How We Return – Anafora

How I wish words could accurately describe this unique retreat center in the desert that has provided peace, safety, rest, council, and retreat for so many years!

We arrive at night traveling the Cairo-Alexandria Road at dusk. A starry sky with no light pollution is the only light as we drive into the compound. Night comes quickly in the desert, the bright sun replaced by a cloudless night sky, billions of stars light years away are a reminder of how small I am in this big universe.

My room is simple and charming, domed ceilings, stone floors covered by bright colored rugs, and a bed covered by mosquito netting welcome me. I haven’t slept in a bed with mosquito netting since Pakistan, and I have always loved the feeling of being protected so completely with the gossamer mesh. Dinner is by candlelight in the large communal dining room, sitting on rattan chairs covered by bright blue and white patterned cushions,

A candle lights my room, creating shadows on the whitewashed walls and I read by its light. Within minutes, my shrunken heart weighed down with fear, worry, anxiety, and anger is made larger. “How fortunate I am to be here!” was the only thought on my mind.

Before I fall asleep I whisper a prayer “Thank you O Lord, Thank you. Let me not waste this precious, precious time. Instead, let me observe it with gratitude.”

I wake up early the next morning, the circled sky lights in the ceiling providing multicolored light that fills the room. I look out at the arched door that leads to a patio. My room looks out on date palms and olive groves that stretch as far as my eye can see. For the millionth time in my life, I wish I was an artist and could capture my surroundings. Palm trees wave at me past the peach-colored stucco archway and wall. There are multiple shades of desert green, none of them the bright of my New England home, all of them perfect for this setting. A round table less than a foot off the ground sits to my right with a chair of cushions to the side of it for comfort from the hard stone floor. It is quite simply, perfect.

I quickly realize that my distractions follow me. As much as I want to quiet my mind and take every advantage of this desert gem, a phone, my thoughts, and my circumstances all follow me, begging me to pick them up and fret. I know it will take effort to release them. But I have time, that beautiful and sometimes fleeting commodity. The concrete walls and stone floors are a comfort to my distracted thoughts, the date palms outside my door spreading their dates all over the ground are a reminder of a past life in Pakistan, a reminder of a God who has never let me go, who has always been there since my earliest days.

Anafora is a Greek word that means “to lift up.” The community was formed under the leadership of Bishop Thomas, a man that I was able to meet on my second to last day. His desire is to see people come to this place and be refreshed, be lifted up, and meet God. Through the years the community has grown to be a vibrant multicultural space with a constant flow of worldwide visitors intersecting with those who live and work at Anafora. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are communal meals served in the large dining hall. Dinners are served by candlelight, adding to the rest that the entire space cultivates. Food is served in beautiful pottery pots, and the silverware is arranged in beautiful patterns every meal. Large bottles of olive oil, and jars of olives are ever present, as are different kinds of loose leaf tea – mint, karkade (hibiscus) and chamomile to name a few – that can be accessed any hour of the day. I am quickly aware of the many hands and hours of work that go into making sure everyone who stays at Anafora feels welcome.  Coptic services are held daily as well as evening vespers. Evening vespers are particularly beautiful, the large church lit with candles in alcoves around the room. While the service is primarily in Arabic, the Gospel reading of the day is read in every language present – English, Greek, Swedish, Finnish, and Norwegian.

My purpose is primarily a solitary retreat, but it is a perfect mixture of solitude and people. From my patio I hear laughter and voices chatting away in Arabic, but I can’t see anybody and it feels completely private.

The grounds are simple and lovely. Low buildings with domed ceilings are connected and I am told by my friend Marty that the block of rooms where I am staying are in the shape of a question mark with the dot at the end of the question mark being a prayer chapel “Because at the end of every question is prayer” – she quotes Bishop Thomas as she tells me. Pools and fountains of turquoise and blue run alongside paths, small bridges linking parallel paths. It is easy to find one’s way around in the daylight. What felt like a maze the night before quickly becomes familiar. The date palms are ever present, squishy sticky dates left over from the harvest fall over the ground. It is clearly date season! Pottery with desert plants of bright-colored bougainvillea and other species that I don’t recognize are the only décor and it is perfect. I am so grateful for the simplicity and beauty, a welcome respite from my overcrowded world.

