Jordan’s National Dish: Mansaf

It’s Friday in Jordan.  Family get together day.  Mansaf day.  The first time I went to Jordan, my uncle took me to Jabri.  “This is the only decent restaurantDSCN0130 in town,” he said.  “Order the mansaf.”  I did and found myself faced with an almost intimidating amount of rice generously topped with lamb shanks simmered in a salty, pungent dried yogurt whey sauce that made me want me to gag.  This was the 80’s and I remember thinking that “gag me with a spoon” could be taken literally.  After a few more spoonfuls it became tolerable.  That was years ago.  Today, I still haven’t learned to crave mansaf, as so many people here in Jordan do, but I love Jabri, in part because the other food it serves—Levant food from its Syrian origins– is really good and in part because one of the few things always recognizable in Amman’s ever changing landscape is the bright lemon yellow sign of Jabri & Sons.
Jordan’s capital, is no longer the quiet, almost provincial city it was when I first visited some 20 years ago, let alone in 1935, when Subhi Jabri took over his Syrian-born father’s restaurant and began turning mansaf, a traditional Bedouin creation, into Jordan’s national dish. In fact, Jabri & Sons has been the exclusive caterer to four generations of the Jordanian royal family, not to mention hundreds of families that have it delivered for Fridays and special occasions.
Today, Youssef Jabri, one of Subhi’s four sons, is the company’s public face.  I met him a couple years ago while working on a magazine article.  At 48, Youssef is a British-educated intellectual who himself would make a witty guest at one of King Abdullah’s official dinner parties, events which he personally supervises, much like his late father did before him.
Youssef also oversees the ingredients that go into the food, most of which come from the rural Jordan Valley, where he likes to remind you Jesus was baptized and where the mystical curative powers of the Dead Sea have drawn in tourists for centuries. “My family takes pride in what Jordan’s land offers, from the meat we serve to the olive oil from a local press,” says Youssef.  “We’re always committed to the unique flavors of authentic Arabic food.”

My Friend Sami Deeb

In May, I learned that I would be doing two events in Seattle as part of my book tour. I made a mental note right away to let my childhood buddy Sami D. know soon.  We had grown up together, and spent hours hanging out as teenagers, he, Sami Z and me.  And as adults, we’d stayed close for many years, helping each other out with life from across long distances.  Of all the questions we asked each other as kids–who do you think will get married first, who do you think will leave Beirut first, even who will retire first –we had never asked each other who would die first.  In recent years, we hadn’t been in contact as often, but when he had e-mailed a few months earlier, he did not tell me that he was ill.  He was always in my heart, I knew he’d think it was cool that I’d gotten my book published, and he and his wife could come to the reading as for once we’d be in the same city.  A week later, he passed away, as I learned through his sister, Lamya, who he had idolized.

Sami D was one of the great things in my life—kind, sweet, funny, honest and sincere, and I will always miss knowing he is here.  When I was in Seattle, I had lunch with his wife, Mari, and their son, and Sami’s dad, Samir.  Samir also came to my reading, and when he walked in the room, I knew Sami was there, too.  Mari is one of the most amazing women anyone could ever meet, and for reasons having nothing to do with losing her husband at a young age and for lovingly taking care him during what was a difficult and painful illness.  It is her wish that I share with you these words Sami wrote shortly before passing away.

As You See Me..
As you see me lying dead
Have some thoughts pop in your head.
My body silent, soul awakes
I send my love from heaven’s gates

Now gaze up high towards the light
Summon all your strength and might
I’m trusting you to do what’s right
Never leave from my spirit’s sight

Look at me, I’m resting free
Then leave and love each faithfully
Remember me as you will,
Calming waters, deep and still.


See Yourself Alive..

As you see yourself alive,
Thrive and arrive at your wildest contrivance.

Believe in five criteria
To help survive trials and violence.

Seek brightness and dance.
Cry a teary river, take a chance.

Your dreams derive from being alive,
Provide pride and driving force afire.

Look into your eyes,
There are no lies there.
you are wise,
And your kindness will be all you ever had.

Sami Deeb – 2009My friend Sami D.My friend Sami D.

The Sacremento Book Review & The Night Counter

The Night Counter

Posted by Editor at 8 September, 2009, 9:25 am

night-counterBy Alia Yunis
Shaye Areheart Books, $23.00, 365 pages

When the immortal storyteller Scheherazade gives Fatima Abdullah 1,001 nights to tell the great stories of her life, Fatima begins to prepare for her death. Between getting her affairs in order, Fatima spends most of her 1,001 nights reminiscing about Deir Zeitoon, the home in Lebanon she left for America, and the home she longs to return to. She only spends her last eight nights reliving her life in America and her many disappointments.

The Night Counter is a multi-generational tale of an Arabic family adjusting into the American culture and the disappointment Fatima experiences when she realizes her children have assimilated and all but forgotten their Arabic heritage.

Alia Yunis’ debut novel is wonderfully imaginative and perfectly crafted. She provides not only Fatima’s perspective, but also the perspectives of Fatima’s children and grandchildren, and the individual struggles they each face as an Arab in a post 9/11 world. Familial relationships are perfectly captured and each character is real and relatable, making The Night Counter an engrossing read.

