I. The Birthplace
I was born in a small village on the bank of a small river in northern Egypt. A revered Imam was visiting the village for the annual prophet birthday festival; his name was Shick Tharwat, and that how I got my name Tharwat. They told me. My village, “Meet Swaid ” had one street, one river, one bridge, one grocery shop, one mosque, one school, one style of houses, a mud, and a windless connected covered by dry straws like an old stalled cargo train. People’s lifestyles had changed little since the time of the pharaohs, and local demographers couldn’t find any dramatic census changes for a long time, around a 1,000 with a slim margin of error. Villagers lived the simple life of a farming community, and their interest in the outside world went only as far as the edge of their cornfields. At dawn, men left with their animals for work and came back at dusk, while their wives stayed home, busy preparing meals and raising kids to work on the farm as soon as they mastered their first steps. Women seemed for years to consult with the same fashion designer and same hairdresser. People went to the same mosque, celebrated the same holidays, and for generations, villagers kept the gene pool very much confined to a singular gene pool! I moved to Cairo lost my village privileges in the big city, finished college, finished my military service, without actual jobs or hope; out of place and out of money, I needed to change…!
II. Going to America.
I left Egypt for America to join my brother, who made the same trip ten years earlier. The first few years was my honeymoon with America, carefree, Saturday Night Fever time, disco dancing, girlfriends passing by, enjoyed the pop culture, going to the State Fare till they started dipped fresh apples in caramel and stabbed with a sharp stick. In America, I thought McDonald’s was the most democratic place; everyone, regardless of social economics, gets the same treatment and the same junk; life was full of dreams and surprises.
III. The Marriage Part I
I drove a cap went to school where I met my wife Caren at a school party; We moved together in a condo in downtown Minneapolis by the Mississippi River. 30 years of marriage we have one daughter and one dog. Our marriage was not a traditional one, it wasn’t planned either. When we were dating, we took our first trip to Egypt. My family fell in love with Caren and wondered if you guys living together, why don’t just get married as well. So we did, it was a small family wedding celebration in my sister’s house in downtown Cairo. They brought an Imam a big cake, one witness, and a tape recorder for some wedding music, The Imama started the ceremony in Arabic, and I assumed Caren trust him, it just an Egyptian traditional wedding, we consummated the marriage. When we came back to America, we were not sure how we going to break out the news to her mother.
IV. My Mother in Law
Hazel is a church lady, grew up on a small farm in Southwestern Minnesota. She took complete control of the family after her husband died of a heart attack. The mother wanted her two daughters’ best; they moved away from the farm and came to the Twin Cities, worked at a Telephone company, and married a man called Dick. A smart husband who did what his wife told him, a handyperson fixed everything around his house. DIck and to his wife’s orders, visited our house unannounced and inspected for any code violation. One day we came home late. Dick was standing on a ladder painting the house green according to Hazel’s order. I asked him never to do this again, and he agreed. Caren’s older sister Cheryle married a Jewish, African American man and converted to Judaism. A tumultuous time, the marriage didn’t last long. Caren the younger daughter to marry an Egyptian Muslim Immigrant, was out of the question. We needed to have a plan to tell her Mum, but we didn’t have the time to plot it. A day after we arrived from Egypt, a traditional Music Group came all the way from Egypt to perform at the Minnesota Orchestra. My wife worked there; she had a few comps tickets, we invited my brother and a few friends. Because of his proximity to my family in Egypt, my brother knew we had a wedding in Egypt, so he shares the good news with my mother-in-law during the intermissions; Hazel fainted and was taken away, which surprised everyone except us. The next day we went to my mother-in-law’s house, apologized, and explained what happened.
_We were planning to tell you everything; we didn’t just have time; we had just landed from Egypt.
Hazel did not buy it, insisted on having another wedding here; we needed to have a legitimate one! My mother-in-law was always skeptical about our marriage, didn’t accept me as her son-in-law, didn’t introduce me in the gathering; when she called her daughter, and I answered the phone, she always acted surprised as if she got the wrong number or the wrong man…!
_you are there
_Hazel, I live here
… but there was a mutual tolerance to each other.
My mother-in-law is a tough midwestern lady, talked a lot about what Jesus says, but not enough about what Jesus did.
V. Holidays In America
My wife and I tried to enjoy our diverse life, celebrating our diverse holidays, and shared our diverse traditions; Ramadan, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, and Eid. Eating fresh food and enjoy exploring ethnic restaurants. Breakfast a meal that, however, reflects people’s ethnicity and culture, and We were careful about bringing any culinary warfare to our family breakfast table. To reinforce our daughter’s ethnicity and multicultural heritage, American cheese and feta cheese will peacefully coexist on our breakfast table along with the cereals. However, in post 9/11 and the rising bigotry culture and Islamophobia, our household’s situation has gotten a little edgy, and our homeland security alarm system could reach color red in a hurry. Then one cheese will be ethnically cleansed from our breakfast table, “It smells bad and too sheepish,” my wife has started protesting loudly, declaring this chemical warfare and humiliating my beloved feta would trigger my reflexive defense sequence, and the American cheese would become the infidel’s cheese and would push the bacon away from olives dishes. My daughter, who never was interested in this type of table manner, would quietly walk away with her cereal to the basement, better known now in our household as the bunker.
