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Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Food in the Middle East, seven: Meals in Istanbul

This is the seventh post in a new series based on the Middle East trip completed in May and early June. The first posts in the series covered breakfasts, lunches and dinners in Jordan, sweets, pickles and olives, lunches and dinners in Jerusalem, and street food.

This time I want to look at lunches and dinners in Istanbul, which was our last stop before the stopover in Abu Dhabi on the homeward leg. Our hotel was called the Sebnem Hotel and it was located on the peninsula south of the Golden Horn near a major tourist street named Akbiyir Street. This street is lined with restaurants and convenience stores. There is also a currency exchange office there that tourists can use to get Turkish lira to use in the shops.

We landed in Istanbul at the enormous airport at 4.30pm and caught a taxi to the hotel. By 6.25pm we were in our rooms and later we went out to Akbiyir Street to get some dinner. A man in front of a restaurant asked us if we wanted some food, so we got to talking with him. He had studied in the UK and his English was excellent so we went inside his restaurant. We ordered a seafood casserole, a mixed grill, and a plate of rice. The meal came with a complimentary dish of hummus and one of black olives, and flat bread. After we had finished our waiter brought us some apple tea. I had two beers with the meal, which altogether came to 213TL (A$53).

On day two we stopped by the hotel briefly after a morning of sightseeing then headed out along Akbiyir Street to get some food. As usual there were a lot of men touting restaurants and at 2.15pm we sat down at the Babylonian Pub Restaurant. We ordered a mixed grill, which is mainly grilled chicken, beef, and lamb. It also comes with rice and a pizza-type bread. They gave us a complimentary mezze to start which was half a kind of chilli and tomato dip and half a dip made from yoghurt. This came with pita bread. I had two Efes beers and we also ordered a small bottle of water. They gave us two baklava to finish the meal with and this was also on the house. The tab came to 237TL (A$56) which sounds cheap but for Turkey was expensive. The first photo below shows the mixed grill and the second shows the mezze that came ahead of the main course.



We had a wander in the afternoon and got back to the hotel at 7.45pm then 10 minutes later sat down in a Korean restaurant on Akbiyir Street where we each ordered a bowl of wonton soup. We also ordered a salad made from tomatoes and cucumbers. The meal came with complimentary side dishes containing pickles. The tab came to 61TL (A$15).

On day three my friend went off by herself to visit a hamam (Turkish bath) and at 1.45pm I sat down to have a cheeseburger and a Coke in a restaurant on Akbiyir Street. At 2.13pm my friend came back to the hotel and then we went out to find some food for her. We headed up to Divan Yolu Street and went into a restaurant we had seen the day before where they display food in the window. This is a “lokanta”, which is a type of restaurant in Turkey that sells ready-made food or “azir yemek” that is laid out in dishes kept warm on hot ash or in a bain-marie. The word in Turkish is “lokantasi” where the “-si” at the end of the word is the suffix “-like”. The word is based on the Latin word “locandus”, which means “inn”. 

The advantage of lokanta is that there are no touts out the front trying to get you to sit down. They are also a lot cheaper than the restaurants that cater mainly to tourists. This time, my friend’s meal came to 65TL (A$16). The photo below shows the crowd of people outside one of the restaurants on Divan Yolu Street in the evening after fasting has ended.


The photo below shows the window of another restaurant on the same street. This establishment is displaying food that should be first cooked before being eaten. A lokanta displays food in its window that has already been cooked.


We went back to the same restaurant after 8pm on day three in the city. We had three dishes with lamb, potato, eggplant, and minced beef predominating. The meal came with two types of rice, one of which was plain white rice and the other of which had been prepared with a kind of tomato sauce. We also got a Coke and an extra bottle of water (a large one), plus a bottle to drink at the table with the meal. The place was full of families breaking their fast, and we also asked the staff working there for the standard plate of salad (cucumber and tomato, grated carrot, and chopped iceberg lettuce) that the other diners were enjoying. The whole lot came to 90TL (A$23), which was very cheap.

On day four after visiting the Istanbul Archaeological Museum we stopped at a nearby restaurant at 4.10pm. I ordered an Efes beer and we also ordered eggplant kebab and some pomegranate juice. The meal came with mezze and bread. The dip was made from black olives. The tab came to just 103TL (A$26) but the meal took ages to arrive. The waiter kept putting us off, telling us that eggplant takes a long time to prepare, but we sat there for almost an hour before getting up and paying.

When we arrived back at our hotel after visiting another part of the city, we rested for a while then went out to the Korean restaurant near it, arriving there at about 8.40pm. We ordered kim chee soup, beef with chillies, and mixed veges. I also had a beer. The meal came with complimentary pickles and we also had two bowls of rice. The tab came to 156TL (A$39) and then we returned to the hotel.

On day five at 5.08pm we got in an empty cab that appeared out of the heavy afternoon traffic outside the Dolmabahce Palace, where we had been sightseeing. The driver took us to Mesrutiyet Street and at 5.20pm, on a nearby street, we sat down in a lokanta after ordering food at the front of the shop. We had eggplant stuffed with minced beef, green beans, and sardines with rice. I had a Coke and the tab came to 52TL (A$15), which was cheap.

We got back to Hagia Sophia at 9.10pm and then walked to Akbiyir Street and sat down in a restaurant on the corner of the street where the hotel was located. The meal we ordered was simple. It comprised a rocket salad (which turned out to have no rocket in it but plenty of tomato), an Adana kebab, and some water. This restaurant served no alcohol. The staff also brought us a complimentary mezze which was a spicy vege dip that came with flat bread. The tab came to 72TL (A$18) and I left some change in the envelope when we left the premises.

On day six at 2.30pm we queued at the entrance to the Balkan Lokantasi Restaurant in Serkeci to order some food, which we did at the front of the shop. We chose eggplant stuffed with rice, a spinach dish, Brussels sprouts, and chicken cooked with potato and carrot. It came with two dishes of rice. We also bought a Coke and a bottle of water. The tab was 41.5TL (A$11), which was very cheap.

At 7.40pm we sat down at a restaurant and ordered a sejuk pide (a kind of Turkish pizza made with spicy sausage), a mix kebab, and two glasses of red wine. I also had a beer, and the tab came to 195TL. The wine came in enormous balloons and was quite good. We got back to the hotel at 8.35pm.

On day seven we went into a restaurant on Divan Yolu Street for lunch and it cost 110TL (A$28). We finished eating at 12.35pm. We saw the dervishes that evening then again had dinner in the Sultanahmet area. 

Monday, 24 June 2019

Food in the Middle East, six: Street food

This is the sixth in a new series of blogposts based on the Middle East trip, which took placer mainly in May. In the first five posts in this series I talked about breakfasts, lunches and dinners in Jordan, sweets, pickles and olives, and lunches and dinners in Jerusalem. 

This blogposts will be short because of a decision I made with definitions. In Istanbul there are restaurants called “lokanta” that serve ready-made food which is displayed in the shop window. We ate at this kind of restaurant several times but I am not going to classify it as street food, although some might think that it is. In this current blogpost I am just going to talk about the kinds of fast food that you can get in Australia that you usually eat walking on the street (although, as you will see, sometimes these establishments have tables on the pavement for customers to use).

I didn’t see any street food establishments in Jordan, although some of the restaurants in Wadi Musa have tables set out on the pavement in front of the shop. In Jordan you normally sit down and order food and when it comes time to paying you ask for a “check” (a bill) that they bring to your table so that you can pay. Some restaurants in Australia use this system but in the main it is an American custom and all the proper restaurants we came across in the Middle East, including the lokanta, use it. With street food places you pay when they hand you the food and then you take it away, either to eat it while walking on the street or else to eat at one of the tables the shop staff have put on the pavement for paying customers to use.

I’ve already talked about the Jerusalem bagel shop in the post about breakfasts but I want to go back to it because it is precisely this kind of dining experience that is so popular with Israelis. The climate is such that in summer people are out late at night eating and talking and socialising. Although the bagel shop was open early in the morning to catch the breakfast trade, they also stayed open late as well to catch the dinner trade.

The bagel shop had a glass display window that doubled as a counter. Through the glass you can see a range of different dairy options as well as a few protein options (smoked salmon, tuna salad) and a range of different vege options. You had the choice with a standard bagel of a spread plus something else to put on top. The spread would be a dairy spread and the thing to put on top might be grilled eggplant or a salad. If you wanted to add one more option the price would go up slightly. In the back, attached to the wall behind the counter staff, were several baskets containing the different kinds of bagels on offer. You might choose (as I did) one with sesame seeds on it or you might choose a wholemeal bagel to have as your base. They also serve coffee made with an espresso machine. Outside in Ben Yehuda Street were tables where you could sit and eat your meal if you wanted.


