Posts Tagged ‘Arabs’

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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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My Very Short Middle East Movie List

September 29, 2012

Recently a professor in the US asked me if I could put together a list of Arabic language films she might be able to use in her women’s studies and global studies classes.   This is only a short excursion around 20 plus countries sharing a common language and multiple problems and plenty of quirkiness.   Some countries have only one or two features, like Jordan and the UAE, so those were pretty easy to do.  Morrocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria, I apologize to all the wonderful films I didn’t list–and to Iraq, the Arab cinema I know almost nothing about yet.  The Middle East also includes Iran, which may have the most powerful films of all, but that’s a whole other list.  For that, see the link below.

EGYPT :

Cairo Station/The Iron Gate (Youssef Chahine, 1958):  A memorable love triangle amongst the workers at a Cairo train station.

Dreams of Hind and Camelia (Mohamed Khan, 1988):  Two maids in Cairo struggle with their employers and family.

Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story (Yousry Nasrallah, 2009)

Asma (Amr Salama, 2011)  A woman struggles with the shame of AIDS

 

LEBANON

Caramel (Nadine Labaki, 2007)  Daily life of five women at a beauty salon in Lebanon.

Where Do We Go Now? (Nadine Labaki, 2011)  Award-winning film that takes a lighter, simplified  look at the start of the Lebanese civil war.

West Beirut (1998)  Probably the best narrative film on the Lebanese civil war as it affected the middle class

PALESTINE

Paradise Now (Hany Abu Assad, 2005)  Oscar nominated, two young men are sent on a suicide mission.

Pomegranates and Myrrh (Najwa Najjar, 2008) A newlywed copes with the sudden imprisonment of her husband.

Salt of this Sea (Annemarie Jacir, 2008) A Palestinian American goes back to see what was once her family’s home.

PALESTINE/LEBANON/ISRAEL

Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)  Israeli animated film about the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Under the Bombs (Philippe Aractingi, 2007) One woman’s struggle to find her missing child in the midst of Lebanon’s 2006 war with Israel.

SYRIA 

The Leopard (Nabil Maleh, 1973) Freedom fighters as revolutionaries

The Extras (Nabil Maleh, 1993)  Life and love under a police state

MORROCCO

Omar Killed Me (Roschdy Zem, 2011)  The difficulty of proving your innocence when your guilty by ethnicity.

Le Grand Voyage (Ismael Ferroukhi, 2004), A young man goes with his father from France to Mecca on an emotionally challenging road trip.

ALGERIA

Rachida (Yamina Bachir, 2002):  A woman faces down a group asking her to commit a terrorist act at home.

Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo 1966):  An epic about one of the most heroic and bloody fights for independence in modern history.

TUNISIA

Silence of the Palace (Moufida Tlalti, 1994)  A masterful look at the manipulation of  poor women in mid-20th century Middle East.

UAE

City of Life (Ali Mostafa, 2010)  The lives of two young Emirati men collide with the lives of a variety of expats living in Dubai.

Sea Shadow (Nawaf Al Janahi, 2011) A young man tries to understand what love is in a seaside town.

JORDAN

Captain Abu Raed (Amin Matalqa, 2007)  A janitor pretends to be an airplane pilot to entertain the kids in his neighborhood.
*For a bit of a taste of the grand cinema of Iran, check out this short list from the website Your Middle East  http://www.yourmiddleeast.com/features/5-great-iranian-films_8295

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What Arabs Talk About At Dinner

March 2, 2011

On a recent work trip to Kuwait, my American colleague started chuckling while he listened to my Syrian cousin and me arguing about the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  “Is this what sitting down to dinner with family sounds like in the Middle East?” he asked.  Yep.  Pretty much always unless there is a divorce to talk about.

Until recently, if you were to look at the Middle East through television, which is how most people know it, you would think everyone in the Middle East was either a terrorist in training or a rich oil sheikh.  That was never the case, and maybe one of the good things that might come out of these heroic demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya will be to see the Arabs as people.  And people who love to eat.

So in case you’re wondering what else we talk about at dinner, here’s a list. The order of this list may change family by family and depending on what is the largest and latest crisis of the moment.  For example, Libya (see no. 2) would top of the list today.  I don’t mention Osama bin Ladin, Al Qaeda or the hijab, because honestly those seem to be West’s favorite Middle East topics.

