Friday, November 28, 2008

Freekeh

This past week dragged on and on until it finally killed itself out of despair. I’m glad it’s over and I really needed some form of distraction to snap out of my misery. All the way from Canada my ultrasonic ears picked a distress signal from a dame in anguish. The mother of a cyber friend needed my immediate attention and help. While shopping, she found a bag of Freekeh on a supermarket shelf. Rumor has it that she was flooded by memories of the good old times from her native Lebanon and of the days she had spent at her mother’s in Aleppo. The miles and years of her Ghorbeh (estrangement away from home) made her forget how to prepare a most delicious dish of Freekeh. So I donned my superhero outfit (does that remind you of something?) and to her rescue I bolted. “Freekeh you desire and Freekeh is what you should have Madame", I sang in my baritone voice.


Freekeh is sold in supermarkets or delicatessen stores all over the world. It's a highly nutritious grain made from roasted green wheat. 100% organic, it's filled with minerals and vitamins because the wheat is harvested while still young. It's extremely low in carbohydrates and high in fibers. But the way we cook it will render these health advantages trifling since we’re going to top it with most delicious lamb shanks (Mawzat) or if you’d rather not go all the way with chicken instead. Either choice, Freekeh is delicious and relatively easy to prepare. My advice is to get some plain salted yogurt on the side. Nothing goes more smoothly with Freekeh than a glass of cold Ayran.


Ingredients:
1 Chicken cut in half or ½ kg of Lamb Shanks (bones removed)
1 Whole onion + 1 carrot
3 cups of freekeh, rinsed with water
1 tablespoon salt, 1 teaspoon black pepper, 5 cinnamon sticks, 5 pods of cardamom (optional)
4 tablespoons butter or shortening
1 finely chopped onion
1 cup of mixed pine nuts and almonds (pistachios and cashews are nice additions but optional)



Preparation:
The pieces of chicken or lamb shanks are heated and turned over in a skillet to dry them off from their own excess juices for a few minutes.
Then in a pot we place the chicken or meat in 6-7 cups of water along with the salt, black pepper, 1 onion, 1 carrot, cinnamon sticks and cardamom. Bring to a boil then reduce heat for 1 ½ hour until chicken or meat is done and tender. Throw away the onion, the cinnamon sticks, the cardamom pods and the carrot.
Separately, soak 3 cups of Freekeh in water for 1 hour. Afterwards the water is drained completely. Butter or shortening along with a finely chopped onion are heated in a pot until the onion is soft then the Freekeh is added and stirred constantly over medium heat for 5 minutes.
The broth from the chicken or meat is added on top (about 5 cups). Bring to boil then cover and reduce heat for 45 minutes.
Again separately, your choice of nuts is sautéed in butter until light brown.
In a large dish the Freekeh is spread first then pieces of chicken (without the bones) or meat are spread over and all are topped by the beautiful looking nuts.
This is one hell of a good recipe and I’m sure you and your 5 companions will enjoy every single bite of it.


Ayran: This is basically diluted plain yogurt. Add water at ratio of 1 to 3 (1 water, 3 yogurt), salt per preference and some mashed garlic 2 to 3 cloves per 1 liter. Splash a few ice cubes and stir until cold. Serve in tall glasses and drink with the meal.

All photos used from the web. The first plate (chicken) has an optional rice layer. We never cook it with rice. The second (lamb shanks) with green peas. This is of course optional and entirely up to you.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Secular Shivers and Religious Fever

In April of this year I posted Blogging Syria to mark the second anniversary of this blog. While commemoration was my primary purpose I have also used it to express a desire to read more Arabic written Syrian blogs. For the next seven months I did not explicitly refer to the subject again. However, don't reach the conclusion that I am a patient and tolerant reader. I am neither. Soon thereafter I lost interest and my enthusiasm dwindled. I reverted to my original list of favorites and pleasantly saw it grow in numbers. Most of the new additions, if not all, were not surprisingly English written Syrian blogs. There are exceptions to any rule and our venerably stunning Razan is such. Despite my deep rooted aversion to any word ending with "ism" I do value her Arabic Razanisms. She is adept at exploiting the unexpected and had managed to elevate her impulsiveness much higher in the last couple of years. Obviously her aggressive writing style has made her a preferred target for blinkered and bigoted minds. Whenever I read her I end up smiling. Whether or not I agree with her, I only have admiration for her courage and tenacity.

