Monday, January 29, 2007

For the Love of Shanklish

In writing about the joy extraordinaire of my tummy, Shanklish, I first looked where any modern-day researcher starts off, the Internet. I was mildly surprised when I found out that a few good Samaritans had attempted to explain what Shanklish is and how it is prepared. However, and to my extreme delight, none of them had done it completely right. Can you believe that! Out of the millions of people on the web, I’ll be the first to scientifically and emotionally tell the rest of the world about the most scrumptious ball of cheese in existence on the planet. Even Wikepedia had already stated that the top delectable variety is found in the area of Tartous. That, at least, should get my Damascene friends off my case. But wait, I’m coming back at them in a little while.

There's no point in describing to the uninitiated the taste of Shanklish. It's unlike anything else you've ever eaten in your life. It's simply much tastier yet defies description. From a geohistorical perspective, Shanklish is purely a Syrian invention. It can also be found in the countryside of Akkar (adjacent to Tartous) in the north of Lebanon. Different versions of Shanklish are contrived all the way across the Syrian coast heading east to the Homs area. The rest of Syria only knows how to eat Shanklish, of inferior quality mostly, but nothing about the traditions behind this pungent delicacy. Syria, along with the rest of the Middle East, is known for its white cheeses. The city of Hama and its surrounding countryside produce the best variety of white cheese in the world. The Damascenes eat most of it no doubt and have the tendency, a little like the Lebanese, to claim that the universe actually evolves around them. So once abroad and nostalgic, they start missing the cheese of Damascus, not of Hama, not of Syria, mind you, but of Damascus. We accommodate their vanity because they are older than us, Damascus being the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, you know. Since I broke my silence and spoke of the Damascenes let me continue with the Lebanese. I have found on one of their Phoenician websites Shanklish being referred to as Lebanese Cheese Balls. Oh, my God! I was really ROFL for the last 5 minutes. I just got back on my chair again with tears in my eyes. Where was I?!


OK, I got my revenge back. I might have exposed myself to a whole new wave of attack, but since they don’t have much water in Damascus, let alone a sea, it would be a dry wave anyway. … One moment, I have to get back on my chair and wipe my tears again. I’m laughing so hard at my own ingenious jokes today. I’m so funny (or at least think I am).

Back to the serious topic at hand, Shanklish. I will explain how the basic version and often the best tasting one is made. The process of making great Shanklish involves intensive manual labor, plenty of time and the lowest possible material cost. When you reverse this natural process by using a blender, a refrigerator and fancy ingredients you end up with junk. Unfortunately, most of what is available on the market, even in Tartous, is of the second type. The given reason is that there is no way to meet the high demand except by expediting production. I strongly believe that we, in Syria, have failed to make the transition from great homemade food and beverage processing to mass production while maintaining high quality. We are still unable to make superior wine although we have outstanding grapes. The genuine vineyard in both its traditional and modern sense is absent. Fine wine connoisseurs would not mind buying an expensive imported bottle. There is no local classy alternative because producers are too short-sighted. They have taken the easy way out and stubbornly persist in bringing forth cheap mass produced dull tasting wine.
Fresh cow milk is transformed into yogurt using a basic fermentation process. Milk is heated and brought to boil while continuously (not stopping for an instant) being stirred. As soon as it starts boiling it is removed from the heat source and let to cool at room temperature. Once it reaches the temperature at which you can stick your finger in while counting to ten without burning yourself, half a cup of previously available yogurt is added and stirred. The pot is covered and wrapped with a blanket to insulate it and let it cool down as slowly as possible for a period of twelve hours. We now have delicious fresh yogurt. If you ever wondered how to make your own batch of yogurt this is it. Place it in the fridge and consume it within three to four days. To make Shanklish, however, the process has barely begun. The yogurt is poured into an elongated container (pottery is the best). The old lady (this is the original image I can conjure in my mind) sits on the floor, covers the top of the container and starts shaking it front to back. Every ten minutes or so she stops, uncovers the container and skims the butter which has formed on top (this is how you get real wholesome butter). She would continue for some time until half of the butter is removed and the yogurt has become low in fat (partially skimmed). I need to emphasize here that commercial quality shanklish is skimmed all the way until there is no butter left in it. The skimmed yogurt (called Shenineh) is poured in a cooking pot and is heated until it breaks down into bluish water on top and a residual white substance at the bottom. Once it cools down it’s discharged into a cotton piece of cloth similar to a pillow case and left to hang over the sink. After twelve hours most of the water would have disappeared and we are left with the Arish. Salt is added and the Arish is rolled into tennis-balls-sized individual pieces. To enhance the taste spices and red pepper might be added at this stage, but again if you let nature take its course over time, they are absolutely not needed. Over a piece of cloth the balls are left to dry in the sun, normally on the roof of the house for about ten days. By now they are completely dry and might have some rot on the exterior. They are scraped clean and immersed in a bag of thyme so that it sticks on the surface of the balls. The Shanklish is moved indoors and placed in air-tight containers, or better yet, covered with cloth and wrapped in canvas to let it further ferment slowly in the dark. The period of this stage determines the final outcome. Mild white high-quality Shanklish could be eaten anytime after a week. Diehard, dark, foot smelly, most delicious Shanklish is kept for at least one month. It is served with virgin olive oil, fresh onions and a glass of Arak, or tea for the faint of heart, and eaten with the hand with Tannour bread.

So now you probably know why it’s so difficult to find the connoisseur version of great Shanklish in your local supermarket. The process is a pain in the ass, but believe me, it’s worth every single day in the making. I am a Shanklish gourmet. I don’t mind riding my motorcycle to a distant village nested in the mountains of Tartous and stopping to ask an old bent lady on a narrow cobblestone road. “Do you have some good Shanklish Ya Khalti (my aunt)?” I would ask. “Ya 3ain Khaltak ( You, the eye of your aunt) where are you from?” she would inquire.
-“I’m from Tartous and I heard that you make the best Shanklish here.”
-“Ayleh?! (Exclamation!), you came all the way from Tartous for Shanklish, I would not let you go back empty handed for sure. I have may be 4 or 5 balls, less than a kilo perhaps but Tikram 3aynak (your eye is welcome) come on follow me to my house.”


With my trophy, I head back home. I might make another stop to talk to an old man strolling with a cane in hand and ask him for a liter or two of some homemade Arak he had drawn himself. With my dinner in the bag I ride west. The evening will be perfect, hope you can join me someday.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Fly Me to the Moon

More often than not, the purpose of a photo in a post is to augment or to further illustrate the words and thoughts of the author.
Not this time, however. Whatever words I come up with would fall pitifully short in keeping up with the beauty of this particular instant captured in bits and bites.
I was driving out for lunch with a friend on a Thursday afternoon heading to the village Kamsieh. Pulling out of a tight climbing curve to the left, my peripheral vision registered the vapor trails of a high flying jet. I have already written that this particular apparition magnetizes and takes hold of me. The moon, a rock I always dreamt of visiting but have accepted the futility of my dream, was up ahead in the path of the magnificent machine. I slowed down as I perfectly knew that I only had a few seconds to get my shot. I pulled over to the shoulder amid the questioning stares of my companion. I took out my digital camera from the cup hole stepping out of the car in the bright daylight and fired at the blue sky. It was too bright to decipher the outcome on the view screen of my Canon. I brought my arm down to take in the whole sky and the piercing white lance with my own eyes. My friend, too, disembarked from the car, took off his sunglasses and stared in awe.
I shouldn’t write anymore, there’s no point.


Click photo for 1280x960 resolution

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Stuffed Grape Leaves

Among the many delicious plates we all share in the Levant, Wara’ Inab (Stuffed Grape Leaves), also known as Wara’ Dawali is certainly the flagship of Tartoussi cuisine. It is by far the most important entrée, offered on special occasions and enjoyed anytime by the entire family. Everybody likes well prepared, freshly green grape leaves with a succulent heap of mutton meat and bones. I have to admit that this is not one of the easier recipes to prepare. It requires some hard work and plenty of time as with all the good things in life. Groundwork starts either early in the morning or one day in advance. I am certain that those who have had the pleasure of repeatedly eating this dish agree with me that it’s worth all the trouble, but it should be mentioned to those who hadn’t been fortunate yet. Wara’ Inab is a culinary masterpiece and it certainly deserves international recognition as one of the most significant achievements of the human imagination and determination in creating an edible objet d’art.

There are two main variants to Stuffed Grape Leaves. The first one is the light version and it consists of grape leaves stuffed with rice & vegetables only, called Yalangi in Arabic (from Turkish no doubt) and Dolmades in Greek. This dish is prepared with olive oil and lemon juice and is totally vegetarian. It is easier to put together than the second recipe and is considered an appetizer or a plate of Mezza. If enough interest is generated to write another post about it I will certainly oblige. The second recipe, the topic of this post, is a main entrée and is often the centerpiece of the table.
OK, let’s roll our sleeves and get at it.

