A Taste of Tradition

A Taste of Tradition


This might look like its from Rome, but this is our local Gelateria!

When Caity and I moved to Zanzibar, as vegetarians we were worried about what we would be able to eat. As it turns out, as a mixing point for Indian, Arabian and East African cultures as well as a thriving tourist hub, we should not have worried too much. Zanzibar town has a wide variety of international food from Ethiopian to Syrian and a significant Italian influence with one restaurant even importing an oven from Italy for its pizza and another serving fresh-made gelato!

A little harder to find however, is traditional Zanzibari food. As it is more often found in homes rather than restaurants, in the month since we have arrived, we have not had the chance to really taste local cuisine–until today, when we went to the Makunduchi food festival.

We were invited by our landlord, who just so happens to be the father of the host family that Caity stayed with during her first two trips to Zanzibar. His family is from a small town on the southern coast of Zanzibar called Makunduchi, which has recently started hosting an annual traditional food festival to revive local foods from a time before the advent of processed foods or imported ingredients.

The Cooking:


Making the Manda by hand.

When we arrived at Makunduchi we were led into a large open courtyard when 40-50 women were spread about in small groups surrounding a series of large metal pots set atop wood-burning fires. Our host walked us from group to group explaining each of the different dishes. The first was a Manda patty made from a mix of coconut and wheat flower and fried on banana leaves, which our host compared to an American getting a donut at Dunkin’ Donuts to start their day. We then moved from one huge pot to another, stirred with ladles make from halved coconut shells and filled with curries, black fermented cassava, thick porridges and tiny hand-rolled balls of cassava flower called vidodoo.


The coconut chair!

There were also a few traditional tools that have since been replaced by blenders and industrial machines. Perhaps the most interesting one was a chair specifically designed to help the sitter shred coconuts. A wooden rod tipped with a metal scrapper extends our from the short folding seat helping the seated woman expertly and rapidly turn coconut meat inside a shell to a pile of sweet shavings. You know that coconuts are an important part of your cooking when you invent a piece of furniture specifically to help with its preparation!

The Celebration: 


The singing menu

Before we could eat however, we had to watch the festivities that culminated in the food frenzy. With the combination of not speaking Swahili and a microphone that would continuously cut out, it was hard to follow exactly what was going on, but there were a few definite highlights. The first was a pair of women in high pitched voices singing through the menu of traditional foods, describing and acting out the process of how each one was made.


The main “band”

After a few other routines came the main act. Caity and I had sat down when we heard a pretty incredible guitar riff coming out of the speakers. We get up to see what is going on and find a five-man band dressed in bring white shirts, dress pants and suspenders playing a song from a famous Makunduchi band from the 1970s. Upon closer examination however, it turned out that the two guitar players were not hooked up to any cords and the “trumpet” player was in fact holding a silver flute that he just played like a trumpet! Despite not actually playing the music, they were totally rocking out! The “trumpet” player took a solo and energetically moving around the crowd, with his cheeks puffed out theatrically and the guitar player took his solo to the next level by “playing” the guitar upside-down above his head! And the crowd loved it! People were continually running up to the bank and stuffing Tanzanian shilling notes in their shirt pockets, in a jar up front or even tucking them into the suspender straps of the lead “singer”!

This hilarious act closed out the presentations and let us get to our food! Although we still had to pass up a few dishes, like octopus soup, we still got quite a good sampling of traditional Zanzibari cuisine. One of the family members with us even said that he had not eaten one of the dishes for over 50 years!


Enjoying our food without utensils. This was after all a traditional food festival!

Harnessing the Wind

Harnessing the Wind

“It’s working! I’M DOING IT! Wait, what’s happening now? Oh no! The kite is dropping! What do I do? He didn’t tell me what to do when this happens! AHHHH!” [face full of sea water]

This is what learning how to kite surf sounded like for me. Cycles of momentary success, followed by unexpected changes and often ending in spectacular crashes! It was difficult, and at times painful, but this was one of the things I was looking forward to about our time in Zanzibar. Learning how to kite surf was right near the top of the things-we-must-do-before-we-leave list. I didn’t know much about it, but surfing the ocean harnessed to a kite and being able to launch yourself into the air sounded incredible.

A bit of Kite History:

Charvolant (1)

A different kind of “horseless carriage”.

Because I’m a history nerd, I had to look this up. As it turns out, using a kite to harness the power of the wind for transportation is not as novel an idea as I thought. In the early 1800s a British school teacher named George Pocock had started experimenting with kites. He first used students in experiments, then family members (at one point using a 30ft kite to lift his daughter over 250ft in the air!) and eventually applied his ideas to transportation. His invention of the “Charvolant” buggy was a carriage propelled by kite, which was not only the fastest carriage at the time, but conveniently avoided the hated “horse tax”! Unfortunately, his idea did not catch on and it took another 80 years for kite transportation resurface.


A war kite! Be afraid!!!

It came in the early 1900s, when famed Wild West showman Samuel Cody began experimenting with kites that were large enough to carry people. Debuted in Britain, these kites attracted the attention of the British military, which purchased four “war-kites” from Cody. They later hired him as the Chief Instructor of Kiting at the Army Balloon Factory, which ultimately evolved into the No. 1 Squadron of the Royal Air Force! Although his “war kites” were ultimately eclipsed by motor powered airplanes, Cody did become the first man to fly an aeroplane in Britain in 1908, just a few years after the Wright Brothers.

It took until the late 1990s for kites surfing to become a popular sport, after the work of a number of creative individuals led to the combined use of a large kite with inflatable ribs, a harness on a trapeze belt and a board with foot straps. And so kite surfing was born. It is now a sport with roughly 1.5 million participants and a number of crazy records such as achieving a top speed of 64 mph and jumping almost 94 feet off the ground! (Don’t worry Mum, I wont be doing either of those in the foreseeable future!)

Learning how to Kite Surf:


Inflating the surfing kite.

The process for learning how to kite surf is thankfully much easier than I expected. Working with a Zanzibari instructor named Yahaya, I started with a small “baby kite” where I learned the basic kite control skills that would eventually have me gliding across the water.

After this Yahiya took me out into the ocean, where I practiced using the kite to drag myself through the water, practicing for the times when I inevitably crashed, lost my board and had to fetch it or just bring myself back to shore. This stage produced some of the most epic crashes as I accidentally caught too much power in the kite, launching myself out of the water only to belly flop back down into it!


Not me, but totally what I did many times.

The second day introduced the board, which you use one hand to stick your feet into while the other holds the kite steady. My first attempts involved a good number more crashes, this time involving more speed and the board flying off my feet!

But it is all worth the feeling of gliding across the surface of the ocean pulled by a 12-meter kite that you control! Although these moments do not come frequently in the early stages of the learning process, when they do, it brings back into brilliant focus the freedom, joy and exhilaration that are the reason why I was attracted to kite surf in the first place.


When I finally got up on the board!


My instructor Yahaya and I. We got along so well that he was calling me his “brother from another mother.”

Being a Student:

The process of learning how to kite surf also let me to experience what its like being a student again. As a teacher about to enter a new school year, it was a good reminder about both helping my students develop the qualities needed to learn, while also being conscious to let them practice with the “baby kite” before asking them to jump into the water. That way, when the wind blows, they are ready to catch it and glide away. And, hopefully after a few more lessons, I will be doing the same!

Monkeys, Mangroves and Minnows

Monkeys, Mangroves and Minnows

It seems fitting that my first post about life in Zanzibar be about the natural beauty that we have experienced in our first two weeks on the island. As a coral island, Zanzibar is renown for its beaches, but there is more to do here than just lie in the sun and catch up on our reading!


Blue Monkey.jpeg

One of the “Blue Monkeys” we saw.

We began our exploration of Zanzibar with a trip to the Jozani Forest Reserve, one of the many protected ecological sites on the island. Our guide started by leading us on an improvised trail running through people’s yards and fields and then past a roadside stand selling roasted corn. Our first monkey sighting was a small “Blue Monkey” (our guide also said the scientific and Swahili name of everything we saw but I promptly forgot them) who was sitting in a tree next to the “path”.

We then continued on until we stepped into someone’s backyard and saw the main object of our quest, the Red Colobus Monkey, sitting in a tree on what looked like a specially designed monkey perch eating leaves. We felt an instant bond as Red Colobus Monkeys are also vegetarians! They mainly eat the soft and juicy new leaves of a different plants and have even been seen to eat charcoal to aid in the digestion of more toxic leaves! Talk about smart! Each monkey is about 1.5 feet tall (not counting the tail), has two bright red patches on their back, a light colored nose and bright white tufts of hair poking out wildly above their eyes.


I was way more scared of the monkey than he was of me!

We continued walking through a field and we are suddenly in a monkey-crossing zone with a few of the furry creatures walking right by us as they foraged their way to a living fence where the rest of their troop was hanging out (quite literally in the case of a few!). It seems that these monkeys live in small groups of 20-30 with one dominant alpha and about two female monkeys to every male. There are two interesting facts about these groups. The first is that their membership is fluid. This is particularly true with females, who will hop from group to group, a practice that is probably particularly trying for the ego of the alpha! The second interesting dynamic is with young males. In part due to the strong hierarchy, young males are not always accepted in the group where they are born and regularly leave to take their chances joining another group. However, this does not always go smoothly and researchers have found that some young males will bide their time with another group of a different species of monkeys, spying for the opportune moment to try and enter the new group again. One monkey was even found to spy on his desired group for over two years! I hope he got in after that!


jozani-forest-tour-zanzibar-mangrove-boarwalkAfter spending some time with our primate friends, our guide took us on a forest tour that ended in one of Zanzibar’s mangrove forests. We followed an elevated walkway through an area that is partially submerged in salty sea water during high tide and fed from underground freshwater during low tides.

In order to survive in this unique environment, mangrove trees have adapted in fascinating ways, especially in dealing with the high salt content of the ocean water they are regularly bathed in. Because they are partially submerged in salt water for part of each day, different species have found ways of living in this low-oxygen environment. For example, red mangroves grow a series of stilt-like roots which prop up the main tree higher and allow it to absorb oxygen through its bark, while black mangroves grow roots that stick straight up out of the ground (some over a meter in height!) and can act like straws for breathing!


The sacrificial leaf

Another adaptation is the use of a sacrificial leaf, where the tree directs excess salt into older leaves on the tree, which turn yellow and fall off, allowing the rest of the tree to continue growing! Finally, there are even some mangroves which can “sweat salt”, pushing it out from their leaves! Crazy!

As if that is not enough, mangrove seeds even have special adaptations. For one, the seeds start their germination process before they even fall off the tree and this ready-to-go seed will then drop from the tree and float until it finds a suitable environment. When it does, the seed will change its own density to float vertically and more easily root. If this doesn’t work out, the seed can change its density again and float away! Wow!


Don’t even think about lying on this beach!


Our next ecological adventure took us to the North Eastern coast of Zanzibar, where we went snorkeling on Mnemba Island. Actually, I don’t mean on the island itself, since the entire island is privately owned and it is considered trespassing to set foot upon its powder white beaches. Unless of course you are able to pay the $1,200-1,600 a night to rent one of the dozen private villas on the island. If you can however, not only are you guaranteed a very exclusive get away but also a chance to rub elbows with Bill Gates, as this is reputedly one of his favorite get aways! :)

We contented ourselves with the much cheaper route of renting a small boat and swimming around the coral reefs that ring the island. The fish came in all shapes, sizes and colors, darting in and out of the coral formations or dodging swimmers who dove down below the surface for a closer look.

The coral was unfortunately less spectacular due to the significant bleaching that has occurred over the past few years. Bleaching is when the colorful algae living in a symbiotic relationship with the coral it covers are killed off, largely due to increased water temperatures. This can happen dramatically, like the time in 1997-1998 where a global bleaching event caused by El Nino killed 80% of Tanzania’s coral (!), or this can occur over a longer period of time as the temperature of the ocean’s water incrementally rises. Dying coral reefs can no longer support a diverse ecosystem, which in turn puts stress on the millions of people who rely on fish from the reefs as a principle source of food and income. After teaching a unit on climate change this past year, seeing the whitened coral certainly gave me an up-close perspective on one of the many serious challenges that I had spoken with my students about.


