The beginning part 3- Make do

Things slowly improved in the villa, we had some cups, a few plates and a couple of pans handed down from people who wanted to help.  Three pads were purchased for the four kids and myself to sleep on.They were thin, made of some type of foam with a cover of material sewn on them. Again, we made do and snuggled up in our mommy and baby world. There were no phones available, no p.o.boxes, so no real communication with the outside world.

The Saudi family that lived downstairs owned the villa. Um Abdullah (mother of Abdullah) her husband, Abu Abdullah (father of Abdullah)  and their four children lived in the home directly under us.  She came up one day to give me some tea and cake. I didn’t speak much Arabic but she welcomed me to this place and gave me a kiss on each cheek, some things transcend language and culture. I was told I could go down to her villa any time to use her phone. But, it occurred to me, who would I call? I didn’t know anyone and could not call my parents long distance, but all the same the offer felt good and was a nice gesture on her part.

She looked at my stomach and asked me if I was pregnant or that is what I surmised from her face and gestures. I shook my head yes and then a twinge of nerves washed over me making me feel sick. I was, as always, very excited for this new baby, but after arriving to this place and these circumstances, I felt unsure and quite ridiculous for leaving the comfort of my home and family. In Seattle I had a wonderful OB who had delivered my 4 babies and who had inquired about religion, culture and anything that might effect me or my birth experience. I thought it would be easy in Saudi and quite similar, maybe even better! Now I had no idea where to find a qualified doctor or a hospital or how I would be able to deliver. All of my idealistic dreams were now blown away in a bubble out in space. But there was no way to turn back after selling the house, saying our goodbyes and agreeing to “give it a try”.

Life drug on for a few days, the heat and jet lag lulled us to sleep and we had nothing in particular to keep us awake.  I pushed to get a stove, a refrigerator, any small improvement would do. I tried to be patient and not arrogant, after all patience is a virtue, right?  I missed my mother and my father and my friends. Each night when he arrived home he brought with him a large brown paper bag, inside was a plastic bag, this was filled with rice and chicken or Mendi.  This is a common rice dish served in various Middle Eastern countries. I inquired about loaf bread, peanut butter, cheese and juice. I was told that now we lived here, in Saudi and we were to forget that old life and eat like the locals. Those other products were more costly and we needed to adjust to life in Saudi Arabia.

Finally a huge addition to the house was added, it was not the stove I had imagined but it was a stove. At that point anything to cook on besides a camp fire would be fine! The stove was yellow and it was electric not gas. This was a plus because I was not used to cooking on a gas stove. It had been purchased at a place that would best be described as a flea market. I tried to whip up some cookie dough with a bowl and spoon even though I did not have the complete list of ingredients I thought, why not try? It was lumpy and dry but I still felt I could make something of it. I turned the oven on 350 and went about my daily chores. Smoke billowed out of the kitchen from the inside of the stove.  I ran to turn it off and decided that baking was out of the question for now. At least it was a stove and surely something could be made on this appliance that would be edible and possibly comforting. I set to making noodles, just plain noodles would be fine and given the ban on the list of products, I felt lucky to have pasta.  The kids were tired of eating rice and chicken and wanted something else, something that reminded them of home, Grama and Grampa, their backyard. I had a pan that someone had given to me and that would do nicely. I put the water in it and started it to boiling, I realized at that point that only two burners were operable, again make do with what you are given. I drained the noodles and stirred in some butter and salt. I felt a tiny buzz when I stirred, I moved my hand quickly and pondered this strange sensation. Hmmm again stirring and a slight zap. I got the noodles off the stove and continued with my preparation.

That night I was told with great irritation that, I was not acting like a woman who loved to create pastries and homemade dishes, what was wrong with me, noodles with salt and butter? Why, no one would imagine I was a lady who loved to experiment with baking and cooking, host dinner parties and prepare special dishes for ailing friends. I explained that the inside of the stove did not work properly and when I stirred food on the stove top it seemed something was shocking me. This was met with a long hard look and a pause, I  then heard the words which would prove to epitomize my life from that point forward, “Well, USE a wooden spoon then!”

