Posts Tagged ‘Middle East’

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Poetic Pomegranates

July 27, 2012

Nothing like a Rumi poem about pomegranates to sum up what is hip in

Pomegranate in Progress

literature and food circles today.  Both these Middle Eastern imports—Rumi and pomegranates– have gone from near obscurity to near cliché levels in Western cultural hotspots over the past few years.  Yet another reason for the pomegranate to laugh in Rumi’s poem.

I remember my first pomegranate.  I was seven, late in life for a Middle Easterner to be introduced to all its wonder.  But we were living in Minnesota then, and the even the mango had yet barely made an appearance.  One Saturday, my father beheld, much to his surprise and delight, a small pomegranate resting amidst the fake grass in the produce section at Byerly’s.  Byerly’s was the far away luxury supermarket we occasionally took a road trip to in the hopes finding just such a food memento.  Byerly’s had already given us whole dates and a few inches of sugar cane and a coconut.  I liked the store mostly because it was where Mary shopped in the opening credits to Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Back in our kitchen, our father warned us to stand back as he broke open the pomegranate, carefully chasing any of the precious luminescent red drops that escaped.  My brother and I chomped on the sweet seeds, smiling while trying not to let the juice burst out our mouths as my mother hovered around us with a box of Kleenex at the ready, fearing that we would permanently splatter our shirts crimson.  Indeed, the pomegranate leaves its mark on our clothes and fingers and souls.  This is why it appears in Middle Eastern poems, books, and films, like Najwa Najjar’s award winning Pomegranates and Myrrh.

Every trendy restaurant in London and Los Angeles seems to have found a place for pomegranate on the menu, particularly using the lush, goopy, sour pomegranate molasses.  American cuisine is innovative and evolving—always the anticipation of a new taste sensation replacing the old, just like a new TV season.  We look back at wheat germ and pineapple upside down cake the way we look back Mayberry RFD.  Middle Eastern cuisine is based on centuries of tradition, the comfort of savoring the expected, plus or minus this ingredient or that ingredient.  That includes plus or minus the pomegranate:  as the primary dressing ingredient in Lebanese fattoush, as a broth in which kibbe is simmered in Aleppo, Syria, as a topping for baba ghanoush in Jordan.  However, much like Rumi is to Iranian (or Persian) poetry, the pomegranate is to Iranian (or Persian) cuisine.  Iranians seem to be able to successfully stew just about anything in it.  I love this recipe from my friend Anita Amirrezvani, inspired by her new critically-acclaimed novel Equal of the Sun.

http://www.scribd.com/doc/99616690/Lamb-with-Pomegranate-and-Saffron-when-a-great-book-inspires-great-cooking
Question to ponder:  Did the Arabic word for pomegranates (ruman) derive from Rumi’s name, as that is where the pomegranate came from?

THE LAUGHTER OF POMEGRANATES:

If you buy a pomegranate,
buy one whose ripeness
has caused it to be cleft open
with a seed-revealing smile.

Its laughter is a blessing,
for through its wide-open mouth
it shows its heart,
like a pearl in the jewel box of spirit.
The red anemone laughs, too,
but through its mouth you glimpse a blackness.

A laughing pomegranate
brings the whole garden to life.
Keeping the company of the holy
makes you one of them
Whether you are stone or marble,
you will become a jewel
when you reach a human being of heart.

Plant the love of the holy ones within your spirit;
don’t give your heart to anything
but the love of those whose hearts are glad.
Don’t go to the neighborhood of despair:
there is hope.
Don’t go in the direction of darkness:
suns exist.

The heart guides you to the neighborhood of the
saints;
the body takes you to the prison of water and earth.
Give your heart the food of holy friends;
seek maturity from those who have matured.

~ Mawlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi

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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.

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Muslims in 2030

June 12, 2011

Ever wondered what will be the birth rate of Muslims in 2030?  The largest Muslim country in Africa in 15 years?  Or the Muslim majority country with the lowest number of people living below the poverty line?  Neither have I.

