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Sunday, August 30, 2009

When I Need You

In the summer of 1977 shortly after my National Bacalaureat exam I attended my first dancing party in Tartous. These were extremely rare events in my little town by the sea back then. Boys and girls went to single-sex schools like the rest of Syria with the exception of a handful of private ones in Damascus and Aleppo perhaps. Not many years later that had come to change and by the early 80's of the 20th century Tartous implemented co-ed in all of its public schools and remains today the only Governorate in the country without any single-sex learning institution. We've sure moved way ahead of the pack and we're proud of our mindset here on the coast. In fact, despite the relentless waves of marauding Wahabi Islamists pouring over our shores, we Tartoussis, in our majority, stand in defiance to the dull and lifeless coveys desaturating the kaleidoscopic social fabric of Syria not through confrontation but rather by clinging to our traditional Mediterranean way of life. We still master the art of taking it easy and the rest certainement à la tizi.

That night, I asked the prettiest girl in the party to dance with me to what is perhaps one of the greatest love songs ever, When I Need You by Leo Sayer. The song went on that year to top the charts on both sides of the Atlantic (the UK Singles Chart and the US Billboard Hot 100).

Last night, thirty two years after that dance, a breeze blew from the west cooling down the lingering heat of the day. There were folks walking by, young lovers holding hands and this tartoussi  riding his bicycle on the corniche late in the evening. I was enjoying the silence and engrossed in my private thoughts when I decided to listen to some music. I picked a List I call “Soft” on my iPhone and drifted with the tantalizing flow of easy listening songs. The mood was ripe for a daydream (eveningdream is more like it) and right in the middle of it, When I Need You came along.

To lovers all over, this one for you. To the woman who's more me than myself... May I have this dance my Princess?

When I need you
I just close my eyes and I'm with you
And all that I so want to give you
It's only a heartbeat away

When I need love
I hold out my hands and I touch love
I never knew there was so much love
Keeping me warm night and day

Miles and miles of empty space in between us
The telephone can't take the place of your smile
But you know I wont be traveling forever
It's cold out, but hold out, and do I like I do
When I need you
I just close my eyes and I'm with you
And all that I so wanna give you babe
Its only a heartbeat away

Its not easy when the road is your driver
Honey that's a heavy load that we bear
But you know I won't be traveling a lifetime
It's cold out but hold out and do like I do
Oh, I need you

When I need love
I hold out my hands and I touch love
I never knew there was so much love
Keeping me warm night and day

When I need you
I just close my eyes
And you're right here by my side
Keeping me warm night and day

I just hold out my hands
I just hold out my hand
And I'm with you darling
Yes, I'm with you darling
All I wanna give you
It's only a heartbeat away
Oh I need you darling

Writers: Albert Hammond & Carol Bayer Sager

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Jijeh Mehshieh (Stuffed Chicken a la Tortosa)

This post is dedicated to Katia (I promise you a more romantic one, loool)

I have settled adequately into my Ramadan routine. It's really simple come to think of it, minimum talk and/or contact with the rest of the human race, that's all I ask for. At work, I hate talking on the phone or having to hear office chitchat. You know I'd rather be left alone. I don't like smiling or being agreeable. Well I pretty much hate everything in the morning. Later on in the day, I can close the door, be by myself and relieve the rest of the world of my grumpiness. You got the idea didn't you? I'm not much fun in Ramadan so just …. The phone rang for the hundredth time. Ohhh, I'm really mad now...

It was my son, “Hi dad, I have a good recipe for your blog.”
“What is it Fares?” I asked, restraining myself from being too opprobrious.
He loitered with his words, “Mum is stuffing a chicken and I'm helping out. Do you want me to take pictures?”
"Sure why not,” I wanted to hang up, “is that all?” My mouth gaped in a rictus of annoyance and dudgeon.
“No there's Fatteh too”, he said unnecessarily.
I was on the brink of desperation, “no I meant do you want something else before we hang up.”
“Ahhh not really, although it would be nice seeing that big smirk on your face now. Bye dad!!!” He hung up.

