Archive for the ‘Jordan’ Category

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Nut Cases in Jordan

April 30, 2014

In the Red Sea port of Aqaba, you can relive the romance of Lawrence of Arabia’s adventures on and off film. You’ll discover the CIA-esque intrigue of being able to see Israel/Palestine, Egypt and Saudi Arabia from the same spot. Indeed, it is a grand opportunity to take in a vista of all of the Middle East mess at once. Then there is the pristine diving in the Red Sean and taking advantage of the luxury resort boom—or ordering the delectable local dunise and faridi fish eying you at Ali Baba Restaurant while the camels eye the tourists. All these are legitimate reasons to go to Aqaba, reasons that bring thousands of foreign visitors a year.

But when I ask Jordanians what excites them about Aqaba, they often tell me it’s the nuts. Nuts don’t have a double entendre in Arabic, so they don’t mean the opportunity to hangout with crazy people. That is unless you find it crazy to buy bags of nuts by the kilo on a beach vacation. But that’s what most Jordanians do when they go to Aqaba.    IMG_1447

All these fine nuts are purchased in the downtown shopping souq at the Al Shaab shop. Actually, the Al Shaab shops. There are eight branches to choose from in Aqaba, and conveniently six of them are on the same street selling the exact same nuts in the exact same heated cases and bins. Three of them are separated by only one other shop. It’s a business model that should defy logic, and yet every one of the stores is teaming at all times with customers, who eventually leave with kilos of the nuts, seeds and Turkish delights stuffed into the shops’ bright signature red and yellow plastic bags. The bags show up everywhere in Aqaba in their post nut-transporting duties as all-purpose totes.

The mom and pop nut shops that are scattered across the souqs and malls of the Middle East make you feel like a kid in a candy store– but with nuts and seeds instead. There are bins and bins of intrigue, each bin magically keeping the nuts toasty warm and freshly roasted. Almonds, cashews, hazelnuts and of course the king of nuts, the pistachios—in nearly countless flavored mixes and matches. There are pure pistachios or pistachios tossed with almonds and hazelnuts and cashews. Or in another combo, the cashew may reign supreme, with the hazelnut coming in second. The almond can be the leader of the pack, too. Sometimes the nuts are salted, sometimes raw, sometimes smoked.

Like everywhere else in the world, peanuts are price reducer. But the biggest way to cheapen the bag is the addition of pumpkin seeds. These are the big, salt crusted white seeds that Arabs seem to be able to crack open for the meat and still spit out the shell while doing just about anything, especially playing backgammon, drinking coffee, and smoking shisha in a café in Aqaba. The also popular watermelon seeds require even more crack and spit skills, which is why the uninitiated just chew on them, like me.   I blame my incompetence on the fact that I didn’t grow up with nuts serving the same purpose as my Arab relations.  They don’t say it, but nuts are a habit at a gathering of people, like coffee is, but they are also a way to pass the time–crack, spit, chew.  And in so much of the Arab world it feels like people are gathering to pass the time because there is nothing else to do with time.  And maybe nuts provide an entertaining diversion–yes, sometimes it’s a fun challenge yourself to see if the seed will actually come out of the shell.

Al Shaab Nuts

Al Shaab Nuts

The peanut is often in the mix, but it is actually a bean, and in Arabic fuol Sudani (Sudanese bean) is the word for peanuts. And it’s not the only bean in the shop. There is seemingly not enough you can do with a chickpea. Those craving sweets can enjoy the pink and blue sugared edomi, which are dry roasted chickpeas. I prefer them salted than sweet. Beyond the crunch, there is the comforting pasty quality. For more sweet, there is of course the sugar coated Jordan almonds, which do not have the descriptor “Jordan” in Jordan or the rest of the Middle East, where they are ubiquitous on silver platters at weddings and holidays. For an even bigger sweet tooth, raha, a range of rose and orange blossom flower infused Turkish delight-esque squares packed with pistachios and walnuts, is the big seller. I like them best when they are rolled up in dried apricot wrappers. But my favorite is semsemia, the squares of gooey or crunchy toasted sesame with sugar and honey.  Unlike nuts in a bag, semsemia is a comforting sugar rush that makes you want to go out and conquer the world.

Today, peanuts are also sold in candied form, which is not traditional. Peanuts are named for the Sudanese peddlers who once roamed the streets of the Levant and North Africa in more peaceful times selling hot peanuts. I’m less sure why pistachios are called fousto halabi (which means Aleppo nut), because they mostly come from Iran. But I can only imagine how much more confusing it would be for Asians to find a variety of coated peanuts and nacho-flavored crunchy balls, called Asian crackers or Japanese crackers or Chinese crackers, depending on the shop. And the American corn nut and wasabi peas are mainstays these days.

