FIRST PUBLISHED IN SALON, DECEMBER 2006
One brisk evening last July, two Jews in Berkeley, Calif., discussed the Tunisian circus with a group of Arab artists over plates of polenta, summer squash and a confit of tomatoes that resembled clowns’ noses. The incongruity of the occasion, while fighting engulfed Israel, Lebanon and Iraq, and summer heat blanketed the rest of America, was not lost on the diners. Around the table sat the founder of a clown school in San Francisco, and distinguished guests from Tunisia, Egypt, Qatar and Bahrain, who had arrived by invitation of the U.S government. I was their host.
The scene had overtones of citizen diplomacy. The State Department, among its many missions, is charged with spreading goodwill abroad. Recognizing that this effort is best waged inside the homeland, each year its field embassies handpick hundreds of “current or potential leaders” — in government, media, education and other fields — and invite them on a whirlwind tour of America to meet their professional counterparts and experience the country firsthand.
To provide these dignitaries a glimpse into domestic life — and perhaps, to prove that our culinary heritage is more Wilsonian jambalaya than George Bush freedom fries — the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program partners with nonprofit organizations in each city to arrange home hospitality visits with local volunteers. After all, not everyone deserves a black-tie state dinner, but stomachs are a proven route into hearts and minds.
So several times a year my one-bedroom cottage is transformed into something of an international bistro. Last December, I served three reporters from Turkmenistan their national dish, palov, a pilaf with lamb, carrots, currants and almonds. If I could rate my own establishment, I’d say I earned an extra star that night. My guests, appreciative in the way that locals abroad admire even tourists’ sputtered attempts at a native tongue, savored the flavors of their home and eagerly demonstrated how Turkmen chefs prepare the dish, mounding rice with the care of a barber sculpting a pompadour. As the evening eased on, we discussed Turkmenbashi, the country’s dictatorial leader who has fashioned a peculiar cult of personality. My questions were met with ambiguous, diplomatic reactions. A week later I received an apologetic call from their interpreter: The group, he explained, had been warned the secret police might be tailing them.
A month later I had a more open exchange with the anchorwoman of Shanghai TV, whom I served Sichuan toasted sesame and Napa cabbage salad along with a smattering of Chinese phrases I learned while backpacking through Asia during the SARS outbreak. After a glass of wine, she offered some off-the-record accounts of Chinese media censorship. (The party’s ears, she must have reasoned, were safely out of range.) Another evening, in a pinch, I shyly poured “Two Buck Chuck” Shiraz for a prominent Argentine newspaperman who arrived with a hankering for a fine Malbec. “Delicioso,” he remarked, as he held up the glass to inspect the wine’s legs.
My Middle Eastern guests arrived in July, when the summer’s bounty was near peak, and so I decided to offer them a taste of truly local gastronomy. I phoned Chez Panisse, the birthplace of California cuisine, for menu suggestions. Michael Peternell, chef at the cafe, riffed on the possibilities.
Stay away from couscous, Peternell suggested; the risk of presenting an inauthentic version to such discriminating palates was just too great. Instead, for starters, he proposed a salad of Little Gems lettuce, a baby romaine grown locally by Blue Heron Farms, which I could serve with crispy cucumber slices and a creamy avocado Green Goddess dressing. A main course of herbed polenta wedges would follow, mixed with fresh corn kernels, topped with roasted Early Girl tomatoes and grilled seasonal vegetables — eggplant, summer squashes and cremini mushrooms — and drizzled with pesto using basil grown in my backyard. For dessert, Peternell proposed peaches, baked with chopped walnuts, butter and brown sugar, and accompanied with vanilla ice cream.
It sounded promising, if laborious. After shopping at the local farmers market, I returned home to dutifully reproduce Peternell’s game plan. At 7 o’clock, my aunt Arina arrived, a former clown and stage performer who now uses theater techniques to coach nuclear scientists in compassionate team building. We picked up our visitors, and their Yemeni interpreter, from the train station.
Such cultural exchanges usually begin with the transfer of gifts, followed by business cards. Once, from a Bulgarian journalist, I received a bottle of rose oil; from a senior advisor in Slovenia’s education ministry, an embroidered purse. An advisor to the prime minister of Albania once brought a carved statuette of a famed Albanian warrior, which now sits on a shelf next to a pair of traditional wooden dolls gifted by the head of Mongolia’s copyright office.
Ahmad, a musician with the Cairo Opera, presented me an engraved glass pyramid from the reopened Library of Alexandria, where he also works as the international liaison. The only other person in the United States who possesses the same souvenir is Laura Bush, he noted, who visited the library last year. Honoring the distinction, I placed the object in the East Wing of my house, a windowsill. I poured glasses of zinfandel, and we migrated into the backyard.
Most visitors coming through the International Visitor Leadership Program have never been to the United States. They arrive, like many foreigners, with a CNN-and-Hollywood-eye view of American society, which can make for an illuminating reality check. Over dinner, my first questions always address these revelations. A visiting Polish journalist once voiced shock over how fat we Americans are, an observation not readily gleaned from the products of America’s pop culture factory.
