What’s in Your Lunchbox?

Egypt Sandwich

One morning before school, Alexander, our newest kindergartener, was fiddling with Egyptian coins and thinking through options at the school canteen. His eyes lit up when he realized he could buy a milk box … maybe chocolate, maybe strawberry, or maybe banana!

He looked up and asked, as if he had a revelation. “Mom, how do I say, ‘Can I try a sip of that?’ in Arabic?”

My mind immediately thought of a gross juicebox straw that some kid was slobbering all over. Conditioned by American cafeteria germ paranoia, my first answer was, “You can’t ask for a sip of something. Please don’t ever ask for a sip of something, especially at school!”

So instead he asked, “Mom, how do I ask for a bite of something?”

Alexander was just beginning his time on the school playground; clearly this was something he wanted to learn.

But I still wasn’t thrilled. “Iskander [as his name translates in Arabic], do kids ever ask you for a bite? Do they ever ask for some of your food?”

He frowned. “Yes, they always want a pretzel.” At the breakfast table his three sisters immediately chimed in. “Yes, they always want the pretzels!”

It was a cultural revelation. My kids, the Americans, bring weird snacks to school.

Egyptian culture breeds generosity, usually. When a child opens a bag of chips it is common practice to offer to friends. Same with a packet of cookies. What you have is meant to be shared.

Earlier this summer as we visited a school friend, she told her mother, “Layla [our daughter] never brings a sandwich.” She couldn’t comprehend it. She thought we were starving her.

But the system here does not include a lunch break, and to me, a sandwich is lunch. Egyptian kids eat when they get home around between 2-4pm, depending on the traffic.

For them a sandwich is breakfast, eaten at the beginning of the day, often at school.

I grew up on peanut butter and jelly, or perhaps ham and cheese. My kids, meanwhile, have encountered a whole variety of sandwiches, and often get a taste. Usually they are made in a long, thin Kaiser-type roll or pita-type bread.

Inside: French fries. Or scrambled eggs. Perhaps some strange sort of salty white cheese. Maybe liver. Beans, mashed or falafeled.

Our oldest daughter recently attended a church retreat for expat kids. Hosted by Egyptians, she was surprised at the shock other campers had at the French fry sandwiches.

“What could be better to eat for breakfast?” she wondered, telling us over her morning corn flakes.

I am sure our littlest kindergartener will try many “bites” of things in the years to come. Unlike me growing up, hopefully it will expand his palate and encourage him to try new things.

And maybe he’ll also stop frowning when friends ask him for something, and instead, like them, will learn to offer freely.

He has freely received, as the Biblical saying goes.

What’s in your lunch? Can I have a bite?



School Slogans

On my walk to work these days I pass a local school, whose walls are covered with brief slogans promoting morality, health, and other social virtues. This seems to be quite common, actually, and it is interesting to read the messages promoted by the administration. Here are a few pictures highlighting each phrase, with a fairly literal translation underneath.

This is the entrance to the school, and the elaborate calligraphy to the right of the door reads: In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate. This is a common Islamic invocation, used often to begin a speech or introduce a text. As best I can tell, though, this school is a government school, and therefore consists of both Muslim and Christian students. Government education has mandatory religious classes, which are divided according to religion. So while there is nothing in the invocation on the wall that would offend Christian sensibility, it is recognized as a distinctive Muslim formulation.

In a similar vein, the school near our old apartment was also public in nature, but each day the students were led in opening exercises which included the choral shouting of Allahu Akbar – God is great. Again, while every Christian student would agree, this phrase is recognized as distinctively Islamic. Many Christians, if they can afford it, will pay to put their children in private schools. In addition to being regarded as providing superior education, many of these parents will also complain about a perceived bias towards Islam in the school system. Are their worries legitimate? We have much to learn.

Teach your children swimming, archery, and how to ride horses.

This is a phrase believed to have originated with Omar Ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph of the Islamic state following the death of Muhammad. Omar was among the leaders most successful for spreading Arab governance throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The military implications of his saying are obvious enough. Equally obvious is that no swimming, archery, or equestrian activity whatsoever takes place within the walls of this school.

Today by all appearances the phrase is utilized to demonstrate the early importance of education in the Arab world. The military applications, common to early education practices of many empires throughout history, have given way to the more general invocation to care for the development of children. This will be seen further in the generic phrases given below.

Education: The development of nations is measured by the knowledge of their children.

Fair enough. I imagine there would be a good correlation between test scores in essential subjects and rankings on the world GDP index.

Exercising builds the body and refines one’s morals, so do it!

Despite the appearances, this is not a take on the Nike slogan. Such scholastic marketing would probably be more akin to the American system.

Put a tissue on your nose when you sneeze so you don’t infect your colleagues.

And also this one below:

Fight sickness with personal cleanliness.

The swine flu virus terrified Egypt. I do not know if this slogan predates its onset or not, but there were extensive public education campaigns on how to avoid contagion. Many schools were shut down if certain children tested positive. Upon arrival, airline travelers were asked to submit to a special medical card, and those with fever were pulled aside for further testing. Less effectively, they also killed all the pigs in the garbage district, complicating natural recycling methods. These slogans were meant to promote good hygiene among the students.

Concerning all of these slogans, a colleague of mine remarked that schools are notorious for putting forward a public image that serves to mask the deficiencies – often in the very slogans – of what goes on inside the walls. The hope is that this does not prove true for the final picture:

Be an agent for good and not a reason for evil.

With these children, and all else in Egypt, may it be so.