Day 4: Mosques galore

Interior of the Blue Mosque

Dome of the Blue Mosque, which earns its moniker from the blue tones of its interior decor.

While mosques only require a single minaret from which the muezzin can voice the call to prayer, to show off his wealth and power, the sponsoring sultan of the Blue Mosque—Sultan Ahmet, who gave his name to both the mosque and the district—built six.

We visited Istanbul in “low season” for tourism, the time when the government implements its renovations and restorations of the various historical sights before the influx of visitors begins again with the return of warm weather. Indeed, nearly everywhere we went, we found huge tarps wrapped around walls and covering entire buildings, printed with explanations of the history of the place underneath and the plans for its restoration. The Spice Market from afar looked like an enormous tent, thanks to its veiling tarp. Hagia Sofia featured massive scaffolding inside, and the Blue Mosque featured a mere 5.5 minarets. The remaining 0.5 was undergoing reconstruction.

One minaret, two minaret...scaffolded sixth minaret is outside the frame.

Minaret #6 is currently in hiding.

The Blue Mosque might be the most renowned, but I have to be a mosque snob and say that of the three we entered, it was actually the least impressive. That should give you an idea of just how many gorgeous mosques populate Turkey, thanks to the sultans’ combined religiosity and profligacy!

Inside the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent.

Inside the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent. Note the giant chandeliers.

Our next mosque was the truly magnificent Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent. The architect Mimar Sinan made massive and heavy structures appear buoyant and graceful. Like the heavenly ambience created by the stained glass windows and elaborate décor of Gothic cathedrals in Europe, it was clear that the beauty of these mosques was designed to lift the spirits of worshippers to paradisiacal heights.

Mosques were usually surrounded by other establishments like bazaars and kitchens. We had lunch in a restaurant housed in the mosque’s former soup kitchen. When we walked from the stone-paved courtyard into a lofty chamber filled with untenanted tables draped in crisp white linen, we saw that we were the only customers. While I appreciate the quietness of an empty restaurant, at a fancier establishment like this, I prefer having at least a few other customers to distract the flock of attentive waiters from my plebeian etiquette.

“They’re giving us water for free!” I whispered to Sergey and Jasmine after the waiters had filled our glasses before we ordered. “Drink a lot!”

Our experience at this restaurant demonstrated the heights of excellence that a meatball can attain. In Turkey, “koftecisi” or meatballs are oblong patties of ground meat mixed with spices and herbs, then grilled.

We ordered meatball soup followed by meatball dishes. The meatball soup was a creamy blend of lentils, vegetables, and bits of meatball—just what we needed to warm us up after being buffeted by the damp wind. Then came our main course: Sergey got tender cutlets, and Jasmine and I shared…kebab sushi. The filling was made with meat and finely chopped pistachio, which had apparently been formed into a roll, then wrapped with a pastry. This roll is then sliced and the slices are grilled. The end result was delectable!

Alas, our little glasses of apple tea were soon finished and the meatballs gone; we had to exit our culinary cocoon. Yet, the restaurant was not the only gem around the mosque. We found some artisans making their goods–engraved platters and other metal trinkets. Their workshop also functioned as their shop, and after watching them demonstrate their craft, we bought several dishes engraved with gleaming floral patterns.

Artisan drilling through layers of colored metal to make an etched platter,

Artisan drilling through layers of colored metal to make an etched platter.

The Fast

Today, my groggy eyes are presented once again with a stunning sunrise.  The sun peeks up at 5:52 like a fiery tangerine hoisted from its nest behind the mountains.  I lift a hand up to protect my eyes, and it is stained orange by the light.  Some of the clouds look like mountains that have simply detached from the earth; both land and sky are permeated by the same pink glow.  Two minutes after the sun rises, on schedule the lights at the seaport switch off.

Climbing onto my bed with a prayerbook in hand, pulling up the curtains, and assessing the sunrise has become one of my fasting rituals.  Most days, a layer of clouds obscures the sun now that we’re finally getting rain, but every once in a while, I am treated to this splendid feast of colors.

The first sunrise of the Fast

For me, the Fast forces heightened consciousness about time and habits.  I’m not saying my focus gets sharper during the Fast; the afternoons are always a struggle between my desire to take a long nap and my need to keep working.  The other day, I bumped into a friend who told me that during the rest of the year, our souls are slaves to our bodies, but now our bodies are slaves to our souls.  An interesting theory, but my stomach is certainly an ill-behaved thrall, kicking and screaming for food.

