Thursday, March 12, 2015

Green living; A Sudanese perspective

I left Sudan to the US in 1997. Till that time, my dad would do the meat and vegetable shopping in a then typical Sudanese way. He  would take the traditional straw basket (Guffa) made from Palm tree fronds.

At the market, the seller would wrap the meat in newspapers and the veggies would just be tossed into the basket. At home, we would wash the greens and wrap the herbs in newspaper and refrigerate. The meat is also sorted, paper wrapped and frozen. Dry spices, flour, coffee and tea and the like were all stored in matching empty jam glass containers. 
Ziploc bags did not exist. There was one factory that manufactured plastic bags (white bag with red and green brand symbol). You would buy them by the dozen. Most people would wash them well, hang to dry and reuse. Our neighbor, Yousif Fadul, may God remember him well, used to get agitated at plastic bags flying outside in the street in front of our houses and would yell out while attempting to clean up" The goats can't digest them and this will kill them". Deaf ears.
(By the way, whatever happened to the once freely roaming Khartoum goats?)
Interestingly, even the trash was handled in an environmentally friendly way. A ghuffa (a different one of course) stayed at the side of the house and at the end of the day, whatever little trash is produced, is dumped in there. 
Twice a week, one would hear a loud whistle from the street signalling the arrival of the garbage truck. Whoever heard it would alert the whole house. A 5 minute frenzy ensues as they wait for no one. An open truck with two disgruntled men in the back.

They would take the basket, empty the contents and throw it back at you with a glare that almost says" you produce too much trash".

Most of the refuse would be egg shells, parsley twigs and abused newspapers. 
Everything else is totally recycled. Food? Depends on the state. Decent leftovers were given to the needy. There would be regulars who know this house or that would give food. If they don't show up that day, the food is frozen till they do return or food can be taken to the nearby cemetery where the ghafeer (caretaker/security guy) and family of nine would surely make good use of it. Other foods are given to the stray cats or occasional house pets we, or the neighbors, used to keep. Contrary to what Colin my friend told me, not all cats are obligate carnivores. Our neighborhood felines had a great appreciation for molokhiya ( a stew made from Jew's mallow). They would wolf it down in seconds. Poor Sudani cats. All malnourished I'm sure but I like to think they eat natural food so they must be getting a good bargain somewhere.
The newspapers in Sudan used to be multi functional, employed to wrap food, to line drawers, clean glass (the best out there even without Windex) and to light a fire. Lighting a fire was an almost daily occurrence. Gas ovens were the norm then but gas cylinders were not cheap to fill and could suddenly disappear and make an appearance in the black market.
So to conserve, a majority of the cooking was mostly done outside on a kanoon; a coal burning grilling/mobile burner contraption. One needed newspapers to start that fire.

In the cleaning department, no one went out and bought cleaning supplies. As mentioned above, newspapers were our paper towels (you made sure it was the newspaper with least ink leaching out). Every house had a sturdy metal bucket (Jardal almasi7 aka the mopping bucket). The mop was most probably the sack that contained coal (needed for that kanoon fire). It was typically brown in color and made of burlap. 

Coal sacks
Because of the absorptive nature of coal and material of the sack, it never smelled. It just eventually disintegrated with time and use. We would occasionally use old towels instead. The "mugshasha or broom" was also made from palm tree fronds. The best are the older, seasoned ones. After they soften and become malleable and can tackle the corners. 

Best tub cleaner was ash (again the Kanoon giveth). Dusting rags were usually worn-out clothing. Kitchen utensils were washed by the same soap block that was used for laundry. A basic high school saponification process.  

I hope you are beginning to get my drift here. No bleach. No aerosols.
I can't bring to mind many plastics in use in daily life. Maybe that disgustingly sweet Rozana juice which was packaged in plastic jerrycans. 
Even plates were to a large extent stainless steel and some China. I remember when melamine hit the market (انا الميلامين جميل ومتين). Tissue paper was a luxury reserved for a few. They were over-scented anyway. Cloth handkerchiefs were the way to go.
Ice cream came in rectangular blocks and was wrapped in this parchment paper - like material. The individual portions were in strong paper cups. 
Yoghurt was totally homemade. You leave behind a few spoonfuls and end of the day add warm milk to that, cover and let nature work its magic. Milk was brought once a week from a nearby farm, boiled at home in large pots then part frozen and part used fresh.
Soda came only in glass bottles. Actually almost every house owned a box of 24 bottles (Pepsi, Coca-Cola or Pasgianos) that would be refilled either by the company trucks which did home deliveries or at the local store. 

