How Dubai Stollen Christmas

Bloodshed, flooding, people fleeing persecution, the fodder of biblical stories from the Holy Land.  Only sadly they’re not ancient stories trotted out for the Christmas season. They are present day Christmastime in the birthplace of Christmas.  But Noel in its current incarnation is supposed to be about fun.  And really, why shouldn’t it be? A virgin birth isn’t a downer, after all.  But this season’s headlines from Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, those places that fill up religious texts, are hardly the stuff that make you want to decorate cookies and write a letter to Santa Claus asking for a new Xbox One.  You can understand why Christmas-celebrating people around the world choose to tune out the modern day Holy Land stories.  They are not fun.

Stollen Day

Stollen Day

But there is a part of the Middle East that didn’t make it into the holy books, where not only is it peaceful enough for one celebrate the holiday season, one is encouraged to do so.  By shopping.  I love Christmastime in Dubai. The weather is the usual sunny stuff but the heat is pleasantly mild, and the humidity is usually on holiday somewhere else.

If you’re more hardcore about needing a Christmas TV special atmosphere, there are the heavily air conditioned malls, which year round feel like a blizzard is just around the corner.  Plus, the malls are festooned with some of the best Christmas decorations south of the North Pole, including the finest fake snow and ice on earth. Certainly enough that Santa Claus feels at home at Dubai’s Christmas parties.  And if you insist on real manmade snow, there is the indoor ski slope, transformed into an Alpine Christmas village. (Normally, it’s just an Alpine village where the snow never melts.)   Forget Moses crossing the desert—in Dubai, he’d do it in style and without breaking a sweat.

Best of all, not far from the ski slope, there is stollen day at the Mall of the Emirates, when tables as far as the eye can see from Harvey Nichols down past Tiffany’s and beyond, are lined with stollen. People in elf hats even offer us free stollen samples, this sweet roll that is the greatest invention of Germany after cars and gummy bears.  Dubai Christmas follows the city’s principle of do it big or don’t do it at all.  It can’t be a little fun.  It should be a lot of fun.  It can’t be 100 stollen but rather hundreds.  Dubai does birthday parties big, no matter whose  birthday we’ve decided to celebrate.

The religious has been deleted from Christmas—there is no devout imagery, no crèches, no wise men.  Just wise shoppers.  And some reckless ones, too.  No pretense of anything else but keeping Christmas commercially honest. Competition between the blinding number of sales signs and billboards and the Christmas decorations is friendly and beneficial to both.

This isn’t to say that Christmas doesn’t bring out the best in Dubai.  Profits from the stollens are for charity.  And the festive season builds some multicultural community fun for everyone, including for those who can’t afford most of the items the malls, which in reality is the majority of the population.  Including the workers who built the malls and the team making the stollens, who are Filipinos not Germans.  No one talks about the floods in the Philippines or other troubles in the rest of the world and we all get along.  Indeed, in this country where 100% of the native population is Muslim but every religion invented has people living here, the absence of religious depictions works out great.  Without the religious icons on display, everyone joins in the true spirit of fun and oblivion without feeling left out on faith grounds.

Stollen Charity

Stollen Charity

I heard a story once that the shape of a stollen represents the hump on the camel caravans that carried presents to Jesus when he was born. The dried fruit and raisins represent the jewels and gifts.  Who knows if there is any truth to that stollen story, but if you need a gift, there are plenty of places to get one here. And if you’re looking for a camel, better to exit the mall and go to the Al Dhafra Camel Festival, which at this time is gearing up for the camel beauty pageant.  And for a while you can forget about camels and people elsewhere who 2,000 years later still need a caravan to bring them good news. Now that’s a holiday season everyone can hope for.