There is no other time of the year when sunrise and sunset hold so much sway over my habits.  In fact, usually I rarely see the sunrise.  But I also notice other things–for example, over the past two weeks, my sugar cravings have declined, and I have survived on a nominal half-cup of coffee in the mornings.  And getting up at 5:15 gives me so much quiet time before going to the office in which I can write.  I think I might be a closeted earlybird.

I’ve also realized just how close my office is to the upper terraces, the Bahá’í gardens that climb up Mount Carmel.  Without the routine of coffee breaks in the morning and afternoon or the daily trip to the lunchroom at noon, I find myself with more time to go outside and enjoy the scenery and sunshine, which is a form of sustenance in itself.  On one of my photosynthesis strolls with Sergey, I spotted a big praying mantis sitting motionless at the bottom of some terrace stairs, and crouched down to watch this alien-looking creature.  (Have I mentioned I like creepy-crawlies?)  It was the first time I’ve seen a “wild” mantis in ages.  A few days later, we saw what appeared to be an otter scampering through the gardens.  He clarified that it was not a landlubbing otter but rather a mongoose.  All my mongoose knowledge stems from the 1975 movie Rikki Tikki Tavi, which I remember watching on one of my parents’ compiled VHS tapes of children’s films.  It was pretty great to see one in real life, long, sleek, and tawny, though with no apparent cobras in tow.

In fact, many office workers have the same idea and emerge these days.  I wonder if the local gardeners think it’s funny, this yearly exodus of winter-pale Bahá’ís to the outdoors, sniffing the fresh air and clambering up the staircases of our Eden.  Where else in the world would I get to fast with so many other Bahá’ís, who all experience the same hunger pains, sour breath, and low blood sugar afternoons?


My extended family

My extended family

For the weeks leading up to the fateful day of 30 November 2013, my life revolved around one thing: Thanksgiving.  You see, there was never any question in my mind that I would host Thanksgiving.  It is, as a recent New York Times article put it, the most important meal of the year.  And I think that’s all the more true for expats like yours truly.

First came the invites.  Once I had fussed over sending the most beautiful Outlook invitation I could make to fifteen friends, I realized I needed some food.  I asked my Moldovan friend Sergey to help me go grocery shopping.  He was puzzled by most of the foods on my list.  Squash?  Currants?  Celery?  Worcestershire sauce?  But mostly by French-fried onions, which I struggled to explain.  I mean, explaining them as, “The crispy onions that go on the green bean casserole, along with cream of mushroom soup and milk,” would surely cast doubt on American cuisine.

Well, I could not find those special onions, nor could I find the turkey, or breakfast sausage for the stuffing (solution: kebab with maple syrup).  Nor could I find whipped cream or pumpkin puree.  My dear American readers, I want you to appreciate how lucky you are to be able to crack open a can, dump in some cream and eggs, and basically have your pie, as opposed to chopping, then boiling, then blenderizing fresh pumpkin.  And don’t even get me started on trying to manually whip cream.

Nura’s World-Famous Spicy Pumpkin Pie, post-sampling

Oh, I did find butternut squash.  When I cut it open, I found that all the seeds had sprouted, giving the inside the look of a nest of white worms.  I stuck it in the fridge and haven’t looked at it since.  I probably should go deal with that…

There was a turkey leg for sale, but somehow, that did not seem right.  First, I considered going to Haifa Zoo, hoping they might display some American fowl.  Alas, I didn’t get a chance.  So I went to the butcher shop to buy some whole chickens.  A truck was being unloaded out front, and when I entered, there were crates full of apparently recently deceased chickens.  I bought three, and nearly fell over when the clerk handed me the bag.

“Um, do these have guts?” I inquired.

He shook his head, not understanding.  I shrugged and resigned myself to my fate.

I staggered up the hill back to my flat under the weight of fifteen pounds of meat, feeling like the Demon Barber with my cargo of carrion.

The day of Thanksgiving, I pulled out the birds, hesitantly grabbing them by the legs.  There…was…blood.  Ew.  I brought the first bird to the sink to rinse its cavity, and noticed the cavity wasn’t entirely deserted; two tiny kidneys dangled, and beneath, something dark red that I assume was the liver.

