A Gluten Free Vegetarian Visits Egypt

I am back from Egypt, and what an adventure! You can see lots of photos on my Facebook page, so please take a look, and leave your comments. The best part of the trip, of course, was spending time with my remarkable daughter Lily, briefly getting to be part of her new and very full life there, and meeting her wonderful, brilliant, passionate, international group of friends and colleagues. They very generously and optimistically included me in all their activities, so I got to live like a 20-something (sort of) for 8 days. Lots of socializing, great meals (more on that below), sitting by the Nile or hanging out at cafes, while friends smoked sheesha (water pipes) and we all sipped Egyptian tea. And of course, the amazing tourist stuff: the Pyramids, the Sphinx, the Egyptian Museum, Islamic Cairo, the dazzling open markets, and the Red Sea (all in my photos). From the perspective of street life and night life, too, Cairo leaves NY in the dust: it is truly a city that never sleeps.

From a health perspective, my trip was interesting on two counts. First, I have turned into such a country girl, and being in Cairo made NYC seem like a garden party. Air pollution is 5 times worse than NY, and about 10-20 times levels deemed acceptable by WHO, depending on the season. After a few days, my nose was runny and my skin was breaking out for the first time in decads, despite bringing my detox stuff and extra anti-oxidants. While those were both signs that my body was getting rid of toxins as best it could, it sure didn’t feel good. Yoga helped, but I didn’t have a time or place to practice every day. Mega doses of Vitamin C helped a lot. Once I was home, I spent the first couple of days doing MAJOR detox work on myself, clearing out exhaust fumes, particulate matter, heavy metals, and generally doing repair on all my organs and mucous membranes. Life is back to normal for me, yet I am concerned not only for my daughter, but for the millions of people who live in Cairo and other equally unhealthful cities around the world.

Second, the trip raised prickly and provocative issues about food. I was well aware that hospitality is a very big issue there, and that to refuse offered food would be rude, a poor reflection on me, on Lily, and on Americans in general. On the other hand, I am both gluten-sensitive, and a vegetarian, neither of which I expected to be understood there. My vegetarianism was a choice made not for health but as an extension of my yoga practice, one of the facets being the principle of Ahimsa, or non-harming. In fact, I had never been fully convinced that being a vegetarian was indeed truly healthier, but it felt right to me spiritually. On the other hand, eating gluten makes me extremely ill. And if I had any doubts about that, a recent experience at a restaurant laid them to rest, when I unknowingly ate wheat, and had a blasting headache, a rash, and a serious case of the blahs for four days. So I decided that the right thing to do was to eat whatever animal foods were served me, giving higher priority to not harming people, and to try to explain that gluten would make me sick and I couldn’t eat that at all.

I lucked out the first meal out because one of Lily’s colleagues is a medical doctor from Iraq and when I started explaining that I couldn’t eat wheat, he lit up with recognition and announced “Celiac Disease!”. (I learned from him that all medical training in Iraq is done in English). Not only that, but his brother had been diagnosed with CD, so he was both personally and professionally familiar with the problem, and was able to explain to others along the way.

So, figuring I was way ahead of the game there, I was actually curious to see what it would be like to eat meat again. It didn’t help my appetite any to see whole slaughtered pigs, sides of cows, etc. hanging in doorways in the 90 degree heat, often covered with flies. (I’ll spare you the photos.) I should note that I wasn’t worried much about disease, as I felt confident I’d be able manage that with homeopathy, herbs and detox kinesiolgoy. After all, I’d already made it through India without getting sick.

For many meals, we ate simply: faoul (beans), baba ganoush, tahini, okra, salads, and lots of fresh fruit. But almost every day, I also had chicken or beef. Our next-to-last night, we were invited for dinner by the family of one of Lily’s friends. She had never been invited to his home before, and understandably did not feel comfortable making special dietary requests. I was worried that they would graciously heap my plate with foods I would be unable to eat, but I figured I’d deal with it when it happened.

Our hosts were Lily’s friend Amr’s dad, who worked in tourism and spoke excellent English, and his mom, a lawyer, who did not. We sat in the living room for a couple of hours first, talking about politics, culture, education – I enjoyed such wonderful conversations on my trip! When we were finally invited to go to the dining room and sit down, I couldn’t believe my good fortune! There must have been a dozen different dishes, all beautifully prepared and laid out for us, and not one of them had gluten! All I had to do was refuse the bread, and the desserts (oooh, that was hard!). You can see pictures of the feast on FB.

So – how did it all turn out? Let me put it this way. When I first inform a client about a food sensitivity, I use this analogy: it’s like a pool of water. When the pool is dirty, throwing in another clump of dirt isn’t even noticeable. Once you clean up the pool, and it is crystal clear, if you throw in that same clump of dirt, it is shockingly apparent. Well, that’s kind of the experience I had eating meat, much to my own surprise. It wasn’t anything terribly dramatic, perhaps, but as someone who is very tuned in to my body, the changes were clear. My body smelled different, and not in a good way, my stool smelled absolutely foul, which it shouldn’t, and usually doesn’t, (sorry if that’s tmi, but I talk about potty stuff with clients all the time – it’s essential), and my digestion became much more sluggish, despite all the veggies, beans, fruit, and probiotics. It took five days home and, again, a lot of detox, to feel back to normal.

So what are my conclusions? This reluctant vegetarian is now fully committed to being a non-flesh eater, and certain it is in fact healthier as well. Yes, you have to work harder to balance every meal and snack, and to get enough high quality protein, but it’s very possible, certainly here in this country where we have such an easy abundance of choices.

Sometimes, just as with my clients and their food sensitivities, you have to experience both sides, seesaw back and forth a bit, in order to know with conviction what is right for you. I certainly don’t expect all my clients to give up meat, and I don’t have any judgment about whether they do or don’t. My job, which I love, is to guide and support you in making the best choices for your health, working with what is right for you, in your unique circumstances. Going back to one of my heroes, Michael Pollan, I join him in saying “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.”

2 thoughts on “A Gluten Free Vegetarian Visits Egypt

  1. Hi!

    It’s lovely to see someone write about Egypt from a dietary perspective. While I am not vegetarian myself (though I only eat chicken and that too, once in a while), I struggle majorly as I have been teaching and living there for 2 years now. Did you find any pointers as to where to get gluten-free items? I’m looking to make that change myself.

    Thanks for blogging!


    1. Sorry, I wish I could help, but don’t have a clue. I felt fortunate that I was with Egyptians who understood my dietary restrictions and were able to help me navigate, both at private homes and at restaurants.


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