My guests that July night had accumulated some generous impressions: We are very hardworking, helpful and friendly (ironic considering our reputation as foreign tourists), and very ignorant about the world outside our borders. To illustrate how downright American we are, Abdullah from Qatar recounted how he had visited a church in Washington, D.C., earlier in the week, toting a camera, and a couple nearby offered to take his picture “without even having to ask them!” But everyone was surprised to discover that few Americans own passports. Most certainly couldn’t name Arab countries on a map. Later in the evening, my comment that Hosni Mubarak was “repressive” elicited a strong reaction: not for my evaluation of the Egyptian president’s administration — which Ahmad flatly refuted, anyway — but simply because I knew his name.
Whereas Americans are clueless, the Egyptian public “knows everything about the world … everything,” Ahmad claimed assuredly. I thought the widespread belief in absurd 9/11 conspiracies held by this public — even journalists and intellectuals — might challenge his assertion, but I held my tongue.
For our collective ignorance about Islam in general, Ahmad blamed American cable news networks for misrepresenting Muslims. I pointed out that unfortunately extremist voices often out-compete the silent, moderate majority on our airwaves. “Yes, yes, you are right,” Ahmad said, shaking his head. “It’s our problem.” The ignorance works both ways, he allowed, and looked forward to enlightening friends back home.
The morning of the dinner, Israel had escalated its devastating bombing campaign against Hezbollah, and Ahmad — at 35, the youngest in the group — was impassioned. Naturally, conversation veered toward Middle East politics. “Why are the American people beside Israel, beside Israel … continuously?” he wondered. America’s apparent double standard, reflected in its handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its stance against Iran’s nuclear ambitions, frustrated him. “You are the greatest country, and the strings of the game are in your hand,” he said. “Just be fair.” Most Arabs today, he added, distinguish between the views of the American people and its politicians, much like they do Judaism and Zionism. But if democracy is supposedly working so well here, why can’t American citizens steer Middle East policy toward peace?
Ahmad and I could have compared our differing versions of the history of Jews in the Middle East — but instead we moved inside to the dinner table, where over Little Gems lettuce wedges, we discussed the arts. Earlier in the day, the group visited San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center. Kathloom, a small, loquacious woman and accomplished actress, filmmaker, choreographer, trainer, director and theater consultant to Bahrain’s Information Ministry, was blown away. Arts organizations in the U.S. are essentially nonpartisan entities, with dedicated venues and free range on programming. In Gulf countries, the government retains creative control and funding of the arts, and artists must be recognized by various ministries.
The situation is quite different for the Tunisian circus. Ferid, a soft-spoken, chain-smoking, 54-year-old former lawyer, founded the National Circus Theater three years ago with the help of French trainers. Tunisians, it turned out — especially Bedouins — love the circus. Most of his funding comes from their ticket purchases; the rest, from a Coca-Cola sponsorship. In turn, Ferid produces four shows a year awash in Coke branding. For these special performances, the artists’ costumes — ordinarily traditional Tunisian fabrics and colors — are emblazoned with Coke logos, much like an endorsed tennis player. For one televised production, aerialists and dancers resembled Coke bottles head-to-toe, and as he described it, I imagined a bizarre, “Gods Must Be Crazy”-like scene of lithe soda bottles flying between trapezes in the North African desert.
As Chef Peternell predicted, the tomato confit oozed a flavorful, red juice over the polenta and its seasonal vegetable companions. My guests — whose culinary expectations of America ended at pizza, fast food and steak — were delighted. Their reactions sounded like a glowing Zagat listing: “Very nutritious … my husband will have to cook it!” (Kathloom); “Very good” (Ferid, with an approving nod). “Truly delicious and surprising,” announced Ahmad (a compliment I later learned was the only praise he paid American food during his two-week visit).
Dessert was served in the living room. Over baked peaches and French vanilla ice cream, we sipped rooibos tea while Ahmad strummed an oud he’d brought, singing traditional Egyptian melodies in the trilling and seductive vocal style of a muezzin’s call to prayer.
“Aysh maana sit alinjiliziah hialli bitrouh alintikhabat/ Wal beit howa bassi gadar asit almasriah” — “Why can British women vote, while ours are holed up in their homes?”
The lyrics were from Sayed Darwish, a prolific composer who, in the early 20th century, championed modernity and social progress during the era of British occupation. His provocative words have a contemporary relevance, of course; in Egypt today, fundamentalism is gaining support, and with it, an intolerance for the arts competes with the thirst for freedom of expression. “If the Muslim Brotherhood were in power, they’d kill me,” Ahmad solemnly told us.
For a moment, the music transported us all someplace else — to a land where the air is warm and inviting, but sadly, too often filled by instruments of war. Sitting comfortably on my couch, Kathloom and Abdullah smiled and joined in a familiar verse. Arina joyfully clapped along. I added notes on my mandolin. And then, from an open window, a chill crept into the room — a reminder that this was, and could only be, a summer night on the San Francisco Bay.