Sunday, May 29, 2016

MALTA: THE LAND AND THE PEOPLE


When I was in high school, I took an interest in old films. As an aspiring actress at the time, I watched these old films not only for their story, but to watch their acting. In 1998, AFI (American Film Institute) put out a list called “100 Years…100 Movies,” revising the list in 2007. The Maltese Falcon ranked in at #23 but dropped to #31 in the updated version. It took me years to figure out the word Maltese referred to things and people from Malta, and it took me a few more years to figure out where Malta was. And unlike the Maltese Falcon in the film, the country of Malta is very much a real place. 



Although it’s not quite certain, but the name Malta is thought to have derived from the Greek word for “honey.” In fact, the name the Greeks gave for the island group is Melite, which means “honey sweet.” Other variations were based on the Greek word. However, some historians think it may have also come from the Phoenician word for “port” or “haven.”


Malta is an island group located in the Mediterranean Sea. The Italian island of Sicily is to the north, Tunisia is to the west, and Libya is to the south. The Greek island of Crete lies to the east much farther off. Although there are several islands included in this archipelago, only the largest three islands are inhabited: Malta, Gozo, and Comino. Obviously the country of Malta has a Mediterranean climate, which means that it has mild winters and hot summers. Like the Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus — which is about on the same latitude — Malta enjoys a high number of sunshine hours during the year. It averages twice the number of sunshine hours that northern European cities have. 

The site of a bombed out Opera House during WWII.
The earliest people living in the Maltese Islands probably arrived from Sicily (and more than likely the Sicani, the ancient people from Sicily.) Many of the temples and pottery found on the islands resemble examples found on Sicily. The Phoenicians, the Greeks, and the Romans all traded with Malta and each had their turn controlling parts of the island groups. It was mentioned by several historians, and was even mentioned in the Bible as the area where Paul and Luke washed up after being shipwrecked. They took the opportunity to spread Christianity to the islands, and it has remained Christian since then. During the Middle Ages, the Byzantine Empire took over the islands. They brought along Islam, irrigation techniques, fruits, cotton, and the Siculo [Sicilian]-Arabic language that would later become the Maltese language. Finally the Norman Conquest pushed its way into the area, and Catholicism was reinstated as the Muslims were pushed out. It was then ruled by the House of Barcelona, and Napoleon captured the islands during the late 1700s. The Treaty of Paris granted Malta to the British Empire, and the islands played important roles in both WWI and WWII. Malta finally gained its independence in 1964 from the British. It remained neutral during much of the Cold War and later joined the European Union and the Eurozone. 

Malta’s capital city is Valletta, located on the island of Malta itself, making it the southernmost European capital. It’s also known as The Most Humble City of Valletta. This ancient city shows evidence of the multiple changes in its history through its architecture. In the midst of these old cathedrals and palaces are buildings with modern architectural styles on modern infrastructure. The city is known for several festivals that run throughout the year. The city of Valletta is one of the densest historical cities in the world (so if you’re not a fan of being close to your neighbors, it might not be the best city for you). If you love old cities with a lot of charm, by all means, please visit. 


Before 1800, Malta mainly depended on cotton, tobacco, and a few other exports. When the Suez Canal opened, this small country saw an increase in its economy as a trade port. By the end of the 1800s, their economy was starting to falter, and by the onset of WWII, it was in serious trouble. Limestone is a major resource for Malta (like my home state of Indiana). Being an island limits its energy resources, but because of the number of sunlight hours, it has the potential to utilize solar energy even though it's not being used as much as it could be. Malta has been a popular place for film production because of its climate. The first film was filmed there in 1925, and now the government provides incentives for film companies to film in the islands. It’s also a tourist haven for obvious reasons. Today, Malta and Tunisia are discussing the possibility of oil exploration in the sea between the countries.


The constitution declares that Roman Catholicism is the state religion, although freedom of religion is also somewhat apparent. Religion may be taught in public schools, but students have the option to opt out. Even though Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion in Malta—with nearly 95% of Maltese who consider themselves Catholic—there are also Protestants, Muslims, Jewish, Buddhist, and Baha’is practicing in Malta as well. 


The Maltese language is the official language in Malta. It’s an interesting language, a cross between Sicilian and Arabic with significant borrowing from Italian and French. It’s only been the official language since 1934; before this, Italian was the official language of Malta. However, because the British also controlled the island for a long time, English has a quasi-official standing in the country as well. The vast majority of Maltese residents are bilingual in Maltese and either English, Italian, or French. 

No, you are not allowed to walk across. 
I will venture to guess that most Americans don’t know where Malta is (I at least knew it was in the Mediterranean somewhere), but this tiny European country has been the setting of many books, films, and historical events. Calypso Cave is thought to be the cave Homer mentioned in The Odyssey. Although cars drive on the left in Malta, there are many areas that are only accessed by walking. Known for its beaches and craggy coastlines, Malta is definitely one underrated place people don’t know enough about.

