x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Al qahirah: My first American Thanksgiving ... in Cairo

The turkey sat on the dinner table like a giant red boulder. The table complained of the weight, as the bird lay on a bed of rice and boiled vegetables.

The turkey sat on the dinner table like a giant red boulder. The table complained of the weight, as the bird lay on a bed of rice and boiled vegetables. The dinner guests stood back in awe of the 15-kilo roasted glory. With its legs tied back in an acrobatic fashion, the turkey was just waiting to be devoured. Besides the bird, we admired the trimmings - tons of sweet potato concoctions (one dish garnished with marshmallows), mashed potatoes, stuffing made from scratch, and pumpkin pie and ice cream for later.

There is nothing quite like celebrating American Thanksgiving in Cairo. What a phenomenon. Even though Canada borders the US, I have met more Americans as an expatriate living in Egypt than when I was in Toronto. After Norwegians, they are quite possibly the second largest group of expats in Cairo. With the American University, American students flood the city each year for study-abroad programmes, while others come to study Arabic now that the language is so fashionable among PhD programmes and security consultants in the West.

This year, my American roommate really got into the spirit of the season by hosting a Thanksgiving dinner at our home. She went all out, painstakingly making chutneys from online recipes, calling her mother in the US to get the recipe for the stuffing. She also went bulk grocery shopping. Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving a whole month before Americans, but my family never adopted the tradition when we moved to Canada. So this year was really my first ever Thanksgiving and we were celebrating it American style. This meant, as most holidays around the world do these days, cooking a lot of food which took an entire day to consume. The meal was then followed by a stint of sitting around watching bad television while wearing pyjamas.

Usually, bickering with your family is also on the menu, but as an expat I was saved from that and instead found myself surrounded by the friends I have made since moving here. And for many people in the room, it was their first Thanksgiving too - including a Belgian, an Iraqi and a number of Egyptians. People arrived early with many sugary and savoury dishes taken from their grandmothers' recipe books - many of our guests improvised on ingredients not found in Egypt. None of them scrimped on the butter.

We ate, drank and joked about our time in the Middle East. Many of us were journalists or students, who have become each other's support systems since we came to the region. Looking around the room, I realised it might be the tryptophan oozing to my brain from the turkey I had just eaten, but I was also keenly aware of all the things for which I was thankful. In Cairo, there is a tendency among foreigners to complain daily about how hard it is to live here - we groan about the traffic, the noise, the poor air quality, the harassment, the dirt ... The list goes on. But we also have chosen to live here - in a country where many of its own people feel they are stuck with no opportunities.

Thanksgiving gave me a moment to pause and reflect. I was not thankful for only the food and material things in my life. In a country where many Egyptians feel they are in a rut, I am thankful to have options and never feel as if I have turned into a dead end. I have the advantage of blending into the local culture in Egypt and being able to understand it from an outsider's perspective. My Arabic has improved since coming back to the Middle East. I work at a prestigious organisation and have a job I enjoy. I have a family.

We shouldn't need a holiday to remind us to be thankful, but sometimes a break is all it takes to get us to sit and think about it. At the end of our meal, I was contemplating all this and more. My thoughts were all abandoned pretty quickly, however. After all that turkey, I really, really needed a nap. Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo.