Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Two Tales of One Minaret

Recent months have led me to think a lot about perspective. As I watch politicians use half-baked truths to justify their agendas, it’s hard not to remember that every tale has two sides, or more. I could go on a rant about US politics in the Middle East, but instead I’d like to offer up a couple of entries about historical perspective.

The first entry is a story about a minaret that sits on the southern edge of the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

I first heard about this minaret while watching the documentary series Out of Egypt. In that series, a guide [Nimrod Luz] stands in the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and points out the minaret as it broadcasts the call to prayer over the neighborhood. He explains to the series host,

            “we’re in the middle of the most important Christian site…you can take a 
             naïve approach and say, “he’s just calling to prayer.”…[but] there’s no
             mosque that actually needs this here. This is a challenge. This is saying, 
             “we are here, we are stronger than you, our voice is heard more than 
             your voice.”” … “I’m sure they [people in the church] know what it’s all 
             about and they feel intimidated when he calls to prayer.”
It should be noted that this man was serving as a general guide and commentator, he was not a representative of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Having grown up in a conservative Muslim neighborhood of Damascus, the vitriol of this interpretation was suspicious to me. In our neighborhood we had at least three mosques in a one-block radius and probably close to a dozen within a kilometer. My Christian mother and I particularly enjoyed the gentle tone of the early morning prayer call.

Generally, for Christians in Damascus, hearing the Muslim call to prayer was not considered a confrontation with Islam, but simply a call to prayer, which Christians were free to answer within the context of their own religion. I think it is possible some Christians in Jerusalem feel the same way.

A minaret on the west side of Umayyad Mosque (in Damascus, Syria), where Christians and Muslims shared the facility for roughly 50 years, and which is located in the old city where Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived together for centuries.

By contrast, the Muslim version of the story of the minaret is everything but confrontational. In fact, it’s quite romantic.

I first heard this story in the documentary series East to West, and have since found a couple of other versions. It goes something like this: In 637 C.E.(a.k.a. 637 A.D.), when the Patriarch Sophronius (a.k.a. St. Sophronius), ruler of Jerusalem, surrendered the city to Caliph Omar I, he invited the caliph to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. While the caliph was there the time for prayer came. The patriarch invited the caliph to pray inside the church, but Caliph Omar I refused. He feared that future generations of Muslims would venerate the spot where he first prayed within the walls of Jerusalem. He thought there was a risk they might claim the site for Islam and create a monument for Muslim pilgrims. So, he went outside the church, and prayed there instead.

Caliph Omar I was correct. Muslims considered him very important, they still do. He was a companion to the late Prophet Muhammad, he was the second caliph ever to exist, and he was known for being a just man. So, in 1193 C.E.(a.k.a. 1193 A.D.), a Muslim Sultan (Al-Afdal ibn Salah ad-Din – one of Saladin’s sons) built the Omar Mosque on the spot where Caliph Omar I had prayed. The minaret in question is part of the Omar Mosque, which to this day is used for prayer only.

These two views of a single minaret are arguably opposites and each fueled by a specific view of Islam. Your view of Muslims or Arabs would be deeply affected by whichever version you heard, unless you had also heard the opposite version.

A couple of things that sway me in the direction of the Muslim version of the story are:

            a) Under the Muslims, Jews, who had been exiled for centuries by the 
                Christian rulers of Jerusalem, were allowed to return to their holy 
                city, and Christians were allowed to stay, confirming the Muslim 
                commitment to religious tolerance portrayed in the story.

            b) General Allenby’s official proclamation of marshal law upon taking 
               Jerusalem from the Ottomans in 1917 C.E. indicates that the story 
               of Caliph Omar I was known to him. He wrote:

                        “Guardians have been established at Bethlehem and on Rachel’s 
                            Tomb. The tomb at Hebron has been placed under exclusive 
                            Moslem control. The hereditary custodians at the gate of the 
                            Holy Sepulchre have been requested to take up their accustomed 
                            duties in remembrance of the magnanimous act of the Caliph Omar

                            who protected that church.

Allenby’s reference even implies there is more to the story than I have found so far. I’ll have to keep looking. For now, I choose to like the idea of a church and a mosque being so close. Perhaps that is because I am Damascene!

