Cue the Camels and the Donkeys…and the Cool Cats

It’s time that we get our Middle East animals straight.  The other day when I was watching men on camels and horseback charge through Tahrir Square in Cairo, whipping demonstrators, I felt like I was witnessing a bad Hollywood remake of Ben Hur or any other “cue the camels” movie depicting battle in the Holy Land.

Only Hollywood wasn’t guilty of this travesty.  It was the fat cats of Egypt.  In this case, when I say “fat cats” I mean it metaphorically, although there are a lot more real cats in Cairo than camels.  It’s just that camels do seem to be the default animal of the Middle East.  They show up in movies, t-shirts, billboards, souvenir mugs and any other item meant to say “look, this is about the Middle East,” even seemingly used by a besieged president to show the few television cameras allowed to film Tahrir Square that “we mean business,” because after all, he had sent in the camels.

If you know Cairo at all, you know that the only camels you’ll meet are at the pyramids, used as props for tourist photos.  In truth the Arab animal kingdom is a lot more about donkeys, goats, and sheep.  Even in the Gulf Arab countries, where there actually are a lot of camels, the horse is the gold standard of animals.  In Cairo, you’re much more likely to have an encounter with a sheep or of course, a donkey. The donkey is the favorite animal of the Arab countries sharing the Mediterranean Sea—not only does he provide transport, he provides plenty of humor, being a symbol for stupidity.

The other day my friends from school days in Beirut were sending back and forth quips on Facebook about what to name the donkey necessary to complete a Middle East farm scenario. There was even some talk about the goats’ and chickens’ names.

No mentioned the cats. But the Middle East is really about the cats. Go to any Arab country, and you’ll find feral cats perched on windowsills, patrolling the back alleys of restaurants by the dozen, peeking through military sandbags, chilling out on beach rocks, and in better times scurrying amongst the masses in places like Tahrir Square.

No one feeds them, as they have plenty to eat in the overflowing garbage dumps of the Middle East.  No on brings them home as pets.  No one even seems to notice them much.  They are the most universal sight in the Middle East, and the least thought about. Unlike the wild dogs that are rounded up, the cats continue to roam free.

Cats tell you a lot.  They sense earthquakes coming before we humans do, including manmade earthquakes like war.  And they are barometers of a changing society.  For example, when I first moved to Abu Dhabi two and half years ago, the cats were so skinny they looked more like bald mice.  Today, they are far furrier and plumper, just as Abu Dhabi fortunes have become far plumper.  In Beirut, the cats are very adept at taking cover, and in Jordan, the one cat in the pack seems to always take on the role of king with his loud meows.

The metaphorical fat cats (it would be too easy to continue with Middle East leader animal metaphors) can send in the camels, but the real cool cats bask in the Middle East sun, happy to be ignored as they take in or avoid what their home countries have to offer them in these changing days.

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.

Busted on Possession of Zaatar

I just watched a news story from Australia in which a Lebanese Australian called the confiscation of his mother-in-law’s zaatar by Sydney airport customs officials “a tragedy” and “a disaster” and when he still couldn’t convince the officials to release the vacuum packed zaatar, he told them he wanted to speak to a member of parliament.  There, but for the grace of more merciful US customs officials, go I—and almost every other Arab American I know.  Who amongst us hasn’t had a mother or aunt get out a bag of the stuff for our suitcases every time we journey off to foreign lands?

Possession of Zaatar

Zaatar, for those of you unfortunate enough to have never had it, is a mixture of wild thyme and sesame seeds that, mixed with olive oil, is an essential part of breakfast and even supper in Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Jordan, and beyond. It is tied with chocolate in my refrigerator as the number one comfort food.

It might not sound like much of concoction, but it has hundreds of variations, with different thymes and different levels of roasting or not roasting changing the flavors, not to mention the unique mix of herbs added to zaatar that vary from village to village.  And there’s nothing that brings back the Levant as unlocking that aroma in the bag your relative tucked into your suitcase.

Zaatar is the most democratic of Middle Eastern foods, loved by all classes and ages, as I always witness in Jordan at IZHIMAN, a shop that offers several varieties of zaatar, all displayed in big wooden bins from which customers diligently sample before picking the varieties they’ll take home to make their own mixture at home.

Fusion cuisine has hit the Middle East hard, like everywhere, and now you’ll find zaatar being a seasoning for almonds (kind of like Arabic Chex Mix), roasted chicken, croissants, and countless other ideas, some more unfortunate than others, although you can never go all  that wrong with zaatar.  And like the hookah, it’s got a retro chic cache to it these days, even being the name of a Middle Eastern restaurant chain that aims to give cutting edge appeal to old standbys.  But perhaps the best way to eat zaatar is as manaeesh at the local bakery, where it is mixed with olive oil and baked on flat bread in a wood burning oven.  So integral was manaeesh to our childhood that one when my brother and I were in college in Minneapolis watching the news about Beirut, there was a shot of our baker on Jeanne D’Arc Street busy sliding the manaeesh into the oven.  “Abu Ibrahim,” we shouted out simultaneously, knowing that Beirut was still somewhat okay despite the news if Abu Ibrahim was still making manaeesh.