Pads we slept on until moving into the compound.



Syrian Oozie

Oozie is a delicious rice dish tucked in a phyllo shell. This is typically served in Syria and Jordan for weddings, Ramadan and other special occasions. It is more of a festive dish but my mother in law made it for us when we visited. The basic filling for this dish is Roz Bizilla-Rice with peas which I posted a few months ago.

This dish is typically served with yogurt cucumber mint salad–this recipe can be found in Middle Eastern recipes-salads





2 cups basmati rice

2 cups frozen peas

1/2 pound ground beef

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp. ground cumin

1 tsp. ground allspice

5 cups water

salt to taste

1/2 cup toasted pine nuts

1 package phyllo dough


One package of puff pastry sheets

I have used phyllo dough as well as Puff Pastry when making these. I like the phyllo better but my kids prefer the puff pastry. Phyllo gives it the classic crisp outer shell. You can try it with both doughs and decide what works best for you.

1/2 cup melted butter for brushing bowl and dough




Fry ground beef, breaking into small pieces, cook until well done.  Add spices and continue cooking. Add water and peas, bring to a boil and cover to simmer. Season to taste with salt. Bring to a boil and add rice, cook on high for ten minutes, cover and turn heat to medium for ten minutes, turn to low for another 5 minutes or until rice is done. Stir rice and add toasted pine nuts.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Thaw phyllo and/or Puff pastry dough according to package instructions.

I have a little custard bowl that I use for this recipe. You can use a smaller or larger bowl but usually individual servings are made. Butter the bowl using a pastry brush.

Cut phyllo according to the size of the bowl you are using. You will need long enough sheets so that they fit inside of the bowl and then hang over the side. If you are using Puff pastry you will need to roll it out a bit before placing it in the bowl. It will also require more cooking time than the phyllo dough.

Cut large enough pieces of phyllo to lay over bowl and seal on the bottom. Cover phyllo that is not being used so it does not dry out.

Place 4 sheets of phyllo (in a stack together) over bowl. Add rice and push down. Fill full and then bring ends over and push down, brush a little butter on ends and seal.  Turn over and onto a greased baking sheet. Remove the bowl and you will have a round shaped pastry. Brush the outside of phyllo pastry with butter. If you use puff pastry brush with a small amount of egg wash. Continue until you have filled the baking tray.


Cooked rice


place sheets of dough inside of bowl and over the sides and fill with cooked rice


Pull together to seal ends



Phyllo dough


Turn over and remove bowl


Puff Pastry dough


Bake in oven for approximately 30 minutes or until dough is crispy on the top and bottom. Use package instructions as a guide for baking times for each of these dough types. This pastry will be very hot inside, let it cool a little and be careful when cutting open.

Serve with yogurt salad

Hummus (garbanzo beans) with spices

Quick tidbit– When I refer to hummus in this post, I am speaking of garbanzo beans or chick peas which in Arabic are called–hummus.

When we walked through the Medan in Damascus, (shopping near in laws) the streets were alive with the sights and sounds of the Middle East. It was actually more like something out of a movie but true to life. Spices, falafal, fresh lamb hanging outside of shops, Busa (ice cream) and fried Shawarma sandwiches. Men stood outside of their shops watching the t.v. above them, engrossed in the latest soap opera that was trending around Syria. One very simple food that would not make the list of exciting and interesting, is this garbanzo bean treat. In years past beans were cooked, salted, seasoned and scooped up for a few coins. My son, Abdullah remembered this when I made dry garbanzo beans for Falafal. He asked if he could take some and immediately added the spices he had remembered when visiting Taita’s (Grama) house.


When I made this dish I used dry garbanzo beans, soaked them and boiled them, you can use canned beans as well. I will not explain soaking or cooking in this post but I am adding the option of using dry beans for those who are accustomed to preparing them.

