Kimchi Falafel and Other Great American Meals

Falafel is not falafel–heck it’s not even good food– when it contains eggs, is yellow inside and out, weighs more than a tennis ball, is bigger than a tennis ball, or worst of all, refried.  But such have been my sad falafel encounters in New York, where everyone seems to be peddling falafel, including the pizza joint down the

 

Really Good Just Falafel

Excellent Just Falafel

 

street.  There are some pretty passable falafel spots, most particularly Maoz, where the falafel is actually hot and where, in respect to America’a all-you-can eat approach to life, you can add all the fixings you want, which is a good thing except for the inexplicable fried broccoli.  The only item that should be deep fried on your pita is the falafel.

When I was a kid in Minnesota, no one knew what falafel was unless his or her parents were born in the Middle East, but now it’s so ubiquitous that it’s in Microsoft Word’s spell check, like tacos, sushi, and pasta, which used to simply be called noodles before the US fully embarrassed its multicultural obsession with food.

Not that the idea of the falafel hadn’t already been brought over by someone, as when, as a kid, my brother bit into his first veggie burger and declared it “a falafel pancake with ketchup on it.”  Not necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, just because you’ve called something falafel, doesn’t mean it is falafel, just like my Japanese students in Los Angeles explained to me that the rolls at Ralphs supermarket are not sushi as they know it, my Mexican students have never eaten jarred cheese product nachos at the movies, and my Taiwanese students in addition to not knowing the fortune cookie, don’t recognize the cuisine at the one-dollar Chinese restaurant.

Different and bad don’t necessarily go together when we look at the Americanization of ethnic cuisine.  Food gets changed here because of economies of time and money, lack of ingredients, and the different taste of the ingredients, including  the local water.  In the spirit of its birth and growth, the US gives you plenty of ways to eat around your cultural and religious restrictions, with creations such as turkey bacon, soy cheeseburgers, and meatless meatballs.  And it accommodates our health issues–although to look around at us not all of us  are paying attention to that part–with fat-free and sugar-free versions of everything, and it can enrich anything, even Turkish delight, with vitamins and minerals and lately even make your gelato—also in the spell check today—organic.
Some American embellishments, like thinking every desert can be dipped in chocolate, even baklava (wow, also in the spell check now) or constantly embellishing savories with roasted garlic are unnecessary, even annoying.  But the country has created a diverse cuisine all its own.
When people disdainfully say the U.S. doesn’t have any real cuisine other than the hamburger, I would ask them what are breakfast egg rolls, pineapple pizza, and wasabi hummos?  American marketers, as if also holding their own food in contempt, have labeled them as Italian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, or Chinese perhaps to give them an exotic edge.  But they are American in reality, ketchupfied and cross-culturized—that’s why it’s called the melting pot, a big culinary helping of food from all over the world.

Even I’ve Americanized falafel, as I think it’s pretty tasty with a dollop of  kimchi—oops, looks like kimchi hasn’t made it into the spell check yet.  Microsoft Word doesn’t know what it is missing on its falafel sandwich.

*Note:  Meanwhile, in Abu Dhabi, American food is getting cross pollinated, like the pizza burger at Burger King, sliced up like a pizza pie.

Nannies of New York vs.Nannies of Abu Dhabi

When I first arrived in New York City’s Upper Westside this summer, one of my first thoughts was, “Wow, it’s true what they’re saying about the US—interracial couples are on the rise.”  A couple of days later when I saw women with strollers rolling into the “mommy and me classes” next door, I remember thinking, “Huh, everything they taught us in high school biology isn’t that true—white people’s genes, like that gene for blue eyes, are not that recessive.  You can’t even tell these babies have Latino, Asian or African American moms.”  The next hour, when one of these stroller pushers asked me for the time with a particular broken English I had become so familiar with in Abu Dhabi, I got it.  These women weren’t moms, they were nannies—nannies just like most moms in Abu Dhabi have, but just a different way of doing the nanny thing.

First off, you’d never confuse a nanny for a mom in Abu Dhabi because you’d never see one walking down the street with the baby all by herself.  In Abu Dhabi, nannies are there to assist the mother, who is somewhere in the vicinity, usually visible, but busy shopping, getting her hair done or socializing.  In New York, for the most part, the nanny is filling in for the mother while the mother goes to work. (Same as in Los Angeles, but in LA you don’t see the nannies or the moms or the babies, as people aren’t colliding into each other on crowded streets).