The Green Food Season

The Levant is among the many places across the world where spring means baby lambs, tree blossoms and the new buds that will produce precious bounty in a two or three months.   It’s also the green food season—when winter’s Swiss chard, dandelion greens, endive, escarole

Hameli & Green Almonds

Hameli & Green Almonds

and so many other leaves recognized for being wiltable in a frying pan run rampant in a final seasonal hurrah, overlapping with new green food, like sweet peas and fava beans.  There are also the foods that urban dwellers rarely meet in their green baby stage—like almonds and chickpeas.  Most people wait for them to be picked, dried and packaged. But in Jordan, where I’m writing now under an almond tree, and Lebanon, Sryia, Egpt and Palestine, these almonds and chickpeas are coveted for the short season before they become vegans’ best friends.  Green almonds are picked and dunked in course salt and munched on, more for the crunchy, juicy freshness than for being particularly flavorful.  Green chickpea pods, each yielding one or two peas, are roasted and then the soft, warm chickpea is popped out with the same principle as cracking open roasted peanuts in the shell.

This spring in Jordan the landscape is super green, thanks to a brutally rainy and snowy winter.  A punster could have fun playing with the word Arab Spring at this point.  But that phrase only makes people cringe.  Jordan has long been a landing spot for displaced Palestinians or a temporary escape route for wealthy Lebanese caught in the country’s civil war.  Today Jordan is a dumping ground for human tragedy—refugees from nearly all its border points—both rich and poor from Syria, Iraq, and Palestine.  It is also a country where many of the gardeners picking spring’s green things are Egyptians.

The gardener next door just returned with from visiting his family outside Cairo.  Between giving me various medical and culinary suggestions for rosemary, so that the herb’s overgrowth will not be wasted, he lamented the ruin his country is in.  I don’t actually know his politics but that is not as important as the sorrow that comes over everyone with whom you talk.  Once sustainable societies that survived, albeit poorly, off the produce of their lands have been floundering between stupor and rage in a diet fueled by junk food politics nearly a century in the making.  This spring, the violent crash diet approach to change is horrifying to watch.

It takes a long time for the region’s beloved olive tree to grow in strength and power and be fruitful.  The little olives are just popping out green now.  There’s something to be learned from the land.  And there’s some comfort in knowing that a predictable cycle of life at least hasn’t been too disturbed in the garden…but even that’s not so true when you think of what warfare does to the land.

Roasted Hameli (Fresh Chickpeas)

Hameli means “pregnant” or “full.”   Rinse the green pods off and dry.  Place single layer on baking sheet and toast until the pods char slightly, stirring occasionally.  (A small amount can even be done in a toaster oven).

My Very Short Middle East Movie List

Recently a professor in the US asked me if I could put together a list of Arabic language films she might be able to use in her women’s studies and global studies classes.   This is only a short excursion around 20 plus countries sharing a common language and multiple problems and plenty of quirkiness.   Some countries have only one or two features, like Jordan and the UAE, so those were pretty easy to do.  Morrocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria, I apologize to all the wonderful films I didn’t list–and to Iraq, the Arab cinema I know almost nothing about yet.  The Middle East also includes Iran, which may have the most powerful films of all, but that’s a whole other list.  For that, see the link below.

EGYPT :

Cairo Station/The Iron Gate (Youssef Chahine, 1958):  A memorable love triangle amongst the workers at a Cairo train station.

Dreams of Hind and Camelia (Mohamed Khan, 1988):  Two maids in Cairo struggle with their employers and family.

Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story (Yousry Nasrallah, 2009)

Asma (Amr Salama, 2011)  A woman struggles with the shame of AIDS

 

LEBANON

Caramel (Nadine Labaki, 2007)  Daily life of five women at a beauty salon in Lebanon.

Where Do We Go Now? (Nadine Labaki, 2011)  Award-winning film that takes a lighter, simplified  look at the start of the Lebanese civil war.

West Beirut (1998)  Probably the best narrative film on the Lebanese civil war as it affected the middle class

PALESTINE

Paradise Now (Hany Abu Assad, 2005)  Oscar nominated, two young men are sent on a suicide mission.

Pomegranates and Myrrh (Najwa Najjar, 2008) A newlywed copes with the sudden imprisonment of her husband.

Salt of this Sea (Annemarie Jacir, 2008) A Palestinian American goes back to see what was once her family’s home.

PALESTINE/LEBANON/ISRAEL

Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)  Israeli animated film about the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Under the Bombs (Philippe Aractingi, 2007) One woman’s struggle to find her missing child in the midst of Lebanon’s 2006 war with Israel.