So the Jordan nut shop has globalized itself.  There are ever more ways to pass the time.  As I watched people get onto the bus as we were leaving Aqaba, their overnight suitcases sometimes seemed dwarfed by the kilos and kilos of Al Shaab nuts they were also toting. On the four-hour drive back to Amman as my Kindle bounced around on my lap, I heard people munching on Al Shaab nuts and seeds. No one else had a book. As I heard a kid get yelled at by his mom for trying to open a closed pistachio with his teeth, I thought about how if those eight Al Shaab stores were bookstores, they’d be empty. And thus the nuts win in the Middle East.

Or the Beach

Or the Beach

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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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The Green Food Season

April 7, 2013

The Levant is among the many places across the world where spring means baby lambs, tree blossoms and the new buds that will produce precious bounty in a two or three months.   It’s also the green food season—when winter’s Swiss chard, dandelion greens, endive, escarole

Hameli & Green Almonds

Hameli & Green Almonds

and so many other leaves recognized for being wiltable in a frying pan run rampant in a final seasonal hurrah, overlapping with new green food, like sweet peas and fava beans.  There are also the foods that urban dwellers rarely meet in their green baby stage—like almonds and chickpeas.  Most people wait for them to be picked, dried and packaged. But in Jordan, where I’m writing now under an almond tree, and Lebanon, Sryia, Egpt and Palestine, these almonds and chickpeas are coveted for the short season before they become vegans’ best friends.  Green almonds are picked and dunked in course salt and munched on, more for the crunchy, juicy freshness than for being particularly flavorful.  Green chickpea pods, each yielding one or two peas, are roasted and then the soft, warm chickpea is popped out with the same principle as cracking open roasted peanuts in the shell.

This spring in Jordan the landscape is super green, thanks to a brutally rainy and snowy winter.  A punster could have fun playing with the word Arab Spring at this point.  But that phrase only makes people cringe.  Jordan has long been a landing spot for displaced Palestinians or a temporary escape route for wealthy Lebanese caught in the country’s civil war.  Today Jordan is a dumping ground for human tragedy—refugees from nearly all its border points—both rich and poor from Syria, Iraq, and Palestine.  It is also a country where many of the gardeners picking spring’s green things are Egyptians.

The gardener next door just returned with from visiting his family outside Cairo.  Between giving me various medical and culinary suggestions for rosemary, so that the herb’s overgrowth will not be wasted, he lamented the ruin his country is in.  I don’t actually know his politics but that is not as important as the sorrow that comes over everyone with whom you talk.  Once sustainable societies that survived, albeit poorly, off the produce of their lands have been floundering between stupor and rage in a diet fueled by junk food politics nearly a century in the making.  This spring, the violent crash diet approach to change is horrifying to watch.

It takes a long time for the region’s beloved olive tree to grow in strength and power and be fruitful.  The little olives are just popping out green now.  There’s something to be learned from the land.  And there’s some comfort in knowing that a predictable cycle of life at least hasn’t been too disturbed in the garden…but even that’s not so true when you think of what warfare does to the land.

Roasted Hameli (Fresh Chickpeas)

Hameli means “pregnant” or “full.”   Rinse the green pods off and dry.  Place single layer on baking sheet and toast until the pods char slightly, stirring occasionally.  (A small amount can even be done in a toaster oven).

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Beyond 100 Goats

February 9, 2012

Abu Khalil has 100 goats, twelve children, three wives, and few good teeth.  When he hosts people in his main tent, he dons the gold colored bisht (robe), a sign of celebration and status among the Bedu (or Bedouins).

beyond 100 goats

I met Abu Khalil’s family earlier this month while accompanying a visiting American friend on a trip to Jordan’s Feynan Ecolodge, set in a remote, wind chilling mountainous area with a spectacular other worldly landscape.  The ecolodge depends on American and European tourists.  Urban Jordanians do not have the Lawrence of Arabia romanticism of the Bedu that Westerners have.  However, while Westerners love an invitation to a Bedu tent, the language barrier makes it mostly a case of excessive smiling and nodding at each other.  I fell somewhere in the middle—an unexpected translator for the Westerners, and more importantly to the Bedu, someone they could talk to about the rest of the Arab world, a world which they rarely come in contact with.   They see more Westerners than other Arabs, to whom an ecolodge, the idea of going on vacation in a place without electricity seems like a punch line to a joke.

