Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Anissa Helou's book on Savory Baking of the Med

In the 14 years since her first cookery book “Lebanese Cuisine” was published, the Lebanese-Syrian cookery writer Anissa Helou has established herself as one of the world’s foremost and most prolific authors on Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food.

In her latest, and sixth, book “Savory Baking from the Mediterranean: Focaccias, Flatbreads, Rusks, Tarts, and other Breads”, she reveals the amazing variety of tempting goodies that are produced around the Mediterranean from bread doughs and pastry.

“All the peoples of the Mediterranean believe that no meal is complete without bread,” Helou points out. Her recipes range from simple breads that accompany main courses to more complex filled breads and pastries which are meals in themselves. Occupying the middle ground are the many savory baked items to be eaten as meze, hors d’oeuvres, snacks, and other little bites, some traditionally made by home cooks, others by street vendors or small family-run bakeries.

“Savory Baking”, published in New York by the HarperCollins imprint William Morrow, comes with glowing reviews on its back cover from the likes of the veteran Middle East food writer Claudia Roden, Mark H Furstenberg - founder of Marvelous Market and The BreadLiine and co-owner of Ma-Mi Bistro and Bakery - and Carol Field, author of “The Italian Baker”, “Celebrating Italy”, and “Italy in Small Bites”.

As with previous volumes in the Helou oeuvre, “Savory Baking” is as much a culinary travel work as a cookery book and is a highly enjoyable read. Helou revels in travel and culinary observation, and while preparing the book she stayed with friends in a number of Mediterranean countries. They introduced her to local experts in preparing breads and other savory baked items.

Among the many places she visited was a bakery in Kfar Rumman, south Lebanon, where she learnt from “a wonderful old-fashioned baker”, Jawad Yussef Daher, how to make the Mishtah Bread which is unique to that area. The ingredients include whole wheat flour, cracked wheat (jreesh), spices, and mahlep – the tiny dried nut found in the kernel of the sour cherry, which is ground into a fragrant powder.

On the Greek island of Kassos Helou watched a woman make Artos, a bread with subtle sweet and spicy flavors which is baked on various saints’ days. In Marrakesh her friend Mortada Chami, owner of the Stylia restaurant, organized a demonstration of the special skills involved in making the leaf-thin pastry known as warqa.

Scattered through the book’s 339 pages are black and white photographs taken by Helou, which have a timeless quality. As Helou says: “I try in the text that introduces the recipes to give a sense of the depth of tradition – in techniques, in ingredients and in the origins of specific recipes – that underlies contemporary Mediterranean savory baking.”

Historically, bread and baking first began in the Fertile Crescent, and Helou’s own engagement with Mediterranean baking began on the edge of the Crescent. The daughter of a Syrian father and Lebanese mother she grew up in Beirut, but as a child she used to spend the summer at her aunt’s house in the Syrian village of Meshta el-Helou.

At that time the village had no electricity, running water or store, and Helou’s aunt made everything at home including bread cooked in a tannour pit oven. Helou vividly recalls her aunt inserting her arm deep into the tannour to slap circles of dough against its walls, peeling the cooked loaves off a few seconds later. Helou has remained an enthusiastic student of Mediterranean baking ever since.

In the introduction to her book, Helou provides useful tips for the home baker, but her attitude is relaxed and she says: “In fact, part of the fun of home baking is the somewhat unpredictable nature of it. One day, your bread will rise perfectly and the slashes will open up beautifully. Another day, the results will not be so perfect, though they will still be good.” She explains how to shape dough into loaves, which she considers the most difficult part of baking.

There are interesting links between bakery products in different Mediterranean countries. The family of Italian flatbreads known as Focaccia, of which Helou gives examples from different parts of Italy (featuring ingredients such as cheese, potato or walnut), is equivalent to Fougasse in the south of France and Fouace in the north.

Crunchy breadsticks coated with sesame seeds are called Grissini in Sicily, and Ka’k in Lebanon and Syria. Helou used to think that the practice of sprinkling sesame seeds on bread in Sicily dated back to the Arab occupation, but she then found it mentioned in the writings of the Greek physician Dioscorides in the first century AD. It thus predates the Arab invasion by several centuries.

There are two basic types of Mediterranean bread: flat and raised. Flatbreads are found in various shapes and forms throughout the region, although one-layered varieties are mostly found in the western Mediterranean and two- or multi-layered ones in the eastern part. Raised breads are mainly produced in the western region. Raised loaves may be divided according to whether they are leavened naturally, using sourdough, or artificially, using fresh or dried yeast.

