On Saturday afternoon Nawal comes home. She sets down her bag and keys on the countertop and walks to the kitchen sink. It’s empty. While cleaning up after breakfast this morning, she got distracted and forgot to take out a broiler chicken from the freezer. She was listening to the radio and heard that only hours before three bombs were detonated in the tourist district of Kuta in Bali. Nawal had never heard of Kuta, but the news was upsetting. It was little more than a year ago that she heard of the Twin Towers, and the shockwaves from that day that reverberated all the way from there to here had only recently begun to ebb.
Thinking of this morning, Nawal realizes how much she hates frozen food, but she can’t go every day to the supermarket for fresh food, so every Saturday afternoon, after her daughter’s netball practice, she loads up her car, and stacks her freezer and pantry with supplies for the week. Everything frozen is washed, trimmed, peeled and chopped. All she needs to do is take out a bag of frozen peas or carrots or corn in the morning, drop it in the kitchen sink, and it will be defrosted by the time she is home in the afternoon to prepare dinner. But it doesn’t feel all that easy and convenient to Nawal, and it certainly doesn’t taste as good as it should.
Her family is fasting to make up for the few days during ramadan last year that they missed when they were all sick with the flu. It will be time to break their fast soon and she is tired and wants to prepare a meal without much fuss. Her husband and children will be hungry and irritable, wanting comfort food to fill their bellies quickly and rush the blood from their brains so they can eat and then collapse in front of the TV until their bodies return to equilibrium. But here, at home in Auckland, on the north island of New Zealand, there is no chicken she can roast, no doorman she can yell down to to run to the market for her, no family member she can impose on at the last minute, and no invitation to break their fast with another family in another home. If she was there, at home in Banha, a city half an hour north of Cairo, she wouldn’t have to worry too much.
Her freezer there never saw a broiler chicken or a bag of frozen peas. She bought her peas in their pods, shelled them at home while sitting on her balcony, chatting to the neighbor, Mariam, who would sit close by on the next balcony, shelling her own peas, or trimming the stems from the okra parceled in her lap or hollowing zucchinis or eggplants for stuffing. This was an afternoon ritual, after preparing, serving, and cleaning up after breakfast, rushing herself to the university, teaching her class, checking in with her supervisor, rushing to the market, and rushing back home to have lunch prepared for her husband. He would leave the university at 2:30pm, stroll home, checking in on a friend or two along the way, and walk across the threshold at 3pm, to be greeted by his wife yelling from the kitchen that lunch would be served momentarily. All he needed to do was wash up, and by the time he returned to the dining room, food would be on the table.
Nawal never felt demeaned by the division of labor in her marriage. She liked to cook, he was hopeless at cleaning, and deep down she felt chuffed that he was pleased with her efforts and confident that his life would not be as good without her. She wasn’t in love with him, but she did love him. They had known each other for two years before he told her he wanted to ask her family for her hand in marriage. Expecting his proposal, she was excited when it came. She was sure they were a good match. He was attractive, intelligent, ambitious and from a good family. He was also kind and encouraged her professional pursuits, never standing in the way of her spending time with her family and friends. She was sure to put him first, so he never had reason to stand in the way.
Nawal and her husband had agreed to wait a little before having children. She wanted to finish her doctorate and he wanted to travel. When he was offered a teaching position abroad, she was nervous, but he convinced her that they would not stay for too long – four or five years, till the children would be ready to start school and when it would be important to return to the security of the things that would make sure their children knew where they were from. But five or six years turned into many years and neither Nawal nor her husband could pinpoint exactly why, or when, they had decided to stay. They were staying, it seemed, till they decided to leave. Now she has to decide what to prepare for her family to eat. She has the groceries she bought this afternoon, but she is once again distracted and can’t decide what to do with them.
