Book Reviews for Egypt

So…I’ve been finished with both books for awhile. I’ve been unsure how to review one of the two books, or maybe I’ve hit some sort of writer’s block (can that happen with a blog?). Instead of continuing to agonize, I’m just going to ramble on and see if anything comes of it…

Since I’m incapable of finesse right now, I’ll be blunt: Children of the Alley is one of the most challenging books I’ve ever read and it has left me in awe of Naguib Mahfouz – he swung for the fences with this novel.

Cribbing a little from Wikipedia:

“It was originally published in Arabic in 1959, in serialised form, in the Cairo daily Al-Ahram. It was met with severe opposition from religious authorities, and publication in the form of a book was banned in Egypt.

It was this book that earned Naguib Mahfouz condemnation from Omar Abdul-Rahman in 1989, after the Nobel Prize had revived interest in it. As a result, in 1994 – a day after the anniversary of the prize – Mahfouz was attacked and stabbed in the neck by two extremists outside his Cairo home. Fortunately, Mahfouz survived the accident, yet he suffered from its consequences till his last day.”

Statue of Naguib Mahfouz, in Cairo
(image by By Bertramz (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
I had the opposite reaction than Mr. Mahfouz’s critics, but there is no doubt that this is a book meant to engender passionate emotions. You don’t write a novel that takes on Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and human nature in general – in hopes of meeting your readers on neutral ground. Mahfouz was obviously a brilliant man – I have never finished a book knowing that the author is so far ahead of me that it will take six months of thinking it all over just to catch up.

And I’m leaving it at that. I could write a dissertation about this book, but that wouldn’t make anyone happy. Just know that you should read it. We can get together for cocktails afterward and discuss…

And now for something completely different. The second book I chose, Write Your Own Egyptian Hieroglyphs, was a great find. Written by Angela McDonald, who lectures in Egyptology at Glasgow University, it is a lively and very informative introduction to ancient Egyptian history. McDonald reads as if she must be a very good teacher; if you are anywhere near Glasgow, keep an eye out for public lectures!

Koshari. It’s what’s for dinner in Egypt.

People wax poetic about Moroccan and Tunisian food, but not so much Egypt. Why? I don’t know. It turns out that the food is very North African, of course, but perhaps a little more simple.

Cheap and filling is a common theme, reaching perfect form in Koshari, the National Dish of Egypt. At first glance, this is one of those recipes that doesn’t seem like much, but trust me, you want to make it. One negative: it’s a multi-pot meal, so enlist someone to wash the dishes for you. On the bright side, it’s easy, nothing but straight-forward ingredients, makes enough to feed a small army, and it’s vegan. Nice. Make sure you don’t forget the caramelized onions – they are essential.

I start browning the onions early in the process. I don’t know if there’s something wrong with me, but I can never cook up onions in the 5 minutes most recipes call for. If there is some trick I’m missing, please let me know.

In other areas, I definitely took some short-cuts like 10-minute rice and canned chickpeas; there are plenty of recipes out there that are more traditional, including the one I used for inspiration. Also, the size of pasta seems to be a personal preference; I just like having everything about the same size, but feel free to use what you’ve got in the pantry.

Koshari

(adapted from EgyptianRecipes.net) 

Ingredients:

  •          2 large chopped onions
  •         4 cloves of minced garlic
  •          ¾  cup vegetable oil
  •          1 bag of 10 minute brown rice
  •          ¼ tsp red pepper
  •          1 tsp cumin
  •          1 can of tomato sauce
  •         ¾ cup brown lentils
  •          4 cups water
  •          1  cup small pasta
  •           ½ cup white vinegar
  •           1 15oz can chickpeas

Instructions:

  1. In a large saucepan, put the lentils in water and bring it to a boil.
  2. Simmer over medium heat for 25 minutes (or until soft) then drain and set aside to cool.
  3. In another skillet, heat oil and add onions, cooking on med-low heat until brown.
  4. While the onions are cooking, refill the pot used for the lentils and cook rice.
  5. Fill a separate saucepan with water, add a little bit of salt and bring to a boil.
  6. Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until it gets tender, then drain.
  7. In a skillet or saucepan, heat some oil then add the garlic and cook until softened and golden.
  8. Add the vinegar to garlic and bring it to boil.
  9. After the vinegar boils with garlic, add the tomato sauce and some salt and pepper to taste, then add the cumin. Bring the mix to boil on high heat, then lower heat after it boils. Let simmer.
  10. Take a little bit of the oil used with the onions and stir it into the pasta.

Serving:

You can mix everything together, or go the more traditional route…

  1. Put a layer of rice and lentils.
  2. A layer of macaroni.
  3. A layer of the special sauce.
  4. A layer of the boiled chickpeas.
  5. A layer of fried onions.

Koshari
(image by The Global Reader)

Kept it simple with ice water with lots of lemon to drink, and a cucumber feta salad on the side.

