When mom life meets hawza life

When mom life meets hawza life

I apologize for not updating the blog in a long time but I’ve been literally taking exams for the past month. And I still have two more to go.

The one thing you learn pretty quickly as a hawza student is that one must always be ready for anything. Like having midterms a week before finals. (Don’t ask)

In between regular life, cram sessions, midterms, wiladat celebrations, fasting, and finals, I have realized life is really what you make of it. There have been days when I feel like just closing my books and quitting hawza. When I first started hawza with Farsi language classes, it didn’t seem so difficult to manage a home life with school. But now as I finish my first term as an official hawza student I’ve gotten just a glimpse into what it takes to learn about Islam.

Our classes are not a joke – Sarf (Arabic grammar), aqaid (beliefs), akhlaq (Islamic code of ethics), tareekh (history), ahkam (Islamic laws of practice), khanvadeh dar Islam (family in Islam), and some classes based on Shaheed Mortaza Motahhari’s books.

Attending classes this term felt like I was quenching this inner thirst. Our teachers opened our eyes to different concepts, helped us realize our true identities as Muslims, and what it means to follow the path we are on. Every time I felt like dropping out, I just told myself it’ll get better.

Our akhlaq teacher was one of the best of the bunch. She started every class with a verse from the Quran and encouraged us to read and understand at least one verse a day.

I didn’t just learn religion this term; I learned life. I learned about sisterhood, overcoming obstacles, prioritizing, keeping a schedule, and that going back to school is never a bad thing.

My kids wonder why I’m still in “school” if I’m a mom. They wonder why I get homework, and if my teachers are nice. I don’t dare do homework on my kids’ time – that’s just asking for trouble. I wait until they’re asleep to crack open the books and feel like an adult again.

Once you’re a parent you get really good at making life work and anything that comes in the way – school, work, etc – gets organized accordingly. You have no choice but to make it work, for your sanity.

It’s been a while since I’ve been back in the school grind, but I have to say I’m enjoying every moment. From getting new notebooks to eyeing the clock for the end-of-class dua, school life is truly magnificent.

The Holy Prophet told us to “seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave,” and I’m humbled with the opportunity to be here learning, and hopefully pass this valuable information to others.

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Missing Qom life

Missing Qom life

It’s summertime and that means a break in the life of a seminary student. 

We have been fortunate enough Alhamdulillah to be able to travel back home to the states every summer since we moved to Qom.

It’s a nice chance to catch up with family and meet new nieces/nephews! 

But I’ll tell you, a small part of me misses Qom life. There’s something about the rat race-life of America that will have you longing for those quiet afternoons and relaxed atmosphere of Qom.

I think my kids’ moods also take a hit whenever we travel back home. All of a sudden they are thrown out of their routines and everything is upside down, from the environment to their bedtimes.

Is it good? Bad? How do we adjust? While I want them to be with their families and learn to live with extended family, I fear the constant bombardment of images/attitudes/thinking that don’t match the lifestyle we have adopted and wish to live by.

At any rate, I believe this is a work in progress. We live and learn, and I pray these life changes make us stronger, with Allah’s guidance and help.

Moving to Qom? Part 2

Moving to Qom? Part 2

So the decision has been made. Do you feel butterflies in your stomach? 

I don’t know how one can explain the feeling – to be honest, I was quite apprehensive. We had 2 little girls and nothing felt sure except this decision. But it’s been a beautiful journey so far, I’ll tell you that. Details of that story will come another day! 

Besides gearing up for this new chapter of talabeh life, one can’t avoid dealing with the mundane materialistic issues of this world. Hey, it’s normal.

So what do you bring? What do you leave? 

First things first, if you can, it’s nice to be able to come to Qom for ziyarat and get a feel for the environment and culture. I know that helped us a lot. 

Now for the lists:

(3,500 tomans equals $1; 3.5 tomans means 3,500, 600 tomans means 600,000, etc.

Please note prices/conversions are in USD and up to date as of this post. Check the conversion rate for any updated change as it tends to fluctuate.)

If you’re like me and bringing children with you to Qom, a few key points: 

  • Kids clothes – are not so great. And if you want good quality, you’re going to pay for it. You’ll find good stuff but mostly in boutique-type stores. (Ex: 13-15 tomans, or around $5 for one pair of cotton infant pants) Pack up to a year’s worth of clothes, and take growth spurts into consideration.
  • Kids toys/books – you aren’t going to find lots of English children’s books. Bring them with you. Good quality toys aren’t cheap. I wouldn’t bring everything, but pack those favorite toys, sets of blocks, stuffed animals, etc. It helps kids feel a bit at home seeing their things.
  • Infant gear – don’t bring it all. Space is usually limited, so if you’re going to use something for only 2-3 months and then be forced to store it, don’t bring it. Usually there’s someone who has what you need that you can borrow from, or maybe a relative can take something back with them. 
  • A good stroller – is essential. Often you’re not going over paved roads, but instead rocks, pebbles and gravel. Get one that is strong and can withstand the bang-ups of travel.
  • Kids essentials – like cups, plates, feeding chairs, etc. Don’t bring a suitcase full, but if they work and you know your kid will use them, bring them. You don’t want to be looking around Qom for a replacement sippy cup.

