Raha Moharrak Becomes First Saudi Woman To Climb Mt. Everest

Raha Moharrak has become the first woman from Saudi Arabia to climb Mt. Everest when she made it to the summit yesterday after a grueling climb.

The 25-year-old climber first had to convince her family to allow her to make the attempt, and then had to undergo rigorous training to climb the world’s tallest peak. She was part of a four-person team called Arabs on Top of the World. The team also includes Sheikh Mohammed Al Thani, the first Qatari, and Raed Zidan, the first Palestinian to make the attempt. Masoud Mohammad, an Iranian, is also on the expedition.

The team is working on a rotation system with other expeditions, so the men are currently trying to make the ascent.

The team isn’t only making history; they’re also making a difference. They’re trying to raise $1 million for educational projects in Nepal. A donate button can be found on their website. This is a cause near and dear to Moharrak’s heart. She’s currently a graduate student in Dubai.

VIDEO: What People In Jerusalem Wish For

When the news talks about the people of Jerusalem, it’s usually to highlight their differences. While those certainly exist, there’s more to it than that. People all have their own opinions and priorities and the folks living in Jerusalem are no exception. In this video, a group of Jerusalem residents are asked all the same question: if you had one wish, what would you wish for?

Their answers are surprising, and cut across religious, political and ethnic lines. There doesn’t seem to be any agenda to this video, as the divisive comments (some quite nasty) are left in along with the heartwarming ones. Naturally, many address the big issues, while some are tied up in their own affairs. This reflects my own experiences in Israel, where people range from good to bad to just plain ugly.

But mostly good, and that’s important to remember.

Ibn Battuta: The Greatest Adventure Traveler Of All Time

This humble little building in a back alley of Tangier is the final resting place of the greatest traveler in history.

Ibn Battuta was born in Tangier in 1304. In 1325 he left to go on the Hajj and ended up visiting not only Mecca, but crisscrossing much of the Middle East and sailing far down the east coast of Africa. Then he headed east, passing through central and Southern Asia and making it as far as Beijing before coming back and taking a jaunt through much of western Africa.

While I’m not too keen on citing Wikipedia as a source, it does have some detailed maps of Ibn Battuta’s journeys. In all, he traveled an estimated 75,000 miles, three times as much as Marco Polo, but is far less known in the West because Marco Polo was European and Ibn Battuta was Arab. So it goes.

Reading his accounts shows you that travel hasn’t really changed all that much: loneliness, illness, hospitality and fascinating sights were the hallmarks of adventure travel then as they are now. He had only made it as far as Tunis when he first became aware of the crushing loneliness travel can bring. He was with a group of fellow pilgrims who all had friends in the city. When they arrived everyone was greeted except poor Ibn Battuta. He started to cry and one of his fellow pilgrims took pity on him and talked with him to cheer him up. Again and again in his accounts, he talks about the hospitality and kindness he found on the road.

Later he visited Alexandria and was perhaps the last writer to describe the famous lighthouse, one of the wonders of the ancient world. It was already in bad shape when he first saw it, and when he saw it again in 1349 it had crumbled into total ruin.

Of course he had some troubles along the way. He mentions getting sick numerous times and was lucky not to catch the Black Death that was raging through the Middle East at the time. In Egypt he had a run-in with some hyenas that rummaged through his bags and stole his supply of dates! In Niger he had a more serious incident. He went down to the river to relieve himself and a local had to save him from a crocodile.Like any good traveler, Ibn Battuta was intensely curious and loved to see the sights. His description of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is especially moving for me, because it was that building that first turned me on to Islamic architecture. He also describes the Ummayed Mosque in Damascus as the “most magnificent mosque in the world.” I’d have to agree.

In the Maldives he learned to love coconuts (which he said “resembles a man’s head”) and lived on them during his year-and-a-half stay. Ibn Battuta understood some important things about travel: go slow and try the local food.

Ibn Battuta’s enthusiasm for travel is apparent even 700 years later. He talks of his amazement at seeing a meteorite, has the balls to ask the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos III to assign him a tour guide to show him Constantinople, and is shocked to see the Muslim women of Mali walking around naked.