Ben Yehuda Street is a pedestrian mall and so are some other streets surrounding it. At the bottom of it, toward the old city, is Jaffa Street, where the light rail runs. In the space between Jaffa Street and King George Street are these pedestrian streets with lots of restaurants, including (in the above photo) this chip shop (or, for US residents, a shop selling French fries). It’s called “King of Fries” and it also sells soft drinks. Below is another shop on the mall, a shawarma shop. In Australia shawarmas are usually called doner kebabs, to use the Turkish name for the dish. It is a disc of unleavened bread containing grilled meat – beef or chicken, in many cases – as well as salad items such as tomato and lettuce. 

In the photo below the man with the big hat is a religious Jew. You see men dressed in this kind of black 19th century suit, often with a Stetson or sometimes with a big, round hat like this, going about their business on a daily or hourly basis. The religious women who are married likewise cover their hair, either with a snood or with a tichel (scarf).


In Istanbul there are fewer street food vendors but there are a lot of these corn cob sellers (see photo below) with their carts along Divan Yolu Street up near Sultanahmet Plaza. They charge a few lira I guess but I didn’t ask. You can buy grilled corn cobs like this in Japan in summer from street vendors.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Food in the Middle East, five: Meals in Jerusalem

This is the fifth in a new series of posts based on the Middle East trip I completed in May with a friend. This series has already touched on breakfasts, lunches and dinners in Jordan, sweets, and the matter (an important one) of pickles and olives in ME cuisine. 

This time I want to talk about the lunches and dinners that we ate in Jerusalem, where we stayed for a week. We were in two hotels during this time as the first hotel we chose, the YMCA Three Arches, didn’t have availability for all of the days we planned to be in Israel. So on day four we moved to a kind of studio apartment setup called the Alon Hotel which is located nearby but a bit further north in the centre of West Jerusalem.

On the first day in Jerusalem we had lunch in the hotel restaurant. I had maklouba with chicken (a dish that mainly features a type of savoury rice that we had eaten on the first day in Petra for lunch) and my travelling companion had spaghetti all’olio. My meal was not as good as what you can get in Jordan, or at least not as good as the best Jordanian meals. With two beers and a cafe mocha the tab came to 199ILS (about A$80) which is about the same as a comparable restaurant would charge for similar items in Sydney.

For dinner we went a bit further afield and ate at a place called Focaccia Bar that was noisy with customers. We stood around for about 10 minutes before getting a table and then we ordered some seafood marinara, a salad with baby tomatoes, bocconcini and anchovies, and a plate of chicken with a mushroom sauce. The seafood came with bread. Even at 9pm people were still ordering food. What we ordered was too much for the two of us and with the two Leffe Blonde beers and a red grapefruit juice the tab came to 277ILS (A$110).

On day two in the city in the old town at 12.50pm we entered a Korean restaurant and ordered some soup with rice and a bibimbap. With a Coke the tab came to 103ILS (A$41). Later we left the hotel to have dinner and walked south along King David Street to George Washington Street where we turned west. The restaurant (see photo below) I had picked up from Google is named Angelica and it is located inside a limestone building on this street.


We sat down without a booking and I ordered a Shapiro beer, which had a sweet, rich taste and was a craft beer brewed locally in Jerusalem. I ordered a main of salmon and my friend ordered a bowl of zucchini and mushroom soup and an endive salad. Before this arrived we got some complimentary dips and fresh bread rolls. The dips (see photo below) were basil aioli, eggplant, and dried tomato and when we had finished the rolls the waitress brought us some more (at 9.05pm). We shared the salad and for dessert we ordered tapioca pearls with coconut cream and fresh fruit. With this came some dessert wine (two glasses for me) that was also on the house. It was called “Ice Wine” and was made at Hevon, a town located about 30 minutes’ drive south of the capital. The meal came to 365ILS (A$145).


On day three on Mamilla Avenue at 12.30pm we entered a restaurant called Fresh Coffee and Kitchen and ordered an Indian curry, which came with rice, in the Japanese style, in a mound separate from the cooked veges (potato, zucchini, whole garlic cloves, onion), and what was called a “Tricolor funghi mozzarella”, which was twisty-shaped pasta with a mushroom sauce and pieces of mozzarella cheese. In addition we ordered a Tuborg beer and a cappuccino. The meal cost 186ILS (A$74).

Later we went out to find some dinner and headed down the hill toward the old town. There was a sign for a restaurant I had seen on Google Maps called Te’enim and we headed through a park that had flowering trees in it until we reached a building set off to the side. Inside we took a table at 7pm and ordered labane (a type of yoghurt dip) with sundried tomatoes, which came with brown bread, a cold zucchini and yoghurt soup, some steamed greens that came with a date sauce called celane and pieces of goat’s cheese, and a mushroom stew (see photo below) that came with cracked wheat and pumpkin. I had two beers and the meal was way too big for two people and I took the pumpkin back to the hotel when we left the restaurant. The meal came to 231ILS (A$92).


On day four after moving hotels we walked a short distance across the street to McDonald’s and used a touch screen terminal to order some lunch. This was a chicken tortilla as a regular meal with a diet Coke, and an Amsterdam burger as a large meal with a Coke. The food came to 103ILS (A$41) and after paying with banknotes and coins I took the receipt (which was printed all in Hebrew except for the numbers) and we waited for the meal to be prepared. Some of the staff in the restaurant wore the hijab and all were women apart from the store manager. He came over to us when we had almost finished eating and asked in English if we had everything we needed. We asked for some more serviettes and he brought some over to our table. A series of pop tunes played on the sound system in the store including Marvin Gaye’s ‘Mercy Mercy Me’.

At 6.30pm in a restaurant named Rimon Bistro where ‘Hotel California’ was playing on the stereo. We ordered a ragu Bolognese and a plate of house goulash (see photo below). Both were tasty but as usual with meals in Israel there was too much food. I had a beer and we also ordered a bottle of mineral water. The tab came to 167ILS (A$66) and at 7.05pm we left the restaurant.


On day five at about 11.45am we went into a bakery on King George Street to have some food, which came to 59ILS (A$23.50). The food was a kind of canned tuna and vege concoction (zucchini, eggplant, potato) on a baked base, and a tiramisu. We also bought a bottle of Sprite.

Later, after 4pm, we went to Mamilla Avenue and entered another Cafe Rimon, where we ordered some fried sea bass with greens, an Asian salad that came with bok choy, zucchini, green beans, and noodles, and a pasta that was shaped like little combs that came with pesto. I had a Regina beer and my friend had a kind of smoothie made with strawberries and dates. The tab came to 270ILS (A$107) and I gave a tip of 20ILS. We took some of the salad home with us as, as is usual here, the meal was too big.

On day six near Ben Yehuda Street we went into Cafe Rimon (the same place we had eaten at on day four) and sat down for lunch at 2.55pm. We ordered an Asian salad and what was called on the menu an “umami” pizza (potato, mushroom, onion, fetta cheese), along with two Tuborg beers and a bottle of mineral water. The tab came to 134ILS (about A$60, not much more than the McDonald’s we had eaten in the city) and I added 10ILS as a tip because a waitress had brought us some Tabasco sauce to use on the salad. We didn’t have any dinner because it was so hot but later I had a small tub of ice cream at a shop on Jaffa Street.

On day seven at midday after we had returned to the Jaffa Gate we stopped to have some lunch at a cafe on Mamilla Avenue. We had a tuna sandwich and an omelette sandwich, and a cappuccino and a hot chocolate. The tab came to 89ILS (A$35). After eating we left the cafe at 12.25pm and headed back to the hotel. Back in the old town at 6.05pm we went into the Armenian Tavern (see photo of the interior, below) and ordered an Ararat steak, a green salad, a Goldstar beer and a glass of mango juice. The food did the job and we paid (174ILS, equal to A$70) and left.

Saturday, 22 June 2019

Food in the Middle East, four: Pickles and olives

This is the fourth in a new series of blogposts about the Middle East trip, which took place mainly in May. For this series I have already written about breakfasts, lunches and dinners in Jordan, and sweets. 