Ingredients:

-2 cups of Rice short grain
- ½ Kg ground lamb meat
-1 ½ to 2 Kg of lamb meat and bones + ¼ Kg of (optional) lamb fat (a friendly butcher is a definite plus if you live in the west).
-1 kg of fresh and tender (not too large) grape leaves. Canned grape leaves are an acceptable substitute but be warned: they don’t taste the same. In this part of the world we buy the grape leaves in season and freeze them in individual vacuumed wraps of 1 Kg each. They fall in between fresh and canned grape leaves as far as their taste is concerned.
-6 sticks of cinnamon
-8 whole cardamom pods
-4 bay leaves
-½ teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg
-1 cup of fresh lemon juice
-4 cloves of garlic
-Salt & pepper




Preparation:

-The ground lamb meat is cooked briefly over medium fire until light brown. Then it’s mixed with the rice along with salt and pepper (as per taste).
-Individual grape leaves are stuffed with the rice & meat mixture as per attached photos (above) and kept aside.
-The lamb meat and bones are placed in a large pot of water and brought to a boil for 5 minutes. The water is thrown away and the meat and bones are moved to a new clean pot. -Fresh water is added and brought to a boil along with the cinnamon sticks, the cardamom pods, the bay leaves and the grated nutmeg. Cooking time 2 hours over low heat.
-The lamb meat and bones are removed from the sauce and evenly distributed on the bottom of another pot. The stuffed grape leaves are arranged over the lamb and on top of each other in a tight circular pattern and the cloves of garlic are thrown in.
-The sauce is added until it covers all the grape leaves. Some heavy cover is used to press the grape leaves in place so they don’t get disfigured during the cooking. The top of a smaller pot is ideal along with some heavy object to keep it steady in place (how about a brick!)
- Once the sauce starts boiling (visible from the edges of the smaller top), reduce heat to minimum and cook undisturbed for 2 ½ hours. Remove top, add 1 cup of lemon juice, and cover with top again for ½ hour.
- Get a circular serving pan larger in diameter than the cooking pot and place it on top. With one swift movement turn upside down so that the lamb is on top of the grape leaves now.
- Serve and enjoy. The above quantity should be enough for 5 people with some delicious leftovers for the next day.
- In Tartous we serve stuffed grape leaves with salted yogurt on the side, green mint leaves and peeled garlic.



Eat as much as you can since you don't get this everyday. Release your belt buckle. Lean back in a lazy chair. Have some tea. Savor the after taste of garlic. Don’t feel ashamed or guilty of what you have just done (you’ve definitely over-eaten, but so what). Think about tomorrow and the leftovers in the fridge. Smile and be happy, that’s all.


Photos illustrating how to roll the grape leaves in this post are courtesy of What’s Cooking America .

Photos of the actual dish and plate taken by Abu Fares. Actual plate consumed by Abu Fares. Leftovers eaten by Abu Fares. Actual dish prepared by Om Fares. This is her recipe as well.
For a step-by-step instruction on how to stuff and roll the grape leaves only (not the recipe itself), check out the photos offered by Nancy Gaifyllia at http://greekfood.about.com/od/greekcookinglessons/ss/foldleaves.htm . She uses a totally different Greek recipe with beef and pork, but the rolling is the same.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

rain rain rain ,,,

Tartous is as charming in the rain as when basking in the sun. It has been a long while in the waiting. Winter has fallen dry this year. The good earth is thirsty, the stone walls, the lonely trees, the narrow alleys, the souls of men. Then a flash of light pierced the sky and thunder shook the ground. Rain had come at last and as the downpour flooded the streets, ancient memories floated swiftly in the gullies of the mind.


I was a little kid again, unwillingly marching to school. I made it in a soaking parka and muddy rubber boots. In threesomes, we huddled close together sharing wet wooden desks. The cold classroom was meagerly illuminated by a couple of feeble light bulbs. The pompous teacher proudly walked in and ordered us boys to open our books to page seventy three. He was the master within the confines of a single book. He had been regurgitating its content ever since he was appointed for the thankless job. A bovine preaching a flock of parrots for twelve years in anticipation for one ultimate test that would either make or break their future. The bell rang and the herd released. The grubby streets became fields of dreams, the showers enhancing the joy of the experience. We played marbles in the mud while slowly eating soggy falafel sandwiches at a quarter of a Syrian pound each. The ten-minute walk home took at least an hour. We made a detour and headed to the corniche by the sea. Sneezing, coughing and wiping mucus with the back of our sleeves, we sat on the rocks and let the spray of the breaking waves cleanse our minds from the rubbish of brainwashing. The seagulls were sweeping the sky above searching for a bite to eat. The froth was murky and the surge carried logs and debris. It also brought discarded treasures from distant ships. The bigger-than-life Sea was our way out someday. Unlike our peers from the inland most of us broke free at eighteen. The implanted desire to travel, to reach the other invisible coast was overwhelming. Even among the best of parrots at school, those who scored high on the Bacalorea exam, the craving for the voyage was irresistible. We would rather cross the Atlantic then be left high and dry in Damascus or Aleppo.


As the years have gone, I remain an outsider in my own country once I cross the mountains shielding Tartous from the east. While the rain bathes my balding head, notions of a new journey seduce me, to board a ship and leave to a new shore where I am not a stranger among strangers. In the company of pipe-smoking fishermen and tattooed sailors of different tongues I can laze in a small café by a harbor in an unfamiliar city and feel right at home. I would be gazing at the chimneys of ships taking to the sea, dreaming of my Tartous and the day I shall return.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

“Everything I like is either illegal, immoral or fattening”

The title of this post is one of my favorite quotations. It is accredited to Alexander Woolcott (1887 – 1943) a critic and commentator for The New Yorker magazine.