Why am I telling all of this? Because when I first moved to the U.S., I was blessed with a fantastic American neighbor. She taught me a lot that I am very grateful for. 
She also tut-tutted at my endless collection of jam jars and newspapers. So she took me to Wal-Mart and led me into civilization. I learned to Ziplock-bag my meat and label it oh so smartly. I discovered that i can bleach the living daylights out of my kitchen and bathroom. I also was told that I was to line each garbage receptacle with its size-specific plastic bag. 
I was introduced to the American lifestyle. 
Seventeen years later, here in Saudi, I meet another American neighbor in the store while I was packing away my groceries into plastic bags. She looked at me with a scolding expression and said "You know plastic isn't good for the environment, right? Why don't you get a basket like mine here? Or a cloth bag? I even have the butcher put the meat straight into these glass containers" She says this and points at the stuff she was carrying. 
In my head, I did a Queen Latifa style, Z-shaped finger snap and went (oh no you don't) on her. 
But in real life, I just smiled and thanked her. She wouldn't understand. So much she doesn't know. We were the cradle of "reducing, reusing and recycling". We invented the basket. I made a few with my own hands.
But we were deemed uncivilized and uncultured at that time and we had to evolve and follow the first world and utilize and consume and waste. It's the way the world wanted us to be. Get with it Africans. Now that we are finally climbing the industrial  ladder, we are getting trampled by those who got to the top and now running back down. Always late to the party we are!
That detour was not necessary but had to happen, right? If no one used plastics or emitted gases or messed up the ozone, what would environmentalists do? 
We could perhaps, maybe, have preserved more marine life, whales, pelicans and then some. Stabilized the weather possibly?
But it's all part of a higher plan. And it had to be. It is life. 
And even though I try to do my part and cut back on my easy lifestyle gadgets, I really am an old dog. And learning new tricks can be quite tricky when you are one. 

*Photos courtesy of the WWW and Haitham my cousin :)

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Yearnings of a music box doll

I was made by the doll maker and given the name Sweet Visage. He made me perfect in all possible ways.
He told me I was burdened by the name and a secret but I didn't believe.
He said behind my smile lies great darkness indeed.
If I were to survive I was to make merry, spread joy and fix spirits you see.
He made me of the finest porcelain and gave me the prettiest face. I had a dazzling smile that will melt all hearts and make you forget your ails.
He put me on a pedestal and attached a windable music box to me.
O seeker of relief all you need is to find and wind me. Without a word I dance. I dance into you and play with your mind. How you say?
See that poor orphan? I pat on his head and make him see. Life is but a prick that will soon spill into rivers of milk and honey. He believes. He smiles. My music stops.
I quickly seek another in need.
For if the music stops; the darkness rises.
See that old man? I dance into him. I dance with him. Age is but a number my friend. You are forever young. You're dancing with me can't you see? He smiles. My music stops.
See that young man? I dance into him. He dances with me. My smile is contagious. He believes he'll be. The
Hercules he yearns to be. My music stops.
I danced with the sad mother. I wiped the tears. The brother too I gave inner peace.
The writer. The actor. The son. The unborn daughter. They all love me.
I hugged and kissed the boy who lived across the river and that was all he needed to feel. Apollo is his name. I have a soft spot for him. My music stops.
I comforted the father and told him our Lord is forgiving and he slept in peace
My music stops.
But only for seconds because you see I am to fix spirits and my oh my!  There are a lot to be.

Come closer young man as I have to tell you this: I yearn to stop my music and rest. I need to get off the pedestal. To kneel and yell.
Young man can you tell the doll maker to make the music stop? This little sad happy doll needs to mend.
He tells me silly little Visage; Alas if the music stops, your time is done. Hades will creep up and all will be lost. So dance away and say this prayer "forgive me my debts
for I myself forgive everyone who is indebted to me
And lead me not into temptation but deliver me from evil. Amen"

So if you ever where to meet and dance with me, please be gentle for as you can see. I am troubled and burdened beyond belief. Just give me your soul and let us dance our misery away.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil, post no evil; My forty days of solitude