The month of Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, which honors the time when God revealed to Prophet Muhammed through Angel Gabriel, the first verses of the Quran. Ramadan is a festive month for Muslims, 30 days of Christmas. Where Muslims enjoy special traditions and immersed themselves in all-night celebrations. The Islamic calendar is about 10 days shorter than a Gregorian calendar, depends on whether the night of spotting the new month moon, is clouded. So Muslims celebrate Ramadan in summer-long heat days, Ramadan in the winter — fasting during the shortest days of the year was a blessing from the sky. We make some dishes that come with Ramadan, which usually needed lots of preparations and cooking, which may take the entire day. Roasted lamp, Mulokheyah, Maqloubah, Meat pie, Tagines to mention a few, The most common Ramadan food that brings all Muslims together regardless of their backgrounds, are desserts like, Kunafeh, Qatayef, Baklava, Zalabia, Luqamat El Qadi(the judge bread). These dishes have a nostalgic aroma index that brings lots of Ramadan memories and stories.
VII. Ramadan Christmas Dinner, the in-laws, meet the outlaws!
. When I came to America, Ramdan was in Summer, and It takes almost 30 years for Ramadan to go around the whole calendar year, Ramdan now in December; we wanted to celebrate Ramadan and Christmas at the same time at home. Wow, I thought to myself, what an occasion: our two religious celebrations combined into one magical evening, an evening of transformation that would symbolize our great, diverse life in America. A Ramadan-Christmas dinner would bring real meaning to our two rich cultures.
Then came the sound of my wife’s warning:
- “We usually celebrate Christmas at my parents’ house.
- We can always invite them to celebrate the Ramadan-Christmas evening with us this year.”
- She added with a smile.
Invite your parents to our house? Your parents, who each time they visit, spend months recovering from clutter shock? Honey, I screamed, this is like inviting the U.N. Special Commission WMD inspection team into Iran/Iraq! They come, they inspect, and then they give us a lengthy report of noncompliance. We are talking about a rigorous inspection of our house, then lengthy telephone calls of violation report.
Your parents, whom I love dearly, have a talent for pointing out the most minute imperfection in our house. And they look at it as not just un-American but as a sign of mental illness. If they come, we have to declare half of our house a no-fly zone. Your Mum goes to great lengths to mispronounce my family’s names as if it is her way of Americanizing them. Even our own daughter, whom they madly love and cherish — her biblical name Sara was not spared and became “Saaara,” and my own name Tharwat became “Somewat.”
To keep peace in the family, and in the spirit of the holidays, I finally agreed to have a Ramadan-Christmas dinner with my in-laws in our house. First, to get ready for the UNSCOM inspection team, I would have to make some changes to the menu. First, there wouldn’t be Egyptian food of mass destruction, garlic dishes that could make up chemical warfare on the dinner table. That meant getting rid of my favorite Egyptian national dish, Okra, “Bamyah”, and the mulloklicia with rabbits, which, my wife protested, has too much garlic. “Besides, rabbits are our cute Easter bunnies,” she explained with a shrug. It is ironic that people in the East don’t share the same feeling toward these cute eastern bunnies.
After a few days of ethnic food cleansing in our house, time to get the Turkey my wife sent me to the supermarket with explicit instructions, Free Range Turkey. When I got to the Supermarket, it was a madhouse everyone is getting ready for the Christmas Dinner, buying the things that were ignored or overlooked. By the time I got to the meat section, … staring at a mountain of frozen Turkey at the meat section trying to remember my wife exact instruction,,
- May I help”… a voice of the butcher who came rushing realizing that I needed help
- Are these …. those? .. ??? gasping to remember my wife’s specific instructions.. I know it has something to do with Turkey’s physical state and lifestyle..
- Are those “running” Turkeys?.
- Not anymore?” The butcher joked… with a slay smile!
- … trying to explain to him my wife’s instructions, then we finally agreed free range is what the wife wanted!
Rushed home with 20 lb free-range Turkey,, my wife in full gear, cleaning, dusting, and vacuuming, we finally were ready for our Ramadan-Christmas dinner we are ready for OSHA inspection team. Thanks to our President for not invading or bombing a Moslem country and not spoiling our dinner. Now the in-laws coming to meet the outlaws.
At the table, it was reassuring to see that some of my favorite Ramadan dishes had survived the inspection process. There was a sense of harmony and understanding.
My homemade katife and konaffa dessert dishes sat side by side with the fruitcake and apple pies. My homemade ffattah (stuffing) dish peacefully coexisted with the turkey stuffing. On the tree, Ramadan lantern ornaments cheerfully danced with Christmas ornaments.
We made sure that we started eating at Iftar’s time (breaking of the fast meal). As the in-laws met the outlaws together at the same dinner table, and as I patiently waited to break my dawn-to-dusk fast, my mother-in-law did what she usually does when we eat at her house. She asked us to pray, a prayer that usually involves asking God to take care and bless the relatives who didn’t come to dinner.
When I was growing up in a family of eight children, we didn’t go into a great length of praying every time we ate; there was a brief whispering of God’s name, the merciful and the most compassionate, then a quick jump to the serious business of gobbling the food before it was all gone.
As I was refraining from exercising my First Amendment right about the long dinner prayer, something wonderful happened to me. Spending Ramadan here in my new home in America usually brings nostalgic memories of the past, of my family back home, of my mom and dad, who passed away a few years ago—sitting at the table with everyone else, wondering about my missing family and listening to my mother-in-law’s routine dinner prayer. I remembered my mom used to ask us to pray — not because it is a religious requirement, but to slow us down a little before we started grabbing at the food.
As I looked across the table at my mother-in-law, I saw my mom’s face, and I even joined in the prayer: “AAAAmen.”
After enjoying our Ramadan-Christmas dinner, we proceeded to the opening of our Christmas gifts, exchanging gifts we don’t need from people who don’t care. My last gift was my daughter, there was a note on the box that said, “From Sara to the best dad in the world.” In the box was a can of my rejected Egyptian fava beans. It was the best gift I ever had.