Archive for July, 2010

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Question My Name, but Don’t Call Me Overweight

July 30, 2010

The latest Southwest fat incident, this time with an obese teen getting to keep her two seats, even though her parents didn’t pay for them, and the smaller person getting bumped off, reminded me that yes, I too have my own Southwest fat story, and quite frankly it was more frustrating and certainly more physically grueling than all the times I’ve been pulled aside for a “random security check.”  My story happened several years ago, when I flew from Albuquerque to LA on Southwest, squeezed between a hefty longshoreman and a nearly 400-pound prison chef.
When I got on that plane, I was the last person to board, a mistake I haven’t made since.  I went up and down the aisle, but couldn’t find a seat to sit in.  I told the flight attendant, and she walked up with me until we can to a row with the above-mentioned prison chef and longshoreman.
“This is the only seat left on the flight,” she said, although she couldn’t see a seat anymore than I could for the flesh overflowing on to Seat B.

“Seriously?” I told her and the two men, already crammed in with three seats between them, nodded in agreement with me.

“Well, it’s this or wait for the flight that leaves in five hours,” she said.  “Now gentlemen, if you could just help me shove her in.”

And so the prison chef at the window undid his seat belt and banged his head into the window as he reached to drag his rolls of fat as far away from Seat B as he could.  The longshoreman, who at around 200 pounds was relatively small, stood up while I sat down and then he put my backpack on my lap for me.  When he sat back down and the prison chef let his fat down, so it plopped onto my lap with my backpack.  Forget armrests. I could barely breath and we were all sweating from the body heat. The flight attendant turned on the fan above me.  “There, isn’t that better now,” she smiled as we all continued to break out in sweat.

“Well, this is a threesome I never dreamed up,” said the prison guard and introduced himself with an apology.  He was so friendly, you couldn’t be pissed off at him not being thinner, which is actually what the longshoreman told him.
When they announced that we would be taking off soon, I panicked, realizing I couldn’t reach for my seatbelt.  “Don’t worry, sweetheart, you’re not going anywhere,” the prison chef told me.  It was true, I was too trapped between blubber to even move my hands.  “And if we crash, I’m the most padded life vest you’ve ever flown with.”

“I guess I can’t read my book,” I mumbled politely, remembering that so many people in this world are afraid to travel next to people with names like mine.

“Well, then let’s make small talk so we don’t think about how friggin’ hot we are,” he said.

And so the two of them told me all about their jobs, and I learned that Butterball Turkey has less processing and chemicals in it than Butterball chicken slices.  That’s why the chef preferred to serve the inmates turkey and why I should stick with my hatred of chicken.  When we’d run out of small talk, the longshoreman placed a magazine on my lap and we all shared it, with him turning the pages when each of us was done, as I couldn’t move my hands–I have to say, it was a turbulent flight apparently, but I didn’t feel a bump.
At the end of the flight, the attendant gave me a $100 voucher, although it expired long before I had the courage to take a Southwest flight again or go to Albuquerque.  But at that moment, I had a solution to this whole overweight passenger thing that I wish someone would pay attention to.

I do not make fun of fat people because I know what it feels like for those who aren’t comfortable with being overweight—I was a fat teen that was so hounded and ridiculed and I was so scarred by it all that I have never stopped seeing a fat person in the mirror, so I don’t mean what I say next for purposes of chub-chub humor.  But I want to scream every time I go to check in for a flight, and the ticket agent declares, “You’re five pounds overweight.  Either you have to pay $100 or find a way to get five pounds into your carry on.”  Of course, I end up doing the latter, risking back and shoulder injury as I drag myself to the gate, and in the absurdity of it all,  I find myself far more upset by these incidents rather than when being pulled aside because of my Middle Eastern name—suspect me of being terrorist, okay, that is about national security, but calling me overweight, not okay.

First off, how am I taking any less on the flight, if I’ve taken the five pounds out of one bag and put it in another?  And why are they risking passenger backaches over such illogic?  But most importantly, why am I overweight while the person sitting next to me, often weighing a good 50 to 100 pounds more than me is not?  He and his carry on together are double my weight, and I’m the one being told I’m too heavy and need to pay $100?  What airlines need to do is set a goal weight:  Choose a number, say 220 1bs (because that makes an understandable even 100 kilos for foreign passengers), and everyone has to come in at less than 220 pounds, luggage included.  That’s logical and fuel efficient and it’s not fat discrimination, as people are now being asked to buy two tickets at a certain weight in any case, and it would promote people to travel lighter and who knows, might even help inspire some people to deal with the excess baggage they always carry with them.  But I really don’t want another airline employee telling me I’m overweight—that’s just false, judgmental and hypocritical.