Bread doughs are also used to make many types of savory pastries. In the western Mediterranean the dough or pastry casing is thick or thin, and made in one or several layers, while in the Eastern and southern parts the casing is generally thin and often made in several layers. Savory pastries are useful for two main purposes: to recycle leftovers, and to serve as portable meals that can be taken to work or on journeys.

Among the Pizza-type recipes in the book is one for the famous Lebanese flatbread Manaqish bil-Za’tar, translated as “Thyme Pizza”, which is served plain or with strained yoghurt (labneh). Its sister product, Manaqish bil-Kishk, is topped with the dried bulghur and yoghurt powder that is a vital foodstuff for inhabitants of the Lebanese mountains. Alongside recipes for Italian Pizzas and the French Pissaladiere, there is one for Turkish Eggplant Pide topped with red peppers, eggplant and tomatoes.

Medfouna is a Moroccan flatbread stuffed with meat, which Helou titles “Berber Hamburger All- in One”. Sometimes flatbreads are crispy, such as Sardinian crackers (Pane Carasau), very thin circles of dough baked until they harden . Khobz Ramadan are date-filled breads found in the souqs of Tripoli, Lebanon and Damascus and Aleppo during the Holy Month of Ramadan. Tunisian Spicy Breads (Touarits) are made from two circles of semolina flour dough sealed around a filling including chilies and red peppers. They are related to the Moroccan multilayered breads known as R’ghayef , and the M’hajjib bread of Algeria.

Many of the savory pastries featured in the book are from Middle Eastern countries, such as Turkish Meat Boreks, Moroccan Triangles with Chicken or Minced Meat, Lebanese Cheese or Strained Yoghurt Triangles and Lebanese Square Meat Pies (known as Sreyjatt or Sfiha). From Syria there are Cheese Fatayer, and from Tunisia Meat Crescents.

Helou’s book is likely to delight all who read it – except perhaps those on Atkins-style low-carbohydrate diets. And even they may find their willpower wilting in the face of her mouth-watering descriptions of Mediterranean baked specialties.

Susannah Tarbush

Saudi Gazette February 18 2008

Kaveh Golestan's life and work celebrated in new book

When in 2003 the Iranian photojournalist and documentary filmmaker Kaveh Golestan stepped on a landmine in northern Iraq and was instantly killed, the Middle East lost one of its greatest recorders of the tumultuous events in the region. And beyond his skills as a photographer and filmmaker, his companions and colleagues in Iran and in the world of international photojournalism lost a precious friend and mentor who is still deeply missed.

Five years on from Golestan’s death the German publisher Hatje Cantz, in collaboration with the Prince Claus Fund Library, has produced an enduring tribute to the man and his work in the form of the book, “Kaveh Golestan 1950-2003: Recording the Truth in Iran”. The handsome volume is jointly edited by the journalist and editor Malu Halasa and Golestan’s wife and fellow photographer Hengameh Golestan.

The large format of the 168-page book does justice to the 128 black and white images it features, some of which spread extend over double pages. One of the pictures that stretches across two pages is an emblematic photograph showing Ayatollah Khomeini making his first public appearance at the Alavi School February 4 1979, after his arrival back from exile. In another double-spread image, taken in Mahabad in 1980, Kurdish children rush towards the photographer, their faces full of excitement.

Golestan’s camera takes us not only inside the dramatic political events that engulfed Iran, but also intimately into the lives of individuals. He focused equally on the epoch-defining events, and on forgotten, marginalized people: the poor, prostitutes, the mentally handicapped. Among the upheavals he captured on film were the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, the first Gulf war, the US-led war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and the invasion and war in Iraq. He was particularly concerned to record the impact of these events on the people who were most immediately affected by them.

The photographs in the book are divided into seven main sections, each introduced by a one-page essay by Golestan. The first section shows prostitutes in the Shahr-e No (New City) area of Tehran in 1975-77. Golestan writes of how the people in this area lived at an “almost subhuman level”. The majority of the prostitutes’ clients were poor rural men, who would transmit sexual diseases back to their wives in their villages.

The laborers portrayed in a series of photographs taken in Tehran in 1977 were rural migrants. They worked in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, enduring excruciating physical labor in dangerous conditions lacking the minimum health and safety protocols. “Due to insufficient wages, they are often hungry and undernourished, forced to live in shoddy shacks with only nylon bags as roofing,” Golestan wrote. He was perturbed to find that many children worked as manual laborers.

Golestan’s photographs of mentally disturbed children were taken in 1977 in the largest mental hospital in Tehran. Pumped full of drugs, the children “survive in a vegetative state similar to the plants grown in the pots placed around the rooms of the hospital”. Staff would chain them to radiators or tie their hands with string, ignoring their suffering.

