After Dinner

There is a Bedouin adage of sorts about hospitality, it goes like this: If an unexpected visitor arrives at your door, he should be welcomed, fed and given rest in your home for three days. He is your esteemed guest. Only after three days can you ask the person's name, where he comes from, and what he wants. 

This spirit of warmth and welcoming has, almost without exception, been our experience in the Middle East over the past decade. I was reminded of this a few nights ago as Max and I shared sushi, of all things, with an Omani friend. 

"In the region of Batinah, where I'm from, you must first share a meal together before asking about serious things. After the meal is cleared you can ask how is your family? how is your health?"  If you just sit down and ask about someone right away, he continued in broken English, this signals to your host that you are anxious to eat and then leave their company as quickly as possible.

Sure enough, after eating he leaned back and we talked about politics and shared stories for a few hours.

Throughout our years in the Middle East, Max and I have been welcomed into dozens of homes by people who were often not much more than strangers. They shared their traditions, asked about our families, and offered us their best meals. They lived Islam in a way that exemplified generosity, moderation, and sincere devotion.   

In this season of gratitude and reflection, I’m thankful for the many meals over which I’ve come to better understand Arabs and Islam. For the many friends we’ve made in the Middle East who have taught us how to build relationships on shared values despite coming from very different places. I’m thankful for the space it’s made in my brain and my heart.

If you are having a hard time separating the heinous acts of groups or individuals claiming to represent Islam from the regular folks with the same concerns and joys as you, lean on my experiences for a while. And if you have the chance to make real life connections with people who believe differently than you –don’t turn it down. In fact, seek after them. You’ll be surprised how much the people you get to know are different from the narratives we often accept about them. You’ll learn about their daughter’s acceptance into University. You’ll learn about their bad bosses and their favorite picnic spot. You’ll learn about their best chicken recipe and their retirement plans. You’ll find you have a lot more in common than you thought.   

All after dinner of course.  


Light Over Darkness

This week Hindus celebrate Diwali. My Indian colleagues explain it to me as they light  diyas or small candles. On the first day they wear new clothing and shining hair as they fill a banquet table full of Diwali sweets: Maaladu, Ladoo, Burfi made of coconut, almond and cardamom.

“We celebrate the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair."

During the five days of celebration I contemplated the symbolic timing of Diwali  - the first night coincides with the darkest night of the year.

I have been thinking about this all week as a kind of beautiful, hopeful defiance. In the darkness they put on their best clothing and light candles – small acts that some could argue won’t make a difference to the overall status of mid-winter despair. They recognize the realities of light and dark, good and evil, and symbolically participate in the gradual return to light, goodness, hope, wisdom.

Today I awoke to the terrible news of terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut. Over 120 dead in Paris, over 40 in Beirut and many more wounded. Borders are tightening up and people are, understandably, afraid.

And I thought about that phrase “light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair.”

I have to believe it’s possible.



Why yes, I did study Medieval Manuscripts in Graduate School
“Blend in, adapt.” He says while kneading gnarled, woodworkers hands. "That is what we did when we moved here 30 years ago. We didn’t want to change things, we wanted to understand, to add our lives to whatever they were already doing here.”

The elderly couple before us seem as central to this small town as anybody we’ve met over the last few years of visiting, but he went on to describe the not so subtle warning spoken over the pulpit their first week in town “We don’t need nobody with college degrees coming to our town and tellin' us what to do!"

Our new friend was the former director of the Anasazi State Park in Boulder Utah and even though we had walked the packed gravel road to find a notary for some important mid-vacation legal work, we spent a good portion of that morning talking to the historian and his wife about Ancestral Puebloan funerary rites, uncovering ancient burial plots, the national woodworking conference from which he had just returned and their life in this small town. I couldn’t help but comparing their philosophy to that of those he spent his life studying.  Adapt, study the local flora and fauna, expand on the strengths of your tribe and find a way to make your identity compliment your circumstances. 

Last year, after returning from home leave I felt that familiar expat split: part of two worlds and not really sure of either. But as each year passes I’m getting better at integrating my experiences into something relevant and meaningful in the present.  My past selves into one life, one identity.

