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.

BEIRUT: CATS INSTEAD OF GUNS

When I used to look out at the Corniche from our apartment in Beirut in the 1980s, I’d see a lot of guns, partly because a makeshift military post had sprung up

Cats Instead of Guns

Cats Instead of Guns

one night in the field in front of us, and partly because there was a war.  People still found away to walk the Corniche for a breath of fresh air from curfews, and a few, a very few, stray dogs milled about too.  The military post is now permanent and people still walk on the Corniche for fresh air, but the guns have diminished greatly and there are no stray dogs about.  Both the guns and the dogs have been replaced by cats—so many cats that their different shades form the mosaics for the beach rocks, almost like beach blankets made of cats.  Sometimes they work as optical illusions, too, as they spring in and out of the rocks, where they camoflauge as good as, if not better than, khaki. I’m not a huge fan of feral cats, but, as long as they don’t want to bite you, they are a lot more amusing than guns.

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.

Mathematics and Olive Oil

Mathematics and Olive OilIn The Night Counter, Fatima is fixated on numbers and it is something that runs through the family for five generations.  She thinks about math when’s she’s cooking, too, as any woman who raised 14 kids probably would—how much to make for each one, how much it was costing, and so forth.  And how many bottles of olive oil to order at the Middle Eastern market is certainly something necessary to be calculated, much as her ancestors would have wondered each year how much olive oil their crops would yield.

Many people ask me anything in the book is autobiographical, and I can honestly say no, but there is a tendency for OTHER people I’m related to have a thing for math.  Me, I was flustered yesterday trying to help my 10-year old nephew with algebra I vaguely recall doing  in 8th grade, which was a long time ago for my brain cells.  But I had a good time with these math word problems with my seven-year old nephew, perhaps because they involve olive oil and pizza.  So if you need any word problems for the weekend, voila.

(And for those of you interested, the photo of olive oil here is of three olive oils from the West Bank, organic oil made under Fair Trade laws to help the Palestinians preserve their centuries old olive groves.   One is distributed by American Friends Society (http://www.afsc.org/mepepla/) and the other two are available at Whole Foods, believe it or not.  Politics aside, the West Bank produces pretty amazing olive oil because of the nature of its soil and landscape.)

Now back to Fun With Math (which I have adapted from a real math book for kids):
#1  OLIVE OIL

Fatima has a problem. For the last 50 years her neighbor Millie has been a very good friend and has entertained her for many hours with her silly jokes. Millie’s about to celebrate her 70th birthday and Fatima wants to give Millie something that will give her a taste of Lebanon.  She has prepared 40 bottles of her village’s olive oil of which she has promised her cousin Dalal half of her final inventory. She would like to give Millie 10 bottles for her birthday. If she wants to keep as many as possible for herself should she first give Dalal half and then give Millie 10 or should she reverse the order in which she gives away the bottles?

#2  PIZZA PARTY
Romano Pizzeria offers the following toppings for a standard large pizza: pepperoni, mushrooms, peppers, onions, and sausage. In addition to ordering a plain pizza, you can order any number of toppings, even all five (which happens to be the “special”).

How many different kinds of large pizza do you have to choose from?

ANSWER TO #1

Fatima is a pretty frugal woman. She realizes that if she first gives Millie a gift of 10 she will be left with 30 bottles of which she promised half (30/2 = 15) to cousin Dalal.
40 – (10 + 15) = 15 bottles left for Fatima

If she would give the bottles away in the reverse order she would be giving Princess cousin Dalal half of 40 (40/2 = 20) and then giving Millie 10 as a gift.
40 – (20 + 10) = 10 bottles left for Fatima.

By giving Millie the gift of 10 first she is left with 5 extra bottles of her  fantastic olive oil for herself

ANSWER TO #2
You can choose from 32 different pizzas.  Here are the possible combinations: 1 plain, 5 with one topping, 10 with two toppings, 10 with three toppings, 5 with four toppings, and 1 with five toppings.

The Best View Of The Ski Slope In Dubai is at…

Shish Kebab and Skis

Shish Kebab and Skis

Dubai has now become the international destination for indoor wonders, but the Atlantis,  Palm Jumeriah, the Burj Dubai (tallest building in the world), the seven star Burj Al-Arab,  and all the other more recent developments don’t seem to come as close to the excitement that people seem to have at seeing modern Dubai’s first wonder, the indoor ski slope at the Mall of the Emirates.  This from skiers and non-skiers alike, people who have lived in snow and people who have never even seen real snow, let alone the machine-generated kind.

If you’re not going to ski, then you just want to look.  And the best view is at Karam Beirut, the Lebanese restaurant overlooking the whole expanse of the ski slope.  You get the feeling you are at an Alpine lodge, despite the Arab music and decidedly Middle Eastern menu and an outdoor temperature in the car it took you to get here at about 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

I’ve only been to Karam’s twice, once with my friend Rachel and her colleague Michael, appropriately enough both working for another fantasy maker, Disney, and the second time last week with my friends Rola and Ashraf, a reporter just having left the less fantastical reality of Gaza and Iraq.   We all know each other and more importantly Middle Eastern food, and Karam is probably the best, and not just for the view.  It is a chain out of Beirut and its grilled meats are just fine.  But in my opinion, you judge an Arabic restaurant by the quality and variety of its mezze (appetizers), and that’s where Karam really shines.  If offers many options not traditionally served at restaurants outside the Levant, like hindbi (dandelion greens), shanklish (preserved yogurt), and more than one kind of kibbeh, including a raw kibbeh that Rachel declared the best ever (I don’t do raw beef, but I’d trust her word).  The place has a heavy leaning towards fresh zataar (wild thyme), and the zataar salad and the zaatar with white cheese are my favorites.

Service is as unpredictable as  Lebanon, but  hey, if the shish kebab is late, there’s always Arabic music to hum to and the skiers –and an eclectic mix of citizens of the world-to watch.

From Publisher’s Weekly…The Night Counter’s First Review

NIGHT COUNTERJacket“In this captivating debut, Yunis takes readers on a magic carpet ride….[A] sometimes serious, sometimes funny, but always touching tale of a Middle Eastern family putting down deep roots on U.S. soil.”

—Publishers Weekly

It was a 120 degrees in the car today when I left work, but the heat didn’t bother me because I was so excited to hear that The Night Counter got its first review, and according to my publisher–never a group of people to use words lightly– it qualifies as a “rave.”  I couldn’t tell because it’s a little overwhelming to have gotten this far.  I’ve sweated over this book more than I do in the Abu Dhabi sun, and that’s really saying something, trust me.  At first you can’t believe all it took you to write a book, you don’t know where the words came from by the time you have written and rewritten it–and the hours and hours at your computer, and then you can’t believe that there could be anything worse in publishing than looking for an agent you actually like and respect,  and then you can’t believe there’s anything more nail biting in publishing than working with your agent as she pitches your book, and then you can’t believe all there is to do when you start working with your editor, fabulous as she is, and then and then…more on the other thens later.

The most frustrating thing for me to hear when someone finds out I have a novel coming out:  They don’t say congratulations or I’d like to read it (or any other book).  They say, “Yeah, I think I’m going to write a book, too.”  While they do that, I’ll climb Mount Everest and work with Obama to establish Middle East peace.