This time I want to take a quick look at another aspect of ME food: the pickles and olives that you are sometimes served as a mezze ahead of your main course or that come with the meal itself.


The above photo was taken in the dining room of the hotel we stayed at in Amman, in Jordan. I am sitting in front of the part of the meal I shared with my travelling companion, which came in addition to plates of eggs and other things. But you can see on the table in front of me a small dish containing green olives of different sizes. The olives all have their pits in them and they came with the meal every morning. 


The photo above shows a piece of Turkish bread with a dab of minced olives on top of it. The mezze came with a meal which was eaten on day four in Istanbul after we had spent some time in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, which is near the tram that runs from Sultanahmet to Beyoglu over the Golden Horn. We sat down at the restaurant at 4.10pm and waited almost an hour for our main course, which was grilled eggplant, to arrive at the table, and in the meantime the waiter brought us this olive spread and some unleavened bread.


The photo above shows the meal we ordered in Istanbul on day two at the Babylon Pub and Restaurant on Akbiyir Street near our hotel. The street is lined with restaurants that cater to tourists. You can see on the plate, at the bottom of the photo, a large green chilli, which was a type of pickle that accompanied the meal.


The above photo shows a stall in the market in Amman. This photo was taken on one day during our stay in the capital of Jordan. You can see the different kinds of pickles, some of which are dyed a very bright colour, as well as the different kinds of olives that are available. Below is another photo. This one was taken in the Muslim quarter of the old city in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is just visible from the hilly northern outskirts of Amman where it lies across the river that separates Israel and Jordan. You can see from looking at these photos that the kinds of pickles and olives that are available in Jerusalem are the same as what you can easily buy in Amman.


It is common for meals to be accompanied by mezze in all of the countries we visited on the trip. Often the food served on small dishes in this way before the main course is brought out is accompanied by some flat bread. You never go hungry in the Middle East!

Friday, 21 June 2019

Food in the Middle East, three: Sweets

This is the third post in a second series of blogposts based on the Middle East trip I completed mainly in May. The first post in this series was about breakfasts and the second was about lunches and dinners in Jordan. This post is about sweets, or more precisely confectionery and desserts. In the US they use the word “candy” to describe some of what is talked about here.

Despite the fact that I’m not usually a massive fan of sweets and desserts my travelling companion and I sometimes found ourselves, between meals, sitting down in a café to have something sweet to eat. I’ll start with Jordan because that’s where we began our trip apart from a one-night stopover in Abu Dhabi following the long-haul flight across the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately I don’t have that many photos of sweets in the Middle East but the first one below here shows items on sale in a bakery in Wadi Musa, the town that services the ruins of the ancient Nabataean city of Petra. Wadi Musa is almost entirely given over to providing tourists the things and services they need.

We were in the country during Ramadan so most of the locals were fasting during the daytime. At the end of the day they gather in shops like this one to secure supplies for the time when fasting ends, which happens at 7.30pm. It’s the same in Amman: the bakeries do a rapid trade from about 5pm during Ramadan as people stock up with things to eat. Meals are eaten at different times during the night.


At one shop on the main drag in Amman there were dozens of shoppers outside a bakery selling goods like the ones shown in the photo above. If you are a tourist you ask for what you want by pointing, then you hold up some fingers or say the English word (“four” or “six”), and then pay a couple of Jordanian dinars (about A$4) for the food. In Wadi Musa, the guy serving customers who took my friend’s order put the sweets on a Styrofoam tray and wrapped them in cling film so that she could take them away. In Amman the guy at the front of the shop who served my friend put her goods in a white plastic singlet bag. The cost was about the same in both places.

In Amman there are other types of sweet shop like this one (photo below) that sells what Americans call “candy”. On the last full day that we were in the country my friend bought a bagful of sweets at a shop like this that had candied fruit in them and it cost 7JD (A$14) for a kilo.


There was not so much of this kind of thing available in Jerusalem and anyway the meals in restaurants there are usually enormous so you mostly don’t feel the need to add sweets after finishing your main course. But on day two in that city we ate dinner in a restaurant on George Washington Street named Angelica and for dessert my friend ordered tapioca pearls with coconut cream and fresh fruit (see photo below). There was also some white dessert wine for me that was on the house. On the menu it was listed as “Ice Wine” and had been made at Hevon, a town located about 30 minutes’ drive south of the capital.


On day six in the city at 7.30pm it was still 33 degrees Celcius and we had had a late lunch so we didn't feel like dinner. But we stopped at a gelato bar at 8pm. A two-scoop tub of mint and strawberry, a single-scoop cone with pistachio, and a small bottle of water cost 41ILS (A$16). 


In Istanbul there are sweet shops and cafes all along Divan Yolu Street, the main drag near Ayasofya where the tram line runs. On day two in the city we sat down in a bakery after ordering a piece of "gileki dilim", which is a kind of strawberry cake with chocolate. The bakery was called Cigdem Patisserie. I had a Coke as well and the tab came to 23.5 Turkish lira (A$5.90). The photo above, which was taken one day during our visit to Istanbul in the evening after fasting had ended, shows the display window of a bakery on Divan Yolu Street near Sultanahmet Plaza. Same with the photos below.




On day two on the way back to the hotel we also stopped at a convenience store and bought half a watermelon, which the man behind the counter sliced up for us and put into plastic bags. The fruit cost 30TL (A$7.50) and when we got back to the hotel we asked the guy at the front desk if he could put some of the slices in the fridge in the kitchen as the guest rooms did not have this kind of appliance in them.

On day three in Istanbul in the mid-afternoon we went into a sweet shop with the obligatory front window display and asked about the goods on show. A guy behind the counter gave us each a small slice of alwar (sesame roll) to try and he also said they sold sujuk (Turkish delight). We went upstairs but the menu they had on the table there didn’t list the same sweets that were in the window, so we got up and left. We walked back up the hill a bit until we got to another sweet shop, looked at the window display and ordered a selection of sweets from a waiter standing there, then sat down outside it at a table that had been placed, with others like it, on the pavement. The selection we had chosen included Turkish delight, and there was also a cappuccino for me. The food came on a plate, with two knives and two forks, and there were nine pieces of confectionery on it. 

Some of them were quite tough so a knife and fork were necessary to cut them up. They were all very sweet indeed and was too much to eat so the pieces that remained after we had eaten our fill we got put into a container so that we could take them back to the hotel. The tab came to 38TL (A$9.50). On the same day at 9.30pm in the evening as we were walking on the same street I felt the call of nature so we ducked into a cafe and ordered a piece of cake so I could use the WC (the toilet; it’s an old English term that is used throughout the Middle East to refer to this amenity). The cake was called “velvet cake” and was made from a kind of solid cream with red layers of cake interspersed between them. It cost 18TL (A$4.50).

The next day at about 1.15pm after seeing Ayasofya, as we were on the way to the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, we sat down in a cafe on the main street the to have a plate of Turkish sweets, a Coke, and an orange juice. This came to 42TL (A$10.50). In the afternoon of day five we went into a café on Istiklal Street and ordered an iced latte, an Efes beer, and a brownie that arrived from the kitchen heated up with a bubbling chocolate sauce. I ordered another beer after a while and the tab came to 93.5TL (A$23.40). On the last full day in Istanbul at 4.25pm we sat down again at the Cigdem Patisserie to share a slice of “kardinal” cake. I also had a cappuccino. Together it cost 29TL (A$7.25). Later, at 5.45pm, after we visited the Grand Bazaar, my friend had an ice cream which cost 15TL (A$3.75). 

Turkish ice cream shops are all over the place in the shopping areas that people use when they have free time and where tourists congregate. The men who sell ice cream often wear traditional embroidered vests that remind passers-by of the Ottoman era. They use long metal rods that have a flat shape on the end, and to attract people to their shops they clatter the rods around in metal tubs of sticky ice cream, hoisting up the frozen masses of confection with the rods and thumping them back down into their containers. On one night soon after our arrival in the city an ice-cream vendor was teasing a woman who had come up to his shopfront (see photo below) to buy ice cream, putting the cone, that had a dab of ice cream attached to it, in front of her face, on top of her head, and in her hands, then snatching it away again so that she started laughing at his skilful display out of frustration mixed with delight. All the time the vendor was only holding onto the long metal rod with his hands. He kept up a supply of verbal patter to accompany his tricks, which went on for several minutes as people walked along the street going about their business.


