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.         

We Buried My Papa

29.jpg  My father died Sunday, March 9, 2008.  All five of we remaining family members had a say in funeral arrangements,  but because my father had been a prominent man in business, we had to consider the many visitors that would come from all over the area, even from different states.

We chose an elegant funeral home and an expensive casket, amidst comments of, “He deserves the best,” even as we knew that our choices made no difference in the world. We had lost him forever.

I did not want to enbalm. I think the procedure is brutal, bordering on mutilation. My family is Christian, though, so the decision to enbalm prevailed. I dreaded seeing his corpse all dressed up, face painted to look as though he were sleeping.  We were standing,  surrounding his bed when he took his last breath, and he did not look as though he were sleeping. 

In the casket, in fact, he did look as though he were sleeping,  with sculpted stillness. I touched his inert, icey hands, the same hands I used to hold when they were warm and soft, as he suffered the pain of metastatic bone cancer. I kissed his cheek, as I used to kiss him good-bye when one of us went out.  I touched his shell, the shell in which he lived, breathed, thought, laughed, worked, prayed, loved, grew old, wise, sick, and then died.   

When I first learned about the Islamic customs for burial, I thought they were sensible and respectful. Washing the body, wrapping, and burying in a simple, biodegradable container seemed so much more satisfying than enbalming or spending thousands of dollars on a magnificent casket.  

In Riyadh, I used to feel honored to take part in the janaza prayers following the fard prayers, in the mosque,  of deceased people I did not know. The Muslim customs remind us that we are all equal in death, and that we take nothing from this world to our appointment with Allah. Performing the short janaza prayers after the fard puts death into the context of life.

However, as the ceremonial activities for my father continued over two days, with several hundred visitors, three eulogies, a funeral procession that needed a police escort at every intersection, and a military bugler playing Taps over the flag draped coffin, I started to feel the spirit of the phrase “celebration of life” that now describes funeral rituals in America. 

Through my tears, I smiled, giving thanks to Allah for this wonderful man who was my father, mentor of men and women, teacher and leader, well-respected by all who knew him.  I thanked Allah for all the years we had my father. I thanked Allah for everything.  

I still believe in the Muslim burial customs, and plan to have them for myself.  For my father, however, we did the right thing.


smalllocomotivebreath.jpg  Bakhoor —its scented smoke hadn’t entered my nostrils in eight years, yet I recognized it  instantly. There it was, on the coffee table, in the mabkhara –the four legged incense burner from Saudi Arabia
My daughter welcomed me into her new home, a modest bungalow in our modest, Mid-Western neighborhood. “Do you like it?” she asked, with a  sweeping gesture over the new furniture. 
“It’s wonderful!” I said, focusing on the fragrance. I missed my life in Saudi Arabia. I didn’t know how much I missed it until the smoky incense set sweet memories in motion. 

How many times had I entered other rooms— the homes of  Saudi friends, the halls of Arab weddings, and the salons of women’s gatherings? In the Arab world, bakhoor is used for all celebrations, ceremonies, and social occasions. Its rituals are delightfully repeated, with few variations on the theme.

“Ahalan Wa  Sahlan! Ahlan, Ahlan!” Welcome! Welcome!

“Ahlan beeki!” Welcome to you! We admire each other’s colorful dresses, gold  bangles, and sparkling necklaces. We turn the kaleidoscope of conversation that interweaves timeless topics  —families, religion, and work —into the context of intercultural conflict and misunderstanding. We laugh often.  
The hostess serves a staple of Saudi hospitality –fresh dates and pale Saudi coffee in tiny cups.  The dates are still soft, having been picked recently; they melt in the  mouth like a pat of butter and brown sugar. The coffee, so bitter that one must acquire a taste for it, reflects the golden green of unroasted beans heavily mixed with cardamom. Later, the hostess holds the mabkhara in front of each guest. The guest raises her arms to the shoulder as  the hostess wafts smoke around her torso, into her hair, down her dress and
even under the hem, while both of them chuckle and wink. The men are elsewhere, doing the same thing. The next day, a pungent reminder of the night’s festivities rises up from the dress then flung over the chair. 

No one can describe the scent of bakhoor, though it’s classically composed of sandalwood, amber, musk, frankincense, and myrrh. Combinations with flower oils such as Turkish rose and jasmine are rolled into sticky little balls to be used alone, or mixed with the most distinctive and expensive substance in the world— oudh, a resin  with a history as unique as its aroma. 

I remember walking through market places of Saudi Arabia, seeing the mounds of reddish wood chips, with dark, pungent sap clinging tenaciously, emitting scent even before being burned. I remember seeing bins of various blends in the perfume shops between the fabric and housewares shops. I remember the handsome Saudi proprietors, with  their dark hair against their red and white ghutras , their cinnamon skin against white teeth and whiter thobes.

I used to love walking down the rows of small stalls selling bakhoor, prayer rugs,  long dresses, spices, foodstuffs, children’s clothing, sandals, more perfume,  more and more of everything up and down the dirt aisles of the traditional  suqs —the Kuwaiti suq, the Women’s suq, the Battha suq  —and the newer suqs, constructed with concrete aisles and shops with forty-five degree corners, adjoined in perfect rows.

We  couldn’t afford pure oudh, so we used to buy the bakhoor using oudh as its  base. We brought a small stash to the States, but used it within the first year.

“Where did you find it?” I asked, still mesmerized.
“At the furniture store!” my daughter said. She thought I was admiring her furniture.

Spaghetti on Sundays

113941918.jpg  (This is an essay I wrote last year, when I learned that my father would die of his illnesses. My father died Sunday, March 9, 2008, at the age of 87, with his family surrounding his bed.  It was the saddest day of my life.)

Spaghetti on Sundays

We called it spaghetti, back then, and we ate it every Sunday for the first twenty years of my life. No one called it pasta, not even the folks from Italy, who were accustomed to differentiating between the shapes. I’m sure my Grandma called it spaghetti because that was the only shape we used on Sundays. Other days of the week called for other shapes– farfalle, rigatoni, linguine, mostaccioli, penne, rigatoni, etc.

For me, going to church meant coming home to a most wonderful aroma of tomato sauce (Grandma called it “soog”) the likes of which I’ve never smelled outside our own kitchen. The sight of my father standing at the stove, apron smeared red, stove spotted and spoon poised, meant that everything was right with the world.

As a child, I honestly believed that the reason my father did not come with us to church was that he had to nurse the sauce. First, the meat had to be browned. Then the tomato products had to be evaluated by means of his experienced nose, tongue, and the resistance of the wooden spoon as he stirred. He needed to stand by, ready to add just a pinch more fennel, basil, oregano, salt, pepper, another bay leaf or tablespoon of paste. By the time we got home , his palate was exhausted, and he’d say, “Taste the sauce!” to whoever entered first.

We kids scrambled to enter first, knowing that we’d get to  grab a spoon, lift some sauce from the steaming pot, smell it, blow off the steam, and roll it around over the tongue as the  flavor registered before announcing, “It’s perfect!”

Sometimes that wasn’t good enough for Papa. “Does it need more salt?” or “Just a little more wine?” he’d ask. Another taste was in order, and another taster.

My father is eighty-six now and still makes the sauce.  As the oldest girl, I haven’t learned how to make it yet, not from lack of opportunity but from reluctance.  To make the sauce would somehow usurp Papa’s authority, his proper position as head of the family and beloved provider.  To make the sauce would mean that someday he’d not be able to do it himself. As long as I do not know how to make the sauce, he cannot die.