Upside Down and Mixed Up

I may have mentioned that my parents have some history with this part of the world. My dad followed my mom here, and my mom was hanging out with long-haired archaeologists on a kibbutz. The first generation of post-1948 sabra grownups were digging up their own history and it sounds like it was quite the place to be.  My parents, therefore, have always spoken of the area with a bit of a proprietary air, as one does with a dearly beloved second home. And my mother has been excited about coming to visit me for a while.

I was actually extremely apprehensive about this visit. Dir Edis is very, very hot, and very, very boring, and transportation is neither easy nor air conditioned. My mother doesn’t do well with heat. Even when she’s not overhot, she has a difficult time walking. I want to show her my life here, but it clearly wasn’t going to be easy for either of us. But it hasn’t been that bad. She showed up with a clever (if gross) little camping stool-toilet and fairly low expectations of entertainment, and it’s going well.

In fact, our social calendar is completely booked. When my father came there were some obvious complications: my (mostly female) friends had to make sure their husbands and fathers were around to receive him. They did an admirable job, but it was weird for me to be suddenly cast into the formal sitting room and expected to translate for the men while my usual companions cooked and chatted in hidden rooms.

Syrian postcard, 1930/Wikimedia
Syrian postcard, 1930/Wikimedia

There was an additional layer of awkwardness with my father because it is clearly his insanity that has allowed me to pack my single, female self up and live in a distant country without monitoring. People were curious about whether my father would appear as insane as he clearly is. He didn’t help the situation; when Abu Jameel asked him to explain his utter dereliction of paternal duty, he laughed cheekily and said “I can’t control her! She never does what I say!” In the U.S., this is a joke, but in Dir Edis it’s a horrifying admission of his emasculation and my impropriety. It was also pretty much what Abu Jameel expected, and he glowered warningly in my direction even while he also assured my father that he, Abu Jameel, would gladly fulfill the paternal role until my own father came to his senses.

But nobody expects my mother to control me. In fact, my mother has become a perverse symbol of a kind of feminism. She’s here on her own, traveling on her own, but fulfilling the proper maternal role of visiting and loving me. I’ve used her as an example for a year and a half now, telling people that empty-nesters like my parents have exciting lives outside domesticity, which is one benefit to small families and to women’s liberation. And my mother has validated my shocking tales by happily confirming that she doesn’t cook all that often and that my father does some of his own housework.

Tonight we are going to visit Lina’s parents, who live on the very edge of town. It’s one of the longer walks my mother makes and we do it slowly, enjoying the breeze through the olive trees and the view. I think my mother is glad she finally has someone else who understands how this place gets into your soul. She went nineteen years without coming back. I can’t understand how she survived that long. I resolve to never let that happen to me.

Um Asad has summoned the troops for our visit, and Lina’s porch is packed with her brothers and cousins and various other family members. Lina is in Amman working, so it would have been easy for me to skip visiting her family. But she is my tutor and one of my best friends here and I want to pay Um Asad this respect. Fortunately, there’s plenty of interest in peppering my mother with questions about everything from her marriage and my childhood to her cane and her health issues. There’s also room for gentle mocking: she accepts the communal cup of coffee and holds it, intending to sip it (or not) as she would at home. She doesn’t remember that she’s supposed to shoot the contents and hold it back out immediately, with a still hand if she wants more or with a little wiggle if she’s done.

After we’ve straightened out the coffee etiquette, followed it with several glasses of tea saturated with sugar, and finally managed to extricate ourselves, we walk home. My mother groans. “I feel stuffed,” she says, “And I didn’t even eat.”

“Six cups of tea will do that,” I say. “But don’t worry, we don’t have to eat again until tomorrow when we go upstairs.”

“I hope they make maglooba,” my mother says, and my stomach clenches a little bit with anxiety.


First, what you need to know: the word “maglooba” literally means “upside-down.” Maglooba is a traditional dish involving rice, vegetables, and protein. Most meals involve those things, but what makes this one special is how it’s cooked. You start with the vegetable — potato, cauliflower, or eggplant, for example — and line the bottom and a little up the sides of a big pot with slices of that vegetable. Then you add big chunks of chicken, tightly packed up against the bottom and sides. On top of that goes the rice. If you’ve done it right, when it’s done cooking, you tip the whole pot out on a giant tray and it comes out in a towering block the shape of the pot. Some people serve it in block form for an interesting aesthetic twist. With a gentle touch the block disintegrates into a sloping pile of steaming goodness, chicken layered between delicious veggies and cooked rice.