On the same afternoon as my friend bought her ice cream, further down the hill toward the Sirkeci area near the cultural centre where we had booked tickets that would allow us see the whirling dervishes, at 5.55pm we stopped to share a bowl of rice pudding (16TL, equal to A$4).

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Food in the Middle East, two: Meals in Jordan

This is the second in a new series of posts based on the Middle East trip, which took place mainly in May. The first post in this series dealt with breakfasts eaten during the trip. This time I’m going to look at the lunches and dinners we ate in Jordan. You don’t need to talk to your government every day but you do need to eat three times a day, so food is critical for travellers and constitutes one of the main avenues through which they engage with their hosts.

One week in a country lets you sample a number of different dishes if you are interested in trying new food. Restaurants in Amman and Petra in Jordan often cater to tourists, whose spending constitutes a major component of the economy. Especially in Wadi Musa, the town that services the remnants of the ancient Nabataean city of Petra. In the end, though, once we had found reliable options we tended to gravitate to the same restaurants and order the same dishes.

Food in Jordan is quite pricey in most locations but I think that tourists probably pay more than locals do for the same choices in the menu. I never saw a menu written in Arabic and anyway I cannot read Arabic, so it was impossible for me to know for sure how much residents pay for the food they eat in restaurants. One of the reliable options we identified was mansaf with lamb, which is a kind of stew that comes with Basmati rice on the side and a yoghurt sauce, so it was easy enough to find good things in most places. The yoghurt sauce is watery and a bit sour and it comes in a dish separate from the lamb and rice, which are served separate from each other on a plate. You can put the sauce on your rice or on your lamb and it tastes very nice with both or with either.

Jordanians enjoy this dish as well, and in order to do so every year they import from Australia large numbers of live sheep; there was a detail on this part of the country’s economy included in a display at the Jordan Museum but I didn’t make a note to record it. Australia’s Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development says 10 percent of the country’s exported live sheep went to Jordan in 2017, and that in that year the total number sent to all countries was 1.7 million head.

One moment served to illustrate for me how in Jordan mansaf stew is a local favourite and that people there eat it when they want to enjoy a special treat. The driver who took us back from Petra to Amman on our last full day in the country was named Maruan and he stopped by his sister’s place to pick up some money that his nephew had promised him on account of Ramadan. At the same time as he did this, she gave him a bag of the yoghurt sauce that is used to make mansaf (which can be made with either chicken or lamb) and as he got back in the taxi, where we were waiting for him to emerge from his relative’s house across the road from us, he told us how expensive the sauce is. Unfortunately I didn’t make a note of this detail on my phone.


Our Amman hotel was situated right smack-bang in the middle of the downtown area of the city so we could easily walk to the streets where the shops and restaurants are located. The photo above shows a footpath outside a restaurant in the area sometime before fasting ended on day one of our stay in the city. During Ramadan people wait for the town’s cannon to go off before eating but in the hours before that they congregate on tables on the pavements in preparation for the end of fasting.

The photo below was also taken on day one in Amman, in the Afra Restaurant and Café. We ordered a plate of hummus and beef, and bowl of mushroom soup. For drinks we ordered a fruit cocktail (there was no alcohol served in the place during Ramadan) and a Pepsi. The hummus, which was served with a basketful of discs of pita bread each of which was about 10 inches in diameter, was very good indeed. It had a fruity flavour and a creamy consistency unlike the tart rough spread you often get in Sydney. The meal came to just over 13 Jordanian dinars (I ended up having two Pepsis) and I gave the man at the cash register 15JD (A$30) and said thank you. This was pricey considering we had had only a small amount of food.


The next day (day two) we had lunch at the Rome Pizza Restaurant in the Pasha Hotel. We ate lamb kebabs with French fries. The meal came to 15JD (A$30) for both of us. We went back there for dinner as the place is just up the road from our hotel and it serves alcohol during Ramadan. 

The food we ordered for dinner was mansaf with lamb, kufteh (mince beef with tomato on top), and a dish named zeid zatar (or "poor man’s food") made from olive oil, sesame, zatar (a kind of herb that, we were told, grows in the mountains), and vinegar. The zeid zatar is a dip and it was given to us on the house by the hotel owner, who invented it and who serves it in his establishment. With his companions he happened to take a table next to us and he spoke good English having lived for a while in Perth. We also had a Greek salad and my travelling companion had a bowl of cream of mushroom soup, which is often served in restaurants in Jordan but is not always of the same quality in every restaurant. The meal came to 29JD (about A$60, so, again, not cheap).

We had visited Rainbow Street on day two and the next day we ended up near there again at a restaurant that was open during the day during Ramadan. It is located in what is called the Wild Jordan Center that also has a gift shop and an information desk. Lots of tourists use the place as a resort and there were young people on a number of couches that had been placed in front of tables on one level of the space. Some of them were using laptops. After we sat down in the restaurant I had a burger and my friend and I shared a delicious salad made from lettuce and baby tomatoes and halloumi. It had a pomegranate dressing and the meal for two came to 26.2JD (A$52). I didn’t make a note of what my friend ate for her main dish.

In the evening of day three we went to Boulevard Abdeli Mall and at Café Italia we had some pasta for dinner but it wasn’t very good and as usual was pricey (26.4JD, equal to A$54). In Petra the next day, after the long drive south in the taxi, for lunch we had more local food: maglouba, a Greek salad, and sambusak (deep-fried cheese pockets). Maglouba is a chicken dish served with rice and yoghurt but the chicken was overcooked and the meal wasn’t too hot all round. It cost less than 30JD (A$60) all up, including drinks. 

For dinner that night we went to a restaurant in Wadi Musa. We had wandered around the town looking for a place to eat after getting a taxi from the hotel to the town centre. One restaurant that was “open” was allowing people to sit at tables and use the wifi and order drinks in the time that remained before the cannon went off to announce the end of fasting. We had had the same experience the night before in Amman where the restaurant we chose would only serve us drinks before 9.30pm.

When we sat down at the Wadi Musa restaurant, which we had chosen because it allowed people to order food before 7.30pm, I ordered a mushroom soup but it wasn’t nearly as good as one I had had in Amman. This time it was just instant packet soup that had had water added to it. We also had a plate of grilled lamb that came with Turkish bread that had been spread with a salsa made from tomatoes and chilli. It came with some surprisingly tough French fries. The manager also gave us a bowl of diced tomato and cucumber with a dressing on it, which was very nice because it was on the house; there had been some confusion over the food order. The wait staff were from the subcontinent but their English was not very good. With its tangy flavour, the bread they served us on the other hand was excellent. The meal, including two bottles of water, came to a 12JD (A$25) and it was much better than our lunch had been.

The next day we spent in Petra and we didn’t eat anything for lunch because we were walking all day: about nine hours all up. For dinner, in an exhausted and relieved state, we stopped at the Sandstone Restaurant on the main drag near the hotel and ordered mansaf with lamb and a vegetarian dish which also came with rice. With it we each had a glass of fresh orange juice. In total the meal came to 26JD (A$52) and the waiter brought us some sweets at the end so I tipped the staff 1JD (A$2) after paying.

On day thee in Petra we went to Wadi Rum and for lunch the driver bought us a pizza from a Pizza Hut that had agreed to make the food for us during the day. We had driven around Aqaba, where we had come to see the Red Sea, looking for somewhere that was open but had finally almost given up. The fast-food outlet was a last ditch effort by Khalid, the taxi driver we had hired for the day, to get us something to eat. He told us that he would give us the food but when we were almost back at Wadi Musa he added the price of the pizza plus two soft drinks (20JD, equal to A$40) to his fee for the day’s driving and we had a blazing row in his taxi. That night we gave up the field to fatigue brought on by the frustrations of the afternoon and had a buffet dinner in the hotel restaurant. This cost 30JD (A$60) for both of us.

Back in Amman, after the 250km drive from Petra, we ate a meal (combined lunch and dinner) that comprised reliable dishes we had enjoyed before: mansaf with lamb, kufteh with tomato sauce, and a Greek salad, and two beers for me. Which came to 33.6JD all up (A$67.20). I am pretty sure that this meal was taken at the Pasha Hotel, but I didn’t make a note of the location.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Food in the Middle East, one: Breakfasts

This is the first post in a second series of blogposts that are based on what happened on the trip. The first series was published in May on this blog. I wrote about religion and Ramadan in a post on 11 June and I will touch on that subject from time to time in this second series of posts. Some of the material in this series, moreover, appeared in posts in the first series. Here, it is more complete and the focus this time is purely on food (and drink) whereas the first series comprises a daily digest of the totality of experiences.


