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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

Category: Food and Drink

LEBANON: Game over for Beirut's famous Gemmayzeh Cafe


It could be a smoky space at times, with seemingly every man and woman holding a cigarette or a water pipe mouthpiece to their lips.

The live music, the cacophony of conversation and the clatter of men tossing dice onto backgammon boards could create an awful racket.  

But it was gorgeous, the floors covered with art deco tiles, the ceilings crafted ornately, the huge windows letting in crisscrossing beams of light that gave the place an otherworldly feel, like something out of an old movie. 

On Monday, a veritable Beirut institution -- the Gemmayzeh Cafe, often called the glass cafe, is to close its doors after some 80 years, having survived as a recreational refuge even during the country's 1975-1990 civil war.

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DUBAI: Obese journalist takes his battle of the bulge public in health campaign

Picture 5 Mohammed Khan, a severely overweight reporter at the Dubai-based English daily Gulf News, avoided getting rides in other people's cars because he was afraid he wouldn't be able to wrap the seat belt around his waist.

He didn't buy a scale, figuring it would break if he tried to step on it.

Khan, in his late 20s, became a recluse, spending long period of times alone at his apartment playing computer games and binge eating.

He had, in his own words, hit "rock bottom."

But after cholesterol problems that contributed to having his gall bladder removed, a diagnosis of diabetes and battling depression, the nearly 370-pound journalist decided it was time to take control of his life and get into shape, both for his own good and to spur public awareness about an apparent growing problem in his country.

Khan has pledged to lose 110 pounds in a publicized drive to fight obesity as part of Gulf News' recently launched campaign called "Cut the Fat," which aims to spread awareness about obesity prevention and healthful living in the United Arab Emirates.

"Many readers have written in sharing their personal stories; others have decided to lose weight and get healthy," Gulf News editor Abdul Hamid Ahmad told Babylon & Beyond about the campaign, which began in late November.

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AFGHANISTAN: Taliban accused of forcing farmers to grow opium poppy instead of saffron


It is as pricey as precious metals or illicit drugs, and in some kitchens it is increasingly becoming even more valued. Saffron, a spice that grows in Afghanistan, could be a solution for farmers who want to make ends meet without growing poppy flowers that can be turned into opium and heroin that enrich and empower drug barons.

But this week, the spokesman for the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan spoke of a "disturbing trend" in the western portion of the country: The Taliban is forcing farmers to stop growing the savory spice and switch to more nefarious crops. 

"Insurgents are pressuring Herat farmers to switch to growing poppy instead of saffron so they can use the money from drug sales to fund their operations," German army Gen. Josef Blotz told reporters Monday. "In areas north of Herat city, insurgents have destroyed fields planted with saffron, and last month they attacked two trucks carrying saffron bulbs for planting and killed the truckers who were delivering them."

A Taliban spokesman reached by telephone Wednesday denied the charge.

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MIDDLE EAST: Eid al Adha animal slaughter sparks debate in Muslim world

Sacrifice in Kuwait - Eid Nov 2010 Animal rights activists are speaking out against the treatment of millions of animals that will be killed and eaten during the Eid al Adha holiday, as suppliers and butchers are accused of ignoring religious edicts on humane slaughter.

On Friday, an Australian animal rights group reiterated its call for the Australian government to stop the sale of livestock to the Middle East after activists documented sheep in Kuwait and Bahrain allegedly being subjected to brutal treatment.

Australia is one of the largest exporters of livestock to the region, with trade totaling $297 million in 2009, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. The group has already succeeded in banning livestock export to Egypt.

"In the same way that Christmas has become the peak time of animal suffering in the West with vast numbers of factory farmed animals slaughtered for Christmas celebrations, the Festival of Sacrifice is the worst time of animal suffering throughout the Middle East," the Animals Australia campaign homepage read.

A recent report in the Egyptian newspaper the Daily News featured butchers who admitted to ignoring Islamic hilal methods of slaughter in order to meet the high demand for meat. 