Earlier that day Nawal had taken her daughter to netball practice. She parked her car behind the gymnasium and her daughter, as usual, jumped out before her and ran ahead to catch up with her friends. Nawal caught up with a few of the other parents and was met with the news that Islamic terrorists were suspects in the bombings in Kuta. One of the parents was telling another, and as they were walking into the gymnasium another overheard. Then another, and another. They did not yet know the number injured or dead. As they walked into the gymnasium, Nawal said hello and smiled at the other parents, who made their way to the back of the bleachers so they could chat or read a newspaper. But her hello was greeted with nods, half smiles and no words, so she found a spot down the front just off the side of the court. Nawal watched her daughter and her friends play and tried not to think about those shockwaves from last year. She felt as though they were rising again, gaining momentum, increasing in pressure. At one point to distract herself she checked and rechecked her grocery list: bread, milk, yogurt, eggs, tomatoes, snow peas, green beans, onions, garlic, honey, jam, corn flakes, … In the morning when she sat and wrote the list she remembered she had two broiler chickens in the freezer and didn’t need to buy more.
Now, standing over her kitchen sink, looking out the window to her backyard, Nawal starts to cry. Ramadan is a very lonely time for her, and it’s less than a month away. There is a small Muslim community in Auckland, but the country is not Muslim, so the schedules are not either. People are often too busy, and too tired, to gather for the break of fast at dusk, to spend time at the mosque in the evening for taraweeh prayers, or for women to spend the last couple of days making kahk, the eid biscuits filled with minced dates and crushed nuts. Her mother taught her how to make kahk, and brought her a chair at the kitchen table when she was knee-high to join all the women in the family in kneading and rolling, pressing and filling.
Everyone gathered at her mother’s home for this tradition because her mother had her own mincer that they used to make date paste. She also had enormous stainless steel mixing bowls to make mountains of dough. There would be sacks of flour, tins of yeast, sesame seeds toasting on a skillet over a low heat, jars of clarified butter, boxes of dried dates, and roasted almonds and pistachios and walnuts. Her mother and grandmother would start the dough early to give it time to rise, then sisters and their daughters would arrive, swap their heels for house slippers by the door, and roll up their sleeves. They would play music, usually Abd El Haleem Hafez or Mohammad Abd El Wahab, pretending to serenade each other like lovers in old movies, catch up on gossip, joke and laugh, and make their pronouncements on the state of the world, the nation, the town, and each other.
The youngest at the table always got the most menial tasks. For the longest time Nawal was stuck fetching and putting away ingredients, wiping down tables and stacking trays. Soon, cousins got old enough to get their seat at the table and Nawal was promoted to the wheel of the mincer, pushing dates through the funnel, struggling to turn the wooden handle, and churning out spaghetti strands of paste that would then be mixed with toasted sesame seeds and a little hot, clarified butter to make it more malleable. By the time the youngest cousin took her seat at the table, Nawal was senior enough to take her under her wing and boss her around just as she had been bossed around for years.
Nawal’s mother had dozens of wooden cookie molds and the metal pincers used to make patterns on the kahk, but Nawal would be mesmerized by her grandmother sitting next to her at the table. She never used cookie molds. Her hands were swift and light, and her motions effortless and rhythmic. She would take a scoop of dough from the huge metal bowl in the middle of the table, roll it in her hands, cup the ball in her left hand, and form a pit in the middle with the press of her right thumb. Filling it with a spoonful of minced dates or crushed nuts, she would fold the edges over, hiding what was inside. Another quick roll and she would press the ball into her left palm just a little to flatten the bottom, and with her metal pincers make a pattern on the top. And when any one of Nawal’s cousins would complain, tired and hungry, that the day was dragging on and on, and why did they have to go to so much trouble when the local baker could make kahk for them, their grandmother would be the first to quiet her – “Your food has your touch. What do you want people to taste? The sweat and indifference of the baker? Or the impatience and resentment you have right now? At the very least you can be vain,” she would say, tilting her head to one side and half smiling, “- try to make your impression on someone.”
Once they finished, they would call down to the doorman to take the trays to the ovens of the local baker. They were too big and too many to be cooked at home and each household could identify their kahk from the patterns they made. Most people used the ovens of the local baker, and Osman, the doorman, would run up and down the stairs, carrying the trays on his turban, holding the edge of his galabeyya between his teeth so he wouldn’t trip, and return the trays with piping hot kahk smelling buttery and delicious a few hours later. That was enough time for all the women to shower, put on a clean galabeyya, and resume their place at the table, now relaxing, still listening to overly-romantic serenades, and joking and laughing, although quieter and fatigued. Once the kahk cooled they would force themselves to finish the day. They would dust the nut-filled kahk with powdered sugar and each would take a share of everyone’s efforts. Then they would swap their borrowed slippers for their heels and head home to prepare food for their families in time to break their fast. After Nawal and her husband broke their fast, they would sit quietly together on their balcony and stare out to the noise of the neighborhood, each cradling a small clear glass of hot, sweet, minty tea.
