Siege recipe site helps blockaded Syrians to keep eating

By Erika Solomon

From radish leaf breakfast salads to sparrow stew dinners, Abu Omar has meals covered for tens of thousands of Syriansliving under siege.

His darkly comedic Blockade Meals, a Facebook page with nearly 11,000 likes, offers cooking tips, recipe ideas and step-by-step photographs that mimic the style of foodie cookery sites. But this young mechanic-turned-rebel offers recipes that are neither organic nor gourmet: they show how to make a meal out of dwindling food supplies in areas under blockade.

One recent post recommends picking leaves from the common Syrian mulberry plant.

“You can either fry them or you can stew them,” an April post suggests. “Put them in a pressure cooker for half an hour, add some oil and spices, and then stew it another half-hour. It will become a tasty meal. Another plus: It helps move your bowels.”

The UN estimates that around a quarter of a million Syrians are living under blockade as the country’s civil war enters its fourth year. Food scarcity has been so severe in some areas that local doctors have reported cases of sickness and even death from malnutrition, most of them children.

Civilians evacuated from Old Homs under UN auspices earlier this year said many people had resorted to eating cats and leaves.

Abu Omar, who uses a nom de guerre, says he lived in Homs’s Old City under blockade for nearly two years. He and some 1,000 fellow fighters were finally able to leave the city this week through a deal with the government.

“Even more than offering recipe ideas I wanted to show we are still happy . . . We mujahideen [holy warriors] don’t have a problem making do with whatever God leaves us with,” he says in an interview with the Financial Times.

The 24-year-old Abu Omar had never cooked a meal before he and his comrades were trapped by the government siege. He learnt through friends and by trading ideas over the internet with Syrians under blockade in other areas.

“In the (besieged) Assaly district of Damascus, they make bread out of lentils for example, because they have a lot of that there. We don’t. But for ingredients we all have, we share ideas,” he said. “For example, everyone has grasshoppers.”

(Wash them and fry them, he says in one post. “They’re tasty.”)

On Blockade Meals, Abu Omar also suggests planting a garden with radishes – the leaves grow quickly and make good salads until the vegetable matures. If something tastes bad, hide the taste with pomegranate syrup – a locally made sweetener.

Most important, he says, are the right cooking utensils. “The pressure cooker is the best friend of the besieged. It will cook anything,” he writes in one post, with a picture of a battered metal pot. “I’m in love with my pressure cooker.”

President Bashar al-Assad’s forces began using blockades as a tactic in late 2012 in an effort to choke supplies to areas where they were unable to dislodge rebel fighters.

There are several blockaded areas around Homs and Damascus – cities where the government wants to cement its control in order to hold the country’s strategic centre. Rebels still hold large swaths of northern and eastern Syria.

Some opposition-held suburbs of the capital that refused to make a deal with Mr. Assad’s forces have been besieged for more than a year and a half.

Rebels have adopted the blockade technique themselves, particularly in the northern province of Aleppo, where they have besieged two loyalist towns as well as the government-held half of Aleppo city. Abu Omar, now out of Homs, hopes to enjoy the taste of freedom with one of his two favourite meals: fried fish or chicken liver.

There is one blockade recipe he plans to keep using: fried green figs. “Cut them in half, salt them and fry them. The taste is something between fried eggplant and potatoes – delicious.”

This post originally appeared on

Guerillas, Gorillas and Oil: A Toxic Mix?

By Evelyn Iritani


RUMANGABO, Democratic Republic of Congo — Emmanuel de Merode knows exactly when his passion began. He was a curious young man with a dream of becoming a park ranger when he first saw the mountain gorillas, giant beasts with an intelligent, surprisingly disarming nature. 

He was smitten. 

“Every time you go into a group of gorillas, you’re blown off your feet,” said de Merode, who is now the director at Virunga National Park, home for 220 of the endangered animals. “It’s like being married to somebody you adore. Whether you’re 20 or 90. It’s the same thing with the mountain gorillas.”

Continue reading on Al Jazeera America

On Crossing the Border: David and Eyad in Jerusalem

By Daniel Estrin

At the Israeli army checkpoint, David barely slowed down. His pale skin, blue eyes and confident smile identified him as an Israeli. Even when Israeli soldiers signaled to him to stop or slow down, he just waved and drove past, spitting dust behind him.

Each time he did this, and it was often, he was thrilled and terrified. So was his Palestinian boyfriend, Eyad, who would sit in the back seat. It is hard to describe how dicey pulling this stunt off is in this part of the world. But for David and Eyad, sneaking Eyad from the West Bank to David’s apartment in Israel was worth the risk.

It is extremely rare for an Israeli to fall in love with a Palestinian. Gay love is an even trickier prospect.

There is, of course, the bitter conflict waging between the two peoples. Sleeping with the enemy is, in most circles, considered to be a betrayal to one’s family, identity and nation.

There are legal barriers. Israel bans Palestinians from joining their spouses in Israel, citing fears that Palestinians could carry out attacks if given entry to Israel.

