Posts filed under ‘Food’

Olive Oil

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Everyone had been hoping for rain. It finally came, quite late, and in the middle of the olive harvest. It rained so hard in northern Syria that the harvest had to be interrupted for a couple of weeks. Now, our friend Nabeg is hiring dozens of workers each day to get the ripe olives off the trees. A man from “the villages” brings a group of young workers, mostly young women, but also teenage boys. One 30-something woman joked that she was still in her 20s, presumably to explain her presence. They get paid about $1 for an 8 hour day.

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The olives taste terrible right off the tree–as Katie the curious found out. They have to be soaked in salt water for three weeks, the ripe black ones straight off, and the unripe green ones after being slit in many places.But most of the olives from the area around Idlib are pressed into olive oil. Each of these bags will yield roughly one tin, weighing 17 kilos when full of oil.

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The machinery was imported from Turkey. Olive tree owners bring the bags to the press, and each is charged around $3 for each bag pressed. The press’ profit comes from selling the residue, from which more oil is chemically extracted and used for making soap.

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The olive oil is terrific, and seems to be the oil most commonly used for cooking here. Sad we couldn’t figure out how to get some home.

We’re on the road again, in Beirut at the moment, awaiting our flight to Bamako, Mali.

December 28, 2007 at 9:34 am Leave a comment

Aleppo Ramadan

Ramadan is about to enter its last week. Although we arrived only a month before it began, the changes have been evident. The first few days of the month seemed quite strange, almost tense. There is a different feeling now, as if the city has settled into the fast. Our friend Samer tells us that the streets will become more crowded than ever as people begin to shop for the new clothing to wear during the three-day holiday that will mark the end of the fast.

For us, the month is marked by the visible changes in our friends and on the streets. For Muslim friends here, the month is more spiritual than material. Some who regularly drink wine (forbidden in Islam) abstain during Ramadan as part of a general effort to become reconnected with the faith. Those internal changes aren’t immediately obvious to those of us on the outside.

The days have a markedly different rhythm, from the first drums outside the house to the last call to prayer. In our neighborhood, the 4:00 a.m. drummer (listen to the drummer) plays something sounding quite bass; in Idlib the neighborhood drummer awakens people with a snare. There isn’t much time to eat then before the sunrise, when we simultaneously hear four calls to pray from the closest mosques (listen). People then go back to sleep for a few hours. School begins early enough, though, that there isn’t much time for more sleep. I’ve been surprised that, instead of letting the kids sleep later during Ramadan, the schools begin at the regular time and let the children out an hour earlier.

Activity seems to go on as usual until about 5:30, when the streets become frenetic with everyone hurrying to get home. Lines for the minibuses get longer and longer, and the large buses get fuller as everyone tries to get home in time to break the fast. For those out on the streets when the sun sets, there is a special kind of juice served. A few nights ago a friendly middle-aged purveyor of the drink insisted that William try some. Special rolls and sweet breads make their appearance.

For us, Ramadan has meant rescheduling things. Since it is impossible to find transportation between 5:30 and 6:30, we try to go out earlier or later. On Wednesday we found ourselves waiting and waiting for a taxi. A man in an SUV pulled up and offered us a ride. He is a native of Aleppo, and knew that we would never be able to find a taxi at that hour, so wanted to make sure we got to our destination. Where did you learn English? William asked. At Aleppo College, an American high school/junior college where my colleague Bob Cunningham used to teach. Our kind driver told us he admired the Americans, the school, and Bob’s colleague, the charming Makhloul Butros whom we had met just days earlier. (Many years ago, I’ll tell my students, people used to know the United States for the very important schools we established in the Middle East, schools like Aleppo College, Robert College in Istanbul, the American University of Beirut….We made many friends in the Middle East by educating children there, I’ll tell them.)

By 7:30, the empty streets seem more crowded and bustling than ever. The usual rhythm before Ramadan was that shops would be open from 10-2, then again from 5-10, so evening shopping is common. But now the hours seem to have changed, so that everything is closed, all the shops shuttered, and streets remarkably quiet between 6 and 7:30. Our radiologist friend has changed his hours, working during Ramadan from 9 to 4 and then again from 9 to 11 in the evening.

What my women friends and I know as “second shift” becomes even more challenging. My friend Rima returns from teaching kindergarten around 3:30. She hasn’t eaten or had anything to drink since 4:45 a.m. Three of her four children are fasting and hungry, and she still needs to get them settled, help with homework and cook iftar dinner before the sun sets around 6:20. She is a terrific cook, and the evenings we have eaten at her table during Ramadan, she has served soup and at least two main courses. After dinner, it’s the first tea and coffee of her day, which won’t end until around 11:30. The next begins a few hours later.

