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Friday, May 25, 2007

Pleasures You Can Taste

You and I deserve a little break. What’s been going on all around, in our backyard and beyond, can and eventually will bring the best of us down. To compose ourselves, to maintain a glimmer of hope and sanity, nothing beats getting back to the basics. We certainly need food for the mind but at the primal level we must first secure food for the body.

As if the troubled world didn’t exist, I woke up one Friday morning earlier than my normal workdays. Still 6:30AM and I had an insatiable hunger for the early sun, for the streets, for the open market and for some fresh real food. I needed to slow down though. Only a virgin, still wet behind the ears, rushes moments of pleasure. I should savor every little detail, every small nuisance of a slow day ahead. It’s my day off, and I’m not having many of those lately.

-“What do you want to do, where do you want to go?”
-“i wanna go shoppin 4 food, green stuff & fresh meat. You’d cook 4 me. I’ll eat it all…”
-“Ahh, it’s one of those days then, Allah yjibek ya toulet el bal. Come on say it, what do you have in mind, what do you want to eat?”
-“u really think i care, whatever we find… we buy, we bring, u cook, i eat. let’s go shoppin.”

On a side street, near the southern edge of Tartous, the largest outdoor vegetable and produce market opens daily year-round. On a Friday morning, it’s a gourmet dream come true. Still too early for ordinary mortals to leave the comfort of bed and home, I had full reign to look and touch, to smell and taste the bounties of the good earth. To chat with the old ladies who have brought their produce from the villages nearby, to take pictures of vegetables and fruits, to not care if anyone around thought that this Tartoussi has lost his marbles, to be myself, just for a day, is a blessing from heaven... and it’s all mine.

This simple joy is truly beyond words. But I have to let you in on it, and my humble writing is for the collective good of a real life we should all share, or at least not forget. It’s been over a year since I’ve gone shopping for food on my day off. I don’t mean a supermarket or a grocery store, but rather going through a Levantine experience, those of my generation remember as the only way to shop for food.

For those of you living in Syria, don’t miss out on your chance to buy your food as it was meant to be. It seems that we’re not going to have the open markets for much longer anymore. Concrete monstrosities are much more profitable. For the busy ones with little free time on their hands, slowing down every once in a while and smelling the radishes is as relaxing and gratifying as any vacation in an exotic location could ever be. It’s much cheaper though and can be squeezed in your demanding schedules. You can’t go wrong. You’d come back home and eat stuffed squash in yogurt (Koussa b Laban or Sheikh el Mehshi). You’d mix the filling on the inside with some Burghul and make Mhabbal b Koussa. When it’s Fava Beans time (fool) there are over a dozen way to make it (Ya Rijjal Nezel el Fool, La Tis2al wla T2ool = Whoever succeeds in translating this Damascene proverb in the Comment Section wins a Huge Plate of Fool bi Eshro bi Kezbra w toom). The crisp parsley you just brought will be transformed into the freshest Tabbouleh this side of the galaxy. And for your sweet tooth afterward, those brightly yellow bananas will find their way into a beautifully simple and deliciously inviting banana pie. The Mana2eesh b Zaatar are on the house.

In the coming month of June my work might take me to new lands. I will try to post while away, but just in case I can’t make it, you’ll hopefully hear from me upon my return. Eat well, sleep tight and have fun.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

My Kind of Man

"… why are we never treated to illustrations of male beauty every now and then, heh? Would it kill you to show, say, the many delights of George Clooney? Sorry, but my feminist leanings sometimes do come out when provoked. :)"
Rime of Mosaics

When an intelligent and delightfully attractive woman poses such a query, only a fool such as me would oblige. But here I am, win or lose, embarking on a dangerous proposition, what kind of a man I would have liked, had I been a woman.

It’s stupid isn’t it! My attempt to write (at least a page) about an idea which has never crossed my mind. I want my man to be of the strong and silent type. Well, what the hell, let’s get it out in the open.

