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In their modern day interpretation, most religious holidays that are about deprivation and/or sacrifice are counterbalanced in their present day celebration with gluttony. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Diwali and yes Ramadan. Newspapers reveled last year in stories about hundreds of people being hoisted onto emergency room stretchers in Qatar, Jordan and elsewhere, due to complications from overeating during this month of fasting. One could even go further and say that there is gluttony in the grab for power and oppression across the Middle East at this time, particularly surrounding Jordan, where I am writing from now.
Part of that greed has resulted in arrival of refugees, rich and poor, from neighboring countries, most noticeably in the past three years of Syrians, who have not only brought their broken hearts—they have brought their Ramadan efficiency. Damascus and Aleppo are known as food capitals in the Arab world, having held that reputation for centuries. However, it’s not the old traditions that got my attention the other day. It’s rather how those traditions have become so much easier to mass produce. Take for example the grandness of the atayif machines, making it cheaper and easier for us all to eat more atayif, machine that can produce 60 atayif a minute. Atayif (qatayif) is the desert of Ramadan. It’s a pancake that is stuffed with cheese or walnuts or a clotted cream sort of thing and dunked in syrup, a basic principle that carries over to many pancake recipes around the world and to Arabic sweets in general. Few nations are without a pancake of some kind, but most of them are made at home. Atayif is rarely made at home—it is bought at bakeries and stuffed and baked at home. They are actually easy to make, but when you’re fasting all day, why bother when they are so easy to buy.
Sometimes you can still find bakers on the sidewalk making them on their griddles. But mostly today, there is the atayif making machines. I wonder where these machines go and hide the rest of the year—they could be used to make some many other semi liquid batters into yummy things, perhaps say crepes. Although, an embrace of former colonial rulers’ baked goods seems to be out of vogue at the moment in Middle East.
I enjoy the watching the larger machines at work—well actually it’s bakers standing in the sun making them work. Batter goes in, atayif come out—orderly, predictable, comforting. The big machines are a big part of the newly opened Syrian bakeries. It’s likely the machines were designed in Taiwan (ANKO), maybe Lebanon, and they dwarf the smaller machines found in Jordan, never mind the griddles.
When baked, atayif is a simple food, not too rich in complications or calories–f you eat only one or two. But the machine makes it so easy to make more faster, and for some of us that means eating more faster.
Sometimes I wonder if maybe we didn’t make food machines so efficient, not only would emergency rooms be less busy, our heads would be clearer, and we’d have time to think of things that were more pressing than our adequately filled stomachs. Beyond hunger, food is an easy, relatively inexpensive way to sedate oneself—or a nation–whether it is to fill up loneliness or as a numbing device to shut out the din around us that asks us for questions that most of us feel helpless to offer, as we have no answers to solve them.
Aatayif (if you want to make a small amoutn)
1 1/4 tsp. active dry yeast
13/4 tsp. sugar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup semolina
6 tbsp. milk
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
10 tbsp. butter, melted
For the filling:
11/2 cups shelled walnuts, finely chopped
4 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
For the syrup:
2 cups sugar
1-2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
Orange blossom flower water (optional)
1. For the pancakes: Dissolve yeast and sugar in 2/3 cup warm water in a
small bowl and set aside until foamy, about 10 minutes. Combine flour and
semolina in a large bowl, then add milk and 1 cup water and beat on medium
speed with an electric mixer until smooth, 2-3 minutes. Add yeast mixture
and continue beating until batter is smooth, about 1 minute. Combine baking
soda and 1 1/2 tsp. water in a small bowl and beat into batter on medium
speed. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm spot until
batter is foamy, about 1 hour.
2. For the filling: Combine walnuts, sugar, and cinnamon in a medium bowl and
3. For the syrup: Put sugar, lemon juice, and 11/2 cups water into a medium
saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring often,
until sugar dissolves, 2-3 minutes. Keep syrup warm over lowest heat. A spoon of rosewater or orange flower blossom water can be added to the syrup at this point.
