Friday, October 24, 2014

Dusty Rose-Tinted lenses of Wonder

Lately I have been watching numerous episodes of 'The Wonder Years' here in Cairo, thanks to my flatmate Tressa and her 1 terabyte external hard-drive full of downloaded entertainment -and also the fact that my productivity in marking student quizzes seems increased by watching something at the same time.

In case anyone isn't familiar with 'The Wonder Years', this television show from the 1980's was about a young boy's coming of age in the late 1960's. It starred child actor Fred Savage and featured a lot of great vintage music as well as voice-overs, teenage melodrama and him licking his lips in angst. The funny thing about 'The Wonder Years' is that when I watch it, I am overwhelmed with nostalgia - not only for the fact that I grew up as a kid watching this show about a boy growing up, but nostalgia for what my parents must have felt watching a show about growing up in the 1960's, when they themselves grew up then.

I am not sure of the word for empathetic or collective nostalgia, or if it is a phenomenon for anyone else besides me, but I have always been obsessed with other people's stories, lives, and pasts - to the point where I will actually feel nostalgia for something that I myself didn't experience, if I observe others experiencing the glaze of memory in some shared revery or moment. Thinking about this got me to thinking about perception in general, and the concept of objectivity - or perhaps more specifically, objective reality.

Every morning Sunday through Thursday,  I am picked up at 7 am in a minibus and driven to work. This drive might be quite possibly the ugliest drive I have ever experienced on a regular basis; dusty morning pollution coagulating the arteries of the Cairo suburb of Maadi; Rusty petrol trucks leaking their toxic liquids onto the road as we careen around another roundabout and dodge mangy street dogs, fruitcarts, and brave jaywalkers in uncomfortable-looking suits, attempting to make their way across the freeway, to catch their own particular minibus to work. Unfinished buildings line the roads; rebar and bricks piled and left to burn in the sun beside heaps of cement block and disposed garbage and plastic bags. It's a frantic chaotic mess of a morning, so far removed from anything resembling beauty - I close my eyes as the breeze (and dust and dirt) hits my face through the open window; Other teachers crammed in next to me sip their coffees and discuss the days gossip; the driver curses in Arabic while pressing heavily on the horn, and our sweaty minibus exercises its breaks to avoid hitting a overtly confident motorcyclist.

This is one lens of Cairo - the lens of commuting to work in a 20 million person Metropolis that just happens to exist in the middle of the desert. It is the Cairo of dust and smog and uncountable numbers of satellite dishes on rooftops. It is the Cairo of ugliness and decay and general urban disaster. It is the Cairo my Dad referred to years ago when I mentioned wanting to travel to Egypt - "Cairo is the world's largest up-ended ashtray". 

But then there is the lens of Cairo seen in beauty -in fragments of awe and perfection. It is the kaleidoscopic view found in the old Islamic quarter at sunset, standing on the roof of a mosque, watching a man on another rooftop tend to his pigeon coop. It is observing him feed them, as others circle in the air, dancing through the dozens of minarets and the late afternoon haze. It is the feeling of gratitude and inspiration at such a beautiful skyline that makes you want to call a pigeon a dove. The sound of the call to prayer, sung by someone who can actually sing, the morning light on my balcony, shards of sunshine through the hibiscus tree. It is in unknown alleys and unexplored streets, in rooftop bars that never close and plates of free mezze eaten with friends  It is in the seemingly overt presence of chance and fate; every day I feel like absolutely anything could happen - whether it's meeting a fascinating old man in my neighbourhood who runs an artist studio and wants to help me print a book, or getting hit by a truck - It's all there, good, bad and everything in between.

I suppose this is the case for everyone - that our reality is determined more by the lens that which we see things, not by any measure of truth or actuality. Cairo -like all places I have lived and visited- isn't a place on a map, or defined by any precise objective reality, but rather in the momentary lens that I happen to be viewing it through. Just as I will never know what it was like to experience the 1960's firsthand, I will perhaps never know 'real Cairo' - because such a thing doesn't tangibly exist except to those who experience it, or observe. Cairo unfolds as I imagine it, and I ascribe subjective meaning and importance to things because of my choice of lens. I would like to think that this doesn't invalidate my comments, or that my life here as a transient observer isn't somehow less legitimate. Maybe this is what all writers do; elevate the subjective and ignore the concept of objectivity entirely.