There was no way I was going to visit Tangier and not pay my respects at the grave of one of my heroes, so one afternoon we headed out into the labyrinthine alleyways of the Old City. We finally found the tomb at the intersection of three lanes. There was a little historic marker on the outside, but otherwise nothing to mark the burial place of Tangier’s most famous native son.

This is typical in Muslim cultures. Most graves don’t even have an epitaph, and it takes someone pretty famous to have an identifiable tomb. Inside a caretaker was chanting in Arabic. He greeted us cordially and then went back to chanting.

As you can see from the photo below, there’s not much inside except the tomb draped with a carpet and some nice tiles on the interior. If my expression looks a little pained it’s because as we were taking photos, the caretaker let out a loud and quite toxic fart. It ruined the atmosphere of the place – literally.

Considering the dangers and hardships Ibn Battuta went through on his journeys, it was a small price to pay to see the tomb of the greatest traveler who ever lived.

Don’t miss our other articles about Tangier!

[Top photo by Sean McLachlan. Bottom photo by Almudena Alonso-Herrero]

Crazy Video: Wild Arabic Dancing In Texas

Arab culture has an image problem. Most outsiders think they don’t have any fun. As one acquaintance informed me, “Arabs are a dour lot.”

He’d never actually hung out with any Arabs. Anyone who has can tell you that they do have a sense of fun, as this video shows. Uploader noxalicious tells us this was filmed in Cafe Layal in Houston, Texas. This guy gets so into the music that he ends up on a table shaking what he’s got for all it’s worth. I’ve seen guys dance like this at weddings in Egypt and parties in Syria, but they weren’t quite so … jiggly.

If you want some more Arabic humor, here’s a video about Saudis in Audis, sent to me by Facebook friend and British Muslim activist Shelina Zahra Janmohamed. Somehow it was funnier coming from her.

Appreciating Arab Cuisine: A Conversation With May Bsisu

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of hosting an event at National Geographic Auditorium in Washington, DC, with the lovely, learned and gracious cuisine expert May Bsisu. Our event focused on the tastes and traditions of cuisine throughout the Arab world, based on Bsisu’s exquisite book, The Arab Table. As part of my preparation, I spoke with Bsisu about her book and about the role of food in her life and in Arab culture. Like her life and work, our conversation proved a fascinating introduction to a rich and complex culinary tradition about which I knew almost nothing. I heartily recommend her book, and as a small sample of its riches, present here some excerpts from our talk.

DG: You started your book with the word “Tafadalo.” What does that mean?

MB: Tafadalo is one of my favorite words.

It is used in many different ways: When you open your home door to receive a guest, you say, “Tafadalo.” When you offer a guest a cup of coffee or juice, you say, “Tafadalo.” Tafadalo means welcome and indicates a long tradition of Arab hospitality. For many it particularly means delicious food is on the table and it is time to eat!

In Arabic, Tafadalo also means “do me the honor.” It is an offering and an invitation. In Arab and Arab-American homes, welcoming others, especially guests, is an essential courtesy and an expression of hospitality.

Why did you write The Arab Table?I always believed that food is much more than what is on a plate. The Arab Tableoffers my vision of the food of the Arab world as well as how the food is connected to the soil and soul of the people in that region. I also wrote this book to preserve the culture and food traditions for my children and grandchildren.

When you first moved to the United States and started thinking about writing The Arab Table, I am sure that there were many reasons that influenced your decision. Can you tell me about this?

I will tell you the story of my family, and how food helped us become part of a new community where we were strangers. We came to the United States in 1991 after the Gulf War. At that time we were living in Kuwait, and my husband decided that we should move to a stable country where we could raise our three boys without worries of wars and uncertainty, so we moved to Northern Kentucky. Why Northern Kentucky? Well, my husband had invested in a company there and he thought that Northern Kentucky would be a good base to start our new life.