As I sit on the patio, journal in hand, thoughts finally resting, a pesky fly begins to bother me. I laugh, amused at how perfectly imperfect life always ends up being. My husband and I have this theory we call “Ants in Paradise.” We thought it up on a family vacation. Everything was perfect. The most perfect beach, warm water, amazing food, great room – and suddenly we were bothered by a line of ants. We had no idea where they came from – we certainly had not invited them to come. But there they were. In that moment, we had the laughing realization that no matter how perfect our circumstances on earth, there will be ants, flies, or worse that remind us we don’t live in a perfect world. Instead of letting this depress us, we instead laughed it off, vowing to remind each other of this on a regular basis. There I was in the perfect setting of beauty and simplicity, but a fly kept on buzzing around me, annoying in its persistence. I decided to go brush my teeth and wash my hands with hopes that the smell of clean would annoy them and they’d find another victim.

It worked.

Fly gone, I begin writing and reflecting. I have five days here and because I fail so often at stopping and being present at the moment, I am already planning my next trip and know that it will be longer. I stop and breathe, reminding myself that all I have is this moment.

This moment for rest, for retreat, for Anafora.

How We Return

Cairo – October 15, 2022

There is something about returning to a place that shaped you so profoundly, something about the mixture of thoughts, feelings, and reactions – all lobes of the brain engaged in a dialogue labeled “Return.” Whether by car, train, boat, or plane, the exhausted euphoria has as much to do with your mind as it does with your body.

Cairo airport was busy at 8pm on Saturday, October 15th. I left Boston the day before at almost midnight Eastern Standard Time. The overnight flight arrived in Istanbul at four in the afternoon leaving time for a coffee and croissant in the Istanbul airport before boarding the Cairo flight. It’s a short flight and before I could doze off, I saw the lights of the massive city of Cairo below me, a shining beacon rising from the desert.

Memories of arrivals past flooded over me. The first time I visited Cairo was as a 23-year-old. I was with my boyfriend, the man who would become my husband just 7 months later. All our luggage was lost enroute so there I was in a strange city with a man who had suddenly become a stranger to me. A friend he had made a few months earlier picked us up and he, too, was a stranger. In other words, it was all strange and unfamiliar.

Six years later I would arrive with three children, four years and under, to make a home in the city. What was initially strange became dear and familiar, the city pushing its way under my skin, up through my blood stream and into my heart. It made its home there, squeezing in between space I had reserved for other things and planting itself, a pacemaker of sorts that quickened or slowed my heartbeat. You don’t take out a pacemaker just because you move. It stays there, not always working as well as you want it to because it’s so out of sync with its surroundings.

Through the years I have arrived and left Egypt around 26 times, but who or what is really counting? The pacemaker, that’s who.

On arrival, the familiar mixes with the strange, almost like a recipe changing. You don’t remember the recipe quite the way it now tastes. And so it is with return. The picture that you have planted in your head conflicts with the images you are seeing, initially feeling like a betrayal. What happened to that restaurant? That coffee shop? That family? I thought they would always be there. Once the betrayal is confronted, I feel a new freedom to relax and enjoy.

Marty, a dear friend of many years picked me up from the Cairo airport and we happily chatted as the driver dodged the ever-present traffic, finally arriving in Ma’adi, the place where Marty has made her home for 34 years. If outside had changed, inside was the comfort of familiarity in a dear place with dear friends.

Everyone has a different routine when going back to places they have lived in the past. For me, it means carving out of a new niche. This is not metaphorical but concrete. I have to find a new coffee shop, the space where I will go daily while I am visiting. I found it quickly, a small outdoor space with perfect lattes and delicious mint, lemon smoothies. The first few days found me content to just be, casting off the stress of my U.S. life and taking on this extraordinary chance to rest.

I chose the perfect month to return. Cairo in October is generally spectacular, the heat of summer making way for cool mornings and warm days, gentle breezes and even occasional rain. There is a new energy and gladness in folks who had previously succumbed to summer’s lethargy, knowing that fighting it is useless.

