Friday, April 11, 2008

Phoenician Gods & Meksayta

I woke up with the morning birds on a gorgeous Friday. Starving for fresh air, hungry for good food, famished for the outdoors, I showered in a jiffy and told Om Fares that I'm all ready.

"Ready for what you crazy fool, it's not even six yet. Let the kids be. Don't you dare wake them up. It's their day of…..f."

Too late! Like a deranged prisoner behind bars, I just had to break free.

"Let's get Msabha and Fool. Let's go to the vegetable market to buy all the green stuff on sale. Let's hit the mountains for a good old-fashioned B-B-Q lunch."

They utterly refused to join me on my Msabha & Fool quest. Om Fares reluctantly escorted me to the open market and the kids grudgingly joined us for our lunch ride at noon.

After procuring the fresh provisions we headed back home (more on the veggies later). The day started rather nicely, a plate of Msabha followed by another of Fool with onions, pickles, bread and unlimited refills of hot tea. Dazed and burping, I sat on the balcony to wear off the bucketing (تسطيل) effect. It took me a luxurious while to get on my feet again.

To Om Fares: "Come on 3youni (my eyes)". To the kids: "Yalla Habibati (my darlings). I'm driving you to a magical place".

"Have you noticed how nice he talks when he wants us to do something for him which we do not want to do in the first place?" That was kid #2 to kid #3. Kid #1 would not budge. There was no way on earth to convince her to come along.


I should've made that short joy trip to the town of Kadmous earlier this passing winter when the roofs of her quaint houses and her proud pine and Quercus trees were veiled by a light Hijab of untainted snow. Kadmous is the main center for 67 small villages and farms (pop. 30,000) spread out at an elevation of between 1000 – 1500 m. It lies 56 km northeast of Tartous in one of the most beautiful regions in Syria. It was named after the Phoenician God/King Cadmus (κάδμος in Greek). "What? Phoenician in Syria?" the eight-year old Fares asked in amazement. "Too much Star Academy", I told the wife. Then to Fares I explained:

The Phoenicians inhabited the Syrio-Lebanese coast from Ugarit to Tyre. And, just so you expand your narrow-minded horizon, you little LBC/Future brain-washed kiddo, Ugarit (a few miles north of Latakia) was the most splendid of all since Cadmus took along its Alphabet (the first ever invented by the human race) and sailed in search of his sister Europa (oh, oh, another Syrian apparently whose name was given to a whole continent no less). Legend has it that Cadmus eventually made landfall in Greece, where Zeus was holding Europa hostage. He ultimately taught them (the Greeks) the vowels and the letters. Should I say more little one. It all started from here, from this very ground we’re standing on with our own feet. That’s what we’ve given the world and that’s what you should always remember when someone asks you where you’re from.

We reached Fawanees (Lanterns) the small restaurant in the center of town recommended by a local friend in forty five minutes. We walked in the modestly yet tastefully furnished room and immediately liked it. "I am Abufares", I told the owner/waiter. "I’m a friend of Abu Hasan". "A Hundred welcome Ya Estaz (Master), any friend of Abu Hasan owns this place". We had a simple Mezza, the most scrumptious B-B-Q’d chicken and soft drinks for Om Fares and the kids. I deservedly imbibed a Batha (1/4 l.) of pure homemade Arak. "Sahha Ya Ghali (Health ye precious one)", the owner/waiter wished me. "Ala Albak Ya Habib (to your heart ye dear one)" I gulped my glass.

Getty Images

Lulled by fully satisfied bellies we quietly rode westward in the afternoon. Another brief stop by an old stone shed where the mouthwatering smell of fresh bread on the Tannour (an oven made of baked mud with an open top and fueled by dry olive wood) permeated the air. "You would not leave until you taste this Khebez b Flayfleh" (bread with hot red pepper paste) swore the old Tannour lady. God Almighty this is so delicious…indescribable.

Lucky beyond dreams I jumped back in the car with 20 breads and 2 kilos of mature Shanklish. "How could you eat more", queried Om Fares, "after the huge lunch we just had". "Relax Baby, we still have dinner ahead and I can’t wait to eat the Meksayta ( مقصيته ) we bought this morning".