Unfortunately not our picture, but this is almost exactly what we saw!

Thankfully the trip ended on a high note: a dolphin chase! Once one boat spotted a small pod of dolphins swimming a short distance away, then news rippled across the other boats and the race was on! Guides hurriedly gathered their swimmers, revved their engines and launched after the dolphins. As a boat approached the prize they would pull up next to these elegant creatures and every tourist threw themselves into the water in an attempt to get a close-up view. But within seconds, the dolphins were out of sight and the next boat would repeat the procedure in a crazy game of leap frog. Thankfully we had our turn and I got about 10 feet from a pair of dolphins as they surfaced for air and dove back down under the water, effortlessly swimming out of my sight. It was only a few seconds, but it made the whole trip worth it.


A Trip to the Beach

Every summer, many Egyptians take leave of the hot and dusty interior cities and head to the beach. They swarm cities like Alexandria and populate the numerous resorts that have grown up along the Red Sea. To celebrate our two-year wedding anniversary (hooray!!) we decided to follow the crowd and spend a few days basking in the sun and swimming in turquoise waters.

We chose to go to Moon Beach, a spot more popular among foreigners. It was liberating to change into our swimsuits, finally being able to wear clothing that provides some reprieve from the heat, as compared with the pants and longer sleeves that are the cultural norm in Egypt. Although we felt self-conscious at first, seeing other beach goers calming walking around in bikinis helped to assuage our worries.

The beach was gorgeous. Thatched umbrellas spotted the beach and looked out over the brilliant blue waters, where you could just make out the mountains on the other side of the Red Sea. The other sunbathers must have come from all over, as we heard five or six different languages being spoken, and sometimes many among the same family! There were also a number of Egyptian families as well, some of whom happily soaked up the rays in bikinis while others swam while still wearing a headscarf and longs leaves.

We spent most of our time sitting in the sun and reading (Caity with her Kindle and me with an old fashioned non-ebook), as unfortunately much of the coral that normally draws snorkeling enthusiasts has died out in the last few decades. We were told that this is due to ships illegally dumping their bilge (sewage etc accumulated from their voyage) before the reach the Suez Canal in an attempt to save same money, as the ships are charged by weight. When roughly 18,000 ships pass through the canal each year, this is not an insignificant issue. I tried not to think about it as we splashed and swam about in the cool waters.

Caity Windsurfing

Although there was no snorkeling, there was definitely windsurfing. Moon beach is known for its constant wind and smooth waters, making it windsurfing central. There were always five or six people out on the water, mostly beginners slowly and ponderously cruising along but other more advanced surfers zipped across the water and even doing 360s, spinning the massive board and sail in a movement that looked like water acrobatics from the shore!

My 30 foot epic voyage!

Although this looked easy enough from the shore (not including the spins of course!) it turned out to be much more difficult in practice. Larger than a normal surfboard, a windsurfing board is big enough to allow to you crawl on top and stand up without sinking. That however, is the easy part. You have to then pull (maybe hoist is the proper sea term? :P) the huge sail up off the water while remaining balanced on the board. If you pull too hard, you fall over backward with the sail on top of you and too much to one side or the other and you loose balance and flop off the board. After about five minutes of graceless flopping, I finally managed to catch the wind and go a good thirty feet, giving me a newfound appreciation for the sport and the incredible amount of skill needed to turn the thing, much less spin it!

We spent the last night out under the stars, which, unlike Cairo, were brilliantly visible. It was even clear enough that we could easily make out the Milky Way spilled across the dark night sky. Living in a city of twenty million, it is easy to forget how tiny we are compared to the vastness of the universe and the wondrous mysteries of creation. We are rarely afforded true darkness or silence in Cairo and being alone with only the sounds of the wind and waves was a treat.

More importantly however, the trip was a wonderful way to mark our two years of marriage. We have had an incredible second year together, traveling across the Middle East, experiencing a revolution, living two months as evacuees in Kenya and Uganda and now spending the last months in Cairo. I certainly feel blessed, and I think we are both looking forward to diving into year three!

