Category Archives: Uncategorized

Gathering at the Souk

How’s Lebanon you ask?  Pretty incredible thus far. I’ve been tapping in and finding a tribe of healers, foodies, and entrepreneurs rather quickly. Everything here is done over food.  And folks here take their food quite seriously.

Mouleh at the Souk in downtown Beirut

Mouleh at the Souk in downtown Beirut

The folks at Souk El-Tayeb, an organization that reclaims and reinvents the rich and diverse food and land traditions of Lebanon, has been incredibly receptive and flexible in providing me access and exposure to their work.  From meeting the small regional farmers they partner with, to the opportunity to help their regular and guest chefs prepare meals, to breaking bread with communities offering special insight the narratives around food.

I’ve been learning rather quickly to check my romantic projections of food sustainability and culture here at the door.  Assumptions that modern afflictions of food production – for instance use of artificial hormones and antibiotics in raising livestock – don’t exist here.  Or notions that the lifestyle here allows more time to eat mindfully. These are issues of modernity- the priority of production over quality of life – that are indeed everywhere.

1891076_976669489438_6478416909975319680_n

In fact, the reason the team at Souk el Tayeb are interested in my work in the first place, especially in my Yoga of Food workshops, is because it offers that insight into the practice of mindful, healthy living.  An ancestral concept in Western holistic packaging.

In all worthwhile exchanges, the practice of showing up and listening is what creates value.

I still have a full week of immersing in Souk el Tayeb’s work.  And I couldn’t be more excited.

More soon…  Next up:  reflections from today’s cooking lesson with Georgina Al Bayeh, chef at Souk el Tayeb, in her catering kitchen in Kfardlekos, in the Northern region of Zgharta.  Still digesting all of the culinary and emotional wisdom from an incredible experience preparing kibbeh with her and her family.

 

 

 

 

Creating Paradise

جنة بغير ناس ما تنداس

“If your encounter Paradise and no one is inside, don’t enter…”

Paradise-Wallpaper-Full-HD1-300x187

In my time in Egypt thus far, I’m learning personal space is hard to come by.. Indeed it’s a luxury afforded to few, especially women.

I’ve been truly blessed to retreat into the love and generosity of my family here. Reconnecting after eight years or more, they have offered sumptuous feasts, patience and encouragement in practicing my Arabic, and facilitation in making this journey possible. The unplanned sacred moments following them to the Sea and storytelling along the way. And protection… even when I don’t want it.

The project of negotiating space for myself – space in my belly to breath between second and third helpings of meals, space for physical exercise (certainly in the way the works best for me in walking and biking outside), space when I’m not teaching or meeting with colleagues to socialize and adventure outside out the house – has proven challenging at times.

I followed their lead, from the ablutions, to the cycles of kneeling and prostrating that are strikingly reminiscent of a yogic sun salutation.

My first day in Cairo, catching up with my aunts, we talked about my work and the practice of cultivating health and fulfillment… I thought of people who are dear to me that work towards a certain image of success- the big house and flashy cars –  but lack the relationships to fill them.

Immediately one aunt recalled an Arabic adage: “If you encounter Paradise and no one is inside, don’t enter”

An ENFP to the core, it could totally appreciate it.  Where would I be without my tribe of mystics and misfits?

The next morning, as I sat in my regular morning meditation practice, they quietly tiptoed around me… not understanding what I was doing but intuitively understanding that I was holding a sacred space.

Yoga is not a religion but the science of inviting in the presence of the divine.

When I finished, they invited me to join the family one of the five daily Muslim prayers.  I very much anchor my spiritual identity as a Muslim but I’m not traditionally observant. In that moment however, it felt comforting, and familiar to be immersed the community of a ritual I hadn’t practiced for so long.

Rusty, I followed their lead, from the ablutions, to the cycles of kneeling and prostrating that are strikingly reminiscent of a yogic sun salutation.

After prayer one aunt asked why I meditated. She inquired into Hindu and Buddhist origins of a yoga. Why couldn’t I just pray? I’m Muslim after all, and prayer is one of the five pillars.

Meditation and yoga, I explained, is not a religion unto itself but the science of inviting in the presence of the divine into the physical body…My meditation practice, I continued, was intensely personal for me and prayer couldn’t override and replace it.

Ramadan is a communal covenant and celebration of devotion.

Next morning, my aunt and I got into a flare of emotions when I was expected to again join them for prayer.  Truth is … I couldn’t recall all the necessary recitations for prayer and resented the expectation that I would have to.

