I spoke at TEDx Abu Dhabi last week. TED is hard, writing is hard–being a superhero is even harder. But that’s what I talked about at TEDx: My favorite female superhero, Scherhazade. I also consider her the first female superheroine. I’ll post the video in which I explain why when I’m feeling more heroic and therefore not afraid of looking at videos that have me in them. In the meantime, here’s an article that is the result of a nice chat I had with National report Manal Ismail after the talk.
It seems like most of my life, I’ve been asked what it’s like to be Arab or Palestinian or Lebanese or Muslim. I’ve even been asked questions about being Latino and Jewish, based on my appearance I assume. However, I can’t remember anyone ever asking me what it is like to be an American, although I’ve spent all my life being one. I think there is an assumption that just by being born American I am privileged, privileged by the international power my country has. While I’ve recognized the relative truth of that, I’m well aware that the US is not paradise on Earth for so many of its people. Watch any Michael Moore documentary or just go hang out an urban hospital emergency room eavesdropping on conversations—what doesn’t kill you, will make you question the meaning of life and death. And never mind that so much US Middle East policy pains me.
But on a more personal level, “what’s it like to be an American” is not even a question I would ask myself about myself, although I would ask it of others: I think I’ve always felt quasi American because of my childhood. In the Midwest, where I spent my early years, I didn’t have a Little House on the Prairie homesteading heritage—and not just one but both my parents had accents, didn’t know a twice baked potato from a Tater Tot, weren’t rugged and outdoorsy like the Marlboro Man or Robert Redford and thought camping was something people had to do if they couldn’t afford roadside motels. That childhood reasoning as to why we were not ‘real’ Americans, no matter how much my parents would tell us differently, has somehow always stayed with me, compounded by grown up examples that involve words like terrorism, Muslims, 9/11.
However, this fall at the Frankfurt Central Library, when US Consulate Public Affairs Officer Jeanine Collins introduced me as an American author—just plain American, not a hyphenated American—for the first time I felt that I was indeed an American. I was not just an American because a representative of the US government was introducing me (although that was the first time I’d ever been introduced by an American as an American), but because in that instant I realized that the US was the country that can claim and that I can claim, the country that has educated me, given me my voice to speak for all my other identities, let me question what it is to be American, and let me praise its ingenuity, innocence and hope and criticize its darker sides without punishment. There in Frankfurt, I felt that I had come home, that I had been validated as a real American, not just by the US Consulate but finally by myself.
Here’s a clip of that talk: www.youtube.com/watch?v=7o7s6QssY10
In the last years of my dad’s life, I spent a lot of time asking him questions about the Quran. It wasn’t because either one of us was having a religious rebirth or even because it gave us some common ground together other than playing backgammon, although it did do that. It was because my dad knew the Quran inside out, as it had been part of his upbringing. I knew almost nothing about it, as that had been part of the upbringing he had given me. After 9/11 and the consequent Islamanoia, I began to have to field questions about Muslims simply by virtue of being born one. My dad taught me not to speak without having my facts in order, and so that was when I began my journey to explore the Quran.
While my dad hadn’t taught his kids much about the religion, I learned he was a strong believer, which he began to reveal to me in the passages we talked about and how inspirational and important they were in his mind for living a decent life. I suspect his interpretations of several things, including alcohol and the hijab and ultimately death, would not have met with the approval of many Muslims, particularly here in the Gulf. That aside, I think my favorite passage in the Quran would—or at least, should—meet with the approval of people from any religion, including atheists:
“Do what is beautiful. God loves those who do what is beautiful” (2:195)
Beautiful in translation in this case means to show kindness and practice good deeds. Or as Robert Frager, a Harvard-trained psychologist and Sufi, explains in The Wisdom of Islam: A Practical Guide to the Wisdom of Islamic Belief, it is “acting with heedfulness, beauty, refinement, graciousness, and respect for others.” Do what is beautiful just says it so simply.
In manic paced places like Abu Dhabi, where buildings and people and cars come and go faster than the rain, it is sometimes hard to keep focused on the beautiful, until some sad news reminds you of the reality that is sometimes hard to see out of the rabbit hole in this city that my friend Cindy calls “Alia in Wonderland.”
That’s why I like my friend Alicia Bessette and Mathew Quick’s blog, “Quest for Kindness” (http://aliciabessette.com/blog/) Sometimes just the phrase “quest for kindness,” just like “do what is beautiful” act as grounders. Kind of like “Never a lender or borrower be” from Shakespeare, another source of wisdom my father loved to quote, reminds you to put your credit card away.
