ajnabieh: The silhouette of Cairo, with the text in English, "We Are Egypt." (we are egypt)
(Home safe from Cairo, and then from my post-Cairo "hey! Let's drive around the upper midwest for a week!" jaunt through Michigan and Ontario. But this has been sitting on my phone since I got back, and I finally had a moment to put it up here. Hi!)

NOTE: this post contains reference to the getting travel-related food poisoning. Nothing squicky and no details (trust me, you don't want them), but if the mere idea is an issue, best scroll on by.


It was my first night in Cairo. I was jetlagged, exhausted, dehydrated, lost, confused, and about to get really, really sick, though I didn't know it. I ended up deciding to have knafeh for dinner, because I just didn't know anymore, and stumbled into a patisserie. After trying to order, and then being told to go take a seat and that a waiter would come, and then waiting for a table to open up, and then waiting for the waiter (probably all of this would have been easier if I weren't a mess), I managed to order a plate of knafeh and a cup of tea. "Bidoun sukker," I said, and the waiter gave me a funny look. I'm an idiot, I realized--there's an idiomatic way to order your tea without sugar, which I had of course forgotten. And maybe bidoun wasn't even how you said 'without' in Egyptian dialect. God, why had I left my Arabic textbook in the US? It wasn't doing me any good there.

After a while, I got my knafeh and my tea. "Without sugar," the waiter said pleasantly, and I tried not to feel too stupid. The tea was too hot to drink for a long time, but, God, I needed it.


Two days later, I woke up at 9:15 and groaned. Of course, I had to get sick first thing in the morning this time. But I couldn't go all day without eating, and breakfast ended in fifteen minutes. I needed to put something in my stomach. I struggled into clothes and stumbled into the hotel restaurant at 9:32, feeling like an asshole.

The guy in the chef's hat who made omelettes was nowhere to be seen, but the girl who waited tables was around, and said "good morning!" to me cheerfully. I tried to smile back. Normally, this would be the point where I'd pile on the fuul and the boiled eggs and everything, but I decided to play it safe: orange juice, plain pita bread, plain yogurt, some honey to add to it. The waitress came to take my cup. (She'd learned, over my three mornings so far, that I wanted coffee with milk.) "Excuse me," I said. "Can I have tea this morning, instead?"

"Of course," she said, still cheerful, and walked away.

I struggled through some bread, and then a cup of tea appeared next to me. I looked at it. It had milk in it, already mixed. I blinked. No one, I mean no one, drinks tea with milk in the Middle East. God, they must keep a separate pot ready of milky tea for the aganib, because they know we like milk in our coffee and milk in our tea, strange as it is. My heart sank a little, because milky tea was the last thing I wanted in that state. I wanted a nice, plain cup of black tea, boring and bitter and enough to settle my stomach.

But what could I say? I sipped at it, forced down my yogurt, and cursed cultural sensitivity.


Costa Coffee was like a giant suburban Starbucks, sprawled out on the side of Shari3 Gama3t Duwal 3arabi. (By the end of my two weeks, I knew just to call it Gama3t Duwal. I didn't yet.) It struck me as odd that these western-style restaurants took up so much space; in cities back home, they get crammed into the same tight quarters as everyone else. I got a seat--I had finally figured out that, in Cairo, you don't just go to the counter and order and then find your seat--and ordered tea and a croissant. I was feeling better than earlier that morning, but I still wanted to be soothed.

The tea arrived: a pot that must have held about two cups of hot water, a single Twining's English Breakfast teabag, and a latte cup to drink it from. I dropped the teabag in the pot, feeling resentful. When I make tea in a pot this size at home, I use three teabags, not one. The water wasn't going to be hot enough, either, which meant the tea was going to be frightfully weak. I huffed to myself. This cup of tea was going to be wrong.

And then I thought about learning to make tea with the family who put me up in the West Bank when I was there. Boil a saucepan of water; add a fistful of fresh mint, and a fistful of white sugar. Take one tea bag, and dip it in, again, again, again, until the water looks like tea. Then it's done.

