Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

h1

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.

h1

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.

h1

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.

h1

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.

h1

Volunteering Because You Can

February 28, 2012

As a child, I could tell you a lot about fjords and olive trees, even though I had never seen either one.  This is because I grew up around a lot of Norwegians and Palestinians.  The Norwegians were my

Tromsø

neighbors and classmates in Minnesota, the Palestinians our family friends, part of the handful of Arabs that we knew who gathered together for special occasions.  I didn’t think of Norway and Palestine together beyond my childhood.  One was all about snow and Nobel peace, and one was all about sunshine and the opposite of peace.

But this past year I went to Tromsø, Norway for a magazine article, and I discovered an unexpected link:  It turns out that this small Arctic Circle city, gateway to polar bears and reindeer, is the sister city of Gaza.

One of the few constant refrains I grew up with was, “If you forget your people, then who else will remember them when they need help?”

The answer to that question for many people from troubled lands is apparently Norway. Volunteering, whether abroad or at home, seems to be as much a part of Norwegian culture as waffles and jam.

In Tromsø, I met over hot chocolate with Knut Borud, the current secretary of the board of the Gaza-Tromsø Friendship group.  Like all the other board members on the Gaza-Tromsø Friendship Committee, he is 100 percent Norwegian.  He has lived in Norway all his life, a married high school teacher with teenage children.  He shrugs when you ask him why he has been involved with helping the Palestinians since the 1980s, visiting twice.  “There is something wrong there,” he explains simply, with that Scandinavian calmness.   “In 2001, we formalized our efforts to help when our mayor visited Gaza and signed the sister city pact. Contact has become more and more difficult as the situation has gotten worse but we continue.”

Knut teaches video production to high school students, and one of the Gaza Tromsø group’s projects is helping Gazans film their own stories.  One young woman, Nehal Afana, a cinematographer in training, was even brought to Tromsø to learn about developing a film art center for youth in Gaza, like the Tvibit Filmhouse in Tromsø for aspiring local artists.

“Yalla To Gaza” is a film made by  Gazan director Ashraf Mashharawi and features Dr. Mads Gilbert, a Tromsø native.   Along with fellow Norwegian Dr. Erik Fosse, were the only two foreign doctors allowed into Gaza during the 2008 bombardment.

In the video, Dr. Mads talks about the dignity of the people of Gaza, but sitting above the Arctic Cirlce, listening to Knut talk about a place so far away, a place for which he has no obligation to help, I thought equally of the dignity of Norway and all people who help others just because they have the freedom to do so.

http://vimeo.com/11712883 (Yallah to Gaza)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJndfs4Ctt8  (Nefal’s story)

And for a look at the magazine article that took to Tromsø, the home of the northernmost mosque in the world: http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/201201/ramadan.in.the.farthest.north.htm

h1

Where are the Actors?

January 30, 2012

Every year I ask this, and here I go again for the third time, “Know any enthusiastic student filmmakers living in the Middle East?”  If so, please let them know about the Zayed University Middle East Film Festival, which brings

ZUMEFF 2011 winners from Eygpt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine

together student films from across the Middle East to reveal an industry in rebirth, as well as a student population living in times that are  a changin’ for better and worse.

At the end of last year’s film festival, we did a ZUMEFF research project and survey of student filmmakers in the region.  We expected them to say the worst trials they face are self censorship, money, poor equipment, little technical expertise.  Some of that did indeed come up in the research.  But the number one obstacle they face–and this was from all the countries that participated–was that they couldn’t find good actors to work with, and the few they could find wanted ridiculous amounts of money just for a student film.  I’m not in Los Angeles anymore.

For more on ZUMEFF visit–submissions deadline is March 15:  www.zumeff.com

or check out this article from one of our constant sponsor and supporter, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival  http://www.abudhabifilmfestival.ae/en/year-round/magazine/2012/01/26/zayed-university-s-middle-east-film-festival

 

h1

Thank you, Steve Jobs, for Letting Me Write

October 6, 2011

Since I was in college, the one thing that has been in my life nearly everyday—and for better or worse, nearly all day—has

Thank you, Steve Jobs

been my Apple. Along with one of those apples that grow on trees, turning on my Mac has been part of my morning ritual wherever I have been and in whatever state-of-mind I have been in, minus a couple of war zones that have made it impossible. But even in those times, I would sometimes move my hands like they were going over the keyboards writing my thoughts.

I have never been addicted to my Mac, but I’d say we’ve been pretty co-dependent—or let’s say the best of friends, a reliable friend I always cleaned up with only the finest soft cloth, a friend I could count on to help me stay bond to my other friends and family, a friend I never cheated on once, no matter how many times a PC tried to get my attention. A friend who would only abandon me when it was his time to go, like Steve Jobs today. But my Macs always left memories behind, a hard drive that recorded our history together and the history of my life for the time we were together. And I am glad none of them tried to erase me from their memory, at least until we were no longer together .

It hasn’t always been the same Mac, but it has always been the same genius bringing me my new model—as well as smaller ones, ones that were phones, ones that meant I didn’t have to endure the same 10 pop songs on the car radio, ones that are what I now use to read all the books I love, new and old. Some Macs have been better to me than others, but overall, I would be less of a person for not having had them all in my life—even the big, bulky ones that weighed me down, that refused to move with the times, that were serious baggage, but only in the best sense.

I’m old enough to remember life before the various Macs that have lived with me. I would be a different person without them, as we would have all be. The way I stay in touch with people, read, listen to music, watch films, study, figure out my bills—all the paper and machines that would be cluttering up my world if my Macs hadn’t helped me get it together. They have also been fun–playing with my Macs in all their forms is something my nephews and I have bonded over, unlike video games (their choice) or baking cookies (my choice).  Apples are our happy middle.

Most importantly, my Macs helped make me who I am today. I wouldn’t be a writer without my Macs, whether for fiction, nonfiction, for film or television or print. And if I weren’t a writer, I wouldn’t have discovered peace of mind. Whenever my Mac and I have been writing, truly hard as it is everyday, I have felt that I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It couldn’t have done it without my Macs: I have weak hands and it is quite painful for me to write with pen or pencil and hard for anyone to read, including myself. It was only when I met my first Mac that I felt free to write.

So if you are wondering why this is posted on this blog dedicated to Middle East culture, it is because I would have never written anything about this part of the world if I hadn’t come here with my Mac. (And of course, because Steve Jobs was part Arab American.)