Last week back in Muscat we fought the terrible traffic to little India and picked up a 100 year old book press My husband’s family unearthed in Salt Lake City a few years ago. Literally unearthed. It was hidden under the porch of the century old family home and covered in rust. I’ve packed this beast from DC to Morocco to Oman hoping that I could someday use it in my bookbinding studio. This year we found a metalworker who could grind off the dirt and rust, paint the turning wheel, lubricate the spindle and re-attach the press plate. Suresh, from Bangladesh, finally fixed our early 20th century cast iron book press once used by Max’s English Great Grandfather. With my new excitement over the press, I just started teaching a bookbinding class, a skill I first learned in college before studying with a bookbinder in Jerusalem.

A palimpsest is a manuscript that, as textual needs and circumstances change, has been prepared and written over again and again. Much of the previous text is altered or erased, but there is a still a trace of the preceding texts in the final product. Over the centuries a medieval manuscript could have acquired four, five, six different surface writings – all previous writings mostly hidden from view but still part of the integral makeup. In fact, the building up of the text surface can make the book stronger. Unusual, perhaps, but more able to receive the next text and maintain its usefulness and beauty.

I should be so lucky. 


Sri Lanka: Wonder

Kandy Lake

“The Buddha did not deny the existence of suffering, but he also did not deny the existence of joy and happiness.  If you think that Buddhism says, “Everything is suffering and we cannot do anything about it,” that is the opposite of the Buddha’s message.”   
Thich Nhat Hanh The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching

friendly critter
Lest you think Max and I moped about in paradise being sad sacks the whole time, there was also much joy and happiness. We stayed in an insane bungalow, hidden in the mountains of Kandy by verdant, jungle canopy but also by thick morning fog.  I fulfilled what was, until that moment, an un-realized life goal to bath al fresco in a rooftop bathtub enclosed by trees. Sure, I had to watch for critters what might fall from said trees and into my bath, but vigilance was a small price to pay.  Later, over a candlelight dinner of spicy curries we took turns watching for snakes slithering from the foliage to join our meal unbidden.  Frogs perched in the eves above us and croaked their night song.

Our "jungalow" surrounded in fog.

We spotted black hooded orioles and a ceylon blue magpie while riding an Elephant, hands resting on his massive ears, and toured tea factories after winding through hills being harvested by Sri Lankan women. 


We climbed 1200 steps to the top of a 5th century citadel at Sigiriya and inspected remarkably preserved paintings before exiting through enormous lion paws carved into rock.  
So. Many. Steps. 
Beautiful frescos - half way up the citadel face.

But the business of writing about travel is fraught with temptations of vanity and dishonesty. It makes for great facebook updates and crafted high adventure identities based on a few photos, but its author is constantly at risk of boiling complex people and places to one-dimensional objects of consumption existing only for personal pleasure.

I think about this so often I am paralyzed by it. 

It felt a bit disingenuous to share only photographs of lush green forests and majestic Elephant baths from our trip to Sri Lanka without placing them in context of Sri Lanka's recent troubles. …but there were incredible creatures swinging from trees above our private bungalow terrace, glorious rain and lightening storms that stretched over the highlands and tea plantations so green and misty that we lost ourselves inside. To ignore the wonder of a place feels just as dishonest as to focus on its grittier aspects.       

And the world is too amazing not to share.
Lightening Overlooking Kandy
Kandy, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: Suffering

Offerings at the Dambulla Cave Temples
It was a terrible time.  There were bombs going off everywhere and a lot of innocent people dying.”

Our local guide Rajita said this to us one night as we snaked through dark jungle roads lit dimly by naked bulbs in fruit stands. This was the single comment he offered about Sri Lanka’s horrific 26 year civil war. And really, civil war is too tidy a word for the kind of fractured brutality that took place. Suicide bombings, kidnapping and dismemberment were daily occurrences.   

While Rajita was, for obvious and good reason, brief about the war, he did talk at length with us about Buddhism. Sri Lanka has been an important stronghold for Buddhism since the 3rd century BC and Sri Lankans take credit for initiating the Buddhist monastic movement. 70% of the population is Buddhist. 

To learn about the war and the Buddha at the same made sense to me. The Buddha found the way to enlightenment as he sought to come to terms with suffering. He meditated on inevitable truths that all get old, we get sick,we die. All of the things that we love will be taken at some point in life.  The slow time frame of these natural realties is collapsed, pulverized in war. Suffering 2.0.

Ok, so suffering exits. But what is one to do about it? What responsibilities do we have to each other or, if you are inclined, to God? I have thought about this a lot in different places we’ve lived in the Middle East. What is a morally responsible way to engage with the suffering of others and, by necessity, to manage the suffering of one's self? How ought we to approach and interpret unfair and indiscriminate suffering? Conflict seems to bring these questions to the forefront and the Buddha’s meditations are as important today as they were during his own time.   

