MY PSYCHIC POWERS AND THE MIDDLE EAST

The other day a colleague told me he was really excited to see how his students would react to a short story he had given them to read.  “They’re not going to read it,” I predicted.  He didn’t believe me.  Sure enough, the next day no one had read it.  “How did you know?”  he asked.  “What are you, some kind of psychic?”
Well, if you believe that deducing that students wouldn’t read a piece of literature for fun makes me psychic, here’s my psychic predictions for the Middle East in 2011.  Prepared to be astounded by my far seeing abilities.
1.    There will be no one-state, two-state or any state solution to the Palestinian crisis.

2.    Jordan, still reeling economically from the invasion of Iraq, will continue to charge more for monthly home heating than the average laborer’s salary, helping maintain, along with all with the rest of the Levant and North Africa, the Arab world’s status as the place with the highest youth unemployment rate.

3.    No one will still know what the heck is going on in Iraq, especially those who say they do.

4.    Someone with the last name Mubarak or very close to someone with the last name  Mubarak will be the president of Egypt.

5.    Qaadafi will say or do something bizarre.

6.    More malls will open in the Gulf while “Preserving our Rich Heritage” will continue to be the national rallying cries.

7.    Muslims at these malls will ask “Why do they hate us?” when talking about America and smoking shisha in their New York Giants baseball caps.

8.    There will be more “biggest,” “tallest,” “most expensive,” or other Guinness Record-like creations in Dubai and beyond.

9.    An increasing number of Arab parents will talk to their kids in English rather than Arabic, no matter how “fery” good or “fery” bad their English is, but unconsciously revert back to Arabic when they need to yell at them.

10.    Zaatar will begin to replace hommos as the latest Middle Eastern food of to become trendy, celebrated and Americanized.

11.    Lebanon will party on, ignoring false grumblings of civil war brewing.  (Predicting Lebanon defies logic and psychics so I’ll go with wishful thinking on this one)

12.     The Middle East will remain a troubling, fascinating, unstable, safe, wealthy poverty stricken, happy, sad place.

Doner Kabob and Schweinefleisch

At the baggage carousel at the Stuttgart airport, the first stop of the book tour for Feigen in Detroit (Aufbau  2010), I waited for my suitcase while four Gulf women dressed like they had arrived at a spa at the North Pole waited for their 10 gargantuan suitcases.  From eavesdropping, I gathered the baggage was for a five-day stay.
They had no idea how to get the luggage off the carousel themselves, and there didn’t seem to be any baggage handler around, clearly a first for them.  Meanwhile, on the other side of me, two middle-aged German women who had just spent 10 days in Jordan each briskly grabbed her lone backpack off the conveyer belt and headed home. The Gulf women were still watching their suitcases turn, waiting for someone—anyone–to lift them off for them.  I was somewhere in the middle of all these women, neither able to briskly whip my suitcase over my shoulder nor waiting for someone to carry it for me.  I have lived most of my life between “can demand help” women and “can do” women.
I spent eight days in Germany in six different cities.  It was cold, it was rainy, and went by so fast that I only added one word to my German: Schweinefleisch. In English pork sounds just like pork, but in German it seems like I might be missing out on something.  I loved  Germany.  Not that I don’t like living Abu Dhabi.  It’s just a little different.

1.  In Germany, a train scheduled to leave at 8:52 a.m. leaves at 8:52 a.m. If for some reason it can’t do so, you will be informed in plenty of time of the delay.  In the Middle East, there is no such time as 8:52 a.m.  “Around let’s say 9 in the morning” would be more accurate, and you don’t really have to question if someone is late until around 10 in the morning, perhaps even 10 the evening.

2.  I found “Feigen in Detroit” at the Stuggart train station bookstore just to the left of the erotica section, which was next to the children’s Christmas book section.  In Abu Dhabi, you might find “The Night Counter” if you can find a bookstore.  It won’t be carrying erotica, or porn as we call it in America.

3.  I was in Germany for several days before I noticed what I wasn’t noticing—German flags.  In the UAE, the flag seems to decorate everything—from doorways to camels.  In Germany, the flag appears primarily on federal buildings. Nor can the German flag pass as a Christmas decoration, which is what a recent arrival told me she thought all the red and green lights festooning Abu Dhabi were for. They were for a different season– neon versions of the flag for National Day (which is like Christmas—one day that lasts several days)

4.  In Germany, they recycle everything everywhere. People throw their trash in bins marked paper, plastic, and waste.  In the Middle East, you just hope people put their trash in a bin, any bin.

