Friday, December 28, 2012

Writer's Group at the Cafe

My writer's group is a God-send. Not only in terms of regular check-ins, feedback and camaraderie.  For me, the most important thing is the motivation to produce something in time for our next session.

Some of us are writing novels and short stories. Two of us are poets, and most of us also dabble in essays and features. The regulars of the group have all been published. Our goal is to improve our craft, produce more work, and get it published. We are all members of AAUW, (American Association of University Women) which sponsors our group.

 We meet in the evening at Brewed Awakenings, a cafe in Hingham, south of Boston. We are usually the only patrons, and sometimes we have to ask the staff to turn down the pop music on the sound system. They oblige, and over the months have come to know us as 'the writers'.

The first to arrive claims one of our favorite tables near the windows. The seats are comfortable woven wicker. The coffee, hot chocolate, cider and tea are just the thing on a cold winter night. Sometimes one of us will buy a sweet and split it four or five ways.

At first, we sit and read each others' material. Then we give our comments, which range from simple typos and repeated words to big picture points. There is a lot of encouragement.

Last meeting, a group of teenagers, friends of the cafe staff, showed up for a visit just as we got going. A half dozen of them, all at once, decided to sweep the floor under all the tables. It was chaotic and very distracting as they dragged the chairs around and rearranged the tables. But we persevered, for we had nowhere else to go, and we need this time together each month. They would have had to pull us out by the hair to break up our writers group meeting! Eventually things quieted down and we were able to get our work done.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Welcoming Winter

Photograph by Gene Cyr of Northern Maine Pictures
Two or three times a week, I walk with a dear friend, who is also a neighbor and a fellow writer. We cover three miles in a little less than an hour. We talk while walking, attempting to sort out aspects of our lives, including writing projects.

We take one of three loop walks through the neighborhood, up and down hills, under tall white pines and sturdy wild oaks. Twice, we cross a small stream that runs through the neighborhood. Along the way we encounter other walkers and runners, all kinds of dogs, and sometimes a few cats. The other day we came upon a neighborhood cat named Marshall, whom my husband and I had helped rescue from a tree a couple of years ago. He still responded when we called him by name.

Today my walking buddy couldn't make it, so I went alone. I missed her companionship, but was delighted to find many birds out and about, even on such a short December day. I saw and heard titmice, goldfinches, chickadees, and sparrows. I spotted a group of six wild turkeys tromping through the woods. They took their time, crunching oak leaves with every step. The squirrels were busy too.

Here, the seasons tend to lag the calendar by a few weeks, so even in mid-December most of the grass is still green. There is no snow on the ground yet. A recent warm spell brought a big moth hatch and a few still cling to the sides of houses and garage doors. The sun is shining, even though it's nearly at its weakest strength now.

It does my heart good to get out and find the animals active as we prepare to welcome winter. In a week or two the snows will come, and we'll adjust our walks to smaller loops where we don't need shoveled sidewalks. But those short walks have their rugged beauty too.

In the spirit of winter to come, here is a photograph by Mainer Gene Cyr. This photo won the Aroostook County Tourism Authority photo contest. His website is Northern Maine Pictures

I wish you all a wonder-filled holiday season, winter, and new year.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Oh Well and Oh My

So perhaps it's a function of getting older, but for whatever reason, I don't enjoy browsing in antique stores the way I used to. I used to love to soak up the atmosphere, listen to the classical music playing and the store owner's banter with customers. I browsed in slow motion, the way a heron wades in a stream looking for fish. I'd stop to look at 80% of the things on display, and I'd seriously consider buying things.

Now, I look for things that are new to me, in an antique way of course. Last week, the day after we spent a lovely Thanksgiving in Maine with dear friends, we stopped at an antique barn on Route 1 near Wiscasset. It was one of those places with many many dealers. The best ones specialize. There was one person who sold antique postcards, categorized by state. Another sold antique tools. Yet there was little else of interest and I found myself cruising through the entire building, my eye only caught by something unusual. My favorite thing was a 'cookie corner' chest of drawers from the early 1800's. The inside of the drawers were made of hardwood, and all the joints were extremely well made.  Then there were some nice rustic cider jugs. But aside from that, I could have left within ten minutes. I obliged my husband's interest in a slow perusal, which gave me a chance to notice more.

