August 18, 1999
The big highlight of my week is that yesterday I got to help cook something. Normally I’m not allowed in the kitchen, which is really starting to get old — I feel like a guest in a situation where everybody else is overworked, and it makes me unhappy. There is an aunt who lives with us but who never speaks and just seems sort of… simple, in a very Victorian sense, and she seems bound and determined to keep me out of the kitchen, although she’s very polite about it. Eventually we’ll have to see about that. But yesterday she wasn’t home and there were these green things that needed to be hollowed out. I think they were zucchini, but Um Shakur kept saying “okra,” and since I’ve never seen an okra in the wild I just don’t know?
We each had a long sharp tool and the trick is to hollow out the vegetable without piercing the end or making the walls so thin they break. It’s not easy. Um Shakur kept telling me that any ones I broke I was going to have to eat, but I saw that the 15-year-old daughter Asra broke at least a couple too. After they were hollow we filled them up with a mixture of rice, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and partially-cooked meat of some sort. We had leftover stuffing mixture so Um Shakur picked some grape leaves from our yard and we stuffed those too. First she rinsed them off with tap water, which I am just not going to be able to avoid. That lasted about a week. I can’t live here and not ingest some tap water. As it is everybody thinks my water distiller is very weird (it IS!) and loud and inconvenient. I’m just going to have to do my best and cross my fingers.
To date, however, my biggest health problem has been the mosquitoes. Actually, today Um Shakur told me that all the men were at the mosquito, and that took me a minute to figure out, so let’s just say that’s not the kind I mean. I’ve been averaging about 20 bites per limb per night and I appear to be much more allergic to them here than at home. We were issued mosquito nets last week, but even if I could figure out how to hang one in someone else’s master bedroom (which I can’t) they are apparently so incredibly hot that the Peace Corps told us we might not want to use them until winter. Which is not very helpful. In the last few days I’ve started wearing my fall pajamas to maximize clothing coverage, and then bathing all my exposed skin with Deet. They’ve given us Army surplus stuff that suggests we try to avoid getting it on the collars of our uniforms and warns us to rinse it off as soon as possible because it may cause cancer.
I got a dictionary from the Peace Corps. It’s British. I tried looking up “squash” in the context of asking what the green things were, and the dictionary suggested a fruity drink and “a lot of people in one place,” neither of which was what I wanted. Meanwhile it doesn’t have “zucchini” in it at all. Anyway, using the dictionary I managed to communicate that my college major was political science. Now every time someone comes over they call me over to them and make me say “political science” and then everybody laughs and claps.
I went through my duffel bag yesterday and dug out all the Pez dispensers and handed them out to the kids. Actually, I basically had to throw them into a wriggling heap of children. The funny thing is that they’ve never heard of Star Wars, so the faces themselves matter not at all. After all the candy had been inhaled, the littlest girl (Maysoon, who is 2) gathered up all the dispensers and started playing with them. They are just the right size to fit in her little doll bed. When I came outside she was feeding Darth Vader little scraps of cucumber.
On the other hand, today as we were hanging laundry, Asra asked me “Do you know Ricky Martin? He is very beautiful.”
Another interesting thing that happened this week was the solar eclipse. I mean, solar eclipses are always kind of interesting, but this one was really disruptive here; I think they actually made that day a national holiday. All the stores and schools were closed, and they kept playing ads on tv in which families pulled all the blinds and huddled together inside to avoid accidentally burning their retinas. We scandalized the neighborhood when our teacher showed up at my house (which is the most central of our five houses) with a pair of tinfoil glasses she had found and we all took turns watching.
Speaking of scandalizing the neighborhood — no, there is very little shopping in Namus. There are a few tiny shops called “dukan,” that sell dusty and very basic selections of candy, local deodorant and shampoo, dried fruit, nuts, and carbonated beverages. Sometimes they have sheets of paper and stickers and pencils for the kids, or chips and ice cream. There’s a slightly bigger one up the hill that sells coffee but we’re not allowed to go in there because it’s just for men. Each of the stores has an owner/operator who sits just inside it or just outside it on a stool. This week I decided I wanted a Coke, so I stopped at the store at which the guy looked least intimidating, and the owner asked me if I were a tourist. I said no and that I lived with Um Shakur. That same day when I walked home from school I heard at least six people mention “Um Shakur” as I walked past.
The best thing so far is Um Shakur’s workshop downstairs. Women come to be measured and to pick things up and sometimes I think they come just to hang out. It’s cool and dark and she sews while everyone else drinks tea and chats lazily. I’m not allowed to bring a book but they don’t mind if I sit there and space out, and they’ll poke me if I’m needed for conversation (such as to randomly exclaim “political science!” and then go back to being ignored). The workshop has two sewing machines, a creaky old stand-fan, and an iron, and there is a steady stream of women in and out most days. I like sitting down there and the one danger is that I will accidentally ingest a year’s worth of sugar and caffeine if I don’t remember to count how many little cups of tea I drink — they get filled back up by whichever little child runs down the stairs with a teapot and I barely notice. Today I was in a sugar stupor so bad that I almost missed it when a new customer arrived and Um Shakur introduced me as her daughter. I can’t decide whether I was more surprised by her introduction or the fact that I understood it!