Oh damn it, I really didn't want to smile. It's so out of my character at this hour of the day in Ramadan. But here it is anyway, Jijeh Mehshieh (Stuffed Chicken a la Tortosa), all photos taken by Fares.

1 whole naked chicken
200g ground beef
1 cup long grain rice
1 onion
2 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon salt (or per taste)
2 cinnamon sticks
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ mixed spices (whatever)
½ cinnamon powder
½ oregano
2 laurel leaves

-Heat oil in pot and stir the ground beef until golden brown then add the rice. Continue stirring for a minute or two before adding 1 cup of water. Cook rice covered over low heat. Remove when almost done.
-Rub the chicken inside out with the salt, herbs and spices and stick the cut garlic in there. It's easy to get kinky with chicken so watch what you're doing and respect the dead please.

-Stuff her with meat/rice making sure not to over pack.
-Stitch the ungodly hole with needle and thread then place into a large pot and add water to cover ¾ of the body. It's a good time to throw in the onion, cinnamon sticks and the laurel leaves. Bring to boil and keep on medium heat for 30 minutes.

-Remove then place in a pan with 2 cups of the broth. Wrap completely (chicken and pan) with aluminum foil and shove it in the oven for 45 minutes (175ºC). Remove foil and leave in oven for another 15 minutes to give the chicken a lovely suntan (or oventan, hahaha: wicked laugh).
-What remains of the broth could be used as sauce or converted into chicken soup (it's very good by the way).
-Present with more cooked rice (in this case the additional rice was prepared with some saffron to give it the golden yellowish hue).
-Enjoy the Jijeh (chicken) at its best.

Bon Appétit

Jijeh is Tartoussi for Jahjeh (Damascus), Djedjeh (Aleppo), Dajaja (the rest of the Arab world with the exception of Egypt where it's called Ferkha).

Sunday, August 23, 2009


It is customary in Syria to have a white main dish on the first Iftar table of Ramadan. This might be true of other neighboring countries but I cannot claim what I do not know. White for many cultures is considered as a good and auspicious color and as thus has no religious significance whatsoever. Of course in Levantine Cuisine a white meal could only mean that a dish is prepared and cooked in Yogurt Sauce. As far back as I can remember we always had Shakrieh on Ramadan 1st. It' is one of my all-time favorite dishes especially since I'm biased anyway to anything cooked in yogurt. Shakrieh is a year round Syrian recipe and is not unique to Ramadan.

Here it is, in very simple steps, Shakrieh in its most basic form, the Tartoussi way.


1 kg lamb chunks (Mozat)
3 large onions cut in rings
6 to 8 cups plain yogurt
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 egg
1 teaspoon Salt
2 sticks Cinnamon
1 tablespoon Vegetable oil

1 cup of Rice or Burghul (cooked the usual way on the side)


-Heat the salted lamb chunks and onion rings in a large frying pan with the oil. Stir well with a wooden spatula for 5 minutes.

-Bring 4 cups of water in a pot to a boil. Add the lamb chunks, onion rings and cinnamon sticks. Cook over medium-high for one hour. Save the broth.

-Separately bring 6 to 8 cups of plain yogurt, cornstarch and raw egg to boil over medium-high making sure to stir slowly but constantly (non-stop otherwise the sauce is ruined) until it starts boiling. Reduce heat to low and add the lamb chunks and the tender onions plus one cup of the broth to the yogurt. Cook uncovered for 10 minutes.

-Cook the rice (or burghul) with 1 cup of broth (or more) as usual.

-The Shakrieh and the rice (or burghul) are served side by side in individual plates but presented separately on the table.

Simply delicious!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Ramadan Karim

It will be extremely difficult for those who judge a book by its cover to understand my relationship with Ramadan. For interested readers they can always find more about "Ramadan according to a tartoussi" here and specifically here. I have already posted 14 times about it so obviously it must carry certain significance to me. Perhaps most interesting in our unique relationship is that first, I feel the passage of time with the advent of this synodic (lunar) month and second, I have in a way succeeded, on the personal level, to humanize the mystic aura of the experience.

My intention is to write recipes and food related posts on my blog for the next 30 days or so. I might, of course, change my mind at any time but it would be a good idea to sit back, enjoy and talk about food. While getting in the mood allow me please to wish each and everyone of you a Ramadan Karim. You know how Christmas is Merry and Easter is Happy! Well Ramadan is Generous (Karim).