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A number of friends have urged me to watch Bab al-Harah, a special TV series created to play every evening during Ramadan at 9. A combination soap opera/costume drama, it is set in French-occupied Syria. The huge cast of characters speaks in Syrian dialect, and the plot is quite complex, with a number of sub-plots and romantic entanglements. Although the intended audience is clearly Syrian, the advertising sponsors (large multinationals Coca Cola, Maggia, Ferro Rocher) seem to reflect tastes further south. Like in the afternoon soaps, the ideal male portrayed in commercials is tall, dark, handsome, and smiling, playing with his children and winking at his beautiful wife, who always has spectacularly long and flowing hair. He wears an immaculate long white robe and white headcovering, not the Syrian version. I think I need to tape some of the TV commercials here to give my students a sense of what is considered attractive. The equivalent of a public service announcement airs at least twice during each episode, of a family sitting down to break the fast together when two sons look out the windown and notice a man sitting alone on the street. They consult with their father, who nods as the boys hurry downstairs to bring the lone neighbor/stranger to the table. The newcomer is shown at the end in thankful prayer. 

(Thanks very much to Russell for his help posting the audio.)

October 7, 2007 at 7:05 am 3 comments

Party!

We had many things to celebrate, Masayo’s birthday, William’s birthday, and Ahmad’s marriage. And one thing to party over, though hardly to celebrate. Masayo’s internship is over, and she is returning to Japan.

Ahmad’s sister Intisar came Friday morning, bringing her 12 year old daughter and some very large pans. We were expecting more than 20 people, and Syrians do not like to run out of food. Intisar showed me how she wanted the zucchinis and eggplants cut, what to do with the potatoes and tomatoes, how to make potato kebab, and how to spice the mixed vegetable stew. Within an hour and a half, we had prepared two dishes, each large enough to feed an army. By the time I left to meet my Arabic teacher and pick up the birthday cakes, two of Ahmad’s brothers had dropped off their wives’ specialty foods and various desserts. Makiko and her husband made miso soup and sushi. (The Syrians found the sushi a bit strange.)

I left to meet Hala at William’s favorite café, a place called T-Square in Aziziyeh. I wanted to buy him one of their logo baseball caps as a gift, but they insisted on giving me both the cap and one of their insignia mugs. By the time I returned, the place was set up and all the food was ready. (The taxi driver I came back with was a first–he is a Kurd from a neighboring village who thinks George Bush is terrific. I wonder if sociologists do polls of taxi drivers.)

People are prompt for Ramadan dinners. Food is served when the sun sets and the cannon or muezzin sounds, around 6:30 these days. We had our Damascus friends here, along with Hala and some of the people she had introduced me to, our friends from Sebastian’s, many of the Japanese staff of the JICA office where Masayo had been working, and various Ahmad friends and family. Ahmad served the wine he made from the grapes that grow over our courtyard, we had Egyptian beer, some raki, and lots of fruit juice. The food was terrific, the kind that one doesn’t get at restaurants here. (There seems to be a division of language between formal and colloquial and a division of food between home and restaurant. Restaurants serve salads and kebabs; home cooking is a variety of stews. Kibbe is ubiquitous, fortunately.)

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The party was enormously fun. People danced in the courtyard until they got tired, then one or another would begin to sing. A couple of the women were quite wonderful singers; one grabbed the top of a cooler and used it as a drum. I found it striking that everyone seemed to know all the songs–were these like Beetles songs we sang at parties in the late 70s?

So sad to see Masayo leave, delighted to welcome Diyala, Ahmad’s new wife. It was fascinating to watch friends from one circle interact with friends from another. Maher from Damascus is very funny, and seems to break down all barriers. We got to see him and others from Damascus the next night, when worked on finishing the leftovers.

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October 2, 2007 at 3:02 pm Leave a comment

Intro to Medical Care

I had entered the Syrian medical system with a bit of trepidation. I had telephoned the brother of our Idlib friends, who arranged for me to see a friend of his in Aleppo, an orthopedic surgeon. I took a cab, not realizing that a name and a neighborhood were inadequate to find someone. After all, no one in Aleppo uses street addresses. Directions specify only this or that monument, fountain, gate, statue. As we approached, I called the surgeon and handed the phone to the driver for directions. He sent me into a pedestrian street, where I found the sign and went up two badly lit flights of stairs to a sparsely-furnished room with some bilingual drug-company calendars on the walls, a desk, a chair, a table, and a couch. After making conversation with a woman who seemed to be a receptionist and a friend of hers, the doctor came in and ushered me into his office, the only other room in the suite. He examined my foot, told me to take lots of ibuprofen for a week, and if it wasn’t better, to get an xray, some lab work, and return. An office visit in Aleppo: $10.  (Foot pain has prohibited lots of walking, good for writing but not for blogging.)