Up next: art and literature

Monday, May 23, 2016

MALI: THE FOOD


Well, it’s been an interesting past couple of weeks to say the least. My job is on hiatus as we look for a new owner. So, I’m kind of back on the job search, but I’m also looking into venturing into creating my own e-newsletter on education. Not to mention all of the other things my family is involved in that I have to take care of. So, there’s quite a bit of stress at the moment. But I’ve always been the type of person who leans on two things when I’m stressed: music and food. Luckily for me, I have this blog. 

My pie-cake, with cryptic cracks and everything.
Because things ended up being so busy this weekend, my cooking was divided on two different days. I made a cake called Gâteau de Semoule aux Agrumes (Semolina and Citrus Cake) first. The first thing I did was zest an entire lemon and an orange, then I squeezed all the juice from each into the same bowl as the zest and set it off to the side. In a large bowl, I measured out about 1 1/8 c of white wheat flour (it was what I had on hand). In a small saucepan, I brought 500 mL (about 2 c) of milk to a boil, and just as it started to boil (or in my case, boil over), I took it off the heat and slowly poured it into my flour, trying to stir at the same time. It pretty much became thick right away, so thick that I didn’t need to put it back on the burner to thicken up like the recipe suggested. At this point, I just stirred in the orange and lemon zest along with the juice and a ¼ tsp salt into the dough. Then I cracked 4 eggs (stirring in one at a time) into the dough. (My son helped with this part. I’m just glad there are no eggshell pieces included!) I wasn’t sure how much honey I was supposed to add, so I just poured enough honey to empty the honey bear’s head (maybe a 1/8 – ¼ c?). So, after stirring everything together to make a smooth batter, I poured this into my greased springform pan (I don’t have a Bundt pan for some reason, which is what the recipe called for). This baked for about 35-38 minutes in a 350ºF oven, chilling it in the refrigerator (the recipe said for a couple of hours, or you can leave it in there for a day and a half like I did). I drizzled this with a little more honey before serving, and it was very good. My husband thought it tasted a little like lemon meringue without the meringue. It was definitely more pie (without the crust) than cake; the consistency was more on the level of a cream pie or a very dense pound cake. And to be honest, I was a little leery about the citrus and honey combination, but it seemed to work out quite nicely.

If this is what the food is like in Timbuktu, sign me up (when it's calmed down, of course).
Today will be a day of stews. The first stew is Couscous de Timbuktu. I cut up my stew beef into small cubes and browned the meat along with some minced garlic. When it was browned, I added in my spices: a little rosemary (in lieu of fennel seed, and I added in a little oregano as well), cinnamon, salt, cardamom, cayenne pepper, black pepper, cumin, ginger, and nutmeg. After stirring in the spices, I added in a can of stewed tomatoes and enough water to cover everything. I let this simmer for about an hour before adding in my onions. The recipe called for pureed dates, but didn’t want to spend that much and still have to puree them myself. So, I substituted some pureed prunes and apples that I found in the baby food aisle. Once I stirred these in, I let it cook for another 30 minutes, topping it with chopped parsley and serving it on top of instant couscous. I really liked this, and so did my husband. (He liked it better than the other stew I made.) It was very aromatic. I thought the flavors blended quite well (yes, even those nasty prunes), although I added a little flour at the end to help it thicken faster. It just goes to show that when flavors cook together, they change.

Who can't resist a good peanut stew. This vegetarian version was actually pretty good!
The other stew I made is Tigua Dege Na (a vegetarian stew in peanut sauce – shhh, don’t tell my husband it’s vegetarian). I started out sautéing my onions and garlic for a few minutes until they were translucent. Then I added in a large can of diced tomatoes, tomato past, chicken broth (instead of vegetable broth – vegetable broth tastes gross to me), peanut butter, a little cayenne pepper, salt, black pepper, a couple bay leaves, and some diced up squash. The recipe called for one acorn squash, but they seemed kind of small, so I bought two. Once I brought all of this to a boil, I added half of a 10 oz bag of angel hair cole slaw mix (it’s basically just the cabbage). I cooked this down for about a half hour, stirring it frequently to keep the peanut butter from sticking. I served this over rice. This one surprised me. My daughter thought it was really good. The acorn squash I bought a few days ago was not quite ripe – it was the consistency of a potato, or an apple even! But it made it better for my husband who hates squash because “it’s slimy,” as he says. Even after cooking down in the stew, it was still the consistency of a potato, which I liked. But you really couldn’t taste any of the squash flavor anyway because the flavors of the tomatoes and peanut butter were far more overpowering. So, there was that. The cabbage helped to thicken it up a bit. I thought it makes a fantastic vegetarian stew (minus the chicken broth, but let’s be real, could a vegetarian really taste it anyway?).