“Dear God, please give me strength,” I said.  If I were more in touch with nature, I probably would have said a prayer for the bird with whom I was enjoying intimate communion.  As it was, I grabbed a knife and started sawing away, thinking back to the cat dissection I did in high school.  I did poorly, but not because I was grossed out by the formadehyde-drenched feline.  I’m just not very good at cutting things.  But I do remember one thing: fasciae.  So much fasciae to slice, and here was fasciae once again.

Eventually, after submerging the chickens in olive oil and tethering their legs, I stuck them in the oven.  Actually, I crammed them in.  And then I bleached the entire kitchen.

Two and a half hours later, after I had manically swept, mopped, dusted, and decorated, the guests began to arrive.  The first one pronounced my cooking skills “legit.”  I told him he should wait to actually try the food.  The next guest I dragooned into carving up the chicken.  “How do I do this?” he asked.  “Here’s a book that tells you how,” I said, thrusting Betty Crocker and a knife into his hands.  I hovered nervously nearby, hoping the juices would run clear, as Mommy said.  The juice seemed clear.  The flat was filling with friends.

And then there were two.

And then there were two.

Everyone seemed to enjoy the meal, even if the greenhorns (your usual World Centre mix of South African, Dominican, Ugandan, Kenyan, Norwegian, Mauritian, and Moldovan) were a little puzzled by all the strange dishes.  “So what is with the orange food?” the Ugandan asked, poking at the candied sweet potato.  “You Americans like orange, both on Halloween and Thanksgiving.”  Hm.

All I can say is, I broke only two glass items and nearly started only one fire, and I am very thankful for that.   Happy Thanksgiving!

Dust in the wind

Now that I’ve concluded my day-trips for the season, I’m back to quotidian life–the office, some volunteering, study groups, laundry, cooking, cleaning, collecting houseplants, the regular.  But even the routine is not quite routine here.

Part of it is just that living adultly is still new to me.  I’m doing all sorts of things on my own, hey!  And so what if mopping sometimes results in breaking the shower, or dusting in a sore hamstring.  This week, I cooked rice for a study group.  It didn’t turn out as fluffy as I wanted, yet for the first time my tadik was unscorched.  “Hm,” I thought.  “Well, tadik’s not very good as leftovers.  And I’m the only one around.”  Standing by the kitchen sink looking up the mountain toward the Dan Carmel, eating a bowl full of fresh tadik, I realized the joy of independence.

But a lot of it is my environment.  The air is different, for one.  Hamseen has arrived.  While it’s not as if I can see motes floating in front of me, looking out to sea, the horizon is obscured by a thick haze.  Apparently this dust has traveled up to Israel from the Egyptian desert in a climatological Exodus.  Maybe the hovering dust is the Middle Eastern equivalent of Midwestern leaves falling in autumn?

Even the simple act of walking is different here.  You know, being on a mountain, everything is steep.  Plus, in the Bahá’í gardens, most of the paths are gravel.  I have two pairs of shoes that I wear to the office: my flats and my heels.  They are both practical shoes, unobtrusive black leather with plenteous arch support.  Even so, walking in heels on gravel poses a challenge–I mean, walking in heels is a challenge, period.  So I do an ungraceful slow march.  It’s rather like trying to walk on snow with a veneer of ice–I need to dig in my heels but also keep moving.  I thought I was doing a pretty good job until the other day when not one but two people, after watching me, commented sympathetically on the difficulty of walking with heels here.  “It’s such a challenge!  Your poor heels!”  And then someone pointed out to me that one heel is actually broken, causing a distinctive “clip-clop” whenever I walk on hard floors.  She recommended a cobbler.  My experience with cobblers is limited to the shoemaker and the elves.

Fruit.  Let’s talk about fruit.  The Persian coworkers at my office are wonderful people for all sorts of reasons, and one reason is that they always bring fresh fruit to break time.  (I, on the other hand, contribute the occasional sugary, buttery baked good.)  Mango, pomegranate, oranges, grapes, apple, pear, peach, nectarines… and recently, we’ve entered fruit territory that is foreign to me.  There’s lychee–inside the bumpy red skin is white flesh with a subtle fragrant taste.  Figs are delicious in dried, jam, or Newton form.  In natural form, however, they are just weird, mushy and seedy.  And guava.  I tried it because I thought it was a strange seedy pear.  No–with its overripe scent and nearly salty flavor, it is definitely not to be compared with pears.  There is pomelo, a huge citrus (actually, citrus grandis) with a super thick rind that needs to be practically sawed off and a bitter membrane around the flesh that also needs to be peeled off.  It’s not for the lazy fructarian!   It tastes like a tentative grapefruit and looks like it belongs among the many balls from gym class that always threatened me, maybe a yellow medicine ball or the enlarged tennis ball that smacked me in the face.  “Ok, guys, today we’re going to play pomelo.”