If we may argue that social evolution is as self evident as its biological counterpart then this sarcastic quotation really raises a serious question. For a social activity, trend or custom to survive despite its being challenged by three formidable and ruthless foes it must provide the individual with an extraordinary payback. It must give him or her “great and immense pleasure”. This is the only way through which this “thing” can flourish in the social jungle where the survival of the fittest is literally true.
But why is that so? Actually the question should be rephrased: Why did the law, religion and nature conspire against our flirting with hedonism?

I wish to tackle this intriguing question in reverse order, that is I shall begin with the fattening bit, if I may. In the animal kingdom, herbivores, carnivores, and omnivores eat like there is no tomorrow. All animals will continue to gobble until full to the brim. As a matter of fact we count on cows and sheep munching every single minute of their waking hours to make them as fat as possible, as fast as possible, so that we may, in turn, eat them. Lions, tigers and hyenas will keep devouring their prey until they fall into a dazed slumber. They would not hunt again until they are hungry and the process is repeated with every killing rampage. Apes and chimpanzees, our closest relatives, don’t go on a limited diet. They eat till they drop if food is aplenty. Research has shown that the life expectancy of animals will dramatically increase if they consume less food, if they were kept on the verge of starvation. A recent experiment on mice illustrated that their lifespan increased by 30% when they were fed half of the amount of food regular mice eat (the control group). But animals don’t do that, they just follow nature. In light of the above, I concede that the increase in the life expectancy of humans from the olden days is not a natural process. It has been achieved through advancements in medicine and motivated by our insatiable pursuit of immortality. It is not necessarily more beneficial for the human race that people are living longer and healthier. May be, and I’m just arguing here, that we were meant, biologically, to live shorter and happier by eating tastier, more fulfilling food. I reckon that the longer we humans live the more wars we humans are going to suffer. It’s simply a matter of economics, mathematics and geography. Being on a finite piece of land (Earth) and until space colonization becomes a reality (if that is morally and legally acceptable) our planet is getting shorter on resources and increasingly overcrowded. I fall back to scientific research. Laboratory mice living in overcrowded quarters have shown an amplified tendency toward violence, homicide (in this case mousicide) and even cannibalism. And my final coup de grâce to rest my case as far as health and longevity are concerned is that most wars in the history of mankind were started by elderly statesmen or leaders. As a matter of fact, many people who seek or hold public office are too old to be rightly alive.

Morality comes from the word mores of course, which plainly means a set of customs that a people live by. Sometime in our early recorded history, religion took hold and control of people’s minds and souls. Just to remain on the abstract level and in order not to ram my head against the unyielding wall of any one religion, I will go head to head with abstract religion in my onslaught, monotheist, polytheist, pantheist and pagan. There is a fundamental difference between religion and faith. The former is an indoctrinated invention while the latter is part of human instinct. Religion, however, juxtaposed itself with faith to become almost synonymous. Early cavemen believed (had faith without proof) that there is one or more superior power in nature. They didn’t have any religion but they had faith. They led a harsh life, with dangers lurking behind every obstacle. They were hunters or food gatherers too busy with insuring their daily existence. Out of simplicity and the mere struggle to survive, someone, who didn’t want to work, turned shaman. Slowly, faith was being coerced to morph into religion. The shaman (sage, priest, …etc.) played a progressively more central role and it was not to his advantage that people should believe in one or more deity without rituals and sacrifices. “Beware the wrath of the Goddess of the Wind if you don’t give her a leg of deer or a basket of fruits” he would ejaculate in a state of frenzy while dancing around a huge bonfire. “But, Uh, how would we offer our presents, Oh Wise One?” the poor cavemen would ask submissively. Needless to say, the shaman would tell them that he would take care of this extremely complex spiritual task. He would intervene. Should I tell you what he would do with the leg of deer and the basket of fruits? I will return to this particular question in my final bout against the law. We’ve come a long way since our ancestors became subservient to the high priests but this is the actual historic evolution of religion. As the clergy became more powerful they affirmed suitable traditions, abolished inconvenient mores and introduced new ones. Sex, in particular, became their favorite and primary target. Religion is more concerned with sex and managing women than with any other aspect of human behavior. I reason that in the beginning those priests looked real ugly and frightening with the masks and paints. They couldn’t get laid without introducing some divine order. My other theory is that they suffered from some sort of impotency and vented their frustration by ordaining whatever makes people happy taboo. Subsequent religions picked up the pieces and the forbidden became more ubiquitous than the allowed. Sex, unless regimented, controlled, authorized and licensed became immoral. There are many other taboos in religion; my previous argument should have covered them all.

