapes of the women and the white caftans of the men, in the gated compounds housing foreigners and the fortressed villas housing Saudi families.

These walls started to crumble under the influx of foreign workers, satellite media, war, and the inundation of everything Western and anathema to half the Saudi population. By the time I arrived in 1986, the walls of Saudi seclusion had already started to erode, but the erosion revealed a framework of steel. Who was it that said, “East is East, and West is West, and ne’er the twain shall meet.”?

The twain has met, but East is still East, and West is still West. It’s a matter of identity. 

Next Time Someone Asks You…

 ******************************************************************************

 1261.jpg  Next time someone asks you to explain the difference between the way Arabs think and the way Westerners think, you might want to relate a story like this: 

One night, I was a guest, along with a dozen assorted foreigners, at the home of one of our Egyptian friends. She served one of Egypt’s famous dishes, macarona bi béchamel, a lasagna of sorts, using layers of ground lamb, fried eggplant, and noodles, seasoned with Arabic spices in thick tomato sauce, and smothered under a creamy white sauce. It is the kind of dish that always goes over beautifully in a multi-cultural gathering. People like it no matter what else they eat or don’t eat. 

An American woman asked for the recipe. 

 “Well, it’s very simple,” said Salwa. “First you brown some ground meat, and then…” 

“How much meat?” asked Anne, the American.  “It depends on how many people are going to eat,” said Salwa, “and then…” 

“Well, how much is the usual amount?” asked Anne, and Salwa paused. 

 “I don’t know. It depends on how many people are going to eat.” 

“OK,” said Anne, “eight people are going to eat, like today.”

 “Oh, I think I bought two kilos, but I didn’t use it all,” said Salwa, “so you brown the meat, you season it and add tomato sauce, and then…” 

“What seasonings? How much tomato sauce?” asked Anne. “Arabic spices, of course, and the tomato sauce depends on how much meat you use, naturally. After that, you prepare the eggplant.”

 “What spices, exactly? How much eggplant?” 

 “Well, enough eggplant to make at least one layer in the baking dish,” replied Salwa, “and the spices are mixed.” 

Someone offered, “Anne, you can buy the spices already mixed, at the suq.” 

“Yes, but Salwa, I don’t understand this. Do you have the ingredients written down, with the amounts required?” 

Salwa wrinkled her brow. “There’s nothing to write down. It’s just meat, eggplant, noodles, tomato sauce and béchamel! Besides, the amounts are never the same.”


Anne continued, “Yes, but how do I know how much of each thing to use? I know it depends on how many people are eating, but how do I know the proportions?”
 “As you can see!” Salwa said, with a smile, waving her hand over the casserole, but the expression on her face said that she was perplexed by all these questions. She continued, with Anne writing down her words verbatim, until she got to the part about the oven.

“What oven temperature do you use?” Anne asked. 

“I don’t know,” said Salwa. “Medium.” By this time, Anne knew enough to quit asking questions if she were ever to get this recipe written down.  “So you bake it until the top turns red,” said Salwa, and Anne, of course, asked, “How long?” “Well, it depends on the temperature of the oven, and the size of the baking dish. You bake it until the top turns red. That’s all.”  

Anne wrote down, “Bake for thirty minutes at 350, or until the top is slightly browned.” 

“You Americans!” exclaimed Salwa, “always making things more difficult than they are.” 

“You Arabs!” said Anne, “always vague, never precise!” 

We all laughed, because every one of us, no matter where we came from, understood how an Egyptian-American recipe exchange between two housewives could serve as a model exemplifying the communication gap between East and West.