Category Archives: Holidays

Lo, The Squirrels Are Ravenous

As if the East Coast needs a further harbinger of bad weather . . . I’ve captured on film an indication of just how severe this coming winter will likely be:  never-before-seen-animal-behavior.  Saving up for winter, certainly Not Quite Right, I give you . . .




On our Jack-O-Lanterns!

Caught, red-pawed.

Mugshot of the offender.

Close-up of the damage.




Meat from the Earth

One of the more privileged moments of my family’s time in Oman was being invited during the Eid to celebrate a traditional dinner with the extended (very extended!) family of one of our friends in Sohar.  For the shuwwa, or grilling, the family employed a traditional technique called the Tanoor, an earthen pit in which carefully herbed and wrapped meats are grilled/smoked underground overnight.  This technique will immediately seem NQR to a western audience, accustomed as we are to eating from the anti-septic (but chemical-laced) confines of our mass supermarkets.

The pictures I present here, of the process of the shuwwa itself, should demonstrate not only the technical aspect of how the procedure is undertaken but also the sense of community, the involvement of the larger kinship group in this tradition.  It would be similar to the Thanksgiving Holiday in America, but only adding a hole in the earth and meat we raise and slaughter ourselves.  The Eid is a holiday at the end of Ramadan in commemoration of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son on God’s command.

Photos / explanations:

Reed-wrapped meats along with a selection of greens and herbs to add moisture and flavor.

The earthen pit, coals very hot, before the meat and herbs go in.

More herbs, better shot, some of these gave the meat a very savory flavor that stayed with me for days: smoky, heady, delicious, different.

By the lights of a luxury SUV pulled close to the earthen hole, dinner and herbs are lowered by the men into the prepared oven.

Once it goes in, the hole is covered with a sheet of metal and then with a thin layer of soil. If any smoke escapes, then too much air is getting in, the meat will cook too fast and dry out. A true seal over the meat allows it to smoke/roast to perfection.

When it is ready, after a day, the men of the family dig it up. (The women wait in a separate area to receive the meat, carve it, finish its preparation and divvy it up among the families.)

When finished the herbs and wrapping are charred but the food inside is juicy and wonderful. (Actual photo of meat missing, I was too busy eating!)


My friend Abdul Azziz (whose family is depicted in the photos above) kindly sent two complimentary photos, the first reveals the meat after it is unwrapped, the second shows a much bigger tanoor, where up to fifty wrapped packages can be cooked at once.  He also notes that this type of shuwwa is particular to northern Oman and parts of the UAE.

The cooked product of the tanoor, with garnish of local herbs.

A bigger version, holding up to fifty wrapped packages.

Odd Angels on High

For those of us around the world — Christian, Muslim, Jewish, even atheist — there is one shared conception from this Holiday Season that has undergone little debate but has left a lot of room for popular imagination:  angels.

Growing up in a very Protestant Christian environment where the frenetic reach of mass marketing intrudes even into the most sacred of objects, I became accustomed to one particular image or ‘idea’ of what an angel should be:  white, fluffy, well-preened feathers, golden halo, usually Caucasian in appearance, holding a harp, sporting a few other little daubs of golden accessories, like a trumpet, and perhaps wearing a neatly-pleated toga of some sort.  Very clean and white-washed and harmless.  Angels of this sort appear everywhere in the USA — on the topmost boughs of Christmas trees, suspended from streetlights along the main thoroughfares in many little heartland hometowns, adorning the covers of greeting cards, even making appearances in films like “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “City of Angels.”

So, when I read in one of my guidebooks that I would find frescoes of angels — four huge seraphim dating to the 4th Century AD — on each of the main arches inside the Hagia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul (which had once, for more than a millenia, been the primary church of the Eastern Orthodox sect of Christianity, much like St. Paul’s Cathedral for Catholicism in Rome) my mind immediately latched onto this image of fluffy happiness.

But that idea was completely, utterly mistaken.

What I found inside the Hagia Sophia turned out to be downright weird, if not frightening.  But, in a way, this sort of angel seems much more real, much more like the type of messenger commonly noted to have stricken fear into the hearts of the Prophets to whom the angels came as messengers of God.  Ezekiel, Abraham, Moses, and many more right up to and including Muhammad — all who encountered angels report a sense of terror and numbness at seeing or being in their presence.

So, maybe it’s our plastic and lily-white conception of an angel that is Not Quite Right while this frightening and disembodied mass of shifting feathers painted 1500 years ago more closely represents the truth —

An angel inside the Hagia Sophia.