There are other differences, too.  For example, New York nannies do not wear uniforms, if you can call the pajama-like outfits in Abu Dhabi uniforms.  The age range in Abu Dhabi is much narrower, with nannies being for the most part in their twenties and early thirties, like the majority of female domestics in the country.  In New York, many are old enough to be a child’s young grandmother.  The nationality range is narrower in Abu Dhabi, too, with most nannies being from the Philippines or Indonesia at the moment.  While the country of origin preferred by Abu Dhabi mothers goes in and out of fashion with the times, it is nearly always some place in South East Asia. And in Abu Dhabi, they’re not called nannies, but rather maids.  Even if there is one maid in the house responsible for cleaning only and one responsible only for the children, the title is still maid.

Then there are the ways in which childcare givers come to be in the city.  Nannies in New York might be native born, illegal aliens or recent immigrants. In Abu Dhabi, they can only get into the country with two-year sponsorships and it would be very hard to be an illegal as the legal risk would be too high for the family.  Nor do they don’t come to Abu Dhabi with any hopes of citizenship.  The UAE does not offer citizenship to foreigners no matter how long they live there.

Nannies in New York interview for their positions, but nannies in the UAE get blind job assignments based on agency matches that are matter of calendar date logistics.  Then they arrive by airplane into the home of a family they have never met, who is probably just as nervous about meeting her, with a two-year commitment, which, on the upside, is still a far less daunting commitment than being a mail order bride.
In both places, nannies are mainly foreigners, more often than not of a different race. To be honest, I don’t hear too many nannies who are native born Americans in New York, unless they are the rare college student. No one born in the UAE would ever become a nanny because it is considered a very lowly position.  Maybe that’s the universal truth about nannies:  being a nanny is not a job anyone would aspire to but it is a job women in developing countries will take to support their own kids, even when that means leaving them behind for another country to be raised by relatives. Not that the nannies are complaining much—there are a lot worse jobs out there than helping a child have a good day, and it is still more than they would make where they came from.

The America I grew up in, a small town outside St. Paul, Minnesota, nannies were cute yet exotic British ladies on TV reruns.  Real babies got watched by the neighbor lady who didn’t work and had her own houseful of children to watch, and kids got sort of taken care of by surly teenage babysitters and the occasional boyfriend they might sneak in.  If I were kid, I’d prefer today’s nanny option—someone whose day is dedicated to me, the learning of a second language perhaps, and the chance to get out and do things that wouldn’t be possible if I had to just depend on my mom.  When I look at the faces of nannies in Abu Dhabi, I see fatigue and listlessness–you could call it a general ennui.  When I look at the nannies hustling along the streets of the Upper Westside with their strollers, I see harried women trying juggle the kid and the rest of her life, kind of like any mom.  I’d choose the latter– I’d like my days as a nanny be fast-paced rather than slow.  And then again, I’m lucky to have the choice.

Question My Name, but Don’t Call Me Overweight

The latest Southwest fat incident, this time with an obese teen getting to keep her two seats, even though her parents didn’t pay for them, and the smaller person getting bumped off, reminded me that yes, I too have my own Southwest fat story, and quite frankly it was more frustrating and certainly more physically grueling than all the times I’ve been pulled aside for a “random security check.”  My story happened several years ago, when I flew from Albuquerque to LA on Southwest, squeezed between a hefty longshoreman and a nearly 400-pound prison chef.
When I got on that plane, I was the last person to board, a mistake I haven’t made since.  I went up and down the aisle, but couldn’t find a seat to sit in.  I told the flight attendant, and she walked up with me until we can to a row with the above-mentioned prison chef and longshoreman.
“This is the only seat left on the flight,” she said, although she couldn’t see a seat anymore than I could for the flesh overflowing on to Seat B.

“Seriously?” I told her and the two men, already crammed in with three seats between them, nodded in agreement with me.

“Well, it’s this or wait for the flight that leaves in five hours,” she said.  “Now gentlemen, if you could just help me shove her in.”