It was the art that finally got to me. Antique shops always seem to have an oversupply of old prints or original artwork that was never of gallery quality. Certainly there is a chance one might come upon a hidden masterpiece, but in New England, in the 'antique barn' type places, it's hard to find decent art. I really wonder who buys those old paintings. Maybe people collect them. To me, the value for money equation doesn't match up. I left the antique barn with a feeling of "Oh well."

Fortunately, there are plenty of living artists in Maine (and all over New England) who make their work available for reasonable prices. Earlier in the day we had visited the Tidemark Gallery in Waldoboro, and I was really taken by the paintings of Audrey Bechler on display there. Here is a sample of her work and you can link to her website here.  When I left the gallery, which is set up in a very small house (as opposed to a huge barn), my feelings were more like, "Oh my!"

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Thursday Night Fever

What is it about Thursday nights?

This fall I've been double and even triple booked on Thursday nights. When I worked in banking, the 20 somethings told me that was the big night to go out with work colleagues and party. For them, Friday night was recovery night, and then Saturday night was 'couples' night. Not sure if that is still the case, but even then, Thursday night was very big.

This fall, Thursday nights have presented marvelous options, but I have stuck to my first commitments, while wondering if it's foolish to do so if something more interesting comes along. The possibilities have been tantalizing: music concerts; debut author book readings; literary association panels; author talks and all kinds of meetings.

I conclude that the Thursday Night pile-up is the usual super-heating of the greater Boston culture scene right before the holidays. It seems everyone wants to finish their events before Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hannukah. But even more importantly, before the snow begins to come down with conviction.

December is filled with holiday-related events. January is the Deep Freeze Month, but stalwart souls organize events and people actually show up at them. However, organizers are gambling that a big Nor'easter won't blow up and stop the city in its tracks. My friend Lisa Esperson and I are organizing a Khaliji (Gulf) women's folk dance workshop for the last Saturday in January on Cape Cod. Are we nuts? Only time will tell. I remember going to a church event on Cape Cod in mid-January when about two feet of snow had fallen the night before. The sun was out, it was as beautiful as a Christmas card, and despite the hassle of coming out in the winter, the church was packed. So I'll take heart from that.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

My other blogs - you're welcome there too!

As a writer I have diverse interests - and most of those are reflected in this blog. However, in case you're interested, I write two other blogs that you might enjoy, so stop by and join them as well.

Cabin World is a blog I write with my husband about our treasured times spent in the northern Maine woods. It's about cabins, camps (as they are called in Maine) and cottages, as well as our daily lives in the woods.

Saudi Women Driving is a news blog where I try to keep track of and archive news stories about Saudi women driving. There is little editorial, it is mostly cutting and pasting the latest events related to this ongoing issue.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Master Bandsmen of the Ottoman Empire

This summer I finished a feature article for Saudi Aramco World Magazine on the Mehter Musicians of the Ottoman Empire. Inspired by a book on the subject written by a Boston-based musician, Mehmet Sanlikol, I endeavored to treat this subject in a manner that would appeal to a general audience that didn't have knowledge of Turkish or Middle Eastern music. It was fun to write - took many hours of research and interviews. But amazingly I was able to do it all from Boston because my subjects were all within the greater Boston area. That in itself is a testament to how culturally rich Boston is. That's a cliche perhaps, but it's also true. We are blessed to live in such a rich treasure trove filled with all kinds of artists and thinkers. For more information on Dunya, the group that sponsors a Mehter band in Boston, visit Dunya's website

You can link to my story in Saudi Aramco World here.

I've pasted in my favorite photograph from the article - caption below.

