On the 10th day of the 10th month of 2010, I broke my finger and made an unexpected friend.
Irrespective of the pressing need to operate, it was not until a week later, after the kids were cured of their cold, that I would have to submit to surgery. This friend who stood by me and cooked fragrant Iranian food for our household while I was incapable, whose own little girl attended the same school as my stepchildren, would link some awful truths to the picture I drew of Iran in my mind.
She would come and keep me company, refilling my white bowl with steaming spoonfuls of Iranian biryani and my ears with the warm drawl of her accent. It was easier to sit on our balcony on the 21st floor. It was easier to stare into the distance when words failed you, the adult that you are, responsible for children and a home.
With a casual laugh and a toss of her hair, she talks about her country’s past and my country’s future, about the ways of oppression and alienation, forgiveness and trust and most importantly, the price of being a woman.
Stories of ladies beaten in the streets for wearing nail polish – “You cannot pray like this,” of ladies who could only show their fringe if it was brown – “Blond hair is for your husband at home,” of men who had enforced haircuts deemed acceptable by the government and a vast majority drinking themselves into oblivion to avoid the reality of day-to-day living.
As I cracked the delicate crust of sholeh-zard, a sweet saffron-infused almond rice dessert tinged with turmeric and aromatic spices, I felt blessed that we had not become what she was so bitterly describing.
Today as we approach the end of 2011, I do not feel as secure because I cannot yet determine what to expect and I wonder what I will have to adapt to or become. I fear that I might not be able to take part in a male-dominated kitchen because I am a woman or that an ultra-conservative man will one day come and accuse me of being a gastronomic pimp caught up in the dirty business of food pornography.
I cannot lie – Egyptians on all levels are still afraid; the barrier of fear has not been broken.
Scraping the bottom of my small cut-glass bowl, my friend’s nonchalant attitude begins to shift. With a wavering voice, she remembers her daughter asking her, upon leaving Iran, why she wasn’t wearing her “uniform” anymore, and how she noticed that people smiled in the street, questioning why they were happy – a detail most adults would not take note of.
This beautiful lady with a constant bounce in her step, a hair color that changed with the month and a broad and cheeky grin had left her country in search of a better life for her daughter. I cannot bear to see this happening to our daughters, to our children; it is unfortunate to say that I currently consider it a blessing that I do not have any of my own.
With Christmas literally around the corner, the only thing I truly pray for is a little more forgiveness in this country and a lot more compassion because Egypt is tired and needs a pick-me-up, a sugar rush, some good news, an attempt at positivity and a more united spirit.
1 ¾ cups of all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ cup unsalted butter
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg white
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside. With an electric mix, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy (3-4 minutes). Add the vanilla and egg. Mix for a minute then add the flour mixture. Beat until it looks smooth. Split the dough in half. Wrap each half in cling film and refrigerate for an hour.
Preheat oven to 177 degrees Celsius. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Roll out one half of the dough to a 1 cm thickness on a floured surface. Make sure the dough does not stick by rotating while you roll. Cut out the cookies using a floured cookie cutter. Place the cookies on a baking sheet and chill for 15 minutes. Bake cookies for 10 minutes or until they begin to slightly brown around the edges. Cool on the baking sheet for a few minutes before moving them. Frost with royal icing. Royal icing must dry entirely before storing. This can take hours. Store cookies in an airtight container between layers of parchment paper.
Beat the egg whites with lemon juice with an electric mixer. Add the powdered sugar. Mix on low until smooth. Increase speed to medium and beat for 7-10 minutes until stiff and shiny. Royal icing has to be used or covered immediately so as not to harden. Split into different bowls if you wish to color it. Put the icing in a piping bag with a plain tip. Pipe a border around the cookie. This recipe is to create the hard border before “flooding” the cookie. To flood the cookie, add teaspoon by teaspoon of water to the remaining icing until it reaches a thinner consistency to fill the cookie border. Remember to allow the border to dry before flooding then rest it until it dries completely before storing.