Golestan’s extensive chronicling of the Iranian Revolution in 1978-80 began when a friend alerted him to demonstrations in Qom. He travelled there, and “with my photos I managed to capture the very first sparks of the Revolution.” He also saw the first bloodshed of the Revolution, when police started throwing tear gas and shooting demonstrators.

One section of the book is devoted to photographs of the uprising in Kurdistan in 1988-89. Golestan covered Kurdish social and political developments in the north of Iraq for more than 10 years, and was only eight miles from Halabja when it was attacked with chemical weapons in 1988. His extraordinary photographs of the Qaderi Dervishes of Kurdistan show groups of long-haired men dancing in ecstasy, their hair flung in the air.

The Iran-Iraq war 1980-88 had a profound impact on Golestan: “I spent eight years looking at death through my camera.” He was amazed at how youngsters were willing to die for their beliefs. “I felt I had to show this through my photos. I was in search of the deep human feelings that were buried within each person.” He became addicted to the chemical rush to the brain during the conflict and often felt like a vulture. “Death had become my companion and I was beginning to have psychological problems.”

When he saw the dismembered bodies of young children in Abadan, “the feelings of shock and violence were so extreme that I felt that it was my duty to let the world know about these horrors, to understand the suffering.” His photographs show in harrowing detail the impact of the ghastly Iran-Iraq war on humans, whether fighters or civilians. One image is of a chador-clad woman atop a tank, wielding a Kalashnikov. The caption says that when this photograph was published in the Guardian newspaper, a reader wrote in to complain about the woman’s mishandling of the weapon.

On one occasion he was forced to take cover in a trench “filled with the bloated and purple corpses of Iraqi soldiers. I was forced to hide in the trench for six hours with them – in the grave, in the world of death, ultimate annihilation.” He writes that after the war ended “I found that it had left me with a constant feeling of anxiety and unease. I do not have much emotion left to give. I have already seen the end.”

Golestan’s work was acclaimed worldwide, and in 1979 he was given a Robert Capa Award for his photographic coverage of the Iranian Revolution, which was the major foreign story of that year. He was present in Iran throughout the tumultuous process by which Iran was transmuted into an Islamic republic, from Ayatollah Khomeini’s ’s return from exile in Paris in 1979 to his funeral ten years later.

Malu Halasa notes that Golestan was the only Iranian photojournalist with a continuing presence in Iran from before the 1979 Revolution until his death in 2003. “He developed a distinct aesthetic long before the Revolution, challenging notions of beauty and honesty in the Shah’s Iran, where the poor and dispossessed were, for the most part, invisible,” she writes. She describes how in 1977 he hid his camera in a bag of fruit and befriended the prostitutes who inhabited dilapidated buildings in Shahr-e No.

Golestan’s work frequently aroused the ire of the authorities. When Britain’s Channel Four TV in 1991 broadcast his film “Recording the Truth”, about journalists in Iran, he was subjected to two years’ house arrest. As well as being stripped of his press card and barred from leaving Tehran, he was made to lecture at the art college at the University of Tehran where, Halasu notes, “he inspired a generation of photojournalists and reporters.”

The essays that comprise the first part of the book include six contributions from people who knew Golestan well. Among them is the veteran BBC journalist Jim Muir who was with Golestan when he was killed. Muir was the BBC correspondent in Iran between 1999 and 2004, and during that time, he and Golestan covered events in many parts of Iran, as well as in neighboring Afghanistan and northern Iraq.

Muir recalls how on what would be the last day of his life, Golestan’s thoughts seemed to be firmly focused on his own identity and how he related to the events he and Muir were covering and anticipating. Although he had by then been a TV cameraman for some years, he still identified himself primarily as a photographer. He suddenly said to Muir: “I am a war photographer... It is in situations like this that I am truly me.’”

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette February 25 2008

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

IPAF shortlist announced

The judges with Joumana Haddad

Six books shortlisted for Arabic fiction prize

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) attracted worldwide media attention last week when the six judges of the prize, now in its first year, appeared at a press conference in central London to announce the shortlist of six novels for an award worth a total of $60,000 to the winner.

The winner, to be announced at a gala dinner in Abu Dhabi on March 10, will receive a prize of $50,000 as well as the $10,000 that each of the shortlisted authors is automatically awarded. In addition, the winning book is guaranteed translation into English.