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Weather or not? Not Just Small Talk

July 22, 2010

I’ve been back in the US for a month now.  And, just as it is for Fatima’s children in “The Night Counter,” weather seems the first thing people want to talk about, people who aren’t even estranged relatives who can’t think of anything else to say to me.  Everyone–friend, foe and stranger–wants to talk about how hot it is.  Everyone but me.  Not that I don’t remember the days of having really good weather conversations.  But then I moved to Abu Dhabi.  Perhaps just as we often can’t think of anything else to talk about with estranged relatives, weather itself is relative.

Weather or Not: Humidity on an Abu Dhabi Morning

I spent most of the first month of my trip back in Virginia, where temperatures were hovering at 100 degrees.  While thinking I love this balmy weather, and everyone else around me is flustered, mumbling about humidity indexes and looking for lemonade all the time.
There was a time I would have been right in there with the conversation.  But honestly, you don’t know hot weather until you know Abu Dhabi hot.  A place so hot that air conditioners have to be kept on 24 hours a dayfor about six months with windows firmly shut or within less than hour you’ll see green mold spreading on your window.  So humid that the minute you step out the door, your glasses are blinded by humidity. So sunny that most people can’t see without their shades, so you have to scammer from building to car to building with those fogged up shades. So polluted that asthma attacks go way up and no one goes out if they don’t have to.  The dominant smell in the air is unbearable multi-cultural body odor. And looking good, forget it–dripping, red-faced, hair so frizzed out it looks like it was plugged into an electrical socket, and perhaps another reason the abaya and shayla is favored by women here. While it doesn’t spare you from the heat, at least it spares you some of its wrath, like sunburns, which I suspect was the origination of the local dress code.
But most people don’t know Abu Dhabi hot, not even an Iraqi professor I met up with  in New York who told me New York is an amazing city if just wasn’t so hot.  “You, too?”  I said.  “But Iraq has temperatures way higher than this.” “But it’s a dry heat,” he reminded me, reaching out for the hot air as if he could catch it while I looked upon it as a cool breeze.
I don’t question how native people in Abu Dhabi survive today, just like I don’t deny the scary aspects of weather not related to temprature, like tornadoes, but when my Abu Dhabi students claim to be weak or unable to do something, I remind that they come a formidable gene pool because it somehow survived this desert without any form of relief for centuries.  Today of course, there is almost no reason for them to ever be away from air conditioning.  If they do need something that requires them to be outside, like constructing a building or watering a garden, they can hire a foreigner who comes from a town so poor that he’d rather suffer the weather than no house for himself and his family.  Thus, the hot weather becomes relative to poverty.
But even the poorest person in Abu Dhabi gets to sleep in air conditioning and that’s not always the case the US, where air conditioning doesn’t seem like a financially wise or possible solution to dealing with relatively extreme heat, especially when an investment has to also be made in relatively extreme cold later in the year.  Just like for those construction workers in Abu Dhabi, weather is not small talk–it is life and death at the worst and extreme discomfort at the best.  So while I’m loving being back in relatively glorious weather, my thrill at being able to be outdoors is actual a relative privilege, just like it is to have family, whether or not you can think of anything to say to each other besides, “Hot enough for you today?”

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THE PAPERBACK RELEASE OF THE NIGHT COUNTER THIS WEEK

July 16, 2010

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                    Contact: Emily Lavelle
(212) 572-8756
elavelle@randomhouse.com

PRAISE FOR THE NIGHT COUNTER:
“[Yunis] weaves a colorful tapestry…rich in character and spirit.” —Entertainment Weekly

“Wonderfully imaginative…poignant, hilarious…The branches of this family tree support four generations of achievement, assimilation, disappointment, and dysfunction.…Their stories form an affectionate, amusing, intensely human portrait of one family.”
—Boston Globe

“Little pigs and lost siblings make for decent bedtime story fodder. But the life and times of Fatima Abdullah, the madcap matriarch of Alia Yunis’s charming debut, The Night Counter, is even better.” —Daily Candy

“The Night Counter, Alia Yunis’s first novel, mixes equal parts of magical realism, social commentary, family drama and lighthearted humor to create a delicious and intriguing indulgence worth savoring.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

The Night Counter
A Novel
By Alia Yunis

When THE NIGHT COUNTER: A Novel (Three Rivers Press; July 13, 2010) by PEN Emerging Voices Fellow Alia Yunis was published in hardcover in 2009, it was chosen as recommended summer reading by the Chicago Tribune and Boston Phoenix, received rave reviews across the board, and was praised as “wonderfully imaginative,” (Boston Globe), “emotionally rewarding reading,” (Kirkus, starred review), and a “captivating debut” (Publishers Weekly).