As I was contemplating this post I made brief online inquiries to find out the English names of some local herbs and vegetables. For multi-lingual translation I depend on what is certainly the best international source provided by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. Meksayta, however, eluded me. I very much doubt that Syrians who are not from the coastal region and most homebred Tartoussis know what Meksayta is. It’s a short-lived wild seasonal herb (spring), when cooked the right yet very simple way, turns to be one of the most delicious vegetarian food to exist on our green planet. An herbal expert might recognize it from the (above) photo and provide us with its proper scientific and English names. However, for now, it is Meksayta and I wish there was a way to make a giant bowl so that I invite all of you to taste it.

In our cock-crow marauding of the vegetable market, Om Fares and I bought some Chicory ( هندباء), Watercress ( قرة ) and Meksyata. Om Fares then cleaned them thoroughly with running water and drained them completely. After cutting them up in small pieces she Separately fried two chopped onions in ½ cup of virgin olive oil in a large pot until they turned into a very light gold tint. She then added the (salted) chicory, watercress and meksayta on top, mixed them well with the olive oil and onions, turned the heat down to minimum and covered them for an 1 ½ hour. That’s all it takes to cook this feast. An occasional mixing of the ingredients is not a bad idea but the most important thing is not to add any water. They will exude their own juices and the feeble fire will turn them into an unimaginable delicacy. Meksayta and her friends are served cold and eaten with pita or better yet tannour bread. I usually shower my plate with some hot olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice then mate each bite with a nibble of green onions. What more can I say; this is simply heaven on earth.

Just as it started with a bang the day ended in a grandiose fashion. The kids, having sacrificed (as they’d put it) their day off to indulge my sense of fun, demanded ice-cream. We rode together to Citysweet where we each chose our two balls of flavors. A couple of hours later I slowly drifted into sleep, happy with the choice(s) I made. You’re all eager to know, aren’t you?!

Blackberry and Galaxy Chocolate ice-cream.

37 comments:

The Syrian Brit said...

Abu Fares,
While you were reveling in glorious spring weather, we had rain and sleet in this 'green and pleasant land'!.. and what's more, I was actually working all day!!..
Nevertheless, your post brought to my dull and gloomy day, a touch of spring, and an undeniable sense of well-being.. For brief, precious moments, I felt that I was with you enjoying the scenes, the smells, and the delightful tastes..
Thank you for the experience...

Karin said...

I can only echo the Syrian Brit ... we had (and still HAVE!) a (hopefully LAST)winterstorm/blizzard yesterday and today - there's nobody around who's NOT fed up with this cold, sleezy and wet weather!!

I just returned from a 12 (+) hour shift at the hospital and to be very honest, reading your post kind of relaxed my facial muscles and made me smile! I tried and still try to imagine what the taste of Meksyata might be ... is it posible it is a Dandelion-sort of plant? One can prepare a delicious and even very healhthy salad from them ..

I felt I was right with all of you ... the tastes, smells, the atmosphere - wonderful! I definitely prefere these kind of restaurants - I like to feel cozy, comfortable, able to kick back.

About HOT olive oil ... I'll try that - I'll get the ingredients ASAP - and will tell you! Sounds GREAT!!

Az3ar's Fan said...

abu Fares,

" I sat on the balcony to wear off the bucketing (تسطيل) effect." I can't sit on my seat from laughter. I have not even finished your post. I am listening to your fav. Fariuz. LOL

Az3ar's Fan said...

abu fares,

Is that a picture of Kadmous?

Yazan said...

The bucketing effect is simply hillarious.

Akh, and the rest of your post ya abu fares is the perfect recipe for a day spent pondering those beautiful mountains off the coast.

Some of my most beautiful memories are from bbqs in a Kasab farm house, where arak, fresh salads, and bbqed meat with that hint of smell of laurel branches and leaves.
No need to mention ofcourse that like ur own Kid #1, #2, #3, I used to detest these outings to the middle of no where, but rest assured, they will soon enough look back at these times and sigh with a smile, just like i do now.

abufares said...

@Syrian Brit
We are enjoying a very nice and typical (of old times) spring this year. Unfortunately, I don't think inland Syria got her needed share of rains this winter.
The outdoors are gorgeous and the temperatures just perfect.
Looking forward the chance of sharing some of these beautiful moments with you.

abufares said...

@Karin
I'm so happy to have put a smile on your face.
You might be right about Meksayta being some sort of dandelions. Although I can't be 100% sure a few of the photos I checked online of different dandelions looked very similar.
The Phoenician Gods must be happy now, knowing that a daughter of Europa is a master of letters and words :-)

abufares said...