"Islam has put regulations for the slaughtering process ensuring that the animal is well treated before, during and after slaughtering and those who defy these rules are punished," Sheik Saber Taalab, former member of the Islamic Research Center in Cairo, told the paper.

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ARAB WORLD: To fight off hunger and food shortages, governments must plan


When Russia imposed an embargo on wheat exports this year, soaring wheat prices raised concern about the possibility of a new food crisis. Importing countries rushed to avoid supply shortages, producers hesitated to market their reserves, and brokers speculated about what would happen next, all of which created tensions in the wheat market and fueled concerns that threatened to turn the potential crisis into a real possibility.

Carnegie logo Arab countries are the primary importers of cereal — a wheat product — in the world. In fact, around 60 million tons are imported annually to Arab countries totaling 335 million people, while other Asian countries, home to more than 2 billion people, import fewer than 50 million tons of cereal.

The limited number of suppliers on the global cereal market increases dangers faced by importing countries in the Arab region. Furthermore, the demand for cereal in Arab countries is expected to increase along with an annual population growth of more than 2%, while global population rises only 1.1%.

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SUDAN: Chilled warehouses offer escape from heat during Ramadan

DSC00145 (3)In an unusual way to escape the heat during the holy month of Ramadan, people in the Sudanese coastal city of Port Sudan pay $3 to rest in air-conditioned fruit warehouses from morning until dusk, saying it's the best way to endure the sweltering days of fasting.

The idea has become profitable for many fruit wholesalers, who push fruit aside to house more people. 

With less fruit available, and with the rainy season turning roads to mud and delaying new deliveries, prices rise in some parts of the country. In the capital, Khartoum, people also slip into warehouses, but they don’t pay as they do in Port Sudan.

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LEBANON: Supermarket chain won't sell Melitta coffee filters with Hebrew writing on package

Lebanon-melittaFor those craving a fresh cup of home-made Joe while in Lebanon, finding a pack of coffee filters may become a difficult task.

You might even find yourself crawling from neighborhood corner store to mini-mart to grocery megaplex under the scorching sun searching for filters.

Why? Because though the Arab League may lack the unity to cling to its once-potent boycott of Israel, which from 1942 to 1993 was highly comprehensive, Syria and Lebanon still adhere to an orthodox interpretation.

And though the coffee filters you seek may be German and not Israeli -- Melitta in this instance -- it apparently makes no difference to the Lebanese branch of a major Kuwaiti supermarket chain, The Sultan Center, known by its acronym T.S.C.

At least one T.S.C. supermarket nestled in the quaint, largely Francophone neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh in Beirut recently sent back its shipment of Melitta coffee filters after discovering that the boxes had Hebrew script on the side.

“We saw that they are from Israel so we sent them back," one of the retail assistants said to a customer. "Don’t worry. We will be getting Melitta’s from America instead."

No, they’re not from Israel. Though the sight of the Jewish state’s official language is enough to make some foes of Israel recoil, Melitta’s European Article Number, a bar code listed on all products from the continent, shows that the filters were made in Germany.

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LEBANON: TV chef Anthony Bourdain needs 'No Reservations' in Beirut

Anthony-bourdain Anthony Bourdain, author, television host and the original bad boy of celebrity chefs, is not one to leave business unfinished.

And so four years after he and his crew evacuated Lebanon by boat in the midst of the 2006 war between Israel and the militant group Hezbollah, they have returned to film a new episode, and to confront some painful memories in the process.

"The most urgent reason I’m here is because I have lived with a deep sense of dissatisfaction that I never got to show people how amazing this place is," Bourdain told Babylon & Beyond during a break from shooting his Travel Channel show 'No Reservations' in Beirut.

In person, Bourdain is definitely more chef than celebrity: He is frank, quick and talks about his crew with as much affection as chefs talk about anything. In fact, Bourdain said the only reason it has taken four years to return to Beirut is that he wanted as many of the original crew as possible with him.