                                     *     *     *     *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

The second story I want to share is about a famous Syrian general, Yousef al-Azmeh. I will cover that in a separate blog entry, coming soon...

Friday, September 27, 2013

Misquoted and Misused!

 Recently, I learned a harsh lesson about being misquoted. With a B.A. in Communication and Political, Legal, & Economic Analysis, I’ve always been keenly aware of how the “telephone game” sows the seeds of misunderstanding, but this instance left me feeling USED. That feeling is appropriate to the topic: Syria. As the crisis has become international, it has also taken a turn that is alarming to Arabs: once again the West insists it not only has the moral superiority to judge the situation but also the right to interfere even though the majority of the mortal cost will be paid by Arab civilians. What used to be called imperialism, the US now insists on calling “global policing” or being “the world’s conscience,” while it consistently works to undermine the United Nations who are the agreed upon agency for those things. Never mind that civil rights barely exist in the US anymore, or all those guys still imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay who haven’t had trials. The US doesn’t participate in the world court. They just want to be the world court.

On September 2, 2013 one of my godfathers e-mailed me asking for insights about the situation in Syria for a homily he was to deliver to his Roman Catholic congregation the following Sunday. He was particularly concerned about what he called the Christian minorities.

Because I do not have his permission to share a verbatim copy of his homily, I will only include his misquotes regarding me.  He made me sound juvenile and bent on Assad’s destruction. One is wrong and the other wrong as well as dangerous to my life and my family. He also made it sound like some of my Syrian relatives were Christian and that there is currently a rift between my Christian and Muslim Mahayni relatives!

After fuming for a long time, I’ve finally decided that I must at least set the record straight regarding what I did say to him about my feelings on the US proposing to bomb Syrian military sites at the beginning of September. I also have to defend myself because he posted his homily online with my name attached, so his misquotes are there for the world to see until he or his Roman Catholic bosses take them down.

Below are excerpts from his homily, followed by excerpts from what I really e-mailed to him.

What he claimed I said:
She said that bombing would “engender a certain degree of righteous general satisfaction…as long as nobody except bad people get [taken out] and the damage is done against Assad’s military assets, with maybe surgical strikes against one or two of his palaces thrown in.” But it’s awfully hard to control the purposed “limited intervention” to Assad and his supporters and assets only.”

What I actually wrote:
The US has no more hope of success in Syria than it had in Afghanistan or Iraq. The Syrian people, my father among them, are cowering in their homes, now, waiting for US bombs to kill them, not knowing where they can go for safety. No matter what claims the US makes about accuracy, there will always be stray bombs, "collateral damage."

And what would any strike accomplish? The military has apparently abandoned military targets, leaving empty buildings. And, if the US hits any of the Syrian infra-structure, Syria will not be able to rebuild it. They aren't as oil rich as Iraq. Instead, Syrians will freeze and starve in their homes this winter because of rationing and not being able to safely harvest foods locally. Even if they could harvest foods, would [the food] be edible? Ghouta is orchard country, growing peaches, apples, plums, apricots, etc. How much of Syria's food supply is now poisoned? Whatever the US has planned, will it really make Syrians safe, feed them, shelter them?

What he claimed I said:
Lemia continues by saying that if President Obama [and the US] had earlier armed the rebels while they were still “relatively respectable secularists” and before Al Qaeda and other Islamists murderers got so involved, there might have been some hope of an “Assad-free” outcome. We in effect have blown that chance.

What I actually wrote:
The crux of things at this moment is that while the US has promised humanitarian aid, they haven't done nearly as much as they implied they would, and yet they have also blocked a lot of UN efforts to define and address the situation. In this case, the UN is the only plausible authority that could have success…
One thing that the US could do, that they should have done from the beginning is to work with the Assad government to ferret out terrorist cells among the rebels. It would be easier to [evaluate] the rebels if the Al-Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood type elements could be defanged or at least identified. It would also be easier to evaluate the Syrian government's reactions if we knew how much terrorists were involved in stirring things up. It is clear that some fundamentalist Muslims, some of them quite extreme, are eager to oust Assad. We can only guess what they would do if they replaced him. Otherwise, the US should stop dabbling in post-colonial imperialism. That's how [the US is] seen in the Middle East: imperialists.

