24 October 2016

After three months, including six weeks with the car sitting in the garage, we finally have our Saudi license plates so we can drive. Well, so my husband can drive me around.  Last night we went out after dinner to poke around a bit.

My number one reason for loving to live outside the US is exploring a new place, but that is so hard to do here.  Transportation obviously makes things dicey, but I also stick out and there is nothing I can do about it.  Even if I wore a niqab, it would look very strange for me to be with an American man.  Any other headcovering, or not using one at all, is also very noticeable but at least I can walk with my husband that way. However, sticking out here just means you're stared at which is saying a lot.

The biggest problem is that there are so few acceptable things for women to do here. Malls and shopping are always an option, but neither of us much like malls or shopping.  You can go to a restaurant, but we're street food people, not restaurant people.  The street food/fast Arabic food places here don't usually allow women in them (although they often have a window in the glass front of the building where women can order without going inside but then you need to find a place to eat).  Or you can go to private events.

So last night we drove around a bit in Yemeni neighborhood and then parked and walked down the street for a while.  There were carpentry places and upholstery shops and little grocery stores and places with couches inside whose purpose I know not and lots of places to eat.  My husband went in one to get a grilled meat kebab and we found a couple of places where we want to try getting kabsa to bring home for lunch or dinner.  There were falafel and ful places but I didn't see any shawarma last night.  And there was a mutabbaq place too.  I'd had plenty for dinner since it was pancit canton so I didn't want to eat anything, but at the very least I think we can try eating different things around the city even if we have to sit in the car to eat.  Maybe I'll try to rope my husband into a street food of Riyadh project.  I'd have to have his complete cooperation to do that since he'd have to drive the car and deal with the food in most places but it literally is all I can think of to do in the evenings that doesn't involving shopping or socializing with other people.

It was really nice to get out.

14 October 2016

Syrian Refugees and Why We Must Welcome Them (and not be scared)

As the election season is finally winding down, I’ve been very concerned about the amount of misinformation about Syrian refugees that has been said during the campaigns. After a number of different online discussions about this, I had to sit down and type this whole thing out.  

What is a refugee?

The term “refugee” can be used in a couple of different ways.  Its broadest meaning is someone who has been forced to flee their home because of persecution, war, natural disaster, etc.  However, it also has a narrower definition when talking about refugees entering the US.  A person is considered a refugee if they have fled their country for similar reasons listed above and have been formally recognized as a refugee by the UN.  They are defined and protected in international law and have very specific rules regarding their movement.  Most refugees return home when the conflict ends, and most of the rest stay in their host country permanently.  Fewer than one percent of refugees apply for resettlement in a third country. http://www.unrefugees.org/what-is-a-refugee/

What is an asylee?

While asylees might sound a lot like refugees when the word is used informally, they actually have a very different legal status.  UN-defined refugees cannot enter the US as asylees and must go through the regular refugee process. An asylee is someone who arrives in another country and asks for asylum.  Asylees have a very different entry process than refugees. https://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/refugees-asylum/asylum/affirmative-asylum-process

What is the process for entering the US as a refugee?  

Basically, a refugee who cannot return home and whose host country cannot accommodate her permanently can apply for resettlement.  The UN chooses which country would be the best fit for her based on the requirements of the country and begins the process of gathering data and documents.  The UN has extensive experience working with refugees since the end of WWII and is used to processing people who have little documentation, something that is common to many refugees, although Syrian refugees generally have more documentation than most refugee populations. If the US is selected as a place for the refugee to resettle, the vetting and screening begins. Syrian refugees get additional review from DHS that other refugees don’t have to go through after Congress voted to increase the vetting at the end of 2015.  Background checks, fingerprinting, medical screening, and interviews all happen over the course of many months.  https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/11/20/infographic-screening-process-refugee-entry-united-states

How many Syrian refugees are in the US?

Up until fiscal year 2016, very few Syrians had gone through the entire process and entered the US. President Obama raised the quota of Syrian refugees that we would accept to 10,000 for FY 2016.  That goal was met and Obama is setting FY 2017’s quota at 110,000. The president has unilateral control over the number of refugees allowed into the US from any given country.

How many Syrian refugees does Hillary Clinton want to allow into the US?  How many does Trump want to allow in?

At the end of 2015 Hillary Clinton proposed raising the number to 65,000. However, as mentioned above, Obama’s current FY 2017 proposal is 110,000.  Hillary Clinton hasn’t updated her proposal to my knowledge.  In the VP debate, Mike Pence stated “Donald Trump and I are committed to suspending the Syrian refugee program...” so we can assume that Trump would allow zero Syrian refugees into the US.

Why shouldn’t we require more vetting for Syrian refugees?  Wouldn’t that keep us safer?