He has to be bright to start with. I can’t stand a dumb broad so I, and my fellow women, deserve an intelligent man instead of a stupid bloke. A man with brains knows when to speak and when not to, how to be close when needed and how to distant himself when some extra breathing space is all what a woman wants. This last trait is only mastered by a brilliant man. A woman needs her time alone and he will be doing her a great favor when he steps out of the picture. He is a genius if he knows when to return, just in the nick of time.

I want my man to dress properly without hinting that he makes a habit out of watching himself in the mirror. I don’t like an overdressed man and even if I were the hottest and sexiest girl out there, I would never show any interest in a man who enjoys shopping for clothing. I’d rather he compliments me on my nice negligee but it would drive me crazy if he shows too much interest in my or his wardrobe. I would buy all of his clothes for him. When he needs to wear a suit he will look fabulous, but I prefer him in a faded pair of jeans.

I like him to be fit and well proportioned, may be a little on the tall side. Appearances are deceiving but I’d rather be with a man with full dark hair instead of a blond or bald one. He should have comfortable shoulders to lean on, rather on the broad side. His smile must be big and reassuring, showing a white set of teeth. He has to be contented with himself and at ease with the rest of the world as far as his looks are concerned. But then again, his attitude toward his appearance must in no way be conscious. He should look nice without even trying.

I can only relate to dependable men. No, I don’t want a banker or a jeweler. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I can get along with either. I’m talking about a man who would answer my call a hundred mile away in the middle of the night and be my side in an hour or less. A dependable man is a loyal and faithful one. He would give up his life for me in dire need. Unless I feel his devotion to his family and friends he has no right to be with me.

I don’t mind if I catch him looking at other women but he must be tactful enough to know when not to do it. I want him to pamper yet treat me with respect on an emotional and material level. We should enjoy doing things together but not everything. I need time to do my womanly things alone, like removing my body hair and shopping with my girlfriends (at least one of these two obsessions must be shared with other women). I prefer that he spends time with his buddies at least once a week. I don’t mind if they talk women and sports. It’s much more acceptable than discussing fashion trends and flower arrangement. He could fart in their company but not in mine. He can unleash the male beast inside of him, only attainable in the company of other men. With me, he must maintain a sense of civility at all times without being pretentious in the least.

Finally, a man has to say no eventually. Even to me, when the moment comes, he must say it in my face without a blink of an eye. For all the other times, he must be a generous man with a positive attitude toward humanity. Nobody must feel superior or inferior in his presence, that’s all.

Having treaded on such thin ice and gotten a little wet in the crossing no doubt, I think I deserve and owe it to myself to talk about my kind of woman. Coming soon.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007


Since the turn of the century the rushing flow of events has swept us all, nations, communities and individuals. Political and social polarization has reached an unprecedented level of intensity. Diplomacy in its traditional role has all but vanished, and it has become not only fashionable but rather acceptable that coercion is the new lingua franca of the world. From the micro scale of the basic family upward to the clash of civilizations, one side is trying to shove its sense of justice, of right or wrong down the other’s throat. Dialogue is fading from our collective conscience like a piece of meat rots in the sun. Although censorship, in all of its manifestations, is not a novel development, political, social and economic evolutions have always been successful in eroding the extent of its prevalence. The mere fact that censorship is on the rise again is an evolutionary mutation. It has appeared time and again in human history in the form of indoctrinated politics and religion. My focus in this article is “moral censorship”, although I would rather call it moral oppression and tyranny.

A blind, rash, senseless and stupid stroke of political genius rendered Blogspot inaccessible to Internet browsers in Syria earlier this year. The majority of these users certainly opposed this decision. Many bloggers expressed their frustration with the known and often unknown decision makers behind the scenes. At the time, I wrote a bitter and angry article but never published it afterward for two reasons. First, one has to remember where he or she is and not stretch his or her luck too thin. Then, and more significantly, scoring goals is more important than beating up the goalkeeper. I continued blogging and circumnavigated yet another obstacle in a course full of them. Political censorship is wrong, but this post, as I have indicated earlier, is after another culprit which is sneaking up on our already almost non-existent freedom of expression.

