A traditional (?) family gathering

My first Eid celebration was a blend of tradition and modernization – the Middle East and the inevitable American influence that creeps its way into every crevice around the world. Upon arrival, I took off my shoes and was immediately whisked away to the women’s side of the gathering, in a separate room from Dave and those with whom I feel I have more in common; in general, I prefer the company of men in superficial settings like this. Not this time, nor any time when I am with Omanis. So I sat on the floor, a firm pillow supporting my back rather well, in a room full of women and children. Grandma was on my left. It took her about three minutes to communicate her shock and disapproval over the fact that I don’t have children. The other twenty women simply looked confused and a few who spoke English said “later you will.” I didn’t feel the need to explain that I’m in my mid-40s and on birth control; being childless is part of my life choice. It’s just not something that’s understood in this culture at all. In the background, a television showed a Batman cartoon dubbed into Arabic. Some of the kids paid attention, but most ran around an semi-tormented each other like brothers, sisters, and cousins do.

When the women found out I was from America, they became excited and brought over a young woman who shared the news that she was going to university in Lincoln, Nebraska to study civil engineering. I told her she must be very smart and her family proud. Many questions about Nebraska – its climate, food, and people – were all shouted at me in both English and Arabic – this young adult had never left the country before and was due to depart in January. I did my best to make it sound like the best place on earth and one in which she would thrive. I had my doubts, but only because it gets damn cold there, and I know very little about the state; what I do know doesn’t draw me in, but then again I don’t think I could be any more different than the young adult across from me. Her blue dress and matching head covering bolder in color than most of the other guests’ attire, but not something you would typically see in the Midwest, or at an American university. Though what do I know, it may be more commonplace than I realize; I have no idea what the Muslim population of University of Nebraska, Lincoln is. But I do know all about the proportion of women in Engineering. She will be a unique person there for sure if not for her religion, than for her gender. I felt a strong urge to help her in some way, offer support, a contact, some encouraging words, but I had very little to give (anyone out there know someone willing to be a friendly face out there?).

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Sitting on the floor with one of the many women there (the only one willing to be photographed).

Conversations buzzed over my head as more women poured in. The soon-to-be college student introduced them to me: not by name, but in relation to her. “My cousin, my other cousin, another cousin, my brother’s sister, my cousin’s wife.” I lost track after I counted 25 women all in different colored and patterned outfits; only one was wearing the more conservative black abaya, though all wore long sleeves and skirts/dresses and not an adult head of hair was in sight. The children wore the same clothing I would see my friends’ kids wearing.

I felt comfortable sitting there, both physically and mentally. Even though I didn’t understand most of what was being said (occasionally someone would try to chat with me about what I was doing here, or what they did), the dynamic was pretty much like any other large family gathering. Hugs, laughter, children running around, and a million simultaneous conversations. I sat quietly and just took it in.

Then it was time to eat. A large sheet of plastic was rolled out onto the floor, and six platters of seasoned rice were placed on top all down the long room. Then came the meat (shua). All I knew about it (from reading and asking some Omani teachers at work) was that it had been killed three days before, and cooked in the ground until that morning – it was smoky and fell off the bone. Huge chunks of it were thrown onto the rice, and two bowls of sauces – one red, one yellow – were also presented. Tomatoes and onions completed the spread. I turned to the woman next to me and asked what type of meat it was (I assumed it was goat); she replied, “Cow. Or maybe camel. I’m not sure.” I wasn’t sure if her lack of confidence was due to language or culinary ignorance. I ate anyway (I still think it was goat).

I was the only one presented with a plate and spoon. The rest of the family dug in with their hands. They would rip at the meat, which basically fell off the bone, and shovel it into their mouths. They would pour sauce on the rice, massage it in their right hand (never the left!) until it formed a ball and popped that in as well. Then they would go for more. It looked primitive, unsanitary, and totally normal all at the same time. I still stuck to my plate, but enjoyed watching the smoothness of the dining process of the rest of the group. Like any grandmother would, the family matriarch kept piling pieces of meat onto my plate and telling me to eat more. I tried to signal to her that I was very full and would sneak her servings back onto the platter. She did, however, succeed in making me drink my Pepsi to wash the meal down. It was funny to me to have such a traditional meal bastardized by an American (global) staple that can hardly be categorized as sustenance.

Cleanup consisted of taking away the food that was left on the platters and crumpling up the plastic sheet – no dirty dishes except my own. Apparently one woman did all the cooking for the fifty of us (including kids) in our room and the twenty men in the other.

Sweet cardamom tea and cardamom coffee were served in tiny handleless cups, along with dates – these are traditionally served to counter the bitterness of the coffee. I love dates and have been eating them daily since I got here. I told grandmother this and, after a translation, she smiled widely and toothlessly and gave me a thumbs-up. I thought the meal was complete. Nope.

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Dad came by to visit the ladies. He loved the fact I was drinking coffee for some reason.

Then came the halwa, a dessert made with dates, egg, milk, and a ton of sugar – it can be flavored with rose or other herbs and spices as well. It has the consistency and appearance of opaque jello. The mother made little scoops of it and again family members of all ages dove in with their hands to pick out a piece or two. I was given a spoon and encouraged to eat two globs. It’s good stuff, but super rich. I’m guessing Eid is pretty much like Thanksgiving when it comes to lack of portion moderation. Then the dad came in to check on me and pretty much force-fed me a third spoonful. Surely now we were done…

Then came the plates of fruit. Women gathered around them and started to cut up apples, plums, bananas, and pineapples. There were pomegranates too, and as I helped scoop out the seeds, I shared with them that these are often served during our Christmas season. They at least seemed to like the idea, smiling politely and nodding. I earned extra bonus points when I was the only one there who really knew how to cut and serve a mangosteen (thanks Vietnam!) using only an extremely dull knife. Thankfully, I got away with eating a few pomegranate seeds and a couple of hard-earned sections of the mangosteen. And finally, the meal was over.

Most of the guests left soon after. A few hung around, but soon all that remained were our hosts. I was able to join Dave, his student, and the father in the men’s room. The student played the guitar and I was convinced to sing along to Hotel California as the young brothers and sisters came in to hear the white gal sing. I did OK for the first verse but then my laughter got the better of me. Why is that song so universal? I have heard it in every country I have ever been in from Brazil to South Korea. Its popularity baffles me, but it was only fitting that it was the only American song he knew. I expect that if we are to join them again I will be joining him in a fine rendition of either Stairway to Heaven or Freebird.

They were trying to plan for us to see a movie in the city (over an hour away) – there was talk of a Bollywood film and those aren’t known for their brevity. While I sort of liked the idea, I was beat. Dave managed to thank his student’s family for the amazing meal, but we had to go. Omani hospitality is amazing, but I think they will continue to give until you tell them it’s OK to stop. They sent us on our way with leftover shua, rice, a bag full of fruit (grapes, oranges, apples, a pomegranate, and a mangosteen!), and a two-liter bottle of Pepsi.

 

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