Arafataslan/Wikimedia Commons
Arafataslan/Wikimedia Commons

I first learned about this dish in a restaurant  at some point in my childhood that I don’t remember exactly. My mother eagerly asked the server to describe the dish to her, asked a couple of questions, and then ordered it and turned to us and said “I hope it’s like Um Isa’s.” At some point in her twenty-something kibbutznik life, my mother had gone to visit a fellow dig worker whose wife had prepared maglooba for her. And it was delicious. But apparently nobody anywhere else on the planet made it even remotely like Um Isa’s. It was never right, not even when we finally returned to Israel and my mother ordered it at half the restaurants she visited that week.

We didn’t eat at good Middle Eastern restaurants all that often, so this isn’t a complaint of childhood trauma. It was just something I noticed and filed away. Whenever my mother would find herself near a Palestinian, Jordanian, or other Arab cookbook, she would thumb through it and I knew she was looking for the maglooba recipe. She even tried cooking it herself a couple of times. The meal that ended up on her dish was always worth eating; it just wasn’t right. At some point, probably influenced by teenage contempt, I did wonder if my mother’s memory was more to blame for the situation than every cook ever. But she kept on trying. More importantly at the moment, she has mentioned several times that maybe Jordan will finally provide the right formula.

Unfortunately, when we climb up the stairs the next afternoon, we discover that Um Jameel has not made maglooba. Instead, she has prepared Jordan’s national dish, mensaf, which also starts out with rice and protein. Like maglooba, mensaf is cooked in layers in a pot and then tipped out. But there are a couple of key differences between the two dishes. Mensaf doesn’t involve vegetables and is always topped with a scattered layer of toasted pine nuts or almonds. And mensaf is tipped out onto a layer of shrak, a very thin, soft bread baked over an iron dome. The shrak is useful as an extra layer of absorption because the key part of mansaf is actually the sauce, which is made by hand-churning a ball of dried goat cheese called jameed in warm water. And by “hand-churning,” I mean literally: I’ve seen poor Aunt Noor sitting on the floor with her arm elbow-deep in a jameed soup more than once.

Traditionally, mensaf is made with goat, although in concession to the economy (and possibly also to foreign tastes) it is now often made with chicken. Another traditional feature of mensaf particularly beloved by tourists is that it’s most properly served with the steamed or boiled head of the goat in question perched jauntily on top. I’m not kidding. Better yet, the head of the goat is always offered first to the guest of honor. Mmmm goat brain. I try to embrace cultural relativism, but I have thus far refused to sample this delicacy and I hope to survive without ever doing so.

(Also: you’re welcome. There ARE photos of the headed kind of mensaf on the internet.)

Um Jameel has cooked today’s lunch using chicken and without any recognizable body parts as decoration. But I’m still a little concerned about my mother. I adore mensaf, but it isn’t for everybody. The jameed sauce is heavy and greasy and tastes identifiably of goat. You don’t confuse it for a refined French cheese, that’s for sure. It has not met with universal acclaim among my American acquaintances.

In fact my mother looks at it somewhat askance when Um Jameel puts the platter down in front of her. The bad news is that there’s parsley on top, which I know my mother will carefully eat around as a tourist trying to avoid fresh vegetables. The good news is that Um Awad, Um Jameel’s ancient mother-in-law, hands my mother a spoon. She won’t be asked to eat it as men do, by rolling a greasy ball of rice and sauce in her right hand and tossing it expertly into her mouth without touching. This is probably a good thing.

The ladies sit down around the small coffee table and look at my mother expectantly. “Cooli, cooli,” Um Jameel says, and her instructions need no translation. My mother gamely takes a spoonful laden with greasy rice and sauce and puts in her mouth.

I’m utterly unprepared for what happens next — although you, Dear Reader, will perhaps not be.

My mother closes her eyes, leans her head back, and sighs, “Ohhh. It’s the maglooba.”

I’m confused for a minute. “No it isn’t. This is mensaf.”

She opens her eyes. “No, no, I mean this is it! This is Um Isa’s maglooba. This is what I’ve been trying to find for twenty years!”

I laugh in disbelief. “So the problem was that you were ordering the wrong thing?”

“Yes!” she exclaims. “Also, I don’t think I’ve ever seen mensaf on a menu. If I had, I might have ordered it and figured it out!”

“Well, it’s kind of an acquired taste, usually,” I say. “Maybe restaurants don’t want to risk selling it to people who don’t understand what they’re getting.”

Our talking has gone on too long for Um Awad, who is concerned that my mother isn’t eating fast enough. She has put her own spoon down and is busily tearing pieces off a chicken breast and throwing them on the slope of the pile nearest my mother. Then she grabs my mother’s spoon, loads it up with another round of chicken-grease-rice, and literally spoon-feeds it to my mother, who looks momentarily horrified.

But just momentarily. The “maglooba” is worth it.

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