This tea, I realized, was an act of fusion. Take tea-making norms from one place, apply them to tea from another. If this had been a bag of Lipton Yellow Label, then it would have made sense. I'd been thrown by my own, anglophile notions of what a "proper" cup of tea was. (Warm the pot, four minutes, no more, one spoon for the pot, milk goes in the cup first.) No, this is perfect, really; this is tea that is both/neither, that follows no rules but its own.

The inscription on the saucer said "Italian about coffee." And English about tea, I expect, in exactly the same way.
ajnabieh: A seagull standing on a "no seagulls" sign, with the text FIGHT THE POWER (fight the power seagull)
Thursday night, tired, still a little jetlagged, I walked the few blocks from my hotel to a sandwich place I'd seen recommended in a lifestyle magazine-thing, which had an English edition and a iphone app, so targeted at expats and that segment of the Cairene upper class who speaks English.  The shop was down a dark streets (no streetlights), next to another, indistinguishable, but it had been recommended, and the prices were obscenely low by my agnabi standards (plus I'd dropped over a hundred pounds on lunch at a Zamalek cafe, I needed to economize).  So I headed in, and ordered in my terrible Arabic.

The man behind the counter clarified what I wanted in perfect English (they always do), tried to convince me to get a second sandwich ("Not tonight, I'm saving it for another visit, since this is so close to me!" I said cheerfully), and then asked, once he'd placed my order, where I was from.  

"I'm American, from New York," I said (because all real Americans know New Yorkers don't count; plus, saying this often has the consequence of people talking about their friends, relatives, acquantainces, etc in New York).  

His face got a little sad, and he glanced at the TV in the corner, showing a salah jum3a somewhere in the world.  "Some people, they are not being good to Americans right now," he said quietly.  

"I know," I said.

We chatted politely about my reasons for coming to Egypt.  I made fun of my bad Arabic (as always, saying I studied fus7a in university impresses people; they shouldn't be impressed, my fus7a is atrocious).  He had had experiences that were relevant to my work, so I asked him about them, politely, explained what I was doing.  My sandwich came out from the kitchen, and he invited me to take a seat and keep talking.

After a few minutes, he said, "We talk all the time about how we are Muslims in this country.  But if we look at what we are doing, we are not being good Muslims.  We are not following the example of the prophet.  He never said to hurt anyone."

"We have the same problem in America," I said.  "People say they are Christians, but they are not doing what Jesus would want them to do."

"When someone says he is Muslim, you know he is not acting  like a Muslim," he said, nodding.

"The more they say it, the less they are!" I said.  We both laughed.  

When I had finished my sandwich, I thanked him, and told him it was delicious.  "How much do I owe you?" I said, reaching into my pocket for the pound coins rattling around there.  

"For you, nothing.  It's your first day," he said.

"Are you sure?"  

"Of course."

"Thank you," I said, smiling.  "I will be back."

I left that night, wandered around my neighborhood, where I was the oldest woman on the street without a headcover, and, I think, the only foreigner.  I went back to my hotel, happy to be here, happy to have met this man.

Last night, I stayed in my hotel room, and flipped between BBC World and Al Jazeera English.  Most times I want to practice my Arabic, but I needed to understand everything, last night.  I ate dinner in my hotel, and the tv in the restaurant played a Coptic priest and an imam critiquing insults to religion while I ate shorobat 3ads and baba ghanoug.

I'm going back out tonight.  I want to pay for my sandwich this time.
ajnabieh: The McDonalds Arch, with text in Arabic reading "ماكدونالدز مصر"/makdunaldz masr/McDonalds Egypt. (ماكدونالدز)
(Ahem, I apologize for the brief detour into food blogging. Food is one of my favorite things to write about, and I don't often get the chance. Fear not, I'll try to come back to politics at some point...unless you really want to hear my deep thoughts about food.)