I was rather excited about the jalapeños in this bread. However, I'll need to keep working with it.
Finally, to go with these stews, we needed bread. I had a hard time finding an actual bread recipe that wasn’t quite duplicated. The problem is that I found all kinds of mentions on the Internet about a bread called Ngome bread, but everything I found just mentioned the same two or three lines copied and pasted from Wikipedia. But I did land on one page that offered a little more information, but it was more of a description rather than a recipe. I basically had to make up the measurements. So, here’s what I came up with (this may be the closest thing to a ngome recipe on the Internet – brace yourself!): I mixed 3 c of millet flour with 3 Tbsp vegetable oil. Then because millet is kind of bland in and of itself, I mixed in 1 Tbsp chili powder, 1 tsp black pepper, ½ Tbsp salt, and 3 Tbsp minced jalapeños. After stirring this up, I mixed in a cup of water and combined all the ingredients. Once I added in enough water so that it held together and enough flour to make it pliable enough to form into a ball (I felt like I had to add in quite a bit), I divided the dough into eight balls. I flattened each ball as I heated up my griddle with a little oil, frying each flatbread until it was browned on the outsides and letting it cool on a plate. Here’s what my problems were: The dough started out too wet (I may have only needed about ¾ c of water), but in order to make it stop sticking to my hands, I had to add flour, which in turn made it want to crack and break apart, although it felt like holding wet sand at the beach. The spices and the jalapeños helped, but it was still a very dry bread – great for dipping and sopping, as they say. I’ve never worked with millet before, but I think it has a very earthy flavor, similar to quinoa flour or masa harina. And perhaps I used a little too much oil because the last ones browned up better than the first ones. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure what this was supposed to even look like, so I really was flying by the seat of my pants on this one. This version was not my favorite bread, but perhaps it might be able to be worked into something better. It’s a good start anyhow. 

Altogether, it was a pretty good meal. You can never go wrong with a good stew.
While I was making the Couscous de Timbuktu, I started thinking about a news report I heard about a few years ago that when Islamic terrorists made their way to Timbuktu in early 2013, they completely raided the place, burning down buildings and killing anyone who resisted. One story that got me was how they torched the libraries — and not just any old library: these libraries held ancient documents and manuscripts dating back from the 1200s that were not just important to Mali’s heritage but world heritage as well. They covered a variety of subjects: medicine, women’s rights, culinary arts, biology, astronomy, history, and a number of other topics. These manuscripts were important because it dispelled the myth that “black African” history was mainly oral before Europeans arrived. It’s unknown how many of these manuscripts were destroyed. But one highlight is that I also read about a dedicated and very courageous group of librarians who moved as many books as they could to basement and sub-basement passages and to auxiliary buildings, and eventually out of the city in order to save these literary relics. Over the course of eight long months, they worked tirelessly saving history; in the end only about 4000 of the nearly 400,000 scrolls and books were destroyed. These people are truly my heroes.



Up next: Malta

Saturday, May 21, 2016

MALI: MUSIC AND DANCE


Mali is an incredibly diverse country. There are many, many ethnic groups here, and they all have made their own contributions to the whole of what is Malian music. Of course, some of these groups have had larger influences on music here. Among the most traditional music customs, djalis go back centuries. And yes, although they are known for being historians and being able to recite long historical passages, they are also known for being praise singers. Most of these praises are geared toward kings and national heroes, but some of these songs also include more poetic works like proverbs. 
Man playing the kora.
Many instruments utilized in their traditional music (and even in a lot of popular music as well) are similar to other areas of Western and Northern Africa. If you listen to Malian music, you’re likely to hear the kora (21-24 string lute harp), n’goni (a 4-7 string lute), or the bala (a type of xylophone with calabash resonators). Percussion is also an important part of many African music traditions, including in Mali. Some popular types of drums include tabale (a tall conga-like drum played with flexible sticks), dunumba (a large drum that hangs from the shoulder and played with a mallet while the other hand plays a bell), or the n’taman (a talking drum shaped like an hourglass). After WWII, the guitar started making its way into African music, and it was incorporated into a lot of their music. Jazz and Latin music (especially Cuban music) also gained popularity in Mali. 



Of all of the traditional styles of music, no matter what the tribe, they all include music to dance to. With percussion at its roots, their music was often used in dancing for ceremonies and other festivities. Most dances are performed wearing traditional clothing and are often seen as a form of expression. For Malians, drumming and dancing go hand in hand, and it’s often spiritual for the performers. 


One of the biggest names in Malian music is Salif Keita. Not only is he an established musician, but he’s also a huge advocate for promoting and supporting local music. As a singer, he uses music as a means of expression outside of the traditional djeli role, and he’s been credited for bringing the Afro-pop movement to the global forefront. His work has influenced countless other musicians as well. I really like his music; it has elements of jazz and Latin styles mixed with some traditional styles and instruments. It has a very chill effect. I feel like I should be drinking a beer sitting outside on the patio after dark. I can see why he was popular. 



