Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Cookbook Review: Suzanne Husseini’s WHEN SUZANNE COOKS

June 12th, 2011 11 comments

I first heard about Suzanne Husseini and her cookbook in an article in the National newspaper. What struck me were her stories of her Arab-Canadian childhood and her philosophy of cooking—it’s not about perfection, but the love imparted through food.

When her cookbook was released, I went to Magrudy’s and looked at its cover. I thought: Do I really need another Arabic cookbook? Honestly now? I already had a dozen in my kitchen, mostly collecting dust.

I opened the book and looked at every page. I scanned every recipe. I studied every photograph. When I reached the end, I decided I had to have it.

Now I’ve had the cookbook about six months. I’ve made about fifteen recipes from it, nearly all with great success. Some of the recipes, such as the Green Salad with Fried Halloumi and Pomegranate Dressing, are now part of my weekly repertoire. My favorite is the Knafe Pastry with Cheese, a dessert I’ve never been able to pull off until now.

This cookbook does not focus on a particular national cuisine, such as Lebanese. Husseini’s cuisine is broader, encompassing Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East. Nor does the cookbook obey strictly traditional recipes. The cookbook’s subtitle is “Modern Flavors of Arabia.” Most of the recipes have a twist to them. For example, the Baba Ghanouj includes toasted walnuts. The Spicy Chicken Wings call for pomegranate molasses. The Date Pastries are made in the shape of hearts.

What I appreciate most about this cookbook is the photography. There is a photo for every recipe, and the food photography is simply stunning. For me, photographs are vital for preparing foreign foods. I need to see what the dish is. I need to know if I’ve achieved the right end result.  Most importantly, I need to feel inspired. After all, cooking is a lot of work, and I need motivation!

Did I mention that Suzanne Husseini is a Middle Eastern TV chef? She’s been a chef on various regional TV shows. I’ve never seen her on TV, but I finally got to see her in action at the Emirates Festival of Literature where she taught her recipes like a food ambassador. As she cooked, she told food stories from her childhood and taught the audience Arabic words. You can see Husseini give a short cooking talk in this video from The Gulf News.

One factor that helps Husseini succeed as a cooking teacher is her bicultural Canadian-Palestinian background. She gears her explanations toward the western cook who may not know what pomegranate molasses is or how to clarify butter.

My only concern with this cookbook is that I have trouble finding recipes in it. Sometimes I can’t remember the name of a recipe. Also, it’s a puzzle to me whether an Arabic dish is considered breakfast, mezze, lunch or what. And so, I’m forced to flip through the entire cookbook to find a recipe. I’m forced to look at every gorgeous, exquisite photo once again. And once again, I think, I wanna make that. I wanna make that…

When Suzanne Cooks is written by Suzanne Husseini with photographs by Petina Tinslay. It is published in Dubai by Motivate Publishers and is available in bookstores in the UAE. It is also available through Amazon via Lebanese Books. You can view some of Husseini’s recipes in the Gulf News.

Have you used this cookbook? What is your favorite Arabic cookbook?

My Favorite Book by a Palestinian Writer

June 10th, 2011 No comments

My favorite book by a Palestinian writer happens to be one of my favorite memoirs: IN SEARCH OF FATIMA by Ghada Karmi.

I first heard Karmi in a BBC radio interview, part of the series “Living in an Alien culture.” In her interview, she relates her lifelong quest for cultural identity–first as an Arab schoolgirl in London trying to assimilate, later as the wife of an Englishman, and finally as a Arab-English woman who returns to the Arab World as a physician and activist. I was riveted to Karmi’s story and to her beautifully written book.

Her memoir spans fifty years of Karmi’s life, from the 1940s through the 1990s. The story begins in Jerusalem where her family is driven from their home soon after the nakba (catastrophe) in 1948. Karmi, her two older siblings and her parents end up in London, where Karmi’s father takes a job with the BBC Arabic Service and where her mother lives as a tragically displaced refugee. Much of the book takes place in London, where the family longs for home and each family member copes in a different way.

Karmi copes by taking on an English identity, so much that she marries an Englishman whom she meets in medical school. However, soon the Six Day War of 1967 shocks the Arab World and creates great turmoil in Karmi’s life. Feeling alienated by the pro-Israel sentiment around her, she suffers an identity crisis which results in the end of her marriage.