The Pigeon keeper on his rooftop exists eternally now, as does every other nuance and subtlety that I have ever happened to notice - immortalized in my memory, my mind mummified in wonder and delight.

Monday, October 13, 2014

I Yam Thankful for Soup

It is dinner time in Cairo - breakfast time in 9 hours behind Calgary, Alberta, Canada. When I sit down to relax with an end-of-the-day Stella beer, you people are all sipping on morning coffees

Today is also Thanksgiving Day in Canada, an Autumn holiday that I actually don't really honestly remember the logistics of -beyond Turkey, Cranberries and pumpkin pie. I do know that American Thanksgiving happens a full month later (and Canadians just have to be different, don't they?) around the time of that other quintessentially American holiday - The Superbowl. Everyone with any knowledge of American History knows that American Thanksgiving has received a fair bit of justly given bad press in the past 20 or so years, for being a neo-Colonial celebration of the near-genocide of the Native Peoples of the America's. What exactly the pilgrims were 'giving thanks' for might never be proven, but we can suppose with some certainty it wasn't the existence of pumpkin spice loaf and lattes.

The celebration of Thanksgiving then -either American or Canadian- might be a somewhat uncomfortable if not downright blasphemous holiday. Canadian Thanksgiving actually also falls on American Columbus Day, which is a celebration of the explorer's supposed "discovery" of the new world in 1492; Nevermind the fact that there were millions of people already inhabiting this place before his arrival (or the fact that explorers from Kingdoms in Muslim Spain, Mali, and The Ottomans are thought to have actually landed in America way before Columbus), any day off from work is a good day in my mind, and being thankful for things never hurt anybody.

As a kid Thanksgiving to me meant nothing more than celebrating the wonderful season of Autumn; the time of year for rusty coloured crunchy piles of leaves, for raking them together and stuffing them in giant orange bags; first morning frosts on the way to school, new corduroy pants and fuzzy sweaters; the smell of things baking as the sun begins to set earlier in the evening, and a pre-cursor to the most glorious of all the fall holidays - Halloween. Being a born and bred city girl, the term "harvest" never meant much beyond picking out a giant pumpkin from a Safeway Bin, but the romance of the season persists: I love Fall. This love grew out of my childhood all the way into Adulthood and eventually gave way to an appreciation of the death of summer, the season of renewal, solitude and cozying up for the ever-dreaded winter.

I am currently living in a country where neither Thanksgiving, nor Halloween are celebrated- beyond perhaps the occasional party frequented by ex-pats. I am in a city where the season of Autumn doesn't actually exist at all - Cairo has 2 seasons, Summer and Winter, and in the spirit of being thankful, I will state that neither requires the use of Ugg boots, longjohns, a snowsuit, or such homely concepts as a 'neckwarmer'.

Despite this, I do miss Canadian thanksgiving, my family and friends and all the roasted-root-vegetable glory of the season; In its honour tonight I cooked a big pot of vaguely Autumn appropriate harvest-y soup.

Here is the recipe:

Easy-peasy Autumn-esque Red Lentil and Yam soup for giving thanks

1 cup Red Lentils
Olive oil
1 onion
3 cloves garlic
2 potatoes
2 yams
2 carrots
1 cube stock mix
3 tablespoons tomato paste (or pasta sauce or whatever you happen to have handy)
cumin, curry powder, salt and pepper
half a yellow or red pepper chopped small