The main reason is that it would make it more difficult for people who need help to enter the US without any proven national security benefit. Congress already mandated extra screening for Syrian refugees at the end of last year. People in the US have not been in danger because of refugees in the past, even when there were less restrictive vetting processes in place.  When those less restrictive rules were in place, we accepted Afghan, Somali, Palestinian, and Iraqi refugees and Americans were not put in danger as a result.  The system has worked and is working.  Nearly 785,000 refugees have been admitted to the US since 2001 and only about about 12 “have been arrested or removed from the US due to terrorism concerns that existed prior to their resettlement in the US.” That is a very acceptable level of risk. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/11/19/the-viral-claim-that-not-one-refugee-resettled-since-911-has-been-arrested-on-domestic-terrorism-charges/

Weren’t the Tsarnaev brothers refugees?  And Ahmad Khan Rahami?

The Tsarnaev brothers were asylees, not refugees.  I cannot find out whether Rahami was a refugee.  In both cases, the boys/men were radicalized in the US and were US citizens. Vetting obviously cannot predict future risk, especially in small children.

Haven’t some Syrian refugees been admitted without all the vetting they’re supposed to get?

No.  Because of the delays that the Congress-mandated additional vetting for Syrian refugees caused, in early summer of 2016 more refugee officers were sent to interview applicants to help speed up the process so that all 10,000 refugees would be processed before the end of September 2016.  The refugees still had their required screening, including the extra screening.

Didn’t FBI Director James Comey say that the US cannot vet Syrian refugees?

There has been a lot of reporting that Comey doesn’t think the vetting process is safe, but that is not true.  While Comey obviously stated that he personally cannot ensure that there is no risk associated with any given refugee, he has stated that the vetting process has improved dramatically and that he believes it is adequate.  Also, several other agencies besides the FBI vet all Syrian refugees, including extra vetting only applied to Syrians.  There are no guarantees but there are many, many safeguards.

Isn’t it Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s fault that we have this Syrian refugee crisis?

This is a misrepresentation of the situation in Syria.  While President Obama may have been able to do more to end the conflict in Syria, it is impossible to know what the results of any foreign intervention might have been.  Also, there are many actors in the Middle East and all might share in the blame in different ways, including George W. Bush.  But the bulk of the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the Assad regime and trying to blame this on Obama and Hillary Clinton is not reasonable.

Why don’t we create safe zones for refugees inside Syria?

It would be very difficult to ensure the safety of the millions of people living in the safe zones, plus provide food, shelter, clothing, and employment for all of those people.  It would require a significant military and financial commitment. Our efforts would be better spent on resolving the conflict in Syria so people can return home and on welcoming those who cannot return home.  

Why don’t Arab/Muslim countries take in the refugees?

This is a common charge that completely misrepresents the refugee population in the Middle East.  Nearly all Syrian refugees are currently living in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey. All except Turkey are Arab countries (Turkey is Turkish with an unrelated language) and all are Muslim-majority, although Lebanon has a significant Christian minority.  It is simply incorrect to state that Muslim and Arab countries aren’t doing their part.  However, it is very true that some Muslim countries aren’t allowing Syrian refugees to be resettled in their countries, including the wealthy Gulf countries.  But there are enough Syrian refugees who need resettlement that the US would still need to accept refugees even if every wealthy Muslim country accepted refugees.

Why should we take in these people?

The most important reason is because they are human beings who need help.  The US also has a moral obligation to help Syrian refugees because of our historical involvement in the Middle East. From a national security perspective, it is very important that we do all we can to relieve the pressure on Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey as they host millions of Syrian refugees.  These four countries are all in somewhat precarious political and financial situations and the influx of so many refugees has contributed to their instability.  Resettling refugees might help make neighboring countries’ situations less difficult.

Why should we spend our limited resources on refugees?

Besides our moral obligation, the US is among the wealthiest countries in the world.  We do have the resources to help refugees.  It is also very important to remember that 56 percent of the world’s refugees are hosted in 10 countries with a combined GDP of less than 2.5 percent of global GDP.  If these countries are doing so much with so little, we can certainly share some of our resources. http://www.amnestyusa.org/research/reports/tackling-the-global-refugee-crisis-from-shirking-to-sharing-responsibility

There are no absolute promises that any person in the US or applying to enter the US will never commit an act of terrorism, no matter their race, religion, or nationality. Welcoming refugees obviously does involve some level of risk. However, the actual risk has been proven to be so low as to be almost non-existent. Instead of directing our energy toward shutting down the Syrian refugee program, we should make it possible to welcome more refugees.

11 October 2016

Can we have a civics lesson here?

