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The Sweet Spot in Arabia

March 25, 2014

I have never heard an Arab woman call her sweetheart the Arabic word for honey—or vice versus–even though Arabic is a language with scores of other terms of endearment. I have never read any Arabic children’s stories about goofy bears getting stuck in honey pots, and I’ve never seen honey come in cutely shaped squeezable bottles at the souq. And yet honey is the queen bee of foods in the Arabian Peninsula, specifically in south Saudi Arabia, a region that is on a perennial honeymoon with honey.

Honeycombs at Abha Souq

Honeycombs at Abha Souq

The word honeymoon does in fact exist in Arabic, and women in Arabia prepare for it meticulously, including buying the skimpiest silkies at enough lingerie shops to make Victoria’s Secret wonder who really knows the secret. But the honeymoon is a relatively modern practice and a literal translation based on, depending who your source is, a 16th century British cynic’s observation that marriage is really only joyful for its first moon cycle, an ancient custom of newly married couples imbibing aphrodisiac honey wine (mead), or a Babylonian practice of a groom giving his bride’s father all the mead he can drink during the first month of marriage.

This Babylonian story is closest to home geographically, but under Saudi laws, no one today is making honey wine, at least not legally. Not that honey is without its legal loopholes: Undocumented Yemeni workers have been caught peddling honey from their homeland—legend or desert myth has it that honey smugglers transport coveted Yemeni honey across the border either as is or with other goodies, from weapons to drugs, nestled in its highly prized gooeyness.

Abha Honey Farmer

Abha Honey Farmer

In the souq in the southern Saudi city of Abha, honey is the most competitive product being hocked, with vendors calling out the virtues of the local honey—color, thickness, taste—to veiled women who discreetly lift up their niqabs to take a tasting from the plastic spoon offered to them. Not even dates (as in the food) can compete for attention. People will go by chickens being de-feathered and piles of greens, but just like the flies, they can’t ignore the honeycombs on the sidewalk.

I read somewhere once that along with the Germans, the Saudis are the world’s biggest consumers of honey. But I never thought of honey as an art form until I got to the Abha souq. After sampling a few, we discovered that every beekeepers honey has its own color, texture, and nuanced sweetness—and sometimes even its own bite and acquired taste.

Honey shops across the Middle East will tell you that the best stuff comes from Yemen, from the sidr tree. It often costs three times as much as other types in the region, even more than the much-loved samar honey, which is culled from a thorny tree the blooms for only a month or so. What Gucci and Pucci are to the Dubai Mall, samar and sidr are to the world of honey, both luxurious in complexity and alleged through their rich minerals and vitamins to prevent cancer, skin disease, hair loss, weight gain and diseases yet to be discovered. I’ve been recommended honey at different stages in my life to resolve dry hair, acne, headaches, cramps, and insomnia. (As a hair or face mask, messy, messy)

Yemeni Honey Vendor

Yemeni Honey Vendor

Samar honey, which comes in various shades of gold, is sweet and light, stuff you can easily understand Winnie-the-Pooh trying to score. But with the red-toned sidr honey, my first spoonful was like medicine, a layered pungency with an overpowering smell that made me say “yuck” out loud.

People seemed genuinely offended by my reaction. To be fair, it was just that sidr. It was thick and slightly waxy, which I learned fro a Saudi honey seller meant that it was processed, not raw. Sitting with his honeycombs, he offered a sampling of his sidr honey, which was thin and lush and melted on your tongue like butter on a hot day. (The weather in Abha is actually not that hot because of the altitude)

The local version of butter is indeed honey’s sweetheart here. “Every morning we eat honey with samna,” a Saudi painter with a studio in Abha told me. Samna is clarified butter or ghee from sheep’s milk. It is definitely an acquired taste I didn’t wish to acquire beyond the first try. At the souq, the samna is sold in mosaic-patterned containers or in skin sacks the size of small lambs.

For all the honey of Arabia, there is little creativity in its culinary use in Abha: It is simply the kick to various forms of bread and porridge, which are topped with honey –and often samna. The breads and porridges are not sold at the souq, but many originate from the valley’s rich wheat fields.

Selling Samna sacks and Jars

Selling Samna sacks and Jars

When I brought home the Abha honey and put it up against the other honeys in the kitchen, it was, as the vendor I finally settled on promised, so much richer than the others, not in color or thickness but in the purity—not sugary, not waxy, just a sweet flowery, lively smooth spoonful that takes one to a green field somewhere, full of sophisticated gradations of flavor and life.