First, get a bowl to rinse and soak the lentils, changing the water a few times and throwing away any debris, stones, spiders, chunks of gold etc etc.  While the lentils take a bath, chop your veggies - onions and garlic small, potatos and other root vegetables a little bigger. (Think small cubes). Don't cut yourself , knives are sharp. Saute the onions and garlic in some olive oil until they begin to look soft and yummy and squishy, adding spices as desired. Try not to drop too many stray pieces of onion on the floor ; the ants love onions and who knows what carnage you might wake up to tomorrow morning. Drain the lentils from their murky tubwater, and add alongside the rest of the veggies and 3/4 of a litre of bottled water (or tap water if you live in a place where tap water doesn't taste like a stagnant pool after a kid pees in it). Add the tomato paste and stock cube and bring everything to a boil, then turn the heat down to a simmer. Put a lid on it (this is the part where you can crack a beer and dance around the kitchen singing "if you like it then you shoulda put a liddddd on it", like Beyonce - or maybe thats just me), and go on facebook for 15 minutes. Come back, stir your soup, then go back on Facebook for another 15 minutes (nothing has changed, but check it anyways). Go back to the kitchen and check the soup - Is it mushy? Taste it. Yummy? Good. Turn off heat and grab a lemon to squeeze in the bowl, and maybe some bread and butter too. Eat and congratulate yourself once again on a meal well done, and maybe give thanks that it was so delicious.

Get back to your roots
Simmer down


Basic soup parts

Tressa is most thankful for my soup

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Pasta with Eggplants

Let me first tell you what I was planning to write about:

I had planned to write a succinct and clever post about the Eid Feast of the sacrifice and subsequent 5 days off from school, my trip to the Sinai peninsula, about the numerous checkpoints on the road, about the horrifying filthy bus stations of middle-of-nowhere Egypt, about the unfortunate early morning flat tire in the middle of the supposed insurgent littered desert, about the truck of black-clad AK-47 wielding men who showed up as I stretched out my stiff morning shoulders in a scant tanktop at the side of the road - and me bursting out in maniacal laughter imagining them to be Islamic militants (actually it was the Egyptian army showing up to protect us from just that). I wanted to write in depth about all of these things, about lazing on the beach with Saudi Arabia in the distance, about the death of Tourism in the wonderful hippie town of Dahab, about anything and everything not related to my all-consuming job of teaching English, (which seems to infiltrate every other conversation and is making me feel very boring)..but as I am currently in the midst of cooking up a mean pot of pasta, I have decided instead to just post a recipe.


Julia's vaguely Turkish-style Spaghetti with Eggplants
(Aka. The Vegetarian pasta dish that people who eat meat will actually enjoy)

3 small eggplants, sliced thinly and cut into half-rounds (peeled if you live in Cairo)
2 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped
1 onion chopped up
Small jar tomato sauce (here we have Kraft brand "Pasta sauce" - it's decent actually)
Cumin, curry powder, salt, pepper, oregano
Olive oil for cooking
Bag of pasta, whatever shape tickles your fancy
Feta cheese
Several beers

First, saute them onions in some better quality olive oil till they are nice and soft; add the garlic and spices and continue to saute. Fry until your kitchen smells good, while swiggin' a beer and killing ants on your kitchen counter. Then add a little more oil and the sliced eggplants. Cook on med-high heat until the eggplants start to look soft and have absorbed some spicy goodness. Add more oil and cumin as needed. After about 10 minutes things should be looking semi-cooked; add the tomato sauce and some water so it doesn't stick. Cook on low heat while you light another burner on the gas stove, (carefully throwing the used match in the sink ya hear?) Boil water for the pasta, adding some salt to disguise the taste of the chlorine. Sit on the couch and begin writing on your blog, then get up to check the pasta, then sit down again get up again, get annoyed at the mundane task of cooking; tell your room-mate that you hate cooking and that life is too short to spend hovering over a pot of steaming liquids. Get up again, maybe now the pasta is done. Drain pasta and top with sauce, some small spoonfuls of Istanbul style feta, and some yogurt and salt,pepper, hot sauce etc as needed. Eat it fast, while drinking beer -start to sweat a little. Feel momentarily pretty good about this cooking thing. Fall on the couch while your roomate does dishes.


Disinfected Produce

bubbling pot of goodness

Arabic Pastas

Olive oil, ISIS brand spices

finished plates ready to be devoured

Mmmm carbs

Sriracha sauce for all

Hurray for timer shots!

Watch out for those pesky kitchen ants!