Caption: This young visitor to the Turkish Military Museum’s regular mehter heritage performance in Istanbul might agree with the Prussian soldier who, in the early 1700’s, complained that the mehter band “split the ears with its incredible charivari.”

Here are more Mehter audio links you can listen to and purchase:

1. Taqsim (Improvisation) in Maqam of Bayati: Listen
2. Pesrev in Maqam of Nakriz (processional instrumental): listen
3. Ey Gaziler: Listen
4. Cengi-i-Harbi: Cymbals of War: Link


Saturday, September 1, 2012

First Saudi Feature Film "Wadjda" Reviewed by Telegraph UK

Congratulations to Saudi director Haifaa Al Mansour on her directing the first feature film made in Saudi Arabia. "Wadjda" is about a Saudi girl growing up in conservative Riyadh...who wants a bicycle.

Below is the review of the film by Robbie Collin from the Telegraph in the UK, and a link to the review is here. I hope we get to see the film in the U.S. soon.

Wadjda, the first film to have been entirely filmed within Saudi Arabia, by the nation's first female director, is boundary-pushing cinema for Venice Film Festival 2012, writes Robbie Collin.
4 out of 5 stars
Haifaa Al Mansour and Waad Mohammed in Wadjda, which premiered at Venice Film Festival 2012.
Haifaa Al Mansour and Waad Mohammed in Wadjda, which premiered at Venice Film Festival 2012.  Photo: Tobias Kownatzki / RazorFilm
Dir: Haifaa Al Mansour; starring: Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Sultan Al Assaf. 97 min.
“A woman’s voice reveals her nakedness,” scolds Wadjda’s teacher, as she and a friend run laughing from a Riyadh sidestreet into their school playground. “What if a man had heard you?”
Well, plenty of men will hear her now. Wadjda is the first film to have been entirely filmed within Saudi Arabia, by that country’s first female director, no less. It tells the story of this ten-year-old schoolgirl, and many like her, and it is the best thing I have seen at this year’s Venice International Film Festival so far.
Haifaa Al Mansour’s picture has a kind of neorealist clarity and simplicity that feels like a welcome splash of ice water after the ponderous, muggy fare that has so far been screened in competition for the festival’s Golden Lion award. (Wadjda is showing in the Orrizonti strand, dedicated to new trends in world cinema.)
Like one of the great Italian neorealist films, it centres on a child and a bicycle. All Wadjda wants is a bike so she can race against the little boy who lives next door, but her mother (Reem Abdullah) refuses to buy her one: in Saudi Arabia, little girls do not ride bicycles. After careful consideration of the matter Wadjda cannot see the logic in this, so she takes matters into her own hands and decides to raise the money for a bicycle herself.
Wadjda is perplexed by the Kingdom’s restrictive culture, particularly where women are concerned: it seems incompatible with a child’s logic. Even though she covers herself up in accordance with modesty laws, an elderly man still leers at her openly in the street, and the confusion that flickers across her face speaks volumes.
Waad Mohammed, a 12-year-old born and raised in Riyadh, is utterly disarming in the title role: she strikes the perfect balance between cheek and impudence, and her tomboyish grin lights up the screen.The film largely consists of little vignettes in the home and at school, and while many of them are very funny, we get an acute sense of the little everyday frustrations and burdens that Saudi women have to shoulder.
Al Mansour reveals in the film’s production notes that she often had to direct from her production van via walkie-talkie when filming in more conservative areas, but Wadjda offers the hope that for the next generation of Saudi women, things might be different. Modest as it may look, this is boundary-pushing cinema in all the best ways, and what a thrill it is to hear those boundaries creak.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Beethoven and Ode to Joy Lyrics

I'm writing these days, jamming out an article on music. And it has to do with Beethoven, among about a gazillion other subjects. Writing this one is like trying to stuff an elephant into a pillow case. But it will be worth it.

I just listened to part of the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony Here is a link to a nice Youtube (audio) version. Link to Youtube audio version

And here are the lyrics, from the poem by Friedrich Schiller in 1785. They obviously speak for themselves. (I got them here.)