Among the exciting blogs I am regularly reading now are those of three beautiful ladies. You can not fault me for liking women more than men. As a matter of fact, I don't like men at all except to watch a football game with or as drinking buddies. Mariyah pervaded our senses like a gentle zephyr impregnated with scents of jasmine and magnolia. As a reader, I find her one of the most exciting and talented writers on the Syrian Blogosphere. Diana's Quiver is filled with arrows of superb craftsmanship. They are accurate, revealing and lucid. Besides, how can I not like her when she shares her precious name with my firstborn? It was my father who gave my daughter her name because of his affection, or infatuation perhaps, with the late Princess of Wales. Then there is Dania who calls her blog My Chaos. In fact she is not chaotic at all; sensitive perhaps, candid and fervent in defending her right to be free is what the reader will find in and between the lines of her hyper and intelligent posts.

I have paid tribute to four fantastic female bloggers not for the purpose of being nice to them but rather to use their writings as contrasting samples to the new breed of mainstream Syrian blogs. The one insight I gained out of my blogging experience is that this medium “blogging” is made by the people but not for the people. I think I should elucidate my point a little further. While the writings of most Syrian bloggers are direct reflections of life on the street they are not read by the Syrian Street. As writers and readers we have developed a severe case of a double personality disorder. I try, certainly without success at times, to be as down to earth as possible when I write. However, when I read and ultimately enjoy the work of other bloggers I am unwillingly becoming a member of a limited and restrictive fraternity/sorority. But here is the interesting part, at least as far as I am concerned. Despite the meager total number of Syrian bloggers, they all fall under two broad categories, secular or religious. The Syrian blogging movement had started as a secular/liberal outcry in the face of political totalitarianism. The early writings addressed individual freedom and liberty, attacked the unilateral decision making process of the political establishment in Syria and advanced pluralism. Generally speaking, they were mostly written in English. The recent trend, mostly expressed in Arabic, is best characterized as a sweeping current of religious zealotry. These newcomers may or may not openly oppose the political establishment but they share the common vision/dream of Islamic Revival to right what is presently wrong in this country and the rest of the world. Along the way, and in between, a few politically ambitious and self promoting individuals hitched a ride but then decided that the end does not justify the means. After all the audience is too small and smart to gratify their inflatable egos so they luckily turned elsewhere to advance their Machiavellian causes. I am not aware whether there have been attempts at any time to glorify and support the political establishment (i.e. regime) in Syria or in other Middle Eastern countries by bloggers. The concept is plainly absurd. Blogging is dubbed as an alternative medium. Millions of dollars are being spent on maintaining a failing and archaic information system and thousands of employees are working in state controlled journalism institutions yet the quality and integrity of their output remain pathetic. Any involved reader can have much more accurate and relevant information about Syria by browsing less than a handful of Syrian political blogs. Let me emphasize an important point here, these few blogs are far more pertinent as a reference on Syria than the major international media giants as well. At least their biases are minute and rather individual in scope and magnitude.

I have failed to mention the crossovers so far or those blogs that are written in English for instance and carry an obsessive moral message or their Arabic opposites. There was one particular blog written in Arabic which appeared in 2007 for a few months then stopped called Esfarjel. I have no idea why Esfarjel did not continue blogging but his/her sense of sarcasm and wit was on a par by itself. It would be great to have him/her posting regularly again.

In closing I feel I must state the obvious. Syrian society is clearly divided along secular/religious principles and beliefs and so are Syrian bloggers. Each group is primary writing for its own inner circle and infrequently someone trespasses his/her turf with an uncalled for comment and tension becomes inevitable. Should we continue to avoid each other? Not at all but let it be agreed that dialogue is a two-way street. If we truly take for granted that we are 100% right and/or that God for instance is on our side then what is the point behind engaging ourselves in a conversation. This is the primary fuel for a sermon which by definition is a monologue. To convert the other, to register a win, to satisfy our vanity or to top our account of “good” deeds for the Day of Judgment, that is the role of a preacher and not that of a blogger.

*This post was inspired by Dania's post Religious fever.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

After the Storm

We walked hand in hand on the desolate beach. The wind bluffed with erratic flurries and toyed with our unbuttoned blazers. The dying waves, frowzy with the aftermath of earlier rage, collapsed at our feet. The hoary sky shepherded dark hollow clouds in intimidation. The veteran eyes of this seafarer knew only too well that the storm had come to pass.

My son's little hand stirred in mine as he looked up at me. "It's not gonna rain tonight", he ventured with newly acquired confidence. "It's not", I echoed his words and ruffled his shortly trimmed hair with gentle fingers.




It had rained incessantly for days and nights. In our little town that is no longer little there is very little to do when it rains even a little. We wait behind window panes, flinching with the ensuing violent wallops of lightening, captivated by the brutal slamming of open shutters and the drumming of destined thunder. When the autumn uproar is over at last we file along the shore to appraise the aftermath. Crumbled timber litters the sand, lost cargo thrown overboard from hapless ships bearing the wrath of demented swells, dead cattle, relics from the past; acceptable losses no more.