A desert retreat, chance to speak, and time with friends would come later. For now, all I knew was that I had returned to the pacemaker, the place where two of my children were born, the place where I learned to be a mom, where some of my most enduring friendships were born. I returned to a desert with splashes of fuchsia, orange, and white bougainvillea creating a striking and beautiful contrast to the dust. I returned to old memories and friendships and to creating new memories and new friendships.

I had returned. I was back and the world was alright.

Author’s Note: Dear readers, I’ll be taking you through a tour of my recent trip to Egypt and Turkey these next few days! Thank you for following along. Here are a few pictures to go with today’s post!

Memories from Tattered Recipes

Holiday times have me searching through my recipes for prized favorites that have made their way from paper to oven to plate to mouth through the years.

It got me thinking about recipes and memories.

A good bit of the time I do what most men and women in the year 2022 do: I search for recipes online. I find them quickly. I read reviews. There are beautiful, colorful pictures showing me exactly what to do (who knew eggs in a bowl could be so pretty) showing me exactly what the end product will look like (so yummy). It’s amazing to be able to do this. On the down side, there are a million ads and lots of words to sift through, especially if I miss the “skip to recipe” button. (In fact, one person suggested that a murderer could confess the murder in every paragraph in an online recipe, but no one would ever catch them because we all hate the words so much and want to go straight to the recipe. But …. I digress!)

As I looked through my tattered recipes, I realized something is missing from the online searches that yield amazing recipes. There is a sterility to the process, a lack of emotional connection to the recipe. I realized that it was void of the memories that come with food-stained recipes from family members and friends.

There is the recipe for the egg and cheese breakfast casserole served on Christmas morning from Ann Coster, Every year in Cairo Ann had a big pancake breakfast for all of us. Moms talked while kids watched a video of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. It was at one of those events where I lamented on wanting something fancier than scrambled eggs for Christmas morning. Ann’s eyes lit up and she shared the recipe. I still have it in Ann’s handwriting, a precious gift that cost her nothing but the time it takes to write out an index card of words. And every Christmas morning, that’s what we eat.

recipes, egg and cheese casserole

There’s the Thumbprint Cookie recipe from my mom, congo bar recipe from my maternal grandmother, affectionately known as Gramma K. There’s orange cheese bread from Genie and cranberry walnut sweet rolls from Cary; the peanut-butter kisses from Mary….the recipes go on and on.

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As I flip through them, I come to Never Fail Peanut Butter Fudge from my cousin, Kristine. There is a poignant pause in my recipe search. She wrote it long ago when I was getting married and it is written under her maiden name – Johnson. Kristine died on January 27, 2007 – it was my 47th birthday. She was only 2 years older than me. I stop and wonder if her family remembers this Never Fail Peanut Butter Fudge, its sweet goodness a distant memory. I think of her mom, my Aunt Ruth who died this past year, one of the smartest, loveliest women on the planet, and wonder if she passed on the recipe to Kristine.

recipes, never-fail peanut butter fudge

Like life itself, I have to move on, but not without a precious look back in time to my younger days where death seemed so far in the future and I seemed to have all the time in the world.

It’s these pauses and memories that I don’t get when I find a recipe online. It’s a bit like online relationships – they are enjoyable and can teach me a lot. But they are no substitute, no comparison to flesh and blood, body and bones, faces and hands of my in-person people.

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Talking Together Makes Wise

In a book titled Tomorrow, God Willinga Norwegian anthropologist writes from her experiences befriending a family in a poor neighborhood in Cairo.  The book gives a portrayal of life in Cairo, primarily through the perspective of Umm Ali (Mother of Ali) with others from the extended family lending their voices to the narrative.  It is one of my favorite books for a variety of reasons, one of those being my love for the city of Cairo and Egyptians.

The prologue quotes Umm Ali saying: “I like talking with people, Talking together makes wise. Where had we humans been and what had we understood if we did not tell each other what each of us thinks and feels….it is a life necessity to be able to talk.”

She then proceeds to invite the author into her world, a world of loss and tragedy, poverty and joy, anger and love and then communicate those stories on paper.  She gets the importance of ‘talk’ in communicating the ordinary and extraordinary events of her life.