4. Preheat oven to 350°. Heat a medium cast-iron or other heavy skillet over
medium heat until hot but not smoking. Brush skillet with a thin layer of
oil. Pour 1/4 cup of the batter into skillet and swirl skillet to spread
batter out to a 5″-wide pancake. Cook, undisturbed, until bottom is browned
and top is covered with bubbles and no longer moist, 1-2 minutes. Do not
flip pancake. Transfer pancake to a clean surface and cover with a clean dry
dish towel. Repeat process with the remaining batter to make 12 pancakes in
all, brushing skillet with more oil as needed.
5. Put 1 pancake, browned side down, on a clean surface. Spread 2 tbsp. of
the filling down center of pancake, fold pancake in half, and press seams
shut to enclose filling completely. Repeat process with the remaining
pancakes and filling. Brush both sides of filled pancakes with melted butter
and transfer to a baking sheet. Bake until warmed through and cheese nice and gooey, 5-6 minutes. Dunk
pancakes, 1 at a time, into the warm syrup. Serve with remaining syrup on
I’ve been spending a lot more time around animals lately than I ever thought I would. And if you asked me to guess where I might one day be maximizing my time with deer and antelope, I probably wouldn’t have picked Abu Dhabi. Especially as I lived in a place called Minnesota, where people hunted them for fun and for stew and where I was much closer to the North Pole and Rudolph. I also always thought Bambi needed a forest.
But next time you’re in Abu Dhabi, take a look at the 50 dirham bill. It might not go far in the mall, but it will get you a cup of karak tea, a few Chips Oman sandwiches, and the chance to see look at the Arabian Oryx inscribed on it.
The Arabian Oryx was just about extinct until the late founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, began a conservation project to save them more than a decade ago. Today, they are getting released into the wild again, but good luck spotting them in the vast, desolate horizon of rolling sand dunes. Today, the best place to see them is at the Al Ain Zoo. Unless you are lucky enough to be my senior class, who has spent the last several months working on a documentary about the vets/zoologists/international cowboys working on the UAE’s Oryx preservation project. (more on that to come).
When you see your first Oryx, he or she will look you straight on—with eyes that are the stuff of poetry. In Arabic, tell a woman has the eyes of an Oryx, and you attesting to her she has captivating beauty.
But beauty is not only what meets the eye: the Oryx have mastered the desert–they travel in herds, they are a symbol that water is near, they can outlast a camel in the heat, and they don’t let it slide if you try and mess with them. They can prance agilely at 90 kilos. And beauty is power, too. Watching what they do to each other’s horns when they fight, you know you don’t want them coming at you with them.
In a desert, these are all beautiful qualities. Something worth being named for. Indeed, Maha is a rather common name throughout the Middle East, and it is the Arabic word for the Oryx. And Maha is not alone. There is also Reem or Reema, another popular name and gazelle. And the cute little one called the Dhabi, which yes, is native of Abu Dhabi. There are lot of stories about how the dhabi helped the island of Abu Dhabi get its name, kind of like there are abundant legends about places in the US named after bears and beavers. And just maybe while English language countries don’t name baby girls after deer, gazelles and antelope, it got me thinking the word “Dear” and “Deer” in English perhaps are not that far off from each other. A rather dear deer thought that failed the test when I discovered ‘dear’ is from something that is extinct: old Norse.
In May, I learned that I would be doing two events in Seattle as part of my book tour. I made a mental note right away to let my childhood buddy Sami D. know soon. We had grown up together, and spent hours hanging out as teenagers, he, Sami Z and me. And as adults, we’d stayed close for many years, helping each other out with life from across long distances. Of all the questions we asked each other as kids–who do you think will get married first, who do you think will leave Beirut first, even who will retire first –we had never asked each other who would die first. In recent years, we hadn’t been in contact as often, but when he had e-mailed a few months earlier, he did not tell me that he was ill. He was always in my heart, I knew he’d think it was cool that I’d gotten my book published, and he and his wife could come to the reading as for once we’d be in the same city. A week later, he passed away, as I learned through his sister, Lamya, who he had idolized.
Sami D was one of the great things in my life—kind, sweet, funny, honest and sincere, and I will always miss knowing he is here. When I was in Seattle, I had lunch with his wife, Mari, and their son, and Sami’s dad, Samir. Samir also came to my reading, and when he walked in the room, I knew Sami was there, too. Mari is one of the most amazing women anyone could ever meet, and for reasons having nothing to do with losing her husband at a young age and for lovingly taking care him during what was a difficult and painful illness. It is her wish that I share with you these words Sami wrote shortly before passing away.