Karmi’s story culminates in her return to Jerusalem in 1998, when at last she seeks to find her childhood home that she was forced to leave in 1948. This was the part of the book where I found myself glued to the page, staying up late in the night to see what would happen.

Those familiar with Palestinian history know that this is a common narrative: Palestinians driven into exile, attempts to resist, and a return to see (and mourn over) the family home. What’s different here is that the story is told by a woman, one from a well-to-do educated family. Second. Karmi uses exquisite detail to describe their unique privileged life in Jerusalem and their exile to London.

By weaving together Palestinian history with her personal family story, Karmi presents a Palestinian perspective that rarely reaches the mainstream. This memoir was published in 2002, but is as relevant as ever. I recommend it to anyone interested in memoir, cultural identity or the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

Ghada Karmi is also the author of the book MARRIED TO ANOTHER MAN.

Five Memoirs by Western Women Married into Arabic Culture

April 8th, 2011 16 comments

As an American woman married to a Palestinian, I am continually drawn to books that relate to my own experience. Here are five memoirs by Western women married to Arab men—true stories of love and conflict, struggle and acceptance—that I recommend to you.  

Married to a Bedouin by Marguerite van Geldermalsen ~ I’ve recommended this book to many. This fascinating story begins in 1978 when Marguerite, a young adventurer from New Zealand, arrives as a tourist in Petra, the ancient city in Jordan. Soon she meets Mohammed, a charming Bedouin craftsman whose tribe inhabits the caves of Petra. Marguerite’s story is about falling in love, making a home in a cave and embracing a large, extended Bedouin family. What I admire about this memoir is the affectionate tone Marguerite uses to describe her husband, his family, their culture and unique way of life. Recently, I saw Marguerite speak at the Emirates Festival of Literature in Dubai. She recounted her Petra love story with a slide show, and I was captivated all over again. To learn more, here’s an interview with Marguerite conducted by writer Matt Beynon Rees.

The Butterfly Mosque by G. Willow Wilson ~ In a Seattle bookstore, I stumbled upon a signed copy of this memoir, released in 2010. I read it eagerly, impressed with its honesty and authenticity. Willow, an American writer and graphic novelist, thoughtfully describes her journey to Egypt in 2003. As a young university graduate, she takes a job in Cairo, where she writes about Egyptian society, converts to Islam, and meets Omar, her soon-to-be Egyptian husband.  Willow shares how she learns Arabic, adjusts to her new life and embraces the city of Cairo. This cultural and spiritual journey is intelligent, illuminating and more relevant than ever.

At the Drop of a Veil by Marianne Alireza ~ I enjoyed this memoir many years ago and was pleased to discover it’s still in print. Originally published in 1973, this is the story of an American college student who marries a Saudi man in 1943 and lives in Saudi Arabia for twelve years. With wit and insight, Marianne describes her adventures and life within the Alireza household, giving a captivating glimpse into affluent Saudi society in the 1940s and 50s. Despite the dramatic end to her marriage, Marianne tells her story with warmth and humor. People who have met her or heard her speak remark on her positive attitude and grace.

Imm Mathilda: A Bethlehem Mother’s Diary by Alison Jones Nassar ~ I couldn’t resist this story, as it takes place in Bethlehem, my husband’s hometown. The memoir is based on the email journals of an American expat living in Bethlehem with her Christian Palestinian husband and their children. Even though this book is not quite at the same caliber as the others, I was still riveted to her descriptions of daily life—both the joys and obstacles—of raising a family while living under occupation. She recounts how the curfews, road blocks & military violence affected her life and those around her. She discusses in detail the 39-day Israeli siege of the Church of Nativity in 2002. I recommend this book to anyone who would like to learn more about the Palestinian perspective.

Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an Unexpected Life by Queen Noor ~ As a long-time admirer of Queen Noor, I read this book when it was released in 2003. It’s the ultimate girl-meets-King story. At the age of 26, American-born and Princeton-educated Lisa Halaby marries King Hussein of Jordan. She becomes Jordan’s Queen Noor, his life partner and stepmother to his eight children. Her memoir tells the story of their courtship, her life as Queen, the King’s attempts at peace, as well as his untimely death. Granted, this memoir is a bit stiff and guarded; no deep secrets are revealed here. Nonetheless, it’s a touching account of an amazing life with a unique perspective on the region and its contemporary history.

If you have any thoughts or insights to add, I welcome your comments below. Feel free to share any other titles of relevant memoirs. Thanks & Salaam!