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).

That Mad Game

There have 14,000 wars in the last 5,600 years, and at least 160 since 1945.  Children are far more likely to experience war at some point during their childhood than they are to grow up without it.”  J.L. Powers, That Mad Game: Growing Up in a Warzone

That Mad Game

That Mad Game

I was rather reluctant when I got an email from J.L. Powers asking me if I would be interested in contributing an essay to an anthology she was editing about children growing up in warzones.  I am uncomfortable talking about Lebanon because it feels rather narcissistic given how many children suffered far more in Lebanon back then and since those days.  So we agreed we could make it about Lebanon a little but more about a boy from Gaza named Mutassem, a ten-year old amputee who had came to Los Angeles for medical treatment through the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, a U.S. non profit that helps sick and injured children throughout much of the Middle East.  During his time in the US, he had become like a fourth nephew to me.

In reading the stories of the other contributors of the That Mad Game (Cinco Puntos Press, 2012), I realized that some form of war is actually a given in most of parts of the world today, whether a war at home or one for which your country’s soldiers are exported.  For example a whole generation in the US that has now grown up seeing their parents go off to battle zones (often in the Arab world).  As Jerry Mathes and others in That Mad Game talk about surviving parents’ PTSD, it makes you wonder what psychological battles loom ahead for the young children of today’s soldiers everywhere.

The stories in That Mad Game come from around the globe, including birth in a US Japanese Internment camps, a Bosnian love story, an odd friendship with a Taliban mullah, fear of disappearance in El Salvador and Mexico, rescue in Holland, the importance of water skiing in post revolution Iran, exile in China, and other stories from Cambodia, Vietnam, South Africa, and Burma.  Perhaps the book will help young people and adults today understand that they are part of a small world that has great moments of joy but also great misery, the latter which is perhaps in their hands to prevent–which perhaps they will understand better reading these authors, the children of the recent past, today’s wounded adults.
[R]eaders will be rewarded by [this] compelling and often uplifting anthology … That Mad Game surprises with its variety. From Taliban-controlled Kabul to a Japanese internment camp in northern California, from a teen girl’s ‘soundtrack of war’ in Beirut to a young man’s long walk across much of Africa, the startling stories make for rough going at times. But the humor, beauty, and humanity shining through the darkness are what make this collection a must-have for all libraries serving high school students.”School Library Journal

http://www.amazon.com/That-Mad-Game-Growing-Anthology/dp/1935955225/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1358741361&sr=1-1&keywords=That+Mad+Game

Nazareth’s Deep Rooted Miracle

Olive Tree Cross

The Olive Tree Cross

This year I happen to have written an unprecedented amount on Christmas related and Palestine related matters, although not in conjunction with each other.   So perhaps it’s best to end the year with where Christmas and Palestine actually met for me a year ago.  Where they’ve met since the beginning of Christianity:  In Nazareth.  At an olive tree, of course.

On the way to visit family last December, I stopped by Nazareth to see the family of close friends of mine in Los Angeles.  Accompanying me on this journey was another friend Cynthia Capriata, a Peruvian artist on her first venture into the Holy Land.  When we arrived early in the morning, Cynthia was in a festive tourist mood, which balanced out the heaviness that often falls on me in this country.

We were greeted by Habib, a guy who understands Nazareth present, past and future better than anyone.  When I asked Habib if he knew the sister of another dear family friend, he of course did, and we started our morning at her house, near the Christmas tree where she read our coffee cups for us.  Her husband, a retired teacher, in typical local fashion, meanwhile grilled me on my family tree until he was satisfied that he had either taught or been taught by some of my relatives. He actually knew more of my family than I did.  After our coffee cups confirmed happy futures, Habib with full graciousness, took us around town to all the historic sites, his 11-year old daughter tagging along.  We saw the churches, the old homes turned into boutique hotels, the old souq with people rushing about for last minute dinner ingredients and gifts.  Until it was time for us to find a rooftop spot at Habib’s mother-in-law’s house, where we had a perfect view, despite the wind and rain, of Nazareth’s annual Christmas parade, a two-hour small town extravaganza that involves Santa Claus, a series of marching bands, and cars with important people of all faiths waving from them.