I hope we work on eradicating the disparity between the rich and poor so that the wealthy don't feel that they are doing the needy a favor with their alms.

I hope we become free to live the way we choose to and liberate our minds from the vice of judging others.

I hope we believe in ourselves enough not to wait for miracles to happen but instead work out butts off to make viable wonders come true.

I hope we come to terms with reality, cherish the physical world and see the inherent beauty of the universe with wonderment and joy not in awe and fear. ex nihilo nihil fit.

I hope we never lose the impulse to learn, the will to travel and the urge to discover the unknown.

I hope we reach the point when no one believes that it's worth dying or killing for a cause.

I hope that no man has to toil for bread, no child sleeps unfed and no woman is coerced in bed.

Ramadan Karim

Sunday, August 09, 2009


We grow and change. Only the dead-inside and morons don't modify their paths on a journey we had never chosen to take. I am amazed by how much I've altered my perception of my environment and myself since I started sharing my trivial and significant thoughts through writing on an open blog. The last three years have been more pivotal, from an intellectual point of view, than the concerted outcome of almost three decades of adulthood. I have come to terms with the sentient being within and finally accepted matters and issues I struggled to resolve for the greatest part of my past. I was shy, timid and scared to release myself from the claws of indoctrinated teachings, imprinted mores and unchallenged truths. My liberation at last has been my most memorable and satisfying achievement.

In February of this year I came to the realization that I've been consuming my life for the wrong reasons. Consuming, not living, since that's what I think I've been doing for the most part. You know how it is when people decide to stop or start doing something on the occasion of their birthday or the new year. Well, I'm not that kind of man. I never made any resolution and accordingly the positive changes that have permeated my existence since were not planned at all. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought I could do better with my body. I'm eating healthier and putting my muscles to use in a manner that is enjoyable to me. For four months I would start my morning by a forty minute bicycle ride by the sea. My meaningful immersion in music died in the 1980's and I changed that too. I plugged my iPhone and reintroduced myself to old and new tunes. My morning ride became my favorite part of the day. With the advent of July, however, riding a bicycle in Tartous becomes more of an ordeal and less of a pleasure. I'm very uncomfortable in the heat but the positive effects of daily exercise were too apparent to ignore. I put the treadmill that has been laying there like a piece of furniture to good use too. I have to admit that I don't enjoy exercising indoors per say but I've found a way to cheat my brain into accepting this temporary inconvenience. Every day I follow an episode of my all-time favorite TV Series M*A*S*H* on DVD while sweating my butt off. I'm sleeping much better. I'm drinking my beer when I feel like it and enjoying it a whole lot more. I'm looking good (well that's a debatable point) and I've lost 11 kg in the process. I was a chubby 88 kg on my birthday at the end of February and I'm an attractive 77 kg now (again that point is open to contention). In a way I'm a late bloomer. I've just come of age, thirty years too late perhaps, but at least I've shed my inherited shell. I am free.

There's always a downfall though, a catch of a sort. Taking off the ragged robes of social conformity and mental subservience will eventually bring a confrontation with others. By and large I've always been the type who avoids direct hostilities with those I disagree with. But at the same time I can't go along anymore with certain “established” practices. It hurts to keep quiet when bigots and fanatics preach and gesticulate. Whether I want to or not, I'm being drawn into retaliation at least in the form of the written word. Almudawen (Syrian Blogs Community) has just announced the First Annual Competition of Almudawen for the Best Syrian Blogs. This is a commendable effort on their part if it's indeed intended to honor outstanding Syrian blogs, encourage and support a blogging culture and expose the role of blogs in the making and shaping of a civil society in Syria. However, if you read the 5th and last condition for blogs to be accepted in the competition, this is what you'll find (translated word by word): the contents of which [the submitted blog] must not dissent from the accepted mores and morals (i.e. sex through videos or photos, hostility to religions, cussing, swearing and bad taste). Do I take it that it is acceptable for a blog to attack trans-dressers but not Sheikhs and priests? Or, for the sake of argument, is a photo of a random cloud in the sky in the shape of an eye and a comment underneath that this is the eye of God acceptable but not another photo of a woman's perfect behind with the apt remark that this butt is an elegant example of the splendor of creation (if we're so inclined to believe)? I know and very much like two out of the five honorable judges and I'm surprised that they have accepted this sanctimonious condition. In fact I'm certain that they did not. Who in the hell then decided that bloggers/people who are interested in sex, hostile to religion and use the word FUCK casually cannot contribute to the making and shaping of a civil society in Syria? What kind of change are we to expect from an infant blogging movement already enslaved by bigotry and intolerance?

