How To Behave in the UAE

Today I read on the regular old Internet that the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed, is making his website available as an iPhone application. 

It’s pretty cool to be an iPhone application.  At least it may be my only public appearance that impressed my Apple-a-day-keeps-the-meltdown-away nephews. On these International Herald Tribune apps,  I share Apple time with several others, including my friend David Chaudoir, in these videos directed by Sonya Edelman, all about how to live and do business in the UAE.

And one thing I wished I’d mentioned and which I discovered this week:  If you sometimes feel the need to yell at the phone company, which is not how to behave in UAE, remember that if the phone company doesn’t get you in one country, the electrical company will get you in another.

http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/iht-business-navigator-uae/id429691020?mt=8

or you can just peek at the videos here:

http://www.vimeo.com/20975323

http://www.vimeo.com/20974707

Muslims in 2030

Ever wondered what will be the birth rate of Muslims in 2030?  The largest Muslim country in Africa in 15 years?  Or the Muslim majority country with the lowest number of people living below the poverty line?  Neither have I.

Muslims in 2030

At first they may seem like trivia questions, but on further thought, the answers can be used to fuel paranoia or promote progress.

The other day I was invited to a swanky gathering to reveal the results of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life study on “The Future of the Global Muslim Population.”

I went because a colleague was going to speak afterwards about what the projections of the study mean to him, and I like to support colleagues.  But the part of me that probably would have excelled at statistics if I hadn’t thought math wasn’t for girls loved the all the pie charts and graphs.

Average birth rate in Muslim countries in 2030?  Down from 4.3 per woman in the 1990s to 2.9 today and 2.1 in 2030.  Largest Muslim country in Africa in 2030?  Move aside Egypt.  It will be Nigeria.   Muslim majority country with the lowest number of people living below poverty line?  Even before the revolution, viva Tunisia.  The Gulf countries were not included in this study, perhaps because they don’t have a poverty line, or at least not one that anyone sees.   EuroArabia fears in western Europe?  Fear not—the largest expected Muslim population will be France, and it will not exceed 10 percent.

As for the speakers who came on to explain the implications of this study, my friend, Amir Al Islam talked about Islam in America not being an immigrant religion anymore than Christianity or any other religion because one of its largest cohorts in the US is converts. The other speaker, also an American, attributed the US’s woes to its massive  consumerism and praised the Muslim world for not having gone down that path.  He said this with a straight face as we sat under crystal chandeliers at the Shangri La Hotel while valets outside parked Bentleys and Porches. You don’t have that consumerism in Bemidji, Minnesota, USA, and you don’t have it in Khandar, Afghanistan, Muslim World.

My pontification? There are no universal pontifications that can be made about Muslim world, anymore than I can compare Beverly Hills to Bemidji.  Sure there are commonalities, but it is a world as diverse as its reach.

War and Body Image: Guernica and Arab American Literature

When my friend and author Randa Jarrar asked me for a short story for a collection she was editing for Guernica, I wrote “Girls on Ice.”  Those were the people talking in my head at the time.  Some form of them is always talking in my head because they are in part who I once was and who I see so many teenagers as today.   You can’t be Arab or Arab American and female and not have had severe body image anxiety shoved down your throat (as a teen in Beirut, my thoughts weren’t of the war but rather of wanting to be a respectable young woman, i.e. not fat–whereas as the friends I’d left back in Minnesota took fat as an annoyance, not a tragedy).  War was just an inevitable, uncontrollable part of life, and sadly still is, but beauty can be controlled, just ask any woman in the Middle East.  Perhaps we wage war on our bodies to shut out the wars we find ourselves powerless to control.  But when you come to America, you have to be concerned with achieving beyond the bathroom mirror.  Just ask the characters in these stories.

http://www.guernicamag.com/features/2692/jarrar_intro_6_1_11/

The First Female Superhero

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.

http://www.thenational.ae/news/uae-news/arabian-nights-character-scheherazade-a-role-model-for-women 

Osama’s Other Legacy: Conspiracy Buffs

Osama Bin Ladin is credited with being the mastermind behind 9/11. But he

Arab Spring

should also be given credit for giving birth to a world of conspiracy theory masterminds. Whether you believe Osama bin Ladin was indeed the brains of 9/11 or not (I live in the Middle East, remember), whether you are conservative or liberal, American, Arab, or any other identifier, you have a theory on 9/11 and a now a theory on his death.

Timing, death tolls, targets, presidential elections, presidential dictators, and even scientific experimentation have been elements of conspiracy theories that seem to have become an individual right to self-expression when it comes to Osama bin Ladin–although whispered self-expression, in true conspiracy style.