And so the prison chef at the window undid his seat belt and banged his head into the window as he reached to drag his rolls of fat as far away from Seat B as he could.  The longshoreman, who at around 200 pounds was relatively small, stood up while I sat down and then he put my backpack on my lap for me.  When he sat back down and the prison chef let his fat down, so it plopped onto my lap with my backpack.  Forget armrests. I could barely breath and we were all sweating from the body heat. The flight attendant turned on the fan above me.  “There, isn’t that better now,” she smiled as we all continued to break out in sweat.

“Well, this is a threesome I never dreamed up,” said the prison guard and introduced himself with an apology.  He was so friendly, you couldn’t be pissed off at him not being thinner, which is actually what the longshoreman told him.
When they announced that we would be taking off soon, I panicked, realizing I couldn’t reach for my seatbelt.  “Don’t worry, sweetheart, you’re not going anywhere,” the prison chef told me.  It was true, I was too trapped between blubber to even move my hands.  “And if we crash, I’m the most padded life vest you’ve ever flown with.”

“I guess I can’t read my book,” I mumbled politely, remembering that so many people in this world are afraid to travel next to people with names like mine.

“Well, then let’s make small talk so we don’t think about how friggin’ hot we are,” he said.

And so the two of them told me all about their jobs, and I learned that Butterball Turkey has less processing and chemicals in it than Butterball chicken slices.  That’s why the chef preferred to serve the inmates turkey and why I should stick with my hatred of chicken.  When we’d run out of small talk, the longshoreman placed a magazine on my lap and we all shared it, with him turning the pages when each of us was done, as I couldn’t move my hands–I have to say, it was a turbulent flight apparently, but I didn’t feel a bump.
At the end of the flight, the attendant gave me a $100 voucher, although it expired long before I had the courage to take a Southwest flight again or go to Albuquerque.  But at that moment, I had a solution to this whole overweight passenger thing that I wish someone would pay attention to.

I do not make fun of fat people because I know what it feels like for those who aren’t comfortable with being overweight—I was a fat teen that was so hounded and ridiculed and I was so scarred by it all that I have never stopped seeing a fat person in the mirror, so I don’t mean what I say next for purposes of chub-chub humor.  But I want to scream every time I go to check in for a flight, and the ticket agent declares, “You’re five pounds overweight.  Either you have to pay $100 or find a way to get five pounds into your carry on.”  Of course, I end up doing the latter, risking back and shoulder injury as I drag myself to the gate, and in the absurdity of it all,  I find myself far more upset by these incidents rather than when being pulled aside because of my Middle Eastern name—suspect me of being terrorist, okay, that is about national security, but calling me overweight, not okay.

First off, how am I taking any less on the flight, if I’ve taken the five pounds out of one bag and put it in another?  And why are they risking passenger backaches over such illogic?  But most importantly, why am I overweight while the person sitting next to me, often weighing a good 50 to 100 pounds more than me is not?  He and his carry on together are double my weight, and I’m the one being told I’m too heavy and need to pay $100?  What airlines need to do is set a goal weight:  Choose a number, say 220 1bs (because that makes an understandable even 100 kilos for foreign passengers), and everyone has to come in at less than 220 pounds, luggage included.  That’s logical and fuel efficient and it’s not fat discrimination, as people are now being asked to buy two tickets at a certain weight in any case, and it would promote people to travel lighter and who knows, might even help inspire some people to deal with the excess baggage they always carry with them.  But I really don’t want another airline employee telling me I’m overweight—that’s just false, judgmental and hypocritical.

Weather or not? Not Just Small Talk

I’ve been back in the US for a month now.  And, just as it is for Fatima’s children in “The Night Counter,” weather seems the first thing people want to talk about, people who aren’t even estranged relatives who can’t think of anything else to say to me.  Everyone–friend, foe and stranger–wants to talk about how hot it is.  Everyone but me.  Not that I don’t remember the days of having really good weather conversations.  But then I moved to Abu Dhabi.  Perhaps just as we often can’t think of anything else to talk about with estranged relatives, weather itself is relative.