Sketchbooks and Rubber Duckies

I was not flying in for a traditional academic conference. I did not bring a paper to present or intend to leave a few days later with a new line on my resume. Instead, my suitcase was filled with a sketchpad, drawing pencils, a glue stick, an object from my childhood and ten close-up photos of natural objects. It was going to be an interesting week indeed.

My trip was a bit unconventional before I even got to the airport. Two days before my flight took off I had no idea where I was staying. A friend in Barcelona was helping me with accommodations but in addition to the difficulty of asking friends to host a total stranger for a week, things in Spain happen on their own schedule, one not so concerned with my imminent arrival. Luckily, I ended up staying with Montse, a sweet Catalunya native who worked as an educator helping people recover from drug addiction.

Once I arrived in Spain and met Montse the morning before my first session, I found out that we had opposite schedules. My workshop started in the morning and ended at 1:30pm, right at the time she left for work, only to get home after ten. The first morning we went together and made a copy of the house keys, but when I returned from the workshop ready to take a much-needed siesta, one of the keys didn’t work! As I had no cell phone and no idea where Montse worked, I decided to wander the city until she got back. Luckily, in Barcelona, that is a great plan B.

And this is a normal building...

The city is built along the coast and a cool breeze off the ocean makes the temperature just perfect for a stroll or spending the afternoon eating tapas at one of the many street-side cafes. Barcelona is also filled with public art and was the home of the famous artist Antoni Gaudi, whose incredible mosaics and flowing nature-inspired style can be seen on buildings and parks throughout the city. But even those buildings not designed by an artist seem to be works of art in themselves, coming from a time when buildings were dignified structure made to last. Every building has its own personality, with different windows, ancient doors and stylized metal railings on the small balconies. It was easy to see why this was chosen as the location for a workshop on creativity!

Our hosts/teachers for the workshop were Shelley Berc, an accomplished playwright and author and Alejandro Fogel, a talented visual artist. Both have spent a lifetime working in the arts and reflecting about creativity and its inspiration. Throughout the five days, they guided us through a host of different writing and drawing activities meant to free us from our minds and help us let go from any mental obstacles that would keep us from tapping into the creative side of our nature.

We recounted childhood stories, drew maps of our heart and mind, interviewed another participant and presented ourselves to the group as them, did visualizations and lots of automatic writing and drawing, letting our hand outpace our mind. One of my favorite activities was trying to make a story using ten random objects chosen by another of the participants. I ended up being given a rubber ducky and a bunch of small necklace pendants and fashioned an epic tale of friendship, loss and triumph!

In a sense, it was to help us be more like children, getting in touch with the fun, energetic side of ourselves, one that is not stifled by shame, self-consciousness or an overly-critical mind. When a child sees a performer on stage doing an amazing dance or song, they immediately want to join, and might even have to be stopped from climbing up on stage themselves! Most adults on the other hand, see the performance and say to themselves, “I could never do that. I would make such a fool out of myself if I even tried.”

One of my realizations throughout the workshop concerned the importance of creativity in our education. Before coming to Barcelona, I thought of creativity as something mainly useful for artists, whether visual or performing. It became clear however, that creativity is less a skill and more a way of thought, of opening ourselves to inspiration and learning not to listen to the more critical side of our nature.

This is important because creativity is a significant part of who we are as people and how we understand the world. In the US, we are told that the primary part of our identity is that of a consumer; that we take in what others create. If our purpose is to consume however, we do not create, losing that wonderful force that makes life so interesting and ultimately drives our society forward. This reflection made me think differently about the fact that when a school has budget problems, it is the art department that gets cut first. This is not just a loss to those students who are artistically inclined but to all students, who are being deprived of the chance to develop a new way of thinking about the world. Schools should not kill creativity but foster it.

It would be nice to say that having finished the workshop, I am now creative. Unfortunately it does not seem to work that way. :) Shelley and Alejandro gave us a number of different seeds, but it is now up to us to plant and nurture them and see what grows.

