About Alia

Alia Yunis is a writer, journalist and filmmaker. She is currently producing and directing "The Golden Harvest," a feature length documentary about how olive oil has shaped the Mediterranean culture, cuisine and history for 6,000 years, through war and peace. Her debut novel, The Night Counter (Random House) has been critically acclaimed by the Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, and several other publications. It was also chosen as a top summer read by the Chicago Tribune and Boston Phoenix. The Boston Globe has called it “wonderfully imaginative...poignant, hilarious.” Alia was born in Chicago and grew up in the U.S., Greece, and the Middle East. She has worked as a filmmaker and journalist in several cities, especially Los Angeles. Her fiction has appeared in several anthologies, including The Robert Olen Butler Best Short Stories collection, and her non-fiction work includes articles for The Los Angeles Times, Saveur, SportsTravel Magazine, and Aramco World. She currently teaches film at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi.

The Golden Harvest in Post Production

This morning I was walking along a street in Amman, Jordan and came across several

The Crew in Salento, Italy

The Crew in Salento, Italy. Photo by Fabio Fassone.

people parking plastic chairs near the olive trees planted inexplicably along the city’s public  sidewalks.  They’d climb onto the chairs and start picking the olives off by hand and putting into sacks. What I’ve learned making THE GOLDEN HARVEST is that they are picking too early.  The olives are still too green for oil.  But if they want them for table olives, they’ll do okay.

Seeing these people today reminded me of why we’re making this film and just how hard it is to make a film.  So I thought I’d give a little update.  We’re in post production now.

We’ve filmed in four countries, and have a couple more to go. Along the way we’ve sampled a tremendous amount of great (and sometimes not so great) olive oil. When I sample those oils at home now, they remind of the exact trees they come from, because they taste and smell of the wind and sea and soil of that spot. Maybe that is one of the reasons olive oil stirs up so many emotions. The idea for this film began several years ago when my father passed away, and I tried to think of the times where he was happiest. And it was around the time of the olive harvest,when people would come to him to taste the oil from their harvest. My father hadn’t lived among olive trees since his youth, and I’m not sure he knew what virgin and extra virgin olive pressing meant, but that passion for the oil—for great oil—never left him. How could it? It was in almost everything he ate, and sometimes he just had a straight shot of it as a pick me up. When I started mentioning some of the olive oil stories of mine to other people with Mediterranean roots, it inevitably formed led to them telling me their own stories, all with as much emotion as if they were telling me about their first loves.   And so the process began…it’s been a regional effort, with great co-producers in Italy, Greece, Spain and Palestine. And we’ve brought together just some of the stories of that people along the olive oil route, tales of love, faith, pain and triumph—not to mention science, medicine and needless to say, great food.  CU Fresh OilIn the coming months, I’ll start introducing you to the crew and the people we’ve met–along with their favorite olive oil recipes.

The Golden Harvest Time

It’s my favorite season of the year—olive harvest season in the Mediterranean.   My friends let me know how bountiful they expect it to be this year in their area (drought hasn’t been

A First Batch of Olives

A First Batch of Olives

very helpful in much of the region) and whether they’ve started to pick the trees yet or if they have a few weeks to go.

Some of these friends are new in my life, part of the past year I spent researching olive oil before we started filming “The Golden Harvest” (More updates on that soon)

I haven’t met all the 600 plus varieties of olives out there (although I’ve met a scientist in Cordoba who is attempting to collect them all, after studying olives for 40 years). And I haven’t met all the thousands and thousands of people who somehow make their living from olive oil –whose families have perhaps done so for millennia. But each person teaches me something new.

There are some things you clearly remember hearing about for the first time—bungee jumping, libraries, sex, sushi. Then there are things you’ve known since your mom massaged your baby feet with olive oil, things like whatever is for dinner, it probably tastes better with a drizzle of oil. I can’t remember when I didn’t know that or that a shot of olive oil in the morning is the key to longevity, according to all relatives over 65-years old.

Some Olives in Madrid

Some Olives in Madrid

Outside the kitchen, it becomes, in addition to the favorite bathing soap, the answer to most household problems. Maybe some of the reasons are a little old fashioned, like acting as a sealant for your pyramidal crypt, or fuel to light a lamp, but the list just seems to evolve and grow. Here’s a few that I hear a lot.