SYRIA 

The Leopard (Nabil Maleh, 1973) Freedom fighters as revolutionaries

The Extras (Nabil Maleh, 1993)  Life and love under a police state

MORROCCO

Omar Killed Me (Roschdy Zem, 2011)  The difficulty of proving your innocence when your guilty by ethnicity.

Le Grand Voyage (Ismael Ferroukhi, 2004), A young man goes with his father from France to Mecca on an emotionally challenging road trip.

ALGERIA

Rachida (Yamina Bachir, 2002):  A woman faces down a group asking her to commit a terrorist act at home.

Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo 1966):  An epic about one of the most heroic and bloody fights for independence in modern history.

TUNISIA

Silence of the Palace (Moufida Tlalti, 1994)  A masterful look at the manipulation of  poor women in mid-20th century Middle East.

UAE

City of Life (Ali Mostafa, 2010)  The lives of two young Emirati men collide with the lives of a variety of expats living in Dubai.

Sea Shadow (Nawaf Al Janahi, 2011) A young man tries to understand what love is in a seaside town.

JORDAN

Captain Abu Raed (Amin Matalqa, 2007)  A janitor pretends to be an airplane pilot to entertain the kids in his neighborhood.
*For a bit of a taste of the grand cinema of Iran, check out this short list from the website Your Middle East  http://www.yourmiddleeast.com/features/5-great-iranian-films_8295

A Good Library is Hard To Find

What is more important in a library than anything else – than everything else – is the fact that it exists.  ~Archibald MacLeish, “The Premise of Meaning,” American Scholar, 5 June 1972

The other day in Jordan, my mother made the day of a young Spanish woman with whom we were chatting by telling her she could be Audrey Hepburn’s double.  This was true enough, but what struck me was how quickly the woman

Faten Hamama

blushed and said thank you,  banging on her tea cup to make sure her boyfriend had heard the compliment.  Audrey Hepburn was before my time, let alone this younger woman’s.  Yet the three of us shared a common language:  Hollywood films.  What we didn’t learn of this language on the big screen or at home, we were taught via the video store, TV, or iTunes.   Or for those of us who wanted to perfect the language, our knowledge grew through classes—and through access to a film library.

Jordan’s Royal Film Commission is in my favorite part of Amman, Rainbow Street, which fits because the street is named after the city’s first cinema, the Rainbow Theatre, now long gone. I love the film commission because it has given Jordan a genuine film fan and filmmaker community.

But perhaps more uniquely, it has a cozy film library over looking old Amman.  It’s not big or comprehensive, but if you’re looking for film that brought Syrian cinema to an international audience in 1972, you can scan the shelves and find it:  The Leopard.  Arabic films have a language of their own and very few people learn it because the Middle East has no significant film library and no effort has been made to educate students about Arab cinema.

While everyone laments the decline of reading in the world, particularly the Middle East it seems, one forgets that good libraries also house novels and films, perhaps both truer windows into who we are and who we were than any text or history book could ever be.

Before Kramer vs Kramer made divorce a topic to carry a movie or Broke Back Mountain told of the tortured deceits of closeted homosexuality, Egypt’s most famous actress Faten Hamama was dealing with them in the 1974 film Oridu Hillan  (I Need a Solution) . (Honestly, I haven’t seen it recently, so I can’t verify the gay issues that my cousin said were implied in the divorce.)  The movie in fact changed Egypt’s divorce laws.

When looking for the roots of today’s revolutions, much of it can be found even in the poorly produced and directed very broad comedies and melodramas of Egypt over the past decade—rife with farcical scenes about men not being able to afford marriage because jobs are always illusive, scenes government institutions and the absurd rules applied to the Everyman when he tries to feed his family or take care of their health needs, and scenes of the brutal consequences of speaking out against the corruption.

Arab cinema is not always at level of most Western cinema, but it has a long history that lays scattered—and damaged by time—because libraries don’t have the importance they should.   Arabs have a long film history that is their history.  Yet sadly, Arabs don’t have as much as they should a language in which they can say, “You remind me of Faten Hamama in….”

