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On Being A Cruslim

Aside from the aforementioned dreaded birthday, the other time of the year that makes me neurotic (well a lot more than the usual neurotic) is Christmas and the end of the year. While many consider this to be a time of celebration and giving, I consider it one of loss, nostalgia and regret, but also one of gratitude and a sneaky, unshakable hope that I’m going to wake up to a pile of presents under the plastic Made-in-China Christmas tree.

This (like pretty much everything in my life) can be blamed entirely on my parents, who, up until I was ten (or four, depending on which parent you choose to believe) led me to believe that Santa Clause (and the tooth fairy) existed purely to buy me presents.

I remember every Christmas Eve being a festive, happy, gift-filled party, usually thanks to my unofficial godfathers, Uncle Mohi and Uncle Victor buying me excellent choices (for a ten/four/28-year old) such as a yellow tea tray set with beautiful tea cups, a quaint tea pot and even a sugar jar (it baffles me how my usually pea-brain-sized memory can still recollect these obscure little experiences when I fail to remember more important things such as why I left my car keys in the fridge again, most of my friends’ names and my sister’s birthday- thank god for facebook reminders). Singing in the Rain would be playing on TV, my friend Maya and her sisters, my sister and I would huddle in front of the fire and ladle generous spoons of brandy cream into our mouths (which led me to recently observe to my mother: “Have you ever thought that maybe I wasn’t sugar high as a kid, I was just drunk?”) and sing all the Christmas songs that my German kindergarten had hammered into my head.

Several years of jovial brandy cream and tea set gifts later, my dad one day decided to burst my Santa bubble by telling me that Mr. Clause doesn’t exist, and I should no longer get presents; as I’m Muslim and Muslims don’t have Santas. This I found to be extremely offensive, especially since it meant no more presents; but I was happily reminded of not one but two Muslim feasts where I get brand-new clothes and clean-smelling cash from all adults (including unfortunate guests who happened to drop by at the wrong time and couldn’t handle my thug-like ten year old attitude of ‘Yo! I’m Muslim! Gimme money!”

Still, the cash was usually a few pounds at the most and always ran out with one trip to the nearest grocers and a pile of Magic Gum, Bimbo, Rocket and bonbon Sima, or it got confiscated by the same Santa-ruining father who put it all away in a precious bank account “for savings.” Two decades later, we’ve forgotten entirely about those bank accounts, but I’m pretty sure there’s a few valuable twenties locked away somewhere with my name on them.
Today, the cash is no longer forked out, as I am rudely reminded that I am an independent, cash-earning career woman and new clothes are no longer necessary since I need two wardrobes in two different cities to contain my collection (and several suitcases and a few boxes under beds). But I’ve always thought that it’s the thought that counts, especially when it’s a well-thought-out wad of cash on Christmas or either of the eids or a new pair of shoes, but hey, I’m just saying. Not dropping hints or anything, Dad.

The whole why-don’t-I-get-Christmas-too debate recently came into question when my last boss decided to split work holidays according to religions; i.e. if you’re Christian, you get Christmas off, but if you’re Muslim, you have to work, etc. I understand that the man was a workaholic and wanted to keep the company running throughout the year, but I smelled religious discrimination and considered reporting him to some workers’ union until I remembered that, like most of my friends working in Egypt, I didn’t have a contract or any legit workers’ papers, and thus did not have a single (nicely shoed) leg to stand in.
Then I came up with the genius decision that I am a Cruslim. Yes, a Christian Muslim. A person of both faiths that gets both the Christian and the Muslim New Year’s Eves off and expects presents whenever possible. My poor boss blinked at me for a good five minutes, and then huffed off and threatened to throw his Café Greco double espresso at someone else instead.

He then got into trouble when Thanksgiving rolled around and the American colleagues got that off but I had to work, whereupon I pointed out that I should get Egyptian Labor Day, Sinai Liberation Day, National Victory Day, Sham El Neseem, May 15th, 26th of July, Father’s and Mother’s Day off. Suffice it to say that I don’t work there anymore.
Still, my closeted religious righteousness is appeased with every Christmas, as I get invited to many generous dinners, where people feed me for a change and I don’t have to raise a finger except to go for seconds, and sometimes thirds ( I eat for a living. I have the stomach capacity to prove it).