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How Dubai Stollen Christmas

December 21, 2013

Bloodshed, flooding, people fleeing persecution, the fodder of biblical stories from the Holy Land.  Only sadly they’re not ancient stories trotted out for the Christmas season. They are present day Christmastime in the birthplace of Christmas.  But Noel in its current incarnation is supposed to be about fun.  And really, why shouldn’t it be? A virgin birth isn’t a downer, after all.  But this season’s headlines from Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, those places that fill up religious texts, are hardly the stuff that make you want to decorate cookies and write a letter to Santa Claus asking for a new Xbox One.  You can understand why Christmas-celebrating people around the world choose to tune out the modern day Holy Land stories.  They are not fun.

Stollen Day

Stollen Day

But there is a part of the Middle East that didn’t make it into the holy books, where not only is it peaceful enough for one celebrate the holiday season, one is encouraged to do so.  By shopping.  I love Christmastime in Dubai. The weather is the usual sunny stuff but the heat is pleasantly mild, and the humidity is usually on holiday somewhere else.

If you’re more hardcore about needing a Christmas TV special atmosphere, there are the heavily air conditioned malls, which year round feel like a blizzard is just around the corner.  Plus, the malls are festooned with some of the best Christmas decorations south of the North Pole, including the finest fake snow and ice on earth. Certainly enough that Santa Claus feels at home at Dubai’s Christmas parties.  And if you insist on real manmade snow, there is the indoor ski slope, transformed into an Alpine Christmas village. (Normally, it’s just an Alpine village where the snow never melts.)   Forget Moses crossing the desert—in Dubai, he’d do it in style and without breaking a sweat.

Best of all, not far from the ski slope, there is stollen day at the Mall of the Emirates, when tables as far as the eye can see from Harvey Nichols down past Tiffany’s and beyond, are lined with stollen. People in elf hats even offer us free stollen samples, this sweet roll that is the greatest invention of Germany after cars and gummy bears.  Dubai Christmas follows the city’s principle of do it big or don’t do it at all.  It can’t be a little fun.  It should be a lot of fun.  It can’t be 100 stollen but rather hundreds.  Dubai does birthday parties big, no matter whose  birthday we’ve decided to celebrate.

The religious has been deleted from Christmas—there is no devout imagery, no crèches, no wise men.  Just wise shoppers.  And some reckless ones, too.  No pretense of anything else but keeping Christmas commercially honest. Competition between the blinding number of sales signs and billboards and the Christmas decorations is friendly and beneficial to both.

This isn’t to say that Christmas doesn’t bring out the best in Dubai.  Profits from the stollens are for charity.  And the festive season builds some multicultural community fun for everyone, including for those who can’t afford most of the items the malls, which in reality is the majority of the population.  Including the workers who built the malls and the team making the stollens, who are Filipinos not Germans.  No one talks about the floods in the Philippines or other troubles in the rest of the world and we all get along.  Indeed, in this country where 100% of the native population is Muslim but every religion invented has people living here, the absence of religious depictions works out great.  Without the religious icons on display, everyone joins in the true spirit of fun and oblivion without feeling left out on faith grounds.

Stollen Charity

Stollen Charity

I heard a story once that the shape of a stollen represents the hump on the camel caravans that carried presents to Jesus when he was born. The dried fruit and raisins represent the jewels and gifts.  Who knows if there is any truth to that stollen story, but if you need a gift, there are plenty of places to get one here. And if you’re looking for a camel, better to exit the mall and go to the Al Dhafra Camel Festival, which at this time is gearing up for the camel beauty pageant.  And for a while you can forget about camels and people elsewhere who 2,000 years later still need a caravan to bring them good news. Now that’s a holiday season everyone can hope for.

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Rooftops

November 24, 2013

An Algerian film by celebrated Algerian director Merzak Allouache called Rooftops was probably my favorite film at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival this year.  Of the films I saw, it’s the only one that kept my full attention.  Just like rooftops get my full attention in real life, especially in the Mediterranean areas of the once Arab/Moor empire.  Rooftops is about life as lived and viewed from the rooftops of Algiers.  People live, eat, sleep, fall in love, and kill themselves and others on rooftops.  That’s the Arab flair/flaw for melodrama in art and life.  Or if I were to do an ad campaign for them, I’d have a peppy announcer say rooftops are fun and informative places to get to know your neighborhood, with a little Flamenco music playing in the background as we watched a lady get confused while she watched a gay couple fighting three rooftops away as she hung up laundry.  In real life, I was the one watching the lady watching the couple.  I was watering plants.  Laundry, watering plants and carpet beating are the great “no excuse required” reasons for being on rooftops.    Palace

Granada's most famous rooftop

Granada’s most famous rooftop

In the past month, I’ve been to places with great rooftop viewing—Granada, Tangier, and Amman. From these rooftops, we know where life is more organized, what people eat, what they wear at home, who they hang out with.  We know where life is more regulated by what is openly allowed on rooftops, more “modern” if you will, and especially more aware of where TV is still king by the number of satellite dishes obstructing our views of each other.

