AndFarAway

A Blog from Amman, Jordan, Online Since 2004.

Author: Roba (Page 1 of 359)

Stoic Wisdom

I’ve always really enjoyed stoic wisdom. Here’s a nice snippet from a post on happiness on LifeHacker:

I like to think of life as a drinking glass, and water as the things you want and need in life. Happiness and contentedness—what Seneca calls “enough”—is when your glass is filled to the brim with water. The more you want, however, the larger your glass has to be, and that means it will take you more water to fill your glass and achieve happiness. Moreover, you’ll spend your life hating the fact your glass isn’t full, when you could have spent your energy finding ways to actually fill it. On the other hand, if you have a small glass, it takes very little water to fill it, and that makes it much easier to reach that state of contentedness.

Greek bougatsa, tamreyeh Nabelseyeh, and identity

Sometimes, it’s easy to forget just how new borders and nationhoods are. It’s even easier to forget that globalization in our part of the world (the “Old World”) has been around for centuries, if not millennia. We have always lived in a cultural osmosis, with constant seeping of food, words, ideas, costumes, clothes, and almost everything else, a cultural osmosis that knows no borders or identity, no religion or geography.

Last month in Athens, my husband and I randomly picked a popular-looking coffee shop to rest and get some water and coffee. After getting a nasty look from the waitress because I mistakenly asked for “Turksish coffee” instead of “Greek coffee” (both varieties tasting exactly like our own coffee, of course), we noticed that everyone in the coffee shop was ordering the same item: a fried-looking pastry covered with white powder. Upon inquiry, we were told by the same waitress (now pleased by our interest in Greek food) that the pastry is called “bougatsa”, and that it’s a very special Greek dish unique to an area called Thessaloniki. Never able to resist a dessert specialty, my husband and I braved how deep fried the bougatsa looked for so early in the morning and ordered some:


Upon eating the first bite, imagine my surprise as I realized that I was actually eating tamreyeh Nabelseyeh, a dessert specialty (that I thought was) unique to my family’s small Palestinian hometown of Nables. Tamreyeh is so specific to Nables that even my non-Nabelsi husband, who makes dessert for a living, had never had it before.

I went inside the store to see how they make it, and I was taken back to 20 years ago, when my grandmother used to show off her dough tossing skills as she made tamreyeh, and when I would steal some of the semolina custard stuffing.

Here is a video of that coffee shop making bougatsa:

And here is a video of tamreyeh being made in Amman:

It turned out the original version started out in Constantinople, and was “culturally spread” by the Ottoman empire. It seems like the Greek version is not deep fried, but baked.

The best tamreyeh in Amman is available at Tamreyet Omar on the 2nd Circle.

Why You Should Stop Looking for Stupid, Shocking Twists in Game of Thrones

What is good writing?

Let’s start with the obvious. Good writing has solid character development. It explores important or interesting ideas, and progressively builds an exciting story. It has meaningful and tightly-woven plotlines every page of the way. It’s made up of words and sentences that are sharp and to the point, yet descriptive enough to really get the reader to imagine the universe being created.

What good writing is not is scrambled metaphors that conceal incoherency (cough, Paulo, cough, Coelho). Good writing will never depend on countless flat, lifeless characters that are there for no reason beyond as many shocking tragic endings as possible.

And my friends, good writing is George RR Martin. While I would never say that he is among the best in the genre (he doesn’t even make it to top 20), he is definitely a good writer. Maybe a little confused, sure, but I enjoyed the “A Song of an Ice and Fire” books tremendously when I read them almost ten years ago (a little secret: I enjoyed them so much I even took a few days off work just to binge read).

And you know what feeling I never felt as I devoured 1.5 million words?

Shock.

I never felt shock at surprise twists, at tragic fates, or at convoluted plotlines because none of the books were about shock.

What I did feel was an assortment of other feelings.

I felt amazement at the rich, vivid and believable world. I felt love towards some of the characters, who were skillfully developed chapter-to-chapter. I felt satisfaction at the underlying theme of universal duality — life isn’t simply good OR evil, it’s usually a bit of both. And most importantly… I felt pleasure at George RR Martin’s lack of creating stupid, implausible plots just to save important characters.

Amusingly, it is this last thing that seems will be the undoing of a potentially-great fantasy series, very much in thanks to all the trigger-happy show watchers, who have been brainwashed by Hollywood to appreciate unexpected plot twists over good character development, rich worldbuilding, and meaningful ideas.

How many times in the past two months have you heard…

“It’s becoming so predictable.”

“I’m not enjoying it anymore, everyone made it alive to the end – no violent deaths this season!”

It is these sorts of comments I’ve been hearing on a daily basis that make me feel really bad for George RR Martin. Every such comment is like nails in the “Could Have Been a Fantasy Masterpiece” coffin, in the “Cheap Thrills” graveyard.

Ultimately, good writing isn’t about cheap thrills. It isn’t about shocking the audience. Dude, that’s why there is FIVE “Sharknado” movies.

So for the sake of all that is good in all the fantasy worlds out there, please shake the bullshit Hollywood-trained expectations out of your head.

And just enjoy the story.

A Recipe for Fried Eggs

I know, it’s quite random to come back after a long hiatus with a recipe. Or maybe it isn’t that random.

The recipe’s keyword is: Sumac.

Crack two eggs directly into the pan, and fry until the white is just set but the yolk is still runny, and the edges are browned. Once the eggs are almost ready (but still runny), cover with two thin slices of brie, then fold.