The American Mormon Republican world doesn't like Trump.  It never did, but it finally got disgusted enough to do something about it (better late than never, I guess). But it also really, really doesn't like Hillary Clinton.  So what's an American Mormon Republican supposed to do?

One suggestion that keeps getting presented as a realistic strategy is to vote third party.  And this is the first part of the civics lesson because this is tilting at windmills.*   The idea is that, somehow, both Trump and Hillary Clinton don't get to 270 and someone like Evan McMullin wins Utah.  In that case, the election would go to the House where each state would get one vote and they'd choose between Clinton, Trump, and whoever else got the most electoral college votes.  Then, for some unknown reason, the House chooses the person who came in third.

First, having any third-party candidate win a state is extremely difficult.  It hasn't happened in 48 years and there is no polling that indicates that it will happen this year.  But let's say it does and that Evan McMullin wins 6 electors in Utah.

The trouble is, that doesn't help because Hillary Clinton is well on her way to winning 270 electors.  Her losing a reliably red state is meaningless in her electoral count because she's certainly not expecting to win Utah no matter what.  To not get to 270, she would need to lose almost every single swing state to Trump (or someone else, but see the first point), but she's polling ahead in most of those states.  For this strategy to work, not only does someone like McMullin have to win Utah, he also needs to come up with a way to make sure Trump wins everything else in play.  But let's say that happens too (we're obviously entering an alternate reality at this point) and McMullin gets 6 votes, Hillary gets 269, and Trump gets 263.

The vote then goes to the House where they choose between the top three people to get electoral college votes.  Like I said above, each state gets one vote.  For the McMullin strategy to work, he would need to convince 26 states to vote for him, a person that almost no USian has ever heard of, who only won 6 votes out of 538, and who got a tiny percentage of the popular vote.  Sure, the one state/one vote rule greatly favors a Republican in that case, but why in the world would the House pick McMullin?  I honestly don't know what the House would do, but it's certainly not likely that they'd pick an entirely unknown person with absolutely no mandate behind him except their own.

I just had to say this once more so I quit saying it on Facebook because any Republican who votes for anyone besides Trump is smart in my book.  Friends don't let friends vote for Trump.

Finally, there is a reason why we have two major parties in the US and that is our constitutionally- mandated election system.  Since we only have one round of voting and since we have a first past the post system, it is nearly impossible to have more than two major parties.  Voting third party has worked less than a handful of times in over 200 years.  If you want that to change, we need to change the constitution. It's not the parties and it's not the primaries that cause this.  It's the constitution.

*To be clear, I do not think a third-party vote is wasted if the voter has thought about the issues and chosen a candidate they are satisfied with. Vote for someone whose policies you like and whose negatives you can live with. Just be prepared for disappointment if you don't choose one of the major party candidates.

02 October 2016

Why I Am Voting for Hillary Clinton and Not Just Against Trump

1.  Because I want a president who believes and supports this:

"The United States has made empowering women and girls a cornerstone of our foreign policy, because women's equality is not just a moral issue, it's not just a humanitarian issue, it is not just a fairness issue; it is a security issue. It is a prosperity issue and it is a peace issue. ... Give women equal rights, and entire nations are more stable and secure. Deny women equal rights, and the instability of nations is almost certain. The subjugation of women is, therefore, a threat to the common security of our world and to the national security of our country."

2. Because I want a president who will welcome refugees to this country.  I am not a single-issue voter, but if I were, this would be it.  Refugees must be welcome in this country.

3. Because I want a president who sees immigrants as a significant part of what has made this country great.

"Hillary has been committed to the immigrant rights community throughout her career. As president, she will work to fix our broken immigration system and stay true to our fundamental American values: that we are a nation of immigrants, and we treat those who come to our country with dignity and respect—and that we embrace immigrants, not denigrate them."

4. Because I want a president who has spent her life advocating for women and children.

5. Because I want a president who is capable, qualified, experienced, knowledgeable, and reasoned.  I agree with President Obama that there has never been a man or woman more qualified to serve as president. 

6. Because I want a president who supports common-sense gun control, who is concerned about climate change and the very real sociopolitical impacts it will have on all of our lives, and who knows that Black Lives Matter.

7. Because I want a president whose negatives I can live with.  In any election, you're voting for someone you don't agree with entirely (unless you're voting for yourself).  While there are always positions from any candidate that you don't support, I do think that you are ratifying the negative positions and characteristics of a candidate, or at least saying you can live with them. There are things I don't like about Hillary Clinton, but I can live with them.  