Our three boys attended Beechwood School, in Fort Mitchell. As you can imagine, it was a difficult transition for them and us. Northern Kentucky is a small and tightly knit community and it is very difficult for a new family not originally from there, and who speak with an accent, to be easily accepted. The boys joined the school’s football team, and we started meeting other parents.

I soon found out that there was one thing in common among all of us: food. So I started joining with the football mothers to take food to football gatherings, picnics, bus trips and other school activities. I started with meat pies, which are basically dough and ground beef, and are the closest thing to pizza. I prepared hummus as a dip with pita chips, then one time I took fried kebbehand the boys on the football team loved them and called them mini-footballs. I also prepared and shared baklawa,making the filling with pecans rather than walnuts so they would have a familiar flavor.

Food broke the barrier between us and the community we were living in, people started asking us questions about the food, and mothers started asking about my recipes. Our house became the place where kids would come and know that they would always find something good to eat… We became part of the community and made some wonderful friends.

What part of the world does The Arab Tablecover?

The Arab world consists of 22 different countries and covers a great geographic span of different terrains and climates. In square miles, it is around 1.4 times the area of the United States.

It was the Arab lands of the eastern Mediterranean where humans first organized into a settled form of society, cultivating grain, domesticating many varieties of livestock, and beginning a non-nomadic lifestyle, establishing villages, towns and cities across the region that promoted diverse skills and occupations. In such a setting, rich and complex societies were established. It was in this same area that the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, originated and in time spread to all the corners of the world.

Your book illustrates the remarkable range of Arab cuisine. Can you tell us about this aspect of your work?

Yes, my book covers the cuisine and food, customs and traditions of many countries in the Arab world. In most cases, you will find that the cuisine of one particular country reflects the produce of that land as well as many years of food development particular to that location. However, all of the countries that are covered in my book are influenced by the foods of neighboring regions, so there is a process of “food exchange” continuously going on.

Common to all Arab cooking is the use of ingredients such as lamb, rice, olive oil and bread. But there are certain ingredients and cooking methods that are more strongly present in one region than another. For example, in Iraq there is a wider use of sesame oil and in Morocco, a greater use of mint and fruits in their cooking; in Egypt, they make extensive use of legumes and grains, while in Lebanon they use fresh vegetables and raw meat as in the preparation of kubeh neyeh(steak tartare). Yemen is one of the most geographically varied of the Arab countries. A long coastal plane lies alongside its southern rim, while its highlands mark the interior and the desert stretches across the eastern region towards the Arabian Peninsula. So, a typical Yemeni meal will be reflective of the varied geography of the country and will typically include a variety of fish, meat, chicken, rice, potatoes, tomatoes and cabbage.

As far as the variety of cooking methods, in Lebanon, for example, it is mostly quick cooking reflective of the abundance of fresh ingredients, including vegetables and meats. This reminds me of a recent visit toLebanon. A friend of mine invited me with other friends to her hometown, Zahleh, which is about 55 miles west of Beirut. On our way we stopped by the small city of Chtura in the Bikaa valley. Chtura is well known in Lebanon for its fresh and abundant dairy products. So we stopped there for a breakfast of fresh baked bread, labneh(strained yogurt) with olives, olive oil, fresh white cheese and locally grown cucumbers.

After breakfast we continued on our way to Zahleh. When we arrived there, our host first took us to a butcher shop to pick the meat she needed to make kibbehas well as meat for the safiha(meat pies). After adding fresh spices, we sent the safiha fresh meat directly to the baker. We then stopped at the vegetable market and bought some eggplants and these were also sent to the baker for roasting. We took the kibbeh meat to my friend’s home and started making the kibbeh. Lunch was soon ready. We all sat down and enjoyed a lunch of freshly made kibbeh, salads, roasted eggplant dip, and oven-hot meat pies. That is the traditional preparation of a meal in Lebanon. Fresh ingredients are readily available and food preparation is geared towards that fact.