The carnivore

I just killed a fly.

See, with insects and really all creatures, I usually follow an ideology close to the Jain tenet of non-violence.  I remember hearing about how Jain priests sweep the ground in front of them as they walk so they won’t harm any little animals in the dirt.  Ok, so I’m probably guilty of accidentally crushing a few ants as I walk, but there was a time when I couldn’t even bring myself to slap the mosquito indulging in my O-negative.

Those days are over.  I grab a pack of baby wipes, which is the best flyswatter I can locate in our kitchen, and smack that fly hard.  The fly gives up the ghost and falls into a pan soaking in the sink.  After staring at the floating corpse and muttering “ew” repeatedly, I fish it out and dispose of it sans eulogy.  I’m just not cool cohabiting with flies.  Besides their dirty little feet, I’ve heard too many horror stories here about maggots found growing in jars of Nutella.  The Haifa climate is a great nursery for all sorts of bug babies.

This willingness to murder flies must be connected to my recent forays into the world of meat.  While I’m not a vegetarian, I usually eat meat only a few times a week, and almost never beef.  I read Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats when I was eighteen, and that turned me off to the meat industry.

Plus, I’ve been warned about the chicken here, which reportedly has preternatural powers to expand one’s waistline.  “Stay away from the chicken,” they say.  “My sister came here, and she gained 25 kilos in a year.  It was the chicken.”  Apparently Israel pumps their birds full of hormones.  I shrug, a little insulted that Israel is trying to outdo the States in unethical meat practices.

Love handles?

Love handles?

Yet chicken is the only raw meat I’ve brought myself to cook.  I’m still terrified I’ll poison whoever I’m feeding by thawing or cooking it wrong.  Honestly, I don’t think I’d ever fully observed chicken being cooked before I attended an Indian cooking class here.

Now I find myself preparing  butter chicken for eight guests, wondering if eight departments will find themselves one staff member short tomorrow morning.

Butter chicken


Please note that not only did the chicken turn out to be non-poisonous but also delicious.  Can you see the almost-tadik on the right side?

Maybe I should learn to cook tofu–or better yet, seitan.  I like seitan, I think, despite it consisting of “high protein wheat gluten,” which sounds like “nutritional yeast” and other weird vegan products I’m not alt enough to touch.  The word is Japanese, and I don’t really know how to pronounce it, so I call it “satan.”   As in, “I bought satan today.  I put satan in the freezer, and later, I will cook satan.  Have you tried satan before?”  Well, have you?


Maybe I just need a cute apron.

Maybe I just need a cute apron.

There’s nothing like baking to make a place feel (and smell) homey.  I was so proud when I successfully baked banana bread, despite the inscrutable dials on our oven and lacking measuring spoons.

Best served with coffee

Best served with coffee

Too proud, it turns out, because the goddesses of domesticity decided to punish me for my hubris.

It began with good intentions (which I hear pave a certain road).  I wanted to bake oatmeal raisin cookies for my Serving the Divine Plan group, which meets every Monday night to get our spirituality on.  By the time I started, I was already tired from cooking several pounds of my special peanut noodles, but I was determined.  Three mistakes ensued.

  1. THE EGG. The batter seemed too dry.  “Hm,” I thought to myself, “maybe the eggs here are smaller than at home.”  I stared at an egg.  It looked small. I cracked a third egg into the batter. Now, I know cooking can be an art, but baking must be a science.  Exact proportions of ingredients are key to success.  I knew it was wrong to add that egg, but knowing and knowing are very different.
  2. THE COOKIE SHEET. After dolloping my gooey, lumpy batter onto a cookie sheet, I ran into my second obstacle.  The  sheet did not fit into our oven.  Now, why we have a cookie sheet that can never be used is way beyond me.  My flatmate Deirdre, amused by my consternation, helped me to transfer the batter to two smaller sheets.
  3. THE HEAT. I had been preheating the oven for an hour (yeah, I know).  This was unintentional; I’m just a very slow baker.  By the time I was ready, the oven had reached a temperature somewhere between a kiln and foundry.  The racks inside had turned a threatening red.  In fact, even the oven dials were scorching hot.  Concerned about burning down my apartment building, I shut it off to let it cool down.  And then tried to turn it back on.  Nothing happened.  I tried again.  Nope.  Desperate, I sunk to my haunches, fiddling madly with the dials, a protective dishrag wrapped around my fingers, to no avail.

