Breakfast in Ayn al-Tineh

Saturday afternoon – May 2013, I receive the latest report from my contact in the UN; Ayn al-Tineh has been taken over by radical religious militias who massacred the men of the town, dumping their bodies in a mass grave and took 300 young women and girls as slaves; that’s correct, not hostages, slaves!

IMG_1113I reached for my laptop and opened the photo album documenting my visit to Ain al-Tineh in 2011; the memories I had stored away of Ayn al-Tineh reclaimed my consciousness, I felt a sudden shortness of breath and tears that had not shed since the revolution started gushed.

IMG_1115Ayn al-Tineh is a magical place in northwestern Syria located east of Latakia. It is situated on a limestone spur in the northern an-Nusayriyah Mountains. It derives its name from a spring that flows under the nearby Citadel of Salah Ed-Din, also called the Citadel of Zion.

To get to Ayn al-Tineh we drove an hour from the mediterranean seaside town of Latakia up into the mountains and through valleys. We drove along orchards and farms lush green and aromatic. Towards the end of our drive, the scenery became breathtaking; distant views of the glistening mediterranean, green dense forests, clear streams and virtually no civilization.

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The Citadel stood as a reminder of the amazing achievements past generations had in this rugged terrain. The only transportation medium consistently running since the time it was built are the resilient brown mountain donkeys that looked more fit and well nurtured than any other donkies I’d ever seen. Our guide, a Ayn al-Tineh native, said “contrary to the bad reputation donkeys have in the Middle East, ours are particularly smart. They are sent on errands to deliver goods to neighboring farms, which they perform efficiently and effectively.”

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We stopped to greet our guide’s father, Abu Salem, an elderly man in his 80s who was sat up on a metal frame running wires for grape vines to wind through while his son was beseeching him to come down and let him do it. Abu Salem joked that if was going to get done right, he had to do it and asked his son to give him a hand to get him down. He greeted us and asked us to follow him up the street to have tea at his neighbor’s home.

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We drove up behind the two men, stopped the car and met Abu Adnan who insisted on us having breakfast with him and his family. He directed us to a side street shed housing a clay oven “Tannour”, a preparation table and a wooden dinning table and chairs.

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Within minutes of our arrival, Abu Adnan’s daughter appeared with her mom carrying platters of dough and sauces. His son Adnan brought a pot of hot tea and a plate of fresh mint and mayramieh collected from their front yard. Um Adnan proceeded to knead the dough, cover it with the pepper, cheese, thyme and meat sauces and place it on the Tannour. The aromas were divine, paralleled only by the scenery of orchards and blue mountain sky.

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Abu Salem gave us an oral history of Ayn Al-Tineh as we feasted on the assortment of homemade “Manaesh bi zaatar, flefleh, jibneh and lahmeh” served with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs. The lines on his face spoke volumes of his experience; the look in his eyes was probably as fierce as it had ever been. A decorated war veteran, who shielded Assad Sr. from three assassination attempts and survived the shrapnels of two bombs.

 

“God divides his fortunes evenly”, said Abu Salem as he drew on a cigarette he just rolled and lit. “We live in the most beautiful part of Syria, land we can farm, crisp fresh air we breath; but we are an economically poor community and have been for decades. When I was 16, I received a letter from the army inviting me to join for a stipend of 5 Syrian pounds per month. At that time, it was a fortune for me, so much so, that I literally kissed my mother’s hand, and ran out the door with the clothes on my back down to the nearest bus stop that would take me to Damascus. All the men in our community did the same given the opportunity.”

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“Tell me about the Aloyat sect, how different or similar is it to Sunnis or Shias?” I asked, knowing full well that Ain Al-Tineh is in the heart of the Aloyat mountain range and wanting to hear an explanation of the sect from one of its own. Abu Salem inhaled and spoke in Quranic verses “We created you tribes and peoples to know one another and commune, the best among you in the eyes of God is the Taqi (one who guards his senses and actions from ill and harm to himself or others.”