5.  In Germany, all the pharmacies boost about “bio” (organic) products.  In Abu Dhabi, the pharmacies heavily promote facial whitening creams even when you’re not asking to be whiter.

6.  There are a lot of kabob shops in both Germany and Abu Dhabi.   Thanks to a large Turkish population, Germany has way better kabob, doner kabob that is, which we call shawarma here.

7.  Anywhere you see “schweinefleisch” in Germany substitute “lamb” in Abu Dhabi.  The cow has it easy in both places.

8.  Germans love dates—as a treat.  Arabs love dates—as a staple. In the Middle East, you can buy a kilo for about 4 Euros.  In Munich, one date costs one Euro.

9.  In Germany, the VAT tax hurts.   Abu Dhabi is tax free.

10.  In Germany, people read everywhere they go—buses, trains, airplanes.  On my flight from Munich to Berlin, everyone was sitting and reading.  This made me happy.  On the plane coming back to Abu Dhabi via Jordan, the Arabs on the plane were just sitting.  No books, no computers, not even any iPads.  Sometimes it’s good to just sit, but en masse like that, it made me sad.

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.

THE OTHER WINNERS OF THE ZAYED UNIVERSITY FILM FESTIVAL

With several local celebrities on hand as well as, due to remarkably good timing, the brilliant American writer and actor Anna Deveare Smith, trophies were handed out yesterday to student filmmakers from Lebanon, Jordan, and Qatar, in the closing ceremony marking the end of the first annual Zayed University Film Festival.

Twelve films from the 70 films the festival received from universities across the Middle East were selected as finalists and played during screenings attended by over 500 people over the course of three days, along with a selection of semi-finalist films.  Grand prize went to Lebanon’s Naji Bechara for “Talk to the Brain,” a satire on the repressiveness of secondary school education, Best Narrative Short went to Amjad Al Rashid “Bitter Days,” a heartbreaking story of a little girl’s life on the street as a shoe shiner, and Best Documentary went to Qatar’s  Sharoukh Al Shaheen for “Lady of the Rosary,” a multifaceted look at the building of Qatar’s first church.  Abdul Salam Al Haj received an Audience Favorite award for “Yousef,” the bittersweet tale of a young man whose only connection to his late mother is her radio.  There were also amongst the finalists films about marriage, Dubai-style; mistaken identities; complications of father and son relationships, the complications war –just to name a few of the topics.  An audience member asked after watching several of the films, “Why is everything except the marriage stories so intense and dark?” I wondered if she was actually living in the Middle East.  That these filmmakers were able to find the humor, sarcasm, and irony within telling stories of their realities is an attribute to their grace and creativity.

But the other real winners of this festival are my two students, Reema Majed and Al Yazyah Al Falasi, the two girls who came up with the idea as their senior project, and against formidable odds, several nay sayers and a ridiculously short window, pulled off a festival that offered a compelling series of films, a creative and engaging advertising campaign, and a well-produced show that ran flawlessly for three days.  In country where everyone is always claiming to be planning the “the first” or “the newest” something, they really did.  And if that isn’t achievement enough, there is also “Let the Show Begin,” a student film that screened from Baghdad about keeping the Iraqi Film Festival alive amidst destitution, daily tragedy and occupation.  I hope that all these students will be able to let the shows continues.

RED CARPET ADVENTURE: THE STUDENT OSCARS OF THE MIDDLE EAST

The Middle East Student Film Festival

Much as I love film and much as it has been such a big part of my life, I don’t often watch the Academy Awards, even when I’m invited to Oscar parties at friends’ houses.  Aside from crying along with the winners on the Miss USA pageant as a kid, I’m just not that interested in award shows—I’d rather see the movies.  And when I lived in LA, the Oscars were just such a great time to go out and run errands, as the streets were as empty as Christmas.