It all started when I realized how much my brain was fried. It was over-excited. I was stressed out. ALL. THE. TIME.
A steady barrage of news and information to respond to, retain, analyze, sort out and decipher. My days were a lifeless routine and my prayers were a series of emotionless movements and words.
I was becoming desensitized to violence, my empathy towards others has lessened.
I was slipping into an abyss.
It also seemed to me that my previously clear dividing line between right and wrong was getting a little too murky for comfort.
A stand with the self was necessary.
Even though I have always portrayed myself as an extrovert, I fit in more comfortably with an introvert’s description and way of life. I needed a turtle shell to retreat into.
So I decided to take a break from it all. I took me by the shoulder, shook me and looked me in the eyes and told me that wish as I may, I have no control of all things beyond me. I cannot feed all the hungry. I cannot heal the lepers nor make the blind see. I cannot be the good mother, wife, daughter or friend that I wanted to be if I’m not in tune with me.
With a family and a job, one cannot just up and disappear into the desert (as tempting as that might sound). So with physical solitude out of the question, I opted for a psychological one. I decided to practice “3uzla” or spiritual solitude eliminating all unnecessary communication and reconnecting with the Divine. The desert adds and allows for melancholy and contemplation in a strange haunting way. And lots of desert I have here.
My aim was not merely to shield myself from negativity, but also to examine myself well.
Research has shown that decreasing noise in all its forms, even for a few minutes daily, boosts the immune system and lowers aggression.
But quiet should not be just the absence of sound. It should be a state of calm. A state of reflection and inner peace.
Interestingly all spiritual disciplines employ solitude as the pathway to the divine through silent meditation, prayer etc. Buddhism’s “Noble Eightfold Path” is the Buddha’s practical guideline to ethical and mental development with the goal of freeing the individual from suffering, attachments and delusions. They were embodied in:
Right Understanding
Right Thoughts
Right Speech
Right Action
Right Livelihood
Right Effort
Right Mindfulness
Right Concentration.
Ancient Zoroastrians used the term “Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta,” which stood for: “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.”
In Islam, solitude is encouraged too. The prophet, peace be upon him was asked “How can salvation be achieved?” He replied, “Control your tongue, keep to your house, and weep over your sins.”
The Qur’an tells us how alsayida Maryam (Mary mother of Jesus), peace be upon her, withdrew into a private place to worship her Lord in a time in which moral decadence was prevalent.
 “Whomsoever wishes his religion to be healthy and at peace, and his heart and body at comfort tell him embark upon solitude since these are horrific times and the wise are aloof”.

So dive in I did!

As I embarked on this journey, I strived for elevation from the humiliation of sins to the greatness of submission, acceptance and worship. I wanted to be able to see my own faults, be able to forgive my past and direct my heart towards my Maker at all times.
I also prayed for forgiveness from leading any other soul astray.

At the time I started thinking about all of this, I began reading a beautiful book a dear friend gifted me (Thank you friend) called The Forty Rules of Love, a novel about the Sufi mystic, Rumi. I am not a Sufi follower by any means but I have to say I enjoyed the book tremendously and highly recommend it.
Rules 17 and 23 respectively state:
“The whole universe is contained within a single human being-YOU. Everything that you see around, including the things that you might not be fond of and even the people you despise or abhor, is present within you in varying degrees. Therefore, do not look for Sheitan (Evil) outside yourself either. The devil is not an extraordinary force that attacks from without. It is an ordinary voice within. If you set to know yourself fully, face it with honesty and hardness.”
“The human being has a unique place among God’s creation. “I breathed into him of My Spirit,” God says. Each and every one of us without exception is designed to be God’s delegate on earth. Ask yourself, just how often do you behave like a delegate, if you ever do so? Remember, it fells upon each of us to discover the divine spirit inside and live by it.”

This all sounded easy-peasy when I planned it! But anyone who knows me even barely will know how hard it is for me to be quiet and not talk much. It took a lot of determination in the first few days but after that, I was actually very comfortable in my own company and noticed overall calm. I would like to think that I also found “ons” or companionship with Allah via zikr. A tête-à-tête with Him if I may say so.
I turned off all social media venues and only responded to work emails and spoke to my parents and children. And yes, my spouse too J
So an added bonus was that I proved to myself and to the naysayers that I was capable of zipping my mouth shut. Amen!
(I have to say though that I have spoken out loud to myself more times than I care to admit. And found that I called myself Shawqiya. Don’t ask)

So…To a mind that is disciplined. To shunning of all that is detrimental to one’s soul and to fellow human beings. To all that is human and good.

N.B. More of this and I just might reach enlightenment. Stay tuned J

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Hear 'bout mi hair here!