I hope it doesn't take this younger generation as long as it took mine to realize that religious tyranny is as bad, if not worse than political dictatorship. Civil society, my ass.

Immediately after I published this post yesterday, Yazan commented then deleted his own comment. He had no prior knowledge about the 5th and final condition of the competition, he wrote to me privately. However, he wanted to resolve the matter with the guys at Almudawen. He wrote earlier today and informed met that Almudawen has removed this shameful clause and came to their senses (under pressure from Yazan no doubt). I'm glad to hear that he will post about the whole matter on his blog later today as well.

Thank you abu fares for bringing up the issue in such a gracious way, as always!
I've posted, something of a clarification, and a response, here:

Sunday, August 02, 2009


August wears me down. It always had. It always will. This year I have been dreading the month long before it knocked on my door.

It's not often that I'm home alone. But in a time when everybody needs a little vacation I had no option but to stay behind. Kids, more so than the rest of us, must grow up loving August. There would come the day eventually when the burdens of life will make them change their minds. The telephone cried in the quiet room.

-Heard you're alone!
-I am.
-What do you say we share a drink and be alone together...

I picked a shirt in the dark, slipped into a pair of jeans then drove toward the sea. I rolled the windows down and opened the sunroof. No air was coming in. Tartous closed on me as the whole world was too tight around the neck. There was a long line of parked cars on the boulevard as I brought mine into an empty spot. What were they thinking about, these ungodly machines? I stepped down, pushing a button on the key chain and crossed the street pweep, pweep into heavy silence.

Underneath the 900 years old vaulted ceiling men and women sat behind tables. Oblivious to being, they stared at walls, imaginary and real. What makes us believe we're that different from the cars parked outside? Waiting, isn't that what we're all doing?

In desperation we draw the last card, the company of others. We hugged, tapped shoulders then slumped into padded chairs, men tired of the long summer.

Ah my Beloved, fill the Cup that clears
Today of past Regrets and future Fears:
Tomorrow! Why, tomorrow I may be
Myself with Yesterday's Sev'n thousand Years.*

The bleak day turned brighter with the flow of the amber Scotch. My heart sighed while the welcomed numbness took over. My thirsty soul gasped with glee. Talk followed echoing through the valleys of the minds. I fancied a Scottish fairy tiptoeing toward me. She came to a stop and knelt by my side, took my hand in hers, kissed the tip of my fingers then brought the back of my hand to her cheek and whispered in my ear, you'll be alright my...

The chagrined notes of a solitary Oud drifted in the air then a sweet voice rose from the dungeons of a tormented soul. My fairy smiled down at me, repressing a solitary tear at the corner of each eye. She ruffled my short hair then vanished in thin air.

Gayyeen li'ddunia ma na'raf leh
wla rayheen fen wala Ayzeen eh

Mashaweer marsouma l'khatawina
Nimshiha b'ghorbet layalina
Yom Tifarrahna wi yom tigrahna
W'ehna wala ehna arfeen leh
W'zayeh ma guina.. guina
W'mesh b'edena guina**

We came... we don't know why
Where we're going to or what for
Paths drawn for our feet to tread
We follow them estranged in the dark of night
Paths of joy one day then of deep hurt tomorrow
We still don't know why
But we came
We never chose to but anyway we came

-Come on man … don't lose me.
-Cheers YOU.

*From Rubaiyat
Omar Khayyam (1048-1123), translation by Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883)

** Min Gher Leh Mohamad Abdul Wahab (1907-1991), performed by Taher Mustafa

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