In her book “Buddha” the religious historian Karen Armstrong wrote “In his view (the Buddha), the spiritual life cannot begin until people allow themselves to be invaded by the reality of suffering, realize how fully it permeates our whole experience and feel the pain of all other beings, even those we don’t find congenial.”

As we left Sri Lanka to come back to Oman we read about the terrible earthquake in Nepal.  Nepal is one of the world’s poorest countries and probably one of the least able to deal with the effects of such a devastating natural disaster. A lot of people will suffer for  a long time. Sri Lanka itself lost more than 35000 people in the horrible 2004 tsunami.     
Train Station in Nurya Elia

It was easy to be naïve in Sri Lanka about the island nation’s painful recent history. It’s beyond beautiful, the people are kind and adventure seems to lurk around every corner. On our trip we read about The Buddha on a train bound for the highest point of the island, Nurya Elia, and shared snippets out loud over the roar of the wind through open windows. We visited the temple of the tooth where ear splitting drummers guarded a relic said to be the Buddha’s tooth. We climbed shin splinting stairs to the cave temples at Dambulla where a distant relative of the Bodhi tree grows.  But suffering was never far from our minds. 
Dambulla Caves
Dambulla Caves
Temple of the Tooth - people waiting to give offerings


Sri Lanka: Remembering How to See

Dumballa Cave Temples
 My family has a mysterious hip dysfunction that, when at its worse, makes sitting for any period of time agonizing. A few years ago I spent a sweltering DC summer trying to figure it out which amounted to basically remembering how to walk and how to sit. I felt like a 4 year old. 

At breakfast a few days ago I was thinking through how to write about our recent trip to Sri Lanka when my hip pain became enough to distract me from thoughts of lush green jungles. I paused, took a deep breath,  lifted my rib cage and tilted my pelvis slightly forward to settle back onto the chair with purpose.  Remember how to sit. The phrase often comes to my head when the pain becomes too much. I sit taller and re-align my shoulders and I can usually manage the position.

And it hit me.  Remembering how to see.  That is what this trip was about. In fact, now that I think about it, for me travel is always about remembering how to see. How to see the value in people very different from myself, how to see fractured national identities resulting from power and place, how to see the incredible effects of natural forces over time. How to see God in practices very unlike my own and how to see suffering that has never directly affected me.

We explored temples, ate delicious spicy curries, drove through misty mountain jungle passes, rode elephants and relaxed in what we affectionately think of as our "jungalow" but mostly we remembered how to see.     

Dumballa Cave Temples


On the path from Nur Eliya


Qantab Beach, Oman

By eight AM the Qantab fishermen are already pulling their green boats ashore, faces wrapped in sea crusted checkered scarves.  I watched two men leap from the bow and run a rope up the beach to a large empty spool operated by a crank. A few villagers wondered over, as if summoned, and begin to turn the spool.  The boat slowly crept further onto the beach to be cleaned and stowed until tomorrow. 

From a distance I’d been watching two young boys drop a fishing line rolled around a pack of cigarettes into the ocean below their rocky outcrop for almost an hour. As the masked men pulled their boat out of the sea the two boys, Jaffer and Hamza, appeared down on the beach to clean one sizable catch alongside the proper fishermen. Under the guise of getting a better angle from which to draw the emerging boat I started a conversation about the fish they’d caught that morning.

The two fishermen pulled their catch from a cooler and slapped them on the deck for me to see whole before being gutted. The younger of the two smiled up at me and through the tightly wrapped scarf, protecting him from relentless sun and ocean wind, I saw deep green eyes.

Oman continues to surprise me.


Cairo 2016

The future never looks like what you thought it would - but it's almost always awesome.  It's official folks, we are headed to Cairo in 2016!

Let me rewind for a minute and tell you that Egypt was the first place I visited outside of America. Unless you count a sunburned afternoon in Tijuana, which I don't. At the Cairo airport I tucked my money belt under a baggy shirt, pulled my hat down and braced myself for what I was told would be an incredible and overwhelming city.  And it was. Everything after Cairo has seemed like a breeze in comparison.

We've been trying to balance romantic expectations with the very real instability and challenges we'll face in Egypt. We can't know exactly what it will be like until we get there, but we are trying to be as clear eyed as possible.

