A Cross, A Camel and a Nosepin – Outer Symbols of an Inner Self

20130723-084123.jpgOn a gold chain around my neck I wear an Ethiopian cross and a small gold camel. When I take them off my neck feels naked, but more than that my identity feels compromised.

I also wear a tiny diamond in my nose – my nosepin. I never take it off.

These three objects are outer symbols of my inner self. They come as close as anything will to representing parts of my life that are precious, parts that I can’t always articulate.

The cross was purchased in the Khan el-Khalili market in Cairo, Egypt. This market is famous for its myriad of shops down tiny streets that are so narrow no car could drive through safely.The bazaar sits under the shadow of the Al-Hussein mosque and lures tourists and residents alike into its colors and delights. When you’ve lived in Cairo awhile you get tired of taking your visiting friends to the market, but once you’ve been away you long for those narrow streets and shops filled with perfume bottles of delicate glass, pottery of bright colors, and gold of brilliant shine. We bought the cross on a trip back to Cairo a few years after we uprooted our family and moved to a land far away and unfamiliar – the United States. It represents a a precious faith, a faith that didn’t leave me when I thought I would leave it. A faith that burns brighter through fire, much like the gold in the cross; gold refined by smelting out the impurities.

I love my cross. My Ethiopian cross.

Paired with the cross on the same chain is the camel. One Christmas in Cairo Cliff surprised me with a small gold camel. He had written to parents and family members that he had purchased a solid-gold camel for me for Christmas. For a month following Christmas we received mail joking about our camel. “Could we get it through the door?” “How did we capture it and turn it into gold?” Sarcastic and humorous comments puzzled us until we realized that family thought Cliff was joking. They had never seen the small, delicate camels that were sold in the gold section in Khan el-Khalili and one paragraph ended with “No. Really. What did you really get her?”

I lost that camel. I still don’t know how but losing my signature necklace hurt me in ways that I was unprepared for. Then last year my mother-in-law was taking out some old jewelry to give to my daughter and had two tiny gold camels, camels we had given her as earrings years before. I claimed both of them with a strength that surprised even me. I reclaimed my symbol, my signature piece.

And then there’s my nosepin…..! As a teenager in Pakistan I wanted a nosepin. Someone at the International School in Islamabad had one and I was mightily jealous. But under the roof of my parents, the answer was a resounding “no’. So when I moved to Pakistan with a husband and baby I was determined to change the nose situation. Two months after giving birth to my second child I went to an expensive jewelry shop and sat on a velvet stool. (as Robynn did because it was the same shop) I have never regretted it. Even now, when it’s assumed that I am a left over hippy, I’ve no regrets.

Since time began, we humans have used the tangible to represent the intangible. An object to define what language sometimes can’t.

I am well aware that these are outer symbols. I am aware that they don’t define who I am before God. I still believe outer symbols are important. I believe we wear these symbols to emphasize what we believe and what we love. Just as on Ash Wednesday the ashes mark those who are embarking on a Lenten journey, so do our outer symbols represent some of our journey.

My faith, my travel, my childhood. My God, the Middle East, Pakistan, Identity, Longing — all represented through these symbols. Three simple symbols of a complicated inner self.

What do you think? How have you used outer symbols to reflect your inner self?

Fabric and Grace

Fabric and graceIn the bleak, dull grey of winter, refugees from Somalia, Ghana, and Chad stand out like blazing rays of sunshine; sunshine made of fabric and grace.Wearing my customary black pants and sweater, the assumed business wear of the Career Woman in Boston, I feel drab in comparison. The only color is in my cheeks – red from the cold. I look around and wish I had worn my scarf, purchased for a bargain from a vendor in the Khan el Khalili bazaar in Cairo, boasting colors of brilliant fuchsia, orange, purple, and red beautifully blended into a woven pattern.

The fabric and grace of these refugee patients strikes me. The cloth is light cotton, useless against the chill of the season, but so beautiful. So unexpected. So rich and full of stories.

It’s draped artistically but practically over body and shoulders, a piece of their identity that they struggle to keep despite the winter cold. Heavy coats, purchased from women’s clothing aisles at the Salvation Army and Goodwill stores in the city, hang on chair backs as they sit in the waiting room of this busy community health center.

The United Nations can boast nothing over this waiting room. At any point there are over 70 languages being spoken from over 60 countries.

Each face tells a story, each body represents a journey, each soul a trauma, all wrapped up in fabric and grace.

I want to stop and ask them questions, find out their stories, write their stories and make sure all see them. But I have to go, have to leave all this color and go to a black and white meeting void of fabric or grace. So I smile, say hello, soak in the smiles I’m given in return — more sunshine.