Why, I argued, is it religiously significant for me to pray with them if the pressure is coming from outside.  What does it matter if I’m just going through the motions?

Her face betrayed legitimate confusion and heartbreak.  “Dahlia, I want to see you in Heaven” she says, pleading in earnest.

“I know…”  I know culturally for her, she truly believes she is not doing her work as a Muslim if she is not trying to steer those around her towards the path to God as she understands it. I again joined them in prayer.

For the rest of my time with them, they never asked me to join them again in prayer. Instead before breakfast, my aunts would remind me to meditate.

We need community for our path. We are social animals and meant to exist in connection with one another. It’s when we come alive. And Ramadan in the Middle East is a nothing short of a communal covenant in ritual observance and celebration of devotion.

But certainly there is space for personal devotion. Space for individual cultivation of what it means to be connected to something greater outside of ourselves… whatever its form.

There is space for all of us.  If only we insist on it.

An Exchange with Cairene Yogis & Mystics

It’s officially been one week since I’ve landed in Cairo and it has been a whirlwind. Personally, professionally, that has now delivered me into the celebration of Ramadan in the Middle East.

11231908_971696515318_5811770195307661635_n

Thai Metta Circle at Ashtanga Yoga Cairo

My workshops at the Ashtanga Yoga Center and Nun Center this past weekend were incredibly successful and rewarding.  The students in each space were ready for fresh perspective and knowledge of integrative health modalities that come from ancient and modern healing traditions outside of Egypt.

As Nada observes her community is thirsty for knowledge but they sniff out bullshit rather quickly…

It is truly an international world we live in… As the West continues to look East for prescriptive ancestral wisdom, how funny it is that in my workshops I bring my Egyptian audiences teachings from Thailand and from India by way of American yoga…

And perhaps more than American audiences I have taught, they want to understand the way  things work.  The science and mechanism of things…

As Nada Iskander, owner of the Nun Center observes, her community is thirsty for knowledge about holistic health, but they don’t put up with bullshit and they sniff it out rather quickly.

This isn’t your LA crowd, I observed.

The thread that tied it all together was inspiring of one’s own agency in guiding the lifelong process of attending to health.

At the Ashtanga Yoga Center, my Thai massage workshops admittedly went much more slowly, as students inquired more thoughtfully into their own body mechanics and awareness- how to cultivate one’s power as a healer from within.  Much more deliberate and less obsessed with doing and performing a sequence for the sake of it than most American crowds.

In my two offerings of the Yoga of Food at Nun Center I taught basic principles of Ayurveda, literally the Science of Life in Sanskrit, or the indigenous medical tradition of India.   In the morning I reached the young, hip yogini moms.  In the evening, came the professionals… and my own tribe (!) including my adventurous cousin Karim and his three kids visiting from Qatar and my friend Karina from DC and her impossibly cool dad.  And with each audience, we explored various applications for Ayurveda. From intuitive approaches to what and how we eat our meals, to body alkalinity, to attending to the quality of life for the elderly, to preserving the traditions of Egyptian cuisine.

The evening crowd @ The Nun Center

The evening crowd at The Nun Center

The thread that tied it all together was inspiring of one’s own agency in guiding the lifelong process of attending to health.

These teaching spaces were nothing short of a revelation in understanding what it takes to be a healer – in different cultural contexts, seasons of life.  Stepping outside of my traditional didactic patterns, to listen with humility and respond.

There is always more to learn.

More soon…

 

 

Vroom! And away we go on an aeroplane…

And I’m off. Excited. Anxious.

Wrapped up the best I could in DC: Clients prepared to work with me on the road.  Classes subbed. Subletter settled in my place. Closure- the good kind – with an ex who still haunted my internal feedback loop. Parting of ways with a beloved mentor- the most foundational in my practice as a healer.

Freedom to explore and grow- without attachment, without the weight of emotional indebtedness, holding onto relationships that had run their course..

Fretting a bit about what’s ahead:

Pushing through my broken, childish Arabic to authentically connect without anxiety or embarrassment.

Traveling and working during Ramadan- an auspicious, devotional time of year for Muslims to bear witness to their attachments and transcend them.. when I haven’t truly immersed in the fasting rituals since senior year in college. And trying to teach nutrition & healthy eating all the while.

The journey begins. Taking off tonight for Cairo. In my practice to balance curiosity & wonderment with savvy, it is still my plan to show up and serve- without preconceived notions of what that may look like.

Perhaps it is just to be a witness.

