Summer and religious seasons

“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” Joseph Campbell

Summer is here. As I found last year, Egypt gets about a week of Spring. New bright leaves and flowers appear, suddenly you feel real heat from the sun on your face when you walk for more than five minutes. The chilling desert nights when you needed two blankets on the bed and did not like to be outside for long are replaced by mild evenings when working in the garden or a walk along the beach eases the heat tiredness of the day.

You start to shift your dressing from winter layers and wool to lighter layers and some days even open shoes. But after that week, summer is here. I am already down to just a sheet at night, and soon I will only be putting up with that to ward of the mosquitoes. After four days of feeling overheated I gave up on jeans and long sleeve t-shirts, exchanged for light cotton and silk shirts and long skirts. As my move from Siwa to Nuweiba was limited to carrying Habibi cat, one suitcase and a large bag of bedding and clothing, I am now finding there are things back in Siwa I really need, like light cotton cardigans that I can wear over the t-shirts I bought with me, and light cotton pants to wear under calf-length skirts (in that one week it went from perfect weather for leggings under skirts, to nasty heat rash if I wear anything tight or synthetic against my skin).

For a few days I wore t-shirts only to work, but I now feel very naked with my arms bare like this, I have become so accustomed to modest dressing in Siwa. I must just wash the long sleeve shirts I have every few days and make do. I remind myself there are millions of Egyptians, and people worldwide, who have even less clothing than I do in my currently limited wardrobe. I am just uncomfortable about not looking good for work, and not wanting to look like many of the hippy tourists because of the odd combinations of long skirts and shirts I now wear. I also have only one pair of sandals, aside from my “shipship” (as thongs are called here) which are only suitable for the house or beach, and these have thin soles and are hard on the feet. For now I must get by with these, as moving my things from Siwa is not possible yet. Everything that is taken across the desert is searched, due to the rise in smuggling of guns, alcohol and other goods between Libya and Egypt, so organizing a move of my boxes proved impossible. Perhaps they are meant to stay in Siwa for a reason…

I am missing Siwa so much and dream about it constantly. Some of this is of course because I miss T. desperately, as we are now forced by circumstance (lack of work) to live in different cities. We were so fortunate to have the time together that we did, despite the year’s hardships, and I miss so many little things from our daily lives last year, and don’t know if we can ever have that again. It is hard also as my new environment and work has its own set of difficulties which I must deal with daily as there is no choice for now. T says he is “quiet now” as he is working and living with his family again; he must just live as he can for now, but under the surface he is not happy and is searching, like me, for a better future. We must try each day not to be miserable, especially now we do not have each other for emotional support or comfort. It is difficult to be apart physically, we endured that last year for some time, but emotionally some days it is nearly unbearable, especially not being able to see if or how we can ever be together again. But back to my update on Summer, and the religious and secular celebrations that are beginning….

My coffee and tea consumption is being replaced by more water, and my hair is pinned up most days as I am returning to being a constantly sweaty person. In Siwa I could interrupt my work day with a swim or when overheated in my home just work in my underwear and pour water over myself or cool down with a wet face washer. As I am now in an office all day with other people I must find new strategies; probably a wet face washer will be accompanying me to work each day soon.

Readers back in Australia and elsewhere will now be surrounded by chocolate Easter eggs and fluffy bunnies and chicks, and moving towards Winter. Springtime holy seasons look different in Egypt, and different again in Nuweiba compared to my experiences at the same time last year in Siwa. Siwa has probably a 99.9 percent Muslim population, in Nuweiba also most of the people are Muslim, but other religions are more evident, especially because of our location. Passover starts tonight for our Jewish neighbours just across the border, and its story feels very close sitting here in Sinai, knowing that Egypt was where the events remembered in Passover took place. Also some people speculate that Nuweiba was where Moses and his followers crossed the Red Sea, decades after that final plague which the story says persuaded the Egyptian ruler to let the people leave Egypt and set them desert wandering in this peninsula among these magnificent but harsh mountains.

My office workmates are all Christian, Coptic and Catholic, and doing their 50 day pre Easter fast. This year Easter comes later here than for many Christians in Australia, due to the different religious calendar. I noticed the fast on its first day, when the omelet which the men would usually enjoy was not being touched, and there was no cheese either on the breakfast table – the omelet had been cooked just for me. It was not only too big for me to eat all by myself, but when I realized what was going on and had it confirmed they were fasting, I decided I could not eat in front of them or make them put up with the scent of my animal protein meals cooking each day, when they must go without.

So this means for me until after Easter a vegan diet, everything cooked with oil or water and no animal products – meat, poultry, fish, milk, eggs, or butter, for my two daily meals. They are also not supposed to eat or drink from midnight until a certain time of day, which is decided by their church leader and here seems to be midday (the hour Jesus was supposedly put on the cross), so we have breakfast after 12 or 1pm. I deviate from this because I need my morning tea or coffee to get through until that late breakfast; they are mostly late risers and our work does not start until 10am, but most days I am up at 7am and active for hours before we eat.

I know they will not join me in fasting during Ramadan, but then I should be able to survive the breakfast smells as I will have eaten about 4am and can last until it is time to break the fast; that will usually be close to the time they eat dinner, so I can join them. Going without water will again be the difficult thing in the heat here. For those having Ramadan in winter, as in Australia, it must be easier, though if I were there I would probably miss a steaming coffee or hot chocolate during the cold days.

Fortunately Egyptians know how to cook foul beans many different ways, so we are enjoying a variety of dishes of those including some recipes I had not tried before. Other meals include for protein falafel, made from chick peas. These are accompanied by the usual variations of rice, pasta, vegetables cooked in tomato sauce, and bread with every meal. Potatoes are on the menu daily, either fried as thin chips, sliced and par-boiled then fried and seasoned (my favourite but because of the frying I try not to overindulge in these), or simmered with onion and tomato which is probably the healthiest and still a delicious dish.

Halva turned up on the breakfast table one morning, which they ate in bread they way Italians eat chocolate in bread. I eat halva by itself as a sweet, so this was a new taste. It isn’t so strange when you think of the sweet foods that Westerners put on bread for breakfast, like jam or Nutella. But I still prefer my halva as a desert or treat, preferably with coffee. Thick black honey also provided sweetness this week, balanced with a plate of cool and smokey baba ghanoush which is one of my favourite foods. I love the honey in Egypt and have been puzzling about how to describe its taste. Finally it struck me that the honey here tastes less like Australian honey and more like Golden Syrup. This applies even to the lighter varieties of honey, but the black honey is almost an identical taste and texture to Golden Syrup, and the sugar rush of a mouthful of bread dipped in this goes straight to the brain.

For those getting their sugar hit from chocolate later this weekend, I hope you enjoy Easter in Australia or wherever you are. I will again be missing Koko Black chocolate treats, so someone please indulge in a bunny or egg from their store for me.

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