FOOD CULTURE – A Vast And Silent Desert

18 Jul 2001

The image of emptiness and death sometimes attributed to the desert does not correspond to reality, although in this harsh and hostile place the slightest trace of life is akin to a miracle. In the Wadi el-Rum desert, whose colors and landscape are among the most spectacular in the world, there are many such miracles of life to be found.
Wadi el-Rum is a red sand desert in southern Jordan, between the Gulf of Aqaba and the border with Saudi Arabia. Most of the film Lawrence of Arabia was shot in Wadi el-Rum and Lawrence’s own words provide an accurate description of this desert: ‘All the blocks of rock had a sort of dome on top which was like the finishing touch and give a vaguely Byzantine appearance to an ensemble of overwhelming proportions: a religious journey beyond all imagining…A deathly silence fell over our small caravan, suddenly awestruck and troubled by the awareness of its own small size in front of that formidable mass of rock. The landscapes of childhood dreams were silent like this and as vast’ (from The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence).

About 80% of Jordan’s total surface area is desert, with a large variety of landscapes. The deserts towards Syria in the north are covered with black basaltic detritus, while to the south a huge sandy basin is overlooked by strange-shaped rocky peaks: this is the Wadi el-Rum. The Jordanian desert is not rich in oil, and is inhabited by decreasing numbers of Bedouin nomads.
When Jordan was declared a Hashemite kingdom in 1946, the desert Bedouin tribes made a pact of loyalty to Emir Abdallah, grandfather of today’s king Abdallah and 42nd-generation descendent of the prophet Mahomet.
Desert philosophy has led to the formation of an egalitarian society among the Bedouins.
Individual existence is conditioned by adherence to a clan or tribe, and exclusion from the group is the most serious punishment possible. In a hostile geographical environment like the desert, isolation means certain death. By the same token, anyone who approaches a tent is certain to find a hospitable welcome. For one and one-third days the stranger will not be asked any questions, and will be offered water, coffee and food. If after this period the guest says nothing, the host will wait another three days before asking if he needs help.
Bedouin society is basically egalitarian and no one member enjoys rights the others in the group do not possess. Even the chief obeys this rule, and his role essentially consists of giving advice. The women enjoy privileges that are denied to other Islamic women: they do not cover their faces with a veil and they cannot be given in marriage without their consent.

So the harsh desert environment has given rise to traditions of hospitality and solidarity, and the most important of these is coffee. The famous cardamom coffee that is the trademark of Bedouin hospitality is different from the ‘Arab’ or ‘Turkish’ coffee drunk in towns.
The preparation of coffee is a long and exclusively male ceremony, beginning with toasting of the green coffee beans. The honor of coffee preparation is reserved for the head of the family and is a quasi-sacred ritual.
The coffee is toasted on the brazier and ground in old long, cylindrical brass grinders, and then boiled in a copper coffeepot. The resulting liquid is then transferred into a smaller coffeepot, first allowing the grounds to settle, and subsequently decanted several times into smaller and smaller coffeepots.
Bedouin tents are simple and unfurnished, their minimalist style reflecting the surrounding environment. There are only majless, cushions, to sit on, and the mankaal, an oriental brazier containing burning embers, for toasting and boiling the coffee.

The basic ingredient is, obviously, coffee, but there is also another vital component: cardamom. Dried cardamom seeds are preserved whole; they are only released from their pod and ground when they are added to the coffee. The mehbajj is the indispensable implement used to grind the cardamom; it is a wooden mortar with a very long pestle that grinds the seeds into a powder with a pleasant rhythmic beating. Not only must the cardamom seeds be ground, but this must be done while creating a joyful rhythm with the pestle, and dancing.
When it is ready, the drink is served in little cups, which are passed from hand to hand. The concentrated, bitter and aromatic coffee is poured out in minimal quantities and the guest’s cup will be continually refilled until he hands it back.
Another demonstration of hospitality is the preparation of mansaff, a feast dish based on mutton cooked in curdled milk and served with rice.
But the one really simple dish that reflects desert minimalism is meshui – Bedouin style roast mutton. Meshui, so they say, ‘arrives on foot’, meaning that the mutton is practically still alive. The men of the tribe cut the throat of the animal, which is then divided according to its size into four or eight pieces and seasoned with salt and pepper.
In the meantime, the fire is prepared. This is not easy in a place where wood barely exists. But the men of the desert know all the corners where even the tiniest twig can be found, just as they know all the places to find water.
The fireplace is nothing but half a cylindrical metal drum completely buried in the sand. It goes without saying that the wood used is always very dry so it catches immediately inside the drum and soon becomes glowing embers. At this point the meat is placed directly on the embers and the drum is closed with a lid whose edge sticks out enough to be covered with sand, and thus sealed. The meshui is stewed on the embers under the sand of the desert.

The men know that in less than two hours the meat will be ready. At this point the lid is removed from the sand and the drum is opened and the tender pieces of meat removed from the embers.
The meat is not, as you might expect, burnt from direct contact with the embers, but tender and juicy. The lack of air inside the drum makes the embers burn slowly and the meat cooks gently.
Once again, a minimalist gesture is used as the well-cooked, soft, moist meat is eaten with the fingers, with or without bread, from the large communal plate. The whole ceremony is reserved for feast days when large numbers of both men and women come together to celebrate a special event or a get-together, and a whole sheep is consumed.
In any case, with or without meshui, the Wadi el-Rum desert is an unforgettable experience which leaves you with a taste for the desert and the absolute you would never find elsewhere.

Kamal Mouzawak is a contributor to Saveurs du Liban et d’ailleurs, the Lebanon’s most important f&w monthly

Photo: Wadi Rum (http://home.talkcity.com/YosemiteDr/wadirum/)

Translation by Ailsa Wood

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