For my Cairo tribe- including those I’ve yet to meet - catch me teaching  workshops at Ashtanga Yoga Cairo and The Nun Center.

More soon…

Mama Wagida’s Macarona Beshamel

mamawagida

My grandmother, early 1940s

Did I ever tell you about the last time I was in Egypt?  It was 2007.

I was with my mom in Alexandria.  Hanging out with my grandma – Mama Wagida – in her classical Alexandrian four bedroom apartment, the home in which my mom and her four silblings grew up just blocks from the Mediterranean.  This apartment: its history, its high ceilings and a balcony that wrapped around and offered a generous view of the Sea…   Nothing felt at once more romantic and sacred.   From that balcony, my aunt Suzie who lives there with her daughter Sara, would use the hand-drawn dumb waiter basket and pull up fresh fruit and nuts from wandering street merchants baying below.

I always enjoyed the time I spent with my grandma growing up. My parents were always so busy working that we never went back to Egypt.  Instead Mama Wagida and other relatives would come stay with us in Jersey for weeks and months at a time.

“I inherited her laugh- a distinctively high pitched giggle that can quickly escalate to a belly-fueled cackle.”

Connection was easy then.  In fact, she was the relative with which I most shared resemblance.  I inherited her light brown hair (blonde for Egypt) and hazel eyes. I inherited her laugh- a distinctively high pitched giggle that can quickly escalate to a belly-fueled cackle. Mama Wagida and I would draw and read and cook together.  I never remember a language barrier when I look back to those childhood memories.

But soon with her health it became harder and harder for her to visit.  Her last time perhaps I was in middle school.  And I didn’t visit Egypt for the first time until I was in college.

And now two years out of school and establishing a career in DC doing Middle East work, struggling with my command of Arabic all the while, the connection was harder.  The language barrier was much more obvious as an adult.

“Everything was cumin-scented…”

So often she would feed me. Pan seared filets of fish that we purchased from the fishmongers in market that morning. Egyptian stews of veggies and legumes in rich garlicky tomato broths served over fluffy rice with sauteed vermicelli noodles. Lentils simmered in cumin and served with fresh pita, soft feta cheese, and tomato-cucumber salad.  Everything was cumin scented: In fact her salt shakers had whole cumin seeds (instead of the more common grains of rice) to absorb the Mediterranean humidity.  She proudly offered cooking demonstrations, revealing her culinary secrets, even as she struggled to stand.  Her kitchen was the only space in which we transcended language barriers- made imperceptible and irrelevant.

We would sit in front of the TV and watch the state-run news together if we couldn’t find a good soap opera.

“Sssssssssss!!!! Da Buuush! Huwa Wisikh!!!!.” (Read: he’s bad news bears…) she would hiss to me when our 43rd American President came on the TV. “BAD!” She would quickly follow with translation.  I would emphatically nod in agreement, perhaps even throw in an “Aiwa” (Egyptian colloquial for ‘yes’).

President Mubarak would come on and she’d approvingly gesture towards him “Huwa Halweh” (Read: he’s good/sweet). I would politely nod.  Like many grandmas she didn’t go out much these days.

 

mamawagida&gidusaad

My grandmother and grandfather, mid 1940s (they married in 1946)

She proudly displayed photographs of my grandfather, Saad El-Din Hafiz, a high ranking Naval Officer, known for his humility and pragmatism, who would ultimately rise to lead Egypt’s Naval Academy in Alexandria.  I remember one image of him walking side-by-side on a tarmac with President Gamal Abdel Nasser, father of the modern Egyptian republic and military rule.  In her Egypt, the military was a proud institution that was revolutionizing the Arab world.

In one of our last dinners together she was preparing for the arrival of my older brother Ashraf and his growing family.  My niece Lily at the time was less than two years old and he and his wife Diane were expecting Kate in just a couple months.

It was finally time to prepare the Macarona Beshamel- a pillar of Egyptian comfort food.  Descending from French colonial influence and spreading in Egyptian kitchens like wildfire,  this dish is traditionally a casserole with its namesake rich white sauce, baked in a thick layer over pasta in a rich tomato-based meat sauce encased in crispy buttery breadcrumbs. Egyptian indulgence at its finest.

“As she melted the semna (ghee or clarified butter) in the pan, she smiled at me with a particular hint of culinary conspiracy in her eyes. “

She knew how badly I wanted to watch her prepare it… It was a hot summer and she waited for the right company.