Another Man’s Gold

We were definitely lost. We had been driving around the Cairo neighborhood for about twenty minutes, barely sliding past other cars on crooked streets not meant to hold two lanes of traffic. At least we knew that we were in the right place. There was trash everywhere. Not strewn about the streets haphazardly, but stuffed in massive sacks and piled ten feet high on trucks or stacked in warehouses. Every doorway seemed to lead to a room filled with trash; either newly arrived or in the process of being sorted and separated.

This was “Garbage City”, one of the communities of zaballeen, or garbage people, and we had come for a tour by a local. After many concerned phone calls and confused directions, we eventually met our guide Hanna. He had grown up here and started by telling us how everything began.

The community started with a couple of poor farming families who saw that they could make a living by collecting a portion of Cairo’s garbage and recycling it. They went out at night with donkey carts, hauling the garbage back to their homes for processing. Soon they invited other family members, slowly bought trucks and after thirty years the fledgling communities around Cairo had grown to host over 60,000 people who have set up their own power and water lines and live in multistory concrete buildings.

Recently featured in an award winning documentary, Garbage Dreams, this vibrant community is now one of several that lives off recycling the 14,000 tons of garbage produced by Cairo every day. Hanna estimates that every ton of garbage supports about seven jobs: two to pick it up, three to sort it and two more to process the materials before they are resold.

What makes these communities stand out is that they are able to recycle about 80% of the garbage that they collect, more than triple the rate of most Western companies! Plastics, paper, aluminum cans, pipes, bags, just about everything is sorted and either reprocessed into another usable material or resold to factories around Cairo.

In the past, organic waste was fed to the community’s large pig population, which would then be sold for a profit. As Muslims are religiously forbidden from breeding or eating pigs, the zaballeen, who are 90% Coptic Christians, have been given a largely uncontested spot as the city’s garbage collectors. This was a major part of their livelihood. All this changed in April 2009 however, when the Egyptian Parliament ordered the culling of over 300,000 pigs amidst fears of the H1N1 virus. This decision was a huge financial blow to the zaballeen and largely criticized in the international community, as there was general agreement that pigs do not transmit H1N1.

Despite this setback, the zeballeen continue their work. We were first shown to a center that trains the women of the neighborhood how to make paper and rugs from recycled materials. I was under the apparently naive impression that you could only use old paper to make new paper, but it soon became clear that is not the case, as jeans and even onions were added into the mix to give the new paper a unique texture and color. The result is beautiful handmade cards, bags, books and lampshades, some pressed with flowers and decorated as well.

For the cloth, rugs are made out of discarded clothing on huge looms and women are also trained to sew beautiful quilts from other fabric, work they can do at home, allowing them to make an income while still watching their children. Similar schools exist for boys as well, both providing a recycling based-income and tangible skills for those living in the neighborhood.

Hanna then took us to the mountain churches, which are literally carved out of the rock, the largest of which can hold over 10,000 people. Along the walls of the cliff are various pictures and writings chiseled into the rock face by one dedicated Polish sculptor who has worked there for the past twenty-five years!

Most interesting of all however, were the projects Hanna himself was working on. Although he had grown up sorting and cleaning trash that was brought in, he had the opportunity to work with an inspired American PhD student who dreamt of bringing solar power and biogas to Garbage City. Working together Hanna and Thomas started to build small systems out of the recycled material that could provide nearly free hot water and natural cooking gas to the receiving family.

Although since Thomas moved to Germany for a teaching job, Hanna has remained inspired. He took us up to his roof where he had installed a solar water heater and a biogas drum that used organic waste from his house and produces enough methane in a day to fuel a standard stove for two hours! He pointed out the other installations across the neighborhood and told us his dream to make Garbage City “a model for green energy in Egypt.”

The example set by Garbage City is even more incredible when we look closer at what happens in our own borders. New York City produces about four pounds of waste per person per day, more than any other city in the world. This comes out to over 16,000 tons per day, more than Cairo, which is twice its size! And yet the US itself only recycles about 11% of its waste, preferring to send most of it to landfills instead. Although it might not be easy to admit, we could learn a lot from Cairo’s zaballeen.

