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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Syrian Road Warrior

The droning hum of the engine untied the knotted tension in my temple. The undulating sway put me at ease. The froth, combed back from the brow of the wooden boat, sprayed my face with vigor and delight. I was in my natural habitat making way to the island of Arwad. I rather work with them for the rest of my life, the fishermen who live for their day, basking in the mercy of God in the dead of night to put bread upon a table. Nothing makes me happier than closing a deal worth a few grains of sands in dollars and cents, worth priceless gems in personal gratification and human fulfillment.

I sped along the highway northbound to Lattakia. I was dealing again. A hundred minutes of driving back and forth for a five-minute meeting. I had to shake hands, twice. I counted my fingers each time afterward. As the sun dipped in the sea, I rolled the windows down and a westerly breeze condoled my senses. I headed home for an urgent shower.

I don't get on the road just for the sake of making a living. In fact I brushed work away, jumped in my car and headed to Kadmous (elev. 1000 m & 60 km to the northeast of Tartous). I had to drive a little fast to make it on time for the funeral. The cheerful vibrant girl everybody liked in the office lost her father. As the progression to the lonely graveyard slowly moved forward I felt overwhelmed by the beauty of the country and the people. Rest in peace old man, I hope heaven is as beautiful as the village where you lived and died.

I left my car in an underground garage as soon as I reached Damascus early in the morning. I hip hopped in small yellow cabs all over the city from one meeting to the other chomping through the day. I won some and lost a few but in the back of my mind I was anticipating the fall of night. I was to meet two young lovebirds and a fascinating woman. I checked in, crashed in bed with the setting sun, dozed for an hour, soaked in hot water, dressed up and stepped out in the tantalizingly warm evening.

A brief and exhilarating encounter in a quiet restaurant made me swell with delight of my Syria, crimson rose in a thicket of thorns, convivial lighthouse among minarets and spires, cradle of civilization. I became more aware of the smells of the good earth, of the sweat of the Fellaheen in far-away fields, of enchanting Zalghoutas from a village wedding, of fishing nets pregnant with fresh bounties from the emerald sea, of leaning back for support on centuries of glorious Damascene civility, of leaping forward and reaching for the distant stars and beyond, of my birthright to soar above it all with pride and dignity. No force, past, present or yet to be can take that away from me, nor can it keep me down in the nether land where lowly chameleons crawl.

I rest assured that I am here to stay long after I am gone. I once taught the whole world how to read and now I glibly write, using the same words I've invented millennia ago, how simple it is to love a mountain or a vineyard like a father or a child. I roam Syria for work and play. I sleep well as I am fully aware that neither magnificent foreign foe nor domestic scum of the earth can take anything away from me, from millions like me. With eloquent pens in hands and mighty swords in sheaths, we are the invincible warriors.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Loubieh B- Zeit

I rarely dream, but when I do, they are of the Woody Allen movies genre, a little less boring perhaps and slightly more consequential. Invariably though, after the unwelcome apparition getting back to sleep is no easy chore. No matter how ghastly or blissful the dream was I forget all about it within minutes and feel void of any sense. More significantly, I feel hungry.

Now years ago I learned that the midnight snack is bad for me and I have almost entirely given up on this spiteful nocturnal habit. Not this time! My stomach was pleading: “Oh, master, feed me please”. “How come”, I wondered, “where in the hell did the Labneh sandwich I gobbled before hitting the sack go?

Well what’s the point; here I am at 2:00AM, sleepless in Tartous, with vague memories of a stupid dream persisting in my head. I have no other option to kill the night off except…Feed.

Lazily, I crossed the unlit corridor toward the kitchen, opened the fridge and blinked in the annoyingly abrupt light. There I stood in the cold draft, staring stupidly at full shelves and scratching myself. Loubieh B-Zeit * stared back at me even more stupidly. If it had any balls it would've probably scratched itself as well. “Why not”, I thought, as I pulled the cold leftover plate, a couple of loaves of pita bread, an open can of soda and a Jalapeneo or two. Hypnotically I walked to the couch facing the TV and zapped it to life with the remote control. Lethal Weapon 2 was playing. “Good”, I mumbled, "it goes great with the Loubieh B-Zeit". I refilled rather quickly and the heartburn shot straight and fast. “What now”, I wondered, “could I take in to ease away the pain and discomfort”. The fridge beckoned to me with open door. Miniature Mr. Goodbars, how interesting! Have some of those, take a leak, brush my teeth and I get back to bed in perfect shape to face the morrow.