I shake my head in amazement at the resilience of the human spirit, Grace indeed.

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Cairo Coffee Houses

Sitting in crowded outdoor coffee houses, drinking mint tea and partaking of the occasional shisha, talking for hours while time stands still – this is the Cairo coffee house. People watching, politic talking, reminiscing and bonding, the evenings during our recent trip stretched long into the night. Occasionally Backgammon emerged and two of the family played while the rest of us looked on.

It was as though time was nonexistent. We left when our eyes began to get heavy with happy exhaustion. The camaraderie and sense of belonging gave a comfort that many never get to experience and we didn’t want it to end.

There is much the east can teach the west about community and belonging through these coffee houses. In the west coffee shops are often about  providing tables and computer space to individuals rather than catering to groups of people. In the west there is a hurried atmosphere – you need to order quickly, your debit card at the ready so that in a flash you can pay and get out of line, scrambling to find a seat in the process. You have dozens of choices – triple shot, double shot; latte, espresso; hazelnut, vanilla; large, venti; medium, grande; small, tall – it can be physically exhausting if you don’t know how to speak coffee. Although I love going for coffee in the United States, endless time I do not have and community I do not feel.

In a University of California Berkeley study a few years ago it was identified that three quarters of the world operates on a family and friend system of support; the remaining quarter operates on an institutional system of support. It is not surprising that the United States falls into the latter category. There are many things that institutions can do for us, but they can’t provide the human connection for which we are hardwired. Family and friends give us this human connection and there is no place better to develop this connection than the Cairo Coffee House.

Cairo coffee houses with their steaming hot tea,the bright green leaves of fresh mint peaking out of the cup, or ahwa masbut, heaps of coarse white sugar on the side to be sweetened to your liking (diabetes? who cares!) are poured into glass cups that show the beautiful colors of the beverage choices. There are plenty of refills and the warmth goes through body straight to soul.

It’s a false illusion to be sure, but when one relaxes in the wonder of Cairo coffee houses it’s easy to feel that the Middle East is at peace.

Chai at Fishawy's in the Khan el Khalili Bazaar

Cairo in Review – Travel is Fatal

Bloggers Note – Thank you everybody who responded and chose to follow this blog following the post Tahrir Square – Walls and Graffiti being Freshly Pressed. I hope to respond to all your comments and appreciate that you decided to follow this blog. Here’s hoping you won’t be disappointed.

One of my readers and friends commented on the post “These are the Moments – Alexandria, Egypt” that she felt the stories from our trip to Egypt would tumble out once back in Cambridge. While they are not tumbling, they are swirling around my brain and I know I am not finished writing about them. A quote attributed to Mark Twain says that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Perhaps it is also fatal to contentment for it is hard to be content with the normal when you have experienced the extraordinary.

This post then, is an attempt to give glimpses of the extraordinary through pictures and narrative. Thank you for taking the trip along with me to Egypt, an extraordinary place with extraordinary people.

The Beginning

Arriving in Cairo on a Thursday afternoon is like arriving in a western nation on a Friday afternoon. There is a sense in the air that the work week is ending and as we arrived there was a celebratory feel that had nothing to do with the fact that it’s two days before Christmas and everything to do with the end of a work week. As I said in an earlier post, the comfort of familiarity greeted us immediately – we were, in many ways, home. We settled into the guest house where we were staying and then headed to Annie’s apartment on a busy street near Midan Falaki. The kusherie shop at the entrance to her building brought tantalizing smells of lentils, pasta, rice and spicy tomato sauce. Through a side entrance we took a rickety, ancient elevator careful to heed the warnings of a man who let us know that no more than three people should be riding at a time. The elevator stopped at the 9th floor, top of the building and we spent a good hour ooohing and aaahing over the view. It was incredible. The Mokattam hills stretched out miles away and a Coptic church was in the foreground. Across the street were the dusty remains of an ancient outdoor theatre, long gone but chairs still sitting ready for a show. Just below to the right we saw four tanks and ten army men in full riot gear, at the ready should any trouble erupt. This did not give us comfort but rather made us realize the force that is sometimes quietly, and other times loudly used against protesters. An early dinner of shawerma and fuul bean sandwiches was followed by chai and shisha in a coffee shop across a busy street and down a side street from the apartment. After hours of talk and laughter we headed back to Zamalek and a jet lagged sleep, fully of satisfaction and the comfort of belonging.