The above photo shows me, on one of the first days of the trip, using my phone in the dining room in the Zaman Ya Zaman Hotel in Amman, the capital of Jordan. I am wearing a jacket despite the heat and probably kept it on in those first days after arriving there because I thought you had to take your passport with you everywhere. In the end I got used to the idea of leaving the passport and the jacket in the hotel room.


The above photo shows the breakfast served on one morning at the hotel in Amman. You were able to order your meal from a number of simple variations on a theme that were listed on a menu that, when you arrived to eat, would be placed on your table in the dining room by wait staff. Eggs, a sausage, some fried tomato, and some beans are in this meal. The egg is sprinkled with spice. In addition to the plate for each person with eggs and other things, they always served us up a dish of hummus, a dish of a creamy dairy dip, some bread with sesame seeds on the crust, and some plain yellow cake that you could spread with jam they also brought out of the kitchen. The preserve came on a small dish.

The coffee was just instant with milk. If you asked for white coffee they would say that it was not available but would happily bring you black coffee plus a jug with watery milk to put in it.

250km away, in the south of the country, the Petra Palace Hotel has several guest floors, each of which has about 20 rooms off a central corridor. Here for breakfast they served in the dining room on the first floor a smorgasbord or buffet which included a large selection of different things including dairy products, a wide range of different types of bread, and hot hotel staples such as fried tomatoes and scrambled eggs. As in Amman the breakfast in Petra was filling and wholesome. The coffee was from a big metal jug and it was very strong and very good.

At the YMCA three Arches Hotel in Jerusalem the diary theme continued with cheese that was either camembert or brie, a nondescript cheese cut into small, bite-sized blocks that was labelled “yellow cheese”, cottage cheese, and other things made from milk. There were lots of different salads in the buffet. Coffee was available from a Nespresso machine or from glass jugs that sat on a hotplate.

After moving to the Alon Hotel, which has no dining room, sometimes for breakfast we would have a bagel bought at a store on Ben Yehuda Street, which is a pedestrian mall in the centre of West Jerusalem. On two days at a table outside in the mall I had salmon with cream cheese on a sesame seed bagel. On one day my travelling companion had egg salad with cucumber on a whole grain bagel.

In Istanbul at the Sebnem Hotel, which like the hotel in Amman is a boutique hotel that caters only to a small number of guests at any one time, there were also dairy products for breakfast, including fetta cheese and a yellow cheese that might not have a specific name. I would eat the cheese I had selected with some cold French fries, bread, and a few spoonsful of one or more of the range of salads on offer. Sometimes I had potato salad, and there was also a salad made from sausages cooked in a kind of tomato sauce, as well as tomato and cucumber salad. Most days I also had a boiled egg with my meal.

On the first morning at this hotel I had tea with breakfast because I couldn’t work out how to use the coffee machine but, after I was shown how it functioned, with breakfast in the mornings I had coffee from a kind of espresso machine that worked by pressing a single button. It wasn’t a pod machine but it worked in the same way. A wax paper container of milk was connected through a plastic tube to a nozzle that spat out heated milk as well as coffee that came from inside the contraption.

At the Jumeirah Hotel in Abu Dhabi, which is a five-star establishment, the range of things on offer for breakfast was very extensive and varied. It included Indian dishes, Asian dishes, cold cuts and cheese, bread, fruit, and Middle Eastern food. The uniformed wait staff came around and checked our coffee cups and offered to fill them up if they were empty, which was a nice touch. 

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

World population figures are often inaccurate

I did a search on Google to find out what the world’s population is and came up with a page called World Population Review that features what it calls the “US Census Bureau world population estimate”. On the page along with the figures themselves, you can find this:
Although the [world population figure] given above seems very precise, it is important to remember that it is just an estimate. It simply isn't possible to be sure exactly how many people there are on the earth at any one time, and there are conflicting estimates of the global population in 2016.
It looks like Google relies on the same source for its country population statistics. If you type “How does Google get its population figures” into Google you won’t get a straight answer but under the global population figure Google publishes it references the World Bank as the source. Elsewhere on the same page it references both the World Bank and the US Census Bureau. Google also provides population figures for individual cities around the world. For the figure for Amman, it references the World Bank and the United Nations as sources for its information.

On the World Bank website it doesn’t show individual city population figures, however, but it does show individual country figures. The sources used to arrive at the figure for Jordan, for example, is described as follows:
( 1 ) United Nations Population Division. World Population Prospects: 2017 Revision. ( 2 ) Census reports and other statistical publications from national statistical offices, ( 3 ) Eurostat: Demographic Statistics, ( 4 ) United Nations Statistical Division. Population and Vital Statistics Report (various years ), ( 5 ) U.S. Census Bureau: International Database, and ( 6 ) Secretariat of the Pacific Community: Statistics and Demography Programme.
It seems that the World Bank uses the same footnote for all countries, because it’s hard to see the relevance of item number six, given above, to a population calculation for Jordan. The same text appears, furthermore, on the page with the population figure for Indonesia and for the page with the figure for Japan. Further down in the notes for these country figures given by the World Bank is this:
Current population estimates for developing countries that lack (i) reliable recent census data, and (ii) pre- and post-census estimates for countries with census data, are provided by the United Nations Population Division and other agencies. The cohort component method - a standard method for estimating and projecting population - requires fertility, mortality, and net migration data, often collected from sample surveys, which can be small or limited in coverage. Population estimates are from demographic modeling and so are susceptible to biases and errors from shortcomings in both the model and the data. 
Which is not very encouraging, to be frank. For its purposes, the United Nations’ Population Division has a website and there is a page on it dedicated to explaining “methods for estimating population size, mortality and fertility with the emphasis on situations when data from censuses and civil registration are insufficient or unreliable”. The page contains access points to a number of different “manuals”. For example, Methods for Estimating Total Population for Current Dates, is dated 1952 and contains a number of different sections but it seems to me to be completely outdated. I think it is worthwhile wondering why a more recent set of guidelines has not been provided by this organisation. I would be very alarmed to think that in 2019 the UN is using the same calculation methods it used half-a-century earlier! One chapter however (let’s plug on regardless) provides this as a guide to the limitations of accuracy (in 1952, for goodness’ sake):
Most current estimates of population have two components: (a) a "base figure", that is, a count or estimate of the population at a previous date, and (b) a "time adjustment", that is, an allowance for population increase or decrease since the previous date. The accuracy of the estimate, of course, depends on the accuracy of both components.
So, when it comes down to it you are inevitably led to the conclusion that figures presented to people doing searches on Google are only as good as the relevant authorities in each target country.

Now, if Google is asking the Australian Bureau of Statistics about population figures for Australia or for Sydney then I can safely say that they will be pretty accurate even though, due to the kinds of visas some people have who live in, say, Sydney, it’s very difficult to know for sure how many people are actually resident in the country at any one time. Not all Sydney residents are citizens and the visiting population (especially due to the large number of overseas students living in Sydney) is considerable. But at least you can believe that there is a fair level of accuracy implicit in the given figure. If you drive around Sydney you will get a sense, therefore, of what a city with 5.5 million people feels like, whether you use public transport or whether you use a car to get from place to place.

It’s this sort of experience that makes me suspect the figure that Google provides for Amman, the capital city of Jordan. The figure they give is four million. But even at rush hour in the morning it only takes about 10 or 15 minutes in a taxi to get from the downtown area (where many of the shops are located that locals use to buy things like food and clothing) to the city’s periphery. In Sydney, even during quiet times, it takes this long just to drive from one point inside the metropolis to a suburb five kilometres away. At rush hour it can take much longer.

Even given the different traffic densities it is hard to see how you could fit four million people into a city of Amman’s size. There are very few (if any) high rise apartment blocks there and most people live in concrete buildings with two or three storeys.

If the authorities in Jordan are loose with their population figures there must be a reason for them to be so. It might have something to do with geopolitics. Like a peacock that fans out its tail when it’s approaching a peahen, Jordan might be using its population figures as a from of display. Other kinds of birds use this sort of display in order to make themselves look bigger when they are challenging another member of the same species for some reason: like a seagull standing up straight and walking very fast and making a cawing sound when it is trying to scare competitors away from a potato chip that is lying on the ground and that it wants to eat.