The back streets of Cairo are an unlikely setting and Umm Ali perhaps an unlikely source of wisdom, but wisdom it is. She viewed talking as a gift to “purge you of sorrow/anger and invigorate your soul.”  This quote is from an Egyptian woman living in poverty with no formal education.  In light of a media frenzy over the power of words over people, Umm Ali recognized their power in the best way possible.  To communicate in order to express her feelings and life story and in doing so create understanding between people who don’t live or think in the same way that she or those around her do.

Cairo is a city of over 16 million people. That’s a lot of voices and a lot of stories but sometimes  one story is all it takes to “make wise.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the wisdom of Umm Ali in recent weeks. It’s been quiet on the blog because I’ve realized that too often in the past I’ve been quick to react, and much slower to really read and understand different perspectives. I’ve far too often made the narrative around the world about me instead of about others and the stories and perspectives that create their world view, the history that creates their living reality.

Our first task in approaching

Another people

Another culture

Another religion

Is to take off our shoes

Max warren

What I hear loudest in the discussions that are taking place both on and offline is the plea to listen, to study, and to take a step back. This sits well with the words of Max Warren, a man described as a “perceptive historian” who lived from 1904 through 1977. He said this about approaching people:

Our first task in approaching

Another people

Another culture

Another religion

Is to take off our shoes

For the place we are approaching is holy

Else we find ourselves

Treading on another’s dreams

More serious still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival.We have to try to sit where they sit, to enter sympathetically into the pains and grieves and joys of their history and see how those pains and griefs and joys have determined the premises of their argument. We have, in a word, to be ‘present’ with them.‘”

Max Warren – 1963

I love these words, and I desperately want to be someone who reflects this reality – for the places I am approaching are holy.


[Picture credit – Image by Ahmed Sabry from Pixabay]

A Life Overseas – Freedom from the Silence of Shame

I’m at A Life Overseas today, talking about a hard subject. I hope you’ll join me there! silence of shame

Long ago on a spring day in Cairo, I was walking across a small footbridge to the area of the city where I lived. I had crossed the footbridge hundreds of times, usually with one or three children hanging on to my skirt and in my arms. This time I was alone, lost in my thoughts and enjoying the walk.

I had single-parented four kids for ten days, and I was pregnant with our fifth child. I was tired, lonely, and hormone-infused.

There was minimal traffic on the foot bridge at this time of day, but as I began heading down toward the street, a man started walking up the other side. I thought nothing of it, until out of the corner of my eye I saw him walking directly toward me. Before I could react, he had reached out and grabbed my breasts. I began screaming like a mad-woman. I shouted in Arabic at the top of my lungs “Shame! For shame! You are a Muslim? You are not a good Muslim!”  He had picked a lonely, hormone-infused pregnant woman to harass, and my anger knew no bounds. Hearing the commotion, some men on the street began walking towards me. They were clearly concerned. “What happened?” “How can we help?”

While some people share stories of their language skills improving when they share the gospel message, mine always tended to improve when I was angry. My Arabic was perfect as I screamed and cried my distress. The men could not have been kinder. “We’ll find him! We’ll get him! This is not Islam, he is not a good Muslim!” they assured me. I remember their kindness and concern in vivid detail.

Shaking and crying, I continued on my way. The walk was ruined, the bright spring day dark with shame and anger. Read the rest here at A Life Overseas.

In Honor of a Birthday – Marty’s Balcony

My friend Marty had a birthday the other day. I haven’t lived close to Marty in years, but just the fact that she had this birthday brought back beloved memories of this friend, and of the many times spent together, often on her balcony. So I remembered this piece that I wrote when I first began blogging, and I thought it fitting that I should repost it, and remember – because there is strength in remembering.*

The picture could be anywhere. It shows a balcony railing, two roses in a slender vase on top of a table, and a votive candle. Sunlight shines through dusty flame trees.  The caption underneath it reads: “Breakfast on the balcony — my favorite place on a summer morning while it’s still cool!”  

One simple picture brought on many memories from around the globe. 

It was my friend Marty who posted the picture on her Facebook accountMarty lives in Maadi, an area about 20 minutes from the center of Cairo in Egypt. An international school is the hub of much of expatriate life in Maadi. While the school is called Cairo American College, it boasts a student body from all over the world. Maadi itself is an area heavily populated with expatriates raising global nomads from Holland, Germany, France, Lebanon and too many other countries to name. Along with Cairo American College there  is a British school, a French school, and a smaller international school.