What he claimed I said:
As far as the use of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians, she has doubts and refers to an article by Peter Osborne of the “Telegraph” newspaper in London (August 29).

What I actually wrote:
While perfectly well-meaning people want someone, anyone, to step in and end decades of oppression, there is clearly more going on than a simple rebellion. Some things attributed to the "Assad Regime" simply don't fit the pattern of rationale or serve a strategy for keeping the regime in power. [For instance], why would Assad ask the UN to come and inspect the earlier alleged gassing sites and then launch such an obvious attack while everyone was watching? The pattern of the [Assad] regime that has been firmly established is to OPENLY retaliate against dissidents so that others [will] learn to keep quiet, know exactly whom they should fear most.

What he claimed I said:
Many of her family members are Muslim and although historically they have gotten along, lately there has been a good deal of tension because of the rise of Militant Islam thoughout the region.

What I actually wrote:
Old time Damascenes have been proud to call Christians their neighbors, but in less educated areas, there might be problems that I haven't heard of. In Sunni Islam, all "brothers and sisters of the book" are to be respected (i.e. if you believe in the basic tenets of the Old Testament, [Christians] are equal with Jews and Muslims who follow the same God). It is only the statuses of the "Prophet Jesus" and the "Prophet Muhammad" that separate the three religions. I hear that this has changed because Christians are perceived to be on Assad's side, but I think that is a double-edged propaganda tool. There are a lot of villages that have a mixed population, so the damage of such a propaganda-generated rift might be minimized by intimacy or doubled. It's hard to say how people react.

             [This is born out by the recent rebel attack on Maaloula. Although it was
             later found that some Muslim youth from the village participated in the  
            attack, Muslim neighbors did not attack the Christians in the village,  
           “Muslim” extremists attacked in the name of the rebels. In fact, Muslims 
           in the village are reported to have been shielding their Christian 
           neighbors from rebel harassment for months.]

         I believe ALL my Syrian family members are Muslim, and none of them
         approve of extremists, so there is NO TENSION between me and my  

Well, I’ve learned my lesson about trusting someone else to represent me accurately. I pray each day that Syria remains a place safe for mixed faiths and that the Syrian people will work together to find a solution that paves a road to a brighter future for all of us. It sounds naïve, I know, but I do pray for the best case scenario, nothing less.

God’s Peace be with you.


Saturday, August 24, 2013


Performing at school on International Day, wearing a Druze costume.


I’m Syrian-American. If you’re geographically challenged, that’s a flavor of Arab-American. This is my blog about my father’s native country, Syria, from my own personal perspective. I was born in Eugene, Oregon, but I spent the majority of my grammar school years living in Damascus, Syria, in an old, conservative Muslim neighborhood: the real deal, not an ex-patriot enclave. 

Saad e’Din in my neighborhood, Midan (2007).
When I was growing up, whether I was in Oregon or Syria, there was always something that made me feel like an outsider. The gap could be subtle like pop-culture references and idioms or plain like wearing clothes that stood out, or mean kids at school calling me “Siberia” because they didn’t know how to find one of the oldest countries in the world on a map (thank you, Cold War). At one point in my childhood, I described myself as a citizen of “no man’s land,” but as I got older, I came to respect and enjoy my perspective between two cultures. Today, I relish my Syrian heritage as much as my American heritage for giving my life more dimension.

Videotaping the Tkiyyeh at Suleimanniyyeh Mosque (2007).
Once, I overheard a shopkeeper explaining who I was by referring to me as “the foreigner’s daughter.” True old Damascenes will place you on your family tree immediately upon meeting you. It had not occurred to me before that I was so unique among thousands of Mahaynis. At the time, apparently I was. In fact, at the time, even without giving out my last name, I was conspicuous. I was the blond girl who spoke Arabic with a Midanese accent - Midan is a borough of Damascus - and who was invariably accompanied by her red-headed American mother. Consequently, in a city of millions, I couldn’t do anything in public that wasn’t eventually reported to my grandfather. However, the name “the foreigner’s daughter” amused me, so I embraced it.