This symphony is said to be the greatest ever written.

Lyrics in English for "Ode to Joy"
Ode An Die Freude")
Beethoven's 9th Symphony

O friends, no more these sounds!
Let us sing more cheerful songs,
more full of joy!
Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Thy sanctuary.

Thy magic power re-unites
All that custom has divided,
All men become brothers
Under the sway of thy gentle wings.
Whoever has created
An abiding friendship,
Or has won
A true and loving wife,
All who can call at least one soul theirs,
Join in our song of praise;
But any who cannot must creep tearfully
Away from our circle.
All creatures drink of joy
At nature's breast.
Just and unjust
Alike taste of her gift;
She gave us kisses and the fruit of the vine,
A tried friend to the end.
Even the worm can feel contentment,
And the cherub stands before God!
Gladly, like the heavenly bodies
Which He set on their courses
Through the splendor of the firmament;
Thus, brothers, you should run your race,
As a hero going to conquest.
You millions, I embrace you.
This kiss is for all the world!
Brothers, above the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving Father.
Do you fall in worship, you millions?
World, do you know your creator?
Seek him in the heavens;
Above the stars must He dwell.

Friday, May 18, 2012

A Month of Saudi Launches and Projects

Two novels, a book of poetry, and a film focusing on women in Saudi Arabia are coming to market this month. It's a wealth of new stories and characters. Clearly western audiences are hungry to know more about women in Saudi Arabia.

"Wajda," is the first feature-length film made in Saudi Arabia. It was directed by Haifaa Mansour, a Saudi woman from the Eastern Province. This is also her first feature length film, and is being shown at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. It's about a girl who dreams of owning a green bicycle. Link to a Hollywood Reporter story about Haifaa and her film here.

Saudi poet Nimah Nawwab is currently in the U.S. on a reading tour in conjunction with the launch of her new book of verse in English, CANVAS OF THE SOUL, MYSTICAL POEMS FROM THE HEARTLAND OF ARABIA. Nimah comes from a long line of scholars from the city of Mecca. This is her second book of poems. While her poetry isn't particularly 'about' Saudi women, it's by a Saudi author, so I'm including it here. Her website has information about her book tour. She wrote to me today that she will likely be back in the U.S. to do more readings in the fall. Her website is here.

Two American authors have novels about Saudi Arabia launching this month:

Zoe Ferraris, the author of a popular series of literary mysteries set in Saudi Arabia has her third book KINGDOM OF STRANGERS coming out this month. The previous two, FINDING NOUF, and CITY OF VEILS, have been well received all over the world. I have been to two book discussions of FINDING NOUF and am thrilled to discover how much people learn about a culture from Zoe's books. The murder mystery format draws people right in, and gets them personally involved in Saudi's unusual society as they try to solve the crime. Here is a link to Zoe's latest book on amazon,  and her website is here.

Kim Barnes wrote IN THE KINGDOM OF MEN, set in the Kingdom's Eastern province in the 1960's. The book explores the life of American expatriates working in the Kingdom's oil business. This one sounds interesting too! A link to it on and her website is here.

Good luck to all on their projects and books.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Relationship nicknames in Arabic

Over my decades of studying Arabic, living in the Arab world and playing Arab music, I've long been fascinated by the custom that some Arabs have in addressing people with whom they have a particular relationship. A teacher will call his student 'professor,' and a mother will call her son 'Mama.'

Below is a link to a great blog post by "Ginger Beirut" about this practice in Lebanon. While this article focuses the parental version of this practice, I've heard it elsewhere. For instance, a very distinguished musician friend of mine jokingly calls his music student "Maestro." So does the student then refer to his revered teacher as Father of missed notes - Abu Nashaz? Or is this practice just a one way street; is it to be used only by social superiors toward their inferiors?

Who's the daddy here?
- great blog post on this practice from Ginger Beirut.

