Next Time Someone Asks You…

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 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.         

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About Marahm

At first glance, I may appear to be a middle-aged American woman with kids, grandkids, retired from a job in a hospital, gratefully relieved from the responsibilities that come with all of that. Behind the image, which is true enough, I am fairly unhinged from much of American mainstream living, having spent twelve years in Saudi Arabia, years that sprung me from societal and familial impositions of narrow bands of truth. I have learned to embrace my sense of identity as a seeker, an artist, and a writer. I study Arabic and Italian language, because I love them, and I love their people. I still dream of spending more time in the Middle East and Italy, though the dreaming now seems more real than the possibilities. I am a photographer. I write, and sometimes publish, flash memoir, and now a blog or two.
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18 Responses to Next Time Someone Asks You…

  1. Maryam says:

    😀 , That was funny really.
    But Marahm, when i jot down a new recipe for the first time, i prefer the exact amounts too, but not as the american lady here ….. 😉

  2. What a cute story – you were great with the dialogue! The dish actually sounds quite yummy, despite the vagueness!!!

  3. Aafke says:

    Eehm, Salwa cooks exactely like I do. When I give a recipe I really have to think. Or make it up, and hope I got it right! 😀

    I always love posts on food 🙂

  4. Marahm says:

    Thanks for your comments, Friends. Macarona bi bechemal is indeed yummy, and I’ve learned how to cook it just like Salwa.

  5. Hi Marahm !
    I have some fractals I want to send you that my son and I made!!! Can you email me so I can send them to your email address? I’m so excited about doing these – they are so much fun and the possibilities are endless!

  6. Aafke says:

    I want to see them too!

  7. Marahm says:

    Susie, you encourage me! I’ll have to try one of those free programs. I’d love to use my own work on my blog.

    Aafke, you’d make wonderful fractals, I know you would!

  8. dalioness says:

    Vague/versus precise! I experienced that too at times.

    Recipe wise, my whole family is like that, they can never give you the amount, exact ingredients, temperature, etc.

    Lovely story!

  9. strangerinthisdunya says:

    LOL, so true! Invitations for after maghrib, after isha etc get me too! Is that right after I have prayed maghrib? 1/2 hour after? 1 hour after?! 🙄 I need to be told 7pm, 7:30pm etc, I can’t do Arab timings! 😆

  10. Marahm says:

    Dalioness, you are lucky! You know how to be creative. I had to learn, and it took years.

    Stranger, no need to be a stranger here! I know exactly what you mean about AST (Arabic Standard Time). That also took me years to accept, but now, I must confess, I prefer it. Trouble is, I now live in the USA, where everyone is a slave to the clock.

  11. dalioness says:

    Marahm, problem is, I am the black sheep in my family! LOL

    I mean, yes I can “throw something together” (which never turns out quite the same the next time), but nevertheless I am a sucker for recipes.

  12. Amina says:

    lol, so true 🙂

  13. AAAAHAHAHAHAAAA This is SOoo funny! I cannot tell you how many time i did this when i first got ehre with my mother in law but just ad language translators to the mix. It was chaos and funny. Now I just throw things together and it mostly turns out well. I think arabs learn by watching their mothrs and experimenting as kids and then they just learn. I had to have my experiment years too and boy was my husband surprised by my combinations…hmm he still is….rice and spagetti with soup flavoring and a smatering of veggies…i thought it was good but he was like WHAT IS THIS! Other times I make it just liek his mom and he’s soo happy. Now when I see recipies online I get frustrated of all the measuring and weighing i have to do before hand. Maybe I’m turning arab….. by the way I too live by AST now and when in USA I was soooo annoying everyone by refering to the sun all the time (since as non-muslims they dont understand asr maghrib….just 2 hours before sun set…. maybe a half hour after full dark…yeah very annoying)
    I love thee fractials you guys are talking about and they ar very lovely…. I will wait to see them on your blog because I’m afraid to get addicted to making them so don’t share with me…… I hope you’re doing well Marahm after all that’s happened with you.

  14. Marahm says:

    Thank you, AmericanMuslimaWriter, I am doing well enough. Every time I cry for my father, I remember all the blessings Allah has given to our family. I stil cry, but my prayers cushion the pain.

  15. Aysha says:

    I absolutely loved it!
    Amazing how such simple things like sharing a recipe can say so much…
    And you did a great job at delivering the situation so it conveys what it did…
    Thanx Marahm,,

  16. Marahm says:

    Thank you, Aysha. Sometimes those common, everyday activities say more than a PhD thesis, or, well, at least they say the same thing!

  17. Aafke says:

    Pfff, Marahm: That was EXACTELY the same comment I planned to post today!!!!! 😀

    No need for a PhD thesis! Your story says it all!

  18. Marahm says:

    Great artists think alike, no?

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