Now we come to my final round, against the law. I have earlier indicated that I shall return to the question of what would the priest do with the leg of deer and the basket of fruits. Of course it would be ideal if he could have them all to himself. But in reality that would have not been possible. Even as early as the cave, there were many normal folks and a few bullies. Most world leaders, before and now, carry bully genes in their cells. The early shaman needed a partner. There was always a big intimidator who would beat the other cavemen and steal their food and their women. This son of a bitch was the perfect partner for that asshole. Law and Religion shook hands, hugged, kissed and eventually fornicated to produce an Order. In its ultimate manifestation, the present New World Order is a result of such an adulterous act, or shall we say marriage since there was a priest involved. What was immoral thus became too often illegal as well. The interests of the law and religion diverged and converged over the millennia. In Utopia they will be on opposite ends if not totally absent. The crucial lesson of history is that the downfall of civilizations has always taken place when politics and religion were in bed together. Illegal pleasures are very subjective and they vary from the absurd to the imperative. For some, it could be the simple pleasure of smoking a joint, for others it could be the simpler pleasure of speaking their minds without being arrested. Anything, good or bad, can be termed illegal and thus against the law. People are denied the right and the pleasure to roam the face of the earth (our planet) by word of the law. Most humans cannot travel to a given piece of land (referred to as country) to have fun or to work, thus live a more pleasurable life, unless he or she obtains a visa. If this document is not issued due to legal and/or outright religious reasons it would be illegal for these humans to set foot on that soil, regulated by the law to belong to one specific group and sanctified by religion as proper.

Am I too harsh, too nihilistic perhaps, or is it possible that I might be saying the truth in an awfully perverse way? Neither, I was just trying to explain this eloquent quotation: “Everything I like is either illegal, immoral or fattening”.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

I Want to Ride My Bicycle

Inspired by Shannon

Just about fourteen months ago I’ve stopped riding my bicycle. The level of physical activity I had maintained up until then came to an almost complete stop. I was diagnosed with a ruptured disk in my lower back. The pain became unbearable and it stabbed down through my right leg. I couldn’t walk any longer, let alone exercise.

Instead of surgery, I took the long road to recovery and stayed in bed for over a month. The many x-rays and scans of my back were examined on both sides of the Mediterranean with virtually the same verdict. Surgery was ruled out as I was suffering from three separate injuries to my lower back, the oldest of which dated back to 1996.
My body had been complaining and giving me warning signals for some time but I had turned a deaf ear. For four years in a row I was driving a two hundred kilometers roundtrip everyday to work in Lattakia. I would spend the whole day standing up on my own two feet on the job site. I kept lifting weights that I was not supposed to, twisting myself under or over machinery and climbing stairs like a fifteen year old kid on the trail of a naked Britney Spears (or whomever they are running after nowadays). Eventually, there was one wrong move too many and my back gave in.

I have done well coming out of it the way I did. However, my body is not the same it used to be. My frantic mobility had slowed down. Even riding my motorcycle became a rationed joy and I have come to accept that the longer rides were not for me any longer.

I have never been a health freak. I enjoy a good meal, a social drink or two and a cigarette or cigar every once in a while. I’ve always burned what I ate though and my weight remained almost constant. But in the last year alone, I have gained six unwanted kilos due to the lack of any proper exercise. The main problem was that I hate any indoor work out routine. I am an active person in the way a manual laborer is rather than a white collar stiff going to the gym to burn those extra calories. I enjoy the outdoors tremendously and my favorite passion had been hunting quails in the countryside. Simply translated that would mean a thirty kilometers walk on rough terrain at least twice a week. Then hunting was banned in Syria, not for the right reasons I am afraid. I needed an alternative and fast, so I bought my first bicycle as an adult.



The Tartous Corniche (Sea Boulevard) is a seven kilometer road stretched north to south at the sea front. At least four times a week, I would ride by the sea to the edge of town and back home, a distance of roughly sixteen kilometers in a little less than forty five minutes. On weekends with nice weather and calm winds, I would sometimes ride to Rimal Zahabieh and back, a distance of thirty five kilometers. I kept my weight in check and my physical stamina the envy of people half my age.



I am back on my bicycle and it feels great. I love to ride it in cold weather in my afternoon break. I owe it to Shannon. I read her post about getting back in shape, switched my PC off, left the office in a hurry and took my bicycle to the shop for a thorough check and tune-up. Here I am, twenty four hours later, enjoying the chilly wind blowing in my face and the beautiful sea easing my eyes and mind. I am riding again, and I would do so every chance I get.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Memories of America

I came of age in America and it’s neither feasible nor proper to capsulate my life there in one or more posts. When I returned home after an eight year sojourn, a part of me stayed there and a part of America came back with me. With every “American” movie I’ve seen since, with almost every song, a powerful yet tender nostalgic wave would take hold of me and I would race backward in time to a particular moment deeply burned in memory.