The ecolodge was built to preserve the fragile environment—and bring work opportunities to the local Bedu.  In return, the Bedu have modified their activities in order to meet the goals of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN).  They no longer hunt the cherished but endangered wild rabbits or ibexes to prevent them from extinction.  The Bedu understand extinction, including the possible extinction of their own way of life, something they are both fear and are drawn to.

Abu Khalil married his two main wives in the same year, 1990, but not the same day.  (There was an earlier wife, but he divorced her, and a younger wife who lives in a nearby village).  He is “almost 60” and the wives put their age at 42, although had they not told you, you would put them much closer to his age.  There are reasons for that –brutal winds, sun, poor health care.  But those affect both men and women.

In the pink dawn, after fajer prayers, we watched his wives climbing the mountains, each with her share of the 100 goats, taking them out to feed. Suleiman, at 20 one of the older sons, the next in line to get married, and a guide at the lodge, explains, “My mothers take care of the goats, make the milk, ghee, and jameed (the Bedu’s beloved dried yogurt), feed their kids, weave the goat hairs for the tent, wash the clothes…”

“So what do the men do then?” you ask.

He thinks on this. “Make sure the women are doing all these things,” he jokes, and then quickly adds, “The men go to town to take care of any business, work in the army or police maybe.”

So it’s not hard to understand why in families with only one wife, which is in fact the norm, kids run around in clothes and hair weighed down in dirt, faces with splotches of mud on them, and noses running freely for days.

When you sit with Abu Khalil’s women, the two wives and their teenage daughters, in their part of the tent (tents are divided into thirds for men, women, and livestock), around a fire where they boil tea with sage and a dentist-defying amount of sugar, they are all welcoming, smiling through wind burned lips.  Hospitality is the truest cliché of their culture. They ask all about you, not uttering one complaint about men or goats or each other.

They don’t have TV or the Internet, and they have almost no contact with non-Bedu, outside of what they study in their rudimentary school and now in meeting the guests at the ecolodge.

When they find out you live in Abu Dhabi, they ask you what the people are like there. They don’t mean all the Abu Dhabi expats like yourself—they mean their fellow Bedu.  A son had joked earlier about his donkey being the Bedouin Mercedes.  You can’t bring yourself to tell them that the Bedu of Abu Dhabi have real Mercedes, new, shiny ones—and all sorts of other shiny things.   “It’s nice,” you say.  “But too hot.”

That’s when the randomness of national borders strikes you.  These Bedu, like most Bedu, trace their roots to Saudi Arabia.  But Bedu are nomadic and when oil struck, fate was determined by what side of the post-colonial border you had set up tent.  The fortress houses, cars, designer watches, maids, and drivers of the Persian Gulf have left the Jordanian Bedu in the dust, somewhat literally.  Or so you think with your Abu Dhabi eyes.

Then you ask Abu Khalil’s daughter, who just turned 14, what she’d like to do when she finishes school.  “Keep having a healthy life and family,” she shrugs.  She does not say “in another place.”  When prodded about moving to the city, she fidgets.  Yes, there is another world out there.  Yet, she, like everyone else here, is at home nomadic, no upgraded Mercedes of any kind required, a place where not seeing across the border means this is all that life is—aside from visitors who remind you it isn’t.

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A Good Library is Hard To Find

January 7, 2012

What is more important in a library than anything else – than everything else – is the fact that it exists.  ~Archibald MacLeish, “The Premise of Meaning,” American Scholar, 5 June 1972

The other day in Jordan, my mother made the day of a young Spanish woman with whom we were chatting by telling her she could be Audrey Hepburn’s double.  This was true enough, but what struck me was how quickly the woman

Faten Hamama

blushed and said thank you,  banging on her tea cup to make sure her boyfriend had heard the compliment.  Audrey Hepburn was before my time, let alone this younger woman’s.  Yet the three of us shared a common language:  Hollywood films.  What we didn’t learn of this language on the big screen or at home, we were taught via the video store, TV, or iTunes.   Or for those of us who wanted to perfect the language, our knowledge grew through classes—and through access to a film library.

Jordan’s Royal Film Commission is in my favorite part of Amman, Rainbow Street, which fits because the street is named after the city’s first cinema, the Rainbow Theatre, now long gone. I love the film commission because it has given Jordan a genuine film fan and filmmaker community.

But perhaps more uniquely, it has a cozy film library over looking old Amman.  It’s not big or comprehensive, but if you’re looking for film that brought Syrian cinema to an international audience in 1972, you can scan the shelves and find it:  The Leopard.  Arabic films have a language of their own and very few people learn it because the Middle East has no significant film library and no effort has been made to educate students about Arab cinema.