Tabla Classes

 “You don’t want to look like a machine when you play, sticking your arms out at odd angles. Yes, you want it to sound right, but you want it to look good too! No, you have to bend your wrist like this! Imagine that you are holding an orange in this hand, now hit the drum!”

Although I am able to pick up some new skills quickly, such as sports or card games, this is definitely not the case with music. In fact, I think that I would put myself in the category of “musically challenged”, some of the indicators of which include being unable to hold any beat for more than ten seconds and having little or no inability to distinguish when a note is out of tune. This comes in sharp contrast to my wife Caity, who not only has a beautiful voice and a great musical ear, but also rocks the jembe and can somehow make clapping sound like music and not just someone following the beat.

For the last two months however, we have been taking classes to play the tabla, one of the most common musical instruments in Egypt, with its beats accompanying most singers and featuring prominently in many orchestras. Egyptians grow up listening to the tabla and many can sit down and play at least one quick rhythm. This is sort of like Americans with the guitar, except our ability to play often only extends to the air guitar! :P

It certainly has lots of character

When we decided to take lessons, we went out and bought a used drum off an expat leaving the country. It turned out to be a very used drum and although covered with a beautiful mother-of-pearl design, some of the coating has started to flake off. This is especially comical when a small piece of your drum shoots off across the room when playing a particularly fast rhythm.

I have never seriously taken music lessons before and I quickly found out that even the simplest hits were a lot harder than expected. The tabla has three main ways to strike the drum and all, predictably, are named after the sound they make: the dum reverberates deeply through the drum, the tak is a flat sounding strike right in the center of the drum and the iss is the sharp high sound that comes from hitting the rim of the drum’s face. At first it seemed like it would be easy, but I ended up spending the whole first class endlessly repeating one of the three hits, striving to get the sound and the form just right.

After mastering the first beats, you find out that there are in fact many, many other types of hits, and even multiple ways of making the same sound. This gets confusing quite quickly as few of the new hits get different names and so you end up with three different taks and four different dums. When I try and write down the different rhythms I am then forced to make up my own words for each new hit so that even Caity has to ask me to translate! This must come from the learning style that is not based on sheet music, but instead watching the teacher and then repeating, recording each new rhythm in your head instead of a songbook.

Our teacher, Bassem, was born in a small town but luckily received a music scholarship that allowed him to visit the main town in the region and take lessons in tabla and other instruments. This eventually culminated in a spot in a musical group in Cairo where he was even given the opportunity to teach the tabla abroad in France as part of a music exchange. He is now struggling to make it as a musician in Cairo, a task that is certainly challenging.

With each new rhythm he teaches us, we seem to be moving geographically around Egypt. For example, one is called the felaHi, or peasant’s rhythm, which takes you out of the city and into the fields that run up the Nile valley.  Another, the sa’idi, is from the Said region in southern Egypt and brings to mind the more serious turbaned men of that region with their long galabiyya robes. Each rhythm also has its own special introductory beat that announces to all those listening, “get ready, here comes the new rhythm!”

The later classes are thankfully getting easier, as Caity and I slowly learn one simple rhythm after the next. It also becomes clear that there is a significant and humbling gap between my “musically challenged” ability and Caity’s effortless musical grace. After each lesson, I studiously practice every day until the next week’s lesson only to find that Caity, who just warms up a little bit before each new lesson, is miraculously at my newly acquired level!

This has provided a good opportunity for reflection. It seems that the older we get, the fewer completely new skills we attempt to acquire. Having stuck with activities that I am already competent at for the last couple years, I have forgotten how hard it is to learn something from scratch. I am not accustomed to making endless mistakes and working very hard for seemingly little gain. This process of starting anew is a great test for the ego, which certainly does not enjoy the struggle and feeling “bad” or “incompetent” at something.

The best way to deal with this test seems to be laughter, which means I end up laughing a lot in class. Slowly however, the flat hits and off beats sound less like judgment and more like progress. Besides, my Dad always told me that, “a man who can laugh at himself will never cease to be amused.”

Who knows, maybe with enough practice I may eventually be able to hold a beat a beat for more than ten seconds and look like I am holding an orange at the same time.