Monthly Archives: September 2012


Living in a foreign country means visits to government offices. An intimidating task, to be sure. There’s a lot of trial and error in figuring out exactly what needs to be done when. And then they change all the rules. For a while this is what is required of me:

Take a service (15 passenger van that runs like a bus system) for about 10 minutes to the immigration office. It’s kind of hidden on an alley and the sign is unreadable. Tell the guard why I’m there. Head up three flights of stairs (sometimes two, it changes). Push my way through the mob of men there to she them my passport, pay the 50 cents, and get the form. The form must be obtained that day from that office because of a special stamp. Then I leave that room partly because it’s suffocating, partly because it’s so loud I can’t think. I go back downstairs and outside to the kiosk down the street where they will give me another form and copy the first. I have to actually fill out both forms in triplicate. Then they copy my passport and I buy a bunch of stamps that get put in various places. That part is fun because the stamps are pretty and different colors. Once my documents are fancy enough and everything is in order, I go back up to the first room. Again I push my way through the mob of men. The officer looks at my documents and then sends me to another office. He looks at my documents, signs one and sends me to yet another office. He signs something and then I get to go to the general’s office. This is always a treat. His office is so nice with a tv and a kid who brings him tea and changes the channels. He signs several pages and then sends me back to the original room. Now things are entered into the computer. Here. Always get questioned because my father’s name isn’t on my passport. It’s not on any American passports. It didn’t change from last week (or yesterday). Yet they are still surprised. He enters my information into a computer I’m sure I played Oregon Trail on in elementary school and then tells me to sit. I go over vocabulary from class as I wait for “America” to be called. It’s how I’m identified. They give me my passport and tell me when I get to do the whole process again.

The entire process including transportation costs about $1.75 and between 2-4 hours.


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The weekend that changed it all

I was supposed to have a lovely weekend. I was supposed to have some friends over to study for our Arabic mid-terms. I was supposed to have neighbors over for a visit. I was very excited for this weekend.

In preparation, I decided to make sweet tea and my aunt’s chocolate chip cream cheese bars (after figuring out our version of cream cheese since no Philadelphia was to be found). I mixed and poured and ceremoniously placed my soon-to-be yummy treat in my child-sized oven. I then proceeded to clean in preparation for my impending visitors.

Upon returning to my little kitchen to check on my baking beauties, I discovered what all those living in the Middle East dread – the gas tank had run out and the oven had stopped working. There’s no option for electric ovens. Natural gas, too, is unknown in my city. No, our energy of choice for creating food comes in propane containers on trucks with young boys clanking their wrenches in a rhythm to attract desperate women in need of this resource to feed their families. These trucks drive regularly through neighborhoods except on Fridays. Of course my need came on a Friday. So, after putting my treasure in the fridge in hopes it wouldn’t spoil, I began my trek to find a new gas tank. In my naïveté I began at the gas station near my house. I was informed that they did not, in fact sell gas tanks. However, the neighborhood barber does. Of course, the barber, why didn’t I think of that? So, I walked the short distance to the barber, thankful he was open. Upon entering, I explained that my need. He asked me where my gas tank is. I explained at my house on the fifth floor 2 blocks away. I asked if his worker could bring a gas tank and then get my empty one. He told me to have my husband bring it. I explained that I had no husband. He told me to have my brother bring it. I explained that I lived alone and there was no one to bring it to him for me. He then began a tirade about foreign women and how inappropriate it is for a woman such as myself to be traipsing around the globe unchaperoned. I politely waited, trying to keep my tears at bay, for him to finish berating me and my singleness. Then I asked again if his worker could help. Even the man whose hair he was cutting felt sorry for me and came to my defense. The barber staunchly refused. I left without a gas tank.

Dejected and concerned for my treats, I wandered through my neighborhood, praying for a gas truck. None came. I returned to my apartment plopped on my bed and began to cry over what the barber said about me. I began to wonder if I had made a terrible mistake. Life in the Middle East wasn’t just hard. In that moment, it seemed impossible. How could I begin to make friends? I looked around my little apartment and tried to figure out how I could just go home. In order to buy a plane ticket I had to go to the travel agent and pay in cash. Getting that amount of cash from an ATM would take days. I wanted to hug my mom right then. So I just laid down and cried harder. Once I was out of tears, my eyes drifted to my clock and I realized my guests would be coming soon. So, I lifted my head with new resolve: I will make these chocolate chip cream cheese bars. I will make this my home. I unhooked my gas tank, a first, so I was very proud of myself, and half-carried, half-dragged the tank down the many flights of stairs. I paused about halfway and contemplated how I was going to bring a full tank up since beads of sweat were rolling off my face carrying and empty one down, but decided I would cross that bridge later.