If anyone has insight into this practice, please comment!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Jeddah Diary by Olivia Arthur

When U.K. photographer Olivia Arthur went to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to give a photography workshop at the private women's college, Effat College, she began a photography project that has culminated in her self-published, JEDDAH DIARY.  The UK's Daily Telegraph features it today. The link to the article is here. The text is pasted below. You can see a gallery of the photos in the article link. The link to the website where you can order the book is here

Photo caption by Olivia Arthur: "This was taken on campus at Effat, the college in Jeddah that had just become a university when I was there – it’s women only. The girls are so stylish under their abayas. I must have been the least fashionable woman in Saudi. They despaired of me. They’d say, "OK, Olivia, you’re going to wear some make-up, we’re going to show you how to be feminine."

Olivia Arthur Lifts the Veil on Saudi Arabia
by Lucy Davies

In 2009 the photographer Olivia Arthur travelled to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for what would be the first of three month-long stays. She had joined the prestigious Magnum Photos agency the year before – at 31, she is one of its youngest members – when she was part-way through a series exploring the East/West divide, photographing women in Georgia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Russia and Iran. When the work came to Saudi as part of an exhibition of British and Middle Eastern photographers, Arthur was invited to teach a workshop. It was open only to women, aged from 20 to 50, and cost them nothing to attend.

As the workshop progressed, Arthur became friends with a number of the women, who granted her exceptional access to a world usually tightly sealed not only from Western eyes, but also from the eyes of Saudi men. Jeddah may be relatively more tolerant than the capital, Riyadh, but even so outside the family the sexes remain segregated.

Men cannot see photographs of women they could potentially marry, and cameras are shunned. For Arthur this meant that photographing even in women-only environments required elaborate negotiation. ‘I could have photographed them in their abayas [the black cloak they must wear in public] but I didn’t want just that, I wanted their reality. I asked to go to their houses, their private spaces, but I always said, I’m a professional photographer; I want to publish these pictures, so be as covered as you need to be so that we won’t have a problem.’

Arthur used a little digital camera, the type of camera the women would use to take pictures of each other. ‘We were friends, we were comfortable, but then I’d take pictures and later they’d say, “Please don’t show my face.” It was complicated.’

Thursday, April 19, 2012

THE SAND FISH; A Novel from Dubai by Maha Gargash

It took me a while to read THE SAND FISH by Maha Gargash. I was wary of it at first, expecting it to be a tale of woe and disaster that befalls the feisty heroine Noora. But then, I was drawn in by the beauty that the author painted on every page with her stark and lustrous sentences. I've posted my five star reviews over on Goodreads and Amazon, and now, will share my thoughts here. I do recommend this book to anyone who's interested in Arabian culture, especially the 'old days' before the urbanization from oil wealth. Until the 1930's, the Arabian Gulf was the center of the world's pearling industry. Every year, for six months out of the year, men would go out on wooden dhows and would dive (without scuba gear) over pearl beds, hauling up oysters one basket at at time. A brutal way of life, it crippled and blinded the divers, but made the captains rich. The advent of the cultured pearl was the death knell for the pearl industry. And it is just as well, given the hardship and physical damage it caused to generations.

THE SAND FISH takes place during this period, but I didn't feel I was getting a history lesson as I read. Set at a time when the economy and whole social structure was in flux, the 1950's, Gargash tells a tale of a young feisty country girl who ends up marrying a wealthy pearling merchant and captain. In the Goodreads reviews, some of the Arab readers are upset with Gargash for including a controversial plot twist they say is 'unbelievable', implying it could never happen. To that, I say, pish tosh. Gargash interviewed many elderly women from the old days. I bet that twist came from one of her informants. Also, truth is always stranger than fiction. Lastly, people don't write fiction to represent a culture, they do it to tell a story. So below is my review.  I recommend this book.