Certain voices then and now keep bringing up a point of immense consequences, why does the government, any government that is, oppress political freedom of speech while turning a blind eye on the immoral literature, be it on internet sites, television stations, magazines or books. They are literally advocating and calling on the powers in control to exercise moral censorship on the masses. Pornography, nude pictures of men and women, suggestive music and inappropriate or explicit content are invading our cultural and religious fabric and integrity, they claim. They want the censor to tear off pages, to unplug cables and to break the waves of the onslaught of foreign and decadent influence on our puritan society. These individuals whose numbers are certainly on the rise, are using their religious beliefs or inscriptions, as they prefer to call them, to dictate and to impose their own sense of morality on the rest of society. They are absolutely convinced that they are right and that the others are wrong because the word of God is on their side.

Shouldn’t we question the validity of the hypothesis advocated by millions of followers that theirs is the one true and universal religion? I have no idea about the exact number of religions in existence today (there are far too many). However, you and I are certain that many adherents to every single one of these religions believe that they solely possess the eternal truth, the only and unique key to the gate of heaven. If that were to be true then what is the grand idea behind mass producing generation after generation of humans born to the wrong religion. If God only meant Religion X to be the perfect path, why is HE throwing newborns, left and right on the Y and Z roads. What is the point behind this biased game? I would heartily accept that all religions possess a certain amount of truth in them, of decency, of goodwill. After all, they are all human. Their dark sides are also inherent traits of their human pedigree. Is it not a little strange that no single religion could ever exist alone? Is it not true that their version of good can not survive if it were not for the presence of evil? Be that as it may, trying to impose a sense of morality on the grounds of divine rights is totally unacceptable.

We all have, as individuals and not as a group, an obligation toward our offspring. We are required to stimulate their senses and intellect in order for them to develop their own conscience. As adults, we raise our children on a matrix of threads. We protect them from the unknown and from what we deem to be dangerous. This is perfectly normal and as thus, if I were a religious person I would show my kids the signs that might lead them eventually to the stairway to heaven. But I would never give up my right of parenthood and ask the government to take over the responsibility of raising up my kids. It is my duty as a parent to supervise and guide them as far as what they watch, hear and read. I do not need a public servant to decide for me which particular internet site is offensive and which one is acceptable. If I have succeeded in my role of bringing them in touch with their own conscience then I have nothing to fear. Let them surf and sail every which way their untethered minds take them. They have nothing to fear.

I have previously expressed my dislike of and disagreement with a few blogs on political grounds. However, blocking them is wrong and nobody has the right to do so. I have made that choice on my own and refused to read them long before Blogspot was blacklisted. I feel exactly the same about pornography and "morally" questionable material. I would not go purposely on a quest to find pornographic sites. However, I stand by their right to exist and the right of any adult to browse these sites till he or she drops. Is it not strange that in a city like Dubai, where soliciting the services of a prostitute is as easy as ordering a pizza by phone, internet sites are blocked because of their morally unacceptable content? What about the other Arab countries from where I keep getting hits everyday on a long gone post about Fairuz. Through search engines and from behind firewalls, these maverick browsers were looking for a “smooth ass”. Who has the right to deny these poor souls their right to see an ass? I have previously made a joke about this particular incidence but now I repent.