Turkeys in Turkey

Do two rights make a Not Quite Right?  That’s the question today, as we head into this wonderful Thanksgiving holiday weekend of family togetherness and feasting.

You'll just have to take my word for it: this picture WAS taken in the country of Turkey!

Turkey and Turkeys.

We chanced on these two beautiful specimens in the city of Ulu Deniz, on the south Mediterranean coast of the country of Turkey, while parking our car just off the downtown beachside boardwalk.  This was the ONLY time we ever saw turkeys ANYWHERE in the Middle East or Africa.  It was almost meant to happen, meant to be, the two gobblers strolling into view when our camera was ready.

It answers that ages-old grade school question, or giggle-worthy joke, about whether Turkeys come from Turkey.

Right now, at this time of year, its certainly comforting to think about both items:  the warm beaches in the mouthwateringly-named country and the warm, tender roast of bird that will soon find its way onto my plate.

Peace on Veteran’s Day

Yesterday I stumbled into the monastic quiet of Chancellor Green Hall on the Princeton campus, just to sit and think for awhile before the start of a seminar.  There, in the empty octagonal enclosure, with light streaming from all angles through gorgeous stained glass windows, I found a little item worthy of a Not Quite Right mention in honor of this Veteran’s Day, 11-11-11.

An image of peace in a window of Chancellor Green Hall, Princeton.

I’ve got two takes on the image of this Crusader-like figure, both of them worth mentioning in the context of NQR.

First, I wonder if the artist intended the image to embody the Pax Romana, the somewhat oxymoronic enforcement of peace through a monopoly on violence.  Does the horseman’s slumping posture hint at the failure inherent in such a doctrine?  Or is his head held high, looking foward to a horizon that must lead to a soldier’s self-sacrifice in the name of his ideals?

Second, and maybe simultaneously, I think that this figure represents the very opposite idea: a Don Quixote, piquant, holding aloft a banner embroidered with a single word for Peace despite the realities of the world around him.  I like this interpretation best.  It has warmth to it that matches the warmth of the light flooding through the colored baubles of glass — the lone soldier holding to an unreality, facing a corrupt world.  The invocation of Don Quixote touches also upon madness, a beautiful madness that sees things in their most wondrous light rather than in their most real and dismal actualities.  Unfortunately, such an idea is one for books, for literature, for poetry.  It intersects only in the realm of ideas with what life is really like for a soldier.

I think of the friends and comrades I have lost at war today and all those who have gone before us, sacrificing, unsure of what ideals they really represent.  All a little Quixotic.

Expatriate Picnic Secrets

So, two options if you want to go to a REALLY nice beach in Oman:

1)  Stay at the Shangri La Barr al-Jissah Resort, with a sea-cave arch in its front yard and a private cove among three different ‘tiers’ of resort complexes (all visible in the picture on the main page of the resort’s website, link provided here at no additional cost).

. . . or . . .

2)  Pay one of the local fishermen who wait on shore, after finishing their morning trawl, to take expats out to the equally private and much less expensive cove immediately opposite the sea arch.

Same waves.

Same water.

Same sand.

Same sun.

Cocktails are, unfortunately, best kept within the confines of the resort, in deference to local predilections.

Going rate to hire a boat from Qantab Village to take a group out to the hidden cove?  Negotiable, but usually somewhere around 10 Omani Rial (about 26 USD).  Going rate to spend the day at Barr al-Jissah?  I wouldn’t know.  And that’s the NQR of this post . . . all of us expats creating a cottage industry of taxi-boats through nothing more elaborate than our own penny-pinching!

A boatload of expats shove off for a short trip around the peninsula to the 'hidden cove'

House of the Lock

As I sit, alone, in Israel on the last of this year’s many travels in the Middle East I am reminded of one of the better, funnier remarks my sons made during our travels.  Wesley, my eldest — after finishing one of the many long visits I forced him to endure at some ruin or archeological site — said:  “Just because something is old doesn’t make it interesting.”

I like ruins.  And I like museums.  Correspondingly, my wife and children have been taken to many, many such places during this year of our travels.  They just didn’t want to see more of what they consider ‘the same’ in Israel (while I’m eagerly anticipating a packed itinerary:  Jersusalem, Golan Heights, Nazareth, Masada, etc, etc, over the next couple of days).