That, however, cannot always shake the sense of foreboding and regret that I feel around this time of year when I remember the people that I have lost and the opportunities that I have missed on this strange path that I have taken.
It’s always around this time of year when I look at what I’ve become and what I was supposed to be, and measure the drastic gap of difference between the two. When I was six (or eight or twelve) I had my life excellently planned out. I was going to be an astronaut. A champion tennis player, the grand dame of a ballet school, a dog breeder, the president of the world; all admirable and realistic aspirations that got lost along the way of growing taller and wider, saner and more responsible.

These are the things that I still regret.
1. I regret listening to my ballet teacher when I was twelve, who told me I was too tall and too heavy to ever become a ballerina. After eight years of loving ballet, I quit cold turkey. I still tear up when I watch ballet, and my feet always twitch whenever I watch So You Think You Can Dance. I could have been something.
2. I regret all the amazing trips and job offers that I passed up on, like the free trips to Cyprus, Sharm El Sheikh, Beirut and Damascus, or the job offer at AP, the exchange program in the US, or the writers’ program in Gouna. All these opportunities I relinquished because I was committed to a person or a job, and time has proven neither to be worthy.
3. I regret the friends that I’m no longer friends with, whether because words were spoken and pride got in the way, or we drifted apart because my life was filled with other (more temporarily interesting) people. I’ve found out the hard way that you don’t choose your best friends; they’re the ones that stay when the smoke clears and the glitter fades.
4. I regret the advice that I never took, the people that I never listened to, and as a result, let myself get hurt by people who didn’t deserve my trust. Since then, I’m borderline anal about taking my friends’ advice on who I should date, what I should eat, and does that haircut really suit me even if the hot Lebanese/Italian/French hair stylist tells me I look fabulous.
5. I regret the people that I’ve hurt, whether through carelessness or not being able to control my car or foresee the future.
6. I regret never telling the people I lost how much I love them. Mohab believed in me more than I did in myself, and wouldn’t stop calling me, no matter how often I ignored his phone calls. Roba insisted on cooing at me down the phone, even when I begged her not to sing Hammaki or Tamer Hosny off-key to me, but she was charming and she loved me.
7. And the biggest regret I will always have is the fact that I never answered Vanessa’s calls. She called me every day for five days when I was mourning Roba, and I was too stuck in my bubble to call her back, or even just text her. The day she stopped calling, I decided to call her back, and it was too late. And that’s something I have to deal with for the rest of my life.
My very wise grandmother once said that you don’t regret the things that you do, you regret the things that you don’t. With all the mistakes that I’ve made in my rather short twenty eight years of life, I rarely have pangs of regret other than the next morning of what-the-hell-did-do-last-night-and-how-did-I-end-up-singing-karaoke-on-the-bar-table-and-why-did-my-stupid-friends-take-photos-and-post-them-on-facebook.

At this time of year, I weigh my list of regrets versus all the little milestones that I’ve achieved, and try and spin something positive out of them. I’m young, I’m loved, I have several talents that should channeled into something more productive than feeding a few friends (sorry, guys) or writing a blog that possibly thirty people (including my mother) know about.
So this year, I resolve to stop whining about nostalgia and regret, and start doing something about it. Starting with presents. You know what I want.

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The Eight Symptoms of Being A Foodist

Foodist (plural foodists)

A person who is very interested in food.

A person who is interested in foodism.

A person who discriminates against other people because of the food they eat.

Foodism (plural foodisms)

An exaggerated interest in the preparation, presentation and consumption of food.

My name is Desk Girl and I am a foodist.  It’s not only that I like food a lot (and I mean a lot lot), I also tend to think/talk/dream about it every day. And it can’t be a coincidence that almost all my best friends are fantastic cooks who can spend hours cooing about spices and dissecting recipes off epicurious.com. We are, according to one non-foodist friend, ‘Gourmet Dorks’. I don’t mind being called uncool as long as I’m being fed.

While I’ve always liked my food thanks to a healthy childhood and an even healthier appetite, my evolution from food-snob to full-on foodist happened two years ago when I lived at my friend Nina’s place for a month. I watched her juggle her marriage, her two-year old baby, her job and her social life, while still managing to cook up wonderful, buttery recipes every evening. (You can read her cute food blog here.)

The joy she took in planning and preparing food was so infectious that I soon found myself transitioning from the casual Chuck-Beef-Into-Wok-And-Add-Soya-Sauce Cook into someone that understood the value of basil, balsamic vinegar, shallots and rice that doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.

Here are some symptoms of my foodism. If you share any of these symptoms, we need to talk.