Now available in paperback and perfect for summer reading, THE NIGHT COUNTER crafts a striking tapestry of modern Arab American life. With great comic timing and a touch of magical realism, this quirky and poignant novel centers on the last ten days of Fatima Abdullah’s life and the richly layered, multigenerational stories of her family.

The beautiful and immortal Scheherazade, the legendary character from The Arabian Nights, has been roaming the earth for eleven centuries, and she yearns for a story to distract her. When she follows an American soldier home from Iraq out of curiosity, she runs into Fatima Abdullah in Los Angeles, a cantankerous and fiercely loyal matriarch of a sprawling Arab American clan with two husbands, ten children, fourteen grandchildren, and one great-grandchild with a great-great-grandchild on the way.

Eager to learn more of her family secrets and why Fatima left her husband—the great love of her life—at the age of eighty-two, Scheherazade visits Fatima each night, coaxing her to divulge more about her past and speculate on her family’s future. THE NIGHT COUNTER begins with Scheherazade’s 992nd visit.  She has already warned Fatima that “when our stories end, so do our lives,” but now, with just nine days left, Fatima has run out of childhood stories of Lebanon and must tell a love story, a story she has run from all her life.

With a zealous FBI agent watching her home, a gay grandson refusing to take her marriage advice, and ten children who make lousy heirs to her house in Lebanon, Fatima is finding her remaining days in Los Angeles quite frustrating. Through Fatima’s stories and through first-person chapter narratives of Fatima’s progeny in Lebanon and across the United States, Yunis unravels four generations of a quirky clan whose members are as desperate as Fatima to find where they belong. Imbued with great humanity and imagination, THE NIGHT COUNTER is a heartwarming tale that proves that storytelling is an act of love.
# # #

The Night Counter
By Alia Yunis
Three Rivers Press
On sale: July 13, 2010
978-0-307-45363-1; $14.00 paperback
http://www.threeriverspress.com
http://www.aliayunis.com

For more information or to request an interview with Alia Yunis, please contact
Emily Lavelle at 212-572-8756 or at elavelle@randomhouse.com.

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LAUNDRY DAY FOOD FROM THE NIGHT COUNTER: MAJADERA

July 9, 2010

In The Night Counter, Amir promises his grandmother Fatima that for dinner he is not eating quiche, or gay pie, as he explains it to her, but rather

Laundry Day Food

majadera, a food with a whole lot less glamour to it than quiche and a whole lot more gas.  But dress it down or dress it up, majadera is a perennial favorite.  Not because it’s cheap, easy, and fast, not even because it’s rich in vitamins and fiber and made from ingredients that are always in the pantry.  Those were the reasons it was prized in the past.  Today majadera is just simply good food.

Majadera is so simple to make that you shouldn’t serve to company, or at least that’s what my mother used to say.  She got that from her mother, who called it “laundry day food,” because it was the only thing she had time to make on the days she had to take care of the laundry of a family of nine without the awareness that somewhere in this world laundry machines existed.

Majadera has come up in the world, as vegetarian food is no longer for the poor man’s table.  It seems to be more standard in mezze today and expats order it by choice.  But the basic recipe hasn’t changed, still pretty much the same if you can call it a recipe at all.  You can use bulgur wheat or the more common rice.  You can serve it with the lentils and rice still holding their shape or you cook it into a mush.  But the one thing you can’t leave out is the caramelized onions that must cover the top.

Cheap, easy, and fast doesn’t usually mean great when we talk about most things in life but there are always exceptions and majadera is one.

BASIC MAJEDERA

Two cups lentils
One cup rice
Three large onions, thinly sliced
Olive oil
Salt, pepper to taste
Cumin, optional

Boil the lentils with more than enough water to cover.  When the lentils are very soft, about 45 minutes to an hour, add the rice, and cook for another half hour, until rice is tender.  Remember to make sure there is enough water in the pan, as the rice absorbs so much.  Add salt and pepper to taste (it will need a lot of salt).  If you like, add a little cumin, which isn’t traditional, but I know a few people who use it.

Meanwhile, fry the onions until caramelized.  Spread the majdera on a platter and cover with the fried onions.  Serve with yogurt, pickles, and chopped tomato salad* on the side.  Good hot, cold, or at room temperature.

To Mexican-Americanize it a bit, salsa is an easy, perhaps I might even say superior, substitute for tomato salad.