 

He proceeded to say, “you probably heard this from your grandfather and others of his generation, we didn’t know the difference between muslim, christian and jew and certainly didn’t care. Some of us were preoccupied with getting basic life necessities, while others were rallied by the greater fight against colonial powers who invaded our lands and stole our resources. To stop and consider our religious practices as a dividing point would have been as absurd as me questioning your humanity. We prayed together, even if we didn’t understand the prayers, worked shoulder to shoulder and celebrated all holidays. We named each other’s kids after our prophets and saints and took oath under each other’s Gods. We intermarried, except when a family was known for its poor social conduct; no one wants to marry into a family of misers.”

 

When I asked him what he thought of the government today a sad look took over his face. “This is not what my generation fought for; the last time I set foot in Damascus, I visited the cronies in power and gave them a piece of my mind. I warned them that if they continue along the path they’re on, they are doomed, and sadly they will take many innocent lives with them.”  Abu Salem lost two of his six sons; a pharmacist  and a soldier defending civilians in the Golan Heights; both shot in the head. Abu Salem and his wife survived the Ain Al Tineh massacre, both are in deep mourning.

 

A Christmas Gift from Maria

Maria’s smile was the best gift I received this Christmas.  Maria is seven years young.  She can’t wait to go the USA, so she can run and play with other kids like she used to.  Five months ago she was walking with her mom in their neighborhood in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria when a bullet entered her shoulder and lodged in her spine.

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Her family sought refuge in Lebanon.  They live in an abandoned building. No electricity. The own two mattresses, three blankets and a wheelchair aside from the clothes on their back.

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The family greeted us with smiles that warmed the freezing room.  Maria spoke as she shivered: “My mother tells me stories, I cannot go to school, they don’t have a place for me. I get bored, so my father takes me on the chair to watch other kids run. I know I will have a surgery and get better and run again. When am I going to America to get my bullet out?”

As we walked out of their home, Mohamad, her father says there’s another family who needs your help.  A young mother appears with her three children; Mohamad the eldest was at home when a shell hit their house, killing his grandfather and tearing through his hands.

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“They are in good shape” says Mohamad, The PCRF Lebanon Missions Manager. “On your next visit, we will go to the Ba’kaa where a tent is the only shelter those families have”.

Every day I am reminded of how rich my life is with friends, loved ones, amazing work, and health.  Today, was a special reminder. On a day when people share gifts, feast and celebrate, I received a heart warming smile from a seven year old who has nothing. I felt touched by an angel.

If you would like to help provide medical treatment to Maria, Mohamad and other children like them please visit http://www.pcrf.net

If you would like to support families like Maria and Mohamad’s family, please visit https://www.justgiving.com/live2give

Giving beyond reason

Today felt heavy. I woke up at dawn, and prayed for the life of Amir Bedier. A man I had only heard of yesterday, when his brother and my friend Ahmed sent out this message: “Urgent please make dua for my brother Amir, who was just shot in the chest inside the Rabaa protest in Cairo.”

Moments after prayer, another message came through: “My brother Amir Bedier has returned to Our Lord. To Allah we belong and to Allah is the return. Amir was shot and killed by Egyptian police forces in Rabaa square today. We are proud of him and his courage to stand up for his beliefs and the rights of others. He was fasting and unarmed. He left behind a wife, two children, five brothers and his two parents and countless relatives and friends who loved him.”

A stream of condolences followed.

“إنا لله و إنا إليه راجعون”.. “we are for Allah and for Allah we shall return”. The only consoling words. We are all destined for death.

My thoughts were on his children and widow, and the heart wrenching pain they are feeling and will feel for years to come. I felt the emptiness and loneliness they will experience when the anger and sadness lifts and they realize he is gone forever. His seat at dinner is empty, he’s not there to take them to Friday prayer or school Parent conferences.  Seeing fathers supporting their children, hugging them, even reprimanding them becomes all they see around.  Thoughts of “what would he have done” become questions that can never be answered.

The events of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Palestine are tragic. They are creating generations of orphans who are left with an emptiness that can never be filled. Their childhoods are scarred.  Their psychology and emotional state is forever altered.  Their economic status will never be the same. For many, they are catapulted into poverty.

