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Blending In

by Ferida Wolff

My husband and I went on vacation to a place both foreign and familiar to me — the Middle East. The foreign aspect was that I had not been in that part of the world before. The familiar part had to do with my paternal family. My grandfather came from Palestine and my grandmother from Syria. This set the stage for an adventure that both surprised and delighted me.

Our itinerary took us to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. We both were awed by the incredible landscapes; there were mountains and desert, red sand and granite-streaked hills, and vast expanses of each. The pyramids and tombs were amazing and the culture so impressive it was hard to grasp it all. The small group with whom we traveled was composed of seasoned voyagers. Some had even been to the area before. But there was a comfort level for me in these ancient lands that the others didnt share.

For instance, I knew the food. The spices used were the ones I grew up with. When someone in our group asked, What is in here? I was able to tell him; allspice, cinnamon, cumin, cloves. My grandmother made the meat-filled fingers of dough called kibbeh that were served. They brought me back to my childhood, to the times we bit off the tops of the kibbeh and put a spoonful of sour salad inside. It was a delicious ritual. There was mjedrah, rice with lentils, and often keftes, meatballs in a sour tomato sauce. And at a buffet in Petra, there was graybeh, the melt-in-your-mouth butter cookies that were my absolute favorites growing up.

But there was so much more that connected me with the places we visited. I marveled at the faces around me. They were the faces of my family. There were people who resembled my Uncle Sol who long ago passed away and my Aunt Molly who is still going strong at 95. The features of my fathers and my grandmothers faces and sometimes of my own, looked back at me in the shops, in the museums, strolling along the avenues, and in the restaurants.

And then there was the wonder of my name. Ferida is not a common American name but everywhere I went whether in a small town or a large city, it was ordinary. Never in my life had I experienced being one of a crowd. It exhilarated me to share this identity with so many women. When I introduced myself, the surprise was not at the name as it always is at home, but that an American had it. For the first time in my life I blended in.

One evening we were guests in the home of a family in Cairo. The father spoke no English, the mother just a little. I only knew food words in Arabic. My father never taught my sister or me the language though my cousins are bilingual. I wondered how we would communicate but the language difference wasnt a barrier. It didnt matter; hospitality did. They offered us an abundant meal that harkened back to the generous dinners my grandmother cooked for family and guests — there were always guests. The eldest son and his wife who lived next door and joined us for the evening were fluent in both Arabic and English and we had a lively conversation about our comparative school systems, parenting customs (they had a two-year-old daughter), and elder care. I felt I knew these strangers — we even used the same hand motions to make our points. They invited me to stay with them whenever I returned to Cairo. I will seriously consider it.

The vacation, while so satisfying on a personal level, was tinged with some political unrest. There were demonstrations in Cairo and Amman and once we heard anger from the minarets as well as prayers. I hope to hold the personal quality of the experience in my memory rather than focus on the differences between people who are essentially the same, to recall the interactions with some very gracious people like the family in Cairo and the man I met so briefly in Aqaba, Jordan.

I was walking down a street with my husband, when a man passed. He stopped a few feet ahead, turned, and walked back toward us. He reached out and handed me a tiny flower he must have picked from one of the parks along the way. Shukran, thank you, I said. He bowed slightly and smiled, then went on his way.

Did he know I was American? Was he just being respectful to an older person? Did he look at me and see someone familiar? Ill never know but it is something I will always remember.

©2009 Ferida Wolff for


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