29 September 2016

I have been so very tired since moving here, mostly because I cannot get enough sleep no matter what I try- I always wake up before I've hit eight hours.  It doesn't matter if I exercised a lot the day before, if I was exhausted the day before, if I wore a mask over my eyes and ear plugs, if I go to bed at 9 or at 11, whatever.  It's also not helping that the dusty air is bothering me a lot more than I expected it would.  Pollution and pollen have never bothered me, but the dust is hard for me to breathe in.

Yesterday was the worst of all and I had to use all of my energy to get the grocery shopping done because I have no flexibility on that point and if I didn't go, I wouldn't have another chance for days.  I couldn't go on a bike ride and I didn't go to Arabic because I couldn't bike there and couldn't imagine saying anything coherent even in English.  Getting up to the third floor to work on the laundry was almost not doable. It was awful.  

But last night I finally came closer to eight hours of sleep and I feel so much better today.  I woke up with the alarm which I've kept setting even though this is the first time in two months that I've needed it because I have faith that someday I will need it again all the time.  It's still been an up and down day, like days always are when you're trying to adjust to a new place, but it's so much easier to deal with the problems when you're not so very tired. I even felt like blogging today, as you can see.

We borrowed some extension cords yesterday so I could finish trimming the lawn.  There are no outlets outside for some unknown reason and the weed whacker is 110 so it has to plug into a transformer, and the extension cord isn't long enough to get all of the grass.  I did as much as I could a couple of weeks ago, but there's one chunk in particular that's pretty shaggy, as it would be after two months.  But most of the extension cords were two-pronged instead of three so I couldn't use them, then a power strip blew out when I plugged it into the transformer (and I am very glad it was just a power strip and not a blender) so I only ended up with about 3 feet more range.  Then the trimmer spool exploded.  So I have now ordered more spools and a long extension cord because getting to the store that would have that kind of stuff isn't on the schedule for at least the next ten days.  

But I did go to the pharmacy (I can always schedule a trip for medical reasons), signed up for our absentee ballots even though Utah is going to give its electoral votes to the worst presidential candidate in living memory, went on a bike ride between getting people out the door, moved my computer into another room where I get to choose how cluttered the space is or is not, and it was only 77 degrees outside this morning at our house.  

14,000 Saudi women signed a petition earlier this week demanding the end of guardianship here.  I am lucky that I don't have to worry about this (and a lot of other things that Saudi women have to deal with, and expats with browner skin than mine because white privilege is even more noticeable here than just about anywhere else I've lived), but it is high time it ended.  The religious decision makers have made various statements about this recently, from showing some willingness to at least change the rules somewhat to saying that ending guardianship would be the end of Saudi society, so I very much hope this goes somewhere.

I also have a long post in me about why I am voting for Hillary Clinton, and not just voting against Donald Trump.

Going on a bike ride in the morning has been so lovely.  I can ride on an interesting trail and squeeze in a ride between pickups for the people leaving.  It's a lot cooler now in the mornings than when I first got here, but bike rides are so much more pleasant than walking when it's hot.  Soon it will be cool enough in the morning that I'll be able to go on a walk.

Also, I see lots of couples here holding hands or touching each other. Including Saudi couples.  I still have never, ever seen the religious police.  

That was a very eclectic post.

18 September 2016

History of the Church in Mexico

I think I've mentioned the newish LDS lessons on the history of the church in Mexico.  These were apparently commissioned by the Mexico area and were written in Spanish for members of the church in Mexico by an American scholar/missionary (maybe someday there will be a set of lessons written by a Mexican scholar).

It appears that not all of the lessons are on the lds.org Spanish website (that website is clearly not updated as often as it should be), but they are on the sud.org website.

I have never seen an English translation so you either need to read Spanish, or, even better, call a Mexican in your ward who speaks English also to teach these lessons as an alternative Sunday School class for a couple of months.  Learning about the history of the church in other countries is very worthwhile and church history in Mexico has some important and overlooked events, especially regarding the Third Convention.  

The stuff arrived.  We thought it wouldn't come till this week, after Eid al-Adha, but in a surprise move, it came at the beginning of the holiday.  That worked out really well since we couldn't go anywhere and didn't have much to do.  Getting the house put together was lovely.

We had the movers unpack for us for the first time.  I will never do that again. I know some people love it. but it took longer overall to get everything put away.  I much prefer opening one box at a time, putting each thing away, and then moving onto the next box.  No one digs through the stuff, things stay somewhat organized, and there's just a stack of boxes sitting there when you need a break instead of a room filled with junk.  I'd always had a suspicion that it wouldn't work for me, and now I know.

I have done a lot of exciting things since the stuff came.  I've gone a bike ride every day, which means I've left the house when I chose to and came home when I chose to and went where I felt like. I was in control of my own wheeled vehicle. I got some things done without calling for a ride. I love it.