In 2007, on summer break from university, I visited Syria after an absence of nine years – the longest absence in my life. Friends old and new were excited for me to share pictures and stories of my “exotic” vacation. I didn’t have an internet connection at my father’s farmhouse where I was staying so I began writing form letters to send from internet cafés. Since form letters are usually general and impersonal, I tried to make mine detailed and entertaining, including pictures whenever possible. The seeds for this blog were sown.

The Suleimaniyyeh Mosque in Damascus, Syria (2007). 

-->If you are looking for objective political analysis, you won’t find it here. I’m not a journalist. I’m not an archeologist or a historian either. I’ll write what I know, from my perspective. As with my other blog, “Fractured Optimism,” I will endeavor to share personal experiences and insights while entertaining. If you are not Syrian, you will have fun finding out things you never thought about. If you are Syrian, you will find out a little of how a “foreigner’s daughter” views our country.

Feel free to post questions. They may inspire a future blog! But, please be respectful of others. I’d like this to be a safe space where people can bring their curiosity, not animosity.

Thanks! I hope you enjoy it.

June 9, 2013

Friday, August 23, 2013

My First Feature Article!

I'm really happy to announce the publication of my first feature article in an online magazine.

It's called Contenders Magazine and my article is Filming El Hijab.

Check them both out! 

Here's the link to my article. 

It appears the server for this magazine no longer functions. Here is the text and photos from a copy I made:

Contenders Magazine
the journal of the perpetually up-and-coming

Filming El Hijab
August 23, 2013, Lemia Mahayni
When I flew to Damascus, Syria in the fall of 2010 to begin making my documentary film El Hijab, I     had no idea how monumental the task I had set for myself was. I believed that my primary challenges would be getting people to take a woman seriously as a filmmaker, and functioning in a language I hadn’t spoken regularly for many years. While that was certainly the case, they represented only the beginning of my logistical problems, and didn’t include the most important: myself.
The five years between my birth in Oregon and my family moving to Syria had biased me against hijab – the practice among Muslim women of wearing modest garments to show their submission to God. Yes, I said God, not men, not government. While family and peer pressures are a major factor, the whole practice of hijab in Syria is commonly viewed as an act of personal conscience and culture, not government. Among those who choose it, wearing hijab can signify that a girl has reached womanhood (menses), or that she has set aside her carefree youth and is serious about Islam. In the society where I grew up, she is then seen as mature enough to become engaged to be married. Instead of seeing hijab as a right of passage like my cousins did, I saw it as an unreasonable restriction, an archaic affectation.

One of my cousins playing in the snow with her daughters
Knowing my opinion was so strong, I had previously recused myself from approaching the topic of hijab in film or in writing. But upon graduating from film school, I was challenged by my friend Bérénice Reynaud, international film festival curator and lecturer, to make a documentary about hijab. She felt that no one had made a film about it from the perspective of Arab women. I agreed that most films focused on hijab worn in the West – where it stood out as alien – or approached hijab from the outside looking in. I saw a mission I could embrace: capturing Arab women speaking for themselves.

I could also see that Syria was a good place to make such a film. Historically, women in Syria have not been forced by law to wear any type of hijab. On the contrary, in July of 2010, the government banned the face veil style of hijab – called niqab – from all classrooms, public and private. With the law, Syria joined Tunisia and Turkey in the small club of Muslim states to have banned any form of hijab (a similar ban was lifted in Tunisia after 2011, and in Turkey veiling remains a contentious issue, with the constitutional court there upholding a constitutional ban against wearing hijab in public buildings in 2008, much to the chagrin of the conservative parliament). This ban caused ripples of hostility that contributed to the civil war, giving Muslim fundamentalists, Bashar Al-Assad’s most outspoken opponents, a cause to seize on. However, zealots who favored the niqab were in the minority. The most common form of hijab in Syria is a scarf covering the hair and throat along with clothing extending to the wrists and ankles. And it’s far from a universal dress code: many Muslim women in Syria choose not to wear hijab at all, and there is a significant Christian population. Even members of my conservative Muslim family were satisfied that the new law safeguarded our university students against people cheating on exams or attending under false identities. When I arrived in October the controversy seemed dead.