It is beyond the scope of this article to differentiate between art and pornography as in doing so I would be negating the beliefs I so dearly hold. Whether I find a novel, a photo, a video or a song as a majestic objet d’art or as a tasteless, pointless and shameless piece of shit is my opinion only. It is also beyond the capacity, the duty and the right of a civil servant to appoint himself or to be appointed for such a malicious endeavor. If we fail to see the beauty that lies in between the extremes of human taste it is a shortcoming of our own eyes, of our own minds. It is my ethical obligation to defend beauty, abstract and earthly. I highly appreciate the spiritual content of all the religions I have read about but I disagree with their insistence on refusing the other, on indoctrinating a way of life for their followers, on permitting and forbidding. Humans have evolved (yes dear, evolution is not called “the theory of Darwin” anymore, it is a fact of life) and through their evolution they have developed a highly intricate conscience. At a certain stage in their social evolution, moral guidance through religion was a much needed step. But as in all dynamic processes, the possibility of something going wrong is ever present. Yet the powers of the human brain are unimaginable and it had eventually crossed this and other hurdles. Pornography is another mutation in our social evolution. It also is a result of human folly, when the line between beauty and bad taste is crossed.

If our traditions, arts and culture stumble under the heavy weight of external influences, it is our own failure. We can either choose to burry our heads defensively under the sand like a damn flock of ostriches or fight back by providing the entire world with our own, new and improved, versions of traditions, arts and culture. We need to wake up and finally reach the simple yet eternal truth, our sense of morality is not and could never be any better than the rest.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Five Restaurants in Tartous

In her effort to tag my ass, lovely Kaya had actually saved it.
It’s been one hell of a busy week. Since I cannot claim that I’ve been amused at work there’s no point in posting about it. You already have more than your fair share of problems, I fathom. The least I could do is manage to provide you with some entertainment. I have been running on empty for the last few days until this morning when I hit a brick wall. Here I am, I reckoned, one day away from the weekend with nothing to show on my blog. Then Kaya, bless her, came along and did me a favor. She tagged me and boy what a relief that was. She wanted me to tell her, and the rest of you, about my five favorite restaurants in or around Tartous.
I have already posted about a couple of these places, nevertheless, for the short of memory, for newcomers and for lack of anything else to write about, here’s my list with two different ratings. The first is what these places think of themselves while the second is my own.

1) Ayn Al Jawzat, Saeen

For a lazy afternoon of eating and drinking, away from home, there’s no place I’d rather be except Ayn Al Jawzat. This little restaurant in the middle of nowhere has been my favorite hiding place for the last 21 years. The owner, Majed, is an army buddy of mine. He prepares simple, delicious and affordable Mezza. If you have something special in mind, say Burghul b Hummus (with lamb meat or chicken) just give him a call ahead and he’ll cook it for you. You can always order the barbequed chicken of coastal Syria there, and in season, the tasty small river fish are part of the Mezza. The view is magnificent, the sound of silence overwhelming and the tender breeze hypnotizing. In the dead of winter, I also go there. Majed will light up the fireplace for me or for you, even if there’s nobody else. You see, that’s the whole idea. When the weather turns real nasty and only the deranged dare step out of their shelter, I go there to enjoy my solitude, a Batha (1/4 liter) of Arak and Mezza just the way it was meant to be.
Majed (Abu Issa) will treat everybody right, however, to get that extra bit of super hospitality, go ahead and tell him: “Abufares had sent me here.”
Saeen is a small village located in a valley east of Tartous. To go there you need to take the Dreikish road from Tartous and drive for 20 km until you reach HbabÄ—. There, you fork at a left descending exit for a distance of roughly 3 or 4 km till you get to the village and to Ayn Al Jawzat. If Thou Shall Ask, Thou Shall Not Get Lost. If you like to read more about what I do in Saeen, read “Everything You Wanted to Know About Arak and More.” To see pictures of the place, check out “Pictures from Saeen, Ayn Al Jawzat.”
Ayn Al Jawzat is rated as ½ Star
My rating: 5 Stars (indoor, outdoor)