So, here is a short entry about a true ‘pile of old rocks’ . . . the Bait al-Qufl, or ‘House of the Lock’ which is a structure unique to the Musandum Penninsula (the little isolated rocky headline belonging to Oman which juts out toward Iran and nearly cuts the Arabian Sea from the Indian Ocean).  It seems the villagers in this remote area would leave their homes for the entire summer, taking their flocks up into the cooler mountains.  To avoid carrying all their earthly possessions up the steep Musandum slopes, they devised small stone storage houses with ingenious, hidden, stone-locking doors.  They then packed all their valuables up in the rooms, sealed them, and went on holiday in the hills until the summer heat grew tolerable again.

All that remain of these houses are a few foundations, a few piles of stones.

I allowed my boys to sit in the air-conditioned car while I scampered through the ruins, snapping a few photos.  Personally, I feel it it’s Not Quite Right of my children to be prejudiced against old things just because they are old. (The ‘old‘ remark felt a little personal, perhaps).  But, I have to admit that this barren-looking photo makes a pretty strong argument in their favor.

Two 'Houses of the Lock' near Khasab, Oman.




Wild Wadi (Women Only)

One of the more contentious points of Islamic culture, from a Western point of view, is the wearing of the hijab.  While it is an issue receiving international attention, with France having outlawed it completely, we’ve had our own, more personal experiences with it here during our travels and daily life in the Middle East.

First, some definition of terms usually used rather loosely in the West:

Advertisement for Wild Wadi Waterpark in the UAE.

– Burka: the long, draping outer body covering, also sometimes called a jelaba or ghalabia especially when worn by men

– Hijab:  covering for the head

– Niqab:  covering or veil over the face

The wearing of these traditional garments varies from place to place in the Middle East and even from sect to sect within a country, or region, according to that sect’s interpretation and adherence to tradition.  Where this tradition springs from is briefly but nicely reviewed, with excerpts from relevant Islamic sources, in this article from Emory University.

As for our personal experience:  here in Oman some women wear it, some do not.  Foreign women are not compelled.  Muslim women seem to chose for themselves or adhere to the values inculcated in them as a part of their family upbringing.  In other countries, like Morocco, the hijab is rarely seen.  Or, on the opposite end, in Saudi Arabia it is mandated for all women, non-Muslims included (although, somewhat surprisingly, most western women we met generally did not wear a head covering, and were not often reprimanded for it by the Mutawwa, the Saudi religious police . . . )  My wife, Angie, actually enjoyed wearing the full body covering, feeling (for once) like she wasn’t being stared at and, moreover, feeling releaved at not having to wear make-up, nice clothes, etc.  I think she spent all our time in Riyadh clothed in a yoga outfit, her very favorite choice of apparel, tucked away under the burka!

Best of all, and perhaps most in-line with other Not Quite Right observations here, is the photo above, a quick shot Angie took of an advertisement she saw for a waterpark in the UAE.  It seems, at first, to be tongue-in-cheek with the woman wearing a fluffy pink towel in place of the usual black facial covering.  But, really, it is serious.  No men allowed.  Women only.  The fine print makes an allowance for boys under 8 years old entering the park on these particular Thursday nights in the company of their moms, but only if they can provide proof of their age!

Middle Eastern Easter Critters

No, the camel didn’t deliver our Easter eggs this year.

But the Easter Bunny found him to be a convenient target for some western holiday humor.  One of the jobs that falls to parents all across America, but isn’t so common here, is the hiding of easter eggs (and baskets) for easter morning.  This leads us to our Not Quite Right topic of the day: housing in the Middle East.

We live in an honest-to-goodness palace here, compared to our expectations back home.  Labor is cheap.  Building materials (except wood) are somewhat low-cost, with most houses made from concrete (crushed rock and sand), plaster, tile and copious quantities of granite and marble.  The result is a big, empty, echoing, polished, HARD house that would be cold if it weren’t for the scorching Easter temperatures now reaching toward 110F.

Easter camel.

Where do easter eggs, those multi-colored plastic containers for skittles and wrapped candy, or those more traditional dipped and dyed hard-boiled versions, like to be hidden in a house like this?

On top of camels.

Amongst the childrens’ prized rock and seashell collections.

In the draperies.

Amongst the usual nooks and crannies in furniture.

Where do they not like to be hidden?  Anywhere outside, especially if they are made of chocolate!

At the close of the day, one of my Muslim friends sent me the following text:  “Happy Easter to you all and families.”  I couldn’t say it better — or in a more perfectly, happily tolerant way — myself.