An executive at my former company once told me that his wife kept a list posted in their kitchen entitled “People Mark is going to call some day.” This subject came up because I had written a column about my dissatisfaction about the way Nabisco packages graham crackers. I called the 800 number on the box, and talked to a sympathetic woman who — it seemed clear — wouldn’t do anything about my complaint. If Mark ever called anyone on that list, I hope he got better results than I did.

As for the list itself, I guess it represents an almost universal tendency in us humans to intend to do more things than we actually do. That certainly is a tendency of mine, but last night I did scratch one off the list — which in our household is figurative.

Specifically, I made stuffed zucchini for dinner – or, as we of Lebanese ancestry call it – stuffed koosa — koosa being an Arabic term for “squash.” I’ve been talking about making that dish since well before my mother died, which was more than 10 years ago. We even went so far as to buy the type of knife that is made specifically to hollow out the zucchini before stuffing it with a mixture of meat, rice, onions, and garlic. That knife lay in a drawer in our kitchen since at least 2002 — maybe longer. Whenever I’d reach for something else and impale my hand on that knife, I would repeat my intention: “One of these days . . . .”

This had become a joke between Pat and me, but for some reason — in the past week or ten days — procrastination morphed into a real plan. Pat brought home some zucchini, as she often does in the summer, and I said I should stuff them — not the hypothetical zucchini of the past decade, but those particular zucchini — and that I should do it on Thursday. Conflicts arose, Thursday became Friday, and then Friday became Saturday. Saturday, as it turned out, was not some day, but the day. I followed a simple recipe I found at THIS LINK, and I was a success — which in this case means that I turned out stuffed koosa the way I remember it from home.

Since it was my first attempt at this enterprise, I conceded a point to the author of the recipe and used allspice. Normally, when I cook Lebanese food, I use cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg, and I monkey around with the proportions as I go until I’m satisfied with the taste. Next time.

I have mentioned here before that I maintain my intimacy with departed family members through certain kinds of food that I associate with them. With respect to my paternal grandmother and my mother, this is especially effective because they both were excellent cooks and they both loved to cook and to feed other people. I’m not one to moon over the people I miss – and I do miss my mother. I’d rather get up to my wrists in onions, garlic and zucchini, knowing how she would laugh at the sight, how she would nudge me if my hand got too heavy with the salt, how she would call me a “crazy kid,” even at this age, and how she would tell me — even if it weren’t true — that I had done well.



As there isn’t enough turmoil in the land of my ancestors — well, some of them, anyway — a popular Lebanese singer has stirred the stew by including a derogatory reference to Nubian people in the lyric of a children’s song. I won’t go into what the lyric says, but it’s described in a story in the English-language newspaper in Beirut, and that story is right HERE.

Reading that story in the Daily Star sent me on a search for the Nubians, with whom I was not familiar. I found out that the term describes more than two million black people who are concentrated in southern Egypt and northern Sudan. They are one of our links to antiquity, because they have preserved culture and tradition that dates from the beginning of civilization.


Photo of Nubian girl from Billy Gamb'ela's blog on

Stumbling across the reference to these people and the information available about them reminded me of an experience we once had while flying to California. On the plane with us were a group of people in rural dress who had coal-black skin and who spoke to each other in a language we were sure we had never heard. When we surmised that one white man was with that party, we asked him about them, and he told us they were aboriginal artists from Australia who were on a world tour with an exhibition of their work. That encounter made us so conscious of how diverse the world is and how little we know about the many kinds of people who compose what we call humanity.

So, too, now with the Nubians. The Daily Star quoted a fellow named Motez Isaaq, who represents the Committee for Nubian Issues: “We are one of the oldest civilizations on Earth. Instead, our image is constantly perpetuated as the uneducated doorman or waiter.” Isaaq gave Wahbe the benefit of the doubt by saying her lyric was offensive even though she may not have intended it to be. And he added, according to the Star’s paraphrase, “that stereotypes of minorities are so entrenched that referring to them in popular culture media is frequently done unconsciously.” How sad and how discouraging, particularly since Wahbe, whether consciously or not, addressed her bias to children.


A Nubian child from Billy Gamb'ela's blog on





Got a match, effendi?