Muslims in 2030

At first they may seem like trivia questions, but on further thought, the answers can be used to fuel paranoia or promote progress.

The other day I was invited to a swanky gathering to reveal the results of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life study on “The Future of the Global Muslim Population.”

I went because a colleague was going to speak afterwards about what the projections of the study mean to him, and I like to support colleagues.  But the part of me that probably would have excelled at statistics if I hadn’t thought math wasn’t for girls loved the all the pie charts and graphs.

Average birth rate in Muslim countries in 2030?  Down from 4.3 per woman in the 1990s to 2.9 today and 2.1 in 2030.  Largest Muslim country in Africa in 2030?  Move aside Egypt.  It will be Nigeria.   Muslim majority country with the lowest number of people living below poverty line?  Even before the revolution, viva Tunisia.  The Gulf countries were not included in this study, perhaps because they don’t have a poverty line, or at least not one that anyone sees.   EuroArabia fears in western Europe?  Fear not—the largest expected Muslim population will be France, and it will not exceed 10 percent.

As for the speakers who came on to explain the implications of this study, my friend, Amir Al Islam talked about Islam in America not being an immigrant religion anymore than Christianity or any other religion because one of its largest cohorts in the US is converts. The other speaker, also an American, attributed the US’s woes to its massive  consumerism and praised the Muslim world for not having gone down that path.  He said this with a straight face as we sat under crystal chandeliers at the Shangri La Hotel while valets outside parked Bentleys and Porches. You don’t have that consumerism in Bemidji, Minnesota, USA, and you don’t have it in Khandar, Afghanistan, Muslim World.

My pontification? There are no universal pontifications that can be made about Muslim world, anymore than I can compare Beverly Hills to Bemidji.  Sure there are commonalities, but it is a world as diverse as its reach.

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The Right To Drive Well

May 25, 2011

I support jailed Saudi Manal Al Sharif’s right to drive.  I support her right to join the men on the roads in her country, a country that has one of the highest car accident fatalities in the world, like most of the countries in the region.

The Right To Drive Well

See, having spent big chunks of my life in the Middle East, I most importantly support Manal’s right to drive well—to stop at traffic lights, to use her turn signal, to look both ways, to wear her seat belt, move a speed lower than your body temprature, to remove her child from the dashboard, and tell the other kid hanging half way out the window to sit back in his car seat. This I wish for all the male and female drivers in the Middle East.

Driving means respect for the lives of your fellow human beings with whom you are sharing the roads, and I don’t see a lot of that from my steering wheel.  It’s why I sometimes envy the women here who are only allowed to have drivers.  They don’t have to grind their teeth while someone makes a U-turn out of the far right lane, they don’t have to patrol narrow streets looking for a place to triple park their car, they don’t have to drown out hundreds of randomly honking horns.  Whenever they need to go somewhere, they just call their driver and he drops them right at the door.  While the driver is negotiating the roads, a woman can make her phone calls, grade papers, and listen to her iPod, take a nap, answer her e-mails.  Of course, some people do all this while driving, too, further making me wish I had a driver.

For some women, like me, a driver is s a luxury, for others a form of subjugation.  However, living without luxuries is easer for most—but not all–women than living under someone else’s control.

I too remember when driving was my form of emancipation.  I turned 16 and just like every American-born 16-year old, the first thing I wanted to do was get what I was entitled to:  a drivers license.  The only problem was we were living in Beirut.  That meant no testing center for eager American teenagers.  However, I wasn’t about to let a license get in the way of my right to drive.  We were in the middle of war, I explained to my mother, so who really cared about licenses.  I figured the soldiers and the militias patrolling the roads wouldn’t be interested in my legality as a driver so much as what I might possibly have hidden in the trunk.  My incessant droning on about this, with the support of my brother, who at 15, was  little Datsun on the Corniche  one Sunday morning and tossed the keys at me.  “You can go up to the Rouche and back,” she told me.  “That’s it?” I complained.