While everyone laments the decline of reading in the world, particularly the Middle East it seems, one forgets that good libraries also house novels and films, perhaps both truer windows into who we are and who we were than any text or history book could ever be.

Before Kramer vs Kramer made divorce a topic to carry a movie or Broke Back Mountain told of the tortured deceits of closeted homosexuality, Egypt’s most famous actress Faten Hamama was dealing with them in the 1974 film Oridu Hillan  (I Need a Solution) . (Honestly, I haven’t seen it recently, so I can’t verify the gay issues that my cousin said were implied in the divorce.)  The movie in fact changed Egypt’s divorce laws.

When looking for the roots of today’s revolutions, much of it can be found even in the poorly produced and directed very broad comedies and melodramas of Egypt over the past decade—rife with farcical scenes about men not being able to afford marriage because jobs are always illusive, scenes government institutions and the absurd rules applied to the Everyman when he tries to feed his family or take care of their health needs, and scenes of the brutal consequences of speaking out against the corruption.

Arab cinema is not always at level of most Western cinema, but it has a long history that lays scattered—and damaged by time—because libraries don’t have the importance they should.   Arabs have a long film history that is their history.  Yet sadly, Arabs don’t have as much as they should a language in which they can say, “You remind me of Faten Hamama in….”

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Just Peachy in Jordan

July 21, 2011

In Jordan, my mother’s garden has a peach tree that doesn’t stop giving at this time of the year.  She hands out bags of peaches to neighbors and relatives and anyone who passes by on the street.  She makes peach jam with whatever peaches she can save, and still she mourns the peaches that fall on the ground, uneaten.

“Can’t you find something American and tasty to do with these?” she asked when I arrived.  I knew she meant bake something, and the American part referred to the use of fruit in desserts. In the Middle Eastern fresh fruits are eaten fresh, dried, or as jam or as an ice cream flavor.  They are not baked into desserts usually, unless they’ve been dried first.

My first thought was peach cobbler, summery and simple.  But if you’ve never heard of peach cobbler, it pretty much looks like its name implies, something cobbled together.  Not particularly appealing to Middle Eastern guests I discovered.  Which is how they also they reacted to my next endeavor, the peach crumble.  “Didn’t quite come out like you hoped it would,” my aunt said to me sympathetically.  “Maybe you didn’t put enough butter in the crust and that’s why it’s all broken apart like that.”

It had come out pretty enough for any TV chef to pose with, perfectly crumbly and buttery on top, juicy and sweet filling with a hint of cinnamon.  But aesthetically, the Jordanians couldn’t get past the appearance to get to the taste.

My next venture should have been pie, but I could see that the aecetics reaction would be the same.  Then I remembered the one Western dessert that all people appreciated:  the birthday cake. I’d make a peach cake, and cut the peaches small enough that they wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the fruit-in-dessert concept.

It was too hot to spend hours creating a layer cake, so instead I took a basic coffee cake and an apple bread recipe and combined them, and called it peach coffee cake.  Anything with the word coffee goes over big in the Middle East.

For Americans, for whom peach crumble, cobbler, and pie say summer, the coffee cake may have less appeal.  To the American half of my taste buds, it welcomed in fall.  Very tasty but a little early in the year to let go of summer.  But freeze for winter, when the hint of peaches should be a welcome surprise and thus save them from landing on the ground, their glory untapped.

PEACH COFFEE CAKE

3 eggs, lightly beaten

1 t. vanilla

1 ¾ C sugar

1 C vegetable oil

1 ½ C white flour

½  C. whole wheat flout

1 t. salt

1 t. baking soda

2 t. cinnamon

¼  t. nutmeg

3 C. peeled and diced fresh peaches (this seems like a lot of peaches, but it’s not)

Topping:

For the streusel:

½ c  packed brown sugar

¼ cup granulated sugar

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

½ c. chopped walnuts

6 tbsp. (3/4 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

ALTERNATIVE TOPPING/ADDITION: Drizzling with icing sugar when slightly cooled

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.   Grease a 13x9x2 inch pan.

Add sugar and vanilla and oil to the eggs and mix thoroughly.  Mix together dry ingredients, then fold into egg mixture until combined.  Add in the peaches.

For topping, mix together nuts and sugars.  Cut in butter until topping forms into little pieces.

Pour cake batter into pan.  Sprinkle on topping.  Bake about 35 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.  I used a glass baking dish because the usual baking pan would have looked like I didn’t have enough to serve it in decent kitchenware.   Add alternative/additional icing drizzle when cake is almost coool.