It is the way of the world, and there will be a tomorrow. A tomorrow with orphans places an added responsibility on the rest of society; on us.. me and you…

a responsibility  to give beyond reason,

to obsess about their rights and privileges,

to include their plans in our personal, family and community plans.

We must remember them when we are celebrating because they have non to celebrate with,

when we are traveling and they are unable to leave their camps or disadvantaged lives,

when put up our billboards forgetting the messages on it is only reminder of what’s beyond their reach,

when we embrace mother’s day and they are left to contemplate their missing loved ones.

I write this post as a declaration of what I am committed to, and a reminder to those who care to have a peaceful balanced world.  The emotional and economic deficit born in the lives of orphans is our collective responsibility.  Their security is the accountability of each and every one of us.

May Allah bless Amir Bedier and have mercy on his soul.  May Allah give us the courage to do what is unreasonable for his children.

#live2give

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If it makes you cry.. this one did!

A few years back I read this quote in the US National Newseum photography exhibit section:

“If it makes you laugh, if it makes you cry, if it rips out your heart, that’s a good picture” Eddie Adams

Since then, I’ve been so conscious of the emotional value of photography.  Over the past year, like all Syrians I’ve been bombarded with horrific images of violence, pain, suffering, anger, violations of human dignity.  I avoid these images like the plague, because I firmly believe they leave a print of hatred in our minds and hearts.  They prevent us from seeing prospects of peace, hope and love.  I chose peace and chose to avoid seeing such images at all costs.

Today, I came across an image with a simple message on Facebook that had me crying for hours. My life felt empty. I feel humbled by the fact that I can do so little for this beautiful angel.  Mariam Al Fawal’s father has been in a Syrian prison for 5 months and 20 days.  Mariam is counting! Her message is a simple prayer for his safe return. Her father is a civilian who ran a children’s clothing factory. A father of four beautiful children, husband to an amazing woman and a man dedicated to serving the less fortunate.

Maher Al FawalThe only thing I can do for Maryam is spread her beautiful message of a simple, sweet wish.  Her and her father’s smiles are so peaceful and beautiful.  Please join me in praying for his safe return.

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mom’s ode to syria – remix of Al Mutanabi

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عيد بايه حال عدت يا عيد. اهالي سوريا مهجرين. وأهالي حماه الذين هجروا منذ اول الثمانينات قلوبهم ملتاعه على بلدتهم. كانوا

يعيشون على امل العوده. لم يظنوا ان نكبه اخرى ستحل ببلدتهم وتطول هجرتهم وكما قال شاعرهم
حماه في شغاف الروح تثوي ودمعي كم سقى فيها الطلولا
وياعاصي جريت بدمع عيني. وطرفي كان مسودا كحيلا
فلا تعجب اذا ما الماء أضحى. ليوم فاحما يجري كليلا
ان: سهاد البين ارق اهل حماه كما ارق امعظم المهاجرين عن سوريا ولكن بإذن الله وببساله الثوار المجاهدين ان الوقت للنصر والعوده.

قم ناج جلق وانشد رسم من بانو. مشت على الرسم احداث وأزمان
بنو أميه للأنباء ما فتحوا وللاحاديث ما سادوا ومادانوا
عالين كالشمس في اطراف دولتها. في كل ناحيه ملك. وسلطان
يا ويح قلبي. مهما انتاب ارسمهم. سرى به الهم او عادته أشجان
بالأمس قمت على الزهراء اندبهم. واليوم دمعي على الفيحاء هتان

لولا دمشق لما كانت. طليطله. ولازهت ببني العباس. بغدان
مررت بالمسجد المحزون أسأله هل في المصلى او. المحراب مروان
تغير المسجد المحزون واختلفت. على المنابر. أحرار. وعبدان
فلا الأذان أذان في منارته. اذا تعالى. ولا الأذان. ااذان
آمنت بالله واستثنيت. جنته. دمشق روح. وجنات. وريحان
فال الرفاق. وقد هبت خمائلها. الارض. دار. لها. الفيحاء بستان
أعاد. الله لنا دمشق حاضره نباهي بها الامم وحفظ أحفاد مروان من كل أذى يناط بهم

 

