A little while ago I mentioned that I was reading the book “Teta, Mother and Me”. It is a wonderful memoir in which the author explores her life growing up in the Middle East while also looking back at the lives of past generations of women in her family. As I was reading the other day, I found one of the stories that she recounted to be particularly powerful. I couldn’t resist sharing it with you.
This week the world looked back 10 years ago to a day which many people believe proves the theory that the major source of conflict in our post-Cold War world is the “clash of civilizations.” This story is highlights how easily and tragically cultures and civilizations can and do indeed clash. As I read this story I could not help but be amazed at the ways in which we as people can be so the same and yet so different. I find it fascinating how different cultures place value on such different things. As a result of these differing views such huge yet simple misunderstandings arise.
Here is the excerpt:
In Marjeyoun, Youssef Badr [the author’s grandfather, who was a pastor] had a helper, a sort of deacon who had a large family. As time passed, this man found it increasingly difficult to live on the meagre salary paid him by the mission, and one day in desperation requested the pastor to intervene urgently with headquarters on his behalf. Seeing the fairness of the man’s request, Rev. Youssef agreed to do what he could. He wrote a letter to the mission [which was composed of Americans] headquarters in Beirut, explaining his helper’s problem. He received a positive response from the mission: on their next trip to Marjeyoun, they would visit the deacon and discuss his financial needs.
Elated, and overcome with anticipation, the deacon insisted that the visitors should lunch at his house on the forthcoming trip. Admonishing his wife to honour the visitors properly, together they made preparations for the traditional hospitality. To make their poor house fit to receive the great men from Beirut, she sold the gold bracelets and earrings that had been her dowry, and with the money bought the necessary furnishings and food. When the time came, they slaughtered the goat from whose milk they made their cheese and yoghurt, and with the meat made kibbeh and other delicacies. When the great day arrived, they slaughtered the chickens whose eggs had been a mainstay of their diet. The meal was a triumph of Arab generosity and hospitality; they had sacrificed their living to honour their guests.
The Americans, having eaten and drunk plentifully, and having given the matter some consideration, wrote from Beirut that the man seemed comfortable enough and in no need of financial improvement. ‘We should have fed them olives, onions and lentils instead of honouring them as we did,’ cried the man, beating his forehead with his fist when he heard the news. ‘We should have fed them what we ourselves eat instead of treating them as honoured guests.’
The author then adds “I have always remembered this little story as it shows the difference between two world visions, and the boundary between the imperatives of that world in which hospitality defined human relations, and the more practical, but crueller, imperatives of modern economic relationships”. So true.
Our vacation to the Cabot Trail was rather impromptu. In fact, we only decided to go the night before when we saw that we would be getting a few days of sunshine (this has been pretty rare this month). We left with our tent and some blankets, still not sure whether we would camp or check out some bed and breakfasts along the trail.
On the ride up, we stopped for some lunch in New Glasgow. If you happen to be in the area, I highly recommend stopping at Baked. It is a cute little place with some scrumptious food.
Our first night there, we set up camp in an area along the trail called Ingonish and went looking for a place to have dinner. We ended up at a pub called the “Thirsty Hiker”. We weren’t really expecting much when we walked in but we were simply grateful to have found a place that was open past 9. To my surprise though, that night turned out to be one which neither of us will never forget. We met and were invited to join a Cape Bretonian family that was gathered for a wedding happening two days later. We sat with the parents of the bride, uncles and cousins. They taught us all about the island of Cape Breton, its history, its people’s and its culture. J and I loved every second of it. In between stories they sang along with the performer (who was singing some Celtic folk songs). We were in awe of how they knew every song seeing as we had never heard any of them. The whole atmosphere felt magical, maybe because it was so unexpected. We felt like we were in a different world and yet we hadn’t even left the country. What fascinated us the most was how this little island (which is a part of Nova Scotia) has managed to blend and preserve its Scottish, Irish and Acadian roots so nicely. One side of the island is more Scottish and Irish (creating a general blend of Celtic culture) and the other side is completely Acadian (the descendents of the initial French settlers). That night we were on the Celtic side (hence the music), and the next day we would be continuing along our journey towards the Acadian side.