Directions and ingredients

1 can garbanzo beans, drained

1 Tbs. fresh parsley minced

2 cloves garlic minced or pressed

1 Tbs. lemon juice or to taste

1/4 tsp. cumin

1 tbs. olive oil

salt to taste

I usually use warm beans from my large pot of cooked beans that I make for other recipes, so you can heat your beans if you prefer them warm.  Heat beans, add the lemon juice, salt, cumin, garlic, parsley and gently mix, add olive oil and stir. These measurements are purely based on taste. You might add more or less salt, lemon juice, cumin and garlic.

This simple treat is delightful and in our family eaten as is, or with Arabic bread.

Pictures of visit to Syria 2008





A toy

Picture taken for his ID in Saudi-2000

With each crinkle the plastic sack moved closer to total exposure. My heart sank, mouth dry, lips stuck to my teeth. I dared not wet them with my tongue as any movement meant breaking the silence that had now taken over the vehicle. I felt as if the world was some how suspended, now traveling at speeds nearing 60, weaving in and out of traffic, down the busy streets of Riyadh. The only sign that he was still in the van was his red face and the vein that pulsed on the side of his temple. An exasperated breath could be heard escaping from his mouth every few minutes as he shook his head. He slammed his hands on the steering wheel at any delay that kept us from moving faster. I waited for any small sign that he was no longer angry, but he simply drove, in silence. The baby playfully swung her feet and each movement brought with it a reminder of the sack that had been tucked under the seat and then discovered by his watchful eyes. I wanted to reach over and grab it and stop it’s constant movement but instead I sat motionless, some how believing I could be invisible. With the many sharp turns and sudden stops, the green cardboard box eventually came out of the sack and toppled into the crack of the vehicle’s door. There it was, out in the open now, bright red letters that once seemed fun and exciting, now garish and menacing. He finally looked at my son after minutes of silence, “ya baba this is what you do, hide things from baba?” his voice wavered as he struggled to keep his composure. I dared not speak a word as I knew this would make things worst, so I waited to see if my intervention was needed.

It had all started with a simple request for a toy, any toy, and a life lived witnessing neighbor children who had  pogo sticks, scooters and electronic games. A reality where he boarded the private and luxurious jet of his friend the “sheik” and made a quick jaunt to Jeddah as if it were a mere taxi for hire. I helped him pick out gifts for friends and bosses that came and went, working tirelessly to provide the pastry trays three times each week without fail.  No expense was to be spared in purchasing costly Western ingredients from the local Tamimi to make desserts and pastries for the “Sheik”.  We lived on a Western compound where neighbor children took vacations to London, Vienna and France. The children attended schools where students had the best of everything available from Saudi and Europe and yet we were not allowed basic necessities.  If the school asked for a variety of colored pens to mark papers, they were allowed one color, blue or black. No frills, gifts or splurges were tolerated. Clothing was purchased by my parents and had been since the beginning. I dressed in stretch pants and baggy shirts, an abaya tossed over me to go outdoors. No make up was allowed, no perfume or sign of femininity, not even in the home. The compound was a blessing, fully furnished with everything for a family our size and a glaring contrast to our first two years in Riyadh. I still felt a pang of guilt and sadness that my children were not provided for and even a much needed pair of shoes was begrudged and then finally purchased at the outdoor souk. So, when my oldest continued to push for holiday gifts for the family and little touches to make things personal, it was a wave I could no longer stop.