كفى بك ان ترى الموت شافيا. وحسب المنايا ان يكن أمانيا
حببتك ياشهباء فانفرط. الهوى. كما انفرط القلب الذي كان حانيا
اتيت ارى الشهباء لكن خيبه. اطاحت باحلامي وأدمت صباحيا
لقد بات فيها كل شي مشوها فقد ضيعوها واستباحوا تراثيا
كأني بها أمست بقايا مدينه. الى الموت قد أمسى بها النجم هاويا

لا افتا اقتبس مما قاله الشعراء عن مدننا الحبيبه لسببين. اولها لجفاف القلم من هول ما يلحق بنا من ويلات. وثانيها لنتفاءل بانه رغم مرور مدننا هذه بأزمات وصعاب على مدى تاريخها المديد العريق الا انه استطاعت الوقوف من جديد واصاب كل من حكمها من الطغاه والظالمين الموت والفناء.

عيد بايه حال عدت يا عيد. اهالي سوريا مهجرين. وأهالي حماه الذين هجروا منذ اول الثمانينات قلوبهم ملتاعه على بلدتهم. كانوا يعيشون على امل العوده. لم يظنوا ان نكبه اخرى ستحل ببلدتهم وتطول هجرتهم وكما قال شاعرهم
حماه في شغاف الروح تثوي ودمعي كم سقى فيها الطلولا
وياعاصي جريت بدمع عيني. وطرفي كان مسودا كحيلا
فلا تعجب اذا ما الماء أضحى. ليوم فاحما يجري كليلا
ان: سهاد البين ارق اهل حماه كما ارق امعظم المهاجرين عن سوريا ولكن بإذن الله وببساله الثوار المجاهدين ان الوقت للنصر والعوده.

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Adas and Pomegranate Salad

Pomegranate – 1 cup, pealed
Brown Lentil – 1 cup
Granny Smith Sour Apple – 2 chopped fine
Pasta – 1 cup (bow-tie)
Red Onion – 1 chopped small
Lemon – ½ squeezed
Cumin powder – 1 teaspoon
Salt – 1 tablespoon

Dressing:
Lemon juice – 1/4 cup
Pomegranate Paste – ½ cup
Balsamic Vinegar –  ¼ cup
Olive Oil – 1/2 cup
Persian Allspice – 1 teaspoon
Salt – 1 teaspoons

Cooking directions:

  • Place the lentil, 1 teaspoon of cumin  in a pot with 4 cups of boiling water for 20 Minutes or until the lentil is chewable; drain.
  • Place the pasta in a boiling pot of water with a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of olive oil and boil for 5 minutes or until the pasta is chewable; drain.
  • Saute  onions for 3 minutes in olive oil
  • Mix the pasta, onions, lentil and dressing in a bowl.
  • Add the apples and pomegranate.
  • Garnish with pomegranates.

Jarjeer & Artichoke Salad

Jarjeer aka Arugula – 4 cup, cut
Fresh Artichoke Hearts – 3 pieces, cut in 4 segments
Red Pepper – 2 medium sized.. pounds
Squash – 4 small sized… pounds
Olive Oil – 4 teaspoons

Garnish:
Scallion / Green Onions – 1/2 cup, chopped
Olive Oil – 1/4 cup
Mint – 1/2 cup, chopped
Fresh Ginger – 2 teaspoon pealed and ground

Dressing:
Lemon juice – 1/4 cup
Olive Oil – 1/4 cup
Pomegranate paste – 3 teaspoons cup
Cumin powder – 2 teaspoons
Salt – 1 teaspoons

Cooking directions:

  • Place the artichoke in a pot with 3 cups of boiling water for 1/2 hour or until the artichoke is soft.
  • Drain the artichoke, allow it to cool for 1/2 hr.
  • Chop the red peppers, and squash, place on a baking sheet, covered with 4 teaspoon of olive oil and grill in the oven for 10 minutes on 200 degrees.
  • Allow it to cool for 1/2 hr.
  • Rinse and drain the arugula
  • In a sauce pan, sauté the mint, scallions and ginger in 1/4 cup of olive oil for 3 minutes.
  • In a bowl, mix the salt, 1/2 cup of olive oil, pomegranate paste, lemon juice.
  • Mix the red pepper, squash, arugula and artichoke in a bowl, add the sauce
  • Place in a plate and decorate with garnish mix

Served as a side dish with fish, lentils and rice

summertime and pistachio ice cream

My favorite summer treat was Syrian ice cream; while many family members enjoyed the creamy ice cream served in cones by street vendors near Sibki Park, I savored this Syrian summer delight.