Now for the list of things not to forget: 

  • Medicines – while you can find pretty much everything you need, pack those specific medications that you are used to, and have tried 
  • Lotions/creams 
  • Vitamins 
  • Special spice mixes (ethnic)
  • Chocolate chips, peanut butter chips, cinnamon chips – if you’re a baker, stock up on these because you can’t find them here.
  • Special baking pans/dishes 
  • Knives
  • Utensils that have served you well and are good quality
  • Silicone baking mats 
  • Maple syrup (it’s not found here, although a few sisters have been successful in mixing up a very delicious substitute)
  • Special drink mixes/fruit snacks/ cereal powders that you and your family prefer

I asked a few friends who recently moved, and they helped me gather some recent costs of general household items –

  • Vacuum (Samsung brand, 300 tomans, or $88) Prices ranged from 250-600 tomans
  • Fridge (Samsung brand, 2.6 million tomans, or around $700) Iranian brands also ranged from 1.6 million tomans and up 
  • Oven (Iranian Snowa brand, 1.3 million tomans or around $380)
  • Washing machine (front loader, a little over 1.3 million tomans or around $400)

So the other common things you’ll be looking for are: 

  • Rugs
  • Sofas/cushions
  • Armoires/dressers/chest of drawers
  • TV
  • Study table
  • Dining table
  • Dishes, pots, pans 
  • Small kitchen appliances 

Since many of us are only living here temporarily, you, or someone you know, will often run into a fellow talabeh who is moving back home and needs to sell their things. 

Divar.ir is also a Craigslist-type site of locals selling their things. It’s in Farsi, though.

Speaking from experience, I wouldn’t dwell too much on making the perfect house. As long as it works, inshallah it will serve your needs. 

You can find almost everything here that you need for your everyday life – from cereal to cocoa powder, sandwich bread to chicken nuggets, frozen veggies to frozen French fries. You can also find foreign brands here but naturally, you will pay the price. 

Cost of common grocery/household items: 

(3,500 tomans equals $1; 3.5 means 3,500)

  • Loaf of bread – 3.5 t 
  • Cheese slices (pack of 8) – 4.5 t
  • 1 liter of milk – 2.5 t
  • Jar of jelly – 5 t 
  • Cream of cheese – 4.4 t
  • 250 g of butter – 5 t
  • Kilo of eggs – 4-5 t
  • Kilo of cut chicken – 5 t
  • Kilo of ground meat – 20-24 t
  • Laundry detergent – (small) 5 t
  • Toilet paper (4 rolls) – 3.5 – 4 t
  • Paper towels (2 rolls) – 4 t

A good rule of thumb is to pack those things that are important/special (i.e. a quilt made by your mom), and those things you can’t find here. Don’t pack your whole house. It’s wise to fill your precious luggage space with those things you won’t find readily here, or that cost significantly more. 

Once you finally come and start settling down, you’ll get a feel for what you don’t need to worry about, and those essentials you’ll be telling your mom to bring when she visits.

Unleashing the baker within

Unleashing the baker within

I never used to be the “cooking/baking type.” Just the occasional brownies-from-the-box or cake-from-the-box. From scratch meant nothing to me.

But then I moved to Qom. The first few weeks were the hardest. My eldest, FZ, was 4 when we moved and she just wanted all those simple comforts she remembered from her life back in the U.S. Like brownies, mac n’ cheese, and cereal.

I had no idea where to begin. We were lucky to run into a grocery store here named Kowsar, which carried cake mixes, brownie mixes, cereal, etc. But when I brought the cake mixes home to give them a whirl, they just didn’t add up to the quality of a good ol’ box of Betty Crocker cake mix. Or a Ghirardelli brownie mix. Oh, how I miss those Ghirardelli brownie mixes!

So I started looking up recipes. My new friends who also came from the West, all talked about making baked items from scratch. They talked about how much better it tasted. I was a little nervous. Baking from scratch meant having a slight idea about textures, temperatures and consistencies. It meant knowing a bit about alternatives and substitutes. It meant having a know-how of the science of baking. That was not me.