I was in multicultural LA during 9/11. While I remember the fear and the heavy strides in everyone’s walk and the furrowed foreheads in the days following 9/11 with still stomach churning clarity—and still am haunted by the stories of my friends who were there on that day and the price so many people have paid ever since in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and US military families– I also remember the conspiracy theories.  None of them have gone away, they have just expanded and multiplied, turning most of us in conspiracy buffs.

In the multicultural Abu Dhabi yesterday, I heard conspiracy plots from Americans, Australians, Europeans, Indians, and Arabs of all socio economic strata.  Only once did I hear anyone say, “The U.S. took a long time to find him but now it did and it killed him. And that’s that.”  That’s that?  That’s all you got, dude? And then there it was, a few seconds later.  He was off on a tangent about the conspiracy of conspiracy theories about US powers.

I think we prefer our theories on 9/11 because they are the way explain something that simple facts—19 people drove airplanes into the World Trade Center and killed thousands of innocent people–seem to defy human behavior, no matter your political or religious beliefs.

I have my own theories, too, of course.  But I’m not going to share them because it doesn’t matter what I think.  Osama bin Ladin was already a part of the past before he became officially dead yesterday.  He was the past because the Middle East buried his ideas and power over the people a while ago—even when Qaddafi blamed Al Qaeda for stirring up trouble in Libya, it didn’t cause a ripple of interest, even felt dated, as if Qaddafi was the one hiding out in a cave.  The people have finally spoken in the Middle East and none of them are holding up posters of Osama bin Ladin.

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?

Egypt, Revolution, and Kushari (Koshari)

As the people of Egypt rise up against three decades of corruption, they do so very aware of thousands of years of culture that includes the pharaohs, Cleopatra, some of the greatest scholarship and literature of the Arab world, the wonders of the Nile, the Suez Canal, the Aswan Damn—and, perhaps not as internationally renowned as I think it should be, kushari.

Kushari, sometimes spelled koshori in English,  is a mix of lentils, rice, and macaroni topped with spicy tomato sauce and caramelized onions.  It is exactly what an ideal revolution should be: easily assembled, quick, orderly, healthy for the whole nation, inexpensive, worth the effort, adaptable to the times.  Most importantly, like a good revolution, kushari is all inclusive and socially conscious: while kushari is a traditional street food, it is also a comfort food served at the most elite of homes and it is something everyone loves–it pleases rich and poor, carnivores and vegetarians, children and adults, the health conscious and binge eater. Nor can you easily corrupt kushari—it can be amended to be organic, greasy, low fat, multigrain, or whatever the changing mores of the society dictate without losing its integrity.

I was introduced to kushari by an Egyptian co-worker in Qatar many years ago. The next time I went to Cairo, all I wanted was kushari.  “We’d like to invite you to eat kabob along the Nile,” people would say.  And I’d say, “Where can we get some good kushari?”

Arab hospitality isn’t about serving up simple food, so I rarely got my wish.  “You’ll have to come over, and we’ll make it for you” is the common response.  But I inevitably turn down these requests because of kushari’s above-mentioned revolutionary qualities:  in Egypt, you don’t invite people over for something quick and easily assembled. Any kushari these friends and family made me at home would have also come with a leg of lamb and a roast chicken at a minimum.

Kushari isn’t served at fancy restaurants, and the street carts do require a certain amount of bravery and courage on the part of one’s gastrointestinal track.  Instead, try making it home, just like an Egyptian.  This recipe is from my friend who first introduced me to kushari.

KUSHARI

1 C. long grain rice  (use brown rice, if you prefer, but either way, the rice must not be mushy or sticky.  It should be individual grains)

1 C. macaroni (use whole wheat, if you prefer)

1 C. brown lentils

2 large onions, sliced thinly

1 15.5 oz can of chopped tomatoes

4 cloves of garlic, minced

4 T. olive oil

Red pepper flakes to taste

Cook the rice, lentils, and macaroni separately, salting to taste.

Fry the onions in half the olive oil until caramelized and almost crispy

Sautee the garlic in the remaining olive oil.  Add pepper flakes to taste. Add chopped tomatoes. (Feel free to further season this sauce as you like.  I like to add a little allspice)

Assemble the kushari:  Gently mix together the rice, lentils, and macaroni so they stay intact.  Arrange on a platter.  Pour the tomato sauce on top.  Sprinkle with the fried onions.  Serve immediately with additional sauce on the side.