An expat life can be at times a difficult, lonesome, even a boring life. But it can also be a very plentiful one, rich of people, places and meetings with other cultures, the one from the hosting country as well as those of the different people we’ll meet on the way.
But what can make the difference? Sometimes, you know, it really takes little. Like a group of women, friends or acquaintances, but united by the common wish to do something together and especially to get to know more, to collectively learn, something they don’t know yet.
So, this is what happened here in Skopje, in Macedonia, where, with a group of women, we have arranged a very ‘special’ day, made up of food and photos but most importantly dressed with chit chats and stories from all over the world. A very ‘special’ day organized by Eva, Iskra and Silvia, three women from three different cultures (Swedish, Macedonian and Italian) that by sharing ideas and personal experiences of their own expat lives have then promoted and eventually organised a meeting between (many) cultures in one single day. Silviaex tells us about it!
I met Eva Oscarsson right after her arrival to Skopje, in the Summer of 2006. A Swedish national with a Hungarian mother, Eva has spent many years in Spain, South America and in the Balkans (Romania and Serbia), where she has been working – among others – in the field of development and cooperation for/with the United Nations.
After 4 years in Belgrade, Eva, with husband and two sons, has arrived in Skopje, Macedonia, where her Swedish husband has started a new business in dairy products and where Eva herself was immediately committed to promote and launch multicultural activities between the international / expat women currently living in Skopje and the Macedonian and Albanian women interested in this cultural exchange.
And that is how this first “Multicultural Event” came to our mind, namely by the idea that the very process of collective learning could enhance even further the multicultural exchange generated by the event self.
Iskra Frckovska, from Macedonia, has been married for the last 20 years to an Iraqi architect, Ala, with whom she lives in Skopje together with their teenage children. Iskra, having fallen in love with Ala and with Arabian cuisine – properly learned from her mother-in-law – has owned and managed for years ‘Um Zina’, a well renown Arabian restaurant as well as a smaller one, ‘Aladdin’, in the most frequented Mall of the city.
Nowadays Iskra is thinking about renewing her restaurant business. Having closed her two previous restaurants, she is thinking about something a bit more intimate, a small Arabian and international restaurant where one can meet friends or associates over a delicious Tabouleh or a simpler Turkish coffee and Narghile , peacefully lazing away among oriental cushions and carpets.
From a fruitful exchange of ideas between Eva and Iskra, the idea of an event organized around Arabian cuisine was further developed until it became reality with our first “Mini Course on Arabian / Middle eastern Cuisine”, which was eventually attended by a dozen expat women previously contacted through emails and the Skopje – based International Women Association’s announcements.
Furthermore, when I met with Eva and Iskra we all three came up with the additional idea of offering something ‘visual’ to the participants that could accompany them during the preparation and the cooking of the ingredients. And that is how I decided to participate in the event by showing the series of b/w photographs I had taken in Pakistan between 1994 and 2005.
The photos were then organized in two different sections:
The first one consisted of pictures of the Northern Areas – where the Himalaya meets the mountainous ranges of the Karakoram, Hindukush and the Pamir – taken between 1994 and 1997. These photos tell the stories of people and landscapes from one of the most mysterious and beautiful regions in the world, with its mountains, valleys and peaks (amongst the highest in the world, between 7,000 and 8,000 m of height) where several ethnic groups still live with the most varied and peculiar languages and dialects, people who throughout the centuries have played their role in the most famous and strategic trade carried out along the Silk Road.
On the other hand, the second section consisted of pictures taken between 2003 and 2006 in the region of Punjab, in mainland Pakistan. Crossed by the river Indus and its many channels, the Punjab is characterized by large cotton fields whose production cycle requires the manual work that represents the only source of income for many thousands of poor families in the region.
Once agreed – and having printed out and properly hanged all the selected photographs – we enjoyed ourselves by preparing a “Middle eastern Corner” in Eva’s house, with oriental carpets and cushions from Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey as well as with gadgets such as Narghile, a Tea service from Turkey and several books about the Balkans, the Middle East and Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Finally, 17th October arrived and we were ready to go.
The day started at 8:30 am when twelve women (Spanish, French, Dutch, British, South African, Albanian, Portuguese, Macedonian, German, Bulgarian, American, Slovakian…) met up with Iskra at a renown Supermarket in town and took off for a shopping session at Bit Bazaar, the most furnished market in Skopje in the ancient Turkish medina. The goal was to find and buy the Middle Eastern ingredients they needed to cook with Iskra, i.e. chick peas, aubergines, parsley, tomatoes and most importantly, the meat for the cumin and coriander flavoured Middle Eastern kebab . Iskra, who has run her own restaurant for many years here in Skopje, knows where to find and order the best beef in town, obviously from a proper Halal butcher, and where to find convenient parking as well, even at a busy market place!
Once the shopping was completed, it was time for the ladies to reach Eva’s place and get into action. For a start, we all changed into some beautiful jalabiyyas (traditional Arab dress) and then, led by Iskra, while sipping cardamom flavoured Middle Eastern coffee, the real cooking started. It was amazing and relaxing to witness all the talking, chopping, cutting and mixing over some Egyptian music, with the delicious scents of spices and herbs…
Meanwhile, at groups of three or four, the participants also started to look at my pictures in the middle-eastern corner asking me whose faces they were, where from and when
I had lived there. Mainly, they were struck by the intensity of the nature they could perceive from the pictures: from the very strong light of the Punjab where the heat can reach over 50° C in summer) to the seeming harshness of the landscapes and the bleakest winters of the mountain areas(where temperatures can drop down to -25° C).
Talking about those people and landscapes – the Burushaskis of the Hunza valley, the Doms of Chalt and Nagar valleys, the Wakhis to the North, up to China and the Wakhan corridor in Afghanistan; the Kirghizs nomads of the Pamir plateau, the migrations of Pathans traders from the West Frontiers, the Shi’nas in Gilgit, and the Gujhurs in Central Pakistan… Talking about their incredible history, their cultures and traditions, beliefs and legends made me feel as if I was suddenly back there, between those women I had worked with for years, sipping their chai (tea) and perhaps listening to their lullabies surrounded by either the most majestic mountains in the North or the calmer plains of the mainland.
Such was my pleasure in further describing what the pictures already showed that I like to believe that for some few minutes I have taken 12 expat women with me over a fascinating journey through the heart of Central Asia, where they discovered, with surprise and delight, a whole new world until now unknown to the majority of them.
Finally, around 1.30 pm the food was ready and properly laid down on the floor. Plates and bowls full of Humus and Babaganush and a fresh and lavishly green Tabouleh accompanied by Arabic bread and finally a big tray full of roasted Kebab !
Sitting over a large Iraqi carpet and lazily leaning over cushions covered with oriental shawls and middle-eastern khafyaswe finally enjoyed the tasty meal we had prepared under Iskra’s guidance. Soon, the middle-eastern corner was filled up with stories from all the countries we have previously lived in and others were added over those worlds we do not know yet and yet we hope to see one day!
And so it was, that Turkish coffee and Narghile took us to the first afternoon hours when, sad to leave, but happy to have been there, we waved goodbye to this very special day.