There are a million zaatar stories, but I will end with this one—there was a war injured boy from the Middle East in Los Angeles for treatment that was staying with me for a few days.  This was such a great kid and had just gotten out the hospital, and so we laid before him—not just me, but everyone else that took part in his care– all the wonders and decadence of food in Los Angeles for him everyday, but one day at breakfast he looked at it all, trying with all his politeness to muster enthusiasm, and then gave up and turned to me and said, “Don’t you have any zaatar?  Please.”  And of course, I did.

NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS FOR THE MIDDLE EAST

I’m opposed to making lofty new year’s resolutions–aside from the token and easily forgettable “I’ll try to eat less chocolate”—as

New Year Resolutions for the Middle East

they sometime trivializes a dream.  But I’m happy to make resolutions for others, kind of like the UN.  Here are my new year’s resolutions for the Middle East, and I know they’re laced with loftiness and high expectations, and they probably need to be broken down into baby steps, but they wouldn’t be new year’s resolutions any other way.

1.    People stop smoking like life is a 1950s film noir or a 1970s disco.
2.    People put their cigarette buds, candy wrappers and other litter paraphernalia in the trash can they’re leaning on rather than toss it on the sidewalk.
3.    Let there be water—not just water to drink and help plants grow, but the kind that doesn’t make your hair fall out in shower.
4.    It would be a bit over the top to ask people to follow traffic rules, but maybe they could stop honking incessantly for no apparent reason.  And in relation to that, people should resolve to stop triple parking in back of your car when you’re already late for work, forcing you to honk your horn incessantly for an apparent reason.
5.    Let falafel, hommos and fuol continue to be affordable for everyone when so much else isn’t—and that they remain the best darn fast food man has invented.
6.    People will learn history here didn’t begin with an oil well or Al Qaeda.
7.    Crowded out Cuba won’t have to share its place on the TSA’s “terror prone lands” with more than the 13 Middle Eastern countries already joining it.
8.    Let electricity outages remind us that technology responds to the human condition it lives in.
9.    The word  “inshallah” continues to be a satisfactory answer to most questions.
10.    The peace wins, inshallah, not just people’s hearts and mind, but also on their streets, litter and all.

Alternative Tourism in Jordan

A couple of my friends from Abu Dhabi, all Americans, went to Jordan this week, and because I am in Jordan so often, they wanted my opinion of what to

Tourism Alternatives in Jordan

do—especially with their first two days in Amman.  My best advice for tourists stuck in Amman is to leave, as it is the only part of Jordan that has almost nothing to offer Western tourists on a short stay. My suggestions have been rolling off my tongue for years, pretty much in this order:

1.    Petra:  Now one of the Great Wonders of the World
2.    The Dead Sea:  Take a mud bath at the lowest point on Earth.
3.    Aqaba:  Swim and sun at the Red Sea.
4.    Jebel Musa: Where Moses saw the Promised Land for the first time, and near the old but still bustling town of Madaba, with its historic church.
5.    Jesus Baptism Site:  I often wonder what Jesus would think about  people look up from the water to find themselves starring at an armed Israel solider standing guard just on the other side of the narrow Jordan River.
6.    Jerash:  The old Roman amphitheatre is especially fun if it’s the Jerash festival, and especially if you eat kebab at Abu Yahya’s overlooking the valley.
7.    Wadi Rum:  Live out your Lawrence of Arabia fantasies in a group tour.
8.    Karak:  Fascinating ruins near the mountaintop city of Salt.
9.    Pella:  Yes, more ruins and another chance to see more of Jordan’s otherworldy landscape.
10.    Downtown Amman (if you must and only if you’ve never seen any other Middle Eastern downtown):  The gold souk, the dirt and crowds, the mom and pop shops, and Hashem, the popular falafel and hummos spot that takes up both sides of an alley.

All the above things are things I rarely do, unless I have tourists in tow with me—seen one of the great wonders of the world five or ten times, and it’s like you’ve seen it a hundred.  But for people who are going to stay longer, I’m going to start mentioning these things, too.

1.    Ajloun: The best views and weather in Jordan. At Saladin’s old fort, you can look out and see Jerusalem on a clear day, just as Moses did at Jebel Musa.
2.    Dana Reserve:  Where the deer and the antelope play.
3.    Ma’een: A natural hot springs deep in a gorge, and now with a luxury hotel.
4.    The Houses of West Amman:  This “I can build a bigger mansion than you can” neighborhood actually offers spectacular views.  Park at the Abdoun Mall and head for the hills from there.
5.    Wikalat Street: A pedestrian-only street of stores and cafes anchoring the Suweifeh neighborhood, which amongst its many divergent streets offers up shops that  specialize in honey, chocolate, spices, or cheese, and selling everything from evening gowns to screwdrivers.
6.    Jabri Restaurant: Mansaf is the national dish of Jordan, and Jabri’s mansaf, although it has been served at royal and state gatherings for decades, is for everybody.
7.    The Palestinian Refugee Camps:  A painful reminder that all is not well in the world.
8.    Palestine:  The border is half an hour a way, and the Palestinians in Jerusalem and elsewhere on the West Bank need the boost of tourism.