Move to a plate, and sprinkle generously with sumac and zaatar.

Wait, what. Brie with eggs and sumac and zaatar?

Just trust me on this.

How can you doubt climate change?

Snippets from New York Mag:

It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today.

Since 1980, the planet has experienced a 50-fold increase in the number of places experiencing dangerous or extreme heat; a bigger increase is to come.

By the end of the century, the World Bank has estimated, the coolest months in tropical South America, Africa, and the Pacific are likely to be warmer than the warmest months at the end of the 20th century.

As soon as several decades from now, the hajj will become physically impossible for the 2 million Muslims who make the pilgrimage each year.

By 2080, without dramatic reductions in emissions, southern Europe will be in permanent extreme drought, much worse than the American dust bowl ever was. The same will be true in Iraq and Syria and much of the rest of the Middle East; some of the most densely populated parts of Australia, Africa, and South America; and the breadbasket regions of China. None of these places, which today supply much of the world’s food, will be reliable sources of any.

Already last year, a boy was killed and 20 others infected by anthrax released when retreating permafrost exposed the frozen carcass of a reindeer killed by the bacteria at least 75 years earlier; 2,000 present-day reindeer were infected, too, carrying and spreading the disease beyond the tundra.

Some speculate that the elevated level of strife across the Middle East over the past generation reflects the pressures of global warming — a hypothesis all the more cruel considering that warming began accelerating when the industrialized world extracted and then burned the region’s oil.

There is a 12 percent chance that climate change will reduce global output by more than 50 percent by 2100, they say, and a 51 percent chance that it lowers per capita GDP by 20 percent or more by then, unless emissions decline. By comparison, the Great Recession lowered global GDP by about 6 percent.

Map of Amman from 1956

Here’s a really cool map from 1956. For more information, head over to Tobzeh.

How small the city was.

Black Mirror Sucks. Here’s Why.

First: I love science fiction. I love it much more deeply than most people you’ve met. I love it enough to have systematically read every single book published that has ever won a major sci-fi award (my favorite awards being the Hugos). I’m currently making my way through award nominees.

So, when people started talking about Black Mirror, a sci-fi show that made it to the mainstream, I was sort of excited. Fantasy (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones) is a much easier mainstream sell, and I was eager to see this new sci-fi show that all my friends — even the ones who HATE sci-fi — were talking about.

That should have been a big enough hint for me to know that I would HATE Black Mirror.

As a life-long reader of science fiction, I love science fiction because it helps me formulate my thoughts around why. Why are we here? Where are we going? Is there anything else out there? 

Reading a good sci-fi book is like having a wonderfully intense discussion of philosophy, one where you wrestle with ethics, exploration, and survival. Good science fiction is never contrived. It lets you think, often not give you the answer. If anything, science fiction lets you understand the future. Not the dystopian future. All possible futures. It’s never about the shock value (that would be horror). 

And this is why I think Black Mirror sucks. 

At its heart, it’s a contrived “shock” show, without science fiction’s elegant thoughtfulness. It attempts to be philosophical, but in reality, it’s simply shallow and predictable, often depending on a sick twist to amuse the trigger-happy masses. It offers no revealing insights into our humanity, our future, or why we’re all here.
The worst thing about Black Mirror, though? Like many a recent political campaign, Black Mirror uses fear, invoking it in concrete and abstract ways, summoning it out of the general state of fear overlaying the world today. Cheap fear mongering, at a time when the world needs it least.

As a life-time lover of sci-fi, this makes me sad. If anything, science fiction is never about cheap fear. It’s never about making people hold on more tightly to what they have and regard the unfamiliar more warily. Quite the contrary, science fiction is often a warning message against how fear can turn humans into… well, what we’ve already turned into this year, I guess. 

And this is why Black Mirror sucks.

In case you ever wondered why cartoon characters wear gloves

To be honest, I never did.

But this is really cool, anyways.

Wild Delicacy: Hindbeh

One of my favorite dishes in the world is hindbeh. Aside from the wonderful flavor, I also love its simplicity: chopped leaves, lightly cooked with onions and lemon sauce, and drenched in olive oil. Yum.

Up until a couple of years ago, I never stopped to wonder where the leaves come from. And then I discovered that it’s literally dandelion leaves. You know, the stuff that grows between the tiles of the sidewalks of Amman.

Amazing how something so wild can turn into something so exquisite.

The Peculiarities of Language: ما تنكسني

Update: My brain totally punked me. Seems the connection between Arabic “Nakas (نَكَّسَ : فعل)” and English “Nix” is nonexistent. Pretty cool that the word means the same thing in three completely different languages!

I’ve been subconsciously wondering for a while if the word “Nix” (put an end to; “he nixed the deal just before it was to be signed”) comes from the shady presidency of Richard Nixon. My subconsciousness thought it must come from Nixon, because how other than politics would such a difficult English word make it into Jordanian vernacular?

Let me explain.

“Nakis” (literally, “to nix”) in Jordanian has a similar meaning to “Nix” in English. I am assuming it is unique to Jordan, but I honestly have no idea if other countries in the Levant use the word, too. A quick Google search looks super Jordanian:

Unfortunately for my curiousity, “Nix” is much older than Richard Nixon. It actually comes from from German nix, dialectal variant of nichts “nothing,” from Middle High German nihtes, from genitive of niht, nit “nothing,” from Old High German niwiht, from ni, ne “no” (see un- (1)) + wiht “thing, creature” (compare naught).

That means that “Nakes” somehow made it to our vernacular in a much more random way.

Any theories?

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