I used to think as a kid in Beirut the best part of being a maid—maybe the only good part—would be hanging the laundry.  That’s when she could be on the rooftop or its poorer sister, the balcony –in fresh air—mixing with the othcloseup

Carpet Cleaning in Tangier

Carpet Cleaning in Tangier

er people inhabiting the neighboring rooftops.  I know this because I used to watch the maid across the way hang laundry while I hung laundry for my mom.  We both had our own music on our portable radios, but I still could see there were specific people she kept track of, including a guy always fixing a broken bike.  So I started to keep track of what she was keep track of.  I knew she was in love with the bike guy.  But rooftops don’t tell everything.  I never k

jordanroof

Waiting for Bus in Amman

new if she got to see him other than when she was hanging laundry. The rooftop w

as also where we had to drag my aerospace obsessed brother away from perfect views of air raids.

lookingatSpain

Morocco Looking at Spain

Windows are not the same. Take Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant Rear Window.  Jimmy Stewart was a voyeur looking into people’s apartments,

olive

Olive Groves from the Roof

being nosey.  But on a rooftop, you’re doing your life’s business, so you have a natural cover story.  Your voyeurism is legitimized.  They are the best observation points—not just for the military reasons of the great forts of Andalusia, but for observing everyone else’s business while doing your business.  I like that clothes dryers are still not the norm in this region because it gives us a chances to be on rooftops.

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BEING THE LUXURY ITEM OF A BRAND

November 5, 2013

I once asked the editor of the liberal newspaper where I was doing my undergraduate internship in Minneapolis to write a letter of recommendation for me.  The recommendation was sealed and it was a couple of years later before I would come across it in my file at work.

I had assumed the reference letter would be spectacularly glowing.  And it was, but not in the way that I had expected.  At 20-years old, I had come in as an intern but ended up  doing investigative pieces that landed more than once on the cover.  This was because soon after arriving, I was quickly asked to field the story leads that were intended for the paper’s star reporter, who had gone into rehab for longer than his usual time.  The other star reporter had quit because she wanted to have a life.  The rest of the staff specialized in arts coverage.  That just left the eager-to-prove-herself intern.  I dug deep and developed stories on a family crushed by mental illness,

One Brand Fits All

One Brand Fits All

Haitian drug dealers stuck in Minnesota prisons, and I interviewed the patients of the first heart and lung transplants in the world, who shared their stories publically for the first time with me.

None of that was mentioned in the letter of recommendation.  Instead, the editor wrote three moving paragraphs about how impressed she was with me–not with my stories but with my ability to do the stories at all– being as I was Muslim female.  I do not believe I ever once talked to her about religion nor do I remember anyone asking me about my religion.  Obviously, my Arab ethnicity came up always with the inevitable question, “What an interesting name.  Where did it come from?”  But there were never questions about my religion.  At least not in front of me.  And I wore no physical manifestations of my religion, and religion, mine or anyone else’s, wasn’t a subject I found remotely engaging at the time.  This was also years before 9-11, when you rarely even heard the word “Muslim.”

Yet I had been branded: a Muslim female, i.e. the most pitied female brand.  The editor wrote of how she had so much admiration for how I, a young Muslim female, could talk to just about anyone, even the strippers and hookers I befriended for a story.  Perhaps I was slightly shy around men but that was understood, implicit in my religion’s shunning of women—at least that’s what the subtext pretty clearly said.

So there was purity implied in my Muslimness—that explained why I wouldn’t be exposed to strippers and hookers as a Muslim, and I would get flustered around men.  If anyone had asked me, I could have told her Christians don’t have the domain on prostitution.  There are Muslim hookers out there.  But I wouldn’t have mixed with them either under normal circumstances.  Because I had grown up in middle class neighborhood that weren’t the chosen milieu for hookers, at least not publically, whatever their religion.  My face turned red talking to handsome men because I was a chubby girl with low self-esteem from years of fat jokes—Muslims make those, too.  I was glad, though, the editor appreciated how I dressed professionally, because somehow, I read between the lines, I had some fashion sense that didn’t involve a black cloak.