...but it's Egypt, people. There is so much to learn that my head spins from time to time.  I've started a bit early and, as any good librarian would offer, here are a few titles if you want to dive into Egypt's rich literary and archeological history with me:

The Yacubian Building: Alaa Al Aswany
The Cairo Trilogy:  Naguib Mahfouz
The Blue Manuscript: Abiha Al Khemir 
Crocodile on the Sandbank (Amelia Peabody bk. 1): Elizabeth Peters
Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt: Barbara Mertz
Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East: Scott Anderson
A Brief History of Islam: Karen Armstrong (who I love)
The Road to Tahrir Square: Lloyd C. Gardner
The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit;  A Jewish Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World: Lucette Lagnado
Cairo the Victorious: Max Rodenbeck
Letters from Egypt: A Journey on the Nile, 1849-1850: Florence Nightingale
The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered The Hidden Gospels: Jane Soskice

Here's to hoping we've grown the chops to take on the city! 


You Have Chosen a Good Guru

“You have chosen a good guru” the man says as we walk past him and into our yoga class. His head bobs back and forth above a white shawl and loose white pants. His wife wears a traditional sari and the bindi between her eyebrows. 

I smile as I pass and think “What?  I have chosen a guru?”  This news is faintly alarming to me. While performing asanas I try not to think about it and focus on what I need from the session:  stretching, core strength, mental clarity, inner calm. But I once overheard my instructor saying that she was making plans to scale a holy mountain. That she would climb to the top, a difficult journey requiring a special permit from the Chinese government, and meditate in the mountain air. So maybe he was right. 

The first time I attended class I was overwhelmed. Completely overwhelmed. I was overwhelmed with how little Hindi I know (which is to say, none), how difficult maintaining your body perpendicular to a wall with only a rope around your waist is, and the way knowing bodies churned back and forth from room to room, yoga block to strap, performing poses and breath exercises with eyes closed. For me it was less churning and more milling and lots of one-eye-opened copying. After the first 90 minute session I came home with eyes glazed and hamstrings on fire, unsure if I would return for the next session just two days later.

Our instructor, part drill sergeant part Dalai Lama, demonstrates and then walks the room straightening backs and pulling legs higher. Now, get ready for the royal kick she says and I don't know that this is when I should groan and prepare for a tiny Indian foot to land on my backside and push until I resemble a hunter's bow. She’s quite a force and I spent the first few weeks trying not to disappoint her, which, I came around to understand is completely the wrong way to approach yoga. 

While I waded through invocations and yogic chants, analogies based on the caste system and moves to stimulate chakras, I discovered that the key to experiences like this and really, living overseas in general, is to sift and select.  Try to understand what is happening, appreciate its historical and cultural context and then decide what can add to or modify your values and what you'll leave for someone else.  At first I was concerned that perhaps I was offering prayers to Gods I don't believe in.  Is this offensive to Hindus?  Is this offensive to my own Christian belief?  But those aren't quite the right questions. 

Krister Stendahl, former Harvard Divinity School professor and theologian, wrote about leaving room for "Holy Envy" in our spiritual practices. What Stendahl meant by this is that you should be willing to recognize elements in other religious traditions or faiths that you admire and wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious traditions. It's an idea that has guided my interactions in the Middle East for many years now and given me a framework from which to approach other religions.
I'm sad to say that my full work schedule will no longer permit me to sweat it out with my Indian friends twice a week.  But this idea of mastering the self and purifying desires became such a tangible process to me over those months I hung from ceilings and practiced breathing.  Rejecting the limitations and deceptions of the physical world. Disciplining the body, controlling the outer life to calm the inner.

I'm not very comfortable with the idea of a "guru" but what I wanted was an authentic experience and I certainly got that.  Along with a little more strength and even a few words of Hindi. 


Wadis, Wadis, Everywhere

Wadi Shab

Swimming is mentioned specifically in the collected teachings, deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Along with archery, walking, and horseracing the Hadith instructs Muslims to teach their children to swim. This Sunna is often discussed in the context of taking care of the body, of exercise.    

My first imaginings of the Middle East were of vast deserts in every direction. While this is, in part, true, I didn’t take into account the incredible coastlines along the Atlantic, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean, Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea. People in the Arab world have as much a history on the sea as they do in the deserts.  