I had never realized how daunting such instructions could be. How does one find a lab? Where do Syrians get xrays? I went online, of course, searching for radiologists, podiatrists, sports medicine clinics. I was reminded that Syrian businesses are seldom online. And I have seen only two telephone directories in the country so far.

Three weeks later, my foot still hurting, we got the name of a sports medicine doctor from a German friend here, along with directions. Sulaymaniya neighborhood, go to the roundabout, take the road to the right, walk 100-200 meters, it’ll be on the right. After many meters, we asked a local shopkeeper. He had never heard the name. We crossed the street, walked a ways, asked a man in an office. He exports bearings to Russia, and actually had one of the two phone books I’ve seen in Syria. He had never heard of the doctor, and he wasn’t in the phone book.

I contacted our friends in Idlib and arranged to see Nabeg’s brother, a radiologist. His clinic was quite different than the orthopedic surgeon’s office in Aleppo. He has one of two radiology clinics in Idlib, a city of 400,000. His includes not only standard xray equipment, but also MRI and CT scanners, flouroscopy and sonogram machines. He is awaiting delivery of new equipment for mammograms and bone density scans. The hospitals in town don’t have radiology equipment, so everyone comes to one of the two clinics. One other doctor works in his clinic, and a number of technicians. The setup was quite informal, with each patient’s family coming into the office to look at the films and discuss the results. A woman sat next to the doctor typing onto a computer form as the doctor dictated reports.

He set up the xrays, then had one of his staff people walk me around the corner to his friend, an orthopedic surgeon, another two-room office. Plantar fasciitis/heel spur, no standing or walking for six weeks, anti-inflammatory drugs (he prescribed Feldene, reassuring me that it’s made by Pfizer, along with something to counteract the effects on the stomach–I think I’ll go with something a little more basic.) All these drugs, like antibiotics, are available without prescription. No charge, nice to meet you, best of luck, thanks so much!

One of the staff people from the radiology clinic drove us out to our friends’ house, where we stayed for iftaar. Ramadan has been very difficult for people in northern Syria this first week. Temperatures have been climbing steadily into the high 90s. No food or water from 4:30 in the morning until about 6:30 in the evening, through school and work. We arrived around 4, with two and a half hours to go till sunset.

It is great to see our friends, whom we have come to love very much. Nabeg and Rima are clearly bi-cultural, functioning as easily in their native Idlib as in North Carolina. All four children are similarly bilingual and bicultural, and three of them are old enough to be fasting. All kids I know seem to come home from school ravenous–we used to call the time between 4 and dinner the arsenic hour. These kids were quite easy-going, considering how hot and tired and thirsty and hungry they must have been. The waiting got overwhelming, so we played basketball. (It’s a North Carolina thing.)

Dinner was terrific, a wonderful dish that is called “upside down” because the lamb and eggplant that start off at the bottom of the pan end up on top of the rice when the cook turns it into the serving dish. Had a fascinating conversation about networks, about relying on family and the people you know in the absence of easily available information about businesses and addresses.

And then it was time to leave, the one-hour bus ride back to Aleppo. The taxi driver, like all the others, wanted to guess where we were from. After a half-dozen misses, we told him we are American, and he grinned. Welcome, welcome! Americans are wonderful! Bush, NO! Americans are wonderful! Bush, NO!! Over and over. He refused to take money from us for the ride.

We hear it over and over and over. Americans, welcome. Americans are great. Bush, NO!

September 20, 2007 at 6:05 pm Leave a comment

Pizza

Ahmad took all of us, his international extended family, to his brother’s house to sample the pizza. His brother and sister-in-law plan to move to a city east of here and open a pizza restaurant. Based on our taste-tests last night, seems like it should be a winner.

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Ahmad’s brother Juma has been restoring an old house not far from here. The house has a stone oven in the courtyard that works quite well for pizza. His wife Ghaida had already made the dough and the fillings. When we arrived, she brought them into the courtyard and put them on a table. Ghaida is fast and efficient. First she and Masayo, our Japanese housemate “daughter,” shaped balls of dough and set them aside to rise. Then she rolled them out, the small ones first, while Masayo and Magiko (our upstairs housemate) spread meat on some and red pepper paste on others to make lahmajun. When Masayo dropped out, I learned to make cheese pastries and lahmajun. Ghaida is a wonderful teacher.