Christmas Parade In Nazareth

Christmas Parade In Nazareth

The miracle moment wasn’t that the wind didn’t knock Santa down or that our coffee cups assured us of great happiness.   It came early in the day, when we stopped by Habib’s house to wish his mother a happy Christmas.  Habib paused at the olive tree at the entrance of the house.  “How do you explain this?” Habib asked.  He was pointing to the lower section of the tree, where the leaves and branches had formed a cross. At first I thought he’d propped in a cross he’d made of olive branches.  But this cross was unquestionably part of the tree.  The tree has become somewhat of a legend in the neighborhood no matter the season.  Whether you believe it or not, in a land like this, it is a reminder that miracles, often much needed here, are deep rooted–sometimes literally—all year long.

Volunteering Because You Can

As a child, I could tell you a lot about fjords and olive trees, even though I had never seen either one.  This is because I grew up around a lot of Norwegians and Palestinians.  The Norwegians were my

Tromsø

neighbors and classmates in Minnesota, the Palestinians our family friends, part of the handful of Arabs that we knew who gathered together for special occasions.  I didn’t think of Norway and Palestine together beyond my childhood.  One was all about snow and Nobel peace, and one was all about sunshine and the opposite of peace.

But this past year I went to Tromsø, Norway for a magazine article, and I discovered an unexpected link:  It turns out that this small Arctic Circle city, gateway to polar bears and reindeer, is the sister city of Gaza.

One of the few constant refrains I grew up with was, “If you forget your people, then who else will remember them when they need help?”

The answer to that question for many people from troubled lands is apparently Norway. Volunteering, whether abroad or at home, seems to be as much a part of Norwegian culture as waffles and jam.

In Tromsø, I met over hot chocolate with Knut Borud, the current secretary of the board of the Gaza-Tromsø Friendship group.  Like all the other board members on the Gaza-Tromsø Friendship Committee, he is 100 percent Norwegian.  He has lived in Norway all his life, a married high school teacher with teenage children.  He shrugs when you ask him why he has been involved with helping the Palestinians since the 1980s, visiting twice.  “There is something wrong there,” he explains simply, with that Scandinavian calmness.   “In 2001, we formalized our efforts to help when our mayor visited Gaza and signed the sister city pact. Contact has become more and more difficult as the situation has gotten worse but we continue.”

Knut teaches video production to high school students, and one of the Gaza Tromsø group’s projects is helping Gazans film their own stories.  One young woman, Nehal Afana, a cinematographer in training, was even brought to Tromsø to learn about developing a film art center for youth in Gaza, like the Tvibit Filmhouse in Tromsø for aspiring local artists.

“Yalla To Gaza” is a film made by  Gazan director Ashraf Mashharawi and features Dr. Mads Gilbert, a Tromsø native.   Along with fellow Norwegian Dr. Erik Fosse, were the only two foreign doctors allowed into Gaza during the 2008 bombardment.

In the video, Dr. Mads talks about the dignity of the people of Gaza, but sitting above the Arctic Cirlce, listening to Knut talk about a place so far away, a place for which he has no obligation to help, I thought equally of the dignity of Norway and all people who help others just because they have the freedom to do so.

http://vimeo.com/11712883 (Yallah to Gaza)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJndfs4Ctt8  (Nefal’s story)

And for a look at the magazine article that took to Tromsø, the home of the northernmost mosque in the world: http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/201201/ramadan.in.the.farthest.north.htm

Tor’s Palestinian Photographs: 1967 and 1977

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).

Palestinian Refugees 1967

Tel al Zaatar 1977

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?

Outlandish Landless LandMine by Sami Zarour

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.

Landless Landmine

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?