I believed that since I’d grown up in Damascus, my cousins and aunts would treat me like an insider, that I would have unprecedented access to their lives for my film. I underestimated the extreme privacy in Syrian society and the effect of my years of absence. Instead, I experienced frequent but polite instances of misdirection and ran up against restrictive family politics.

A view of Damascus from Quassyum Mountain
The centerpiece of my film was to be a personal view of a teenage girl making the transition into wearing hijab, but scheduling my trip to Syria around my father’s vacation meant that two of my top subjects were so busy with school once I arrived that I had little hope of interviewing them, much less following them through their days or filming them with their friends. Everywhere I turned, I got encouraging words, but little cooperation. I credited this deficiency to a lack of familiarity with the film process, but my father explained that single women didn’t want to ruin their chances at marriage by being so immodest as to appear on camera. To my face, women agreed to appointments that were never to be confirmed. Married women were at least frank enough to say they were camera shy.

Hauling Gear through Old Damascus
Cooperation wasn’t the only problem. I’d brought a high-definition camera and microphone with me, but for lighting equipment I was relying on local vendors, since Syrian power was 220 voltage – double North America’s 110 voltage standard. You can’t do much in Syria without connections, but usually anything involving trade is just a matter of finding the right shop and striking a deal with the owner. I was unhappy to find that Syria was infatuated with small halogen bulbs that produced harsh directional light best suited for horror films. All I needed were three lights and some colored light filters, simple items, but searching for them became a futile month long project.

Next came certification. For decades Damascus has been a primary producer of Arabic language soap operas, so there is no lack of film professionals in the city. However, I was told that in order to work in film or television in Syria every cameraman, director, or producer was required to be certified through the High Institute for Theatrical Arts. The right connections could have gotten me around this barrier but I didn’t have them. To rent lights, or engage assistance, I would have to approach production companies and beg for favors from people who did not know me and were legally not supposed to help me. To get a production permit as a foreigner through the Ministry of Tourism meant months of ingratiating myself, submitting my project proposal for approval, and having to share copies of my footage, putting all my interviewees in a precarious position. I didn’t want the Ministry of Tourism to become my de facto producer and editor, or worse: forbid my film from being circulated. I’d have to do without certification, and improvise lighting.

For some in my family, my filmmaking “hobby” was puzzling. Mostly they just declined to engage in the project, and asked me to dinner instead. To a few, the fact that I didn’t wear hijab was an affront. In one instance, I was all but openly attacked on camera by an in-law for not wearing hijab, implying my arrogance disgraced the family. I’d dreaded the possibility of such a confrontation. I didn’t know of any other Mahayni woman who didn’t wear hijab and my family took great pride in their conservative reputation. Could I gain the confidence of my interviewees if they thought I was insulting them?

A hint of wedding bling!
On another occasion, I was invited to a segregated wedding (conservative Muslim weddings hold separate receptions for the men and women). Excited to show at least the opulent fabrics women wore – think, awards show meets drag queen competition – I snuck a small still camera in with me, only to have my cousins caution me not to take any photos. I was shocked. When I was growing up, there were always some women who refused to have their picture taken at weddings and some who didn’t mind, as long as you promised not to show the photo to any men. I thought the anonymity of showing ruffles and sequins rather than faces would fly under the radar, but apparently not. In the end, a cousin took my photo alone on the bridal dais – hardly the shot I was hoping for!
That night, a cousin in-law refused to shake my hand – like I was a stranger – even after she was told who I was. Family names are important in Arab culture; the Mahaynis are well known and highly respected throughout the Middle East and I’m a granddaughter of a powerful family leader, so snubbing me at a family wedding was a big deal. My cousins were embarrassed and apologetic. Back in the days when my mother was a foreign bride, no one had ever dared do that to her, and here I was, a blood relation, dissed by an in-law! A few weeks later, the bride’s father died. Knowing how rampant superstitions and gossip were in the family, I was glad not to have made a scene with my camera. For all I know there are women in that part of the family who think I put the evil eye on the wedding. 
A few of my close relatives figured out I was Christian and I shot up several levels in their esteem. They had probably suspected all along, since my mother is a devout Christian. I was relieved. For years my father had asked me not to reveal my religion because inheritance laws in Syria used to forbid Christians from inheriting from Muslims and vice versa. He feared that, even though the laws had changed, my relatives might make trouble. But, to my family, being a “sister in the book” – what Arabs call fellow followers of the Abrahamic Religions – was far preferable to the prospect of a non-practicing Muslim. My grandmother had taken pride in being sure my mother never wore a scarf on her head in public; grandmother didn’t want the neighbors to think the family had forced hijab on my mother. A famous 18th Century Mahayni had been commended by Napoleon III for protecting Christians during a civil war, so grandmother wanted everyone to know she was proud my mother was a Christian. But, in 2010, my grandmother’s generation was gone, and I was not making very good progress with my own peers who feared the disapproval of in-laws and neighbors. The lively story I’d planned to tell was quickly pulling out of reach.

