Today my friend and photographer Tor Eigland sent me two of his photographs as his way of remembering 63 years of the Palestinian Naqba (Catastrophe). Tor is Norwegian and he’s covered events around the world since the 1960s, but his most amazing stuff is of the Middle East (aside from his photo of Castro on his day of coming to power–which is pretty the much the photo of Castro coming to power).
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?
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.
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.
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.”
“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
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.
# # #
For more information or to request an interview with Alia Yunis, please contact
Emily Lavelle at 212-572-8756 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most of what I post on this blog are about the upside of life in the Middle East because most people living outside the borders of the Middle East, whether physically or mentally, are unaware that there is an upside. Plus I don’t really know how to write about the
tragedies of the region without wanting to scream it all out on paper, which in general doesn’t make a good read, kind of like reality TV doesn’t make a good watch for me. Reality is a tough thing to pull off truthfully and rationally.
So today I’ll leave it to Sami Zarour, full-time engineer, one-time model, part-time poet and one of my oldest and most rational friends.
OUTLANDISH LANDLESS LANDMINE
By Sami Zarour
Boorishly events are spin to evaporated still but fool is dish,
Such acute professional occupation for so nay shun so kitsch.
Accumulating adversary sipping six teas a sham anniversary,
Refuel to refuse refugees why In reality Is it In secure Is real.
Brim borders hoarder are ordered myopic meddling made it,
Terrain see tearing at tears wiping sheared visions intellect.
Four your eye two an I count free religious prayers preyed,
Hardly rock stony pebble softness unsettled by illicit build.
Bawling walls snivel grains from banging heads and two fists,
Crushed olive groves in the blood of fruit always blend less.
Your clouds on my sky, sole on my soul, bricks on my palace,
Time sits at a standstill peace juice in quicksand, no solace.
If I died first by you then tell me how could I have killed you?
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?
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.