The first time I heard someone talk about Islam, I was a junior in high school, and our school’s religious studies teacher was giving a lecture on the basic principles of Islam. The attacks of September 11th took place when I was a freshman in high school, so of course I had heard the terms: Islam, Muslim, and Arab thrown around by pundits on the news and had seen the terms splashed over the pages of the news paper. But this was the first time that I heard someone talk about Islam as a commonly practised religion, and about the Middle East as a fascinating and complex society. The teacher concluded his speech by explaining to us that we really knew nothing about Islam, and we probably never would.
I have no good reason for eventually choosing to study the Middle East, Islam, and Arabic. I was academically lost as a freshman in college, overwhelmed by the number of choices I had to make and how life changing those choices would be. Somehow, I just decided the summer before my sophomore year that Middle East Studies was going to be my major. It sounded topical, exotic, and adventurous. Arabic looked ancient and impressive, and I could study abroad as a junior and terrify my conservative relatives all at the same time. I was young and naïve to say the least.
Food, on the other hand, has always been a passion of mine. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of watching my southern grandma knead the dough for biscuits, fry bacon in lard, glaze a ham, or weave the lattice for a pie. Growing up near Sonora, Mexico, allowed me to explore dozens of taquerias, buy delicious tamales by the side of the road, and fall desperately in love with hot sauce. By the time I went to college I was an avid cook, owned a sizeable cookbook collection, and was obsessed with watching television food and travel programming.
Now, I’ve graduated from college, and I am living indefinitely in Cairo, Egypt with my boyfriend. To be honest, eating is not always easy here. I miss the infinite variety of cheap and easily attainable food that is one of the greatest aspects of American life. I miss Mexican food, I miss French cheeses, and I still haven’t found a way to enjoy eating sheep. The city is crowded, dirty, polluted, and often smells like garbage. In the past, I have shamefully found myself ordering Pizza Hut or even in line at KFC, eating at places I wouldn’t be caught dead at in America just trying to get a taste of home. But I do love Cairo, Egypt, Arabic, and the Middle East in general. The last time I moved back to America, I missed Egypt so much that I became determined to come back as soon as possible. And this being the new year, I am ready to get out of my apartment, and start eating my way around Cairo—the good, the bad, the expensive, and the cheap. A culinary adventure, a privilege, a personal food jihad.