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?