Archive for January, 2011


Egypt, Revolution, and Kushari (Koshari)

January 29, 2011

As the people of Egypt rise up against three decades of corruption, they do so very aware of thousands of years of culture that includes the pharaohs, Cleopatra, some of the greatest scholarship and literature of the Arab world, the wonders of the Nile, the Suez Canal, the Aswan Damn—and, perhaps not as internationally renowned as I think it should be, kushari.

Kushari, sometimes spelled koshori in English,  is a mix of lentils, rice, and macaroni topped with spicy tomato sauce and caramelized onions.  It is exactly what an ideal revolution should be: easily assembled, quick, orderly, healthy for the whole nation, inexpensive, worth the effort, adaptable to the times.  Most importantly, like a good revolution, kushari is all inclusive and socially conscious: while kushari is a traditional street food, it is also a comfort food served at the most elite of homes and it is something everyone loves–it pleases rich and poor, carnivores and vegetarians, children and adults, the health conscious and binge eater. Nor can you easily corrupt kushari—it can be amended to be organic, greasy, low fat, multigrain, or whatever the changing mores of the society dictate without losing its integrity.

I was introduced to kushari by an Egyptian co-worker in Qatar many years ago. The next time I went to Cairo, all I wanted was kushari.  “We’d like to invite you to eat kabob along the Nile,” people would say.  And I’d say, “Where can we get some good kushari?”

Arab hospitality isn’t about serving up simple food, so I rarely got my wish.  “You’ll have to come over, and we’ll make it for you” is the common response.  But I inevitably turn down these requests because of kushari’s above-mentioned revolutionary qualities:  in Egypt, you don’t invite people over for something quick and easily assembled. Any kushari these friends and family made me at home would have also come with a leg of lamb and a roast chicken at a minimum.

Kushari isn’t served at fancy restaurants, and the street carts do require a certain amount of bravery and courage on the part of one’s gastrointestinal track.  Instead, try making it home, just like an Egyptian.  This recipe is from my friend who first introduced me to kushari.


1 C. long grain rice  (use brown rice, if you prefer, but either way, the rice must not be mushy or sticky.  It should be individual grains)

1 C. macaroni (use whole wheat, if you prefer)

1 C. brown lentils

2 large onions, sliced thinly

1 15.5 oz can of chopped tomatoes

4 cloves of garlic, minced

4 T. olive oil

Red pepper flakes to taste

Cook the rice, lentils, and macaroni separately, salting to taste.

Fry the onions in half the olive oil until caramelized and almost crispy

Sautee the garlic in the remaining olive oil.  Add pepper flakes to taste. Add chopped tomatoes. (Feel free to further season this sauce as you like.  I like to add a little allspice)

Assemble the kushari:  Gently mix together the rice, lentils, and macaroni so they stay intact.  Arrange on a platter.  Pour the tomato sauce on top.  Sprinkle with the fried onions.  Serve immediately with additional sauce on the side.


On Being Just Plain American

January 9, 2011

It seems like most of my life, I’ve been asked what it’s like to be Arab or Palestinian or Lebanese or Muslim. I’ve even been asked questions about being Latino and Jewish,  based on my appearance I assume.   However, I can’t remember anyone ever asking me what it is like to be an American, although I’ve spent all my life being one.  I think there is an assumption that just by being born American I am privileged, privileged by the international power my country has.  While I’ve recognized the relative truth of that, I’m well aware that the US is not paradise on Earth for so many of its people.  Watch any Michael Moore documentary or just go hang out an urban hospital emergency room eavesdropping on conversations—what doesn’t kill you, will make you question the meaning of life and death.  And never mind that so much US Middle East policy pains me.

But on a more personal level, “what’s it like to be an American” is not even a question I would ask myself about myself, although I would ask it of others:  I think I’ve always felt quasi American because of my childhood.  In the Midwest, where I spent my early years, I didn’t have a Little House on the Prairie homesteading heritage—and not just one but both my parents had accents, didn’t know a twice baked potato from a Tater Tot, weren’t rugged and outdoorsy like the Marlboro Man or Robert Redford and thought camping was something people had to do if they couldn’t afford roadside motels. That childhood reasoning as to why we were not ‘real’ Americans, no matter how much my parents would tell us differently, has somehow always stayed with me, compounded by grown up examples that involve words like terrorism, Muslims, 9/11.

However, this fall at the Frankfurt Central Library, when US Consulate Public Affairs Officer Jeanine Collins introduced me as an American author—just plain American, not a hyphenated American—for the first time I felt that I was indeed an American.  I was not just an American because a representative of the US government was introducing me (although that was the first time I’d ever been introduced by an American as an American), but because in that instant I realized that the US was the country that can claim and that I can claim, the country that has educated me, given me my voice to speak for all my other identities, let me question what it is to be American, and let me praise its ingenuity, innocence and hope and criticize its darker sides without punishment.  There in Frankfurt, I felt that I had come home, that I had been validated as a real American, not just by the US Consulate but finally by myself.

Here’s a clip of that talk:



January 2, 2011

The other day a colleague told me he was really excited to see how his students would react to a short story he had given them to read.  “They’re not going to read it,” I predicted.  He didn’t believe me.  Sure enough, the next day no one had read it.  “How did you know?”  he asked.  “What are you, some kind of psychic?”
Well, if you believe that deducing that students wouldn’t read a piece of literature for fun makes me psychic, here’s my psychic predictions for the Middle East in 2011.  Prepared to be astounded by my far seeing abilities.
1.    There will be no one-state, two-state or any state solution to the Palestinian crisis.

2.    Jordan, still reeling economically from the invasion of Iraq, will continue to charge more for monthly home heating than the average laborer’s salary, helping maintain, along with all with the rest of the Levant and North Africa, the Arab world’s status as the place with the highest youth unemployment rate.

3.    No one will still know what the heck is going on in Iraq, especially those who say they do.

4.    Someone with the last name Mubarak or very close to someone with the last name  Mubarak will be the president of Egypt.

5.    Qaadafi will say or do something bizarre.

6.    More malls will open in the Gulf while “Preserving our Rich Heritage” will continue to be the national rallying cries.

7.    Muslims at these malls will ask “Why do they hate us?” when talking about America and smoking shisha in their New York Giants baseball caps.

8.    There will be more “biggest,” “tallest,” “most expensive,” or other Guinness Record-like creations in Dubai and beyond.

9.    An increasing number of Arab parents will talk to their kids in English rather than Arabic, no matter how “fery” good or “fery” bad their English is, but unconsciously revert back to Arabic when they need to yell at them.

10.    Zaatar will begin to replace hommos as the latest Middle Eastern food of to become trendy, celebrated and Americanized.

11.    Lebanon will party on, ignoring false grumblings of civil war brewing.  (Predicting Lebanon defies logic and psychics so I’ll go with wishful thinking on this one)

12.     The Middle East will remain a troubling, fascinating, unstable, safe, wealthy poverty stricken, happy, sad place.