October 14, 2009



I’m glad Peter Lorre wasn’t around to see this: The president of Syria has banned smoking in public places. President Bashar al-Assad did this by decree, so at least that characteristic of Syrian life has been preserved, but will Syria be Syria without smoke-filled cafes? Assad is a medical doctor, so he is very conscious of the harmful effects of smoking and of exposure to second-hand smoke.

I’ve never been a smoker, so these bans are irrelevant to me from that point of view, and I’m sufficiently convinced of the health risks to believe that the practice should be confined to the great outdoors or to strictly private places. Still, I can’t help feeling a twinge of melancholy over the loss of atmosphere — hazy as it was. No such decree has been imposed on my landsmen in Lebanon — not that any one in Lebanon pays much attention to decrees. The last figure I saw indicated that more than 53 percent of Lebanese adults are smokers and that they suck ’em down at the rate of 23 a day. When we visited there at the end of the Clinton administration, we couldn’t calculate which were more ubiquitous in Lebanese hands — cigarettes or cell phones.

alice-wonderland-caterpillar1As long as President Assad is messing with the ambiance in and around Damascus, he has also imposed sharp restrictions on the use of the argileh, or hookah. Give him credit for chutzpah — if I may use that term with respect to Assad; popularity of the argileh is on the rise, especially among young people.

Not only that, but the president isn’t going to tolerate little Syrians sitting around mimicking the images they might see in old movies and getting the idea that there is something dramatic about taking a long drag, slowly exhaling, squinting through the blue haze and demanding of some quivering lackey, “Did you get the information?” Assad has also banned any candy or toys made to look like tobacco products – and tobacco advertising.

Hey, a little arbitrary rule never hurt anybody.




The Daily Star in Beirut published this story today about Kareem Salama, whom the writer describes as America’s first Muslim country-and-western singer-songwriter. It’s funny: Just yesterday a family member was telling me of his disagreement with his sons – they’re 17 and 18 – over whether there is any difference between “country music” and “country and western music.” The boys’ opinion is that “western” is not part of the genre. The dad cites Tex Ritter and Gene Autry, among others, as evidence of the contrary. My own opinion is that the genre can no longer be defined – if it ever could be. It has evolved from the front porch to the honky tonk to the high-tech audio/video recording studio, and there are more and more people  in the industry who have less and less of the kind of life experience that generated the form in the first place. That’s to be expected. And now we have Salama, who may be the first but probably won’t be the last Muslim to put on the broad-brimmed hat. As the story indicates, although he was born and reared in Oklahoma and now lives in Texas, he brings to his music a perspective and a range of interests that never would have occurred to those who dreamed of an “Old Rugged Cross” or warned that “There’s No Excuse if You Don’t Know the Savior.”

It’s a brave new world.


By Amany Al-Sayyed
Special to The Daily Star

BEIRUT: If you’re tired of arguing with your pals about whether culture-clash between down-home America and the Muslim Middle East is inevitable, you need look no further than Kareem Salama. The 31-year-old Salama is known as America’s first Muslim country-and-western singer-songwriter. Born in Ponca City, Oklahoma to Egyptian immigrant parents, he goes horseback riding and enjoys his mother’s southern cooking. He’s performed in Italy and Germany, typically with a guitar accompanist and black cowboy boots. He even sings in a southern twang.

Salama’s music reflects many influences – pop, rock and folk as well as country-and-western. Then there’s the inspiration he takes from the Koran. “I enjoy listening to the Koran recited with a beautiful voice,” he said in an email interview, “or listening to songs praise God or the Prophet Mohammad or praising something good in general.”

He says the work of 17th-century English poet John Donne’s has been “a favorite of mine when I was a teenager and it still is. In order to memorize them, and other western poems, I made them into songs with a melody. This is common in Arabic poetry because it is written and then sung using ‘maqamat.’ I memorized some Arabic poetry the same way.

“Sayidna Ali wrote a line of poetry that says, ‘If it were that wealth were brought by intellect then all the rich people would be wealthy.’ Wealth and fame, these things are difficult to explain.”

Salama describes his music is a hybrid of an American-Arab experience. His latest self-marketed debut albums include 2006’s “Generous Peace” and “This Life of Mine,” from 2007. During Israel’s summer 2006 bombing campaign against Lebanon, Salama released a special single dedicated to the crisis, “Prayers at Night.”