When I wrote my post on fuul akhdar, [personal profile] geeksdoitbetter left a comment asking me to square two of the things I said: that "deviating too much from that shape [of a recipe] results in doing a discredit to the original dish" and that "there are a million iterations" of every dish. I haven't responded, because I've been thinking of the best way to explain what I mean, but a confluence of things today lead to me arriving at a good way in.

Let's talk about hummus.

As I've mentioned 'round these parts before, hummus in Arabic means "chickpeas," and the dish we call hummus in English is generally called hummus bi tahineh, chickpeas with sesame seed paste. You'll find a dish like it in most of the Levantine countries.

However, there are lots of variations of hummus. Do you use paprika, or cumin, or za'atar, or garlic, or mint? How much tahineh? How much lemon? Do you serve it hot or cold? All of these factors can move and shift from recipe to recipe; there are some broad national differences, but there are also little family differences.

But, here is the thing: there is a point beyond which you're not making hummus anymore. Or not proper hummus, not the real thing. You've distorted it just past the point where it is what it is; you've made it something else.

Take this NYTimes article about Holy Land Hummus, and all the different varieties they release. What's the opening quote from the owner? "Back home, they would shoot me in the head for doing this to hummus." An exaggeration, but there's a truth in there: artichoke-garlic hummus is just wrong, in that it deviates too much from the original shape of the dish.

(Interesting, parenthetical note. Majdi Wadi is described in the article as being born in Kuwait, and having immigrated from Jordan to the US in 1994. There's a fact that's being elided here: that he's almost certainly Palestinian, given that information. After the 1991 Gulf War, Kuwait expelled its large Palestinian population, both immigrants and Kuwaiti-born, because of the PLO's statements in support of Saddam Hussein. These Palestinians were "repatriated" to Jordan, which, for most of them, was a country they had never seen; however, since Jordan formally governed the West Bank from 1948-1967, they had Jordanian passports. Many then emigrated again, to the US or Europe. Probably the most famous Jordanian with this life history? Queen Rania. This is one of those moments where context adds a great deal of depth.)

Or, to take another example, let's talk about a tweet I saw today. The tweeter, [twitter.com profile] sseham, says, "I could sit for hours and watch Arab expressions as they learn about this site," and links to the webpage for a product called "Crazy Camel Dessert Hummus."

I had to get pretty far down the webpage before I realized that was D-E-S-S-E-R-T, and not D-E-S-E-R-T. (Maybe I was distracted by rolling my eyes at the 'crazy camel' business.) Because, if I were to try to match up two words in the English language I would never want to see next to each other, they would be "dessert" and "hummus." Partially, that's because I'm a gluten-free baker, and I know what a disaster it is to try to bake with chickpea flour, which dominates pretty much anything you try to bake it with and requires herculean efforts to make edible. And it's partially also because...that's not hummus. It's just...it's just NOT.

Hummus isn't just a puree of chickpeas. (It's also not a puree of just any legume: white bean hummus, for instance, is wrong in a lesser, but related way.) It's a broad set of ways of combining chickpeas with a limited set of other ingredients. Small innovations one way or another make sense; but there's a point at which those who know the dish would say, well, this could be good, but it's just not hummus anymore.

(And, to give you an example where it's not just "other" food that is "cultural" in origin: In my family, we make corn pudding, a sweet custardy dish, for family holidays. I was visiting my sister and her mother for Easter this year, and her mother made corn pudding. It was very different from the way my mother makes it: frozen corn instead of canned creamed corn, vanilla instead of nutmeg, and I think some bourbon, which was totally new to me. But I recognized it as corn pudding. If she had given me, say, something with less milk and more eggs, and called it corn pudding, I would have very politely accepted it, while muttering in my head, "No it isn't, it's a crustless corn quiche.")

So, while there are lots of different ways to make hummus, there are some ways to not make hummus while still making chickpea purees. Some things you do with chickpeas are wrong.