Equally challenging was that there seemed a general belief that no one woman had the authority to speak for all. I tried to convince women that if a diverse sampling of them spoke, it would reveal that their opinions were unique, each one valid. That was not reassuring to them. In a culture where the group is more important than the individual, there seemed a hope, especially among my family, that all women were alike in their thinking.

When I approached one married aunt for an interview, she responded by asking why I insisted on playing at filmmaking instead of being a dutiful daughter. Why didn’t I put my family first? She urged me not to show anything ugly about Syria. “Show [the West] something beautiful. Don’t let them think it’s all ugliness here. Give them something to respect.” But she refused to appear on camera even to tell stories of Old Damascus, when Christians, Muslims, and Jews were proud to live side by side, working and worshipping in the same ancient city. Another aunt, an outspoken widow, was willing to be filmed. She offered stories of wearing a full face veil in her youth because she believed it was theologically correct, but changing her mind over time as she studied the Qur’an. I knew she would be a fantastic interview, but my father kept delaying my return visits to her home because there was an unrelated argument between her and another aunt who lived in the same building. The feud was so schismatic that even the hope of interviewing the two together, thereby giving them equal time, was impossible.

Finally, a male friend from grammar school helped me set up an interview with a businesswoman who had gone to our alma mater. She had even worn hijab during her time there (her early teens). After a wonderful warm-up interview, it became apparent that she had not understood I was intending to videotape her. One moment she was informing me that women’s rights in Syria were legally and politically the best in the Middle East, the next, she began pulling at her scarf and her sleeves, saying she could not do Islam justice; I should speak to a scholar. She then declined to be filmed. When she promised she’d find me someone else to appear on camera, I was doubtful. But, she was as good as her word, better even. Her sister, Sabah, also a businesswoman, was a Muslim scholar and willing to be videotaped. I eventually filmed some eight interviews while I was in Syria, but the interview with Sabah was the one that gave me the most information, insight, and inspiration. As I edit the film, Sabah’s is the voice I am most passionate to bring to the public.

This project has been more of a personal journey than I was prepared to take. I thought making this film would establish me as a filmmaker; instead, it taught me about innovation and expectation, exposed my vulnerabilities, and rewarded me in ways I had not foreseen. El Hijab is still teaching me, as I sift through footage and memories of a culture and people that have an uncertain future, increasingly aware that I am the portal through which their voices will reach people in the west.


Lemia Mahayni is a filmmaker based in Eugene, OR. In 2010, her short film Alpha and Omega: the Struggle for Survival earned an Accolade Competition Award of Merit and previous documentary work include Earl in Our Memories (2008) and Beladi: Syria (2006). She is in the midst of editing El Hijab, but in the meantime you can follow her work on her blog (   This is her first article for Contenders.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Tabbouleh and Other Salads

Baba is adamant that my stomach can’t handle the local parasites after such a long absence. Apparently Parsley and Watercress are “water processors” which means that if there is infected water (cholera, typhoid, “the local stomach bug”) they hold it inside rather than outside, so no amount of soaking them in 'precept' or 'milton' will make them safe for a non-native. Or at least that's the gist of what I've been told.

The worst temptation was when we went to a friend's house and they served the biggest, most beautiful plate of tabbouleh I've seen since grade school and I couldn't eat a single bite. It was the torment of tantalus to have my very favorite dish so close and not be able to eat it. I considered throwing caution to the wind, just suffering the consequences, but I was flying back to the states soon after. I can’t imagine anything worse than flying while you have “the local stomach bug.”