  • I eat Anything, Anytime– well almost everything, except for Black Pudding, beetroots and weird animal parts. Oh and fruit with strange names like Teen Shouky (what on earth is that?) I can also eat under pretty much all circumstances: when I’m angry, sleepy, happy, hot, cold, in planes, over camels, under pressure. I’ve only lost my appetite a total of three times in my life; when I was so sick and feverish, I started talking to my bedroom walls (but that’s another story).
  • I have Food Memory:  if you know me well enough, you’d know that I have the memory of a goldfish with Alzheimer’s that used to do a lot of LSD as a kid. I can’t remember what I did two days ago and most people’s names are a blur, but I can easily remember events related to the food I have eaten in the past 27 years of my life: like the soft ice cream cone that I had twenty years ago in London, the fried calamari in Cyprus when I was nine, the Duck a L’Orange in Gouna five years ago, the Layered White Chocolate cake my friend Jasmine made in theater rehearsals in 2001…
  • I’m a bit of a Food Bully: I may seem a little, ahem, judgmental of people who don’t care about food, or simply forget to eat (who forgets to eat?!!).  I try to be a little kinder to those with legit food allergies, but deep inside I secretly think they’re just a bunch of sissies. And don’t even get me started on vegetarians: while I applaud their moral efforts, I secretly believe that one dinner at my Aunt Nabila (meat, kofta, escalope, boftek and mombar) will easily convert them back into carnivores.

Example:

Aunt Nabila: Have some kofta ya habibty, you’ve barely eaten anything.A skinny girl like you, we need to fatten you up.

Vegetarian: (stammers) Uh, no thank you, it’s just that all your foods have meat in them; and I…uh…No thank you.

AN: La’a! Don’t tell me you’re (disapproving snort) on a diet!

V: Well it’s sort of a diet. I just don’t eat meat.

AN: (Stunned silence).

V: (Hurriedly) I’m a vegetarian, so I can only eat vegetables, but no animal meats.

AN: Yaany eh, you don’t like my food walla eh? Dah ana I slaved away for two days to make this Ro’aa espeshally for you and you don’t like it?

V: No no, I’m sure it’s wonderful I just can’t eat it because-

AN: If God didn’t want us to eat animals, he wouldn’t have made their meat so tasty. Why don’t you like my cooking? What did I ever do to you for you to reject my food?

Good Luck to any vegetarian surviving her.

  • I’m a Bit of a Food Slut: I hate to admit it, but like many men I know, the way to my heart is through my stomach. You feed me, I love you. I realized that recently when my skanky colleague skived off work one day, leaving me to cover his 17-hour shift. He walked in the next day with a big smile on his face and an even bigger bag of hot muffins from Costa all for me. I was furious. I looked at the muffins. I forgave him. That easily.
  • I’m a Restaurant’s worst Nightmare: if we’re out for dinner, I’m secretly checking the cutlery for dirt and mentally reviewing each and every meal that passes our table. The unfortunate side to being a food snob is that I rarely like a meal if I believe I can cook it better myself. The flipside t o that is  I’ve realized that good food and expensive food are incompletely unrelated- in fact, the best meals I’ve ever had are often off street carts in some of the most underrated parts of the country. Which is why…
  • My dream Job is to be a Travelling Food Critic: Do I spend all my money on travelling the world? Check. Max out my credit card on restaurant meals and gourmet ingredients? Check. So what could be better than getting paid to travel, eat and critique the world’s most exquisite and exotic food? Seriously!
  • I Buy Your Love with My Food: I like to seduce people into being my friends by slyly throwing dinner parties or “spontaneously” baking truckloads of cookies for them. Ever noticed how you used to hate me at first, and now, for some inexplicable reason, you really really love me? Yeah, it’s because I fed you my chicken.
  • I Could Easily eat for Egypt: While I can out-eat a few male friends of mine (you know who you are), the only reason I’m not the size of Eddie Murphy before-Nutty-Professor-Made-the-Potion-And-Discovered-Spandex is because I work out religiously, thanks to an athletic upbringing and a father who affectionately calls me Gamousa every time I gain weight. You know how they say that inside every fat girl is a thin girl and a lot of chocolate? Well, inside of me is a fat girl that’s been starved.

So if you find that you have more than a few of these symptoms, it’s time you and I join forces and start a foodist cult or something. Or let’s start off small and have a dinner party first. Bring food.