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IRAN, ARMENIA: Booze and relative freedom lure Iranians to Christian enclave to the north

IMG_6306 copy

Landlocked and still recovering from the decades of Soviet rule and a war with Azerbaijan that quickly followed, Armenia may not be the world's most attractive vacation destination.

But for those living in the neighboring Islamic Republic, it's a kind of earthly paradise.

Iranians purchasing souvenirs In March, 27, 600 Iranians spent Nowruz, the Persian New Year, in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. 

But late spring and summer -- when the weather is comfortable, delicious fruits are harvested and outdoor events are numerous -- tourists also come in droves. 

An Armenian community leader in Tehran said up to 80% of Iran's Armenians, speculated to be as many as 500,000, travel to Armenia at least once a year.

The visitors can enjoy Armenian shish kebab and rice pilaf with a bottle of pomegranate wine or homemade liquor, or pick up a lahmajoun, an Armenian thin-crust meat pizza, on the street.

"Iranians are looking for reasons to leave their country so they can experience some freedoms," said Vanoohi Googasian, a Persian Armenian tour guide living in Yerevan.

"It's not about the specific holiday," she said. "It's about Iranians finding an excuse to leave their country to party."

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LEBANON: Chefs snatch back hummus title from Israel, win falafel record

R563004_3418589 Maybe this is getting a little out of control.

After losing the title for whipping up the world's biggest batch of hummus earlier this year, Lebanon stepped up efforts in its ongoing culinary battle with Israel over the weekend, regaining the title.

For the second time in a year Lebanon has proved it can make the world's largest plate of hummus. It also bagged the Guinness record for making the biggest serving of falafel.

On Saturday, more than 300 Lebanese chefs gathered in Beirut in quest of culinary glory. Together they mashed up 10 tons of chickpeas to make the hummus dip, smashing the hummus record set in January by 50 chefs in the Arab-Israeli village of Abu Ghosh near Jerusalem.

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LEBANON: Chefs smash world hummus and tabouleh records

Beirut's Saifi Market on Sunday was filled with the sounds of chopping, cheering and the sweet, grassy smell of tons of freshly cut parsley.

Thousands of visitors showed up over the weekend to cheer on 250 sous chefs and 50 of their instructors from the Kafaat School of Catering as they toiled over two days to beat the Guinness record for the world's biggest hummus plate and tabbouleh salad. The final weigh-in for hummus on Saturday was 2,056 kilograms, or 4,532 pounds, more than quadruple the previous record.

On Sunday, the tabbouleh came in at 3,557 kilograms, or 7,841 pounds -- more than 3 tons.

The vessel itself, a giant, rotating terracotta-colored hummus bowl, won the distinction of world's largest plate.

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ISRAEL: Iranian pistachios? Diplomacy can be nutty

Pistachios_htazlskf OK, so Israel has issues with Iran. But splitting atoms is one thing; splitting hairs on where Israel gets its pistachios
is entirely another. 

For years, the U.S. has been pressuring Israel to break the habit of buying Iranian pistachios from third-party markets such as Turkey and turning a blind eye to trade-embargo issues (although the U.S. trade sanctions seem to have their own quirks).

To be sure, Israelis love pistachios. In a recent interview, President Shimon Peres recalled with nostalgia the wondrous fistouk shammi (Aleppo pistachios) he enjoyed years ago in Iran as the shah's guest.

Now he might get a taste of California instead, as reports say San Joaquin pistachios are headed for Israel.

A convenient solution to the diplomatic discomfort came about with recent tinkering to Israeli taxes that raised tariffs on  non-U.S. pistachios, making the U.S.-grown nuts a much better deal and providing Israel with politically correct pistachios to boot.

The intense lobbying at surprisingly high echelons is probably due not only to diplomatic efforts but also to the fact that Israel has the highest pistachio-per-capita consumption rate in the world, making it a lucrative market to penetrate. And the U.S. is the world's second-largest producer of pistachios -- after Iran.

-- Batsheva Sobelman

Photo: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times


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