  1. Hair Conditioner: Half an hour to an hour on the hair, wrapped in a shower cap. Bonus—add in a couple of spoonfuls of yogurt. Messier but magical.
  2. Make Up Remover: I don’t wear eye make-up often because I’m highly unskilled with kohl pencils, and I end up looking more like ghost than a beauty queen. But any disastrous results are quickly wiped away with a cotton swab soaked in olive oil. No fear, no smear.
  3. Facial moisturizer and exfoliator: Put on face at night and wake up with skin like a baby.
  4. Speaking of babies, it works as a diaper rash alleviator. But in moderation, because of the above mentioned exfoliating properties.
  5. Acne killer: particularly when mixed with rosehip oil and dabbed on the spot.
  6. Furniture polish: when mixed with a little lemon juice, it makes a pledge to keep your furniture shiny.
  7. Conditioner for leather shoes and furniture: But I’ve also heard to proceed with moderation on this one as too much can result in oil spots.
  8. Fix a squeaky hinge—without the nasty WD smell. Same goes for zippers.
  9. Relieve joint pain and arthritis because of its anti-inflammatory properties. Said properties also combat hemorrhoids (one of those things people whisper about, so I buried it in with another tip, although I think if we ate more olive oil, we’d have less hemorrhoids in the world).
  10. Ease Depression: There’s too much of this going around and the pharmaceutical companies are making a fortune on drugs that can also sometimes have horrific side effects. Olive oil has no side effects –in fact, as part of a balance diet, it can even help you maintain a good weight. *

*These are all things I’ve been told or know from experience—I’m not a doctor! But we’re meeting an amazing one in Athens in “The Golden Harvest.” Stay tuned.

The Blog Tour: My Writing Process

(NOTE: This website is currently under reconstruction, so like a first draft, it’s a little disorganized.)

In 2005, I went to the Squaw Writers Conference in what I only partially realized was an attempt to escape the LA screenwriting world and discovered the sweeter side of writing–novel writing. It may pay less and probably fewer people will read your work than see your work, but there are so many fewer human beings to suck up to in the process–and they are overall nicer human beings. Like Patricia Dunn (http://www.patriciadunnauthor.com/2014/08/) and Myfanwy Collins (http://myfanwycollins.com/blog/), who I met at Squaw Valley and who are both the reason I am taking part in this blog tour. Both have great YA novels coming out this year. So proud and honored to have them as friends and writers.   

Patricia and Myfanwy are outstanding editors, as well as writers—and I think that is in large part because they are big readers. Their feedback on the first draft of The Night Counter was so vital. And Pat has been my guru on so much in my life, including helping me shepherd my middle grade novel into the world, along with her best friend and fellow writer Alexandra Soiseth (http://soisethwriter.wordpress.com/2014/08/22/my-writing-process-blog-tour/)

Squaw Valley is also where I met Alma Katsu, the incredibly prolific fantasy writer of the Taker Trilogy. Alma’s just plain sharp, and it could be all those years working for a mysterious organization. She’ll be answering these questions next week, along with one the funniest writers I know, Amy Bridges, whose Texas/Alaska upbringing is as entertaining as her hijinks in LA today. (See more about them below)

1) What are you working on?  

I wish someone would tell me how respond to this one today. The best answer is somewhere between nothing and too much. I am either cursed or blessed–or somewhere in between—for loving to consume and write television, films, fiction and magazine articles. I even like the orderly, mechanical process of writing academic articles and recipes, but that is my escape

paperbackfrom the stress and chaos creative writing causes. Luckily for the world, I don’t do music lyrics.  

Today I’m reworking from first to third person a middle grade novel about a girl trying to have the perfect Christmas in the small town in Minnesota where she lives with her immigrant Arab parents. It only gets worse when a vision of the Virgin Mary is spotted on their driveway. I’m also drafting my next novel, which involves Abu Dhabi but doesn’t have any camels or oil wells in it so far. I’m also going to spend a lot of time logging footage from The Golden Harvest, a documentary that is a multi-country project that has always bound my family together—olive oil. Any of the above could be a screenplay, too…in the meantime, they’re just tearing at my heart and soul, demanding I focus.