Our friends told us all about the history of the Acadian people and how they were expelled from the island in the 1750s because of their culture. Anyone choosing to stay had to assimilate rather quickly. In fact, our friend told us that one of his ancestors was named “Jeune” (French for “Young”) and that in an effort to assimilate, she changed her name to “Young” and completely stopped speaking French. It was terribly sad to hear about how these people had been treated, and even sadder that this is barely talked about today. J and I had heard parts of this story here and there but had never really put everything together. Interesting fact – when the Acadians were literally shipped off of the island , many of them wound up in Louisiana. We learned that the word “Cajun” actually comes from the word “Acadian”. Fascinating stuff! Only much later did some of them start to return to the Maritimes.
We left the next day with a much greater appreciation of the people and history of Cape Breton and felt more ready to see the Acadian side of the island. As we drove through many little fisherman villages, we admired the beauty of the land, but both agreed that it was the interaction of the people with their land that really spoke to us. As a side note, the soundtrack to our trip was the Peter, Bjorn and John album “Gimme some”. I recommend giving it a listen.
It was amazing to arrive to the other side and hear the Acadian French mixed in with English where the day before we had just heard Gaelic.
On our last day there we took a break from driving to relax. We went on a whale watching tour, saw some whales – and even spotted a moose! We also went to check out a beach near our camp site and spent a few hours relaxing and reading on the beach (I am reading Teta, Mother and Me and am really enjoying it). We felt like we had our own private beach because we were literally all alone there with our books (for anyone planning a trip there, this beach was called “Petit Étang”). Once we had enough sun, we decided to go for a swim. We had the option between the Ocean and a lake but chose the latter because it was warmer. Our experience in the lake added to the serendipity of our day because since it was fairly shallow and not too big we actually decided to walk all the way to the other end. WE WALKED ACROSS THE LAKE! At the other end was lush, untouched natural beauty. We were in a valley surrounded by trees and mountains and just as we thought it couldn’t get any better, an eagle perched itself on one of the trees nearby. We stood there watching the eagle and admiring the scenery for quite some time. Neither of us had ever seen a bald eagle before. We went home that night and grilled some turkey sausages and roasted some marshmallows and counted our blessings. What a special little vacation this was.
So we have been here for about a week – and I have already found a place to buy candied chickpeas!
Lucky for us, there is a Middle Eastern grocer about 5 minutes away from our home and, though it’s relatively small, it carries everything I would have wanted to find. Besides the candied chickpeas, I was hoping to find some Pomegranate molasses (and I did!). The Lebanese use this a lot in their cooking and I’ve been meaning to try it out because the few times that I have tried it, it was just so good. My mother in law makes particularly good use of this stuff and I’m hoping to follow in her footsteps. Once I’ve had a chance to try a few recipes with this little secret weapon, I will report back. Expect greatness.
J and I found ourselves feeling particularly at home in this shop and as a result we bought a lot of items simply because they were comfort foods, and not because we had any particular craving for them (though they will not be going to waste, I can tell you that). Its amazing how just having certain items in your fridge can make your little abode feel like that much more of a home. Here is a list of what we came back with:
- Labneh: a soft Lebanese cheese made by straining yogurt
- Pickled turnips (or in Arabic “lift”): you might have had these in a shawarma sandwich
- Macedonian feta cheese: this is what my dad always has in the fridge at home. J and I are hoping that the kind we bought will be just as good
- Za’atar: a mixture made up of thyme, sesame seeds and sumac. It can be used as a seasoning or can also be eaten with lebneh.
- Mango juice: reminds me so much of my visits to Egypt
- Halawa: a sweet crumbly spread usually eaten with bread at breakfast time but it can be eaten in a variety of ways any time of the day
- Candied chickpeas: these were not freshly made in-store as they are in the roastery in Ottawa and as a result they are quite expensive here!