When recalling my adolescence in Tartous, or further back my childhood in Lebanon, mainly my obsessive desire to go to America comes to mind. My father came back in 1966 with pictures from Washington D.C. and New York. I would stare at them for hours. I would ask about every little detail in the visible landscape. I grew up learning and eventually knowing more about the United States than many Americans knew then or even now. It was only a matter of when, and as soon as I had my first chance at sixteen, I crossed the Atlantic. The happiest surprise for me was that I could apply for a driver’s license, my first. A few days after my arrival, I became the proud holder of a restricted Louisiana license. In an old white Dodge van and for three summer months I lived my dream wide and far and managed to visit twenty two states and filled my eyes with wonder and magic. I returned home for my last year in high school (Bacalorea) but for the next twelve months I was in a period of waiting. Nothing, absolutely nothing, would stop me from heading back there when the time should come.

And, I did just that and celebrated my eighteenth birthday in Lafayette, Louisiana, the only place I truly call home after Tartous. The University of Southwestern Louisiana is my Alma Mater. I studied and later taught at this wonderful school where the good times always came first. I followed the Ragin Cajuns Football team in many of their away games and was a loyal, although a little intoxicated fan, always. I even attended Basketball games to support the home team although this particular sport never appealed to me. Through my college years I kept moving from one apartment to another, from one trailer to the next, perpetually stalking a cheaper rent. I lived in white middle class neighborhoods and at the northern edge of town, near the railroad, where everybody except my roommates and I were black. I got along with everybody on both sides just fine and there are still people there who call me “friend”. I remember spending evenings downtown in black bars where nobody, eventually, minded me. I also remember boasting about it to my white American friends and cherishing the looks of shock and disbelief on their faces. The music was much better there, the dancing chicks hotter and the beer cheaper, what else would a twenty year old college kid want from life.

I have to really squeeze my brain hard to come up with some disquieting or disturbing moments. The 444 day hostage crisis at the American Embassy in Tehran (1979 -1981) was probably the low point. Every foreigner then became a damn foreigner at best or a fuckin’ Ayranian at worse. To me, America lost its innocence then. It was and still is very difficult, if not impossible, for some Americans to accept that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Whether a nation is the most powerful or not, screwing others halfway across the world in the name of national security would eventually cause a few of these others to get back at you any way they can. Well this is the only lesson I’ve learned regarding foreign policy (for God’s sake someone explains it to W).

There certainly are embarrassing, yet charming moments. Recently, while chatting with an American cyberfriend (I hope we’d meet one day irl) she told me about the time she lived in the Middle East. Over the course of five years she learned Arabic quite well and found the Arab obsession with her apparently well proportioned and dazzling behind extremely amusing. As she became fluent with the language she would shock the young men who would be openly and loudly discussing her ass without the slightest hint that this American lady understands Arabic only too well. A friend of mine and I were those poor Arab kids one night in Lafayette. We were grocery shopping late on a Saturday when two beauties walked in, a team of mother and daughter, stunningly sexy in tight jeans. They had nothing better to do that evening except driving a Tripolitan and a Tartoussi crazy. We were hot on their trail between the aisles, following them like a pair of hounds and graphically discussing various parts of their anatomies in loud Levantine Arabic. I don’t think we left any part, any fold, any feature of their great bodies without fully analyzing its virtues and what we would like to do with it. Finally at the checkout where we were truly alone, the four of us and the cashier, the mother spoke. In a tantalizing Lebanese accented Arabic, she smiled and looked straight in our eyes and suggested what the two of us should do with ourselves later after we got so HOT. They walked out swaying their beautiful behinds and disappeared in the night. My friend and I, too embarrassed to even look at each other.

The skills I’ve acquired and honed in America, in addition to my higher education, not only came useful later in life but were in fact complementary colored threads in the tapestry of my character. I was introduced to astronomy by the curator of the Lafayette Natural History Museum and Planetarium, a student pilot at the local flight school where I worked. Since, astronomy had become one my greatest hobbies and pastimes. My friend Rick and I would drive in his old Toyota pickup out to the levee by Henderson. There at the edge of the bayous at dusk, we would settle down for a nice and long evening. With a simple, but adequate telescope, we would sit for hours observing the heavens while sharing a gallon of the cheapest Louisiana wine anyone could find. On one night I discovered a wholly new uncharted constellation (remember the wine). Rick thought it’s only appropriate that it should be called after me, thus he gave it the name Assholuis.

I had fallen in love in America and I had said more goodbyes than I care to count. I have remained in touch with many wonderful people but unfortunately lost track of a few, very close and dear to my heart. They’re probably married with children now. To make it easier on myself, I would add that they are fat and ugly too. But truly in my mind, they are stuck in their twenties and look as beautiful and perfect as ever, forever.