You can dream up any number of reasons why a country like Jordan, which regrettably has a tank museum (I’m not making this up to suit my purposes), might want to make itself look bigger than it is in fact. In addition to the tank museum, Jordan’s government does things like this (see photo below).


When I was in Amman this piece of artillery was visible placed in the Boulevard Abdeli Mall. The shopping centre is in the “nice” part of town and it contains restaurants and boutiques. The cannon on display had a sign next to it that pointed out (in English and Arabic) that the equipment on show had been used in the 1940s to announce the end of fasting on days during Ramadan. It was Ramadan when I was in Amman and nowadays there are still cannons used to mark the point in the day (around 7.30pm) when people, according to the dictates of Islam, are once again permitted to eat. But the installation had other uses as well, apart from showing how the end of fasting was brought to people’s attention in the recent past. The mannequins on display, with their distinctive Jordanian red-and-white headscarves, had a clear purpose.

The military plays a visible role in many such countries due to the realities of inter-country politics. Just across the river from Amman, of course, sits Jerusalem. Israel, for its part, publishes its own population figure (8.5 million) and it seems credible given the small size of the place and given the density of the population in the parts of Jerusalem I visited on my recent trip to the Middle East.

My misgivings about the population figures given for Amman or for Istanbul (15 million, again according to Google) unfortunately scale effortlessly to the whole world. So the current estimate published by Google (around 7.5 billion) is probably bunkum. Going by what I saw in the Middle East, it’s probably in fact something more like three billion but, like Google’s estimate, this figure is actually just a random figure that has been pulled out of the air. As far as food goes, from what I saw people living in the Middle East have nothing to worry about. There is plenty of good, cheap food available for a price, although in some places if you are a tourist it is likely that they will charge you more than they change a local for the same items.

Friday, 14 June 2019

The left and its disconnect from the mainstream

One of the reasons the world is hard to understand these days, and this might be one reason for the rise of parties like One Nation, is that there seems to be a radical disconnect between the progressive left and the mainstream. People on the left get themselves all exercised about minuscule issues that they invest themselves heavily in, such as black-face comedy or veganism, which the mainstream deems unimportant.

If you take a plane and go overseas, furthermore, as more and more Australians are doing, you find more of a disconnect between the progressive left and reality. In some places I visited recently on my Middle East trip they don't have pedestrian crossings on major roads or even clean drinking water. So the minute concerns of a Greens voter living in Newtown actually have no basis in reality beyond the applause that holding those views elicits from his or her friends when they go out to the Bank Hotel on a Friday night to down a few schooners of 4 Pines pale ale.

In so many countries (countries whence refugees come) people have no right to vote, do not read anything approximating the truth in the newspapers, and face all sorts of problems because of general corruption and a culture of untruth that permeates the social fabric from the top to the bottom. But if you point out to a person on the progressive left that there is a democratic deficit in the countries where refugees come from, and that something should be done about fixing that situation, they will more likely than not think that you are a racist.

There is plenty of support for refugees among people on the progressive left, but none of them seems to worry much about the actual living conditions of the people they think they are supporting. Helping refugees resettle in a country like the US or Australia is important for them, but making sure that their families back home in Guatemala or Afghanistan can get to work safely, earn a living, drink clean water, or vote, is considered peripheral.

The left is adrift on a sea made from its own tears that normal people never touch. The harebrained concerns of a sociology professor specialising in transsexualism, a graphic designer with a cavoodle named Jasper, or a computer programmer with an interest in Star Trek sequels – people who populate the progressive left in developed countries – are so remote from those of normal people living in places like Turkey or Jordan that it is as though they inhabit different planets. And the mainstream in the developed world knows this and treats their compatriots as though they were insane. For its part, the left wonders why it keeps losing elections, blames the electorate for making the wrong decision when it does, and starts reading stories in the Guardian that ask whether Communism should be reintroduced.

Given this kind of disconnect from the mainstream, it's no wonder that Pauline Hanson poo-poohs every comment made in public by Richard Di Natale. The fact is that the left has lost its moorings. It should be getting exercised about Hong Kong, but instead it dicks around with little details that mean nothing to anyone apart from itself.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Movie review: Aladdin, dir Guy Ritchie (2019)

The audience in the 9pm session that I sat through to watch this movie at Event on George Street loved it and laughed at all the right moments. Some even whistled at the end once the credits started to run. So it’s clear why Disney made this movie: for the money.

But apart from that obvious reason there’s not much about this production that stands out. It is entirely workman-like and predictable although there are a few plot twists that have been introduced here that weren’t in the 1992 animation version. One of these is the attempt by Jasmine (the princess played by Naomi Scott) to become sultan.

In addition to the superb CGI effects used in it, there are a few other small tweaks that have been performed on the story to make it different in some measure from the more-famous version already mentioned, but the director and the screenwriter have stuck pretty close to the script of that production, and people would have been disappointed if they had not. I have also seen the musical of this drama, and that was much better than this, although there is plenty of singing in this version too.

I find it really hard to uncover anything good to say about this movie but people who like Bollywood productions or musicals will probably love it. Will Smith as the genie tries very hard and does a respectable job of entertaining the audience but he doesn’t possess the panache of the late Robin Williams.

It is striking on the other hand how this story has stuck in people’s hearts and minds. Williams’ genie might be part of the reason for the intra-generational appeal of the franchise, but the use of simple ingredients (a thief, a carpet, a lamp) to manufacture a compelling story also makes these products accessible. As does the fact that the basic story cleaves pretty close to the standard Hollywood narrative of the underdog winning the prize.

In this version you also have the standard Hollywood resort to the strange cliffs of Wadi Rum for the scenes featuring the Cave of Wonders. And you get in addition a persistent feminist subplot that mingles with the predictable scenes of Oriental splendour to add spice to a popular tale of virtue rewarded.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Middle East trip A-to-Z

Alcohol

It was Ramadan when we visited the Middle East and in Jordan it is hard at that time of year to find restaurants that serve beer. One place we found near our hotel in the downtown area in Amman has a rooftop area with tables and chairs for people to use if they want to drink a beer during the day. You go up in the lift to the fifth floor, then walk up two flights of stairs to the sixth floor. The staircase is covered in graffiti by foreigners, most of it complimentary. Petra brand beer is local and is good. Rabbits, ducks, hamsters, and chickens roam around the rooftop among the feet of the tourists eating and drinking there.

In Israel some kiosks (just little shops on the main street) sell beer and they have a diverse range, some of which have no English on their labels. The Maccabee 10% brew is very nice. In Turkey they have Efes brand and Bomonti, both of which are good, and in tourist areas kiosks often sell beer. The wine in Israel was very good as was the local craft beer. In Abu Dhabi on the return leg I had some white Lebanese wine which was very dry and very good.

Beverages

As a general rule don’t drink tap water in these countries. Bottled water is available everywhere for little cost, even late at night. I had very loose bowels for the entire trip but they settled down once I got home to Australia.

Freshly squeezed fruit juice is available in all of the cities visited and it is not expensive. You can get orange juice, pomegranate juice, blood orange juice, or even watermelon juice in some kiosks. These small shops are on the main streets and the vendors often use manually-operated mechanical presses to extract the juice from the halves of fruit they cut for customers. Pieces of watermelon are put into a blender in the same way as happens in Australia.

In Istanbul some restaurants offered apple tea on the house after the meal was finished. Some might also on occasion give you a complimentary piece of baclava.

Food

Restaurants away from tourist areas give better value for money but in Jordan you will pay more if you don’t read or speak Arabic. The menus they give tourists are usually different from the ones locals use in restaurants and they no doubt have different prices printed on them although it was impossible to check if this was true.

Local food is excellent in Jordan and good restaurants in Israel are as good as their counterparts in Sydney. If you go for a wander on foot occasionally and take a little time to look around you, you can find good street food in places like Istanbul that will impress and that will cost very little. Google Maps was very useful in both Jerusalem and in Istanbul.

Restaurants in all of the countries visited on this trip use the American system of bringing a “check” to your table. Use your hands to write something in your palm, and say “check”, and they will bring you the bill. You put your cash or card in the folder the waiter or waitress leaves on your table and they bring you back the change or a chit to sign. You are sort of expected to leave a tip in Israel and they will highlight on the bill that the service is not covered by the tally you see on the paper. The American system slows down the payment process. I don’t know how good the minimum wage is in any of the countries we visited.