“I broke it,” I whined to Deirdre. “I told you I break everything I touch.”  When she tried to comfort me but couldn’t help but chortle at my fiasco, I played stoic.  “There are worse tragedies in the world than me not being able to make my cookies,” I said.  She paused to genuinely consider this point, then convinced me to use the neighbors’ oven.  I did.  She recommended putting all the dough on two sheets to make two giant cookies.  I did.

This was the result.  Please keep in mind that I was aiming for 30 cookies.


In the words of Prospero, “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine.”  I’m still trying to figure out what utensil to use with my thing of darkness.  A small jackhammer would be useful.

Seriously, who else sets out to bake cookies and ends up breaking the oven?

Postscript:  No worries, the oven has been repaired.  I plan to bake some brownies soon–at a very low heat.

Baklava & Coffee


If I were to make a soundtrack for Haifa, it would include the Muslim call to prayer and the Jewish songs that spill through the windows of the apartment. There is a synagogue that I can see from the living room. Adherents in long black robes and big furry black caps come in and out. Yesterday it broadcast a soulful choral song, presumably during the Shabbat service. While I cannot understand the words to either the call to prayer or the Jewish music, it’s pretty special that people here observe their religion so audibly. Although the Bahá’ís don’t sing prayers over loudspeakers, I think the Shrine and gardens play a comparable role as a visible, artistic manifestation of our faith.

My orientation group took a walking tour of Haifa yesterday. We walked from the Bahá’í property down to the German colony, the old pilgrim houses, the resting place of Ruhiyyih Khanum, the House of the Master, and then to Wadi Nisnas, the Hadar, and Carmel Center. These districts offer distinct shopping experiences, with the Hadar and Carmel Center offering a more typically Western experience with stores resembling Forever 21 and restaurants like McDonalds, whereas Wadi Nisnas boasts the limestone architecture and colorful marketplace of Old Haifa. This is where the Arab Christian community lives.


I enjoyed walking down the narrow streets of Wadi Nisnas, looking at the rainbow of fresh produce. There is a bakery that sells mountains of baklava in every imaginable shape. I couldn’t resist buying a box—anyone want to help me eat it? I also invested in some Arabic coffee, which is brewed on the stovetop. It smells delicious, with bits of cardamom sprinkled around the fine powder.


True to form, I must write a little about the wildlife of the city. Yesterday I made a new friend: a teeny yet burly yellow jumping spider who sat politely on my laptop for half an hour. I swear he was watching my screen, reading an online article along with me. Or maybe he mistook my cursor for a yummy ant.

Procrastinating roosters

In the mornings when I wake up, I hear distant crowing. It must be roosters. Yet all of my chicken knowledge says that roosters crow punctually at the crack of dawn, which is before 5:00 AM. So what’s going on? Am I actually hearing roosters? Where are these roosters living–in the middle of the city? And why are they procrastinating?

I had my first day in the office today. I work with four Persian ladies. I’m not sure if I count as an honorary Persian lady because of my quarter ancestry, which was in fact our first topic of conversation, probably because of my name. At my one previous office position as an intern for a ballet company, I ate lunch at my desk and my breaks involved sitting at my computer reading New York Times articles. So imagine my delight when I found out that my officemates take two short breaks daily, during which they convene in the kitchen to chat and share fruits, nuts, and fragrant Persian tea. Even as I adjust to living in Israel, I’m surrounded by all things Persian, especially the food. The lunchroom is the first (and most likely the last) cafeteria I’ve encountered that serves heaping trays of saffron chicken, steamed rice with plentiful tadik, and yogurtlu patlican (technically that last one’s Turkish, but still delicious). Maybe learning Farsi would be just as useful as Hebrew! I’ve already learned to read the numbers in Persian–I think five is my favorite. Two and three confound me.