Weather or Not: Humidity on an Abu Dhabi Morning

I spent most of the first month of my trip back in Virginia, where temperatures were hovering at 100 degrees.  While thinking I love this balmy weather, and everyone else around me is flustered, mumbling about humidity indexes and looking for lemonade all the time.
There was a time I would have been right in there with the conversation.  But honestly, you don’t know hot weather until you know Abu Dhabi hot.  A place so hot that air conditioners have to be kept on 24 hours a dayfor about six months with windows firmly shut or within less than hour you’ll see green mold spreading on your window.  So humid that the minute you step out the door, your glasses are blinded by humidity. So sunny that most people can’t see without their shades, so you have to scammer from building to car to building with those fogged up shades. So polluted that asthma attacks go way up and no one goes out if they don’t have to.  The dominant smell in the air is unbearable multi-cultural body odor. And looking good, forget it–dripping, red-faced, hair so frizzed out it looks like it was plugged into an electrical socket, and perhaps another reason the abaya and shayla is favored by women here. While it doesn’t spare you from the heat, at least it spares you some of its wrath, like sunburns, which I suspect was the origination of the local dress code.
But most people don’t know Abu Dhabi hot, not even an Iraqi professor I met up with  in New York who told me New York is an amazing city if just wasn’t so hot.  “You, too?”  I said.  “But Iraq has temperatures way higher than this.” “But it’s a dry heat,” he reminded me, reaching out for the hot air as if he could catch it while I looked upon it as a cool breeze.
I don’t question how native people in Abu Dhabi survive today, just like I don’t deny the scary aspects of weather not related to temprature, like tornadoes, but when my Abu Dhabi students claim to be weak or unable to do something, I remind that they come a formidable gene pool because it somehow survived this desert without any form of relief for centuries.  Today of course, there is almost no reason for them to ever be away from air conditioning.  If they do need something that requires them to be outside, like constructing a building or watering a garden, they can hire a foreigner who comes from a town so poor that he’d rather suffer the weather than no house for himself and his family.  Thus, the hot weather becomes relative to poverty.
But even the poorest person in Abu Dhabi gets to sleep in air conditioning and that’s not always the case the US, where air conditioning doesn’t seem like a financially wise or possible solution to dealing with relatively extreme heat, especially when an investment has to also be made in relatively extreme cold later in the year.  Just like for those construction workers in Abu Dhabi, weather is not small talk–it is life and death at the worst and extreme discomfort at the best.  So while I’m loving being back in relatively glorious weather, my thrill at being able to be outdoors is actual a relative privilege, just like it is to have family, whether or not you can think of anything to say to each other besides, “Hot enough for you today?”

Silence As Golden As Sand

“Silence” is a relative word, referring to how quiet a place is compared to other times.  Silence in a home still involves the hum of the fridge, the heater, the creaking in the wood, the wind on the windows, and so many other things.  Outside, it means the birds still chirping, bugs buzzing, the breeze, a car going by on a distant highway.

Golden Silence

But nature showed my brother and I definite silence when I took him to Liwa on his short visit to Abu Dhabi.  Liwa is the center of the Empty Quarter, Liwa being the oasis in an the unforgiving terrain of spectacular tawny sand swirls going up and down dunes in what I’ve been told is the world’s largest sand desert.  It was just after a holiday, and so no one was traveling–the usual dune hiking was absent as we drove to the most famous and tallest of the dunes.  Merheb Dune is sadly surrounded by concession stands and race tracks that minimize its beauty.  So we went back and stopped at a spot with no duning tracks.  Like I have done for everyone that has come to visit, I wanted my brother to experience the sensation of running up and down a dune, your feet sinking into pockets of hot and cool softness as the sun creates patterns on it.  At the top of one dune, we stopped so he could take a picture.  And that’s when the silence got to us.  We hadn’t grown up with even the pretension of silence inside or outside out home, and as adult both our worlds were noisy, his with rockets and children and mine with a long list of big cities.  I don’t think we’d ever heard total silence:  not an insect or bird, not a trace of wind, no human noise except the noise that is always in our heads, and even that seemed to quiet down.  “What is that?” I asked. “Silence,” he shrugged.  “Kind of freaky, huh,” I answered.  “Cool, too,” he said.  Silence as golden as the sand literally was. We kept waiting for something in nature to make a sound, but nothing did.

I don’t know if there is anywhere else to experience absolute silence.  That’s why I was a little saddened the other day to hear about new plans Abu Dhabi has to build several resorts in the area and expand the population over the next few years by 350,000.  Perhaps it will help the Bedouins of the area have a better life, but maybe there is an easier way to give them that chance, a quieter way, a way that will not defy the reasons it has been called the Empty Quarter for so long.