Maha Gargash's debut novel, THE SAND FISH is a poignant tale of a young girl growing up in the mountains in the United Arab Emirates (near Dubai), who eventually moves to the city and has to find her way in the complex world of her husband's family. But it's so much more than that. Gargash has captured, in her protagonist's story, the vanishing of an old way of life and the dawn of a new era in Dubai. The story takes place as the last of the big annual pearl dives set out, when the oil era was beginning. It's a marvelous novel, deftly told, with language at once rich and stark. The research Gargash undertook to write the book shows in the depth of every aspect of the story. Yet it is not weighted down with ethnographic information. The details inform and seem to lift the plot along. It is like the slightest desert breeze blowing at dawn: understated, intoxicating, and true. I salute the author for this work. She's excelled in every aspect of it: - character, plot, style, voice and setting. A hearty mabruk (congratulations) to the author. I hope she will write more.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Wadi Runs Through It - Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

My husband is a fly-fishing fanatic, and I love all things Arabian. So it seemed an easy choice to head to our local theater for a showing of "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen."  According to this review in the New York Times, the book by Paul Torday morphed from political satire to romantic comedy on the screen. And I think it worked as such. It was a little like "Love, Actually" in that sense.

A visionary billionaire shaikh from Yemen, who also has several estates in Scotland and loves to fly-fish for salmon, looks for technical help in the UK to build a salmon fishery in the hills of Yemen. He finds an uptight nerdy fisheries expert (played by Ewen McGregor) via his private banker Harriet (the lovely Emily Blunt). Amr Waked does a great job in the role as the Shaikh. However, Kristin Scott Thomas adds much needed zing to push the improbable plot further into the realm of satire as she plays the role of Patricia Maxwell, the British PM's head of press relations.

Despite the fact that I would have loved any Arab music themes - and as far as I could tell there were absolutely none - I did enjoy the film.

As the credits ran, my husband turned to me and said, "I'm haunted by wadi's," butchering the last sentence of his favorite book A River Runs Through It, which is 'I am haunted by waters." Apologies to Norman Maclean fans.

On the way home, my husband said, "Thanks for going to a fishing movie with me." I responded, "Thanks for going to an Arabian movie with me."  For us, it was a perfect movie date.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Swedish Glop and the Turkish Drop

Do you cook casseroles? They aren't on the culinary A list these days, but no matter. I cook them, especially in winter.

When our family lived in Needham, a storied suburb outside Boston, my mother got hold of a recipe for a casserole called Swedish Glop. Sounds bizarre, huh? Well, we all loved it. My siblings and I took it across country and across the globe. Some of my nieces and nephews make it. I do a variation with hummus and cumin, or sometimes curry.

I don't know why it's considered Swedish though. It's like that belly dance move, the Turkish Drop. What's so Turkish about twirling at high speed then landing flat on your back with your legs jack knifed underneath? I found this picture of a 'Turkish Drop' from the website of a dancer named Najla - link to her website here.

Even though casseroles are not cool, and though you might think twice before making anything called a Glop, I recommend this dish. It's tasty comfort food. Kids like it. Maybe don't call it glop until they taste it though. Below is the basic recipe - enough to fill a standard 8x13 inch casserole. It makes fantastic leftovers.

Swedish Glop - from Needham, MA
Grease large casserole (8x13). Boil 8 ounces egg noodles for 10 minutes and drain. Brown 2lbs ground beef and add 2 - 8 oz cans of tomato sauce. Remove from heat. In a bowl combine 1 Tablespoon chopped green pepper, 1/3 cup chopped onions, 1 cup cottage cheese, 8 oz. cream cheese, and 1/4 cup sour cream. Place half the noodles in the casserole. Then add all the cheese mixture, then the rest of the noodles. Put the meat mixture on top. Bake 20-30 minutes at 350. You can store it 1 or 2 days in the refrigerator or frozen before baking. It serves 10. (I usually make half this recipe). My mother's typed recipe card says she added salt and pepper to each layer - recommending 'Crazy Mixed Up Salt'.

This is a photo of the recipe card my mom typed on a manual typewriter for me when I was a young bride. I'm so glad to have it, food stains and all. Obviously this is a well-loved dish. Happy Glopping!