 Tabbouleh. Sorry it’s blurry, my hand was probably shaking: I wanted to eat some so badly!
Tabbouleh 101
It’s pronounced tabboolae. It’s a long a sound on the end, not a short i. I don’t know where that other pronunciation comes from. In the west, the US especially, people focus on the cracked wheat in tabbouleh far too much. Authentic tabbouleh, is mostly chopped parsley. There are other key elements as well. If there isn’t enough lemon juice or diced tomatoes, it just isn’t right. Then there’s the lack of dried mint in the dressing. If the proportions aren’t right, you miss an important and delicious experience.

You really are missing out if you’re eating tabbouleh that isn’t made right. Put it this way: if your reaction to a spoonful is “hmmm, interesting. How different,” the proportions aren’t right. If, however, your reaction is, “wow, can I have more, please,” you probably had the real thing.

Still, every family has their own recipe. I’ve seen one recipe that called for a whole cup of cracked wheat (burghol) and four bunches of parsley and another recipe calling for three tablespoons of cracked wheat and six bunches of parsley. I’ll add a note when I find a recipe that suits me.

 Cucumber and tomato salad.
Here’s a tempting favorite from my aunt's feast (featured in the post "I Ate An Ouzie. Two, Actually"). The juice from the diced tomatoes is captured and used with fresh lemon juice, olive oil, salt and water to make the freshest tasting dressing you can imagine. Fresh chopped or dried mint and some parsley are also mixed in throughout. It’s like the taste of summer in a bowl!

If you add Arab watercress, green onions, garlic and fried pita bread chips, it would be fattoush which rounds out my top three favorite salads.

Radishes, green onions, fresh mint and sometimes fresh tarragon are on the table to munch between dishes to clear your palate, or to add to whatever you are eating: as you wish.

The wonderful thing about living in the “fertile crescent” is that produce tends to be locally grown and therefore fresh and ripe. If you go to the market rather than a government cooperative, you will likely buy produce that was harvested early that morning before the farmer drove his cart - horse, donkey, or motorcycle engine powered - into town. You’re often putting money into the hands of the very person who grew the produce. Yes, there are produce sellers, but if you want the good stuff, you get up early and go out to the source.

NOTE: When I returned in 2010, I did throw caution to the wind early and often with no ill effects. Somewhere in my system, I must still have some immunities from my childhood. Of course, I only ate salad in family houses where they had washed the greens and at the Four Seasons Hotel complex, where they cater to a foreign crowd. If you are in Syria and are dying for some greens, my top pick is Shakespeare and Co. in the Four Seasons complex. They serve a large Caesar Salad that is wonderful, and you can get the dressing on the side. There are also good greens at the terrace dining in the same complex, not to be confused with the café in the southern courtyard, where the food was either unmemorable or bad: I can’t remember which.


I Ate An Ouzie! Two, actually.

I got to eat ouzie at my aunt's house the other day. She had the usual spread of EVERYTHING, but also had ouzie, which is one of my favorites. Ouzie is rice, mutton or lamb, pistachios, and peas wrapped in a filo dough crust. Because of the rice and peas, it tastes a bit sweet even though it is basically a meal in a filo dough shell. This is one of those wonderful Arab dishes that use cinnamon as a savory spice. Cinnamon goes really well with lamb and mutton.

Baba had already refused to serve ouzie at our end of school party earlier in the summer because ouzie are often used for funeral banquets. So I had resigned myself to not having any ouzie on this visit. Instead of ordering them from a caterer, my aunt made these herself, so they were particularly good. They were less greasy than catered ouzie can be and probably made with lamb rather than mutton. My aunt also made them small enough to be a regular helping (a small fist). Catered ouzie are usually meant to be a whole meal on the go, so they are about the size of a large tea saucer. My aunt did another unusual thing and actually gave me a doggy bag. Normally, in Syria, when you eat at someone’s house, you're expected to stuff yourself within an inch of hospitalization and leave the rest there. This time, I got to eat two ouzie at home a few days later. Yummy!