2) Yamak, Tartous

Any city on the coast, any coast that is, claims to offer the best seafood in the world. There’s no reason why I should act modestly and not join in. Yamak Restaurant offers the greatest, most fabulous and freshest fish on the planet. Located on the last floor of the Chamber of Commerce building in Tartous and right in front of the small marina where the shuttle boats to and from Arwad moor, the restaurant offers a commanding view of the sea, the island and the harbor. It’s frequented over the weekend by seafood lovers from interior Syria and from Lebanon. For a very reasonable price you can eat your fill of the fish of your choice or other traditional coastal plates. I go there on weekdays when the place is more on the empty side. But, you must’ve already found out about my idea of an outing. I hate crowds and I like to eat alone. If that’s not your style, the next choice could be ideal for you.
Yamak is rated as 3 Stars
My rating: 5 Stars (indoor only)

3) Shate’ Akhdar, Bseereh

This is my second choice when I feel like eating seafood and for 2 reasons. First, you have to pay more to eat your fish and it’s because of Second: It’s fully packed most of the time. Over the last few years, this place has been gaining in popularity due to good management (of course family owned and operated) and its superb location directly on the beach. They offer great Mezza and seafood but I wouldn’t be able to really say that this joint is better than Yamak. However, this particular point is always open to debate in Tartous. I have to admit though that the outdoor setting in the evening is just fantastic. The sea reaches within feet of your table. There’s another advantage to this secluded place, the second floor is a small motel. During the day, the outdoor terrace is dotted by the swimmers and sunbathers. If you are into crowds come here. If you’re like me, stay in town.
Bseereh is about 8 km north of Tartous on the Lattakia Hwy. Follow the sign near the cement factory and stay on the old road till you literally reach the sea.
Shate’ Akhdar is rated as 3 Stars
My rating: 3 Stars indoor, 5 Stars outdoor at night)

4) Nabe’e Hassan, Markieh

On the River Markieh, Nabe’ Hassan is one of the oldest restaurants in Tartous. The ambiance is serene and the food great. The tables are placed in parallel rows with the river and there’s a simple feeling of happiness and contentment in the hiss of the trees, the flow of the river and the chatter of the dispersed clients. Mezza, Shish Kabab and Sha’af (barbequed lamb meat) are as good, if not better than much more pretentious restaurants. It’s a great place for a family outing or for a large group of friends. You might have noticed by now that I’m not into food per say when it comes to restaurants. I’m more into being comfortable and at ease. Let’s face it; we don’t have a great variety of choices in Tartous. What is referred to as international cuisine is all but unknown. If I were really to eat well I’d stay home and enjoy the fruits of Om fares’ labor, or even mine. Or, I would pick my next and final choice.
For driving directions to Nabe’e Hassan and for photos and a more vivid description, please read my earlier post “Nabe’e Hassan on the River Markieh”.
Nabe’e Hassan is rated 1 Star
My rating: 4 Stars

5) Kadmous, Rimal Zahabieh

If you don’t mind feeling as if you’re eating in your own dining room and if you don’t find it a bit strange that an elegant restaurant is collocated at a gas station, but appreciate great salads, meats, chicken and sweets then this is your place. Kadmous offers really great food but totally lacks any character. The service is excellent and so is their very reasonable pricing. My father, a man who never drink anything but water and tea, loves this place for instance. So do the hundreds of summer inhabitants of Rimal Zahabieh. There’s a no-nonsense feel about the setting: We serve good food. If you like that then you’ve come to the right place. They even prepare their own fresh bread which is simply delicious. Strangely enough, it closes down at 7:00PM unless reserved for a special party. By the way, it’s ideal for weddings and similar occasions. The restaurant is located 15 km north of Tartous on the Lattakia highway, right across the road from the Rimal Zahabieh beach.
Kadmous is rated 4 Stars
My rating: 4 Stars

Now that I have completed my tag I truly am too tired to inflict any further damage or pain on anybody else. I needed the writing exercise although I have to admit that my words today certainly lack any punch. I lack any punch. Come tomorrow afternoon I will be a free man (for 36 hours or so). I hope my weekend will really be worth writing about. Until we meet again...