I listened to many other artists who had similar styles to his, relying heavily on the kora, which I love. It almost has a dulcimer sound to it. Some artists are more instrumental, some of the instruments used may vary, and some have vocals, but each share a similar musical style. There are several artists who have become fairly popular that I would recommend listening to: Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté, Ali Farka Touré, Afel Bocoum, Vieux Farka Touré, Mory Kanté, Les Ambassadeurs, Bassekou Kouyate, and Fanta Damba.  



There is also a Tuareg band called Tinariwen that put Tuareg music on the map. To me, they took elements of jazz and blues and mixed it with traditional Tuareg musical styles. It’s pretty catchy -- I like it a lot.  



I found a couple of other bands/groups that fell into the rock or pop category. They’re not quite definite categories, but they do have qualities that lead them to sound a bit more Western. A few I found include Amadou & Mariam, Rokia Traoré, and Tamikrest. There’s even a hip-hop group of sorts I ran across who call themselves SMOD. I like what I heard from them. 



Up next: the food

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

MALI: ART AND LITERATURE


Mali is rich in visual and textile arts. Many of these arts are tied to day-to-day living, though. Textile arts are one of the most common artistic styles easily seen in Mali. Both men and women wear brightly colored, patterned cloth. They’re known for a type of cloth style known as mud cloth, which has abstract patterns made from mud. Typically, this is a woman’s art.


To go along with the art of textile making, many Malians are adept at making jewelry. Because of Mali’s history, gold is the preferred metal in jewelry for most of the people; however, the Tuaregs prefer silver. Styles depend on personal taste and on tribe. Some tribes have their own particular style, sometimes with patterns that reflect their history or ancient religious views. Shells, clay, amber, wood, and stone are also used in making jewelry. 
They’re also known for their woodcarving. Like many other cultures in Western Africa, wooden masks and sculptures are a part of many Malian cultures. The masks are actually used to disguise the person wearing the mask when they impersonate ancestors or gods. Some tribes, like the Dogon, believe that when a person dies, their spirit stays in the mask, so therefore masks are an important part of funeral rites. The idea of gender is very important and much of their society is drawn on gender lines. In their sculptures, body features are often exaggerated to make the distinction between genders.



Mali has a particular unique type of architecture, at least different than most other building types in Western and Northern Africa. Many of the buildings (especially mosques) here are built using sun-dried mud on top of tree branch beams. Even the shapes of buildings will vary slightly from other regions as well. 

Askia the Great
Even as far back as the early 1500s, historians have noted the importance of literature in Mali. One of the great military leaders and emperors of the Songhai Empire, known as Askia the Great, was credited with promoting universities and Malian education at the time. Not only bringing in some of the world’s greatest scholars, he also built one of the largest book publishing centers in this region of Africa. One early explorer wrote about this area, saying that the demand for books is huge, especially from the North African states, and that Malians earn more profit from producing books than any other industry. 

The djali from Mali (come on, it rhymes)
Like other areas of Africa, Mali’s literature is rooted in the traditions of the djali (or sometimes spelled jali, jeli, djeli, or sometimes referred to as a griot). Djalis were an integral part of the Mali Empire and had a great responsibility: they are often quipped as walking history books, but essentially that’s what they were in a nutshell. But not exactly. Yes, they were great storytellers and musicians who retell historical stories and family traditions, but they also work in satire, gossip, political commentary, praise songs, among other topics. One of the most well-known historians, Amadou Hampâté Bâ, spent a large part of his time studying these traditions. 



Some popular Malian writers include Yambo Ouologuem (known for his book Le Devoir de Violence, it was raked with controversy over plagiarism), Maryse Condé (descended from the Bambara people and writes on their culture, although she lives in the French Antilles), Massa Makan Diabaté (known for his work The Epic of Sundiata and the Kouta Trilogy, he’s a descendent of griots), Fily Dabo Sissoko (author and political leader, writing about the Negritude movement, died in prison), and Moussa Konaté (teacher, writers, playwright).

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, May 15, 2016

MALI: THE LAND AND THE PEOPLE


When I was growing up, there were two main cities that were often used in cartoons to depict “someplace far”: Abu Dhabi and Timbuktu. The first one is in the United Arab Emirates, and the second one is in Mali. It makes me wonder how many Americans knew that. (Besides me, of course.) I won’t get to the UAE for a while, but we get to find out more about what Timbuktu and the land it’s in is all about. 

 

The name Mali actually means “hippopotamus” in the Malinké and Bamana languages. It also used to be known as French Sudan, but that’s not quite as cool. At least Mali sounds like my niece’s name Molly. 



Mali is a landlocked country located in northeastern Africa, surrounded by Algeria to the north; Niger to the east; Burkina Faso, Côte Ivoire, and Guinea to the south; and Senegal and Mauritania to the west. A large portion of the country lies within the Sahara Desert region, making it a very hot country and without a lot of rainfall. It does have a long, dry season, followed by a short, intense rainy season. 