I walked the two blocks to the barber shop, my empty tank in tow, and proudly placed it on the floor. Again the barber yelled and gestured about his disdain for me not having a male over me. However, economy won out and he sold me a full tank. He would not help me bring it to my house. So, I began my journey back to my house dragging a full gas tank with me. And then something so beautiful happened: a shopowner near my house saw my predicament, came out and carried the tank all the way to my house. He even helped me hook it up and then left with my sincere appreciation and a promise of chocolate chip cream cheese bars when they were finished.

I discovered that terrible day that living in the Middle East would be the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted to do. But, if I really give myself and life over and make this place my home, it will surprise me. I’m so looking forward to my next beautiful surprise.

Categories: Beginnings, Changes | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

How Do I Look?

How do I look?

I grew up in America. We wear what we want there. We express who we are through our choice of clothing.

Looking around me, life is far from this. Almost every woman is wearing a version of the same long coat and head scarf. The only variation is the number of buttons and color. Everything is the same. Or so it seems. So how does a young American woman dress in such a conservative society? Do I tow the party line and dress like everyone else? Will it keep the men from touching me if I do? He will I survive the heat in those clothes?

And are they really all dressed alike? Upon further observation, I’m able to see so much more. Some women are completely covered with only their eyes showing. But then others are in long skirts and long sleeved shirts with some of the prettiest head scarves I’ve ever seen. I read once that when God created women, he made us to love beautiful things. It’s why we paint our nails and hang pictures on the wall. And here, even amidst the conservative rules for dress, women express themselves. They find ways of putting who they are into their clothing. It’s not as obvious, but it’s there. So my privilege is to go on a treasure hunt digging for their expressions of beauty. Then my next fun task is to take what I’ve learned from these beautiful women and develop my own sense of style. One that is truly me yet respective of the cultural norms. One that is bright and cheery yet subdued and respectful. I will be the embodiment of paradox. What fun!


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Language Torture

I live in the Middle East so it just makes sense that I learn Arabic. I’ve heard that it’s impossibly difficult, but I’m determined to do this. I’m a great student. I love to study. I’ve got this. No problem.

The first order of business is to register. After much contemplation, I choose a summer course before jumping into the university. So I head over to the building for registration. I’m met with several other non-American foreigners all wanting to study Arabic and all wandering around trying to figure out what to do. After some pretty fancy charades, we find the right room. We are handed a document all in Arabic to fill out. This should’ve been my first sign. Again, more charades as we try to figure out what goes where. Then it’s off to the strange little kiosk where they make copies and have official forms. 4 hours later and I’m registered and told when to come back for class.

And so I return. Pencil case full, eyes bright, ready for the challenge. I find a seat with the only other American woman in the room. 32 of us are anxiously awaiting what the summer will hold. Little did we know the torture that would soon start. Day after day brought tears from some, blank stares of disengagement from others as we were ridiculed for not knowing vocabulary we’d never been given. For three months we were in total bewilderment as our teacher yelled at us for not knowing where to put the kisra (What’s a kisra?). In the heat and dust-filled, stale air we tried in vain to figure out this crazy Arabic puzzle. And each day we left discouraged and wondering if we’d ever learn anything.

And then came the ray of sunshine. In my miserable, defeated state, I trudged over to the university to see about their language program. It isn’t perfect. But there are books! And the classes are only 12. Could such a glorious place actually exist? Or is this merely a mirage, some sort of cruel joke? Have I finally found the place that will teach me Arabic? Will I actually be able to read signs now?


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A Lesson in Hospitality

Arabs bring the concept of hospitality to a whole new level. I thought I understood what it meant. And the I moved into my new building. Just because I lived in the building, my neighbors considered me a friend. It started with a simple knock on my door. I was being invited to tea withe the family across the hall. The extent of my Arabic was how to tell a taxi to get to the few places I knew. So, we sat drinking tea and eating sweets while we exhausted my entire vocabulary and they painstakingly pointed to things to tell me what they are in Arabic. When I left I assumed I’d never hear from them again. It was that excruciating. But the next day another knock came with an invitation for more tea. They quizzed me on the words they taught me the day before and tried to teach me more. And so began one of the most beautiful friendships I’ve ever had.


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