View from Annie’s Roof top

Tahrir Square, Bab Zuweila and More…

Friday is the Muslim Holy day and is a day off in Egypt. Sermons from mosques throughout the city are periodically heard and men gather in large numbers at local mosques to observe this holy day through prayers and meeting together. We headed out to get a lunch of fateer (Egyptian pizza) close to Tahrir Square where a large demonstration was taking place. Newspapers quoted numbers of 50,000 and more at the square. We were amazed by the passion and numbers, something that was quickly squelched during the Mubarak years and now a common occurrence. Graffiti on newly constructed walls and leftover from the uprising in January captured our attention and the lens of the camera. We took a slow walk from Tahrir   Square over to the Nile where we took a boat ride, something that has long been a favorite family activity, on the Nile. Dinner at a Yemeni restaurant ended a day that will stay in our memories for many years.

We headed out to Bab Zuweila and the Khan el Khalili on Saturday, Christmas Eve. If you ever go to Cairo, Bab Zuweila is a must see, must do. Despite living in Cairo for seven years and many trips back, it was only in 2010 that I entered this medieval gate and climbed the minarets to the mosque beside the gates. The minarets give a 360 degree view of the city and it was an overwhelming sense of how small I am in this city of millions.

We took the short walk from Bab Zuweila to the Khan el Khalili market and walked  into one of the many entrances to this well-known tourist destination. The spice shop we have gone to for years was still there, solid through change and revolution, pungent aromas and spices you never see in the west ready in large burlap sacks.

Despite the vendors constant shouts of “Let me help you spend your money!” “Welcome to Alaska” and “Come here, I have lovely things for you to buy!” I still love this market. I love the game of bargaining and finding treasures for pennies. I love being served tea while I pick out perfume bottles. I love ending the shopping experience with mint tea at Fishawy’s café.

After cleaning up from the dust of the city, we put on our Christmas Eve best and met at the Lebanese restaurant Taboula in the heart of Garden City. Mezzas of every kind, fresh pita bread, and aseer lemon (frothy lemon juice) was a perfect Christmas Eve meal, followed by a 10:30 pm service at the All Saints Cathedral in Zamalek. Time was rushing past and I wanted to hold it back, hold it tight so that it wouldn’t escape us like a dream. Now as I sit in Cambridge, it feels like a dream.

Cairo Tower from the vantage point of a boat in the Nile

Walking to Khan el Khalili after Bab Zuweila

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Christmas Day and Alexandria

No snow greeted us on Christmas day but clear skies and 68 degree weather were reminders of many past Christmases. Christmas dinner was roasted chickens from a street vendor with traditional condiments served buffet style in a high apartment overlooking Tahrir Square. We celebrated with friends of Annie’s from various places around the globe. Growing up overseas and then living overseas as long as we have makes us quite passionate and vocal about God not being an American, but rather a global God with an international vision. Christmas overlooking Tahrir was one more reminder of many of the truth of that belief.

The day after Christmas saw us on a train to Alexandria, beautiful city on the Mediterranean. You can read more here but this too was an extraordinary trip and an amazing time. The Alexandria Library is a beautiful building with a rich history and serves as both a place of learning as well as a cultural center. A must see in the city of Alexandria. This city has a different and more relaxed feel to it than Cairo – perhaps it’s the Mediterranean air that works its way into the psyche and affects everything from the pace to the general mood. It is another reminder of all that Egypt has to offer the world.

Pyramids, Bulaq and Al Azhar Park

Our last days in Cairo included family favorites. Egypt is best known for the ancient Pyramids,said to be the oldest and only remaining ancient wonders of the world. Built around 2600 BC, they are beyond what you can imagine – only this time, I stayed back for coffee and shopping with Annie while the others headed out for horseback riding out into the desert and another visit to the pyramids. I know some of you may be thinking “Are you kidding? You skipped a trip to the pyramids!” but let me assure you, I have been to them dozens of times and have been wowed every time. Plus – I didn’t want to put my 51 year-old body on a horse. The stories that came out of the trip for the rest of the family are not mine to tell but are great and include a falling horse and amazing pictures.

We ended our time on Thursday at Al Azhar Park. This park is my favorite place in Cairo besides Marty’s balcony. In a city with little green space, the park is an oasis with views that cannot be described. I wrote about this park in the post “In Praise of Green Space” so will not go into more detail here, but it is a calm and beautiful space in a city where you need to get refreshment.

Back in Cambridge Cairo feels like a dream but bearing witness in narratives is as old as life itself – so thank you for listening and letting me bear witness to our trip through this medium. I realize that even as I write, the words are far too many and I don’t want to bore. So I’ll end with pictures and hope that you want more! I have said this before, and I’ll say it many more times – it is a privilege to share just a bit of this country. It is so much more than you will see on Fox news or CNN. It is so much more than the pyramids and old mosques. It is a people and a place that move into your heart and mind so that you beg to experience more.

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