Fatima’s Fig Tree

One of the last things I did before leaving Jordan this week was to go into the backyard of my family’s home to see if another fig was ready for the picking.

Fatima's Fig Tree

Fatima's Fig Tree

It’s also the first thing I’d done when I arrived there, upon my mother’s insistence. We’re a family that gets pretty excited about blooming fruit.

While I certainly also embraced the apples on their tree and the grapes on their vines,  there’s something magical about the fig, perhaps because it’s so hard to find in its green and pink perfection of sweetness, unless you literally have a tree in your back yard.  I had never been in Jordan at this time of year, and so the last time I had had this privilege was years ago when I had lived in Athens and Beirut, where peddlers used to walk by with carts teeming with freshly picked figs.  I understood better then Fatima’s obsession with the fig tree in “The Night Counter” than I had before.  So while the fig was Fatima’s eureka moment, I had mine picking a fig off a tree in Jordan—I learned that it is possible for a writer to understand her characters even more after she’s literally closed the book on them.

When my uncle came over later that day, he went off on another book, talking about how the figs leaf outfits and numerous other references to figs shared by the “people of the book” or Old Testament, as it is better known in the US.*  Not so fascinating when you consider that those stores were pretty much set right where we were sitting.   But, if we were just talking figs, those stories could have also been set in California, the U.S.’s fig supplier.  But because figs are so delicate, it’s hard to even get them to the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market in tact, let alone deliver them to the rest of the country.  The difficulty of transporting them is why it was possible for me have a conversation with my Florida-born nephew once in which he said, “I know raisins come from grapes, but what do figs come from?”  “Figs,” I answered.  “But before they were figs, what were they?”  Even if I could have torn him away from his Xbox to get a fresh-ish fig one at the finest grocery stores in town, it wouldn’t have been juicy and bright pink.  It’d have been a little tired and a lot happier if it had been allowed to dry up and go into his Cliff Bar.

There are scores of recipes for fresh figs, but really that seems wasteful.  Your time could be better spent than trying to improve on perfection. But if you do insist on jazzing them up a bit, a side of white cheese is really all you need.
Fatima's Fig Tree

* In case you were doubting there was anything beyond the fig leaf threads, here is one of many other examples, and a quote that often find well explains the power and comfort of faith to those who have nothing (and even those who do):

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
a God, the Lord, is my strength;
He makes my feet like the deer’s;
He makes me tread on my high places.

Jordan’s National Dish: Mansaf

It’s Friday in Jordan.  Family get together day.  Mansaf day.  The first time I went to Jordan, my uncle took me to Jabri.  “This is the only decent restaurantDSCN0130 in town,” he said.  “Order the mansaf.”  I did and found myself faced with an almost intimidating amount of rice generously topped with lamb shanks simmered in a salty, pungent dried yogurt whey sauce that made me want me to gag.  This was the 80’s and I remember thinking that “gag me with a spoon” could be taken literally.  After a few more spoonfuls it became tolerable.  That was years ago.  Today, I still haven’t learned to crave mansaf, as so many people here in Jordan do, but I love Jabri, in part because the other food it serves—Levant food from its Syrian origins– is really good and in part because one of the few things always recognizable in Amman’s ever changing landscape is the bright lemon yellow sign of Jabri & Sons.
Jordan’s capital, is no longer the quiet, almost provincial city it was when I first visited some 20 years ago, let alone in 1935, when Subhi Jabri took over his Syrian-born father’s restaurant and began turning mansaf, a traditional Bedouin creation, into Jordan’s national dish. In fact, Jabri & Sons has been the exclusive caterer to four generations of the Jordanian royal family, not to mention hundreds of families that have it delivered for Fridays and special occasions.
Today, Youssef Jabri, one of Subhi’s four sons, is the company’s public face.  I met him a couple years ago while working on a magazine article.  At 48, Youssef is a British-educated intellectual who himself would make a witty guest at one of King Abdullah’s official dinner parties, events which he personally supervises, much like his late father did before him.
Youssef also oversees the ingredients that go into the food, most of which come from the rural Jordan Valley, where he likes to remind you Jesus was baptized and where the mystical curative powers of the Dead Sea have drawn in tourists for centuries. “My family takes pride in what Jordan’s land offers, from the meat we serve to the olive oil from a local press,” says Youssef.  “We’re always committed to the unique flavors of authentic Arabic food.”