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

We are all as individuals our own genre, made up of all the things that have happened to us, that we hope will happen to us, and that our own individual brains juxtapose together. Sometimes for me that juxtaposition comes out as fiction or non-fiction, written or filmed.

3) Why do you write what you do?

Because it comes out of me—it tells me at some point, “Please write about me” and I try to respect the request. I have also written purely for money but that stuff isn’t worth discussing.

4) How does your writing process work?

I move a lot so getting a process down is hard for me, as time zones and cultural clashes and day jobs dictate making adjustments to the different worlds. But I can speak to what have been the elements of my ideal situation, which I am really trying to capture now as I start this new novel.

  • I wake up when it is still dark outside and neither my head nor the road is rattled yet. And then I write for a fixed amount of time without stopping even for chocolate, say two hours. Or until I write a thousand words. This early morning joy has been hard for me to capture in the Middle East, where social life often begins at 9 pm, making going to bed early not so easy.
  • I reserve afternoons for re-reading or editing. And for reading the millions of things in this world that I want read.
  • I tell myself I can go to yoga as soon as I am done writing.
  • I tell myself I can watch my latest TV obsession when I am done writing
  • I tell myself a lot of things to stay put at the desk.
  • When all of the above fails to happen, I clean my house. I have a very clean house.

 

Look for these blogs next week:

Alma Katsu’s debut, The Taker, has been compared to the early work of Anne Rice, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander for combining the historical, supernatural and fantasy in one story. The novel was named a Top Ten Debut Novel of 2011 by the American Library Association and rights have sold been in 16 languages. The Reckoning, the second book in the trilogy, was published in June 2012, and the third and final book, The Descent, published in January 2014. The Taker Trilogy is published by Gallery Books/Simon and Schuster and Century/Random House UK.   alma

Ms. Katsu lives outside of Washington, DC with her husband, musician Bruce Katsu. In addition to her novels, Ms. Katsu has been a signature reviewer for Publishers Weekly and an occasional contributor to The Huffington Post. She is a graduate of the Master’s writing program at the Johns Hopkins University and received her bachelor’s degree from Brandeis University, where she studied with John Irving. 

Prior to publication of her first novel, Ms. Katsu had a long career as a senior intelligence analyst for several US agencies and is currently a senior analyst for a think tank. http://www.almakatsu.com/

Amy Bridges is a Los Angeles based writer and blogger at www.jurassicmom.com.  Amy’s work has appeared on TLC, HGTV, and Discovery Health. She is a Hedgebrook alumnus, and the recipient of the First Prize Fiction Award at the San Francisco Writers Conference. Her play, Women ofthe Holocaust, was published by The Kennedy Center and The Northwest TheatreJournal. Her play, The Day Maggie Blew Off Her Head, received first prize inthe Edward Albee Prince William Sound Playwriting Lab, presented by EdwardAlbee. Her work has been nominated for The American Theatre Critics Association’s New Play Award as well as The Osborne Award for an Emerging Playwright.  Her creative nonfiction has appeared on The Nervous Breakdownand has received publication by New Lit Salon Press.  Currently, she isworking on a collection of essays. And of course, living in Hollywood, it is required for her to always be working on a screenplay. Follow her on Twitter @rattleprincess and Facebook at amy.bridges.12@facebook.com.

The Celebratory Pancake in Abundance

In their modern day interpretation, most religious holidays that are about deprivation and/or sacrifice are counterbalanced in their present day celebration with gluttony. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Diwali and yes Ramadan. Newspapers reveled last year in stories about hundreds of people being hoisted onto emergency room stretchers in Qatar, Jordan and elsewhere, due to complications from overeating during this month of fasting. One could even go further and say that there is gluttony in the grab for power and oppression across the Middle East at this time, particularly surrounding Jordan, where I am writing from now.IMG_1972

