Doner Kabob and Schweinefleisch

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.

Feigen in Detroit: The Night Counter in Germany

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

Feigen in Detroit

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
James-F.-Byrnes-Institut
Deutsch-Amerikanisches Zentrum
Charlottenplatz 17
Stuttgart, Germany

Thursday November 18, 2010 at 11 am
ISF International School
Strasse zur Internationalen Schule 33
65931 Frankfurt am Main
Frankfurt, Germany

Thursday, November 18, 2010 at 7:30 p.m.
Stadtbücherei – Central Public Library
MedienZentrale Hasengasse 4
Frankfurt, Germany

Friday November 19, 2010 at 7:30pm
Hauptverband des Österreichischen Buchhandels
Palais Fürstenberg
Grünangergasse 4
Vienna, Austria
Sunday, November 21, 2010 at 11 a.m.

Sunday, November 21,  2010 at 11 a.m. Munich Literature Festival
WORD-RAGA
Club Ampere im Muffatwerk
Zellstr 4 81667 München
Germany

Sunday, November 21, 2010 at 4 p.m.
Munich Literature Festival
A Traveling Story, Munich City Walk
Germany

Monday, November 22, 2010 at 7 p.m.
Zeitungs-Café Hermann Kesten
Stadtbibliothek
Gewerbemuseumsplatz 4
Nürnberg, Germany

Tuesday, November 23, 2010 at 8:30 p.m.
Hugendubel in den Fünf Höfen
Theatinerstraße 15
80333 München
Germany

Wednesday November 24, 2010 at 6 p.m.
Forum Factory
Besselstr. 13-14
10969 Berlin
Germany

Muslims Wearing Things

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.

http://muslimswearingthings.tumblr.com

Recipe From The Night Counter: Kibbeh

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.

Family and Kibbeh

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!

KIBBEH
1 kilo high quality, very lean beef or lamb (if lamb, lean leg of lamb is
best)
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

STUFFING:
2 medium-size onions chopped
1/2 kilo ground sirloin
1/2t. allspice
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
sugar)

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.

THE PAPERBACK RELEASE OF THE NIGHT COUNTER THIS WEEK

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                    Contact: Emily Lavelle
(212) 572-8756
elavelle@randomhouse.com

PRAISE FOR THE NIGHT COUNTER:
“[Yunis] weaves a colorful tapestry…rich in character and spirit.” —Entertainment Weekly

“Wonderfully imaginative…poignant, hilarious…The branches of this family tree support four generations of achievement, assimilation, disappointment, and dysfunction.…Their stories form an affectionate, amusing, intensely human portrait of one family.”
—Boston Globe

“Little pigs and lost siblings make for decent bedtime story fodder. But the life and times of Fatima Abdullah, the madcap matriarch of Alia Yunis’s charming debut, The Night Counter, is even better.” —Daily Candy

“The Night Counter, Alia Yunis’s first novel, mixes equal parts of magical realism, social commentary, family drama and lighthearted humor to create a delicious and intriguing indulgence worth savoring.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

The Night Counter
A Novel
By Alia Yunis

When THE NIGHT COUNTER: A Novel (Three Rivers Press; July 13, 2010) by PEN Emerging Voices Fellow Alia Yunis was published in hardcover in 2009, it was chosen as recommended summer reading by the Chicago Tribune and Boston Phoenix, received rave reviews across the board, and was praised as “wonderfully imaginative,” (Boston Globe), “emotionally rewarding reading,” (Kirkus, starred review), and a “captivating debut” (Publishers Weekly).

Now available in paperback and perfect for summer reading, THE NIGHT COUNTER crafts a striking tapestry of modern Arab American life. With great comic timing and a touch of magical realism, this quirky and poignant novel centers on the last ten days of Fatima Abdullah’s life and the richly layered, multigenerational stories of her family.

The beautiful and immortal Scheherazade, the legendary character from The Arabian Nights, has been roaming the earth for eleven centuries, and she yearns for a story to distract her. When she follows an American soldier home from Iraq out of curiosity, she runs into Fatima Abdullah in Los Angeles, a cantankerous and fiercely loyal matriarch of a sprawling Arab American clan with two husbands, ten children, fourteen grandchildren, and one great-grandchild with a great-great-grandchild on the way.

Eager to learn more of her family secrets and why Fatima left her husband—the great love of her life—at the age of eighty-two, Scheherazade visits Fatima each night, coaxing her to divulge more about her past and speculate on her family’s future. THE NIGHT COUNTER begins with Scheherazade’s 992nd visit.  She has already warned Fatima that “when our stories end, so do our lives,” but now, with just nine days left, Fatima has run out of childhood stories of Lebanon and must tell a love story, a story she has run from all her life.