Work Horse in Egypt

My friend Natasha Ghoneim went to Cairo this summer, as she does most summers. But this time she went with the goal of finding some of the untold stories of the revolution.  As Egypt’s revolution made clear, human rights are not something guaranteed to anyone, not just in the Middle East but in many places in the world.

Work Horses in Egypt

So what about the animal rights in a world with limited human rights?

Arabs don’t have a lot of indoor pets, but outdoors, animals remain their friends and often their livelihood, especially horses.  At a place thousands of tourists go every year.  This is one of Natasha’s stories, which resulted in an Australia animal relief organization stepping in to help.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XUFUdf1iUB0

The Right To Drive Well

I support jailed Saudi Manal Al Sharif’s right to drive.  I support her right to join the men on the roads in her country, a country that has one of the highest car accident fatalities in the world, like most of the countries in the region.

The Right To Drive Well

See, having spent big chunks of my life in the Middle East, I most importantly support Manal’s right to drive well—to stop at traffic lights, to use her turn signal, to look both ways, to wear her seat belt, move a speed lower than your body temprature, to remove her child from the dashboard, and tell the other kid hanging half way out the window to sit back in his car seat. This I wish for all the male and female drivers in the Middle East.

Driving means respect for the lives of your fellow human beings with whom you are sharing the roads, and I don’t see a lot of that from my steering wheel.  It’s why I sometimes envy the women here who are only allowed to have drivers.  They don’t have to grind their teeth while someone makes a U-turn out of the far right lane, they don’t have to patrol narrow streets looking for a place to triple park their car, they don’t have to drown out hundreds of randomly honking horns.  Whenever they need to go somewhere, they just call their driver and he drops them right at the door.  While the driver is negotiating the roads, a woman can make her phone calls, grade papers, and listen to her iPod, take a nap, answer her e-mails.  Of course, some people do all this while driving, too, further making me wish I had a driver.

For some women, like me, a driver is s a luxury, for others a form of subjugation.  However, living without luxuries is easer for most—but not all–women than living under someone else’s control.

I too remember when driving was my form of emancipation.  I turned 16 and just like every American-born 16-year old, the first thing I wanted to do was get what I was entitled to:  a drivers license.  The only problem was we were living in Beirut.  That meant no testing center for eager American teenagers.  However, I wasn’t about to let a license get in the way of my right to drive.  We were in the middle of war, I explained to my mother, so who really cared about licenses.  I figured the soldiers and the militias patrolling the roads wouldn’t be interested in my legality as a driver so much as what I might possibly have hidden in the trunk.  My incessant droning on about this, with the support of my brother, who at 15, was  little Datsun on the Corniche  one Sunday morning and tossed the keys at me.  “You can go up to the Rouche and back,” she told me.  “That’s it?” I complained.

But in that short drive, I skidded to avoid a car going the wrong way and forced my way into the other lane.  Actually, it wasn’t another lane so much as a funeral procession, and I was right behind the hearse of a militiaman whose people didn’t take to kindly to my nouveau driving.  After my mother negotiated us out of the situation, explaining that I had too many American notions about being 16 in my head, she took her place behind the driver’s wheel and said, “You think driving is some kind of way to get your entire family killed?” my mother shouted.  “This is not a game.”

Middle East roads are stressful, requiring vigilance and patience.  Most women who have fought hard for their right to drive did so with vigilance and patience.  I hope they remember that on the road, along with all the others, male and female, behind the wheel.

People should also remember that driving isn’t just a right.  For all its stresses,  it is also a privilege.  I remember a well-intentioned European asking a boy from Gaza if his mother drove.  “No,” he said.  “That’s a shame,” the lady said, her feminist indignation not registering with the boy.  “Yes, imagine one day if I could make enough money to buy my parents a car,” he answered.  Many women here—clerks, maids, nursing assistants–must say that, too, as they stand in the 120 degree weather, often more than twice a day, hoping that an empty and affordable cab will eventually stop to take them to their jobs.

What Arabs Talk About At Dinner

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?