Part of that greed has resulted in arrival of refugees, rich and poor, from neighboring countries, most noticeably in the past three years of Syrians, who have not only brought their broken hearts—they have brought their Ramadan efficiency. Damascus and Aleppo are known as food capitals in the Arab world, having held that reputation for centuries. However, it’s not the old traditions that got my attention the other day. It’s rather how those traditions have become so much easier to mass produce. Take for example the grandness of the atayif machines, making it cheaper and easier for us all to eat more atayif, machine that can produce 60 atayif a minute. Atayif (qatayif) is the desert of Ramadan. It’s a pancake that is stuffed with cheese or walnuts or a clotted cream sort of thing and dunked in syrup, a basic principle that carries over to many pancake recipes around the world and to Arabic sweets in general. Few nations are without a pancake of some kind, but most of them are made at home. Atayif is rarely made at home—it is bought at bakeries and stuffed and baked at home. They are actually easy to make, but when you’re fasting all day, why bother when they are so easy to buy.

Sometimes you can still find bakers on the sidewalk making them on their griddles. But mostly today, there is the atayif making machines. I wonder where these machines go and hide the rest of the year—they could be used to make some many other semi liquid batters into yummy things, perhaps say crepes. Although, an embrace of former colonial rulers’ baked goods seems to be out of vogue at the moment in Middle East.    IMG_1969

I enjoy the watching the larger machines at work—well actually it’s bakers standing in the sun making them work. Batter goes in, atayif come out—orderly, predictable, comforting. The big machines are a big part of the newly opened Syrian bakeries. It’s likely the machines were designed in Taiwan (ANKO), maybe Lebanon, and they dwarf the smaller machines found in Jordan, never mind the griddles.

When baked, atayif is a simple food, not too rich in complications or calories–f you eat only one or two. But the machine makes it so easy to make more faster, and for some of us that means eating more faster.

Sometimes I wonder if maybe we didn’t make food machines so efficient, not only would emergency rooms be less busy, our heads would be clearer, and we’d have time to think of things that were more pressing than our adequately filled stomachs. Beyond hunger, food is an easy, relatively inexpensive way to sedate oneself—or a nation–whether it is to fill up loneliness or as a numbing device to shut out the din around us that asks us for questions that most of us feel helpless to offer, as we have no answers to solve them.

IMG_1976

 

Aatayif (if you want to make a small amoutn)

1 1/4 tsp. active dry yeast

13/4 tsp. sugar

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup semolina

6 tbsp. milk

1/4 tsp. baking soda

1 tbsp. vegetable oil

10 tbsp. butter, melted

 

For the filling:

11/2 cups shelled walnuts, finely chopped

4 tsp. sugar

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

 

For the syrup:

2 cups sugar

1-2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

Orange blossom flower water (optional)

 

1. For the pancakes: Dissolve yeast and sugar in 2/3 cup warm water in a

small bowl and set aside until foamy, about 10 minutes. Combine flour and

semolina in a large bowl, then add milk and 1 cup water and beat on medium

speed with an electric mixer until smooth, 2-3 minutes. Add yeast mixture

and continue beating until batter is smooth, about 1 minute. Combine baking

soda and 1 1/2 tsp. water in a small bowl and beat into batter on medium

speed. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm spot until

batter is foamy, about 1 hour.

2. For the filling: Combine walnuts, sugar, and cinnamon in a medium bowl and

set aside.

3. For the syrup: Put sugar, lemon juice, and 11/2 cups water into a medium

saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring often,

until sugar dissolves, 2-3 minutes. Keep syrup warm over lowest heat. A spoon of rosewater or orange flower blossom water can be added to the syrup at this point.

4. Preheat oven to 350°. Heat a medium cast-iron or other heavy skillet over

medium heat until hot but not smoking. Brush skillet with a thin layer of

oil. Pour 1/4 cup of the batter into skillet and swirl skillet to spread

batter out to a 5″-wide pancake. Cook, undisturbed, until bottom is browned

and top is covered with bubbles and no longer moist, 1-2 minutes. Do not

flip pancake. Transfer pancake to a clean surface and cover with a clean dry

dish towel. Repeat process with the remaining batter to make 12 pancakes in

all, brushing skillet with more oil as needed.