In the Arab Gulf countries, slow cooking and the extensive use of spices is more common. In Syria, the cooking is labor intensive as most of their food includes the coring and stuffing of vegetables and elaborate meat dishes. In Palestine they have similar foods to Syria and Lebanon, but with an extensive range of savory pastries and sweets. In Tunisia and Morocco, their cooking methods rely on the tajin(earthenware pot) method of cooking.

In your book you link food to the occasions in which it is served. Can you elaborate on this?

Food is what brings people together, love is revealed over food, families gather at the food table. Important events are marked by the food served on that occasion. A wedding table will have a huge selection of food including 4 or 5 large trays of different meats and rice.

The arrival of a baby is marked by the preparation of a caraway and anise seed pudding called mugli that is also beneficial for the health of the new mother.

Nowhere is food more significant than in the observance of religious traditions. I will talk in detail about one of those events: the celebration of the Eid al Adha at the end of pilgrimage. On this occasion, the extended family gets together over a feast of many plates. The first day of the Eid starts with visiting relatives from both sides of the family to exchange holiday wishes and partake in the delicious sweets they always offer. In large families this takes some detailed planning. During the second day it is your turn to receive visitors and offer sweets. However the big event is the feast that is usually offered by the head of the family, and as many family members as the home can accommodate are invited.

On the table, appetizers and salads are presented first, followed by selections of stews. Normally a whole lamb is roasted and presented in the middle of the table on a large tray on top of rice colored with saffron and mixed with delicious spices and ground meat and roasted nuts. Then after drinking mint tea or Arabic coffee, the guests mingle and talk, waiting for the sweets. This normally comes in the form of kunafa, a cheese pastry soaked in sweet syrup that has its origins from the town of Nablus in Palestine. Other sweets and fresh fruits are also presented.

The food served at Eid, as on other Islamic occasions, depends on the time of the year (for the Islamic holidays, the lunar year is observed, so the timing of the celebration varies from year to year) and on the region. But for the most part the above ritual is followed.

Some of the 188 recipes in your book come from family members. Who had the most influence on your cooking, and how did you learn to cook?

My family is the primary source of the recipes and the traditions that I present in The Arab Table. The family members who most influenced me were my grandmother, who allowed me to be with her in the kitchen at a very young age, and my father, who loved food and took me with him during family vacations to many different restaurants and introduced me to a great variety of tastes and ingredients.

When I got married, I was unprepared for cooking and did not know how or where to begin. My husband, Aref, had no idea that I did not know how to cook, and I certainly was not about to tell him. So, together with my grandmother, we hatched a plot. Every day she sent to our home some food she had prepared for us. I actually got away with this for several weeks, but ultimately my husband uncovered our little plot, so my grandmother started to tutor me over the phone. I was terribly unsure of myself, but I was willing to learn.

Then a wonderful thing started to happen. I began to discover an enormous sense of self-satisfaction in making food that other people liked. I found that I was looking forward to entertaining. I even started on my own to experiment with recipes others gave me.

Later, as my skills and interest grew, I sought training from professionals, first in Arab cuisine and later in classical French cookery. This broad education allowed me to re-examine traditional Arab foods with a fresh outlook. I felt freer to experiment with unconventional combinations of food, honoring the rich traditions of the Arab cuisine while not being encumbered by them.

What would you most like readers to take away from your book?

To my mind, above all, food is a cultural experience. There is a large social good to be derived from the study of a different culture. I would like to inspire people to cook recipes from different countries and while they are doing that to imagine the geography of that country, because that tells us how the people live their lives.

We grow in understanding and tolerance when we experience another culture. And what better door to step through than in the most pleasant social experience of eating together?

I would also like to give people a reason to gather more around the table. This is the time when people connect, share, work through their problems, get to know their kids. Food is the essence of our lives.

So if my book gives people one more reason to do that, then I’ve dome some good in the world.

And finally, I truly believe that food is love. Food brings us together. When we eat together we learn more about each other. When we eat the food of a culture we take in the history of the people, their geography, their climate, their stories, their world-view – and we do this in such a pleasurable way that it’s impossible not to deepen our appreciation of each other.


For more information about The Arab Table, and to order a copy, click here.