Before Nawal left Banha for Auckland, her mother gave her a set of wooden cookie molds and metal pincers so she could continue making kahk while she was away. Nawal assumed she would carry on this tradition with her daughter, but she has a hard enough time carrying on this tradition on her own. She bought a Kitchenaid to save time kneading dough and a grinder attachment so she can easily make date paste, and after her children have gone to bed, she spends the last few nights of ramadan baking, then fills Tupperware containers for her children to take to school to surprise their teachers and friends. She invites neighbors over for tea and introduces them to her now-lonely tradition that puts a warm, human face on Islam. Her husband’s colleagues send home notes thanking her for her kind gesture, and the mail carrier every year asks her to give her the recipe, which she does, and which the mail carrier misplaces, leaving her free to make the same request the next year. Nawal’s mother calls her every year at the end of ramadan to tell her that they have finished making kahk, that her grandmother is getting too old but insists that they continue the tradition together, and that there were two empty seats at the table. Nawal tries not to cry and tells her mother, “Next year, in sha allah.”
Now, stepping back from her kitchen sink, Nawal decides to make taa’mayya (the flatter, sesame seed specked Egyptian version of falafel) for dinner. She makes a salad of feta and tomato and another of yoghurt and cucumber. Her family is a little annoyed and grudgingly eats what she’s prepared, tight-lipped knowing full well that a complaint would render their day of sacrifice null and void. Tight-lipped because they know she’s made an effort and they should be grateful. Tight-lipped even though it’s not really what they want, except her daughter, who does let out a little disappointment – “I wish I could have had a slice of pizza.” – which makes Nawal angry, but not at her daughter.
Each Saturday at netball the parents take turns picking up pizza for the girls who are always famished after practice. This afternoon it was Simone Godsall’s father who picked up pizza. When he opened the boxes as the girls made their way to the side of the court Nawal noticed that the pizzas were topped with ham and pineapple. What would the Italians think of the New Zealanders who topped their pizza with ham and pineapple? Nawal thought as she caught the smell of the small pieces of pinky flesh. The smell made her nauseous and she couldn’t understand how anyone could eat it. Simone Godsall and Nawal’s daughter had been friends since nursery school and Mr Godsall had always been polite. Not friendly, but polite. When Nawal looked at him she knew he was doing his best not to look at her. One of the other parents, Lena Ryan’s mother, saw the pizzas and looked over to Nawal. She whispered, giving away her embarrassment, “Couldn’t she just take off the bits of ham?” Nawal looked at her and whispered back, “No.” Nawal’s daughter hadn’t noticed as she walked over to Mr Godsall and said, “Thanks, but I’m fasting today.”
Sitting at the dining table with her husband and her children Nawal tries to put out of her mind what had happened today, but then she starts to think about how she had not wanted to come here and leave her family and friends in Banha. She did not want to leave her students and her colleagues, and the PhD she was completing at the same university where her husband had completed his. But she did. She left the Land of the Pharaoh for the Land of the Long White Cloud, on the other side and at the other end of the earth, nine hours in the future (10 during daylight saving), winter when it is summer, 8:30am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, except public holidays. Here there is the New Zealand Dollar instead of the Egyptian Pound, it rains about 137 days a year, instead of about two, buses and trains run according to schedule, things are rarely lost in the mail, and only Christian holidays are publicly observed, rather than Christian and Muslim. But, tap water is safe to drink and thank God the measurements are also metric and Celsius.
When she arrived here, she found herself adjusting to quiet neighborhoods, nuclear families, supermarkets with car parks, and being called Missus. When she had her children she was visited at the hospital and was left with bouquets of flowers and helium filled balloons. She has privacy, a manicured garden, recycling bins, and a driveway. If someone asks if she wants a cup of coffee, she says yes, thanks, straight away if she wants one, and knows when she offers she does not need to insist three times before the intended recipient accepts.