@Az3ar's Fan
The bucketing effect is a unique human condition and can be brought about only through 2 means:
1- Drugs
2- Fool, Hommos and Bassal (Fava beans, Garbanzo and onions)
I think the second method is much healthier and is still legal. Can you imagine George W Bush after a hearty breakfast of Msabha:-)

abufares said...

@Az3ar's Fan
And yes, the photo is of the Kadmous region. I will try to take my own next time I'm there. If you tell me which particular village you want me to visit and photograph I'll be delighted to do so.

abufares said...

@Yazan
I knew that you'd appreciate the bucketing effect. I particularly enjoyed it when I was in high school. We would miss a morning class to spend sometime in Fool & Msabha joint. We would make it back barely in time for a mathematics class. The teacher will talk, scribble on the board, gesture and get excited while we'll remain in a state of animated suspension, "bucketing" in bliss and slowly releasing air from every available and viable orifice.
These memories are priceless my friend. I'm glad you had your share.

DUBAI JAZZ said...

Wonderful post as usual ya Abu Fares. You never lose a chance to make fun of everyone and everything!

Meksayta? Never heard of it. And I think I've never seen it before. what does it taste like? I am guessing it tastes like Za3ter bari?. But I might be wrong…

Btw.. our dearest neighbors, the Lebanese Phoenicians, have consolidated their roots recently. They've made a widespread research on the DNA of the current Lebanese people. They found some distinct similarities amongst themselves. And they were able to trace it back to the Phoenicians after comparing it with the DNA of body remnants in one of the ancient tombs.

I am very happy for them; I hope their skin will stop itching a bit after these findings!

One question though Abu Fares, how do you manage to 'drink & drive'? ;)

abufares said...

@Dubai Jazz
Meksayta, or a variety of Dandelions (as per Karin's reckoning) tastes a little like Chicory هندباء yet stronger and juicier. It's also prepared with boiled cickpeas حمص or cooked with meat like other vegetables in Syria. I might add that it's not very common in the city and Om Fares for instance never heard of it till last year.

As for Phoenician history and genes I find it very strange that our neighbors, and even some of our own, remove this epoch out of its context as if nothing happened prior or after the Phoenicians. They were one ring in a long chain of Semite people to have inhabited "Bilad Al Sham", after all it is Bilad Al Sham whether they admit it or not. The Phoenicians, the Hetites, the Amorytes, the Canaanites among many others were tribes no more no less. To assume that the Phoenicians didn't intermarry with the successive civilizations and/or occupiers, marauders and immigrants is simply ridiculous. You mean to tell me that the Ottomans,the Mamlouks, the Muslim Arabs, the Byzantines, the Romans, the Crusaders, etc. who occupied both Syria and Lebanon chose to fornicate and to intermarry with all creeds and tribes except the Phoenicians? They must've been a very ugly breed if that is true.
We need to be reasonable about our ancestry while taking pride in our roots. Therefore, I'm honored that among my grandfathers and grandmothers are Cadmus and Europa but I'm equally privileged to be linked to Omar, Salah Eldin and Khaled ibn Al Walid. This fact is what the short-sighted and thick-minded either refuse or cannot comprehend. My father was born and raised in a structure (it still exists today) which was originally built by the Phoenicians. So no one can claim to be more Phoenician than a real Tartoussi (as if this really matters).

Now to get to the more serious part of your comment. How can I drink and drive?
First, Arak doesn't get me drunk per say. If I drink too much of it (I don't remember doing it in years) I simply fall asleep. The Anise effect on my physiology is far greater than the alcohol content. And remember that Arak is not consumed without a hearty meal. This usually takes at least a couple of hours and to be honest, a healthy adult should be able to handle a Batha with ease. Besides, this is officially my limit as far as Arak is concerned and:

رحم الله أمرئ عرف حده فوقف عنده

Az3ar's Fan said...

abu fares,

while growing up in the Arab world, I never had fool for breakfast during an exam day. When I tell people in Los Angeles they think I am nuts... not so according to the wise abu fares.

Az3ar's Fan said...

abu fares,

Yes...yes, can you take a picture of karbut al kabou?

The Syrian Brit said...