Green space is a luxury in the city of Cairo, and Maadi has much of it. By western city standards it’s still sparse, but for those who live in Cairo it feels like Kensington Park. We once heard someone describe the grounds at CAC as “almost like Wimbledon!” I remember laughing with my sister-in-law wondering if he had been to Wimbledon recently or perhaps was making the comparison based on 10 years living in Tahrir Square.

Maadi has been an extraordinary place for many people. While it is criticized for being “15 minutes from Egypt” and there is no doubt the area enjoys many luxuries that the rest of Cairo lacks, many have experienced life-changing events surrounded by an international community located a metro ride from downtown Cairo. As you walk around Maadi it is almost impossible not to run into someone that you know, whether you walk to Road 9, a major shopping area or head toward Gomaa Digla Supermarket to pick up groceries. The area is rich in friendship and community.

Whether you’re there for one year or twenty, both Maadi and Egypt are unforgettable and you are destined to return.

If the community in Maadi is unique, Marty’s balcony is extraordinary. It has been a place of peace and blessing and seeing the picture evoked those memories in many people.

One person attested to the talk and tears that the balcony had held; another mentioned the many memories;  another remembered “lots of coffees and tears and good conversations and prayers.”

I remembered being saved from many a melt-down through the peace and comfort of the balcony along with the laughter and strength of Marty’s presence.

A lot of people have  balconies in Cairo. It’s on the ‘must have’ list when looking for rental properties, but this one has served an uncommon purpose through the years. Marty brings people not only to her balcony for tea or coffee, laughter or tears, but also to her heart. She is exceptionally gifted at listening and being fully present. Marty knows that life is messy at best, downright impossible and intolerable at worst, but continues to live with purpose and a remarkable sense of humor.

It’s these friendships that give us time and love, and guide us into truth that are uniquely precious. And that is what Marty does on her balcony.

As I wish Marty a happy birthday, I am acutely aware that Cambridge is over five thousand miles too far away.  My response?  I went immediately online and priced tickets to Cairo to make the balcony and Marty a little closer.

Happy Birthday Marty! Thank you for your heart and your balcony.

A Life Overseas – Offending and Mending

Readers, would you join me today at A Life Overseas? I’ve retooled an old piece!

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Of all the difficult things we do in cross-cultural moves, finding places to live is near the top. We want to create space and place – we want to create home. And often our expectations are a planet away from our reality.

At one point while living in Cairo, we were hunting for a flat (apartment) on the island of Zamalek. After a day of searching in the heat and walking endlessly down dusty streets and alley ways, we were tired and had seen some of the ugliest apartments imaginable.

My husband and I were getting increasingly frustrated, feeling the cross-cultural disconnect of trying to communicate what we were looking for in a flat to what we were being shown. Precisely at this point we walked up 8 flights of stairs and, on a scale of ugly to uglier to ugliest we were shown the ugliest flat we had seen. Ever. Anywhere. When the man showing us this particular flat asked us if we liked it, my husband looked at him and said clearly “No. This flat is the ugliest flat we have ever seen.” With a toilet seat cover made of a deck of cards, a kitchen that resembled a tiny sauna, and mirrors all over the gaudy red bedroom, it was hideous.

In that moment, by the look on the man’s face, we realized he had insulted the landlord, mistaking him for the bowab, a man who guards the front door and asks for baksheesh (a tip) once a month. “You don’t like my flat?” He said in a loud and puzzled voice. We had the grace to pause and look at each other, suddenly realizing that we had committed a no-no in apartment hunting in Cairo – insulting the landlord. But we were tired and defeated, so my husband said emphatically “No – we don’t like your flat. At all. We would never live here. It’s ugly,” and off we went. Once back on the street we took one look at each other, and in the exhaustion of the day, burst into laughter. It was completely inappropriate given we had just insulted our host, but we couldn’t stop. The incident was only one of many times when we realized we had a lot to learn about living cross-culturally.

Read the rest here at A Life Overseas!