As You See Me..
As you see me lying dead
Have some thoughts pop in your head.
My body silent, soul awakes
I send my love from heaven’s gates
Now gaze up high towards the light
Summon all your strength and might
I’m trusting you to do what’s right
Never leave from my spirit’s sight
Look at me, I’m resting free
Then leave and love each faithfully
Remember me as you will,
Calming waters, deep and still.
See Yourself Alive..
As you see yourself alive,
Thrive and arrive at your wildest contrivance.
Believe in five criteria
To help survive trials and violence.
Seek brightness and dance.
Cry a teary river, take a chance.
Your dreams derive from being alive,
Provide pride and driving force afire.
Look into your eyes,
There are no lies there.
you are wise,
And your kindness will be all you ever had.
When I first got back to LA a month ago, one of the first conversations I overheard was a young woman saying to her friend “I don’t know if I can wait 10 years to be famous. That’s like forever.” To which her friend replied, “Yeah, I’m so sure it’s not as much fun being famous when you’re old.” I said to myself, “Ugh, I’m back.” But within a couple of days, I was happy to be back to the conversations in LA. and now am sad to be leaving them. They’re the conversations with some of my oldest friends and colleagues and strangers, and even when they have that distinct LA flavor, it is comforting in it familiarity.
Yesterday, I met up with my friend Elizabeth, and while we were chatting, she was also texting with her boss. About their dogs. Elizabeth’s Rodrigo is very hip to the dog scene in LA. He’s goes to a very trendy doggy day care, and saw his first psychic at a young age. (The psychic envisioned many things, including that Rodrigo would like chicken, and imagine that, he does). She let me share the conversation with her boss:
E’s Boss: Do you know or can recommend a pet psychologist or homeopathic pet therapist. My dog is having some issues with peeing in the house and my vet has ran a number of tests and it’s not anything medical. My dog walker sugested a pet psychologist or homeopathic pet therapist and I did a yahoo search and turned up nothing.
E: A friend of mine takes her dog to pet acupuncture. If you like, I can get the name for you. Rodrigo had a reading with a pet psychic. It was very insightful into his thought process. I don’t have her name, but I believe it was the pet psychic on the animal planet. She was really amazing. I can try and get her contact info.
E’s Boss: Both would be great! Thanks
E: I will work on it tomorrow.
E’s Boss: Thanks so much!
Saturday, June 27, 2009
The Night Counter-Alia Yunis
The Night Counter
Shaye Areheart (Crown), Jul 14 2009, $24.00
Lebanese immigrant Fatima Abdullah is dying, but shows no interest in a reconciliation with her estranged husband Ibraham or for that matter with her children sprawled all over the country as she prefers to ignore their issues. She has no desire to see any of her ten offspring; their children except Amir or even her pregnant great-granddaughter; they did not want to hear her prattle about her 1001 Arabian Nights countdown.
Instead she stays with her gay grandson Amir, who welcomes her insanity in Los Angeles as an actor who knows his town is filled with crazies so his attitude is why not one more with his blood. For the last 992 nights ever since Scheherazade visited her demanding she tells her stories, Fatima has complied. When her tales end, Scheherazade insists so does her life; as happens with everyone. With nine to go, the octogenarian expects to be dead next week even as Ibraham wants to be there for her; as does the FBI who believe the Abdullah family are a sleeper terrorist cell because of Amir’s name and his association with a former lover under federal surveillance due to his former lover Amir being under federal surveillance.
This is a terrific tale that keeps the audience wondering whether Fatima suffers from dementia or is a clever modern day fantasy. Fatima obviously owns the fast-paced novel as she begins her final countdown to what she expects is her death. Her family especially heartbroken Amir, whose lover dumped him during the countdown, provide solid support as all of them except her host assumes she is certifiable; whereas her host thinks she is an eccentric lovable kook. Sherazade plays a key role, but like the Memorex commercial one will ponder is she real or imagined as does the circular logical FBI finding perceived terrorists under any Arab sounding rock. Alia Yunis provides a powerful modern day family thriller with the twist of the FBI “interrogates” Sherazade.