On Sunday afternoon, just as she does every week, Nawal crosses her street to have a cup of coffee with Mrs Mulroney. When Nawal first moved into the neighborhood, Mrs Mulroney eyed her suspiciously from across the street, until Nawal appeared at her doorstep with a plate of basbousa and an invitation to come over for tea. Mrs Mulroney eyed the semolina cake and told her she didn’t drink tea, she drank coffee, and her arthritis kept her at home most of the time. So Nawal said, “So I’ll just pop over and see you then.” And she does, with a plate of basbousa and to water the hanging orchids the old lady can no longer reach atop the pergola in her backyard. When she opens the screen door today and calls, “Hello,” she sees Mrs Mulroney coming down the stairs wringing a rolled up newspaper in her hands. She replies, “Hello,” but with a voice shaken. Mrs Mulroney tells her that 88 Australians were killed in Kuta. She is so sad, she tells Nawal, and when Nawal offers to make coffee, “No,” Mrs Mulroney says. She doesn’t feel like coffee and doesn’t feel as though she would be good company. “Ok,” Nawal tells her, she will just water the plants then. On her way out Nawal leaves the plate of basbousa on the kitchen table. When Mrs Mulroney walks her to the front door, Nawal turns to her and says, “Maybe next time.”
Everyone in Auckland, it seems, is on time, which means that Nawal, still after all these years, is always late. But she never shows up empty-handed. She is known by everyone as “Nawal, Bearer of Sugar and Spice.” Even though Nawal arrived in Auckland fluent in English and helps her children with their assignments on Kipling and CS Lewis, she gave up any dream of finishing her PhD. When she had the chance to, she convinced herself that she was too busy with the children, keeping house, tending to her husband, and working at a small immigrant community centre four days a week, from 9am to 3pm as an interpreter and relocation counselor. Nawal could have quit her job, but her meeting with a potential supervisor a few years ago didn’t go so well.
The university that accepted her candidacy for PhD was willing to let her continue where she left off. So she visited the faculty, met with the dean, walked through the corridors, and noticed that apart from a few secretaries, there were no women. Nawal was told that there was only one professor who had a background in the subject of her research and he was happy to meet with her. When she walked into his office and sat down in front of stacks of papers on his desk, she saw the crumbs and bits of lettuce around the half-eaten sandwich sitting in gnarled plastic wrap in front of his computer. Nawal thought of the sandwiches she made and wrapped for her children’s lunchboxes every morning but pictured them sitting in the playground every day eating with their friends.
The professor asked Nawal questions about her research, but she couldn’t stop thinking about his sandwich. When Nawal started working at the immigrant community center she noticed that none of her colleagues ate lunch. They all said they preferred to eat at home, but Nawal couldn’t get through the day without eating and felt uncomfortable sitting in the lunchroom on her own. So one day she brought enough food for everyone, and everyone sat and ate with her. They were famished, they confessed, but none of them had gotten used to unwrapping the plastic on a sandwich of sliced bread and whatever they had put in it four or five hours before. And as far as they were concerned, microwaves ruined food. So that day they threw out the one in the lunchroom and pitched in to buy a secondhand oven and stovetop so every day at work they could share their leftovers of stuffed eggplants, lasagnas and rice pilafs and turn on the office voicemail for 45 minutes while they sat down to eat.
But six weeks ago funding for the center was cut and they all lost their jobs. They do stay in touch, calling each other to catch up, to be reminded of a recipe or a grocery store that one of them had told them about. Nawal, though, wouldn’t recommend any grocery stores. In Auckland she relies on brand names that she likes instead of grocery stores. In Banha she would have relied on the street vendors she knew. But here she learned to read the list of ingredients on everything to make sure she knows what contains pork, ham, lard, gelatin derived from animal collagen, or E120 red food coloring derived from female insects. So her kids don’t eat jelly babies, or chocolate fish, or pineapple lumps. They get annoyed at this, so she overcompensates with Jaffas, the chocolate centered lollies with their crisp orange shell, which she likes the taste of, but more so likes the fact that they are named after the oranges made famous by the sea town on the Mediterranean not far from where she is from. She also likes the fact that every July people gather on the Southern Island in Dunedin at the top of the world’s steepest street to raise money for charity by releasing 30 000 Jaffas to roll down the 350 meters that make up Baldwin Street. This, she thinks, makes New Zealanders the most amusing people on earth.