Mali was once part of several great empires. One of the earliest ones in the Ghana Empire (ruled by the Soninke) followed by the Mali Empire. The Mali Empire was centered in the city of Timbuktu, one of the great cities of culture, trade, and Islam. They later were taken over by the Songhai Empire, which subsequently fell to invading Moroccans. After coming under French rule during the late 19th century, it was known as French Sudan. When Senegal united with them in 1959, it became known as the Mali Federation, and they gained their independence from France a year later. It didn’t take long before Senegal broke off to be on its own, and Mali became known as the Republic of Mali. Their first president, Modibo Keïta, quickly established a one-party government. But that didn’t last too long before people got upset about it. Moussa Traoré led a bloodless coup and took over. Although there were some marginal attempts at fixing the economy and establishing democracy, it was countered by banning dissenters and a number of other repressive moves. The country suffered another coup in 1991, and a series of pro-democracy protests across the country led to the March Revolution. Tensions escalated into rioting, resulting in over 300 deaths in four days. Mali had its first democratic elections the following year, and since then has been considered one of the more politically and socially stable countries in Africa today. However, the country made the news again for the Tuareg Rebellion of 2012, one of the early clashes leading to the Northern Mali Conflict. Essentially, the Tuareg rebels fought against the Malian government for independence of the northern region known as Azawad. Historically, this was the home of the nomadic Tuareg tribes. This conflict and instability led to an opening where the Islamic group Ansar Dine entered, whose main goal is to spread sharia law across Mali. 



The capital is Bamako, Mali’s largest city and one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Located on the Niger River, its name means “crocodile tail” in Bambara. Bamako is like many other African cities in that it has benefitted greatly from Chinese investment: many of the infrastructure projects, hospitals, and other needed facilities have been erected through this Chinese-African relationship. Although it’s not uncommon to still find cattle crossing the streets of Bamako, you’ll also find major international company headquarters, museums, music and arts festivals (including a famous photography fest), universities, and a number of parks and landmarks. 



Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world; workers earn an average of only USD$1500 per year. In agreements with the World Bank and the IMF during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mali underwent changes in the privatization of certain businesses, which did yield some economic growth. The country is part of what’s known as the French Zone, meaning its banks are tied with the French Central Bank. Part of the reason Mali’s economy struggles is that its main economic driver is agriculture (rice, millet, cotton, tobacco), and in an area that is constantly plagued with environmental changes (deforestation, desertification), its crops struggle, too. They have a smaller yet significant energy industry and mining industry (especially in gold, salt, limestone, kaolin, and phosphate). 


Roughly 90% of Malians are Muslim, with the remaining 10% split between Christianity and other indigenous belief systems. Because of the importance of religion being placed in their society, very few are atheist or agnostic (at least for those who admit it). In the past, the Islam practiced in Mali has historically been pretty moderate and tolerant, but the Islamic extremist-led 2012 Northern Mali Conflict has now created a hostile environment for religious minorities.  



While the official language is French, most Malians can speak Bambara and use it as a lingua franca since there are over 40 languages spoken in Mali. Bambara is just one of 12 other languages that are considered national languages. 



In reading about Mali, I came across Mansa Musa. I read about him years ago, but I had forgotten his name. (He’s actually known by many names, but Mansa Musa is the most common name used by Westerners.) He was a rich leader and devout Muslim, and as he made the traditional pilgrimage, he left so much gold in the cities he stayed in along the way, that it ruined their local economy. When he heard about this, he borrowed gold in each city as he returned to Mali, single-handedly affecting the regional economy in the Mediterranean and northern Africa. He also built a number of mosques, schools, and universities in Mali, bringing in architects, mathematicians, and other scholars from all over to help with the projects and to teach others. There is so much history, so much culture that is tied to this country. It’s hard to believe that at one time it was the center of African culture and run by great empires. And now, less than 10% of the people make more than $2 per day. I can’t wait to find out what this ancient cultural center is all about today.



Up next: art and literature

Sunday, May 8, 2016

MALDIVES: THE FOOD


Today is Mother’s Day, so I actually made this meal yesterday. My husband told me I shouldn’t cook on Mother’s Day (even though I have in the past). So, I made him come with us to have breakfast at CFI this morning, and then we went out for chicken shawarma: the only thing I truly wanted. 

