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The Year of the Pandemic

March 2020.

The first pandemic pictures on my phone attempting to document the pandemic are of the closed restaurants and bars. The empty trams. It was so strange seeing lively, touristic Amsterdam becoming suddenly so quiet, so empty.

The signs were mostly hastily handwritten with Sharpies on A4s. Signs made by shop owners who thought they’ll open again in a few days. Shuttered bars and restaurants with their furniture still outdoors. Rows and rows of empty seats in trains and trams that you could barely stand in just a week before.

Document. Take a photo. Document. Snap. Snap.

June 2020.

I started taking photos of life going back to normal.

Life trying to go back to normal.

Sort of.

The Dutch are amazing at most things, but I doubt that anyone can beat the Dutch when it comes to practicality.

The entire country was suddenly perfectly labelled with COVID-proof signage.

Stay apart. Houd afstand.

1.5M AUB. 1.5M please.

Mondkapje AUB. Masks please.


Things were getting better.

Museums, restaurants, and bars were open again.

Trying to open again.

Sort of.

Yellow tape everywhere. Weird ass plastic dividers that reminded me of dining in Saudi Arabia in the 90’s, where it was illegal for families to mix with other families, and so all restaurants had dividers.

Going to a beach with crowd-control volunteers walking around with 1.5M signs.

Empty museums. I was alone in a room with Rembrandt. With Vermeer. With Van Gogh.

Although life was no where near normal, it sort of felt like we made it.

Like it was only going to get better from there.

That soon, it will be over.

The June version of me was so hopeful.

The June version of many.

Document. Take a photo. Document. Snap. Snap.

October 2020.

If only I knew that that would be my last time in a restaurant for the next 7 months, I would have stayed longer.

If only I knew that all non-essential shops would be closed for months, I would have gone window shopping more often.

If only I knew that I had to book a ten-minute slot a day in advance to buy gloves from HEMA.

I would have enjoyed life a bit more.

Document. Take a photo. Document. Snap. Snap.

February 2021.

Curfew.

How do you document curfew?

All the lit houses in apartment blocks.

Everyone’s watching TV.

I’m watching shitloads of TV.

I’m laughing at shows made before February 2020. The Tokyo Olympics. Ha.

As soon as the clock hits 11:00, the street is eerily dark. Not a single house is lit.

Document. Take a photo, anyway. Document. Snap. Snap.

March 2021.

I book an appointment at a local skate shop.

I haven’t been into a store aside from the supermarket in months.

I haven’t had a conversation with a stranger in… 6 months? 8 months? A year?

I sit down on the bench.

The skate shop owner smiles. Then, he asks me: “Do you like apple pie?”

Do I like apple pie?

I said, “Yes, I like apple pie”.

He pointed to the back of the store. “It’s my friends birthday,” he said. “We have apple pie to celebrate. Do you want a slice?”

It’s hard to describe the feelings and thoughts that went through my head and heart at that moment.

Almost all of my communication during the past year has been tactical. Hello. Yes, I want the bill, please. Your microphone is muted. Good day. When is the deadline? Pin, please. Thank you very much. Good bye.

And here was this man I just met, offering me birthday apple pie.

The feeling was as surreal as it was seeing empty Amsterdam a year before.

So, I snapped a picture of the apple pie.

And then I realized that I was no longer documenting the pandemic, which has lost its novelty, and instead became one long ass nightmare that the world is refusing to wake up from.

Instead, I’ve recently been documenting and savouring what would have been normal, just a year before.

Like the apple pie.

Interrupting the Sabbatical for a Dose of BTS

Garaseen – Ya Gharam | جراسين – يا غرام

when you’re at work staring at excel sheets you’ve been looking at for so long, and a song randomly pops up on up ‘next on’ youtube and the song is sooo beautiful that for the first time in what seems like years, you actually stop what you’re doing and head to that open tab to see who the hell made this beautiful thing and it turns out to be a jordanian band that you’ve never heard of. wow. enough to wake someone up from stupor.

Where to Eat in Amman for Breakfast – A Guide for Tourists

When I travel, the only thing I research is what to eat and where :)

I mean, what better way does a person have to know a city and its people than food? So, from a Amman local with a deep appreciation for delicious and authentic food experiences, here’s a short and quick guide on how you as a visitor to my city can explore Amman food culture — starting with breakfast.

Note: While there are many great places to have international food in Amman (Brisket & Fatty Dabs for burgers; Vinaigrette for sushi; Tandoori Oven for Indian; just to name a few), this guide will only cover local food and street food. In some instances, the word “Lebanese” might make an appearance, but don’t be fooled by Lebanon’s excellent PR prowess. The food culture in the Levant is one and the same.