In the last twenty years, I have made several trips to America. Although I have been mainly to the west and east coasts, I was fortunate to go to Lafayette on a couple of occasions. I drove back in time, into neighborhoods I practically grew up in. I visited some old friends and learned that a couple had passed away. I even thought that I had seen my face amongst the faces of college students hurrying between classes on my old campus.

Now, I am in a period of waiting again. I know that I’ll be going there one day, but I’d rather wait. Last time I’ve been there, Clinton was still the man. I consider myself lucky not to have been in America during the W years. Sooner or later he’ll be out of the ball game, for good hopefully. It’s hard to imagine that someone worse could take the helm after him. It’s virtually impossible. I look forward happier days blessing America to make that long journey once more, not back in time but deep into my soul.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

You Eat As Much As You Love

Many habitual readers of this blog, if I permit myself to admit that there are actually people who come again, are not after my political, social or religious insights. They follow along grudgingly and allow themselves to read my boring outlook on the local and international scenes in the safe knowledge that I will come out of this mode eventually and get back to one of the few fields at which I am better at. Food for instance!

Shall I talk about quality versus quantity? What about if both were present on the same table? Wouldn’t that be the perfect gastronomic dream? Indeed, and I have proof this time that gaining a few kilos during the festive season on both sides of the new year isn’t that bad after all. You know what I truly think [sometimes]. OK, I am already married with children [my looks aren’t that important anymore, not that I have any intentions of wagging my tail in the first place]. My wife is doing most of the cooking herself, so I can always blame it on her. My health, relatively speaking, can handle the delicious calories as well as the bland ones. We live only once, to the best of my knowledge. The extended family meets but a few times per year. And, one cannot stop eating before the guests, it’s just not appropriate. As a matter of fact, one needs to eat more than the guests, just to show them what a jovial generous fellow he is [besides we really don’t eat like this everyday]. Need I bring up any further points to support my argument? Well may be a couple of pictures showing some of the stuff, I along with the guests, had the pleasure of consummating during the course of one happy lunch very recently.




The main attraction was the turkey. Stuffed with rice, pistachios, almonds, pine nuts and minced meat on the inside. Rubbed with wholesome butter and exotic spices on the outside. And, served with love and affection without any consideration to the protests of the guest(s) begging to “please stop… this is enough”.
Fattouch is an omni present salad in Tartous and it has something called “fibers” which is supposed to be good for you. We love Fattouch and eat it with everything because all diet plans encourage the consumption of salad and green stuff (very health conscious we are).
Let’s get back to serious food again, after you had your share of turkey, stuffing and salted yogurt (see small bowls), you resume your euphoric feasting with some Kobbeh Bil Saynieh and Kobbeh Meshwieh. It’s not a matter of either or, come on… You got to have just a little tiny bit of both, three to four pieces Bil Saynieh and at least two hot (filled with minced meat, pine nuts and fat) Kobbeh Meshwieh. Wait, some red beans with lamb and rice. They were made especially because they go along so nicely with the Kobbeh.
By God ( منشان الله) change your plate. This is real good Kamayeh = Tuber Truffles ( كمأة ) from the countryside of Homs. No don’t worry, it’s very light and good for you. It’s just been fried in butter with lamb chunks the size of a small bird’s head ( راس العصفور ). What do you mean you’ve had enough rice, here’s some more (you eat as much as you love = الأكل على قد المحبة ).
You know what, next time you invite us over, I am going to eat as little as you did. Are you sick God forbids? OK, that’s better.
I wouldn’t have any of it, by Gody ( واللهَّ بكسر الهاء ) you’re going to try this Lahme Bi Ajin (Meat Pies) they are prepared with grenadine molasses ( دبس رمان ) , we only prepared them this morning because we heard that you like them. Nobody tries just one. OK, fine, have it your way, just two pieces. You are so stubborn.
How about a second serving of turkey? Are you sure? Don’t make me swear.

Let’s move to the living room for some sweets and tea.
In Tartous, there’s only one origin for real sweets to swear by. Nah, it’s not from Damascus, Aleppo or Homs. It’s from Tripoli, Lebanon and it’s called Abdul Rahman Hallab Sweets. Anything else and you’d be better off eating donuts. We have a love affair with oriental sweets, as they’ve come to be known. Tartoussi scouts of old would travel to distant cities if they ever heard that there is a new place that’s supposed to have good sweets. They will return with the verdict, always, not as good as Hallab. Not even close. Over the years, Tripoli has become the number one destination for Tartoussi enthusiast sweet epicures. We go there in the morning, eat sweets at Hallab, order a few 2 kilo boxes to go for “hospitality” ( ضيافة ) and return in the early afternoon in time for lunch.