But long live the Internet! Partly due to the fact that some ingredients are not readily available in Qom, I was forced to search high and low for good substitutions on my baking adventures. And along the way I found lots of healthy alternatives for dishes I was already baking.

Here are a few tried and true substitutions:

*Note: Start slowly to see how these substitutions affect the taste/consistency of your finished product. Like if a recipe calls for 1/2 cup butter use 1/4 cup cream cheese and 1/4 cup butter.

  • 1/4 cup yogurt = one egg
  • Applesauce = oil/butter (spoon for spoon, except it works better in foods like cakes, brownies and pancakes)
  • Cream cheese = butter
  • Date/grape syrup = sugar/sweetener
  • 2 tbsp. date/grape syrup mixed with 1 cup granulated white sugar = brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp. vinegar mixed with 1 cup milk = buttermilk

Once you start becoming a regular baker from scratch, you start getting lots of ideas and understanding what makes cookies flat and brownies thick. Now making brownies, pancakes and cookies from scratch is part of my regular routine. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Not to mention baking and cooking from scratch means you are able to steer away from those quick-fix ideas that add too many preservatives/additives in your meals.

Here are a few great sites I have come across with wonderful recipes and helpful tips:

Here’s to healthier meals and desserts for my family! And learning new skills along the way!

10 things I love about life in Qom

10 things I love about life in Qom

Since moving to Qom, I get this question a lot:

So, how is life there?

Usually it is asked with a hint of disdain or followed with a sympathetic touch. It’s a common reaction, though.

And because of this I have to remind people that we chose to move to Qom. My husband chose to pursue religious studies at the seminaries here, and that is why we came. Eventually we have to leave. Naturally our experiences here as students from the West will be different from Iranians who have been born and raised in Iran.

I have only been here for about 3 years now, but I am pretty much adjusted. There are a lot of things we take for granted, like just opening the tap and drinking the water, or having a dryer for my clothes. And the biggest thing for me is not being able to see my family – at times it hurts a lot to be so far away. Thankfully there is FaceTime.

The talabe community here from the West can all relate to these issues. So we have become a family for each other. I can’t say I like being away from home, but I am very grateful for the new family Allah has blessed me with here in Qom. We are each other’s support and lifeline. There is always a place to go when your kids are getting bored or when you are feeling homesick. And the best thing is when you are feeling down, they remind of why you are here, and the bigger purpose.

It is said that true friends remind of you Allah. And in that case, I have amazing friends, alhamdulillah!

With that said, here is a short list of 10 things that I love about life in Qom.

1. Lady Masooma e Qom – for all those times you just need a spiritual pick-me-up or some one-on-one time with God. Nothing beats a trip to the Haram. There is always Qur’an being recited, or a lecture. Just the hum of others praying makes you feel at ease. And every bus makes a stop at the Haram.

2. Parks galore – With kids, you always need a place outside of the house to relieve sibling tension/boredom/lack of fresh air. You name it. Qom is filled with parks, small and big. It is so easy to just grab a few snacks and sit down while the kids run around. Not to mention a great idea for a picnic lunch in the spring.

3. Taxis – I don’t drive here, and while I like the bus system, it can be a chore with kids. So thank God for the taxis! Cheap, reliable and all over the place. Not to mention the ladies-only taxi service (with only female drivers) is also a plus, although it can be a bit pricier than regular radio taxis.

4. The corner stores – Back home, a quick run to the store still meant getting in your car, driving a distance, finding a parking spot, etc. Here it literally could mean running to the corner and back. And if you’re lucky, your corner store, or foroushgah, will literally have everything you can imagine all stuffed in a tiny space. It might not be kid-friendly, but it beats driving and parking!

5. Naanwais – Just a guy making fresh bread three times a day. Enough said.

6. The learning environment – There is always something going on. Classes, seminars, conferences. Mostly in Farsi, but you can find them in English, Urdu, and others. And in all kinds of subjects: Akhlaq, marriage, child rearing, ahkam, philosophy, etc. And free. It’s especially nice for people like me – stay-at-home moms with some flexibility. Right now I take a class in the evenings when my husband can watch the kids, and two when he is off from school.

7. Respect for cleanliness – I remember the first time I heard the street sweepers. It was about 1 a.m. and I hear this loud brushing sound outside our bedroom window. Come to find out it is the street sweeper. They come out around midnight or later sweeping the streets. I also appreciate the recycling bins you can find on the sidewalks. Even the haram bathrooms are always being wiped down. (Unfortunately some people don’t take others into consideration, but that’s another thing).

8. Feeling of safety – I can’t say I have ever really felt at harm walking the streets or taking the taxis. Now of course I don’t mean there is no crime here, nor anyone with any evil in their hearts. I mean, just the driving here is insane. But Qom is a relatively safe place. You don’t hear about kidnapping, theft, murder, rape, etc. as commonly as you would in the West.