I stood in the kitchen as she prepared the roux base (equal parts flour and fat) for the beshamel. As she melted the semna (ghee or clarified butter) in the pan, she smiled at me with a particular hint of culinary conspiracy in her eyes.  She knew mom tried her hardest to raise us in a low-fat food household, the influence of being health conscious in 80s (a dietary legacy against which I have spent my life rebelling…)

The beshamel came out beautifully. We prepared the table and opened the Victorian balcony doors, letting in the sounds of the Sea and streets below. She took her seat at the table as matriarch with her growing tribe gathered around her.  Her daughters, grandchildren, and her first great-granddaughter.

My mom and I left Egypt a couple days later.  Ashraf, Diane & fam continued on to Italy.

When we landed at JFK we received news that Mama Wagida had passed just hours before while we were still in the air. Allah yarhamha (God Bless)…

“…there is always more to learn from the resolve of the human spirit and the power of culinary traditions among its most creative, nourishing mediums.”

As I prepare to go back to Egypt for the first time since 2007, since that last dinner with Mama Wagida and her macarona beshamel, I wonder what it is exactly that I’m seeking. Even with the personal and professional risks – and protestations from loved ones and colleagues.

And perhaps it’s the certainty that there is always more to learn. From my own ancestral traditions. From the resolve of the human spirit.  And the power of culinary traditions among its most creative, nourishing mediums.

More soon…

Thai-Inspired Rainbow Salad

This recipe is quite possibly one of the most refreshing, and aesthically dazzling summer salads. The red cabbage, mango, and jicama pack the dish with color, fiber, and diversity of nutrients. As delectable blend of savory and sweet, it is perfect on its own or as a complement to summer barbeques, and is sure to delight you and your guests everytime. And best yet, it stores well in the fridge for several days. To your health!
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Servings: 8-10

2 cups of red cabbage, thinly sliced against the grain for a shredded effect (about 1/2 a

small head)
1 cup of shredded carrots (about 4 medium carrots)
1 cup of jicama, peeled and cut into thin matchsticks (about 1/3 the jicama root)
1 cup of mango, diced (1-2 mangos)
Crushed cashew nuts (optional)
Flax seeds (optional)
Dressing:
1/3 cup of fresh squeezed lime juice (about one lime)
1 tbsp of unrefined toasted sesame oil
1 tsp of raw honey
1 tsp of tamari soy sauce
1/4 tsp tamarind paste
1) In a small bowl, mix all liquid ingredients into a consistent dressing.
2) Combine vegetables and fruits in a large bowl. Pour dressing and coat ingredients well.
3) Serve in a flat dish, topping with cashews and/or flax seeds as desired.

Lazy Poached Eggs

 In a rush? Easy there. This is a super simple way to get in a nutrient dense breakfast in minutes before rushing out for the morning hustle. This will work with just about any veggies, grains, and legumes you have on hand. Easy to prepare for single serving or to feed many…

This is an example of one of my favorite recipes.

 

1381804_789346581048_1951105163_n

Cook time: 3-5 min
One egg
a good handful of shredded kale… say a cup
1/2 cup of cooked sweet potatoes (shredded, diced, whatever’s clever)
1) In a small skillet swirl in olive oil and sweet potatoes and kale over medium high heat.
2) Then gather veggie mix to the center of the skillet, leaving about one inch perimeter of empty space around.
3) Crack an egg over veggies. Immediately pour a splash of water (ideally like a tablespoon or so from a hot tea kettle)
4) Immediately cover with lid. Allow that goodness to steam for a minute of so… juuust until the egg whites cook and the yolk settles- which you want to keep runny so you can enjoy that nutrient dense source of vitamin D without worrying about the oxidation of the cholesterol content.
5) Uncover and serve with crack of pink Himalayan salt and black pepper.

Brown Rice Kitchari

1476438_809898185468_182393441_n

Prep Time: 5 min
Cook Time: 35-40 min
Serves: 8-10

4 cups Water
1 cup Brown Basmati Rice, rinsed
1 cup Red Lentils, rinsed
1 tbsp Black Mustard Seeds
1 tbsp Coconut Oil
1 tbsp Cumin
1 tbsp Coriander
2 tsp Turmeric
Lime Wedges
Grated Ginger
Cilantro

1) In a large pot, melt coconut oil over medium heat. Add mustard seeds and begin to toast in oil.
2) Add brown rice, lentils and spices and continue to toast mixture, stirring frequently, about 3-4 min.
3) Add water, bring to boil and simmer on low heat about 25-35 min until grains thoroughly cooked.
4) Serve with fresh ginger, cilantro, and lime wedges.