She admired me—I was an exclusive, limited edition designer brand of Muslim female, the token one who wasn’t afraid to break away from my oppression and work as a journalist who talked to non-Muslims.  I was brave, yes.  But so would any shy young woman who did those stories.  But it was my defiance of my religion, which I didn’t even know I was defying, that made me brave in her eyes. Proof that it is possible for one black cloth not to fit all.

I leaned more at that newspaper than in any of my classes that year, including the lessons from the abused women in homeless shelters whose stories I told.  (I never mentioned the religion of those women in those articles.  They were not Muslims, though.)  But I taught no one anything.  Because I didn’t know I was a poster girl for Muslim Women We Admire, and that we (the deprived sisterhood of Muslim women that I didn’t even know existed, let alone was a member of) are all viewed as an inferior brand and in need of saving and rebranding, unlike other types of women.

I hadn’t thought about this in years.   Until I saw this article by Lila Abu Lughod http://ideas.time.com/2013/11/01/do-muslim-women-need-saving/

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Ya Tair al-Tayer (Oh Bird in Flight)

October 20, 2013

It’s plane…No, it’s a bird…No, it’s a bird on a plane…

At the Amman airport yesterday, I ran into an old childhood friend and her family. Coincidence as neither one of us lives in Amman.  Then we all ran into Arab Idol winner Mohammad Assaf and posed for a photo with him.

My Fellow Passenger

My Fellow Passenger

Small world that got smaller when I realized 14 of the passengers on my return flight to Abu Dhabi had also been on my flight to Amman.  Eleven of them were sitting in business class when I boarded.  There was no mistaking them. Handsome dudes, I thought.  But I was about to learn they weren’t dudes when three of them got bumped down to coach.

It was a full flight, and I had thought I was lucky having the only empty middle seat, which lay bare between me and the Islamic fundamentalist on the other side, each of us sizing up who would claim the seat as his or her storage space.

But then one of the three bumped down from business flapped its wings as it crawled over me with its trainer and claimed the seat with a spray of pee (bird not trainer).  I didn’t scream or demand to be bumped up like the lady in the emergency row in front of me when the other two downgraded falcons joined her.  After all, the rearranging of these falcons had already delayed the flight almost an hour and their poop, which sparkled down the aisle, was beginning to stink.

Normally I respect that the person sitting next to me on the airplane probably doesn’t want to talk with me.  But with the trainer carefully petting the falcon on his arm, so that we could take off without any hysteria, I couldn’t resist.

Just as I had heard Mohammad Assaf, also in business class, far from his home in Gaza, ask his friend how it is that falcons travel business class, I asked the trainer what they had been doing in Jordan.  Unlike Assaf, I have lived in the Gulf long enough to know how venerated the falcon is—symbol of the UAE and the falcon hospital is one of the top medical facilities in the country.  The trainer, who was dressed like an Emirati but was actually Bangladeshi, said they had been hunting in Jordan.  But sometimes they hunt in Saudi, Pakistan, many places.  Syria used to be good but now too much hunting of people.  Their favorite hunting spot is Morocco.  Our conversation proceeded with a mix of pigeon Arabic and English.  I can’t resist using the word pigeon because that was what the falcon had for breakfast, one pigeon a day.

Movie Time

Movie Time

Baggage Claim

Baggage Claim

We were joined in our conversation by the Muslim fundamentalist, who wasn’t really a fundamentalist but a charming, bright science professor.  The falcon didn’t say much, just pooped on the floor and on the trainer’s dishdash from time to time and turned HER head very now and then as if that might help HER see through HER leather blinders.

Indeed one of the first things we learned from the trainer was that female falcons are the real hunters.  Bigger and more focused than the male falcons.  (This reminds of a turtle I met in South Africa, but that is a different story.)  The trainer told us his falcon was one of the top ones in the group.  She was eight months old.  He had been taking care of her since she was born, and I don’t think he could love his own child more. This falcon wouldn’t be having any babies until she was three or four and she would probably live to be around 10-years old, the age he was when he began learning the falcon training trade.  She was worth $50,000, and maybe one day would be worth as much as $280,000, like falcon that a friend of his boss had.

Waiting to Board

Waiting to Board

We also learned that the bird has full medical check up once a week.  This was his indignant response to both the professor and I declining lunch service.  I was thinking about the falcon pooping digested pigeon and remembering avian flu, but the falcon apparently was getting better health care than we were.  We still didn’t eat, though.

The falcon is a majestic, beautiful thing, like the adorable babies that you sometimes find yourself next to on flights.  But when take off and landing freaks them out and you can’t get the smell of their poop off of you, then some of the majestic charm is gone.   I don’t remember too many of the babies I’ve sat next to—but I’ll always remember my two trips with this lady and her personal trainer.  I wondered if Mohammad Assaf was humming his hit Ya Tair al-Tayer (Oh Bird in Flight) for the other eight ladies still in business class.