Cucumber Feta Salad

(adapted from Food.com)

Ingredients:

      • 2 large cucumbers, peeled
      • salt
      • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

Dressing:

    • 6 ounces feta
    • 1/4 cup finely chopped scallions
    • 2 tablespoons lemon juice or 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
    • 1 teaspoon olive oil
    • fresh ground black pepper

Instructions:

  1. Score the cucumbers with the tines of a fork, and cut them in half lengthwise. Remove the seeds – a grapefruit spoon or melon baller works well. Sprinkle the cucumbers with salt, and let them stand for about 1/2 hour.
  2. Rinse, pat dry, and slice the cucumbers into 1/2 inch chunks.
  3. In a medium serving bowl, crush the feta with a fork and mix it with the scallions, lemon juice, oil, and pepper.
  4. Combine the cucumber chunks with the cheese mixture.
  5. Sprinkle the salad with the mint.
  6. It can sit in the refrigerator before serving, but try not to hold it more than an hour or it will get watery.

For dessert, I made Zabadee el Mishmish, a traditional Egyptian dessert, finishing up with mint tea. The dessert was a big hit with my husband, so that means that the entire meal will be going into the normal dinner rotation. Thanks Egypt!

Zabadee el Mishmish

(Apricot Mousse)

(adapted from Touregypt.com)

Ingredients:

  • 1/2   cup dried apricots
  • 2        tablespoons honey
  • 1/2    cup cottage cheese (non or low fat works fine)
  • 1/2    cup nonfat plain yogurt
  • 1/2    packet unflavored gelatin

Instructions:

  1. Put apricots in bowl and cover with boiling water.
  2. Set aside for 1 hour to soften.
  3. Place drained apricots in blender, add honey and blend until smooth.
  4. In a small saucepan, dissolve gelatin in 2 tbls of water.
  5. Place on low heat and stir until all gelatin is dissolved.
  6. Combine cottage cheese and yogurt in a food processor and whip until smooth.
  7. Pour yogurt mixture into a bowl and slowly stir in the gelatin, the fold in the apricot puree.
  8. Refrigerate for 1 hour before serving.

Cleopatra

As can happen sometimes, I jumped into this project with both feet – and without mapping out a schedule. Not really an issue of course, but I’m more than a little behind on my reading, and cooking. Oh well. This is a marathon, not a sprint, right? And lesson learned: I do need to give at least a small amount of thought to my pace, otherwise it will take 10 years to get through this…

Anyway.

To fill in the gap, I thought it would be fun to take a look around town and see if anything of Egypt exists in Cincinnati. As luck would have it, Cleopatra is visiting. How thoughtful of her!

Through mid-September, the Cincinnati Museum is hosting Cleopatra: The Exhibition. It highlights new archeological discoveries of her life and times, and offers up a nuanced image of her as a person and a leader.

Overall, I thought it was well worth the price of admission. I’ll go ahead and get the “negative” (if you even want to call it that) out of the way first: this exhibit is definitely based on the Vegas model of More is More. It is not a calm, soothing museum-like experience; there are lighting effects, a rather confusing flow of images, and more audio cues than you can sometimes process at one time, but viewed in a larger context, it really doesn’t matter. It’s built to handle crowds, and to convey information to a very diverse audience, and it does those things quite nicely.

That said, my husband and I were there on one of the first sunny Friday evenings in memory, and we had the place to ourselves. We had plenty of space and time to wander around, which I really enjoyed. The exhibit is primarily based on artifacts that have been salvaged from the Bay of Alexandria, the city where Cleopatra and her court resided. Just the history about the destruction of parts of the city, mostly from an earthquake and tsunami, was fascinating – especially in light of recent events in Japan.

I think I was most impressed by how stylish and graceful so many of the items were, and how diverse and lively the society appears to have been. These were obviously sophisticated people, so much so that The Romans seem dull and plodding in comparison. If I had been around then, I would have thrown in with the Egyptian crew for sure. Even their religion seemed fun!

Oh and the statues. The best part to me. Some of the smaller ones were very expressive; you can see the emotion and care that the artists put into them. And the pair that guarded Cleopatra’s temple – major wow factor is all I can say. I just hung around them for awhile; it was easy to imagine them at their posts, gleaming in the bright Egyptian sun and how they certainly inspired a sense of awe and reverence. I will probably go back before the exhibit leaves just to see them again.

But that’s enough about that. You deserve to have your own experience without my words rattling around in your head.

And one last thing you learn right at the end – Angelina Jolie is going to be the latest actress to play Cleopatra. I’ll probably go see that too.

Queen Cleopatra
(image from Wikimedia Commons)

Going in two directions at once

Researching this first book was a pleasure – a country like Egypt is fertile literary ground. As I mentioned before, the problem lies not in a lack of options, but in which direction to go.

But why limit myself? I’m going to read two books! It’s not impressive as it sounds – there will be one “main” text, and then more of a crafty project book in the background…

The featured “serious” book is Children of the Alley by Naguib Mahfouz. About a minute into my research it became clear that Mr. Mahfouz is a creative force that that cannot be ignored. A winner of The Nobel Prize in Literature, he is an absolute heavyweight of a writer, and I’m a little embarrassed to never have read any of his work. An oversight that is going to be quickly remedied, indeed.

The secondary book is Write Your Own Egyptian Hieroglyphs by Angela McDonald.        Just because it seems like fun.