Here’s a peek into dinner, say over lentil soup, stuffed zucchini, cucumber yogurt salad, and hummos or something made with eggplant.

1.     Israel:  Israel via Palestine, Israel via Egypt, Israel via Lebanon, Israel via Syria, Israel via Jordan, Israel via Saudi Arabia, Israel via Iran, Israel via the nuclear bomb, etc.  These conversations are ready to go even on an empty stomach.

2.     Arab dictators:  Mubarak and Qaddafi and Ben Ali and so many more to choose from.

3.     Iraq:  See above.  We were talking about Saddam at dinner long before he became Enemy No. 1 and we’re still talking about Iraq because it’s still tragic.

4.     Shiite/Sunni:  Also see above.  Long winded stories to get to “@en did this divide become so big?”

5.     Lebanon:  See most above.  Also can revolve around “Do you think this is a good time to go to Beirut for fun?  I go the best haircut there.”

6.     America:  See all of above.  America means the U.S., not the North and South American continents.

7.     Conspiracy theories:  See all above, especially #1.  People are already buzzing on carbs from rice and bread when these started getting kicked around.

8.     Stories about how great the Arabs once were.  Remember Andalusia? So a thousand years ago.

9.     No one has better food than us. Followed by the latest diet theories and a bit of comfort that yes, America may have everything but that includes more fat, too.

10.  “What has the oil really done for the Arabs?”  This one usually comes at the end of the dinner, when everyone is wiped out, defeated, and decides, just like their fellow humans in America, to turn on the TV and zone out.  With some shisha.

Today the topic at the dinner table:  Is the conversation actually going to change now?

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Busted on Possession of Zaatar

April 21, 2010

I just watched a news story from Australia in which a Lebanese Australian called the confiscation of his mother-in-law’s zaatar by Sydney airport customs officials “a tragedy” and “a disaster” and when he still couldn’t convince the officials to release the vacuum packed zaatar, he told them he wanted to speak to a member of parliament.  There, but for the grace of more merciful US customs officials, go I—and almost every other Arab American I know.  Who amongst us hasn’t had a mother or aunt get out a bag of the stuff for our suitcases every time we journey off to foreign lands?

Possession of Zaatar

Zaatar, for those of you unfortunate enough to have never had it, is a mixture of wild thyme and sesame seeds that, mixed with olive oil, is an essential part of breakfast and even supper in Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Jordan, and beyond. It is tied with chocolate in my refrigerator as the number one comfort food.

It might not sound like much of concoction, but it has hundreds of variations, with different thymes and different levels of roasting or not roasting changing the flavors, not to mention the unique mix of herbs added to zaatar that vary from village to village.  And there’s nothing that brings back the Levant as unlocking that aroma in the bag your relative tucked into your suitcase.

Zaatar is the most democratic of Middle Eastern foods, loved by all classes and ages, as I always witness in Jordan at IZHIMAN, a shop that offers several varieties of zaatar, all displayed in big wooden bins from which customers diligently sample before picking the varieties they’ll take home to make their own mixture at home.

Fusion cuisine has hit the Middle East hard, like everywhere, and now you’ll find zaatar being a seasoning for almonds (kind of like Arabic Chex Mix), roasted chicken, croissants, and countless other ideas, some more unfortunate than others, although you can never go all  that wrong with zaatar.  And like the hookah, it’s got a retro chic cache to it these days, even being the name of a Middle Eastern restaurant chain that aims to give cutting edge appeal to old standbys.  But perhaps the best way to eat zaatar is as manaeesh at the local bakery, where it is mixed with olive oil and baked on flat bread in a wood burning oven.  So integral was manaeesh to our childhood that one when my brother and I were in college in Minneapolis watching the news about Beirut, there was a shot of our baker on Jeanne D’Arc Street busy sliding the manaeesh into the oven.  “Abu Ibrahim,” we shouted out simultaneously, knowing that Beirut was still somewhat okay despite the news if Abu Ibrahim was still making manaeesh.

There are a million zaatar stories, but I will end with this one—there was a war injured boy from the Middle East in Los Angeles for treatment that was staying with me for a few days.  This was such a great kid and had just gotten out the hospital, and so we laid before him—not just me, but everyone else that took part in his care– all the wonders and decadence of food in Los Angeles for him everyday, but one day at breakfast he looked at it all, trying with all his politeness to muster enthusiasm, and then gave up and turned to me and said, “Don’t you have any zaatar?  Please.”  And of course, I did.