With sleep creeping in hesitantly between closed-shut eyes, an image of two fried eggs (over easy) smothered with Tabasco, a piece of meat covered with apricot jam and a cup of Nescafe to wash it all down floated in my head. "Yeah", as I was giving in to slumber, "it's going to be a glorious morning indeed".

Loubieh B- Zeit is another version of Fasoulieh Khadra (Green Beans: read last post) except that it's cooked with olive oil and no meat. It's eaten with bread and an obligatory onion.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Defying the Blogspot Block with Grub

Blogspot is now completely blocked in Syria. I mean I was able until yesterday to access it directly through one remaining service provider. Not anymore, as I have to join my heroic blogging comrades in sneaking our way around proxies and firewalls. However, once you and the blockers read this post and dozens of harmless posts on other Syrian blogs you and they (the wiseass blockers) will discover the wisdom behind their draconian action. This is dangerous stuff I’m talking about here. George W. Bush and company might consider recipes (especially if they originate from the Middle East) to be inherently terroristic in nature. Dough and yogurt, if mixed in a certain manner, might inadvertently lead to nuclear energy thus might pose a danger to the free world and undermine the cultural integrity of White Anglo Saxons. On the other hand, from the point of view of the Syrian Blocker, Fatteh and Kishek could and should be classified as national heritage and their secrets kept within the country. It is a matter of national security and no blogger should have, at her own whim, the authority to expose and discuss the intricacies of Tabbouleh.
Be that as it may, before Ramadan slips away from the fingers of time and to get out of the foul mood we’ve been going through, I thought I’d better share one more food related post and perhaps whet your appetite.
Nothing fancy this time, instead I’ll present a series of photos illustrating a very recent Iftar (breaking of the fast at sunset) with the family along with a brief description of the various entrees. In case you are interested in any single full recipe, please let me know and I’ll be more than glad to oblige.

These are cigar shaped (Churchill size: 20 cm long) dough rolls. They are stuffed with sautéed ground lamb meat, onion and sumacs (1/2 kg of ground beef, 1 chopped onion, 2 tablespoon sumacs, salt). The rolls are fried in vegetable oil until light gold (barely a few minutes). Great appetizer, especially liked by the little ones.

Manaish Bi Zaatar:
Dried thyme (prepared and mixed with coarse powder-crushed nuts, spices and sesame seeds at home or bought ready anywhere in the Middle East & in delicatessens aboard) topped, stirred with olive oil and spread on dough. Place in oven until done (shouldn’t be more than 10 minutes). Great choice for breakfast and enjoyed particularly with tea.

A great Middle Eastern salad. Not Lebanese, not Syrian, not Jordanian but Levantine. Awesome taste universally enjoyed by women for reasons beyond comprehension. Tabbouleh is prepared by mixing parsley, wheat, tomato, onion, lemon juice and olive oil, all at the right proportions I might add.

Fatteh Bi Hommos:
You can check out this previous post of mine to get an idea on how to prepare this culinary masterpiece. This is an everyday Ramadan entrée for most Tartoussis.

Ftireh Bi Keshek:
This is an original Tartoussi pie. It’s mainly prepared in certain villages in the region and some elderly women in town. We had never made it at home but have the good fortune of knowing an old lady who lives nearby. We send her the flour and olive oil. From her end, she provides the Keshek, onions, peppers & spices, prepares the pies and then sends them to be baked at an old fashioned firewood bakery. Later on in the afternoon, her son drops by bringing the magnificent goodies with him. This is an absolute favorite of mine. I like it hot from the oven or cold, two or three days later. Kishek is prepared from whole wheat and yogurt and dried the old fashioned way on the roof of the house. I can’t imagine life without it and you wouldn’t too, once you try a Ftireh Bi Keshek.

