LIVING IN THE SOUND OF MUSIC:What Does A Small Alpine Village Have In Common With Abu Dhabi?

I’m in Obervellach in southern Austria, population 1,500, where the hills are alive with The Sound of Music—the movie that is.  Everywhere you turn, you’re waiting for Julie Andrews to come twirling down the mountain or the Von Tramp children to pop out of the bright flower boxes on the Alpine homes and break into song.  It is Sound of Music picture perfect.  Turns out the folks around here aren’t big fans of the movie, in the way Irish people don’t dig Frank McCourt’s Ireland.  They’d rather you go home talking about the amazing views from the alm—yes, just like Heidi’s alm– where the cows are sent for the summer and everyone can practice yodeling, hiking through waterfalls, swimming in the incredible lakes, embracing local gossip at one of the pubs along the river over lemon beers (not being a drinker is just one of the many ways I’m an obvious outsider here), eating ice cream sundaes the size of mini Christmas trees.

I’m not in Abu Dhabi for sure, but that’s not to say there aren’t some similarities between Abu Dhabi and a small Alpine village, and I’m sure that’s just not too much fresh air talking:

1.    In a small Alpine village, just like in Abu Dhabi, lots of families have little farms with goats and sheep.  In the small Alpine village, they usually also have cows, and in Abu Dhabi they have camels instead.
2.    In both places everybody is everybody’s cousin.  But in Abu Dhabi no one bothers to explain the relationship.  In a small Alpine village, they go through the whole family branch involved.
3.    Both the small Alpine village and Abu Dhabi, have a word that seems to pop up in every other sentence:  In the small Alpine village, it’s “super;” in Abu Dhabi, it’s inshallah.
4.    In the small Alpine village, you can literally smell the green around you.  Abu Dhabi does have a lot of green, but it’s mostly money.
5.    In both places, umbrellas are a necessity, in Abu Dhabi to stave off the sun that never gives you a break, and in the small Alpine village to hold off the rain that seems to come and go throughout the day as quickly as winter in Abu Dhabi. (Water is a topic of conversation in both, but in the small Alpine village it’s about too much water, and Abu Dhabi too little)
6.    In a small Alpine village and Abu Dhabi, people eat of a lot of meat.  In the small Alpine village, it is pork.  In Abu Dhabi it is not.
7.    Both places draw in tourists interested in hiking.  But in the small Alpine village it’s mountains, and in Abu Dhabi, it’s sand dunes.
8.     And in both places, Michael Jackson is playing on the radio now, and in both places I remember that I was planning on marrying him in seventh grade and looking like Farah Fawcett on that big day.

Living in the Sound of Music

Living in the Sound of Music

Abu Dhabi or the small Alpine village would have done fine for the occasion.  Weddings are a big deal in both.



The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

According to 12-year old Paloma, Renee Michel, her building’s middle-aged concierge, is like the hedgehog:  “a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary –and terribly elegant.”  Paloma and Renee are the protagonists of this little hedgehog of a book, with its simple tale of an autodidactic concierge and a hypersensitive adolescent and their observations of their buildings tenants, observations they make while going practically unnoticed themselves.  It’s a bit of a sweet, touching fable, with philosophy that in the hands of a pop psychologist could be converted into a self-help book for those not willing to acknowledge their own worth—or in pop psychology terms, people with low self-esteem issues.  From Paloma telling us that she would find her sister’s appreciation of the mating habits of queen bees disturbing if she were her boyfriend to Renee deploring the overuse of the comma in expressing oneself, the book needs to be read in small doses to absorb Renee and Paloma’s streams of consciousness.  For the action driven, the book lags in plot until the last third, when it takes off in a heartbreaking and nonetheless uplifting conclusion. Oddly reminiscent of another French winner, The Little Prince, only even more complex in its simplicity.

A Recipe From the Night Counter: Foul Medamos

In The Night Counter, Laila goes to the Arabic grocery in Detroit and decides for the first time in her marriage not to buy the ingredients to make her Egyptian husband foul.
Whether you write it out from Arabic as “foul” or “fool,” I’ll grant you that it doesn’t sound very appetizing in English.  But foul medamos is actually a staple of much of the Middle East, particularly Egypt, and an appreciated breakfast or late night dinner served up with hot pita.  Also know as “people’s food” because of its affordability, foul can be made so many different ways.  The only absolutely necessary ingredient that Laila or anyone else making foul would definitely need is the foul itself, which is dried fava beans that have been boiled until soft.  (Fava beans are also a key ingredient of another “people’s food”: falafel)

Many shops in the Middle East ladle up the steaming hot beans in a bowl and let you decide how to dress them—lemon juice and olive oil are a given, as is garlic usually.  But from there, you can go a lot of different ways—some like to mix it up with green chilis, others like to stir in chickpeas, still others prefer a swirl of tahini or to scoop it up with raw onions, some like it warm, some like it hot.  Here’s the way I imagine Laila would make it.