9. Organic fruits and vegetables – They just taste better. They make my food taste better. My kids like them more than back home.

10. Simple living – Now, of course I say this as a transplant from the West. Life is just simpler here. You aren’t surrounded by so many artificial things, and yes, it is your choice. But even then, there just aren’t that many distractions to begin with. It’s nice to turn on the TV and not worry so much about what you will see. My kids have more opportunities to learn and grow, instead of just burying their heads in their electronics. I have more opportunities to learn instead of just shopping or going out. We eat more healthier at home. I bake from scratch instead of opting for store-bought options. We spend free time going to a park or visiting a friend. A nice treat – not a necessity – means going out to a local fast food place.

While we are here as students the biggest thing on our heads is remembering our purpose here: to educate ourselves and be better prepared to face the world as we spread true Islam’s teachings. We aren’t here to replicate our lives from back home, or surround ourselves with comfort.  Even with our kids, we try to teach them how to live simply. I pray Allah helps all of us in this endeavor, no matter where we are in the world.

A stroller of intrigue and mystery

A stroller of intrigue and mystery

I never knew my double stroller from the states would be such a fascinating object here in Qom. But sometimes when we are walking with our side-by-side double stroller on the streets of Qom, I feel like we are walking with a celebrity.

Heads turn, adults excitedly point, children stare…… it’s interesting, to say the least.

Some locals have even peeked under the canopies to see what we have. Yes, two kids. Hence the double stroller.

My husband thinks that people get nosy because they think we have twins. But clearly you can see my 3.5-year-old daughter and my 1.5-year-old son – are not twins.

It has gotten to the point where we sometimes don’t travel with the double stroller. It’s worth it not to be stared at constantly when it’s not much except a side-by-side stroller.

But I have to remind myself, that although Iranian culture is very warm and friendly, it can be a bit on the intrusive side.

I remember a winter when we were walking towards the haram of Hazrat Masooma, when Marium’s jacket hood must have slipped off. She was being stubborn and didn’t want it back on. I just pulled over the canopy and kept walking. But everyone stopped us!

“Her hood! She’ll catch a cold.”

“She’s going to get sick!”

At first we would politely oblige, but each time Marium would make a bigger fuss. I told my husband we will just politely ignore them. It’s not worth it!

I have to keep reminding myself: They mean well, really.

I got pretty excited when I saw a local baby gear shop with a side-by-side double stroller in the window. Hooray! Now we won’t be the only ones with this “weird” contraption.

I can’t wait to go back to my single stroller days….

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Ziyarat to Mashhad, and a distraction

Sometimes I wonder how much different living in Qom would be if we had come here right after we got married. Don’t get me wrong, I love living here with my kids, but naturally our concerns about moving and settling were very much centered around our kids. Especially my 4-year-old at the time. She was quite fond of her grandparents, aunts and uncle, the “Red Circle Store” (Target), our local Islamic center and her little friends she would meet there.

For that reason we were constantly trying to find ways to keep our eldest happy, while teaching her that less is more, and that distance doesn’t mean you don’t have that person in your life anymore. FaceTime became our new obsession, and she slowly started enjoying certain parts of life in Qom. Like the lights on the streets, for example.

So for me and my husband, ziyarat at the haram of Hazrat Masooma e Qom or at Imam Raza’s haram in Mashhad, was more of a lesson in keeping kids entertained and not whiny. And after a few visits we learned: if we wanted a moment of spiritual peace at the haram, the best way was to do it ourselves.

As a family we have gone to Mashhad four times, yet in the past we have never done anything else except visit the haram and maybe take a few walks to the local bazaars.

This year we decided to spend an extra day and take the kids to the Wakilabad Zoo in Mashhad. And it was a great experience.

It was our first time at a zoo in Iran, and the kids thoroughly enjoyed themselves. There were plenty of animals, pony rides, a bouncy house, and all made more perfect with the nice sunny weather. Admission was 4 tomans per person, and although the kids didn’t need any food, there were plenty of food/snacks/chai stands around the zoo.

One con was the distance of the zoo from the haram area. It was about 30 minutes by taxi, and a return taxi trip cost us 30 tomans. Although we were told of a Metro station that would take us to the zoo, but since we had a stroller to tote around, we just didn’t bother.

While it is important to help the kids understand the religious aspect of ziyarat, they also deserve to be kids. And because of that we made our daily trips to the haram as a family, and then my husband would go on his own, and I would go on my own. It’s especially necessary for us to make time and create our own spiritual breaks.

InshAllah, if you haven’t done so, I hope you all get a chance to visit the zoo in Mashhad and enjoy the experience.