At the baggage carousel at the Stuttgart airport, the first stop of the book tour for Feigen in Detroit (Aufbau 2010), I waited for my suitcase while four Gulf women dressed like they had arrived at a spa at the North Pole waited for their 10 gargantuan suitcases. From eavesdropping, I gathered the baggage was for a five-day stay.
They had no idea how to get the luggage off the carousel themselves, and there didn’t seem to be any baggage handler around, clearly a first for them. Meanwhile, on the other side of me, two middle-aged German women who had just spent 10 days in Jordan each briskly grabbed her lone backpack off the conveyer belt and headed home. The Gulf women were still watching their suitcases turn, waiting for someone—anyone–to lift them off for them. I was somewhere in the middle of all these women, neither able to briskly whip my suitcase over my shoulder nor waiting for someone to carry it for me. I have lived most of my life between “can demand help” women and “can do” women.
I spent eight days in Germany in six different cities. It was cold, it was rainy, and went by so fast that I only added one word to my German: Schweinefleisch. In English pork sounds just like pork, but in German it seems like I might be missing out on something. I loved Germany. Not that I don’t like living Abu Dhabi. It’s just a little different.
1. In Germany, a train scheduled to leave at 8:52 a.m. leaves at 8:52 a.m. If for some reason it can’t do so, you will be informed in plenty of time of the delay. In the Middle East, there is no such time as 8:52 a.m. “Around let’s say 9 in the morning” would be more accurate, and you don’t really have to question if someone is late until around 10 in the morning, perhaps even 10 the evening.
2. I found “Feigen in Detroit” at the Stuggart train station bookstore just to the left of the erotica section, which was next to the children’s Christmas book section. In Abu Dhabi, you might find “The Night Counter” if you can find a bookstore. It won’t be carrying erotica, or porn as we call it in America.
3. I was in Germany for several days before I noticed what I wasn’t noticing—German flags. In the UAE, the flag seems to decorate everything—from doorways to camels. In Germany, the flag appears primarily on federal buildings. Nor can the German flag pass as a Christmas decoration, which is what a recent arrival told me she thought all the red and green lights festooning Abu Dhabi were for. They were for a different season– neon versions of the flag for National Day (which is like Christmas—one day that lasts several days)
4. In Germany, they recycle everything everywhere. People throw their trash in bins marked paper, plastic, and waste. In the Middle East, you just hope people put their trash in a bin, any bin.
5. In Germany, all the pharmacies boost about “bio” (organic) products. In Abu Dhabi, the pharmacies heavily promote facial whitening creams even when you’re not asking to be whiter.
6. There are a lot of kabob shops in both Germany and Abu Dhabi. Thanks to a large Turkish population, Germany has way better kabob, doner kabob that is, which we call shawarma here.
7. Anywhere you see “schweinefleisch” in Germany substitute “lamb” in Abu Dhabi. The cow has it easy in both places.
8. Germans love dates—as a treat. Arabs love dates—as a staple. In the Middle East, you can buy a kilo for about 4 Euros. In Munich, one date costs one Euro.
9. In Germany, the VAT tax hurts. Abu Dhabi is tax free.
10. In Germany, people read everywhere they go—buses, trains, airplanes. On my flight from Munich to Berlin, everyone was sitting and reading. This made me happy. On the plane coming back to Abu Dhabi via Jordan, the Arabs on the plane were just sitting. No books, no computers, not even any iPads. Sometimes it’s good to just sit, but en masse like that, it made me sad.
Many people ask me why “The Night Counter” is called “Feigen in Detroit” in German, which means “Figs in Detroit.” Therein lies the beauty of translation. It’s all about what your translators (Max Stadler and Nadine Puschel) and publisher (AufBau) see in German that you didn’t see in English. I have loved working with
AufBau from the day they aquired to today and I’m looking forward to meeting the people who read it in German. So if you’re in Germany or Vienna this coming two weeks….
More information also on Facebook at “The Night Counter by Alia Yunis”
Wednesday November 17, 2010 at 7pm
Thursday November 18, 2010 at 11 am
ISF International School
Strasse zur Internationalen Schule 33
65931 Frankfurt am Main
Thursday, November 18, 2010 at 7:30 p.m.
Stadtbücherei – Central Public Library
MedienZentrale Hasengasse 4
Friday November 19, 2010 at 7:30pm
Hauptverband des Österreichischen Buchhandels
Sunday, November 21, 2010 at 11 a.m.
Sunday, November 21, 2010 at 11 a.m. Munich Literature Festival
Club Ampere im Muffatwerk
Zellstr 4 81667 München
Sunday, November 21, 2010 at 4 p.m.
Munich Literature Festival
A Traveling Story, Munich City Walk
Monday, November 22, 2010 at 7 p.m.