I loved because it was a feast for my senses.. the ice cream maker prepared it in view of passersby. I watched him pound the thick white rubbery substance and toss it from side to side on a cold marble slab using large flat metal spoons. I smelled the aroma of Arabic gum, fresh pistachios and rosewater; a heavenly combination.  The smell was only surpassed by the taste; a thick chewy gum-like consistency brought on by the Arabic Gum (Mistika) in the recipe, sweet enough but not too much.  I had bowls full and didn’t stop until I felt brain-freeze.

Mom brought Syrian Ice Cream home on special summertime occasions.   Visiting guests, a birthday, a family member’s graduation.  It came in a log-like shape, that mother sliced to pieces.  Some covered with Pistachios, others plain.  It was served with waffles cookies shaped like today’s Pringles Chips.

Back then, ACs weren’t popular, so unless it was a cool summer night, the ice cream provided the cooling effect.  The ultimate experience was having a bowl, under the dark evening sky on the balcony, gazing at the stars.

more on food.. much more !!

Hama delicacies

شعيبيات Sheibiayat - Hama Sweets

One of my oldest memories of Hama was in the kitchen in Jiddo Mohamad’s house. The smell of the warm buttery crust, the spiced meat and toasted pine nuts flowed down the halls of the old house, leading me to the kitchen. My step-grandmother “Khaleh Um-Samir” was standing over a large metal tray of meat pies (Ush el Bulbul) that was delivered from a nearby Oven (elFuren). Ush el Bulbul literally means the bird’s nest.  She would carefully hold up each of her creations, inspect it, and place it in a glass platter to serve lunch.

After eating the main meal of Ush el Bulbul with local buttery rich sour yogurt, we had desert.  Cream filled pies (Shaibiayt) consisted of the best Hamwi (Ushta) filling, served warm, topped with rosewater flavored syrup. Yummy!

I would later learn the bakery was called “The Oven” because its only service was baking goods that Hamawi women prepared at home. Like Khaleh Um-Samir, all Hamwi women until the late 70s kneaded dough, prepared the filling and sent the pies ready to elFuren ready to be baked.

I owe much of my knowledge of Syrian cuisine to my paternal aunt (Ameh Mokhlesah) who’s an authority on Hamawi recipes.  I asked her one day how older women in Hama stayed so thin despite the rich ingredients.  “They worked hard” she responded. “Their days were spent kneading bread, drying and preserving seasonal vegetables making yogurt from fresh milk, hand washing their family clothes, cleaning the house and courtyard.”

can’t stop writing about food … more to come 🙂

the art of apricot jam

Apricot jam was a special treat; I could have developed a liking to it because I watched older women in the family making it. The process was fascinating.  I don’t remember the sequence or the entire process, however, I remember walking into the kitchen to find my paternal aunt (Ameh Mokhlesah) wearing her cooking head scarf (meant to keep hair out of the food), standing over a large pot of boiling liquid, stirring away with a large wooden spoon; white face shining from the steam, cheeks rosy from the heat rising from the pot.

In season, balconies, and garage roof-tops would fill with large pans of the golden orange substance, basking in the sun.  I also remember my great uncle’s wife (Um Bashar) sitting on a small straw stool, pouring the ready jam into glass jars saved from previous years. After she filled all the jars, she allowed me to clean off the pan, wiping it with a piece of bread and eating it. As I did that, she would cover the jam jars with a piece of cloth, tying another around the jar rim for a tight seal.

When a family member visited and gifted us a jam jar, I knew they loved and appreciated us. To give a gift so precious, something they labored over for days, had to mean we were special and we had to show gratitude in return.

Still more on food.. stay tuned..