Before I start, I need to state that I am an African. Along the lines of my lineage, other bloods seem to have spilled in and have shown up in some features but they could not over-write the African hair heritage.
That being said, I have curly hair that refuses to conform, has a mind of its own and for the most part defies gravity. Unfortunately, the forces that be have decreed that this hair be termed "bad" while hair on the opposite end of the spectrum be labelled "good". And we have gone along with that and bent over backwards to "better" our hair and make it behave. We cooked it (literally), fried it, fixed it (formalin does a great job if you ignore the health hazards), Sodium Hydroxy'd it and did everything known to man to break those disulphide and hydrogen bonds.
When I was 8 i so wanted to cut my hair hoping for a look that was popular then (a Carre' or Bobcut). My mom dumped me on my aunt who in turn dumped me on an Egyptian hairdresser who in all fairness tried to explain to me that it won't work but i insisted. I ended up with a very short cut afro. The ups of that was it made getting ready for school a breeze as I waited in line after my brother for our dad to pass the "khulal" (a special comb used by African men that has its teeth vertically aligned vs the regular comb). The hair cut brought out my face and we found out that i had a twin in my male cousin, Nazar. The downs of it was I looked like my male cousin :)
I rocked my afro for a while, then under the caring hands of our Ethiopian maid transitioned into braids which worked very well till high school.
Alas, society has a way of making sure you fit into its round holes even if you are a square peg. So fry, cook, fix, relax I did.
It was no fun! And it did not work. I hated it. If God wanted me to have "good" hair, he was perfectly capable of doing so, eh?
So I stopped! And I accepted! And I rejoiced! And I loved my hair as is. And with that came self love and self appreciation and confidence. I can occasionally cook it but only if I want to and when I want to. Most days I like it raw.
To me, acceptance of one's hair is like accepting one's skin color. It is an acceptance of race and self. A trust in God's creation. He knows best doesn't he?
I am a black woman. My hair is me. I refuse to conform, have a mind of my own and for the most part I dare to defy.
I have recently chopped my hair once again. But this time around I was fine with it and loving it and will make my own square pegs to snuggle into.
The challenge now is to find a hairdresser who understands where I'm coming from. In the past two months, I have travelled between looking like Halle Berry, Ex Phillipines President Aquino, Egyptian actress Firdous Abdelhameed and Ethiopian singer Tigist.
But all is good and the journey goes on.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

What's in a name?

Shakespeare famously said through Juliet "That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
But is that really so?

A name is a title. It is an adornment and a symbol. It's a powerful piece of us. It is what we respond to. It might not be who we all are yet we become different if it changes.

My story goes that my parents met an Indian girl named Siema (pronounced Seema and worldwide spelled as such but my parents had to give me a run). They liked the name so much so that when I was born, my dad asked his friend, an Arabic language expert, if the name could have a meaning in Arabic.  He was told it could be a derivative of the quranic aya
"سيماهم في وجوههم من أثر السجود"
Which literally translates to a skin marking that imprints on one's forehead from prolonged prostration to God (the Muslim prayer is made up of specific physical movements that include bringing one's forehead to the ground multiple times in each prayer). The meaning to be conveyed is that your face reflects the inner you. The ancient Arabs would say
ما أسر أحد سريرة إلا أبداها الله على صفحات وجهه وفلتات لسانه
Whatever you hold within you of good or evil, God will draw/bring out on the pages of your face and bouts of your tongue
(An old wise man recently told me "it's a burden your parents bestowed upon you. You unconsciously feel the desire to live up to your name." Maybe. Maybe not. I once knew a Hope who was an absolute pessimist).
Anyway that is how I came to be named.
As far as I know I am the first Sudanese Siema(sp). I know at least 4 Seemas named after me. I think this deserves to go down in history *insert hair flip and Cleopatra'ish pose*
I cannot recount the number of times I had to explain my name. Or the number of times stubborn Sudanese just flat out refused it. It didn't exist so it cannot be was the reasoning. I was instead given more common names like Sumaya and Shaymaa by several teachers in school and college.

To make matters more interesting and to add to the story, our neighbors to the North,  the Egyptians, call the movie theaters (seema).  And they also happened to have a famous candy brand by that same name. To my horrific delight, that company went on to produce jam and honey too and TV commercials arrived in Sudan in the mid 80s. My school friends made sure I heard about it.
I was also serenaded in my college years with
 "سيما يا عسل يا احلي عسل إنتاج مصانع. ..مصانع صبار"... the honey commercial

As I write this I have to admit it's corny cute. If I were to go back,  I would be less embarrassed by it and
enjoy it more.

The reason I have come to like my name is that I have discovered it to be an international one. It makes me a child of the world. It fits in fine almost everywhere.  It's shared by Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Persians.
I've come across it a lot in the Indian community where it means face or boundary in Hindi.
Seema in Hebrew means precious thing or treasure (Met an Israeli whose sister was a Seema. That served to break the ice in my first real life Israeli meeting :)
And in Persian it means face.
Was told in Latin it means sprout and in Scottish translates into listener (but as far as I know it is not used as a name).

In Islam, it is narrated that a father owes his child 3 things; to choose a good, wise woman to mother him and bring him up well, to give him a good name and to teach him the holy book.
 (يحسن اختيار أمه، وأن يحسن اسمه، وأن يعلّمه الكتاب)
I attest that my dad did all three things and for that I am blessed and pray he finds peace in this life and the eternal abode.

So what's in a name? A lot. A name has a mysterious power. It somehow captures a piece of our soul. It reflects our essence and has a hand in molding us.
I'm known for asking friends to name their daughters Seema. It might seem outwardly narcissistic but that is not the case. I have lived this name and enjoyed it fully and am aware of the doors it opens. It is a gift I want to give to you my friends. A piece of me if you may.