Reviewed by Jenifer Carter

The Boston Globe Review

“In Alia Yunis’s poignant, hilarious first novel, “The Night Counter,’’ purple-haired, 85-year-old Fatimah Abdulla tells her life story to Scheherazade, the legendary storyteller from “The Arabian Nights,’’ who appears every night in the elderly woman’s Los Angeles bedroom. Fatimah has plenty of stories. She came to Detroit from Lebanon as a teenage bride, had two husbands and 10 children. She is preparing to die, but not before tying up a few loose ends, chief among them finding a wife for grandson Amir, an actor who insists he’s gay.

Fatimah has been telling her story for 992 nights, so she has only a few nights left to wrap things up. Three years ago she divorced Ibraham, her devoted second husband of 65 years, left him in Detroit, and flew to L.A. to move in with Amir. She passes her time fruitlessly matchmaking, following the Detroit Tigers on ESPN, and keeping up with “the Arab funeral circuit in L.A.’’ And she talks to Scheherazade about her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The branches of this family tree support four generations of achievement, assimilation, disappointment, and dysfunction. There’s Randa, who calls herself Randy and is married to Bud (formerly Bashir), a Houston attorney, and is the mother of three daughters, all cheerleaders. Daughter Hala, a Minneapolis gynecologist, was married and is now divorced. Fatima’s only surviving son, Harvard-educated Bassam, is a recovering alcoholic who calls himself Sam, works as a limousine driver in Las Vegas and is contemplating a fifth marriage, to a blonde bartender named Candy. Their stories form an affectionate, amusing, intensely human portrait of one family.”

One Hundred Years Twenty Years Later

During my tour of The Night Counter, I was often asked either “What writers have influenced you the most?’ or “Who are you favorite writers?”  I have no

One Hundred Years Twenty Years Later

One Hundred Years Twenty Years Later

answer for the first because to say Gabriel Garcia Marquez influenced me is to say that I’ve made some conscious choice to use his style or tone in my own work, which I haven’t, nor would I be comfortable implying that by being influenced by him my work stands should-to-shoulder with his.  I’ve been saying One Hundred Years of Solitude is my favorite book since I read it for the first time 20 years ago, long before I’d ever contemplated writing a book myself.  I’ve said that based on that ‘wow’ feeling I had reading it.  But in recent years, it seems like nearly every other person I meet mentions it as his or her favorite.  My favorite book had become a favorite book cliché.  I felt every time I said that people were thinking “well, she’s just taking her cue from Oprah.”  I’ve taken my cue from Oprah on several occasions, but when she chose it for her book club, I didn’t pull it out again.  I don’t tend to re-read a lot because I love reading so much and there is so much more for me to get to.  But as my tour began, I started feeling like literary cheese mentioning One Hundred Years of Solitude.

It was a book I’d randomly picked up at a bookstore, nothing I had studied in school. When I read it then, I had barely ever had a job, hadn’t finished all my education, hadn’t been to the many places that did indeed influence me, and hadn’t met the many people who would yes, influence my life, for better or worse, hadn’t seen babies grow into adults, watched marriages end under a multitude of circumstances and new ones begin, and hadn’t watched global events change the dynamics of the world I lived in.  It was also before the Internet, e-mail, cell phones, and so many other things that have affected our attention spans and the speed at which we get information, including fiction. Twenty years is a lifetime ago, let alone one hundred.  And then there are all the other great books I’d read since then, although none ever seemed to roll off my tongue as easily when the word “favorite” comes up.

So I decided to read it for a second time, the first fiction book for grown ups I had done that with in almost as long as I can remember.  I found my old copy and discovered my first revised reaction: I could no longer read without strain the small print like I had before.  Rather than consider getting reading glasses, I purchased a new copy with bigger type and began reading. The first couple of pages sucked me in as before, but now I had more demands on my time, and so couldn’t devour books for the long periods I used to, and reading a book over several days or weeks is not the same as in two or three days.  Nor was my memory as clear as before:  The first time I read it, I didn’t have to keep referring to the family tree to keep the Aureliano Buendias and Jose Arcadios straight, but unlike before I realized, having had to name a large cast of characters in The Night Counter, the repetition of names symbolized the families repetition of life’s mistakes. The book is also paced at the pre-Internet speed, indeed at the speed of a small village in the middle of nowhere South America, a little slow for me now.

There were parts of the book that made my stomach churn in ways that it had not before, particularly what now seems an almost cavalier depiction of incest.  On the other hand, although I had lived through war as a kid, I did not appreciate the truth in the cavalier way he treats the death tolls of war and plague as I did in this reading.  And I had not battled insomnia to appreciate the humor in the village that no longer sleeps.  Magical realism was not a word I was familiar with back then, but the mastery with which he wove it in is even more of a marvel to me today as a writer.  I could go on but suffice to say it’s still a brilliant book, but parts of it strike me differently.

Would I still say it is my favorite book?  It was still an undisputedly unique, original transportation into a tragically magical place, a clearly allegoric third world town, with obvious comparisons to South American but also the Middle East realities. (Qaddafi anyone?). But with time I’ve learned that when it comes to things and children, it’s best not to have a favorite soda, a favorite shade of lipstick, or as I’ve discovered a favorite book. Today it’s one of my favorites, along with Anna Karenina, Cry the Beloved Country, Pippi Longstocking and a host of contemporary novels.

Just like homes, maybe with books too, you just can’t quite go back, at least not the same way.