Abu Fares,
'First, Arak doesn't get me drunk per say'...
That, my friend, is a very dangerous assumption.. It might not get you 'drunk', but even a small amount of alcohol will inhibit your reflexes, your concentration, and your ability to judge distances.
I think DJ is absolutely right to ask the question.. I did think about it myself, but felt a bit uncomfortable raising it.. And yes,
one should know his limits and stick to them, but the problem is that when one starts drinking, that ability to judge also becomes inhibited..
Arak is a distilled alcoholic beverage, containing up to 80% alcohol (although, granted, good quality arak contains 'only' around 60%).. Scotch whiskey contains similar concentrations (i.e around 60%)!.. So, even when 'broken' with water, it still contains too much alcohol to allow full and safe control of the car...
I am really sorry for the lecture, but that is a real bee in my bonnet, and I really get very cross when people say 'I can handle this amount..' or 'I know my limits...'.. My experience, sadly, is that they rarely do...
On another matter, is 'Meksayta' the same plant as what we know in Damascus and surrounding areas as '3akkoob El Jabal'?.. or is it something entirely different?.. It does sound very similar from the description..

abufares said...

@Az3ar's Fan
My next visit to Kadmous I'll go to Karbut al Kabou for sure.

abufares said...

@Syrian Brit
Ah, this post took a serious twist now.
It's always difficult to argue with a doctor yet...
The numbers alone don't tell the full story. Alcohol affects different people differently. And, different alcoholic beverages affect different people differently. Sorry for the syntax. Drinking a 1/4 l. of Arak is not the same as drinking 8 cans of beer or a liter and a half of wine although the alcohol content might be the same. A 1/4 l. of Gin would make me sick and drunk although it basically has the same alcohol level and that explains why I seldom drink it.
If a Batha of Arak is consumed over a period of 2 to 3hours in the gorgeous outdoors, while listening to good music/poetry, slowly consummating small tidbits of Mezza, all the while enjoying the heavenly sight and presence of stunning maidens (Read George Jerdak) then alcohol becomes secondary. Time slows down in these rare instances (if I'm lucky I get away with 10 such occasions per year).
Although I can't scientifically prove it but I believe that the effect of quality Arak wears off rather quickly and we're left with the relaxing effect of Anise.
However, I fully agree with both of you and DJ that the most important message is certainly that one should not drink and drive.

abufares said...

@Syrian Brit
I never heard of 3akkoob Al Jabal. However, I checked on the net and only found this photo of an old lady holding "some kind of herb":

http://www.paldf.net/forum/showthread.php?t=166691&page=3

If that's it then it's different from Meksayta.

KJ said...

Lek ya zalameh ma eltellak Soorya Allah 7ameeha muuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu ;)

It's a beautiful thing that I still retain a vivid imagination in my mind, that I can look out the window and all these steel and concrete buildings are replaced by the image you portrayed!

Every time I want to visit Syria, I drop by your blog :)

Az3ar's Fan said...

From As'ad Abu Kahlil's Angry Arab Blog:

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Phoenicians. You will not find this in Lebanese history books: "[The Phoenicians] were despised as cheaters and hucksters, who could not be trusted; as insatiable mongers and unscrupulous profiteers, who kidnapped the helpless and traded in human lives; and as a licentious and morally corrupt race of people, who prostituted their daughters and butchered their infant children in honour of their gods. The Phoenicians' pejorative image as schemers and connivers has survived in the modern vernacular; 'Jezebel', our term for the quintessential shameless woman, was, in fact a Tyrian princess." From Glen Markoe, The Phoenicians, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 200), p. 10.
http://angryarab.blogspot.com/search?q=Phoenicians

abufares said...

@KJ
Walla I don't know what to say. True, I miss many of the conveniences of the 1st World, but I can't live without this... Since we can't bake our cake and eat to, I'd rather keep baking (or more in line with our case: eating).

abufares said...

@Az3ar's Fan
You just made me realize that I have cheaters, hucksters, mongers, profiteers, licentious pimps, schemers and connivers in my ancient pedigree :-)
For some reason this didn't make me feel bad at all.

Yet 2 thorny points dynamite Glen Markoe's argument:

1- Classifying the Phoenicians as a race.
2- Being a racist by giving these negative traits to what he thought is a race (any race).

Az3ar's Fan said...

Orientalists are generally assholes,Abu Fares

KJ said...

I wouldn't mind eating nor baking my friend. Baking is probably the best occupation on earth, other than harvesting. Without them, those 21st century CEOs would starve.

I'd trade the smell of the pine in the mountains for what I am in any day.

I don't know why I am doing this to myself really. I only live once, and even that I do believe in the afterlife, I believe I have to earn it and I don't know if I am on the right track - or a right track - in earning it.