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Ketching Up With Freedom

September 14, 2013

Freedom is the gotcha word of the Middle East decade—it’s the reason everyone is claiming to be helping—i.e. bombing, maiming, spying on and killing–everyone else.  The definition of freedom (and its purpose) is a little vague under the circumstances.  But I was set straight this past summer.

ketchup

Ketchup in Jordan

I was on an airplane and sitting next to me was a 10-year old boy, born and raised in Houston, but his parents were born in Jordan.  It was a 10-hour flight and he had already seen all the inflight movies as he explained to me at length with a synopsis of each.  Thus, any time he could find a way to get me to play a video game with him or talk, he jumped at the chance.  My freedom was gone.

Generally speaking, I allow myself to lose very quickly at video games, mostly so I can stop playing them.  But at one point I was doing well despite myself.  So to break the game I started asking him questions.  This kid had answers for everything and so I was out of the game and into discussion.

After he told me he visits Jordan every other summer to see cousins, aunts and uncles, I asked him if he liked Jordan or Texas better.

“Texas for sure,” he said without hesitation.

I asked him why and he replied,  “It’s fun seeing family because we don’t have many relatives in Houston.  But there is a lot more freedom in the US.”

Apparently we moved from Temple Run to a discussion about how relatives in Jordan butt into your business all day or a socio political discussion.  “How is there more freedom in the US?” I ventured.

He shrugged like it was obvious.  “In Jordan at the McDonald’s you have to pay for the extra ketchup,” he said.  “In Houston you can have as much ketchup as you want and it is free.”

“At McDonald’s you mean?” I said.

“It’s free everywhere in America,” he said.  “Don’t you know that?”

I actually didn’t.  But now I do.  Or maybe I just never thought about ketchup beyond my French fries.  Forget heavily loaded uses of freedom, like Freedom Fries, which free ketchup services.  This boy made freedom simple—unless you want to ask yourself what gives McDonald’s the right to charge people in one country for ketchup and not in another.

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Saudi Sombreros

August 6, 2013
AsirWomen

Bargaining

And the lady in the big hat is….?

Having a bargaining competition at the souq over the

CuttingVeggies

Herbs of the Day

Selling hats and ghee

Selling hats and ghee

price of a heavy Yemeni clay pot with a woman covered in black,

including her face and hands, is not easy—you can’t hear what she’s saying through her niqab so well and you’re not sure what she’s thinking about your price offer because her only visible body part, her eyes, are already squinting from the sun.

And when she’s wearing a sombrero on top of all that….she wins.  Your whole Middle East fashion sense is turned upside down and the price of the clay pot is less important than asking her where did she—and all the other ladies at the souq—get that hat because the black scarf on your head is sucking up all the sun and you wish you had that glorious large hat to shield you from its menace.

Perhaps the more accurate question would be, “When did you get that abaya and niqab?”  (The Arabic words for the black robe and face cover).  Because in ‘Asir, in southeastern Saudi Arabia, the straw hat i

HoneySelller

Yemeni Honey Seller

s traditional, not the abaya and niqab.

Clothes are politics, and in Asir, a fertile, mountainous beautiful part of the world, the abaya and niqab only started to be worn by women in the 1970s when ‘Asir’s rulers were asked to come closer to following the dictates of the national government in order to receive funding for modernization.  Modernization ironically enough included covering up their women.  The covering up was only a physical manifestation of an increase in the embrace of the Saudi government’s definition of Islam that exists here today in combination with its more liberal past.

Retired School Teacher

Retired School Teacher

Asir Souq

Asir Souq

Ibrahim

This is home to a vibrant artist colony, the only one in Saudi Arabia, a place where a young painter looked at me fiddling to get my hijab to stay in place and said, “Just take it off.  You’re making a mess of it.”  On the other hand, this is also a center of militant Islam.  “When I was in Afghanistan…” a Saudi farmer casually started in response to a question related to the article I was working on.  He also pointed to my headscarf to let me know a piece of hair was sticking out—not okay.  Had I asked why he had been in Afghanistan, the answer wouldn’t have been to paint the mountain vistas.  Plenty of those at home in ‘Asir.

But in the honey scented souq of the capital city of Abha, business is business—and the price of vendor’s prized goods—spices, dates, clay pots, goat–is negotiable, and you win if you’re the one confident in what you’re wearing.  I am not very confident in an abaya and hijab.  Still, I was able to capture some of these faces and lack there of, in this most beautiful and fascinating of places.

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