With a zealous FBI agent watching her home, a gay grandson refusing to take her marriage advice, and ten children who make lousy heirs to her house in Lebanon, Fatima is finding her remaining days in Los Angeles quite frustrating. Through Fatima’s stories and through first-person chapter narratives of Fatima’s progeny in Lebanon and across the United States, Yunis unravels four generations of a quirky clan whose members are as desperate as Fatima to find where they belong. Imbued with great humanity and imagination, THE NIGHT COUNTER is a heartwarming tale that proves that storytelling is an act of love.
# # #

The Night Counter
By Alia Yunis
Three Rivers Press
On sale: July 13, 2010
978-0-307-45363-1; $14.00 paperback
http://www.threeriverspress.com
http://www.aliayunis.com

For more information or to request an interview with Alia Yunis, please contact
Emily Lavelle at 212-572-8756 or at elavelle@randomhouse.com.

LAUNDRY DAY FOOD FROM THE NIGHT COUNTER: MAJADERA

In The Night Counter, Amir promises his grandmother Fatima that for dinner he is not eating quiche, or gay pie, as he explains it to her, but rather

Laundry Day Food

majadera, a food with a whole lot less glamour to it than quiche and a whole lot more gas.  But dress it down or dress it up, majadera is a perennial favorite.  Not because it’s cheap, easy, and fast, not even because it’s rich in vitamins and fiber and made from ingredients that are always in the pantry.  Those were the reasons it was prized in the past.  Today majadera is just simply good food.

Majadera is so simple to make that you shouldn’t serve to company, or at least that’s what my mother used to say.  She got that from her mother, who called it “laundry day food,” because it was the only thing she had time to make on the days she had to take care of the laundry of a family of nine without the awareness that somewhere in this world laundry machines existed.

Majadera has come up in the world, as vegetarian food is no longer for the poor man’s table.  It seems to be more standard in mezze today and expats order it by choice.  But the basic recipe hasn’t changed, still pretty much the same if you can call it a recipe at all.  You can use bulgur wheat or the more common rice.  You can serve it with the lentils and rice still holding their shape or you cook it into a mush.  But the one thing you can’t leave out is the caramelized onions that must cover the top.

Cheap, easy, and fast doesn’t usually mean great when we talk about most things in life but there are always exceptions and majadera is one.

BASIC MAJEDERA

Two cups lentils
One cup rice
Three large onions, thinly sliced
Olive oil
Salt, pepper to taste
Cumin, optional

Boil the lentils with more than enough water to cover.  When the lentils are very soft, about 45 minutes to an hour, add the rice, and cook for another half hour, until rice is tender.  Remember to make sure there is enough water in the pan, as the rice absorbs so much.  Add salt and pepper to taste (it will need a lot of salt).  If you like, add a little cumin, which isn’t traditional, but I know a few people who use it.

Meanwhile, fry the onions until caramelized.  Spread the majdera on a platter and cover with the fried onions.  Serve with yogurt, pickles, and chopped tomato salad* on the side.  Good hot, cold, or at room temperature.

To Mexican-Americanize it a bit, salsa is an easy, perhaps I might even say superior, substitute for tomato salad.

The Henna Hands of The Night Counter

The paperback cover is ready, and no, neither one of the hands on it is mine, as some people have asked me.   Responding to “Don’t you love it as much as we do? We hope so!” was about as much input as I was allowed to have in the cover’s design.  And after getting over the initial stupefaction of seeing a visual interpretation of 300 plus pages of words and after having lived with the hard cover for so long now, I do indeed love it.

The Henna Hands of The Night Counter

So what character’s hands are on the cover?  Definitely Scheherazade’s.  The other people in the book wouldn’t do henna, unless it was part of an orientalist-themed party, the sorts of parties that aren’t organized by the people the people in The Night Counter know.

There is in fact a lot more henna in my real world than in the real world of The Night Counter.  Scheherazade’s people are the ones who brought henna to the UAE area, where it is very much a part of daily life.  On the practical side, it is still used for making hair stronger and covering gray.  But where it really shows its true colors is as hand and foot art.  The Gulf women, as well as many people who have lived here a long time, go have their hands and feet painted for most special occasions, especially weddings.   The artwork is usually done by Sudanese women, who move with such agility that it’s like watching one of those speeded up painting videos from PBS.  The possibilities for intertwining flowers and vines are pretty endless, and it will stay nearly pristine for about week.   Red henna, that’s the real stuff.  Black henna, which is used on the desert safari tourist circuit, is synthetic, and I’ve seen more than one allergic reaction to it.

