by Jennifer Baily
I felt my sister clutch my hand and I looked over at her. The huge toothy smile showed me she was nervous. We were sitting alone in a dark dusty living room- the house was alive with sounds of people bustling and talking about, but we were alone. We were perched on a mustard coloured couch with a coffee table in front of us, on it a vase filled with plastic carnations and roses. A bookcase nearby was covered in family photographs, fabric bound books and more plastic flowers. It seemed to me like any house, in any town. The most unique feature was the view. Through the window I saw a sloping hill leading down into a river. The bank was covered in shrubbery, trees and sporadic smooth round rocks. Over the other side of the river was sand, a light orange that seemed a vast contrast to the lush greenery below.
We were sitting above the Nile in Aswan, Egypt in the home of my uncle’s neighbours. As I stared out, an Egyptian river boat, a felucca, meandered slowly but with expert precision through the swirling and shallow waters, the sailor leaning back on the sail appearing to sleep at the wheel. My uncle has lived in Egypt for over 30 years and this was my sister and I’s first visit. My uncle is an antisocial man and had never taken up the invitations of the neighbouring family to visit their home for dinner. So my sister and I decided to accept, dining with the neighbours as my uncle napped the early evening away on his roof top.
As the sun set, the women of this household stood in the kitchen, whilst my sister and I waited in the living room. I could hear them chattering through the mud brick walls. I wanted to help, but we were guests and our place was to relax alone until called. I inhaled smells wafting from the kitchen- not the spicy heady scent you might imagine: it was warm and savory. I pictured pots of broth with chunks of meat and potatoes, and then through the air came the tang of just-cut red onions followed by hints of cumin and cardamom.
A teenage girl entered and grabbed our hands- “Come,” she said. She introduced herself as Fatima. Our lack of Arabic made communication difficult, but Fatima’s high school English class had come in handy, and she became a translator of sorts for evening.
On the table was a dark meat curry, cucumber and feta salad, red onion and tomato, pita bread, baked minced beef slice and Koushari, a dish of rice, lentils, and chickpeas, an Egyptian family staple. The family sat and smiled at us; the celebrities of the party had appeared. Fatima relayed questions back and forth: were we married? Why weren’t we? Was it hard to find a husband in Australia? We laughed, similar questions were asked at our own family dinners by our female relatives.
We sat laughing and eating, the women filling our plates when they began to empty. Everyone smiling, watching us eat. Conversation was secondary. The focus was ensuring that we were being well fed. Any time we paused to speak they gestured, as if to say ‘More! Have more!’
We with our bellies full, having learned barely anything of the family who had just fed us, yet feeling cared for and satisfied. There was no pretension, no facades or attempts to impress. There was simply food shared and food given. Which in this case spoke louder than words.
Jennifer Baily is a lover of food and writing and combining the two whenever possible.