Salama’s parents moved to the US in the late 1960s, where they pursued a university education at various universities, including MIT. Salama himself holds a B.Sc. in chemical engineering and earned a law degree in 2007.

The singer-songwriter depicts a near-idyllic American childhood. “I spent it doing stuff outside like playing baseball with friends or sitting on the porch at night drinking Kool Aid,” he reminisced. “Maybe we’d even sneak out and throw toilet paper at the neighbor’s house.”

Though he hasn’t been in Egypt for some time, he said he finds American rural life not unlike what he found while visiting his parents’ home. “The country style here resembles the ‘Shaabiyyah’ element in Egypt,” he said. “I grew up in the country and my music has a more traditional style to it.”

The songwriting process he describes will be familiar to young pop musicians around the world. “Sometimes I have a thought or idea about a song,” he says. “I sit with my guitar. I start singing it with a melody or rhythm underneath it. Then a line or idea comes to me about something and it flows out of me in tandem always with the melody. Then I write a rhythm.”

Afterward, he sits with his producer, who works the melody and the chord progression around the song with a piano interlude here, or a riff there.

Salama says he writes his own lyrics, mostly about chivalry, love, home and family values. Yes, he knows Umm Khoultoum and likes her music. “I don’t demonize or idolize any particular time or era,” he says, “because there’s something good in all times. You get more modern progression sound in the remixes today, but there’s still enough of the old, because people still appreciate it.”

Though he doesn’t sing about Arabic cultural heritage, Salama believes he still weaves its spirit into his music. He says his lyrics are inspired by readings from Al-Ghazali, John Makdisi and “Maqamaat al-Hareeri” as much as good old Southern race/slavery narratives – “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” for instance. “There is an enjoyment of the old and the new,” he said. “That’s why I think country music is the most lucrative market in the USA.”

Salama continues to live in Texas where he pursues his musical career. He still prefers shawarma over falafel, loves to go horseback riding and believes line dance resembles Arabic dabkeh. A polymath, he’s finishing a book on political fiction.

Though he’s faced challenges as the son of immigrants, Salama depicts himself as an American nationalist. “As far as my relationship with my American-ness, yeah I love my home,” he said. “I’d still visit other places but I love this place. I had a good childhood and I’ve always been happy where I was born. I can relate to it. As for the racist element, I think of it like this: it’s like having a family with a history in abuse; at the end of the day they’re still your family.

“I don’t neglect the Egyptian part of me or that of my parents,” he continues. “But you get some people here who have a bad experience and they wake up one day and say; ‘I’m only Egyptian or I’m only Lebanese.’ That’s fine but in my opinion, I say I’m sorry you’re not just one thing.”


For more information on Salama’s performances and music, visit

Copyright (c) 2009 The Daily Star


Posting my blog at has added plenty of hits, although I can’t understand the pattern at all. One movie review blog I wrote has been getting more hits than anything else, but I can’t see why.




The Daily Star in Beirut is running an ad on its web site for hookahs and tobacco. If I’m not mistaken, that’s Barbara Eden in the ad. It certainly doesn’t look like any Lebanese women I know. I guess the agency figured that since “I Dream of Jeannie” is still in vogue in the United States – well, it’s one of the series that gets re-run ad nauseam while better ones stay on the shelf – then Barbara would be a good image for this campaign. I’ve been told that my grandmother, Selma Aoun, whom I never met, smoked a hookah, which the Lebanese and Syrians call something like arghille. (I have pictures of my grandmother; she looked more like Salma Hayek than like Barbara Eden.) Another common Arabic term for the water pipe is shisha, which evokes one of the materials a person might smoke in such a device. I have never smoked more than a few cigars, but I have always envied the image of the smoker. Not the crowd I recently saw huddled outside the back door of a restaurant in Morristown, but the thoughtful pose of the Edward R. Murrow. I have always wanted to place a Meerschaum between my teeth during a conversation and nod from behind the blue haze as though to say, “Hmmmmm. I’ll have to see what Spinoza had to say about that.” According to family lore, my grandmother’s arghille had several pipes, so that she could share it with her visitors. I fantasize about getting out that fez I bought at the Moroccan restaurant at Epcot, sitting cross-legged on the floor, and squinting through the smoke at two or three men in dark glasses as we plan the raid on Aqaba. Of course, even if I could sit cross-legged on the floor at my age, I couldn’t get up without assistance.