The funniest part about this list is that the majority of these items are not ones we are accustomed to buying. They are tastes and flavours which we are usually fed when visiting family, or which our parents will just pick up for us when they go to the Middle Eastern grocery store. In fact, save for the chick peas, this is probably the first time I have ever purchased any of these items for myself.
The outing was special to us though. Though the Middle Eastern grocery store is not a regular stop for us in Ottawa, we naturally gravitated towards it here. I think it might be because we both have an unspoken desire and need to preserve our cultures and to integrate them into our new home. When we live close to family, we really don’t need to put any effort into this. Now that we are further away, it seems to have happened organically.
So, in keeping with my ongoing fetish for Lebanese food and culture, I have recently developed a more specific fetish – for fattoush. Yes, that’s right, a fetish for fattoush.
What is fattoush you ask? It is a delicious salad made from greens and toasted or fried pita bread. The special ingredient, which makes it taste different than other salads you may have had, is sumac – a spice used in the Middle East which adds a bit of a lemony taste. You will love it!
Since my little fetish has started to become an expensive one because I am constantly going to Lebanese restaurants for a quick fix, I recently decided that the time had come for me to make some homemade fattoush. It is actually quite easy to make and the only tip I have is to not overdo it with the sumac. Be somewhat generous, just not overly generous. Contrary to what I had previously thought, it is possible to have too much sumac. 🙂
- a head of romaine lettuce chopped up
- diced tomatoes
- diced radishes
- green onions, sliced
- a handful of chopped Italian parsley and a handful of fresh mint
- green pepper
- 1 large pita
1. 2 small lemons, juiced
2. 1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil
3. 2 tablespoons of sumac
4. 2 or more cloves of garlic mashed in a dash of salt in a mortar
1. Brush the pita bread with oil and sprinkle plenty of sumac on top
2. Toast in a 325 F oven until the bread is crispy and golden – break into small pieces and set aside *Note – if you forget to brush with olive oil and sumac – you can just mix the bread in with the salad later and it will absorb the dressing and sumac*.
3. Prepare all the salad ingredients; mix the dressing; when ready to serve, toss the salad with the dressing and mix in the pieces of pita bread.
Can you guess what these colorful balls of sweetness are?
My mother in law gave us a bag of these pretty little chick peas a few weeks ago and ever since that day, I have wanted to go to the store to get some more. They are so delicious. I am not sure about their nutritional value – since the amount of sugar probably cancels out the fact that you are eating chickpeas – but they are so good.
So this week I took a trip to the Lebanese roastery, where the chickpeas are roasted and candied. For those of you who don’t know, my husband is Lebanese. Being of Egyptian background myself, I did not think I had too much to learn about Lebanese culture. But these candied chickpeas, or kdaameh, are a case in point to show that I was wrong. Lebanese culture is so different from Egyptian culture in so many ways – language, food, people, history, traditions, pretty much everything. I am learning and discovering more about this culture on a daily basis. I love being able to pick and choose what I like from both of our cultures, and leaving out the parts that I don’t like as much. In any case, candied chickpeas definitely made the cut.
So, back to my story: I took my first trip over to the Lebanese roastery and loved what I saw. Bins of colourfoul chickpeas, almonds, coffee beans and seeds – all freshly roasted….mmmm. Lots of fancy chocolate and teas all imported from Lebanon. The store itself was not very fancy, and is located in a small plaza on a side street. But I kid you not, while I was in there, I felt like I was in Lebanon. Arabic music playing, only Lebanese people doing their shopping, no English to be heard in the store – it was just wonderful and I loved being in there. I plan on making regular trips to the roastery from now on. Well, that is, until we move. But hopefully I can find another one in Halifax.
And that is the story of the how the “deformed gum balls” came into my world.
What are some aspects of other cultures that you have invited into you life?