A little wadi art
Something else absent from my fantasy geography were the hundreds of Wadis. Wadis -  sometimes dry trails at the base of valleys but oftentimes deep pools and rivers bisected by torrents of clean water running from high soft rock plateaus into larger bodies of water. Wadis throughout the Levant empty into the Dead Sea and many closer to the coast find their way to the Ocean.

After hiking and swimming through several wadis over the past 18 months I understand a little better the holy directive to walk, to swim. Oman’s landscape is a product of some of the most intense geological activity to be found on the earth. Plates have been bumping and subducting and pushing up ocean floor for hundreds of thousands of years. One of the results is a series of mountains and plateaus that taper, eventually, into the Indian Ocean on the East coast of Oman. Over time water and debris have carved out pools and paths through the mountains that many hike up into on hot weekends.  

Our favorite Wadi to date is Wadi Shab which ends with a tiny keyhole swim into a cave bearing a secret waterfall. I’ve linked to someone else’s youtube video of the swim since I haven’t quite trusted myself to swim a giant Canon into the cave. The other pictures I’ve snapped along the way and at other wadis in the area. 

There are myriad wadis in Oman left to explore…and it looks like we just might get a little more time to explore than we’d planned!

....I know, the teasing.  It’s rude, isn’t it? But after our initially sad-making experience with bidding I wanted to keep some great news to myself for a while. ...and also make sure it’s real!   
Entrance of Wadi where rocks and debris are deposited before water runs into the ocean
On the left you'll see the falaj system funneling water to crops along the wadi
This is not photoshopped people - it is that green/blue and that clear
Little Snake Canyon has drops and waterfalls a plenty
Entrance to another wadi "Little Snake Canyon"


Ridiculous Problems

I’ve just exited the freeway and pulled up behind a miles long row of yellow sewage trucks.  I’m stuck in an industrial zone full of foreign worker trailers and, it bears mentioning again, trucks full of human waste.  Tears are welling up and a few escape as I wait to turn around and get back to the freeway.  I’m late for work after missing the correct exit TWICE.      

“That’s it!” I say out loud in my car.  “This ends today. I have to get it together!”

We’ve spent the last few months bidding for our next job and I’ve been sucked into an alternate universe where I only think about bidding, fuss about where we are going to live, research countries that will let us take the dog, worry about our timetable, check my phone for messages from Max to see if there’s news, make plans for all possible options, change and abandon plans as jobs drop off the list.  You know, turn into a crazy person.       

Bidding is the “process” by which you acquire your next assignment.  You tell jobs you are interested in that you’d like to go there, your references vouch for you, and if they like you back  - voila, onward assignment.  I thought it sounded kind of fun at first, to consider all the possibilities and imagine us in different cities eating different kinds of food  - but that was naïve.  It is pretty much a months long trip to the dentist.  Many of Max’s colleagues were offered assignments in November while we’ve been blowing about in the wind like an empty shopping bag for weeks.  The unpredictability of the process and the constant dashing of hopes really wears on you.   It feels like your whole life is on hold.       

The last few weeks, even though I knew I was being melodramatic and ungrateful, I couldn’t shake the afternoon blues.   Or, as my misadventure on the way to work proved, the morning fogs.  I’d get worked up about not getting particular jobs we wanted and then feel twice as bad when I realized how privileged my “problems” were.  I have food, shelter, family, books and regardless of the outcome of this bidding season I will still have those things in some form.

The turning point of this process was a good cry in my car after meeting world famous photographer Steve McCurry.  Steve McCurry is most well known for his photograph “Afghan Girl” featured on a 1985 cover of National Geographic.  His photographs of India, Southeast and Central Asia were incredible and as I looked at them I felt my heart swelling for an adventure out in the great world. It looked like we were headed back to Washington and while a lovely place to live, it wasn’t quite what we had in mind.  I felt all of my imagined adventures slipping away and at the same time felt so embarrassed at how spoiled I had become.  I trucked my patent leather heels to my car for a good cry and after about 20 minutes I had another one of those “get it together” epiphanies.   

You want adventures, Brooke? You mean, like sitting in your car at this historic port in Muscat, Oman in a fascinating Shiite enclave ? You mean like not knowing where you’ll end up in six months, how you’ll plan to start your family around such uncertainty, and whether or not your beloved dog can come? What could be more adventurous than that? 

It’s not for certain yet, but we are getting a better idea of where we’ll end up.  I’ve come ‘round the bend and I’m actually super duper excited about our most promising option.  We won’t know for a few more days, but here’s to a new year of hope and recognizing adventure when it smacks you in the face.