I made tortillas and chapatis with the tortilla press.  It was so good to eat tacos again.  We had them on the 16th, of course, with rajas and crema, chicken, salsa, pickled vegetables, and frijoles.  

We've also made ice cream three times.  You can't get mint extract here but we tried steeping real mint in the hot mixture while it was cooling down and it worked really well.  We've also used coconut milk because that's super quick, although several of my children didn't like plain coconut milk which is sad.  Just with cocoa. 

I'll spiralize some carrots for dinner tonight.  I still haven't used the molcajete or pasta maker yet.

It's nice to have everyone back to school and work today.  

05 September 2016

Mutabbaq, Again

I made mutabbaq again a few nights ago.  This time I use roumy cheese in some of them, just the cheese, which was really easy.  I chopped up some green onions and tomatoes for some more of them.  The mixture should be green with a little red, and just add some salt, nothing else.  That one was amazing.  And I did some with chicken and potato.

Saute lots of garlic in some olive oil, then add about 2 diced potatoes.  You can microwave them a bit first to move things a lot, but you're mostly cooking them in the pan, not the microwave.  Cook the potatoes till they're just tender, or not quite tender, and add some cooked shredded chicken, feta, salt, spice, chopped fresh mint, and enough yogurt so it isn't dry.

I baked some and pan-fried some.  I preferred the baked ones (I brushed them with a bit of oil and baked them at 200/400 for about 20 minutes till they were golden brown), but everyone else liked the fried ones.  It was nice to have both.

We'll certainly have these again and try new fillings, but these three fillings were all amazing.

01 September 2016

Mexico, Immigration, Trump

So, nothing new from Trump's speech yesterday.  But still, hearing his immigration plan all at once, with all the asides, made me sick.  Teleprompter Trump would have been better. I don't want to live in the America that Trump wants to create.

This morning I read an email from an LDS missionary living in Southern California in a largely Iraqi neighborhood.  He sees Islamophobia and anti-immigrant abuse too frequently. He wrote about stopping a man who was loudly verbally abusing an older Iraqi woman on the street, getting threatened with a knife when he stepped in, and then helping her carry her groceries home when the man ran away.  I'm so glad he did that, but angry that he had to. 

The speech had the usual misrepresention and spin, which is normal and easily looked over.  But it also had some things that are factually untrue and policy proposals that are unacceptable in my mind. Throughout the speech it's often hard to tell sometimes which group of people Trump is referring to.  Sometimes he lumps all foreign-born people together, whether they're US citizens, green card holders, or undocumented; he seems to consider anyone who wasn't born in the US as an immigrant even if they're only in the US temporarily (being an immigrant means you are intending to settle in a new country permanently); sometimes he's talking about refugees who have a very different entry process than anyone else who enters the US; etc.  This lack of clarity isn't particularly surprising though.

First, I completely and thoroughly reject the idea that the point of our immigration system is to make life better for US citizens (and I don't think Trump sees increased diversity as one of those ways to make life better for US citizens). Our immigration system is to allow people from all over the world to move to the US and to improve everyone's lives, both the people born in the US or anywhere else in the world. Nearly all of my ancestors who immigrated to the US after it was an independent country didn't look that great on paper (except they were white) but I'm glad they were allowed to enter, obviously. America First is not an immigration system I can ever support.

Second, I have a serious problem with Trump's continuing to pit minorities in the US against immigrants.  This is also part of his America First rhetoric- trying to make people believe that immigration hurts the US rather than creating it (and I think we are still creating the US). Also, immigrants are humans and as important and worthy of respect as any US-born US citizen.  I care about immigrant families whose legal status makes their lives difficult. And people who cross the border illegally are not fish, so it is not acceptable to refer to them in fishing terms.

Third, Trump continues to lie about the refugee entry process into the US.  There are a lot of lies and spin out there in politics, but this should not be acceptable.

Fourth, Mexico is not going to pay for the wall.  Peña Nieto has made that clear.  Trump's plan to get Mexico to pay for it would have significant diplomatic repercussions if he tried to implement it.

Fifth, Trump is awfully fuzzy with his math throughout the speech.  I'm looking for a good fact-checker to explain why I say this.

Sixth, this extreme vetting is concerning and vague.  Trump did list some ideological differences he would screen for (too bad there are already US-born citizens who wouldn't pass his test because Americans are allowed freedom to have offensive opinions), but the point for anyone, citizen or not, is not belief, it's about agreeing to be subject to US law.  That is the only ideological test I am interested in, and immigrants already do agree to that.  Also, this is the main time when Trump lumps all foreign-born people living in the US together.  He made his attitude clear about foreign-born citizens when he disparaged Judge Curiel.