Breakfasts at all the hotels were good, and there was always a range of salads and dairy products on offer. The hotels made sure to give us a good feed before we set out for the day.

Hotels

I described the hotels in the daily posts, so this is just a digest. The hotel in Amman had nowhere to put your suitcase. In Istanbul the hotel also didn’t have a suitcase rack but at least there was more room on the floor to put it, but the shower stalls in this hotel were minuscule. The best hotel for luggage was the one in Petra. And in Abu Dhabi, where we stayed in five-star comfort. The Jumeirah Hotel in that city is a lovely place to recover from and prepare for the long haul to Sydney across the Indian Ocean, although the electrical switches in the rooms are a bit complex unless you are used to them.

I had a bit of difficulty checking in in Abu Dhabi however. The guy at the front desk made a phone call to Sydney and used as reference a printout I had brought containing the booking details that had been given to me by the travel agent. For the stay on the return leg they gave me booking numbers, which I typed into a note on my phone for reference. In Amman the booking was also not immediately clear to the desk clerk.

The hotel there and in Petra were able to organise good taxis for our long drives to and from Wadi Musa, which was a big help as you don’t want to be doing 120km-per-hour in a clapped-out bomb on a Jordanian highway.

Internet

This section of the post deals with data availability for my mobile phone and for my laptop, both of which accompanied me on the trip. Before leaving Sydney on the outward leg I had organised to have mobile roaming set up but this only covered Israel and Turkey. For Jordan and for the United Arab Emirates the cost of roaming data was high. For Israel and Turkey the cost of roaming data was A$5 per day.

In Israel and in Turkey I had to use a personal hotspot to do blogposts, however, even though the hotels in both places supplied wifi connection to a local router. Sometimes the speed of transfer on the hotel wifi was not fast enough, considering that I had to upload a significant number of photos each day, and I had to set up a personal hotspot before posting. Before this trip I had never set this up on my mobile phone, but once I got used to doing it it was very easy and fast enough for my purposes.

Discipline demanded that I made blogposts at the end of the day, before going to bed, but I also sometimes did them on the morning following the events described. I made notes on my phone that supplied details for blogposts such as the cost of meals and the times we sat down to eat, for a large number of events of a casual nature. This kind of detail can help to bring a post alive because it anchors the reader’s mind in what are often considered to be ephemeral details.

The best hotel internet was in Petra, where the hotel was in the town of Wadi Musa, which services the ancient archaeological site that people come in their thousands each day to visit. Often in cafes and restaurants in these places they also offer wifi to patrons, and it usually just involves asking for the password, which can then be typed into your phone so that you can browse the internet or use social media while you wait for your food to arrive at the table.

Itinerary

This is an itinerary of the trip, including flight and hotel details for each leg. I printed it out on a sheet of paper and took it with me on the journey. Part of the time it sat in the inside pocket of my jacket.

Abu Dhabi
Arrive on flight EY0455 (Etihad Airways) from Sydney on 10 May at 5.35am. Travel to Jumeirah At Etihad Towers Hotel via Arabian Adventures (look for representative with red jacket and my name written on a board).

Stay one night at Jumeirah At Etihad Towers Hotel (tel +968 9929 3309). Buffet breakfast on 11 May included. Get in car in lobby of hotel for trip to airport for 1.45pm flight to Jordan (EY0515).

Jordan
Arrive Jordan at Queen Alia International Airport at 3.55pm. Go to Zaman Ya Zaman Boutique Hotel (Hashemi Plaza, Hashemi Street, tel 962 6 4613140) and stay nights of 11, 12 and 13 May.

Check out on 14 May and travel to Petra. Book into Petra Palace Hotel (Wadi Mousa Tourist Road, Wadi Musa, tel + 962 3 2156723). Stay on nights of 14, 15 and 16 May.

Check out of Petra Palace Hotel on 17 May and travel back to Amman. Book into Zaman Ya Zaman Boutique Hotel for one night.

Check out on morning of 18 May and travel to Jerusalem by taxi. One taxi to the border, followed by border crossing. Another taxi on the Israel side from the border to Jerusalem.

Israel
Arrive Jerusalem and book into YMCA Three Arches Hotel (26 King David Street, Jerusalem, tel +972 2 5692692). Stay in hotel on nights of 18, 19, 20 May.

Check out on 21 May and move to Alon Hotel (9 Shamai Street, Jerusalem, tel +972 2 6250002) for nights of 21, 22, 23 and 24 May.

Check out on morning of 25 May and travel to Tel Aviv. Go to Tel Aviv-Yafo Ben Gurion International Airport and board flight TK0795 (Turkish Airways) at 2.15pm bound for Istanbul.

Turkey
Arrive Istanbul Airport at 8.30pm. Book into Sebnem Hotel (Akbıyık Caddesi Adliye sok no:1, Fatih, Istanbul, tel +902 12 5176623). Check out on 1 June.

Go to Istanbul Airport and board flight EY0096 at 2.50pm bound for Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi
Arrive Abu Dhabi International Airport at 5.50pm and find Arabian Adventures driver with sign with my name on it. Car takes us to Jumeirah At Etihad Towers Hotel. Booked for one night.

Leave hotel on 2 June and go to Abu Dhabi International Airport for 9.50pm flight to Sydney (EY0454).

Legal tender

I took a bunch of US dollars with me, and a money belt I bought at Myer, and both of these things turned out to be good precautions. I used my credit card to make withdrawals of new Israeli shekels from an ATM across the road from the first hotel in Jerusalem, but in Jordan I used the currency exchange offices that are numerous on the main drag in the downtown area to get Jordanian dinars. I also used an ATM in Abu Dhabi on the return leg to take out some UAE dirhams. In Istanbul I used US dollars and walked down the street in our area to the currency exchange kiosk to get Turkish lira. It is wise not to change currency at airports as they tend to give you a poor rate of exchange.

I paid for all the hotels using a credit card, and I paid for the Israeli hotels before leaving Sydney. I did internet banking during the trip. Sometimes using a credit card involves a PIN and on other occasions it involves signing a chit. Sometimes credit card transactions performed overseas can attract more than one transaction charge, so it is better and more economical to use US dollars for things like meals unless you are taking a lot of money at one time out of the ATM.

It is good practice to reserve small notes for incidentals like taxi fares. I generally paid with large notes for things like meals in the tourists areas, because I was sure there of being able to get change for them.

Locals

People are usually nice and they will ask you where you are from, especially in Jordan and in Turkey. Usually when you tell them they reply immediately by saying, “Welcome.” In Istanbul the young people speak good English and we were able to get help in two shops on Istiklal Street, which is a place locals go in their free time. The record shop we visited there turned out to be very good and cheap.

Museums

The museums in Jerusalem are curated very well but in Istanbul they have better Mesopotamian antiquities. You can see Egyptian antiquities everywhere in the Middle East. The labels on the displays in Jerusalem were very good and informative, possibly a sign of a different attitude toward icons that set the place apart from the Muslim countries we visited. Remnants of the Roman Empire are all over the place as well.

Police

They are all over the place in all of the countries we visited, except in the UAE. In Turkey, they park their water cannon trucks near crowded areas and stake out Istiklal Street (which translates as “Independence Street”) in large numbers. In Jerusalem they drive down Jaffa Street all the time on the light rail tracks. In the old city in Jerusalem they are ubiquitous and carry automatic weapons. In Amman they force their way along the crowded thoroughfares in their new cars and keep their sirens on. In Jerusalem their sirens are off but their beacons are flashing. In Turkey many of them wear civilian clothes with a badged vest over the top of their shirts.

In Istanbul they have Tourist Police who are ostensibly there to help visitors but they turned out not to be much use when we went to them for help. My travelling companion had been sold metal rings that were supposed to be silver and the policemen we talked to, in the evening and then the next morning, were nice and spoke good English but nothing useful eventuated.

Religion

In some places in Jordan they won’t serve you food until the hour of fasting has ended. This is usually 7.30pm but a cannon goes off in town that tells you when you can order and eat food. Some restaurants in that country will allow you to sit down before this time and order drinks, with the menus brought out again once the cannon has gone off. One place we went to on Rainbow Street in Amman before they would serve us closed the blinds on the front windows and made sure we sat well inside the café when we asked if we could order drinks.

During Ramadan people stay up very late at night and often leave work early during the day. The shops start to shut at about 6.30pm in Jordan and the shutters will come down as people get ready for the end of fasting. People overall are less observant in Istanbul than they are in Amman.