I kind of get freaked out by the images my mind creates out of the fading henna, when the flowers and vines can morph into disturbing shapes.  Henna isn’t for everyone, and probably most of the women in The Night Counter, aside from Scheherazade, don’t have the time and patience to sit down for henna design as a part of regular US-paced life.  Well, maybe Randy, if she gave up her weekly manicures and pedicures could squeeze henna in, but then I’m sure Scheherazade would wonder who wants to see henna on unmanicured hands?

Love Notes From Fatima and Scheherazade

Debutante’s Ball is a website of a bunch of fun authors with upcoming books.  Alicia Bessette, whose novel is coming out in

Love Notes

August and who’s one of the webmasters asked me to write a bit on love, and here you go, and I think Fatima and Scheherazade would approve:

Some Love Notes for Debutantes  http://www.thedebutanteball.com/?m=20100213

Silence As Golden As Sand

“Silence” is a relative word, referring to how quiet a place is compared to other times.  Silence in a home still involves the hum of the fridge, the heater, the creaking in the wood, the wind on the windows, and so many other things.  Outside, it means the birds still chirping, bugs buzzing, the breeze, a car going by on a distant highway.

Golden Silence

But nature showed my brother and I definite silence when I took him to Liwa on his short visit to Abu Dhabi.  Liwa is the center of the Empty Quarter, Liwa being the oasis in an the unforgiving terrain of spectacular tawny sand swirls going up and down dunes in what I’ve been told is the world’s largest sand desert.  It was just after a holiday, and so no one was traveling–the usual dune hiking was absent as we drove to the most famous and tallest of the dunes.  Merheb Dune is sadly surrounded by concession stands and race tracks that minimize its beauty.  So we went back and stopped at a spot with no duning tracks.  Like I have done for everyone that has come to visit, I wanted my brother to experience the sensation of running up and down a dune, your feet sinking into pockets of hot and cool softness as the sun creates patterns on it.  At the top of one dune, we stopped so he could take a picture.  And that’s when the silence got to us.  We hadn’t grown up with even the pretension of silence inside or outside out home, and as adult both our worlds were noisy, his with rockets and children and mine with a long list of big cities.  I don’t think we’d ever heard total silence:  not an insect or bird, not a trace of wind, no human noise except the noise that is always in our heads, and even that seemed to quiet down.  “What is that?” I asked. “Silence,” he shrugged.  “Kind of freaky, huh,” I answered.  “Cool, too,” he said.  Silence as golden as the sand literally was. We kept waiting for something in nature to make a sound, but nothing did.

I don’t know if there is anywhere else to experience absolute silence.  That’s why I was a little saddened the other day to hear about new plans Abu Dhabi has to build several resorts in the area and expand the population over the next few years by 350,000.  Perhaps it will help the Bedouins of the area have a better life, but maybe there is an easier way to give them that chance, a quieter way, a way that will not defy the reasons it has been called the Empty Quarter for so long.

TAYEB SALIH: ARABS IN TRANSLATION

My first job out of college was working at the television station in Qatar, and one of the first things my co-worders told me was “Tayeb Salih used to run this place.”  There was a reverence in their voices that I didn’t get because I will admit I had never heard of him. But I learned quickly that Salih is considered to have written the great Arab novel, “Season of Migration to the North,” and it took having my friend Laila Lalami write the introduction for the recent reprint for me to sit down and read it.  I now wish I been paying more attention to the stories about him my co-workers in Qatar used to spin.

Very few Arabic books come out in English. Perhaps that is one of the reasons “A Season of Migration to the North” has been so celebrated as the great modern Arabic novel.  The Sudanese born Salih studied in the UK for many years, and as such played a role in the translation of his book in 1969, although he was not the official translator.  If you want more information on this, I’m going to suggest reading Laila Lalami’s introduction in the reprint of the book that just came out this year—but wait until you finish the novel, then go back to her analysis of its status as the great literary work on the sad results of post colonialism in the in Africa and the Middle East.  My friend Jackie insisted I read Salih’s novella, “The Wedding of Zain” first, as she preferred it.  I did, and it’s almost hard to imagine the same author could write both, the novella being a quirky and deceptively simple look at Sudan, whereas “Season of Migration to the North” is dark, overtly sexual, wide in its political and social scope and a masterfully constructed page turner—all in only 139 pages.  More modern Arabic novels that turn a critical and uninhibited eye on their worlds, like “The Yacubian Building,” while also great reads, do it without the precision Salih has, “This is the land of despair and poetry but there is no one to sing.”