Foul Medamos

Foul Medamos from The Night Counter

Foul Medamos from The Night Counter

1 16-oz can fava beans, drained and rinsed
1 small red bell pepper, finely diced
1 small green bell pepper, finely diced
1 bunch of green onions, sliced
1 Persian-style cucumber, seeded and diced (optional)
¼ c. of chopped flat leaf parsley
Juice of two lemons
6 T. olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed.
1t ground cumin
¼ t. red pepper –or to taste
Salt to taste

Wisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, cumin, red pepper and salt into a dressing.  Add the fava beans, peppers, onions, and cucumber.  Mix together gently so that the beans don’t  fall apart.  Add in the parsley.  Serve at room temperature or chilled, but allow at least half an hour for flavors to mix.

I marked the cucumber as optional, but really it’s all optional.  In fact, I think I’ve been known to make the same thing but using black beans and corn instead of the fava beans and calling it a Mexican salad.  Of course, that brings me to my theory of the continents being connected once via the similarity in recipes that seem to be so dominant in both Egypt and Mexico.  Of course, war, occupation and conquistadors could also explain that away.  But I digress.

The Night Counter: A Starred Review in Kirkus

The Night Counter received a starred reveiw in Kirkus Reviews this week.  It leaves a tired writer so joyful she is wordless.  A link to the original can be found at:  (It also inspired Chris Costello, the person who designed this website, and I to update the Events page on the website.)

But if you just want to read the review here:

STARRED Yunis, Alia

Yunis’ book club–ready debut uses The Arabian Nights as a departure point for an immigrant-assimilation story.

The central character, around whom a cast of dozens revolves like a time piece, is Fatima Abdullah: purple-haired mother, grandmother and Lebanese migrant who settled in Detroit in the 1930s. The book opens, however, with an older Fatima in contemporary West Hollywood; the conservative but flexible matron moved there 992 nights ago to live with her gay grandson Amir. On that first night, she had a visit from none other than Scheherazade herself. The Arab beauty with 1,001 tales demanded stories from Fatima’s past, and when asked “What if I don’t tell you a story?” she replied, “When our tales are over, so are our lives.” Now Fatima is counting down to night No. 1,001, believing it will bring her death at the age of 85. Yunis’ gifted handling of character and environment forestalls the question of whether Fatima is insane or gifted with magical thinking as she debates and ruminates with Scheherazade about life, family and America. The only relative willing to tolerate her unintentionally hilarious outbursts is Amir, an aspiring actor struggling against typecasting as a terrorist (his dream role is the lead in an Omar Sharif biopic). He’s bitter over his breakup with a sexy soap-opera star—whose driveway, we learn, has been conscripted for spying purposes by the FBI, which has mistaken the Abdullahs’ family dramas for national-security concerns. Yunis cleverly weaves a vast social web containing Fatima’s ten offspring, beginning each vignette with the matriarch’s musings about her kids, which lead Scheherazade to fly around America eavesdropping on the wildly diverse clan. Readers may occasionally get lost in the rain of names and details, but the characters’ grounded humanity and emotional clarity always provide orientation.

The Night Counter: A Starred Review in Kirkus

The Night Counter: A Starred Review in Kirkus

Emotionally rewarding reading that builds to a poignant and thoroughly satisfying climax.


Not all Arab countries are created equal—most of them have oil as a big part of their identity, but for some it’s the oil that runs cars and for others it’s the stuff the comes from olives.  A couple of them, like Algeria, have both.  Sometimes the contrast between Arab countries is minimal, such as within the Levant countries, give or take different versions from town to town of dishes utilizing that vital olive oil and cities with varying degrees of nightlife.

Today I’m in Jordan for a few days, and when I saw the people shoving each other around in the Amman airport, it made think about how people were so much more polite at the Abu Dhabi airport.  Then I started thinking of more differences:

1.    The General Population:  The majority of the people who live and work in Jordan are Jordanian citizens.  Only something like 17% of the population in Abu Dhabi is local, the rest coming from every other continent but Antarctica (although that could change when the new wild refugee opens in a couple of years, and some penguins come over)
2.    Dress Code:  In Abu Dhabi, most Emirati women wear the black abaya and shala and the men the white thobe and headdress.  In Jordan, you’ve got a little bit of that, a little bit of backless mini dresses, and plethora of headscarf (hijab) options, from colorful and far flung to a dour, tightly wrapped cream one, some worn with long dresses, some worn with tight jeans.
3.    The Desert:  Abu Dhabi’s desert is lush hills of crystal brown against an endless horizon.  Jordan’s desert is mountainous, tinged with red rocks and ridged white rock. And for practical living purposes—Abu Dhabi’s is not a dry heat.
4.    The Fruits and Vegetables:  In Abu Dhabi they come from as many countries as the people, but they don’t survive as well.  Either you can buy a bruised sad apple from Syria or a perfect one from the U.S. that is so preserved it would probably survive a nuclear attack.  In Jordan, you can always find a farmer who has plopped himself on the side of the road to sell his excess of strawberries or cucumbers.
5.    Employment:  Abu Dhabi has a lot, Jordan not so much.
6.    Cigarettes:  People in Jordan still smoke like life is a Humphrey Bogart film, and in Abu Dhabi, you see almost no public smoking.
7.    The Mosques:  Abu Dhabi has a lot more, and the call to prayer is always heard—you can literally set your clock to it.  In Amman, your ears have to tune into it.
8.    The Camels: Again, Abu Dhabi has a lot more.  Enough that they have camel crossing warnings on the UAE highways.  Think of a deer and then think twice as bad.
9.    The Tourists:  The ones in Jordan come to see ancient ruins and biblical landmarks.  The ones who come to Abu Dhabi want to go sand duning, see the camels, and explore the sleek, modern wonders of Dubai.
10.    Traffic:  People in Abu Dhabi complain that everyone needs to go traffic school, but those people haven’t been to Jordan.  People in Jordan complain about the same thing, but those people haven’t been to Abu Dhabi.

Not all Arab Countries Have Camel Crossings

Not all Arab Countries Have Camel Crossings

The Night Counter One of The Chicago Tribune’s Hot Summer Reads

The Night Counter One of The Chicago Tribune's Hot Summer Reads

The Night Counter One of The Chicago Tribune's Hot Summer Reads

All my life I have written down on forms “Chicago” when asked for birthplace. So this is particularly sweet for me. Not that I know Chicago well–I’ve only been there once since we moved when I was five. But I’ve always thought I was lucky to be born in such a cool city, despite my rather limited and rather uncool memories: Mostly what I remember is playing around a fountain with my brother (which I now know is in Grant Park), drawing on the walls of the tiny bedroom he and I shared in the cramped apartment we lived in, and the basement of Marshall Fields (at least I think it was the basement), where there was a big, long candy counter with green and red and yellow chewy things and old man on a bench that was quietly eating his orange slice candies trying to ignore my staring. He eventually smiled and offered me one out of the bag. I took it and smiled back–the only thing my mother said as I chewed was “you better have told him thank you.” I’m old enough to remember when it was okay to take candy from strangers.

Making Movies in Abu Dhabi

This spring my students have won several awards for their films—-national awards, not international, but we haven’t tried that yet.  It’s my first year teaching them, and it’s the first year they make short narrative films and documentaries that are not tour guides to the UAE.  The results, good and bad, have been a surprise to both me and them.  The students at Zayed University are all female, all UAE nationals, all bilingual (English and Arabic) and for the most part between 18-24 years old.  The country doesn’t really have a film industry yet, although with a billion dollar fund and several eager producers in the making, that is sure to happen.

What will they make films about?  Well, if my students are the futu

Making Movies in Abu Dhabi

Making Movies in Abu Dhabi

re, a major theme is going to be the battle between tradition and globalization, a theme that runs through most of their films, not to mention the national discourse.  The films that have won some of them accolades this year are about karak tea (an Indian brew that is a integral part of Emirati daily life), a young Brit discovering he was adopted at birth and is really a rich Emirati, and a recreated story about the chickpea seller who started the UAE’s first newspaper. Perhaps the most disturbing one for me to watch was the blow-by-blow filming of a sheep slaughter–the cinematography was so good, so graphic, it was nearly impossible to watch (“How are you going to grade us, Miss, if you don’t open your eyes?” “It’s okay, Miss, it’s halal”)

They script, shoot, and edit their own work.  Even when the work falls short of what they had hoped for, I find myself proud of them.  It doesn’t always make up for the constant Blackberrying, even in class, the idea that time and deadlines are fluid, and other frustrating combinations of things unique to the Middle East and their generation.  Nor does it always cover for the lack of knowledge and interest they sometimes have in the world outside, like when they don’t know what apartheid means or who Lawrence of Arabia was.  But then the other day, a few of them looked at me blankly when I mentioned Martin Luther King.  There was no hiding my disappointment in the silence.  Then one of them beamed, “Wait, I know, I know…the I have a dream guy.”  And so do they.

Making Movies in Abu Dhabi.