Seventh, I am absolutely opposed to complete bans of people entering the US from certain countries.  No country, not Mexico, not Syria, not Libya, not one country has an entire population that should be viewed with that level of suspicion by a US president.

Eighth, look forward to long lines when leaving the US so your passport can be checked by CBP.

Ninth, his statistic that 62% of households headed by an undocumented individual get some type of welfare benefits neglected to mention that the report he was quoting from said that the majority of those households get those benefits for their citizen family members.  It is obviously legal for US citizens to get welfare benefits.

Finally, I really disliked how he talked about immigrants and immigration at the end of his speech.  Assimilation and limiting immigration are conversations from one hundred years ago and we have moved far beyond that. I am also extremely opposed to the idea of only allowing immigrants who are already financially self-sufficient. Immigration from all over the world and from all sorts of demographics is a good thing for the US.

31 August 2016

Flatbread and Stuff

One of my favorite dinners to make is the local grain/bread/noodle choice plus stuff.  In Mexico, that meant tortillas and stuff.  In Kyrgyzstan, laghman and stuff.  In the US, it's rice and stuff (not that rice is really at that American, but I can always get big bags of jasmine rice there).  The stuff is protein, vegetables, and sauces, and then everyone can choose what they want to eat.  It's an easy way to feed lots of people who have different food preferences, and if you're sticking with the local flatbread/grain/noodle/whatever, you have a choice of making it or buying it.  Because one should never buy tortillas outside Mexico or a good Mexican grocery store, or pita in the US unless you watched the person make it, and the same goes for naan.  I won't make any rules about laghman because no one is mass producing it anywhere in the world that I know of.

Anyway.  The current version is flatbread and stuff.  I can make hummus, tabbouli, buy flatbread and something new to try from the deli, and we often have labnah balls too and grape leaves. And zaatar chicken, because my children all love it and it's the easiest thing ever to make.  And I have a list of things to make because it's easy to get all the right ingredients here. Everyone is happy with this meal because no one has to eat everything.  Also, no one else much likes tabbouli so I get it all and making enough tabbouli for one is quick and easy.  

It's been a long time, relatively speaking, since we've had much Middle Eastern food and it's so good to have it again all the time.
The mutabbaq is really intriguing me.  Wikipedia failed me because it neglected to mention that mutabbaq is also made in the Levant and is filled with sweet cheese.  I have a recipe for it in a Jerusalem cookbook sitting in my shelf.  There's a pastry shop in Jerusalem that's been selling it for 150 years- search for Zalatimo's.  I certainly ate plenty of sweet cheese desserts in Jerusalem twenty years ago and maybe I had mutabbaq.  I even have a sneaking suspicion that I ate it at a Yemeni place in Arlington.

I'm still leaning toward a Middle Eastern origin because of the name.

28 August 2016

There are lots of times when I buy something at the grocery store without knowing what it is.  It's especially tricky here because you don't know if something is from Saudi Arabia, or the broader Middle East, or south or southeast Asia.  A lot of things are packaged with English on them so there are clues at the store, but vegetables and some packages can be a complete mystery.

I bought a package of square dough sheets not long after I got here.  There was no English on the package at all and no instructions.  I'd assumed they were for samosas when I'd bought them, but none of the few words on the package indicated that.  Google translate wasn't helping either and after googling several of the words in Arabic script and transliterated (still not knowing if I was looking at Arabic or Urdu words since there was no context- and I was guessing Urdu because of the style of the script) without any success, I stuck the dough in the fridge to figure out later since the expiration date was still six weeks away.

I decided yesterday that it was time to figure it out, or at least fill the dough with cheese because how can you go wrong there?  But I did try the Internet once more, and finally figured out what I had.  It's dough for mutabbaq.  I'd not googled that one in Arabic, just done Google translate which said it meant pure, so I thought it was telling me about the dough, not what the dough was.  I should have stuck with my real dictionary- more on that in another post- and googling.

Anyway, the dough has lots of possible fillings.  You mound the filling in a square in the middle of the sheet of dough then fold the dough over the filling and fry them in a little oil.  I'm thinking this will be a popular option at our house, especially since rolling out dough is not my favorite thing.  Since I didn't know what I was getting into before I started, I had to come up with a filling quickly and decided to do greens and feta, but the greens were bok choy which is certainly odd, but it was local bok choy which means the stems weren't as hearty (like the local bean sprouts).  I liked the greens, but I'd use a different type in the future. I also did some cheese ones which were obviously a hit.  There are so many more things we can do.