In all, 131 novels by authors from 18 Arab countries were submitted for the prize, but Egyptian and Lebanese writers dominate the shortlist. The two Egyptians on the list are Baha Taher with “Sunset Oasis” (published by Al-Shorooq) and Mekkaoui Said with “Swan Song” (Al Dar). Lebanon is represented by Jabbour Douaihy with “June Rain” (Dar An-Nahar) and May Menassa with “Walking in the Dust” (Riad El-Rayess). The other novels in the contest are “The Land of Purgatory” by Jordanian Elias Farkouh (Al Mouassassa Al Arabiya, and Azminah) and “In Praise of Hate” by Syrian Khaled Khalifa (Amisa).

Seventy-eight per cent of the 131 novels submitted were by men, and only 22 per cent by women. By far the largest share of novels, 33, came from Egyptian authors, followed by Syrian writers (16), Lebanese (14) and Tunisian (10). Six books by Saudi writers were entered.

IPAF was officially launched in Abu Dhabi in April 2007, in association with the Booker Prize Foundation of London and with financial and other support from the Emirates Foundation. One of its main aims is “to increase global readership of Arabic literature through the widest possible publication and distribution of contemporary Arabic fiction in translation.”

The Booker Prize Foundation administers Britain’s most prestigious literary prize, the £50,000 Man Booker Prize, which this year celebrates its 40th anniversary. Inevitably, the new Arabic prize is widely (if incorrectly) dubbed “the Arabic Booker”. Arabic is only the second language in the world to enjoy a Booker spin-off award: in 1992 a Russian version of the prize was established.

The sense of drama at the press conference, held at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) in Piccadilly, was heightened by the fact that the identity of the judges had until then been kept secret. This was so as “to ensure the independence and integrity of the selection process.” Since last July, the judges had each read their way through almost all the 131 novels in competition (a few novels were disqualified before this stage).

When the judges took their seats on the press conference panel they were revealed to be the Iraqi author and journalist and cofounder of Banipal magazine Samuel Shimon (judges’ chairman); London-based Syrian writer and journalist Ghalia Kabbani; Palestinian author and critic Faissal Darraj; British scholar, author and translator Paul Starkey, who is head of Durham University’s Arabic Department and Co-Director of the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World; and the Moroccan writer and critic Mohammed Berrada and his fellow Moroccan, poet Mohammed Bennis.

The prize is managed by a 12-member independent Board of Trustees from the Arab world and the UK, representing a mix of writers, experts in Arabic literature and translation, and personalities from publishing, the media and academia. Jonathan Taylor, interim chair of the Board of Trustees and chair of the Booker Prize Foundation, told the press conference: “The purpose of the prize is to secure recognition, reward and readership for outstanding Arabic literary fiction of the highest quality, regardless of the nationality, religion, gender or age of the writer.” He announced that the philanthropist, anthropologist and publisher Sigrid Rausing has pledged to fund the translation of the winning work into English.

Maytha Al Habsi [right], director of communications at the Emirates Foundation, said: “As a foundation we hope and expect that the prize will inspire Arab authors, new and established, to apply their minds and spirits to the creation of high-quality literature that touches both our minds and hearts.”
It is also hoped that the prize “will encourage the translation of new Arabic literature into many of the world’s major languages” so that non-Arabs everywhere will have “the opportunity to read and absorb what the finest Arab writers are saying.”

The IPAF administrator, Lebanese poet, translator and journalist Joumana Haddad, believes that literature is the best tool for understanding the world and making it a better place. “Indeed, we have the best tool of intercultural and intercivilizational dialogue in books, provided we know how to choose these books – because a good part of what is being promoted, translated and exported from side to side is unfortunately enhancing the divide and the distorted images instead of breaking the pattern. “

Haddad said that IPAF “aims to be different, and by different we mean independent, transparent, objective, fair, bold and pioneering. It aspires to give the right Arabic books the local and international attention they deserve.”

Samuel Shimon said that the judges had arrived at their shortlist through two closed discussion sessions the previous day. The first session came up with a longlist of 16 titles, which was then whittled down to the final six.

Shimon explained what it was about each of the six novels that had led the judges to put them on the shortlist. For example, in the novel “In Praise of Hate”, Syrian novelist Khalid Khalifa narrates “the experience of oppression under the fundamentalist organizations and from inside a Syrian society deprived of democracy, in a multi-levelled language, and through characters who are torn apart facing an uncertain future.” The Lebanese novelist May Menassa in “Walking in the Dust” praises memory that is “scarred by the horrors of the war and loss in today’s world. The novel is written in a flowing style and rich prose, with a poetic dimension which suits the universal pain it is dealing with.”

Shimon described “Sunset Oasis” by Egyptian Baha Taher as “a fine work of fiction. Depending on the metaphor of the journey that crystallizes the existential crisis of a defeated man, he deals with many broad human questions.”

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, February 4 2008

above: Joumana Haddad and Mohammed Berrada