And this isn't purely an academic distinction. I'm thinking of all the many conversations about food as culture that I've seen Arab-Americans having. (here's a lovely moment I can't cite right now, but I think is in a piece by Nada Elia, about seeing people order hummus on their falafel sandwiches, and feeling betrayed that people would eat her food but not doing it properly. Food means identity for many, many people; it means identity in particular for many ethnic and racial minorities, because eating different food is part of what defines them as different. So there is a hurt that comes from seeing something that is yours, a part of you, pervasively done wrong by others, in order to meet their standards. Particularly if you think, were you to explain to them what they're doing wrong, they wouldn't be able to hear you say it.

There is no hummus police out there, and I don't want to take on that role. (Although, OK, if it meant eating a lot of hummus, I'd give it my best.) But I think it's important, as food moves around between places, that we recognize that you can't do just any thing to just any food, and give it any name. Names have meaning, both literal and figurative. And there are questions of justice that attach to this naming process, which it's worth it to remember when we're eating, and speaking about food.
ajnabieh: The McDonalds Arch, with text in Arabic reading "ماكدونالدز مصر"/makdunaldz masr/McDonalds Egypt. (ماكدونالدز)
Normally, I am very much in favor of traditional foodways, calling dishes what they are, and being authentic, or reasonably so, in my making of dishes. I think there's a lot of playing fast-and-loose with the names of traditional foods, particularly traditional foods that belong to groups who don't have high social status, and this strikes me as a real problem of representation for minority communities. Without giving in to the idea that there is one "right" way to prepare a dish--think of any "traditional" dish you know and the level of infighting that goes on whenever two cooks discuss it--I do think that dishes have a certain shape, and deviating too much from that shape results in doing a discredit to the original dish.

This leads to my problem with fava beans.

Fava beans (broad beans in British English, as Jamie Oliver taught me) are a staple food in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. Egyptian falafel is made with both fava beans and chickpeas, unlike Levantine falafel. And the quintessential Egyptian dish (maybe tied with koshary) is fuul mudammas, a fava bean puree served for breakfast. There are a million iterations, though this is the one you're most likely to encounter abroad, and is probably the 'meta' recipe. (I've written about fuul here before.) I love fuul, and frequently order it when I go out to Arab restaurants with other people who eat Arab food (I do find a plate of it to myself a bit much, but if I can mix it up with other things--fried cauliflower! baba ghanouj! falafel!--I'm set). In fact, I even own a magnet that says "foul addict," even though that is my least favorite transliteration of the word fuul.

Anyway, the point is, fuul are awesome. And confusing, because when we get fava beans in the US, we get this:


And that's not what you put in fuul. (Wikipedia tells me these are fuul akhdar, green fuul, in Arabic; I'll rely on those more knowledgeable than me to confirm or deny this in comments!) The only places I've found where you can get dried brown fuul are Arab grocery stores. (These are the type I mean; these are a fine substitute, just bigger.)

But I'm a locavore and a seasonable eater--OK, I'm an overeducated urban hipster, okay? So nowadays, the fresh fava beans are at the market, taunting me with their skins. Today I bought a fistful of them. After I peeled, blanched, and peeled them (fresh favas are annoying to cook!), I wracked my brain to come up with a way to prepare them, especially since I had less than a cup.

Hey, I though: why don't I pretend they're fuul?

cut for photos and recipe details )

Of course, this got me thinking about Egyptian food, which reminded me I had a full pitcher of cold, unsweetened karkade in the fridge. Karkade is a tea made with hibiscus flowers; if you've ever had jamaica in a Mexican restaurant, it's the same thing. (Here is a great video of it being made, with a transcript available on the page if you don't want to/can't listen to the video.) Karkade is traditionally served tooth-meltingly sweet in Egypt, but I usually leave it just barely sweetened, or, er, forget to put sugar in until after it's gotten cold, at which point it's just not worth the trouble.


Mmm, red.