Here are some of the more standard dishes at the same feast:

Boiled mutton over steamed barley, topped with almonds and cashews.
I have to admit that I haven’t had this one before. Baba was surprised by that. I guess it’s usually not included in feasts but eaten frequently in the home. Apparently no one taught it to my mom.

Two Kinds of Baraq (meat, and cheese), Spinach Fatayer (tricornered with ridges), and Kibbeh Balls.
Baraq are sometimes made with filo dough. They are just pillows with a little bite of filling. The cheese ones have goat cheese and parsley inside. The meat ones have a similar filling to the Kibbeh Balls: minced lamb, onion and pine nuts. The Kibbeh Ball itself is made from cracked wheat. Sometimes, as a treat for children, some of the Kibbeh Balls will be stuffed with boiled eggs, whole boiled eggs if the cook is skillful enough. The Spinach Fatayer, are one of my favorites, with enough lemon juice to give the spinach a little bite, while the dough crust is sweet.

 Koosah Mhshi 
Stuffed zucchini are practically a staple. The variety of zucchini in Syria is larger and the skin more tender, not to mention lighter colored, than we grow in the US. It’s closer to a Magda Squash. Each one is hollowed out by hand (using a special tool) and then stuffed with a filling of spices, rice, lamb and an occasional chickpea for a surprise. Our family boils the stuffed zucchinis in a tomato based sauce, which is to spoon over the rice filling once you slice the zucchini open with your spoon. Yes, I said spoon. The zucchini is very tender.

Women in my family usually fill at least a four quart pressure cooker with rolled grape leaves when they make yebra’ or yalangi. For a large banquet, the entire cooker is over turned to form a tower of neatly stacked cylanders. I think these are yebra’ which are usually served hot as opposed to yalungi which are served cold (similar to dolmas, but less oily). In our family, yebra’ is usually served with a tomato lemon broth for dipping and pita bread. But not at banquets. I’m told only children eat yebra’ with the broth and bread, but I prefer it that way

No matter how much you like them, only take a couple yebra’ onto your plate at one time. Forcing food onto a guest is a required show of hospitality in Syria. Your hosts – this can sometimes include everyone at the table – will insist on adding items to your plate once you have eaten your first serving, sometimes sooner. Pace yourself. Take the smallest portions possible and eat slowly. Tell your hosts that you want to savor each dish by itself. If they see helpings of every dish on your plate at the same time, they will later claim you only had a taste and must have a proper helping.

It’s considered rude to refuse, but eventually you must. That is usually when the hostess busts out the “from my hand” trump card. Just when you are bursting at the seams, your hostess (the cook, presumably) will beg that you eat one last portion “from my hand.” This does NOT mean that she wants to hand feed you. It means that you must eat one last serving that she dishes up for you, personally, to honor the cook/hostess. This is truly the rock and the hard place, when you’ve already been force fed three helpings of everything on the table. Generally this is when I eat stuffed grape leaves. As portions go, they are smaller. When the hostess begins to dish me up that last morsel, I say, “just some grape leaves, please, they are my favorite.” They are, actually.

Salads were also served at this meal, but the entry got so long that they are posted separately as “Tabbouleh and Other Salads”

 Damascene Baklava #1

In the west, many people think of baklava as a walnut treat, but in Syria, walnut baklava is just a junior member of a family of treats using filo dough crusts and pistachios. In Damascus, if you speak of baklava and you are not specific, people will think you are talking about shredded filo dough that has been stuffed with fresh cream (almost like a pudding), quickly deep fried, drizzled with rosewater syrup and topped with cream and pistachios. If you haven’t left room for this dessert, you’re in trouble! More pictures of baklava in an upcoming post.

I didn't get a picture of this but did you know that you can stuff turkish delight with fresh cream pudding and pistachios...? Yummy...I doubt anyone could eat more than two. They are small, but, wow, how rich!

Good luck. I’ve gained several pounds in a single afternoon while being shamed into eating one last bite of this or that. I think of it as the price I have to pay for not visiting more often. If you are invited to more than one feast, try to space them out no closer than one in three days and fast in between.

The meal is finished with fruits and tea or coffee, depending on the time of day and your intimacy with the hosts. If it’s afternoon and you’re like family, the fruits and tea may be served after everyone has a nap!