Fasoulieh Khadra (Loubieh) Bi Lahme:
½ Kg Lamb meat (salted & spiced) heated in a skillet till light brown. 3 cups of water, spices, cardamom, cinnamon, 1 whole onion, 1 whole carrot and salt are added and cooked for 1 hour until meat is tender. 1 chopped onion sautéed in 2 tablespoon butter till tender and soft. Add Green beans over low fire for ½ hour. Then the meat is added with 2 cups of sauce for 1 hour over medium-low heat. Served with rice and delllllllicious.

Chicken Legs & Potatoes in the Oven:
A simple international cuisine entrée easily prepared in a hundred and one different ways. Always welcomed and appreciated by the the hungry mobs.

Sheikh El Mehshi:
The innards of Zucchini and/or Squash are removed with a special utensil (or the handle of a tablespoon). It takes some practice in order not to ruin the vegetable, but basically the tool is moved in one quarter of a circle in both directions to excavate the Zucchini/Squash. What comes out is not thrown away but rather prepared as another entrée. The empty pieces are then stuffed with ground lamb meat, chopped onions and pine nuts and cooked in yogurt sauce. Rice is served along. This is absolutely fantastic. But I am biased. I’m in love with all food cooked in yogurt.

Let me be the first to wish you all a very Happy Eid Fitr and Kol 3am Wa Antom Bi Kheir. And, to the blocker(s) "Allah Ykaberlekom 3a2lekom".

Saturday, October 06, 2007

To Yazan with Love

The waning moon of Ramadan casts feeble shadows of gray over my weary mind. Dreadfully sinister clouds carried summons of bereavement from the south. A dear friend to us all by the name of Yazan is orphaned in a millisecond, a painfully slow stretch of time long enough to orchestrate a fatal car crash. Such a thin line between life and death, such a sobering truth. So humbling, so immense, so total, so final. Yet life goes on without mercy on the surface, perhaps by divine intervention underneath. Although we never forget, we plod along, looking back over our shoulder, every few steps at first and then less frequently until we pass beyond a ridge where we can’t see behind even if wanted to. We hasten our pace, roll up the collar around the neck and move forward in the gathering cold of an approaching night.
The same evening that witnessed a young man’s confrontation with death brought happier tidings to another young soul, a woman waiting for her fiancé to return so that they can get married when Ramadan is over. They embraced and hugged, wiping the deprivation of being apart for 2 years, licking each other’s tears, savoring each other’s lips, sniffing and smelling, not letting go. They will grieve one day and Yazan will be happy again.
I have marked the passage of time with ensuing Ramadans and today I am one year older. I count my blessings while I have them. I lick my wounds while they still hurt. This last month has been a fast cinematic clip, as good times and bad ones flashed randomly in front of my eyes. I fell sick then recovered. I struggled with the burdens of day to day existence. I laughed and cried. I stood again defiantly. I learned waterskiing and sat alone in the dark of night with a cigarette and a box of memories. I played with my children and through misty eyes saw my Diana leave home to college. I waved goodbye to someone I will probably not see in years and welcomed my father returning from across the ocean. I celebrated with a friend the birth of a first child and hunched my back in submission to death. This newest rendition of Ramadan had it all, a full cast of characters, of threads, of plots within plots, weaving and building up toward a crescendo of a divine comedy with tragic connotations.
Were it not for our memories we would seize to exist. There’s little left of us if we didn’t recall. Where’s me of last year? Where’s Yazan’s unruly hair? The cracking sounds of burning firewood, the echo of our spoken words reverberate in his mind and mine.
While you’re mourning Yazan you will find comfort in your friends around you. They all love you and would do their utmost to ease your pain. Eventually though, you’re going to be alone. You will come face to face with a subconscious force coercing you to keep it all bottled up inside. Don’t give in my friend, let go and cry. Cry till you run dry. Then look back over your shoulder and remember your father and mother as they would’ve liked you to remember them. Fear nothing as what becomes of us is inevitable. We know the end but the timing always takes us by surprise. There will be more grief, there will be more joy. This is only a beginning for you among many to follow. Keep smiling from the heart and always remember.