It definitely needs to be warmed up and topped with vanilla ice cream.
But let’s talk about what I did yesterday on the second day of my Mother’s Day Weekend Extravaganza of Doing What I Want. I cooked my Maldivian meal! I started out making Faaroshi boakibaa, or bread made with bread rusk. I had to look up what bread rusk is because I have never heard of that term. Good substitutes are zwieback or melba toast. So I used crushed melba toast, but a box of melba toast only yielded 2 c crushed, so I substituted crushed Saltines for the other 2 c (10 crackers = about ½ c) to make 4 c total. Then I added in 2 c of sugar and mixed it together with my crushed crackers/toast before adding in two eggs. Then I poured in 2 Tbsp of rose water, 2 tsp of vanilla extract, and a 15 oz can of coconut cream. I stirred everything until it all came together. It took a little while for the coconut cream to bind everything together, but it did end up doing what it was supposed to do. I greased a loaf pan and put the dough in, baking it at 350ºF for about 45-48 minutes. You can definitely taste the rose water in this bread, but it wasn’t overpowering. The only problem was that it was really crumbly. The outer edges were crispy, but the inside fell apart, so it was really hard to cut into pieces. 

Surprise of the day.
The next dish I made was called Mas Hari. This dish is most often eaten for breakfast along with roshi bread (that I’ll make next). It was really easy to make, even though the ingredient list seemed a little strange at first. I emptied two packages of tuna into a bowl, followed by probably a ¼ c of coconut flakes (I sort of guessed how much I was putting in), about a ¼ c of diced onion (the recipe calls for shallot), lime juice (I used ¾ of a lime), a very little bit of minced jalapeño pepper (in lieu of a chilli), some chopped cilantro, and a little bit of smoked sea salt. I stirred everything together and put it in the fridge until it was time to serve it. I really liked this. It was amazing how well it tasted— the coconut really didn’t come out like I thought it would. There actually wasn’t any left over—that’s how well it was taken by the family. 

Silver dollar flatbread?
To go with the mas hari, I made roshi, a type of flatbread. This bread started out with 2 c of white flour and a large pinch of salt. Then I made a well in the center and added in 3 Tbsp of vegetable oil. I measured off a cup of water and put it in the microwave for about 3 minutes and poured it into the well, stirring it until it became a dough. Once it was cool enough to handle, I kneaded it until it really came together. I divided the dough into 10 balls. Flattening each dough ball by hand until it was fairly thin like a flatbread, I put it in a dry skillet and cooked it until it had browned. The edges were kind of hard but it was still soft enough to tear off and eat with the mas hari. Granted, they were kind of small, so I’m not sure if they were supposed to be bigger or not, but they tasted good, so I guess that works. 
Surprise of the day, part II.
Finally, I made bashi hiki riha, or eggplant curry. I picked this recipe even though my husband absolutely hates eggplant. Or so he says. I cut two baby eggplants up and fried them in vegetable oil, setting it off to the side when they had browned. Then I added in a little more oil and sautéed some diced onion, garlic, ginger, curry leaves (which I substituted basil and lime zest), and ground mustard. Once it sautéed for a few minutes, I added my eggplant back in. Then I threw in some cardamom, chili powder, curry powder and a little salt, stirring everything for another minute or two. I really enjoyed this, and even my eggplant-hating husband thought it wasn’t THAT bad. The kids didn’t care for it though. The recipe called for some spicy peppers, but I left those out. While I certainly don’t mind a little heat, my family hates it. Sigh. I thought it was great, full of flavor and definitely couldn’t tell it was vegetarian. 

I'd say it was pretty good. I was definitely full after this one.
I really enjoyed this meal. It certainly surprised me at how flavorful it was. It certainly had elements of Indian, Arab, and island cuisine. Although there is no alcohol permitted in the Maldives because it’s an Islamic country, I did have a ginger beer (alcoholic ginger ale?) with this, which complemented the flavors of the meal. I learned so much about this place that has been on my bucket list for a while: both the music and the food surprised me. Maybe one day I’ll be lucky enough to visit for real. But for now, I just have their recipes.

Up next: Mali

Saturday, May 7, 2016

MALDIVES: MUSIC AND DANCE


Like much of the culture of the Maldives, its musical roots are tied to India, East Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. Because of their cultural similarities between the Maldives and northern India, many Maldivians listen to Hindi film songs and other popular Hindi songs. Many times, they take these songs and change it slightly to make it their own.

 
And many of the musical styles are strongly tied to their dance traditions. Probably the most widely known musical form here is called boduberu, which is more popular in the northern atolls. Having its origins in East African music traditions, boduberu is a type of dance music. This type of music includes a lead singer, three percussionists, a bell player, and an onugandu player (an onugandu is a bamboo stick with grooves carved in it). It typically starts out slow and gradually gains momentum to a frenetic dance craze. While the lyrics can be on a variety of subjects, it also can just include nonsense syllables as well (called vocables). 


Thaara music is a type of ensemble consisting of 22 men who sit in two rows facing each other. This type of music is said to have stemmed from Arabs who traveled to the islands. Thaara music tends to be a little more religious in nature. 


There are a variety of other types of dances for women and men. As far as I can tell, there is not any intermixing of dancers. Some of the dances include props, such as flowers or bamboo sticks or costumes. Some dances and songs show homage to the country and/or sultan or present the sultan with gifts. 


