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ONLINE ONLY - Book Excerpt: Far More Than Falafel

Ramzi Shwayri, the real name of the chef who introduced turkey to Ramadan, was on a mission to transform Arab cuisine. The black-haired chef, his burly frame bursting out of his uniform, tinkered with traditional recipes and introduced foods once experienced only vicariously. He wanted Arab households to get away from standard fare like falafel or kibbeh at every meal, to sample new dishes. Part of Chef Ramzi’s mass appeal was that, while cooking on television, he fielded live calls from anybody with a food question. Future Television had to add two operators to answer the phones while he was on the air. The chef, in his mid-30s, blossomed into a regional phenomenon, his satellite television broadcast considered mandatory viewing from Muscat to Marrakesh and beyond.

Watching him work felt like eavesdropping on an extended Arab living room. Once a bee plopped down into a cream dish just minutes before the show ended. Chef Ramzi told me he could not ignore it because the cameraman (“Al-humar!” he yelled in Arabic as he recounted the story—”The donkey,” a crowning insult) focused right on it. So the chef scooped it out with a large spoon and proclaimed the dish unsullied.

A woman from Saudi Arabia called immediately to complain that for the sake of hygiene—and wasn’t the chef always harping about hygiene in the kitchen—he should have tossed out the whole thing. The Sudanese woman who called next argued that bees were mentioned in the Koran as exceptionally clean insects with their own souls, so he should have left it. A Syrian man then phoned, wondering if they could drop the religious philosophizing and hauling the Koran into every single conversation for once already and just cook?

Occasionally food intersected with politics in a similarly amusing vein. This was especially true in Egypt, where humor acts like a force field to deflect the daily strain of living in such an overpopulated environment. After not eating all day during Ramadan, most Muslim households first break the fast by nibbling on a few dates before tucking into something far more substantial. In Cairo, the competition at the wholesale date market was fierce, so every year the sellers tried to come up with catchy nicknames for the dozen or so varieties to attract buyers.

During the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, the dates nicknamed “Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction” were not selling well. The moniker went to a particularly long, costly date imported from Iraq, a country once famous for producing dates so thick and chewy that I sometimes felt like I was eating chocolate. “Look at them, they look just like Scud missiles,” the seller, Sayid Mahmoud, told me, scooping one out of an overflowing burlap sack. “Sales are just OK. I think people are waiting to see what happens with America. I’m sure if he uses his missiles, sales will improve.”

But “Yasir Arafat” and the revived best seller from previous years, “Osama bin Laden,” sold out fast. Like any good reporter, I took this as a barometer for the general mood—a reflection that the plight of the Palestinians and the general idea of sticking it to the U.S. were the preoccupations of the moment. However, perhaps the most telling sign of the prevailing mood was one of economic hardship. Lots of people ignored the politics of the derogatory name “Bush and Sharon” assigned to the absolute lowest-quality dates, more bitter than sweet. One shopper piling them into his bag shrugged as he told me, “At least they are so tough that I know they won’t have any mites in them.”

From the book The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday by Neil MacFarquhar. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2009.

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