Here, Nawal drives on the left-hand side of the road and knows that it is compulsory for every occupant of a vehicle to wear a seat belt, pedestrians and cyclists are not permitted on motorways, it is illegal to park your car facing oncoming traffic, and vehicles must not stop on motorways, unless in case of an emergency. Where she is from there was often no delineation on the roads between vehicles, pedestrians and horse-drawn carts, no one cared for seatbelts, and people were not loathe to pull over on the side of a bridge, with folding chairs, backgammon, transistor radio, and a thermos of tea, to enjoy the cool breeze and the view. It was the Nile River after all. She learned the words to “God Save the Queen” and now drinks tea fewer times a day, with less sugar and no mint, in a big, opaque mug. She also learned how to make pavlova, topped with strawberries and, of course, kiwifruit, which she learned has its origins in southern China and not New Zealand. Kiwifruit makes her tongue feel furry, but she knows that here you don’t make pavlova without it.
Nawal sends out Seasons Greetings cards when she receives ones wishing her a Merry Christmas and she graciously invites in neighbors who pop by with a loaf of boiled fruitcake. Her family can’t stand boiled fruitcake, so every year when Mrs Shepherd from down the street tells her that the loaf she’s baked is “spiked with just a teansy bit of rum but it’s probably all cooked off anyway,” Nawal tries not to think the woman is being rude and figures it doesn’t matter because they would never eat it anyway.
Much to Nawal’s delight she discovered opera and is a fan of Dame Kiri Ti Kanawa. She thinks cricket players look dashing in their crisp white shirts and trousers, so she learned the Laws of Cricket and encouraged her son to take up the gentleman’s sport. They have a pitch set up in the backyard and she has become something of a mean bowler when his friends come over for a game. She hurls the ball, and then her mockery, accented in Egyptian, when the unsuspecting pre-teen batsman walks away shaking his head in disbelief. After a game she insists her son and his friends stay to eat so she can feed them cheese rolls and taa’mayya. When they sit down at the table she revisits for them her highlights of the game. They continue to shake their heads and accuse her of tampering with the ball. They do think though that she is the most amusing mum on earth. Nawal is always watching her children amongst their friends. Nawal tries, for them, to be here and there, but mostly here. She does this so she stays happy and content, and so her husband doesn’t hear her complain and her children don’t roll their eyes at her.
On Monday morning Nawal drives her children to school. On the way she turns on the radio. She’s missed the news but hears the weather report. She is glad for the cool weather when they are fasting, and for the sun to set earlier in the day. When she parks her car her children jump out before she turns off the ignition, and she tells them to slow down and wait for her. As she follows them into the schoolyard she hears parents and teachers talking about the three New Zealanders who were among the 202 people killed in Kuta. She, like the people around her, is appalled and saddened – at the 202, not just the three. When she says good morning to some of the other parents, she is again met with nods, half smiles and no words.
Once her children are with their friends, Nawal turns away and walks back to her car. As she reaches for the car door she sees Simone Godsall’s mother walking towards her, talking to her, with a voice raised so it reaches her before the woman gets to her. “Can you explain something to me?” the woman asks her. She wants her to explain “them” over “there.” Nawal looks at her. She wonders whether she should tell her that all she knows about them is that they probably wouldn’t eat ham and pineapple pizza. But she doesn’t. She stares at the woman for a few seconds before she says, “How would I do that? I am here.” As the woman’s cheeks flush Nawal gets into her car. She turns on the ignition and drives out of the car park. She turns off the radio and slows down for children crossing the street. Then she wonders – what would happen if she was to accelerate and hit three of them? What if the driver in the car next to hers accelerated and Nawal was the one who rushed to their aid? What if she visited the children in hospital bringing flowers and helium filled balloons, and taa’mayya and cheese rolls? Would she be forgiven for the three who died in Kuta? She is lost in thought until she hears the honking of drivers behind her.
When Nawal arrives home she stands at her kitchen sink and stares out the window as she fills the kettle to make herself a cup of tea – big opaque mug, one teaspoon of sugar, no mint. Waiting for the kettle to boil, she sits down at the kitchen table with her head in her hands. She wonders whether she should approach the university again about her PhD. She wonders whether now is a good time – maybe after ramadan. Maybe this year her daughter will sit with her and make kahk. At least this year she’ll have plenty of time to make it. This year … Small gifts of kahk this year will feel like a bribe, she thinks. Unless, … unless they always have been.
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