I'm not sure where these originated.  They're called murtabak in India and Southeast Asia so that sounds like they were borrowed from an Arabic-spelling country. There are also similar breads in North Africa that I've made before.  So some people say they began in Yemen and travelled east with the Indian community.  But others say they started in India since mutabar means egg bread in Malayalam, apparently.  Another culinary mystery, like so many I've discovered.  
Drain flies.  They were here when we moved in and I haven't been able to eradicate them yet.  But they are better than house flies or mosquitoes, and they're easier to dispatch.  

Plumerias.  We have lovely big bushy trees outside with white flowers on them, but I wasn't sure what they were.  They looked like plumerias, but how could that be in a desert?  Also, I wasn't smelling plumeria when I went near them (and I do that all the time since I rake up the leaves and dead flowers every day) so I didn't think they were. And I'd never gotten around to searching online to find out what they were, despite my best intentions.  But I was on FaceTime last night with my sister and she said they're plumerias, so I finally got my nose close enough to the blossoms to smell them (all the blossoms are above my head) and they are!  It's tempting to make a lei. 

Butter.  Like a lot of the local cheese that's processed, a lot of the locally produced butter I've tried is some sort of blend with oil that leaves an unpleasant aftertaste.  The goal the next time I go to the grocery store is to find some real butter.

Labnah/labaneh/laban- I'm slowly converting the family to labnah balls.  The oldest didn't try them the first time, but did the second time (which makes sense since he loves tart yogurt) and now I need to buy a much larger quantity, or just start making them but I generally try to buy local foods that I have to make elsewhere (like laghman noodles in Kyrgyzstan and salsa in Mexico) so we'll keep buying lots of them.  Also, middle son likes to take a couple for lunch.  Youngest may change sides later, but right now he's with my husband in the not-a-big-fan category. There's also plenty of Turkish labaneh that's the consistency of cream cheese and laban, which I keep hearing other expats accidentally buying instead of milk since it lives right next to the milk.  It was an easy mistake to make in Kyrgyzstan too. I love being able to get all the different lbn products in one place. 

20 August 2016

Pandan leaves.  I blended these up with a little water, strained it, and used it in a coconut cake (I just used a white cake and substituted coconut milk for the milk).  Everyone liked the cake. I'm going to try a chicken recipe with them next and in some rice.  They really do smell a lot like jasmine or basmati rice.

Drumsticks.  I sautéed these with mustard seeds, turmeric, chile and salt. I didn't really expect them to be a hit, and they weren't.  They're rather inconvenient to eat or prepare, depending on when you get rid of the peel.  
I've mentioned that I'm loving getting to know all the different expats here, but sometimes not so much.  The other day I spent a few hours with a certain type of expats and it reminded me why there are some groups I steer clear of.  After listening to a couple of hours of complaining, I don't know when I'll dare hang out with that group again.

Now, I get being frustrated dealing with some aspects of life in Saudi Arabia.  The limited transportation options here in particular have a significant negative impact on every woman's quality of life- there is no denying that.  (And no man can understand that, even if he never drives here. Having the choice is what's important.)

But many expat women, particularly white expat women, get a lot of the frustrations smoothed over.  People don't expect us to do everything right and allow us a reasonable amount of straying from cultural norms that many non-white expat women don't get, and certainly not Saudi women.  We have more choices that any other group of women here. So listening to wealthy white expat women complain doesn't really make me feel very sympathetic.  

And it's not just Saudi Arabia where you can't wear shorts and a t-shirt around your neighborhood without a lot of staring or where your opinion will be dismissed because you're a woman, it's a lot of other countries too.  And cultural change comes from within a country.  Expats wearing shorts are definitely not going to change the culture here. Nor are expats telling Saudis they're doing anything else wrong.  Do you know what will change Saudi culture?  Giving Saudis more opportunities to live in other countries (and that's something one party is advocating to end as much as possible).

You have to learn how to live differently in different places, how to interact with another culture, even one you think is very wrong, to learn from it or make a difference in it.  Interacting with another country and culture in the very same way you would with yours is one of the best ways to spend a frustrating few years overseas.

16 August 2016

New things from the grocery store:

Beef pepperoni.  We're trying this on pizza tonight and I hope it's not awful.

Pandan leaves.  These were labeled rambi and it took a bit of searching to figure out what they were.  I haven't yet decided what to do with them.

Stuffed grape leaves.  So these aren't new, but I can get an entire kilo for less than three dollars.  I will certainly not be learning how to make these here.

Banana leaves.  Not new either, but I finally found them today.  They're fresh, just like in Mexico.

Drumsticks.  I seriously doubt these will be popular at my house, but I can't pass up the opportunity to try them.