5. Put 1 pancake, browned side down, on a clean surface. Spread 2 tbsp. of

the filling down center of pancake, fold pancake in half, and press seams

shut to enclose filling completely. Repeat process with the remaining

pancakes and filling. Brush both sides of filled pancakes with melted butter

and transfer to a baking sheet. Bake until warmed through and cheese nice and gooey, 5-6 minutes. Dunk

pancakes, 1 at a time, into the warm syrup. Serve with remaining syrup on

the side.

Another Place the Deer and the Antelope Roam (or Why Abu Dhabi is Called Abu Dhabi)

I’ve been spending a lot more time around animals lately than I ever thought I would. And if you asked me to guess where I might one day be maximizing my time with deer and antelope, I probably wouldn’t have picked Abu Dhabi. Especially as I lived in a place called Minnesota, where people hunted them for fun and for stew and where I was much closer to the North Pole and Rudolph. I also always thought Bambi needed a forest.

Arabian Oryx at Preserve

Arabian Oryx at Preserve

But next time you’re in Abu Dhabi, take a look at the 50 dirham bill. It might not go far in the mall, but it will get you a cup of karak tea, a few Chips Oman sandwiches, and the chance to see look at the Arabian Oryx inscribed on it.

Dhabis

Dhabis

The Arabian Oryx was just about extinct until the late founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, began a conservation project to save them more than a decade ago. Today, they are getting released into the wild again, but good luck spotting them in the vast, desolate horizon of rolling sand dunes. Today, the best place to see them is at the Al Ain Zoo. Unless you are lucky enough to be my senior class, who has spent the last several months working on a documentary about the vets/zoologists/international cowboys working on the UAE’s Oryx preservation project. (more on that to come).

Baby Oryx

Baby Oryx

When you see your first Oryx, he or she will look you straight on—with eyes that are the stuff of poetry. In Arabic, tell a woman has the eyes of an Oryx, and you attesting to her she has captivating beauty.

But beauty is not only what meets the eye: the Oryx have mastered the desert–they travel in herds, they are a symbol that water is near, they can outlast a camel in the heat, and they don’t let it slide if you try and mess with them. They can prance agilely at 90 kilos. And beauty is power, too. Watching what they do to each other’s horns when they fight, you know you don’t want them coming at you with them.

In a desert, these are all beautiful qualities.   Something worth being named for. Indeed, Maha is a rather common name throughout the Middle East, and it is the Arabic word for the Oryx. And Maha is not alone. There is also Reem or Reema, another popular name and gazelle. And the cute little one called the Dhabi, which yes, is native of Abu Dhabi. There are lot of stories about how the dhabi helped the island of Abu Dhabi get its name, kind of like there are abundant legends about places in the US named after bears and beavers. And just maybe while English language countries don’t name baby girls after deer, gazelles and antelope, it got me thinking the word “Dear” and “Deer” in English perhaps are not that far off from each other. A rather dear deer thought that failed the test when I discovered ‘dear’ is from something that is extinct: old Norse.       Oryx Relatives

Nut Cases in Jordan

In the Red Sea port of Aqaba, you can relive the romance of Lawrence of Arabia’s adventures on and off film. You’ll discover the CIA-esque intrigue of being able to see Israel/Palestine, Egypt and Saudi Arabia from the same spot. Indeed, it is a grand opportunity to take in a vista of all of the Middle East mess at once. Then there is the pristine diving in the Red Sean and taking advantage of the luxury resort boom—or ordering the delectable local dunise and faridi fish eying you at Ali Baba Restaurant while the camels eye the tourists. All these are legitimate reasons to go to Aqaba, reasons that bring thousands of foreign visitors a year.

But when I ask Jordanians what excites them about Aqaba, they often tell me it’s the nuts. Nuts don’t have a double entendre in Arabic, so they don’t mean the opportunity to hangout with crazy people. That is unless you find it crazy to buy bags of nuts by the kilo on a beach vacation. But that’s what most Jordanians do when they go to Aqaba.    IMG_1447

All these fine nuts are purchased in the downtown shopping souq at the Al Shaab shop. Actually, the Al Shaab shops. There are eight branches to choose from in Aqaba, and conveniently six of them are on the same street selling the exact same nuts in the exact same heated cases and bins. Three of them are separated by only one other shop. It’s a business model that should defy logic, and yet every one of the stores is teaming at all times with customers, who eventually leave with kilos of the nuts, seeds and Turkish delights stuffed into the shops’ bright signature red and yellow plastic bags. The bags show up everywhere in Aqaba in their post nut-transporting duties as all-purpose totes.