I knew that karkade had alcoholic possibilities, but lacked the tequila for making the margaritas. So, looking around my sad, pathetic liquor stash, I decided to play around. I settled on the peach schnapps--what? Stop laughing! Peach schnapps is delicious and I will not have you tell me otherwise! I don't care that it tastes like cough syrup! Anyway, it doesn't, it tastes like those gummy peach rings I can't eat any more since I'm a vegetarian, OKAY, SO LET ME JUST DRINK MY CHILDISH BOOZE.

Ahem. Anyway. Here's the thing: peach schnapps and karkade is freakin' amazing. It's like drinking red fruit punch made by angels. It might be the most delicious alcoholic beverage I've ever consumed. I stopped myself from fixing a second one, because, you know, I had things to do tonight. But I think that's going to be the signature cocktail for the party I'm making the fresh fuul salad for.

These are highly, highly untraditional uses of traditional ingredients. And I don't want to present them as traditional ways of making these dishes. Karkade is not, usually, made with alcohol. Fuul mudammas should be made with little brown favas, not monstrous green ones. This, sayyidun wa sayyidat, is what happen when hipsters cook.

But putting little twists on these dishes is certainly interesting cooking--and, just like when we are transforming ideas in academia, as long as we cite our sources and indicate our deviations, I don't think the problems here are insurmountable.
ajnabieh: The McDonalds Arch, with text in Arabic reading "ماكدونالدز مصر"/makdunaldz masr/McDonalds Egypt. (ماكدونالدز)
I love the Arabic language. A lot. I've loved it since I first started learning it, and have kept loving it even as I've struggled to retain some semblance of comprehension of it despite often having to take years away from the serious study of it. Among the many things I love about it is the alphabet. Arabic letters are very lovely to look at; there's a long history of calligraphic art that is simply stunning. The Arabic alphabet is also very orderly; letters are arranged by shape, which strikes me as a very brilliant innovation. And I'm sure some of it is that I am proud of myself for having mastered writing and reading it. Here are a set of symbols I didn't encounter until I was nearly twenty, and I learned to decode them in a variety of ever-changing situations. That's an accomplishment, to be sure.

When I see Arabic, on a sign, or package, or building, I usually stop, if possible, and try to read it. Because I have a relatively small vocabulary, I find myself sounding out words and trying multiple vowelings of them, trying to figure out the meaning. But sometimes, I start reading a word looking for the root or the clues to its parts of speech...and I find that it's an English word.

This usually makes me crack up. It's the sudden surprise of it--congrats! You were going to throw your whole brain behind decoding something...and you know it already! I also find it very familiar, because I used to take notes in class in English, but with Arabic letters. These were the notes I didn't want people to be able to read--"I can't believe we're spending the whole class talking about this," "Who died and made her queen?", "Is he honestly that stupid?", that sort of thing.

There's also an interesting question about when and why English words are written in Arabic transliteration. When the audience for a public sign is Arabic-speaking, when do English words get used? Clearly it's meant to communicate something to a (perceived) monolingual audience (as when I write Arabic in English transliteration for English-speakers). But what value does the English have, here? Is it filling in for words or concepts that don't exist in Arabic? Is there a prestige or mockery factor? What's going on?

Without further ado, three photos I've taken that feature English transliterated into Arabic, and some thoughts on what they might mean. Readers of Arabic (or other languages written with the Arabic-Persian alphabet), you may also find some amusement herein.

pictures below, mostly of food-related products )
ajnabieh: The text "My Marxist feminist dialective brings all the boys to the yard."   (Default)
I continually find new reasons my dissertation research is odd. The most recent is the frequency with which I move between fieldsites. Now, obviously, my "fieldsite" broadly considered is "the Arab communities and institutions of New York City," and I haven't left it. But, more practically, I've moved in and out of different areas of community activism and organizing, following some issues more than others at different times, digging in deeply to a particular niche area and then pulling back out and moving on to another.