Shower doors. I think I have actually found a product that gets rid of hard water soap scum without excessive scrubbing.  I tried everything in Mexico, from imported things to concoctions dipped out of buckets at the tianguis and nothing was really great.  Barkeepers Friend did a good job but I still had to apply, scrub, and rinse.  I've bought a few different things here that haven't really worked either, but today I tried Scrubbing Bubbles.  Silly name, but all I had to do was spray it on, let it sit, wipe (no scrubbing), and rinse with the moveable shower head.  This stuff is my new best friend.

Dusting.  I am, at best, and indifferent duster, but I can't ignore it here.  But even when I do dust, it takes just six hours to look like it needs it again- as in you can write your name in the dust at that point.  That's dusty.  So even though I have dusted more here than anyone I've ever lived, you'd never know it.


It took 2.5 hours today for me to go to the grocery store.  The traffic was slow (I'm done with afternoon grocery trips) and there were four other people in the car so the pickups took a while and we left the grocery store nearly thirty minutes after the appointed time.  But the driver was one of my favorites and we had a nice chat.  He's from Eritrea and he and his wife are expecting their first baby in two months. And did I mention that the baggers here sort your food?  It helps keep things from melting in the heat.

We're coming into the busier driving season with school starting soon so it will be harder to schedule rides.  The driver today confirmed that mid-morning is a good time to go to the store because there's less traffic and it's after the school rush. Hope it works because I don't want to get stuck going in the afternoons.

13 August 2016

I am starting to wonder if two years will be long enough to try all the new ingredients I'm discovering.

I got a coconut shredded the other day. We're trying it in a Keralite mashed potato dish tonight.  We'll also have some spicy chicken and I'll make ghee rice again now that my spices are here.

The driver came into the grocery store with me and showed me some new things.  I have the right fish masala now, which we'll try tomorrow or Monday night, plus curry leaves which I've never bought before. He also made sure I had coconut milk and the right spices, which I do, of course.

And he told me to get something labeled black tamarind.  I had no idea what it was, but he said it was very good and necessary for meen kari so I bought it and searched online when I got home. Black tamarind didn't find anything useful, but I kept searching and finally realized it was cambodge which my Keralite cookbook calls for often, but I had no idea how to find it (and never would have, without help).  The curry leaves and cambodge are going into the potatoes tonight too.

I also finally found mung bean sprouts.  They're locally grown, which is nice, but they also look homegrown, which means fairly wimpy bean sprouts.  I have a sprouter coming later so I'll probably just sprout them on my own instead of buying them because I can sprout wimpy bean sprouts myself.

I spent most of the day putting stuff away, cleaning air conditioner filters, visiting IKEA, and assembling chairs.  This is one of the advantages of an abaya- even when your clothes really aren't all that clean because you've been doing stuff, you don't have to change, you can just put on an abaya and go.

09 August 2016

New cheeses. But first, there is a creepy amount of processed cheese sold here.  It's a little hard to make sure you're not buying it.  I bought some processed feta at the very beginning, not realizing that was even a possibility, and it was not for us. Soft cheeses are what's typical in this part of the world so soft processed cheeses make sense, I guess. And they keep me on my toes.

Baramily- this is a soft cheese from Egypt.  I am having a hard time finding a description of it, just that it's packaged and sold here.  I found a non-processed version.  Like the other two cheeses I'm writing about, I'll mix stuff in with it to make a dip. It's salty.

German feta- this is a soft feta.  I haven't found a hard one yet but the flavor of this was good.  Salty.

Thalaga- this is another spreadable, salty cheese.  Are we seeing a pattern here?  Yes. I need to come up with some more ideas for soft, salty cheeses that aren't cute little appetizers because we don't eat a lot of those.


I promise this isn't a desperate plea for comments, but I think that the commenting might not be working right now.  Or maybe just my mother's isn't.
Another helpful thing about Riyadh's weather, in addition to the cooler winter temperatures, is that it cools off quite a bit at night.  I go outside to work in the garden before the sun is really up and it's in the mid-80s, or at least below 90.  That feels really good in comparison to 115.  In fact, those temperatures have never felt so good before.   A thirty-degree drop in temperature at night makes a huge difference. I can keep up with the yard in thirty minutes a day without any trouble and it's perfectly normal to turn on the lawn trimmer at 6 am here.

And it's only in June, July, and August that the nighttime average temperature is in the 80s.  September and October's are in the 70s, and then you're down to the 50s (or even lower!) for the next five months before it starts warming up again in April and May.  So even though the high temperature is much too hot for six months out of the year, you only get three months of lows in the 80s (and they feel relatively good).  It may be too dusty here to keep the windows open much when it's cooler, but we can at least open them in the mornings for a bit when it's nice outside.

I'm putting this on the win column of my mental chart of reasons to like living in Riyadh (or, at least, why Riyadh isn't as bad as you think it is).