But in that short drive, I skidded to avoid a car going the wrong way and forced my way into the other lane.  Actually, it wasn’t another lane so much as a funeral procession, and I was right behind the hearse of a militiaman whose people didn’t take to kindly to my nouveau driving.  After my mother negotiated us out of the situation, explaining that I had too many American notions about being 16 in my head, she took her place behind the driver’s wheel and said, “You think driving is some kind of way to get your entire family killed?” my mother shouted.  “This is not a game.”

Middle East roads are stressful, requiring vigilance and patience.  Most women who have fought hard for their right to drive did so with vigilance and patience.  I hope they remember that on the road, along with all the others, male and female, behind the wheel.

People should also remember that driving isn’t just a right.  For all its stresses,  it is also a privilege.  I remember a well-intentioned European asking a boy from Gaza if his mother drove.  “No,” he said.  “That’s a shame,” the lady said, her feminist indignation not registering with the boy.  “Yes, imagine one day if I could make enough money to buy my parents a car,” he answered.  Many women here—clerks, maids, nursing assistants–must say that, too, as they stand in the 120 degree weather, often more than twice a day, hoping that an empty and affordable cab will eventually stop to take them to their jobs.

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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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Cue the Camels and the Donkeys…and the Cool Cats

February 5, 2011

It’s time that we get our Middle East animals straight.  The other day when I was watching men on camels and horseback charge through Tahrir Square in Cairo, whipping demonstrators, I felt like I was witnessing a bad Hollywood remake of Ben Hur or any other “cue the camels” movie depicting battle in the Holy Land.

Only Hollywood wasn’t guilty of this travesty.  It was the fat cats of Egypt.  In this case, when I say “fat cats” I mean it metaphorically, although there are a lot more real cats in Cairo than camels.  It’s just that camels do seem to be the default animal of the Middle East.  They show up in movies, t-shirts, billboards, souvenir mugs and any other item meant to say “look, this is about the Middle East,” even seemingly used by a besieged president to show the few television cameras allowed to film Tahrir Square that “we mean business,” because after all, he had sent in the camels.

If you know Cairo at all, you know that the only camels you’ll meet are at the pyramids, used as props for tourist photos.  In truth the Arab animal kingdom is a lot more about donkeys, goats, and sheep.  Even in the Gulf Arab countries, where there actually are a lot of camels, the horse is the gold standard of animals.  In Cairo, you’re much more likely to have an encounter with a sheep or of course, a donkey. The donkey is the favorite animal of the Arab countries sharing the Mediterranean Sea—not only does he provide transport, he provides plenty of humor, being a symbol for stupidity.

The other day my friends from school days in Beirut were sending back and forth quips on Facebook about what to name the donkey necessary to complete a Middle East farm scenario. There was even some talk about the goats’ and chickens’ names.

No mentioned the cats. But the Middle East is really about the cats. Go to any Arab country, and you’ll find feral cats perched on windowsills, patrolling the back alleys of restaurants by the dozen, peeking through military sandbags, chilling out on beach rocks, and in better times scurrying amongst the masses in places like Tahrir Square.

No one feeds them, as they have plenty to eat in the overflowing garbage dumps of the Middle East.  No on brings them home as pets.  No one even seems to notice them much.  They are the most universal sight in the Middle East, and the least thought about. Unlike the wild dogs that are rounded up, the cats continue to roam free.

Cats tell you a lot.  They sense earthquakes coming before we humans do, including manmade earthquakes like war.  And they are barometers of a changing society.  For example, when I first moved to Abu Dhabi two and half years ago, the cats were so skinny they looked more like bald mice.  Today, they are far furrier and plumper, just as Abu Dhabi fortunes have become far plumper.  In Beirut, the cats are very adept at taking cover, and in Jordan, the one cat in the pack seems to always take on the role of king with his loud meows.

The metaphorical fat cats (it would be too easy to continue with Middle East leader animal metaphors) can send in the camels, but the real cool cats bask in the Middle East sun, happy to be ignored as they take in or avoid what their home countries have to offer them in these changing days.