So after lunch, while waiting for the Green tea (great and always recommended in diet plans because of its antioxidants and positive digestive attributes or whatever), the Lebanese culinary objets d’art are brought forward and placed in the middle of the coffee table with reverence and affection. Diabetes my ass, you’re going to have one of each like God created you ( متل ما الله خلقك ). Do you really believe that sweets are bad for you? Well, actually, not oriental sweets. They are prepared with Hamwi shortening ( سمنة حموية ) and that will nullify the negative effects of sugar and lubricate your arteries and veins.
Sahha Wa Hana (health & enjoyment), we don’t want to swear on you ( ما بدنا نحلف عليكم ), but please have some more of this, that and those. You didn’t even try this little round one “the bracelet of the bride” ( اسوارة العروس ) It’s very light, stuffed with delightful petite pistachios and soaked in flower water ( ماء زهر ) and sugar syrup ( قطر ).
Ahlan Wa Sahlan (Welcome). Would you like to wash your hands now? Or after the fruits, may be?
Ya Mit Ahla Wa Sahla (a hundred welcome), you came but your duty did not ( حضرتوا وما حضر واجبكم).
Would you like a banana? It’s better than Rolaids believe me…

Monday, January 01, 2007

My Person of the Year for 2006

George W. Bush had initiated the tidal wave of hate and bigotry which has swept the world for the last seven years. Luckily, the tyranny might subside with his administration’s eventual exodus. The ongoing raping of democracy by a group of religious maniacs might after all stop. The United States might come out of it with only bad memories if there is a commitment by the next administration to deeply bury the coffin of the draconian Christianitist and Judaist religious politics (why the euphemisms: neo-cons, Evangelists, Zionists - they are Christianitists and Judaists and in no way any better than the notorious Islamists they’ve helped create).

Israel will remain the instigator of most political dilemmas in the 21st century as long as it is a “Jewish” state. Once, and when, it drops its religious actuality and sheds its Zionist skin, it might get the acceptance of the billions of reluctant people. To do so would very likely put humanity on the road toward true world peace.

Had it not been for the Christianitists and Judaists meddling and screwing with the world, Islamic fanaticism would have had a very rough time surviving and prospering. An increasing number of the followers of the third monotheist religion decided that the only way to face the bullies is to have one (or more) of their own, hence the emergence and the eventual general acceptance of the Islamic republic of Iran as a possible nuclear power even by ordinary moderate Muslims.

The world will defintely be a much better place without the lowly criminal George W. Bush. If in the final days of 2006, the Iraqi President was tried, found guilty and hanged for crimes against humanity by a court of law, I wonder what method of execution should be appropriate to end the life of the Texan mass murderer. I am sure his lawyers will plead innocence by reason of insanity, and although I am not an advocate of the death penalty, an exception is due in this case to kill the crazy maniac.

Most importantly, the Islamic World needs to find peace with itself and should work hard on internal reconciliation. We should reach the logical conclusion that it is OK to be different and that it is the right thing to accept our differences. No one should be given the right to speak to the rest of us in the name of God. And that really means absolutely NO ONE. We have more than our share of Bushes and Olmerts all eager and anticipating the first chance to jump into the saddle of leadership. Of course, most of our ruling elite have made it official policy to fondle in continual foreplay the Muslim clergy. They keep the lid on but accommodate the “mosque = church” to the best of their abilities. Those in power are weary of the terrible hysteria these Men of the Cloth could let loose among the masses. A loud sermon sprinkled with detached verses from the holy book and a few tears from a man on top of a pulpit can lead to demonstrations, the ravaging of property and possibly a religious revolution. The present status quo is a simple marriage of convenience between the ruling elite and the religious fellowship. You don’t threaten our thrones, we let you maintain all the privileges and the benefits you had never worked for in the first place. The most dangerous of these religious zealots are those who decided to make a double career for themselves in religion and politics.

Having said all of the above, I still insist that I despise politics. However, it was a necessary prelude to what is coming next.

Choosing my person of the year for 2006 was not very difficult. Drawing the line between politics, religion and society is not as easy, however. Indeed, it is apparent that no such line exists. I have always been troubled by the fact that the political arena(s) is occupied by extremists from the fringes of the spectrum. Truly moderate people are much quieter than those who are obsessed with ideologies, and this is truly sad.



For standing up in the face of autocracy, tyranny and religious despotism, Farouk Hosni, the Egyptian Minister of Culture is my Person of the Year for 2006. His position on the Hijab (the veil worn by women) is honest, temperate and straightforward. What he said is so obvious: live and let live. His hypocrite opponents want him to apologize, no less. Had they been able to do so, they would have gone all the way and invoked the death penalty upon him. In the ongoing battle between the immoral and moral minorities there is one loser only, the silent majority. For once, one of us decided to speak up. If we are not for women being gift wrapped and only allowed to get out of the box by the virtuously designated men it does not necessarily mean that we are for whorish behavior. Those women who have chosen either course are free to do so as long as they don’t try to enforce their heroic decision on the rest of us. As far as I am concerned, they both come from the fringes of the spectrum. Thank you Mr. Farouk Hosni, a fellow Muslim from the middle. Live and let live!