We entered the compound security gate where the guards checked the engine, the undercarriage, and the trunk area of our vehicle. ID badges were inspected and only then were we allowed to move through the gates. My heart raced as he drove around the loop and finally into our driveway. The children piled out of the van and into the house and eventually to bed. I felt a sick nervousness, his anger had been mounting as each day passed and his career expectations were not being met. The length of the cycle had now taken a jump and a drastic reduction in time between angry outbursts was apparent. This rebellious action of allowing my son to purchase the race track set would not go unnoticed.  In the store a brief interlude with real life struck me, a child, a toy, what could be wrong with that, a normal life event. But as we approached the car, my son and I both panicked and shoved the sack under the seat. Now at home, I lay my head on the soft compound pillow and feigned sleep as I would for years to come. Another page was turned and a new facet of life unfolded, one in which I was woken from sleep for hours of angry questions in a room, door shut and secured. An interrogation about my loyalty to him and to God, my value as a mother and my true motivations. What was my plan in this life and how would I answer to the almighty as a disloyal and scheming wife? His volume raised and his fury mounted with each new inquiry. There were no answers or words that would suffice and so I traded yet another piece of my integrity to secure another moment of peace for our household.

2-The beginning–Morning villa

This is the second story I posted in my series

That night our 10 boxes had been lined up along the empty living room wall. As tired as we were the kids and I ripped open tape and rummaged through each box to find the new, fresh pillows I had purchased and brought along. At the time it seemed like a strange idea to buy pillows, but I did anyway. I also packed 2 blankets passed on to us years before by a man who finished school and left everything he owned in his vacant apartment to go back home. They were big rough blankets, light and dark browns with images of horses or some type of animal. We found the blankets and pillows and made a make shift bed on the floor. We slept in the men’s mejalis (sitting room for male guests) or any other room, it didn’t much matter as each was interchangeable with the other.

Sleep came easily to us after hours of traveling. The kids had laid on their seats resting their heads against each other, they slept intermittently throughout each flight. For me it was different, my 20 month old daughter had no seat so she sat on my lap,which at this point had shrunk down to a small space. I shifted between having her on my lap and letting her sleep on the floor in front of me in the bed the airline provided. This meant a quite ridiculous picture of a woman, 8 months pregnant resting her legs up near the food tray because there was no other place to put them! Then when Foof woke, having her sit on my small space of a lap while I rested my weary feet back on the floor. What a site!  I didn’t sleep much just a nod off here and there when my head would jerk forward waking me from the few minutes of sleep I was able to catch. So, sleep overtook me quite easily that night. We all snuggled up next to each other as we always did at home and slept on our make shift bed.

I awoke with that feeling when you are on vacation or visiting Grama when you think you are home but then realize your surroundings are not the same. I peered out of one eye to see that things had not changed and were as I had remembered them when I went to sleep. My two older children were not there so this woke me from my heavy sleep. I turned on my side, hips throbbing, I crawled to a position that would enable use of my hands. I slowly stood and straightened out my body.  I roamed around the villa to see in the light of day that things looked the same, but every line on the walls, each crack through the plywood and lack of furniture was much more evident. I felt a sudden twinge, that sick feeling when you panic and question, your mind bolts and races and wanders. I then composed myself and tried to remember that I was a God fearing, good woman, we came to this place not for glamour or fun but to start a new life, to raise the kids in a safe environment, to learn a new language and culture. Yes, this was the right choice and I would carry on and make things the very best.

I called for my boys and finally they answered, they had been used to playing in their play house in the back yard, running through the green grass and riding bikes. So, they had gone exploring looking for that place to play. Directly out of the brown door were the stairs that had led us to this place, going up was the roof which was surrounded by tall ( 5 to 6 foot) cement walls. Downstairs was a small courtyard where a car would be parked, but now was empty.

With the boys safe and occupied, I made my way back into the living room. It was hot in the villa with no a/c and everything closed up. I walked to the wall and peered up to the brown, plastic window. I reached up and pulled until it opened.

A small breeze gently caressed my face, the sweat beads dried on my forehead and I felt a momentary relief. The next thing was water and food, I went to the kitchen, a room with a sink and a counter next to it, a small drain in the middle of the floor. Where would I find food or water? Was the water in the sink drinkable? The children would wake soon and they would be hungry. On the counter a small sack from the local bukala (neighborhood store) inside were several bottles of warm water and a melted container of sticky mango ice cream.

Windows in the villa