I'm young and I feel lost; but strangely, the best place to know yourself and know life is to be lost!

My friends tell me I belong to a different time line. If that's the case, I would go back when I would know the names and lives of people in the littler village who will be buying bread from me.

And at night I would be lost between books and my own world that's my head's imagination

Sean Long said...

You're making me so, so hungry! You certainly have a knack for finding lovely restaurants... would definitely love to try some meksayta if I'm by the coast again - I absolutely loved Msabha .

I'm very much looking forward to our next trip to Syria - hopefully we'll make it later this year sometime.

I do drop by a couple of times a month, I just usually don't have much to say ;-)

abufares said...

@KJ
I know exactly where you're standing (or not being able to stand). I've been there.
Let the flow of time carry you along. Don't offer any resistance, don't give in. Small nudging corrections at proper moments of intervention should do the trick.
I really think that it is extremely hard to fuck up our own lives. We have to work extra time and put in a lot of effort to screw ourselves up.
Have a good time and a big smile:-)

abufares said...

@Sean Long
I look forward meeting you again.
Anytime pal! Drop me a line!

MadSurg said...

You stirred a sleeping "thought" I had a long time ago. Since I haven't written sth for quite a bit, I will do now!
True, we invented the alphabet. But unfortunately, we forget it later on, or I'd say we're still stuck somewhere in the past, and not in the most splendid era for sure. We haven't moved on while others did. Science, or Knowledge, have emerged from this very land, but it never came back...Still, none of this matters to me. It is what I did, or am doing, that matters, not someone who happened to have lived in the same spot of the world (and who might or might not be related to me) has done a zillion years ago. It is still important, however, to know history well. For those with no past have no future.

Away from my outdated philosophy, Friday was an outstanding day for a "day-out". I knew it when I woke up in the morning. It's just the smell of the air. But no, as usual, the same boring long hours behind the book...Maybe next week, if in Tartous, I might have a "day-off"

Thanks for sharing this luxury with us, deprived readers!

abufares said...

@Madsurg
Part of the magic of any land comes from what its people have been doing or not doing.
In our case, since the doing is mostly carried out by totalitarian powers and/or crushing demographic needs, what sets up apart is what we did not do (yet).

Am I making sense my dear Doc?

I just hope that we don't do anything about what doesn't need to be done.

DUBAI JAZZ said...

Abu Fares, something has been bothering the hell out of me lately and I can't keep quiet anymore. I know the photo you've posted for a woman on the sidebar is supposed to resemble a woman having orgasm. But ya Abu Fares, for god sake her smile is giving me the creeps. I wonder if is this is the way it is in the real-life experience? (Since I haven't been there before)…such a turn off!

abufares said...

Ya Dubai Jazz
Walla you're so funny.
I want you to follow these steps:
1. www.google.com
2. in the search window "orgasm"
3. images for search

The woman's whose smile is giving you the creeps will show up as the 1st result. The morale of this story is that I picked the first photo to elucidate my point.
However, and in all honesty, if I can make a woman smile as such (after the act) I would be delighted as she seems to be a very happily satisfied woman, a little creepy perhaps but fully content.
You have to give her this at least: she doesn't look as if she's faking it at all...

DUBAI JAZZ said...

Alas, it turned out that searching for the word 'orgasm' is:

inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and moral values of the United Arab Emirates.

Az3ar's Fan said...

Abufares Said...The World According to a Tartoussi: Abufares, an architect, writes a delightful blog from his home in Tartous, Syria with lots of fascinating stories of Syrian food in general and Tartoussi food in particular.

http://www.cliffordawright.com/caw/links.html

abufares said...

@Az3ar's Fan
Thank you for taking the time and effort to promote my blog. I owe you one, right? I have to take you out once you come over :-)

Az3ar's Fan said...

you are welcome, abu fares.

Az3ar's Fan said...

dubazi jazz,

You kid me. Dubai does not promote the sex industry??? what happened to all of those russian chicks?

MadSurg said...

AbuFares,
You make all the sense. Very true, that what is left to us is abstaining from...whatever we can help not doing. But all this negativitiy is getting us nowhere...All hell will break loose sooner or later. Let's just wait and see! (I believe in Murphy's law at best, and I am such a melancholic pessimist at worst)

Dubai Jazz,
I higly respect the religious, cultural, political and moral values of the United Arab Emirates. I also very much like it when someone imposes their religious, cultural, political and moral values on me...Woe Betide me!