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Shut Up, Ghandi

Breakups suck, but the worst kind is the one where you still desperately love your ex.
Quitting smoking was to me like breaking up with a really hot but mean boyfriend: you know he’s bad for you, but he makes you feel gorgeous, helps you unwind after a long day, likes you to hold him when you’re at a nightclub, especially when he wears that leather jacket…

I recently made the heartbreaking decision to quit the supposedly nasty habit (yeah, yeah, all you doctors out there, spare me the research data).

Most people who know me are always shocked that I smoke and squeak “Noooooooooooooooo!” in slow-motion when they see me holding a cigarette.
“Don’t worry,” I assure them, “I don’t inhale.”

I guess because I work out regularly and eat fruit every two months or so, people automatically believe that I’m a health freak.
Note: I think of butter as a food group on its own, one that should be ingested on a daily basis. If you knew me better, you’d know that I’m a highly addictive person, as evident by my unreasonable intake of sugar, coffee and a shoe collection that spans across three continents (I kid you not).

After a few months of coughing like an old man (there’s nothing sexier than that sound in the morning), I decided to go Cold Turkey on New Year’s Day as one of my overambitious 2010 resolutions.
Then a very evil friend of mine (let’s call him Rami) ruined my plans by buying me two boxes of my favorite Dunhill Blues.
“Quit as soon as you’re done smoking them,” he smiled evilly.

Two months and many happy cigarette hours later, I once again decided that I was done with nicotine. It may have something to do with the offer my genius flat mate made me: “Quit smoking and I’ll buy you a swanky mixer.”
This may not mean much to you, but if you’re a foodist like me, getting a new mixer is like a new flat-screen TV (read my next blog).

It also may have something to do with the fact that I like running, but I recently found myself lagging behind a fat Chinese kid on the jogging track. If a fat Chinese kid can outrun you, you might as well be dead.

My friends have split into three alliances:
First, there are the Semi Supporters, who tell me they’re proud of me quitting, yet they sneakily continue to smoke, which makes me suspect they don’t quite mean it from the heart.
Then there’s the Evil Coercers, who keep trying to seduce me back into their smoking clique by offering me cigarettes and seductively blowing smoke in my face. I understand: nicotine, like misery, loves company, and there’s nothing quite like that special cigarette you share with a friend on the balcony after a good meal.
Then, there’ are the Holy and Pure friends who don’t smoke/drink caffeine/eat fatty foods/curse/double park and like to save animals in their spare time. These friends give me regular pep-talks (high-fives and all), and whenever I’m tempted to smoke, they urge me to eat a cucumber or save a tree or something.
Right.

Much to my dismay, I discovered that smoking had made me a relaxed and easygoing person, and taking the nicotine away had turned me into Godzilla on crack. With rage issues that no Jack Nicholson could cure.

Day One: Woke up from a beautiful dream about me inhaling my cigarette in slow motion, hair blowing back in the gentle breeze, the theme from Love Story playing in the background. Got teary eyed when I realized it was only a dream.

Day Two: WHY THE HELL ARE YOU DRIVING IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD, LADY?

Day Three: found myself scratching my arm like a crack addict when my friend lit her cigarette next to me. Made her blow smoke my way so that I could inhale some of it. I said I’d quit SMOKING, never promised anything about second-hand smoke.

Day Four: Is it just me or have Men who Smoke suddenly become sexy? The minute a guy lights a cigarette, even if it’s a random stranger on the street, I perk up and think ‘Ooooh, ‘Ellooo!’

Day Five: I now completely sympathize with cranky, nicotine-starved taxi drivers during Ramadan. I have all the withdrawal symptoms: headache, severely short temper, road rage, fatigue, inability to tolerate cheerful friends.

Day Seven: I eat too much chocolate to compensate for lack of nicotine. Great. Now have to quit chocolate AND cigarettes.

Day Nine: And Coffee.

Day Fourteen: I don’t understand why people say I’m intimidating, or duck whenever I pick up a sharp object. I feel completely fine. Can’t seem to stop my leg from twitching, though.

Day Seventeen: Non-smoking Friend, a member of the Holy and Pure that I like to call Ghandi because she thinks the world will be a better place if we hold hands and sing Disney Classics, smiled at me today and said
“Don’t you feel sooo much better now that you don’t have that toxic nicotine in your body? Now you can do anything you put your mind to; you can climb mountains if you want!”
Shut up Ghandi. I’m absolutely miserable.

Day Eighteen: Realized it’s almost three weeks since I quit smoking. Decided to celebrate by having a cigarette. I am so proud of myself.

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