Zeitungs-Café Hermann Kesten
Tuesday, November 23, 2010 at 8:30 p.m.
Hugendubel in den Fünf Höfen
Wednesday November 24, 2010 at 6 p.m.
I miss living in the US every day for many reasons, but among the things I don’t miss are the shallow debates on TV that pretty much follow the line of “Muslims: Terrifying or just really scary?”–usually a heated debate book ended with some heart pounding intro and outro musak– like these are one of two extreme positions that need to be taken about Islam’s billion followers. It’s easy for me to tune it out when I’m not Stateside, so I’m glad I missed the whole Juan Williams debacle, and I’m not sure why he got fired when so many others have said way worse things and had it pass as “news.” But I get a kick out of this blog’s response–and feel pretty privileged to be in the company of these fine dressed people.
For all special occasions, Fatima prides herself on the kibbeh she makes. That makes her like many women in the Middle East who have mastered the art of this rather complex food.
In my family, like so many extended families, no party is ever complete without a platter of my Aunt Suad’s kibbeh, which is a Middle Eastern mixture of finely ground bulgar, onion, and lamb or beef that is, most commonly, formed into a patty or ball, stuffed with cinnamon and sumac-spiked meat, then fried, baked, or grilled. When people ask Fatima what the secret to good kibbeh is, she holds up her hands: It is believed that the thinner the shell, the better the kibbeh, and legend goes long fingers are particularly prized to carefully form a thin enough outer layer to envelop but not overshadow the flavorful, moist center. In fact, the word kibbeh actually derives from the Arabic verb kebkeb “to shape.”
Often called the national dish of Lebanon and Syria, kibbeh is one of the most versatile concepts in Middle Eastern cookery, and recipes for it have existed for centuries, when the addition of bulgar to meat may have been a way to make the precious commodity last longer. (It is also made with fish in Iraq). In villages across the Levant, the preparation of kibbeh was once a communal event, and the sound of the pounding together of meat and bulgar in huge mortars could be heard throughout small towns. Today kibbeh is, for the most part, prepared by home cooks or in restaurants and it comes in many forms. To save time some people simply spread the mixture in a tray and bake it. As a main dish, kibbeh is frequently simmered in mint-laced yogurt, and as an appetizer or, as Miriam does for Rock’s birthday, it is often served tartare-style, drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with mint, and scooped up with raw onion wedges. But it is the crispy, warm, deep-fried kibbeh (aqras kibbeh maqliyya) that is most often served to guests, not only as part of the mezze at Arabic restaurants, but also an essential part of the buffet at weddings, family gatherings, and other festive occasions throughout the Middle East.
I’ve given you a recipe below, but I warn you that preparation is time consuming!
1 kilo high quality, very lean beef or lamb (if lamb, lean leg of lamb is
1 kilo fine ground bulgar wheat
1 medium onion.
2 T salt
1 t. allspice
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. black pepper
1 C. cold water
2 medium-size onions chopped
1/2 kilo ground sirloin
1/2 t. cinnamon
salt to taste
2 T. sumac
1/4 c. olive oil
1/2 c. pine nuts or chopped walnuts
Shell: Rinse the bulgar wheat with water and squeeze out water. Grind the meat in an electric mixer twice. Finely chop the onion. Mix the spices with the onion. Knead the meat, bulgar wheat, and onion together with your hands then put
through the electric grinder once. Gradually add the cold water to the mixture kneading until it is smooth and pliable like bread dough (you may not need all the water). Cover the kibbeh with cloth towel so that it does not dry out.
Stuffing: Sautee the onion in the oil until soft and translucent. Add the ground meat and cook through, 10 to 15 minutes. Add cinnamon, allspice, and salt to meat a couple minutes before it is done browning. Take off heat and mix in nuts and sumac. When stuffing is cool enough to work with, you may begin making the kibbeh.
Form the kibbe “dough” into balls the size of an egg. Keep them covered
with a towel, so they do not dry out. Form each “egg” into an oval shell by inserting your index finger into the “egg” and turning it around until it forms a thin oval with an open end. Use your other hand to hold the kibbeh as you turn. Dip your fingers in cold water to help prevent the kibbeh from breaking. Take a teaspoonful of the stuffing and put into the shell. Seal the shell. Do this with remaining “eggs,” keeping everything covered so it does not dry out.
Deep fry the balls in hot oil for a few minutes, until they turn a dark,
golden brown (a color halfway between dark brown sugar and light brown
Put on paper towel to drain. Serve at room temperature with yogurt on the
side, if desired.
This recipe should make about 20.
Fatima’s Freezing Tip: It is bet to freeze the kibbeh before frying it, and fry it a
few hours before serving.