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Rising Above Going Without

Life is a constant series of adjustments. From year to year, from one month to the next, from day to day and hour to hour- all the time, taking note of our surroundings and situations and adjusting, even if it is minutely, for the changes that have taken place both within ourselves and in our environment.

I remember when we first came to Yemen. We lived well below the poverty line when we lived in America, and I yet I thought somehow that when we moved here we would break above its surface due to the huge difference in prices. I found, though, that it really made little or no difference. What we couldn’t afford in America, we couldn’t afford here either. This ended up being a good thing, as it removed from us the burden of not being able to get the things we were used to, and having to adjust to a new style of eating entirely. I’ve always been a “from scratch” cook. I rarely used mixes and prepackaged food seldom made an appearance on our shelves. When I was a single mom, I worked in a natural food co-op so that I could afford to cook in a healthy manner . When I married, I carried this love of simple, wholesome, good food into my family’s life and onto our dinner mat.

Still, there are challenges unique to each area of Yemen I have lived in. For example, the selection of produce is strikingly limited. In general you can buy potatoes, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and hot peppers. In some places at some times of the year, this is supplemented with carrots, okra, eggplant, zucchini,green peppers, arugula, parsley and cilantro. These, along with rice or flour, make up the bulk of our diet. As for fruit, we can usually afford bananas, and sometimes Yemeni apples. We also buy beans and lentils for our protein, with a chicken or some fish every month or two. I have had to make up my own style of cooking to fit into the parameters of what we can find, and what we can afford. Even our baking changed, as eggs were often too expensive to purchase. We came up with egg-free pancakes and cakes that are almost as good as their richer varieties. To put it simply, we adjusted, and because we were used to doing without, we were prepared to experiment and explore our options and do our best with what we could get here.

I find, though, that many people simply don’t understand the meaning of living within one’s means; nor do they understand or recognize poverty. They assume that everyone lives as they do, and don’t appreciate what they have. I remember hearing a sister who has only one child and an income far greater than ours complain about only being able to afford chicken twice a week. In a tiny northern village we lived in, a woman mentioned how hard it was to bake a cake from scratch- by “scratch” she meant with a cake mix. Once I said that I missed peanut butter, and a woman informed me that you could buy it at such and such a store- never thinking that perhaps I simply couldn’t afford it. I am known to be very health conscious, and a sister once criticized me for giving my child some cheese curls instead of grapes. The cheese curls cost the equivalent of five cents, while the grapes were a hundred times that. Feeling guilty already, I snapped back, “It’s because we’re poor, can’t you see that?” and turned away. A few minutes later the sister approached again, tears running down her face, and apologized.

This is difficult for many of us- to open our hearts and minds and really see the situation a person is in, and realize that our idea of things is not always true to the reality of other people. I thought we were financially poor when we were in America, but since coming here I have seen the stark face of true poverty in the faces of children dressed in rags, begging at street corners. I have also seen the poverty of spirit that so often infects those who are used to superficial abundance, as they look down on others, or complain of their comparative wealth.

Perhaps the important thing is not so much adjusting our outer lives to this or that. Perhaps what is more important is making internal adjustments, adjustments to our hearts, allowing more room in them for the twin gifts of gratitude for our blessings and compassion for others who have less than we do. The Prophet Muhammad, may Allaah’s praise and salutations be upon him, said,{There is a lump of flesh in the body- if it is sound and healthy, then the whole body is sound and healthy. And it is the heart.} May Allaah rectify our hearts…

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