Breakfast (and Jordanian Dinner):

Breakfast is our best game as Jordanians. When I travel, it takes me just a few days to get breakfast homesickness. One note: traditionally dinner in Jordan is exactly like breakfast, with lunch being the main course of the day. Of course this is changing with 9-to-6 workshifts having become the norm, but all  these breakfast options (except Abu Khamees) also work for dinner.

Manaeesh & Kaek:
A breakfast staple that’s very similar to pizza. You can also have it for dinner.

Where to Eat:
B Lebanese Pastries, Second Circle – $: My favorite is the simple “Zaatar & Jibneh” (thyme & cheese), but practically everything on the menu is excellent. Try: kafta extra; kaket halloum; potatoes with rocca.

Abu Khamees, Sweifeyeh – $: Go early and expect to queue up on Fridays. The bakery only offers a few options and it is worth trying all. Closes early.

Manaeesh are probably my favorite breakfast item

 

Salaheideein, Abdali – $: Kaek is a type of local bread. Grab some cheese and zaatar by the door and make a sandwich on the spot.

kaek salaheddine amman

Kaek from Salaheddine in Amman

 

Hummus & Foul:
Amman has some of the most delicious hummus & foul you can have in the world. 

Where to Eat:
Hashem, Downtown – $: You’ll find this in every guidebook about Amman and trust me when I say it isn’t a tourist trap. Order hummus, foul masri, falafel mahshi, and lots of tea. Also great after a long night out.

Enjoying food at Hashem late at night

Hamada, various branches – $: A chain with many branches around Amman that is probably the most consistent food establishment in the Kingdom. Try their falafel sandwiches and their fatet hummus.

Food spread from Hamada

Al-Arabi Al Qadeem, 7th Circle – $: For a simple sandwhich that’s better than the more famous “Falafel il Quds” in Jabal Amman. Don’t bother with anything beyond the first item on the menu… falafel khobez hamam.

 

Hawader Beit Breakfasts:
At home, all Jordanians eat “hawader beit” for breakfast, which literally translates to “available in the house”.  That is… brined olives, cheese, eggs, thyme, and other sorts of delicious Arabic “tapas”. Go with a group, it is traditional to share different platters with everyone.

Hawader Beit at home the working girl way

Where to Eat:
Hattouteh, Abdoun – $$: My favorite, though I might prefer this late at night. Make sure you order a bunch of plates and tea to get the real “Hawader Beit” experience. My favorites: fokharet hattouteh, fokhara nabelseyeh, olives, magdoos, labaneh jarasheyeh, beid bi jibneh.

A hawader spread at Hattouteh

Wild Jordan, Jabal Amman – $$: Their menu changes often but they always have really good organic options. They also have an amazing and very affordable gift shop where you can buy Jordanian herbs and handmade items that were sourced ethically.

 

 

Arabic Yogurt vs. Greek Yogurt vs. Labaneh

I’ve been trying really hard to raise my protein intake to 100g per day (so far, I’m finding it impossible), so I’ve been doing tons of googling about high-protein foods. One item that’s always on ANY list is “Greek yogurt”, which really confuses me because when I had yogurt in Greece, its taste, taste, texture, and consistency were exactly the same as those of the regular yogurt we eat daily in Jordan (laban zabadi).

So… given the similarities, I was:
1. Really annoyed at how “Greek Yogurt” had 3 times the grams of protein
2. Really confused as to why

And so I decided to google it, and share the knowledge with random Arab googlers who are just as annoyed as I am about how our yogurt is so lacking when compared to the Greek variety…

*Drum roll*

The truth about “Greek Yogurt”, my fellow worldly protein seekers, is the same truth about “American football”: just like the latter is not football at all, the former isn’t Greek, either.

And the protein-rich variety mislabeled as “Greek Yogurt” is actually an American misnomer for what the rest of the world would call “strained yogurt”, and which we call… labaneh.

AMreeeeeeeeeeeeeeericaaaaaaaaaa strikes again!!!

Traditional yogurt in Greece = 6g of protein and 93 calories per 100g

Traditional yogurt in Jordan = 3g of protein and 60 calories per 100g

Diet labaneh in Jordan = 11g of protein and 62 calories per 100g:

American “Greek Yogurt” = 10g of protein and 57 calories per 100g:

And so, the clear winner in the protein game is diet labaneh from a local brand like Hammoudeh.

Cheers to more protein.

The Cookie Carnival

You know those moments when you’re just going on with your day and then a memory — no, a memory of a feeling — hits you completely out of the blue. The sweetness of a gingerbread man on TV, a cupcake turned into a dress. Wobbly jello dancers. Heart-shaped lips. I loved that cartoon when I was a kid. I had it recorded on a VCR and I played it over and over and over again.

Thank god for YouTube.

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.

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