In Jerusalem on Friday afternoon everything shuts down except for a few cafes and restaurants, even in the middle of the city where most people congregate, because of the Sabbath which comes on Saturday. As a general rule Friday and Saturday are holidays in the Middle East. For the border crossing from Jordan to Israel, we left the hotel in the taxi early because on Fridays the border closes in the afternoon, as do the museums and shops in Israel.

During the trip we went into no mosques. Churches are open all the time but we felt uneasy about the idea of visiting mosques in Amman. In Istanbul the Blue Mosque has signs indicating the types of dress that are appropriate for women and men but we didn’t get there in time to go inside, and just strolled around the gardens in front of the building.

Taxis

Difficult, even in Jerusalem. Just getting Middle Eastern taxi drivers to set the meter running before we started our journeys was sometimes a major headache. If they don’t set the meter running they just charge you what they think they can get away with. We made a complaint to the authorities through a tourist office in Jerusalem but there was nothing on offer like this in Amman, in Petra, or in Istanbul. The municipal authorities in Istanbul also refused to help my travelling companion get justice after two rings she bought turned out not to be silver. Silver rings had been promised.

In Jordan taxis will always try to upsell. You If you are doing a small trip today, they want to take you further tomorrow and will ask you about your plans for the next day. They all have business cards printed with WhatsApp numbers on them, so that you can contact them if you want.

Toilets

Ask for the “WC” and you will usually find what you are looking for. “WC” means “water closet” and is an archaic English term for toilet. Try to take care of business in the morning before leaving the hotel. If you are caught short you might have to duck into a café and order a slice of cake, then use the amenities. In Jordan public toilets don’t have toilet paper, so make sure you have tissues available when you visit them.

Touts

Istanbul restaurant touts are very persistent and usually won’t take “No” for an answer. If you get short with them they will let you know they are unhappy. The tendency for locals in these countries to treat tourists as an opportunity to make money serves to a degree to spoil the fun for visitors. Hotel staff are usually a lot more gracious and will go out of their way to help you get what you want, from a theatre booking to access to a laundry service. In Istanbul the staff at hotels we were not staying in helped us as well. On one occasion a security guard outside a hotel got us a cab and made sure the meter was set. On another occasion the doorman of a hotel translated from English for the taxi driver we had found. 

Monday, 3 June 2019

Middle East trip wrap

There’s a strange paradox at the heart of the Middle East that can only be expressed in oblique terms. I count all of the countries visited on this trip as being part of the Middle East even though some people living in some of those countries might object to the label. But if you generalise on the basis that taxi drivers – and people more generally – are always trying to cheat you, then all of these countries warrant the label. Israelis are better than Jordanians or Turks when it comes to honesty, but Jerusalem taxi drivers will try to rip you off with as much dedication and guile as one who works in Istanbul or in Amman.

There is no official religion in Turkey. There is in Israel and in Jordan. But Turkish taxi drivers are possibly the worst when it comes to cheating tourists. Even if they say they will set the meter in the car running, that doesn’t mean it will happen. If they don’t set the meter running they just make up a figure to suit themselves. As we found to our cost on our last day in Istanbul. The fare to the airport came to 220TL even though the inbound trip between the same two points had been around 135TL. The driver on the outbound trip even faked looking at a meter in the car to substantiate his excessive fare. In a country where the symbols of religion – such as mosques – are so prominent, this is a bit alarming.

It seems as though there is one set of values when it comes to other locals, and another, completely separate set of values in play when it comes to foreigners. Euros are accepted in some stores in Istanbul and there are plenty of European tourists staying there at any one time, but I can’t see Turkey becoming part of Europe given the proclivities of the people who work in industries that cater to tourists. And if you express annoyance to a restaurant tout on account of the constant pestering, he will as likely as not get angry with you and say something to express his displeasure.

Amman had the best food by far, although one restaurant we ate at in Jerusalem (Angelica) was very good. The meal we ate late on the night we arrived in Abu Dhabi on the homeward leg was also very good. This was a Lebanese meal and it came with some pretty amazing dry Lebanese white wine.

The museums in Jerusalem were better by far than what was available in either Amman or Istanbul. The labels attached to the exhibits in Israel demonstrated a much greater level of scholarship and public relations – they really know what visitors are interested in knowing about each object – and so they were much more satisfying than what was on offer in Istanbul or Amman. Even though the range of objects in Istanbul, especially Mesopotamian ones, was superior.

Abu Dhabi is the way it is – grand, clean, and with honest taxi drivers – because the other places in the Middle East are so dodgy. My travelling companion bought two rings in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar which turned out not to be silver. She had been promised silver rings. We took the rings to the Tourism Police at night on the same day the purchase was made and made a complaint. They told us to come back the next day to see the municipal authorities, who have an office on Sultanahmet Plaza, and we duly turned up at 9am. When we did, however, the guy on duty there spoke no English. He phoned a colleague who told us at length that they couldn’t do anything about the rings. We went back to the Tourism Police and the two men had a shouting match across the space in front of their respective offices. In the end we decided to take the bull by the horns and went back to the shop that had sold my friend the useless items. She got her money back.

Abu Dhabi tries to set itself apart by being more honest and open than the countries that surround it. Hot and humid, the place requires taxis to get around. We went to a café in the Palace Hotel on the day we had free there and my friend ordered a cappuccino sprinkled with 14-carat gold. The waiter who served us also went out of his way to fetch a pair of hotel slippers as my friend’s shoes had given up the ghost just as we were getting out of the taxi on arrival at the lobby.

The Palace Hotel is grand but it is nothing compared to the Presidential Palace, which we also visited. Photos follow here. The building emblematises a particular fact about Islam, which is a religion born in the desert. Islam is a religion of the oasis. It promises gardens for the worthy and the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi, which is enormous and is air-conditioned during the day, symbolises the kind of retreat that awaits the devoted follower of Mohammed.

Christianity on the other hand is a religion of the body. The body of Christ lies at the centre of the cult, and if you go to Jerusalem you can follow what are said to be the stations of the cross from one marked point in the old city’s warren of alleyways to another marked point. The Passion of Christ lies at the centre of Christianity but in the end it became a religion of the mind. Islam, on the other hand, is a religion of narrow rules but what you end up with is nothing more than a celebration of the body. To free the spirit, you needed a religion of the body. The paradox lies here.

But I don’t want to end with this observation. Rather, I want to end with the dervishes, who you can see perform their rite on any day in the old part of Istanbul. We got the clerk at the front desk of the hotel to make the booking and then we paid when we arrived at the cultural centre. Entry is not expensive, but doing this is mandatory to get a full picture of Turkey.

Sufism is a strange amalgam of east and west. It is a religion of the body but it borrows heavily from Buddhism, especially in the number five which is the number of dancers who perform the rite. Each dancer, furthermore, has his hands open: one facing up (the right hand) and the other facing down (the left hand). This represents the yang and the yin of Chinese custom: the light and the dark, the male principle and the female principle.

The eastern cognates don’t merely stop with the dervishes’ raised hands, however. The rite starts with the dancers walking slowly around a circular platform in the midst of the seats whence the audience watches. Making their circle, at one point at the top of the shape one dancer would stop, turn on his heel, and face the one following him, then they would perform a bow aimed at each other. The circle is the symbol of life, and this is a universal symbol, belonging to both east and west. The turn is a kind of acknowledgement of reality in the Other, with an oriental bow to mark its import. And once the turns accelerated and the whirling started, the dancers were poised in perfect symmetry, moving around in the same circle they had started out marking at a slow pace, and always keeping the same distance one from the other.

The ecstasy of the dance represents in its final phase the attempt to achieve nonbeing within earthly existence. The dance is therefore an attempt to escape the confines of the body through the body. It is a marvelous display of Roman culture (the dance) mixed with disparate far-eastern cognates. You simply will not see anything like it anywhere else in the world.


Above: Leaving Istanbul, you fly east to avoid Syria, then turn south and then southeast toward Abu Dhabi.


Above: The Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi is enormous. And air conditioned.


Above: The detail in the Presidential Palace is stunning. Here is etched stone (left) and an intricate mosaic (right).


Above: From floor 74 of Etihad Towers.


Above: Leaving Abu Dhabi back to Sydney, we avoided the horn of Africa then made a strange turn over the Indian Ocean.


Above: Back to Sydney. On the outward leg we had flown over Sri Lanka and the tip of India.