LIVE FROM THE RED CARPET: THE MIDDLE EAST FILM FESTIVAL GALA

In the end, rumors were false and Omar Sharif did not show up for the screening of  Al Mosafar (The Traveler), the opening night movie of the Middle East

Middle East Film Festival

Middle East Film Festival

Film Festival in which he stars.  But most of the other actors in the film did, as well as several other stars from around the world.  A lot of it seemed rather random—Demi Moore, who doesn’t have a film playing there, Jason Wu, the designer of Michelle Obama’s dress, who didn’t seem to have dressed anyone there, Hilary Swank, who doesn’t have a film playing here, either, and seemed to be rather randomly chosen to present the Black Pearl Award to Vanessa Redgrave, which was accepted by her husband Franco Nero.  I adore Vanessa Redgrave as an actress and a humanitarian, but again the connectedness to the festival seemed rather random.  I’ll stop with the random, as other star sightings seemed a little bit more in tone with the festival’s goal—to showcase Middle Eastern cinema to a global audience and bring films from around the world to the Middle East.  At the post-screening party, everywhere you turned there were stars of Egyptian, Syrian, and Kuwaiti film and television, including the goofy and tyrannical father of my student’s favorite Ramadan series, Om Al Banat.  But my top sighting was of the Turkish heartthrob that starred in the soap Noor as a man so perfect he alleged caused fantasizing women across the Middle East to ask for divorces because what they had at home just didn’t even come close.  In introducing him, the festival pointedly mentioned that his fiancée was with him.

The party itself was flawless—it was at the terraces of the flawless Emirates Palace and while the there music, food and drink flowing, you could still actually move and hear the people talking to you.  I was as usual baffled by the white women spread out throughout the party posing in courtesan costumes as some kind of weird mix of frozen tag and a mime act.  I’ve seen them at another glam party here, last time I believe in togas, and really all I can say is “What?”  That other party didn’t have anything to do with Rome, and I don’t believe there are any films about courtesans playing at this festival.

There was a lot of “What?’ going through the audience during the screening of Al Mosafar, too.  Great acting and cinematography but seemingly random (yes, that word again) editing that left huge gaps in a story that was also random.  And no, the editing was not censorship on the part of the Abu Dhabi, although it could have actually used a little — the film, which was billed as the first film produced by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, showed an excessively long, graphic rape scene that became increasingly disturbing in its gratuitousness as it went on.  The director, Ahmed Maher, clearly—and successfully– wished to show how Egypt has gone from a poor, secular country in the 1940s to a very poor, very religious country today.  That, however, is so obvious to everyone in the Middle East the he seems to have thrown in the lifetime story of a rapist as his subterfuge.  Omar Sharif plays the rapist as an old man, and if you had ever believed that Omar Sharif was nothing but a pretty face—well, his face is no longer so pretty but he is still a tremendous actor.  And for the last third of the movie, he was allowed to show you that as he played a man on the verge of insanity and death.  It was his Shakespearean moment on a screen stage he seems to have randomly shared with some other fine actors.  Still, it was great to see an Arab film the tried to go beyond formula on the big screen, and I remain optimistic about several of the other films at the festival.

THE NIGHT COUNTER UPDATES: GERMANY, THE KINDLE AND MORE

As I get used to being back in L.A.—in some ways I’ve been gone more than a year and in other ways I forget that I haven’t been here for almost a year– I’d just thought I’d take a moment to do an update on what’s going on with The Night Counter, some of which is pretty exciting.

-There was a heated auction for the German rights to the novel.  It will be released by  Aufbau Verlag, Berlin in spring 2010.  Particularly cool since this auction was going on while I myself was in Germany for the first time completely unaware.  Super, as everyone there says.

The Night Counter Goes To Germany

The Night Counter Goes To Germany

–Amazon has decided to release The Night Counter on Kindle as well, so I can pretend to feel on the cutting edge of technology.

-I’ll be going to Minneapolis on August 8th for a book party hosted by Mizna, which is a great literary journal I have been proud to contribute to.   (Details on http://www.aliayunis.com/events)

-Booklist Magazine gave The Night Counter a very nice review in its July 1 issue, saying “Yunis’ debut is a magical, whimsical read with plenty of humor and heart.” “The Library Journal also reviewed it, and its verdict was: “…a warm, feel-good story of complicated family ties, long-buried secrets, and last-minute surprises….it would be a good selection for book clubs.”