There are physical hurdles. Security forces carefully police the frontier between Israel and the Palestinian territories. No Israeli is allowed to enter Palestinian-governed areas, and no Palestinian is allowed into Israeli areas, without special permits.

You don’t need a special permit, however, to enter a dating website.

In early 2012, a 29-year-old Israeli man from Jerusalem began chatting online with a 29-year-old Palestinian man in the West Bank. They lived just a few miles, and worlds away, from each other.

The Palestinian asked the Israeli what his name was. (Their real names are not revealed here, for their safety and privacy.) When the Israeli responded with a Hebrew name, the Palestinian thought it was a joke, a fake nickname.

“I was speaking to him in Arabic, and he saw my pictures, and I didn’t seem like an Arab,” David, the Israeli, said. “He thought I was fooling him. And eventually I told him I was Jewish. And he was shocked. And I asked if problem. And he said, ‘no, no.’”

Many Palestinian gay men do not reveal their real names to the Palestinian men they meet online. Strangers, even gay strangers, cannot be trusted to keep their sexuality a secret. Homosexuality is one of the most extreme taboos in Palestinian society.

David was not the first Israeli man Eyad chatted with online. But none of them with were willing to meet him, a Palestinian, in the West Bank. They thought it would be dangerous.

David agreed to meet him in a town in the West Bank, taking circuitous, Jewish settlement back roads to avoid Israeli military checkpoints.

“I still remember his face. How happy he was,” Eyad, the Palestinian, said of their first date. “I told him, you are in Jerusalem, and I am in the West Bank, and there is a wall between us…it’s not a good idea to draw expectations. Like, we cannot really go far with it.”

Then, as if defying gravity, they fell in love. To be a couple – this kind of couple, in this unforgiving place – required creating a life of fiction. David didn’t tell his parents for a very long time about his relationship with Eyad. And Eyad hid his own sexuality from his family, as well as the true nature of his relationship with David, who became a frequent and welcome visitor to his family’s village home.

“I really can’t tell what would happen if someone from Palestine knew that I am gay. People here in Palestine, they say that, oh, that guy was talking about this, he should be killed,” Eyad said. “I live in a big lie.”

When their fiction began to unravel, the two crossed many of their own personal boundaries, in a place where borders matter most.

Tune into their audio documentary to hear David and Eyad tell their story.

Kurdish women fight for equality in Syria

By Erika Solomon

MALIKIYA, Syria (Reuters) – Like her five sisters before her, Ahin left school to help her mother at home. Now she’s training to fight.

At a remote Kurdish militia base on the grassy rolling hills near Syria’s border with Iraq, the stocky 19-year-old jumps and crawls with rows of women in olive green fatigues. Their commander barks an order, and they take position and aim their Kalashnikovs.

The training camp is a powerful sign of the way Syria’s Kurds are working to create an autonomous region. While both Islamist rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have sidelined women, in this Kurdish area, men are happy to fight alongside them. Kurdish military leaders say about a third of the Kurds’ fighting force are women. Many, like Ahin, would never have dreamed of taking up arms until recently.

“I saw all these women leaving home to defend our land and was inspired. I never thought about things like women’s equality before I joined the Women’s Defence Brigades. It was a strange decision for me to make,” she says, wiping sweaty brown curls off her forehead. “Now I’ve started a whole new life.”

Kurdish society in Syria may be conservative by Western standards, but it is less so than other communities in the country. Now, says Nisreen, the base’s 32-year-old trainer and commander, Kurdish women see an opportunity to tie their own liberation to the region’s.

“When there is war, violence doesn’t discriminate between men or women, so why do we? Women are just as much a part of this society. We will share in this task,” she says.

Like all the women interviewed for this story, Nisreen declined to give her last name.


The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the most powerful group in Syria’s Kurdish areas, has run the region since Assad’s forces withdrew in 2012, and created both the male and female militia groups that now defend the area. The PYD has ideological ties to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in Turkey, which fought a three-decade war against Ankara and pioneered women’s militias and quotas.

Both groups require political and military leadership roles to have co-chairs – one man, one woman. The rule is ideological, but also smart politics in a society where women have few options in public life.

“That’s a whole extra bloc of potential constituents,” says Kurdish expert Aliza Marcus. “And because it offers options for advancement, women are often the most committed members.”

Nojan, 20, who adorns her plain fatigues with a black scarf embroidered with flowers, said female fighters were particularly proud of helping beat back fighters from al Qaeda during battles late last year.

“When we arrived at the front, it was dark, and al Qaeda was close to our position … we shouted to them that we were women with weapons in our hands, here to defend our people to the death,” says Nojan.

“They told us to leave, they didn’t want to fight women.”

Ahin says that on trips home she is sparking heated debates about women’s rights with her brothers and father, who bristle at her critiques of male-dominated society.

“I want them to follow my path, but they need time,” she says, smiling. “When I lived at home, I was just a well-behaved girl. Here, I not only learned how to carry a gun, I learned how to speak. I became a woman.”

Erika Solomon is a Bending Borders contributor. Reuters originally published this story in January 2014.