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Ghaida’s daughter, 5 years old, tried to help with all the stages. When I commented that her daughter could help with the pizza restaurant, I was quite surprised by Ghaida’s adamant response. No, she insisted, her daughter would go to school!

I told Ghaida that my own daughter is 23, and she smiled. “I’m 25,” she said. “How old were you when you married?” I asked. Fifteen. Ghaida hadn’t been to school, and her new husband, ten years her senior, taught her to read and write. Her daughter will go to school.

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Both daughter Diana and son Hikmet (8) seemed quite attached to the French teacher who has been living in one of the rooms of the restored house. We also met his sister and her two friends, visiting Syria for three weeks from Paris.

After we ate too many cheese pastries and lahmajun, the pizzas were ready. They were the closest to American-style pizza we have eaten outside the US. No pepperoni.

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August 27, 2007 at 9:54 am Leave a comment

Aleppo Modern

I continue to be fascinated with Aleppo. William and I walked today from our house to Bab al-Hadid to buy milk. Except for the supermarket at New Town, food stores specialize in certain kinds of things. One doesn’t find butter at the yogurt store, or the corner grocery, or the spice shop, for example; it is sold by the same man who sells breakfast cheese and zatar (a spice mixture).

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I was surprised to find, just a few yards from our house, a street of blacksmith and wood-working shops where people obviously still make tools by hand. Somehow, my tendency to see history as linear is challenged by the presence of these men working a short walk from the street where other men sell huge, industrially-produced pump equipment. I use “men” advisedly. The only consistent observation I have made here about small business is that men are the only obvious participants.

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It does seem rather absurd to claim that “modern” and something else coexist in Aleppo. The city just seems to include a whole variety of forms of production. That range is evident not only among purveyors of tools and equipment, but also among clothiers (ready-made shops sell the latest European fashions and tailors make men’s shirts to order) and food producers. These photos juxtapose our stroll through part of the new city on Thursday evening to a “fast food” restaurant (great kebab) and the local equivalent of Starbucks (to-go cups, flavored syrups, cold coffee-drinks) with our walk through Bab al-Hadid area today. Thrown in are a couple of pictures from Saturday, when we took our Japanese housemate for her first walk through the suq. The reality of meat was almost enough to turn me into a vegetarian. We introduced her to our favorite foul shop (vegan).

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August 20, 2007 at 5:53 pm Leave a comment

Hala-Day

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University Entrance

Hala, my wonderful Arabic teacher, met me at the entrance to Aleppo University’s Faculty of Arts. She had introduced herself to the chair of the History Department the previous day to ask if he would be able to meet me. We walked into a huge hallway, past the empty hall used for exhibitions, and up to the third floor. Professor Abbasi welcomed me in his office, and, since what I had really wanted was simply to meet another historian (do most historians miss being around other historians when away from home?), we, of course, talked about history. Professor Abbasi does his research on the relations between the Ottomans and the Safavis, from 1501 to the mid-1700s. He also has studied Mosul, but 200 years earlier than me.

I asked him about the faculty. There are only seven full-time history faculty members in Aleppo, and the department relies on the teaching of a number of professors visiting each week from Damascus. He told me with some pride that nearly a dozen of their own graduates were now working on graduate degrees in Europe and other parts of the Middle East, and he was hopeful they would return to Aleppo to strengthen the local department.

Aleppo University Dormitory

Dormitory

Undergraduates in the department take an incredibly rigorous course load. Each history major takes six courses a semester. Their required courses include one in Geography, at least two years’ study of either Turkish or Persian, one European language, and a whole series of chronological/ regional courses on the ancient, medieval, and modern histories of the Middle East and Europe. They take one course on eastern Asia, and one on America. Although some students take more courses in geography or economics, they remain quite focused on their own major department. Hala, who finished her undergraduate degree in Arabic literature, tells me it was the same for them: an intensive course load that focused almost exclusively on the major. Hala is currently writing her masters’ thesis on Arabic children’s theater.

I enjoyed the company, the coffee, the history conversation, and then returned to work on my own project. When Hala arrived at 5:00 for another intensive Arabic hour, she brought a whole tray of kubbe that her mother had made for us! Trying to figure out what we could send back in the tray, I experimented last night with a Syrian peach pie. I know it is a poor craftsman who blames her tools, but I really do think that some measuring cups and a real pie pan would have improved the crust. We’ll try something else.

August 16, 2007 at 2:24 pm Leave a comment

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