I'm lucky: the digging in I'm doing now is into a space where I have a ton of connections, both purely professional and more personal. I keep using Facebook to set up interviews, for instance, because it's where I see people the most. Both of the days I did interviews this week, I was met with hugs and cheerful greetings when I arrived. I'm also getting very little resistance to meeting with me--I was able to schedule a time to talk to everyone I tried to schedule with within a week.

It's good, as I'm coming to the end of the most active phase of my fieldwork, to realize that I am in a different position than I was a year and a half ago, when I was scrambling to do interviews. It's also good to read through what I wrote a year and a half ago; while my depth of knowledge has changed, and I think my framing has shifted, the data I collected then is still relevant and interesting. So, phew: it's not a lost cause, this "finishing the damn dissertation" project.

Among the returns that this week held for me was my first trip to Bay Ridge in months. Is it wrong that my initial thought upon stepping off of the train and walking up Bay Ridge Avenue to 5th Avenue was ZOMG FOOD!!!!1!!!? In any case, the sudden immediate availability of Arab junk food was (pleasantly) overwhelming. Being overwhelmed, I, in the end, resorted to just getting a donut at Mike's Donuts, but I have begun planning what purchases I'll be making at Belady next week when I go back.

The streets look much as I remember them from last summer, when I was down there two or sometimes three days a week. A few businesses appear to have gone under; one restaurant I've never gotten to go to had its windows papered over, though there was a sign indicating this was vacation, not permanent. Perhaps there were fewer people on the streets; it was in the nineties and threatening rain, though, so I don't think that was particularly indicative.

One of the things that struck me was just how much cultural fusion happens in Bay Ridge. It's a neighborhood where immigrant and ethnic groups collide in rapid succession. The stretch of Fifth Avenue that is unquestionably Arab is only five blocks long; halal groceries and sweet shops cluster together, but sit in comfortable relation to old-school Brooklyn coffee shops, Chinese restaurants, a very cool comic store, an Irish pub.

Dollar Store Door in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.  Shows a series of scarves hanging; the one on the far left is a kuffiyeh.

This is the door of a 99¢ store on Fifth Avenue. 99¢ stores are common in all low-income/working-class neighborhoods in Brooklyn; they carry a variety of merchandise, including food, stationary, housewares, and toys, most for 99¢ an item. For folks who live in these neighborhoods, they're the general stores. I go to my local one for mailing envelopes regularly (and then a screaming fight with my toddler about how he really doesn't need another plastic dinosaur, or that awesome Dora ball). Although this isn't universally true, many are run by Chinese immigrants, particularly in neighborhoods with a Chinese presence (like Bay Ridge).

The scarves draped in the window share space with decorative plastic flowers, umbrellas, and inexpensive children's backpacks. Next to the two pink scarves hangs a kuffiyeh; not the traditional triangular one worn in the Middle East, or even its politically-relevant neckscarf variant, but the type sold by street vendors in Manhattan in dozens of colors. The symbol of Arab struggle, as recoded by the hipster masses, and resold on the streets of Bay Ridge: there's a poetry in that. And that's the reason I love my fieldwork: because there's poetry in it, right alongside the politics, and it's my job to make it come to vibrant life.

(For those who don't recognize it [and who would, given the crappiness of the photo?], the icon above is of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, which connects Brooklyn to Staten Island, and stands perched at the edge of Bay Ridge, visible from most points within it.)
ajnabieh: Sign for a store reading "Hot Chick." (hot chick)
I think I've had these links gestating on my hard drive long enough...time to get them out there before they rust.

Pretty & Yummy Things )
Politics Things: Iran, Yemen, Lebanon, Youth Identity )

Academia stuff; okay, only one link here )
ajnabieh: Sign for a store reading "Hot Chick." (hot chick)
Among the many things I love about living in Brooklyn is the Brooklyn Public Library system. It's huge; it's everywhere; they own just about everything that I could ever hope to find not in an academic library. And, more to the point, there's a branch four blocks from my house.

Read more... )


ajnabieh: The text "My Marxist feminist dialective brings all the boys to the yard."   (Default)
Ajnabieh - The Foreigner

March 2016

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