However, this year I watched them because of another film award show.  Two of my students, Reema Majed and Al Yazyah Al Falasi decided in March that their senior project would be create the first annual student film festival in the Middle East, with three awards to be given out for top documentary and narrative shorts.  Monumental as a task as this is, they were determined, and the result as been several nights of insomnia for me, as I’m sure it has for them.  One of those insomniac nights, I turned on the TV, a rather unprecedented event in of itself, and there were the Oscars just beginning.  What the heck, I thought, I’ll keep them on and mark papers.  The papers I had to read were for a class assignment in which I’d asked students to compare The Hurt Locker to Casablanca, as two movies set against war and the Arab world.  In a class of 30, I’m the only one who preferred Casablanca, although most of the papers seemed to reflect an uncomfortable feeling about how the Iraqis were portrayed as unsavory or stupid and the US soldiers as the saviors of the Iraqis, if not the saviors of themselves.  But in the midst of reading the papers, I considered it kismet (title of another movie with a Middle Eastern setting, albeit far more fantastical) when Steve Martin or someone mentioned that this was the first time 10 films had been nominated for the Oscars since Casablanca won in 1943.

Yes, perhaps if Jordan could manage to be the set for such a complicated shoot as The Hurt Locker, then perhaps it is the right time indeed for their to be a student film festival in the Middle East.  I’m so excited for what our students have accomplished—the Zayed University Film Festival, which received nearly 70 films from eight countries from Egypt to Lebanon and Palestine to Qatar, including Iraq and Jordan, rolls out the red carpet next week, literally, for a festival that will showcase more than 30 films, including the 12 finalists.  Many of the films seem to deal with the issue of identity amidst the turmoil of the filmmakers’ personal lives and the tumultuous and rapidly changing world they live in. Making a film as a student, particularly with limited means, is not an easy thing, nor is setting up a film festival to give them a chance to be viewed, so if you’re in town please come and enjoy the show.  It’s an armchair seat into the minds of today’s Middle Eastern youth.

Check out the films playing at http://www.zuff.ae

Stay tuned for the winners!

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.

DISNEYLANDIFICATION AND THE HIJAB

In order to get to my reading in Cairo, my two colleagues and I had to negotiate with a stoned cab driver, whose body for most of the harrowing ride was half

Misr Studio's Sphinx

Misr Studio's Sphinx

out the taxi chatting with a man stuck on the bus next to us, and a donkey who refused to budge off the sidewalk, and when we tried to walk to the right of him, as we couldn’t pass the triple parked cars on his left, he was joined by his friend the goat.  There were several other negotiations as well, including at the bookstore, but that’s Cairo.  Yes, that’s Cairo.  That and incredible history and architecture that have survived several natural disasters and wars, including a troubling war with pollution and overpopulation today.

The night before I left for Cairo, there was coincidently a lecture at NYU Abu Dhabi about downtown Cairo’s architecture.  The lecturer said that even in their damaged states, Cairo’s old buildings and mosques put to shame what he called Disneyland architecture, in which the glory of these buildings is imitated by others, but the result is only façade deep.  He didn’t mention the Luxor in Vegas because that is an imitation with no pretensions other than being fun and camp. Nor did he mention the new American University of Cairo campus, which would fit his definition, but rather took aim at the Gulf’s spurt of new Islamic-themed buildings.

The real Sphinx

The real Sphinx

However, the most bizarre Disneylandification I experienced was in Cairo.  It wasn’t at Misr Studios, Cairo’s impressive film studio, where there is a permanent set that is a very convincing recreation of the Sphinx, and which will probably become a tourist attraction itself.  Rather it was at the restaurant my friends and I went to after my reading at Diwan in the upscale Zamalak neighborhood.  In addition to some colleagues, I had in tow with me some very dear Egyptian friends that I’ve known for years.  One of them, Ashraf, suggested we go to a hip spot set in an old Cairo building.  Any restaurant should have been happy to see such a big group walk in on slow night, but the manager quickly took Ashraf aside and pointed to one of my friends, saying that either she had to leave or we all had to leave.  The friend in question is a very educated woman who has worked in the media for most of career.  She also wears a hijab.  As do at least 75 % of the women in Cairo, as far as I could tell.  But the manager explained that it wasn’t okay in this chic spot, a spot many foreigners come to—I guess he didn’t want to make them, or any of the Egyptians who might have some complex about being there, uncomfortable with reality.  Outraged, we all decided that we would leave, but my friend refused, saying she would leave, as she didn’t know where we could all go as a group otherwise. We all argued with her until I could see that perhaps she was going to cry if we continued on with our protestations, and so we let her go home and stayed.  The next day, she told me not to apologize.  She said that’s Cairo:  Even if most women in Cairo wear the hijab, she has been relegated to radio work, as the national television stations don’t allow women in hijabs to presenters.  Now that’s creating make-believe on TV.  That’s Disneylandification.