The mom and pop nut shops that are scattered across the souqs and malls of the Middle East make you feel like a kid in a candy store– but with nuts and seeds instead. There are bins and bins of intrigue, each bin magically keeping the nuts toasty warm and freshly roasted. Almonds, cashews, hazelnuts and of course the king of nuts, the pistachios—in nearly countless flavored mixes and matches. There are pure pistachios or pistachios tossed with almonds and hazelnuts and cashews. Or in another combo, the cashew may reign supreme, with the hazelnut coming in second. The almond can be the leader of the pack, too. Sometimes the nuts are salted, sometimes raw, sometimes smoked.

Like everywhere else in the world, peanuts are price reducer. But the biggest way to cheapen the bag is the addition of pumpkin seeds. These are the big, salt crusted white seeds that Arabs seem to be able to crack open for the meat and still spit out the shell while doing just about anything, especially playing backgammon, drinking coffee, and smoking shisha in a café in Aqaba. The also popular watermelon seeds require even more crack and spit skills, which is why the uninitiated just chew on them, like me.   I blame my incompetence on the fact that I didn’t grow up with nuts serving the same purpose as my Arab relations.  They don’t say it, but nuts are a habit at a gathering of people, like coffee is, but they are also a way to pass the time–crack, spit, chew.  And in so much of the Arab world it feels like people are gathering to pass the time because there is nothing else to do with time.  And maybe nuts provide an entertaining diversion–yes, sometimes it’s a fun challenge yourself to see if the seed will actually come out of the shell.

Al Shaab Nuts

Al Shaab Nuts

The peanut is often in the mix, but it is actually a bean, and in Arabic fuol Sudani (Sudanese bean) is the word for peanuts. And it’s not the only bean in the shop. There is seemingly not enough you can do with a chickpea. Those craving sweets can enjoy the pink and blue sugared edomi, which are dry roasted chickpeas. I prefer them salted than sweet. Beyond the crunch, there is the comforting pasty quality. For more sweet, there is of course the sugar coated Jordan almonds, which do not have the descriptor “Jordan” in Jordan or the rest of the Middle East, where they are ubiquitous on silver platters at weddings and holidays. For an even bigger sweet tooth, raha, a range of rose and orange blossom flower infused Turkish delight-esque squares packed with pistachios and walnuts, is the big seller. I like them best when they are rolled up in dried apricot wrappers. But my favorite is semsemia, the squares of gooey or crunchy toasted sesame with sugar and honey.  Unlike nuts in a bag, semsemia is a comforting sugar rush that makes you want to go out and conquer the world.

Today, peanuts are also sold in candied form, which is not traditional. Peanuts are named for the Sudanese peddlers who once roamed the streets of the Levant and North Africa in more peaceful times selling hot peanuts. I’m less sure why pistachios are called fousto halabi (which means Aleppo nut), because they mostly come from Iran. But I can only imagine how much more confusing it would be for Asians to find a variety of coated peanuts and nacho-flavored crunchy balls, called Asian crackers or Japanese crackers or Chinese crackers, depending on the shop. And the American corn nut and wasabi peas are mainstays these days.

So the Jordan nut shop has globalized itself.  There are ever more ways to pass the time.  As I watched people get onto the bus as we were leaving Aqaba, their overnight suitcases sometimes seemed dwarfed by the kilos and kilos of Al Shaab nuts they were also toting. On the four-hour drive back to Amman as my Kindle bounced around on my lap, I heard people munching on Al Shaab nuts and seeds. No one else had a book. As I heard a kid get yelled at by his mom for trying to open a closed pistachio with his teeth, I thought about how if those eight Al Shaab stores were bookstores, they’d be empty. And thus the nuts win in the Middle East.

Or the Beach

Or the Beach