Granted, a lot of the music on the smaller islands tends to be a little more traditional, but music in the larger cities, like Malé, is influenced by a number of other musical styles from all over Asia and the West. One of the first major bands to come out of the Maldives was Zero Degree Atoll, producing three albums since 1987. Their style is kind of like soft rock mixed with world beat mixed with Kenny G (only because it prominently features a saxophone), and a little bit of blues. One of the band’s members, Nashid, produced a solo blues album called Bird in Flight that my husband and I love. In fact, he told me to go ahead and download it for Mother’s Day, especially since it was only $8.91 on iTunes. If you like a B.B. King style blues, you’d like this. I love it! (And this song is apparently in 11/8 time.)


Oddly enough, there are several metal bands that are based out of the Maldives. One screaming band is Nothnegal. Their instrumentals were pretty tight, though. Sacred Legacy is another band that falls under the same category: very much of a death metal sound. 


A band that I listened to that is now one of my new favorite bands is called Fasylive. I’m not even sure how to pronounce it exactly (is the last part live as in “life your life” or is it live like “live from New York, it’s Saturday night!”). I suppose it doesn’t matter so much. They remind me a little of early Metallica at times, and sometimes they sound a little like Eddie Van Halen. This is another one that I play with the windows down in the car. Seriously, these guys are great.


There aren’t too many hip-hop artists from the Maldives, but I did find a reference to the first Maldivian hip-hop album to come out, entitled Magumathi (I found it on YouTube). I’m not exactly sure if this is the name of the album or group (maybe it’s self-titled?). But I like it, though. I also came across a trio who seems to often perform together: Edil, Pest & Bey (or some combination of two or three). They had several songs I found on YouTube. Their music is pretty catchy. I liked what I heard for the most part. 


Up next: the food

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

MALDIVES: ART AND LITERATURE

Much of the visual arts of the Maldives are stemmed from island life and similar to the arts of southern India and Sri Lanka as well. Woodcarving is one skill that is passed down from generation to generation. Their carving is highly intricate and takes years to learn. 

 
They have also perfected the art of lacquerware. You’ll often find these decorative boxes and other ornamental objects for sale. This art came to the Maldives from China and is used as a way to protect the wood while using bold colors with gold. Only a couple of islands really practice this lost art these days. 


Woven arts are typically made and sold by women. One popular item is colorful mats that are colored with a variety of dyed reeds. These mats are used for many purposes including their use as a prayer mat.



The Maldives are known for a traditional style of boat called the dhoni. Traditionally it was made of coconut wood, but nowadays, it tends to be made from a variety of woods that are shipped in. These types of boats showcase the level of intricate woodcarving that Maldavian carpenters are skilled at. 
 
Husain Salaahuddheen
Most literature from the Maldives is written in the official language of Dhivehi. Because it’s an Islamic country, there does tend to be a significant amount of religious texts, and it’s been a focus since antiquity. One of the most famous religious writers is Husain Salaahuddheen who is most widely known for his work entitled “Siyarathunnabaviyyaa.” This work is often considered one of the most famous religious works of the modern period. 
Dhon Hiyala and Alifulhu

Maldivian literature is dotted with folklore. These folklore stories have been passed down for generations and are often told to kids, serving a variety of purposes. There are myths of origin, how they landed in the Maldives Islands, and extinction, some of which has similarities to other nearby locations. There are also myths about good and evil spirits, myths about magic and sorcerers, and stories about the flora and fauna of the islands. One story about the characters of Dhon Hiyala and Alifulhu is almost reminiscent of the Romeo and Juliet story or the (Japanese) Tanabata story.
 
Ibrahim Shihab

Poetry is also important in Maldivian literary culture. Bodufenvalhuge Sidi (intellectual, writer), Saikuraa Ibrahim Naeem (writer, government officer), and Ibrahim Shihab (poet, writer, essayist, statesman) are among the many writers and poets who have emerged onto the Maldivian literary scene. 


A 2014 The Guardian article reported that the Maldivian government basically forces all writers to have their books reviewed by the government to check to see if it complies with their strict Islamic guidelines. Of course, fans of free speech vehemently oppose the measures, also saying that even the art forms had to comply. And this is just one reason why I choose to be non-religious.

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, May 1, 2016

MALDIVES: THE LAND AND THE PEOPLE


Years ago, I had come across some photos of the Maldives islands. I had never heard of this island group located in the Indian Ocean. Pristine beaches, turquoise seas, sun, palm trees, exquisite resorts. Who wouldn’t be interested in that? For years this small, almost unknown country has been on my bucket list. It would be really expensive to visit though; the flight alone would be over $9000 for the four of us. Even at that, perhaps there’s still a way I can figure out how to “work from home” from the Maldives. For a while at least. 