I walk that stretch of beach again well into the winter until no longer I can. I lean on him and put my calloused hand in his as he shows me the way. "It's over, the rainstorm isn't it?" I ask. "Sure thing, it's over", my son's words reassure me to keep plodding along. "You know what, when I was a kid" I start, pointing my finger eastward and to the south, "it was all orange groves here, here and there". He faces me with a smile then pulls my collar higher around my neck, "yeah baba, you told me so". He sees the worried look in my tired eyes and caresses my shoulder. He pulls me closer and shuttles me home before the dark of night falls. The calls of enchanting sirens tempt us to wade into the sea. Their silhouettes well defined in the rays of the drowning sun, their breasts wobble on the troubled surface. The salty breeze fills our heads with memories, real and imagined. Slowly, we march back in lonely silence.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Images from Tartous

My dear Canadian friend Isobel, a "very married" beautiful woman of Godly Greek ancestry requested that I post some photos from my daily walk on the Corniche of Tartous. I have already expressed my affinity to the sea on several occasions and I have undoubtedly stirred her memory and curiosity. Being Greek (and a Pisces like me for those who believe in astrology) makes her a natural aquatic creature. Like a fish out of water stranded in the tundra of North America she gasped for a splash of salt water and found a probable refuge in my blog.

Mainly to her, Om Anastasio, to the Tartoussis across the four corners of the planet and to the others who only know about my beloved home by word of mouth or from what they've read on this blog I present these unassuming moments of time captured by an amateur photographer with his puny Canon PowerShot SD450.


Looking north from the highest building in town (the Shahine Tower Hotel): the Tartous I grew up in and call home.

Walking west on one of several rocky piers of the Tartous Corniche extending like probing fingers into the eternal Mediterranean.

Moments before the sun sets, Tartous is transformed into a magical place of shades and hues. The brief chimera that time had forgotten us is so tempting.

Leaving the mainland to Arwad, the only inhabited island in Syria and Tartous' soul mate.


A coffee shop on wheels. Just ask for two cups and he'll bring them to you to land's end.


It's been a long day and he'll throw it yet one more time in search for one more catch to take home.


Bite, come on bite!


The distant silhouette of Hbas, a small island southwest of Tartous.


Shipping was one of the primary victims of the global economic collpase. This ship could be in for a long wait on the shore before she could secure cargo and sail anew.


Sunset over the island of Arwad, forever magnificent.


And sunset over two lovers. Only if life could stay so simply beautiful.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Lions' Milk



Twenty four hours after I shot this short clip I was on my way to Beirut. Following dinner and a few drinks I flew to Rome then to Amsterdam where I spent the rest of the week and came back to write about it.
Yet despite the fascinating piazzas, the broad avenues, the grandiose monuments and buildings, despite the enchanting canals, the intertwining back streets and the stunningly beautiful and virtuous prostitutes, I missed the little pleasures and treasures of Tartous my eternal home. I took off my tie, my pressed jacket and trousers and the shiny black shoes. I showered my tired body with a cold stream and washed away the remnants of a foreign luxury. I put on a faded pair of jeans and a patterned flannel shirt and sat by the little table at my corner in the kitchen to enjoy a simple breakfast. I reminisced over the exotic beers, the succulent steaks, the delectable pastas and the velvety wines I hedonistic consumed. I remembered the frantic pace, the purposeful crowds, the manicured lawns and the urbane vibes. In my brain, the refined sights, the restrained sounds and the polished smells of Europe danced and mingled with the Kaset al Shai (in Syria we drink tea: Shai with breakfast in a small and clear glass).
It was only a matter of time before I revert to my true nature and tell you about my annual jaunt into a green forested valley 20 km east of Tartous to partake in an old ritual: the drawing of the Karake = Arak distilling. In Everything You Wanted to Know About Arak and More I have exhausted all the little details about the ritual and procedures. My purpose here is notably different. I want to share with you the essence of the experience in a visual form. Don't mind the amateurish editing or the script since making movies is not one of my strong points. What I have going in my favor, however, is the marriage of Wadih el-Safi's song "Tallo Hbabna" with the rustic visual experience. El Safi (1921- ) is a Lebanese Tenor and one of the greatest modern singers of the Arab World. In coastal Syria, Abu George, as he is affectionately called by his faithful fans is an imposing icon of crossnational worth. He sings in our accent and he could as well have grown up in the alleys of Tartous instead of Niha, Lebanon. Wadih is to Arak what olive oil is to Zaatar (Thyme), but that's another story.
W. C. Fields once wrote: "Never trust a man who doesn't drink." In a way, we share this line of thought in Tartous but we digress further. "Never trust a drinker who doesn't like Arak".