Monday, January 23, 2012

being "religious" in context

I've been in Egypt for a little over 6 months now. The experiences have been strange, enjoyable, lonely, and maddening all at once. Soon after I was married I learned how to use micro-buses - before I figured out their haphazard yet somewhat systematic methods of operation, it seemed it would be really difficult to get a hang of riding them. But now I can flag them down, look for a seat that hopefully doesn't involve a man's body pressed up against mine, bring out a pound to pay the driver, and yell at the top of my lungs when I want to get off.

I know the best places to buy fruits and vegetables in our neighbourhood. I now know the kinds of food that I like - it took a little discovering, but now I know never to let herring (and other icky Egyptian foods) touch my lips again. I've mostly figured out how to cook, and I've generally got a routine going in my life. So I'm slowly getting used to it here, and not to say that I wouldn't jump at the opportunity to leave, but it doesn't seem as hopeless as it once did.

And now, the problem; I haven't yet learned how to be 'religious' in Egypt. Don't get me wrong, I do all the same acts of worship I used to at home. The essentials haven't changed. And yet I don't feel as though I'm at the same level of religiosity as I once was.

Being raised as a Muslim in the western world gave me a certain attitude towards religion. It was something precious that needed to be constantly maintained, and this meant you needed to be a struggling soul swimming against the current. If you didn't hold on to religion with every ounce of energy you had, you could lose it in an instant.

Everyone thinks it's easier to be religious in majority-Muslim countries, and perhaps that is correct in some senses - i.e. close proximity to mosques, more opportunities for learning, being surrounded by people who don't misunderstand you and therefore having more freedom to explore religious issues within your own community, etc. But for me, I feel that it's harder to be religious in a majority-Muslim country because there is less of a drive for me to struggle.

Perhaps I have always been a bit of a rebel ready to swim upstream, always ready to snap back at racist comments made to me, always holding on with my teeth to my identity as a Muslim woman. Many of those things defined my very existence as a Muslim. And now suddenly I don't have to exert the same kind of effort anymore. Most Egyptians are 'religious' at least in a basic way. When I walk down the street, I'm like every other woman - nothing distinguishes me from her.

And so that external struggle has gone. I know in my heart of hearts that the struggle should never end - rather it should be inverted into an internal struggle instead. I do know that just letting yourself swim along with the current makes your muscles weaken. The last thing I'd want is the atrophy of my ability to hold on to my identity as a Muslim. I'm very slowly re-learning how to be religious in a different context. It's hard, but I refuse to give up. After all, what would my sad rebel soul do if it wasn't struggling against something, even if that something is myself?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

did you know that I cook things?

When I first got married, I had very few cooking skills. Everything that I knew about cooking came from vaguely passing through the kitchen while my mom was cooking, and from watching MasterChef and other Food Network shows. I had no desire to cook, but I did love to watch food shows.

In the months prior to getting married, my mom offered several times to teach me how to cook. But me being the clueless and uncooperative person that I am lead me to adamantly refuse while saying things like "my husband can cook for himself" and other nonsensical strings of words. Needless to say, when I was finally faced with the reality of having to cook, I felt like a chicken with its head cut off. Some of the things that happened to me while I was learning:

-Once we bought a freshly slaughtered chicken and it still had the head attached - I refused to cook it until my husband cut the head off while I was not present.
-I once had to clean a chicken that still had its guts intact. I gagged all through the experience, then was unable to eat the cooked chicken due to my squeamishness.
-I made rice that was the consistency of lumpy oatmeal.
-I burned myself (and continue to do so) on a regular basis. And I burned food.
-I didn't think marinating meaty things prior to cooking was that important.


In the months following this, I came to realize that there are just a few general rules to cooking, and then all else is pretty simple. It's kind of interesting to produce edible things. is now my ultimate favourite website. Here are some of the things I've cooked:

Meat and spinach pies, YUM (If I do say so myself)

Home-made pizza

Fried chicken fingers and fries

Spinach Spanakopita

An Egyptian twist on chicken biryani

Chicken goulash

Stuffed peppers

Chicken soup & rice, mom's style
I'm getting hungry now. Awesome.