 
The name Maldives may derive from a number of sources, almost all of them from various Indian languages with the exception of perhaps Arabic and Persian. Many of these meanings are centered around “garland islands” but some older texts refer to it as the “hundred thousand islands.” However, the English word is derived from the Dutch. 


The Maldives Islands are a group of 1190 islands and atolls in the Indian Ocean. The northernmost islands are a little less than 300 miles southwest of the Indian subcontinent. They’re also about 466 miles southwest of Sri Lanka and separated from both India and Sri Lanka by the Laccadive Sea. A little over 1900 miles to the west is Somalia on the Horn of Africa. The southernmost islands are about 750 miles north of the US-owned Diego Garcia Military Base on an atoll that is part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (if you read the Google reviews on this base, it’s full of conspiracy stories about the missing Malaysia Airlines plane being here). Because the Maldives are in a tropical climate, they basically have two seasons: dry season and rainy season. 



The earliest peoples mostly came from the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka with a few coming from other areas of Southeast Asia. The Sinhalese arrival signified a change in the culture of the Maldives, and the Dhivehi language was developed during this time as well. The islands went through several religious periods in their history: the earliest peoples practiced a form of Hinduism. Then the first kings promoted Buddhism. By the 12th century, the islands converted to Islam, often attributed as part of the work of a Moroccan traveler by the name of Ibn Batutta. Who exactly he was is up for historical dispute, but his work stuck with the people here. The islands became a stopping point for trade between Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Southeast Asia. By the late 1880s, the British and the Maldives signed a contract agreeing to allow the Maldives become a British protectorate. This contract allowed the British to provide military protection while maintaining local non-interference in exchange for an annual tribute payment. In a disagreement with the government, the three southernmost atolls broke off and started its own country, United Suvadive Republic. However, it rejoined the rest of the country four years later. Two years after this, the island nation gained its full independence from Britain, and later became a republic with a king rather than a sultan. During the 1970s, tourism began to become an economic focus. Several coup attempts during the 1980s finally led to the intervention of the Indian Army. The country was devastated after the 2004 tsunami that resulted from the earthquake. An estimated 108 people died and 57 islands had severe damage to its infrastructure. A series of changes in government and its economic policies occurred during the latter part of the 2000s and is still continuing today.

After the tsunami.
The capital city is Malé, located on the southern edge of the Kaafu Atoll. Originally, this was where the kings lived and was called Mahal. After the monarchy was dismantled in 1968, the city was completely rebuilt, and only the Friday Mosque remains as a remnant of that time. Having a population of only 153,000, Malé is also one of the world’s densest cities with about 46,320 people per square mile. (In comparison, my city of Indianapolis has only 457 people per sq mi. New York City comes in at 26,403 people per sq mi.) 


Much of their ancient economy was based on the sea, mostly in the form of cowry shells, coir rope (pronounced “coy-yer”; made from fibers of coconut), and tuna. The cowry shells actually used to serve as a currency of sorts. Today, tourism serves as the country’s largest industry, followed by fishing. The 2004 tsunami took quite a toll on its economy and its government. For the first time, the government levied taxes on goods in 2008. They also implemented certain social programs and a sovereign wealth fund from the tourism dollars. The sovereign wealth fund is essentially a fund intended to purchase land elsewhere in case they have to move due to rising sea levels. 


The dominant religion in the Maldives is Islam, and more specifically, Sunni Islam. Buddhism was once the major religion of the area before the 12th century, and much of the artifacts left over have been housed as museum exhibits. However, a few years ago Islamic extremists launched an attack on Malé’s National Museum and destroyed much of the artifacts in the pre-Islamic areas, leaving only two or three pieces that might be able to be repaired. Today, it’s a fairly conservative country strongly adhering to Islamic law; no other religions are allowed. Freedom of the press is at a minimum, and the government will often side with religious law over secular law. There is absolutely no alcohol, pornography, or homosexuality. 


The official language is Dhivehi, a relative of Sinhalese and part of the Indo-Aryan language family. It’s used several scripts over the past centuries and currently uses the Thaana script, which is read from right to left. This script is pretty much only used for the Dhevahi language and is roughly based on an Arabic script. Because of its history with Britain, English is also widely understood and often used in the government, education, and in commerce. The word “atoll” is said to be the only word in English derived from a Dhevahi word. 



The sea is highly integrated into the Maldivian culture. It’s the lowest country in the world: the highest point is only 7’ 7” above sea level and is 99% water. Because of this, the country is worried about sinking into the sea with the rising sea levels from climate change becoming more and more inevitable. Countries like Kiribati and the Marshall Islands have already felt this impact. In fact, Maldivian officials held a Cabinet meeting underground in 2009 to raise awareness of the growing reality of climate change. All the climate change deniers should speak with the people from these countries. I would like to think it might change their minds, but it probably won’t. So, we better enjoy their culture now. Who knows if the islands will be around in another hundred years?

Up next: art and literature