On Keeping Quiet: Shirley in Mumbai

Shirley with her dog inside the Cusrow Baug colony

Shirley with her dog inside the Cusrow Baug colony

By Rosalie Murphy

MUMBAI — Shirley teaches outdoor yoga every morning at 8:30 a.m. and walks her dog several miles every night. It wouldn’t be a special routine except that she does it in the middle of Colaba, a crowded, wealthy neighborhood in South Mumbai. Shirley lives in the Cusrow Baug Parsi Colony. They also have access to gardens, playgrounds, a gym, a community pavilion and controlled, heavily subsidized rents – amenities Mumbai’s chaotic streets don’t offer.

Parsis are descended from Iranian Zoroastrians, who moved from Persia to India around 800 AD. There are still 50,000 of them in Mumbai. Part of that group fills 500 flats in Cusrow Baug. Shirley grew up just outside the colony, then married a Parsi man and moved in. They’ve since divorced, but now their daughter is 14.

The colony is very safe, but its insular social network frustrates Shirley. She wants her daughter to be free-thinking and to choose her own faith, whether it’s Zoroastrianism or not.

“People here never see life on the outside. They don’t have friends outside. When they travel, they don’t meet local people, they just go with each other. They don’t grow,” she said.

“Parsi” is an ethno-religious indicator exclusive to India. A person can be a Zoroastrian and not a Parsi, but not vice versa. But Shirley thinks Parsi might lose its Zoroastrian element soon. Parsi children have an initiation ceremony at age seven, but Jabawadi believes they rarely study their faith’s scholars. The community’s faith feels incomplete to her. She doesn’t practice anymore.

“Most people around here don’t even know why they do what they do. They just do it because their families do it. I don’t think that’s good,” Shirley said.

Whatever people practice privately, Shirley said religious festivals and temple visits unite the community. People worry when she doesn’t participate. And so she keeps her agnosticism a secret, which means she has few close friends inside the colony.

“I’m kind of on my own here,” she said.

The Busiest Corner in Hong Kong

by Emily Frost

Even in the half-dream state before my alarm buzzes, I am hazily aware that Hong Kong is pushing ahead full throttle and I am already falling behind. Heavy truck wheels rumble by and dump scrap metal into heaps nearby, as I scurry around my shoebox-size apartment dressing for work on the glitzier, cosmopolitan side of Hong Kong known as “the island.” I’m on the Kowloon side, in a neighborhood called Mong Kok, which translates into “busy corner” from Chinese — the place vibrates with activity, as though the very buildings themselves were on Ritalin. My commute begins when I step into the heavy, hot air and onto the grimy street where I’m careful to avoid the remains of cockroaches squashed last night. Shops pushing goods from medicinal tea to stationery to pork buns line the streets. A woman with a microphone hawks plastic umbrellas. No space is left unfilled. Street vendors carve out space in alleys, and restaurants spill onto the sidewalk with plastic tables and chairs.

In Mong Kong, people throng the streets — school girls in uniforms, old men with high-waisted pants, women shoving fliers into your hand, the rare expat walking his golden retriever. My neighbors are a true melange, united by one thing: their ability to move. The Hong Kong hustle can be seen everywhere you go, and even more so in Mong Kong where the streets are narrower and the air conditioning sparser. Before I became one of the crowd, moving quickly enough to not stand out, I made lots of sweaty, tense wrong turns in a maze of streets with Chinese signage. Few people speak fluent English in this sweltering jungle.  At each turn, I learned the density never stops, nor do the surprises. Pink buildings. Scaffolding made entirely of bamboo. A smoke-filled gaming room full of adult men.

Will I ever become inured to the nauseating smells from the sewer; or the bucket of slop being tossed across the sidewalk right in front of me, or the vision of freshly butchered pig’s head being chopped up? The first time I made this trip, I felt cheated. Where were the sophisticated shops or the electric skyline I’d seen in photos? Even a businessman in a suit would have been some comfort.

By the time I get in the subway it is 9 a.m. Sweat streams down my face.  Everyone waits silently, expectantly for their stop.  I notice one hilariously mistranslated t-shirt:  “Guns don’t kill people, People’s badness kills people.”  It helps to keep my eyes from glazing over and slumping into submission.

I get off at my stop and step quickly into Hong Kong’s ferocious pace, orchestrated by the mechanical pedestrian guides, urging walkers to pick up speed when it’s time to cross the street. Taxis come flying around corners, with near-misses a part of life. People walk, unless they can find something faster. Ninety percent of the population uses public transportation — either the sleek, silent and lightning bolt fast metro, the double decker bus, or the mini-bus, which pops you from one destination to another for mere pocket change. Or you can always hail a taxi. They’re cheap and don’t seem to obey any speed limits (if there are any?…)

After all this movement, life slows considerably for meals. At my office’s canteen, patrons bark at the waitresses and waiters for their order to come quickly, but then tuck into a multi-course meal. I’ve joined the Chinese workers at the canteen, sitting silently surrounded by single men amid the din of the lunch hour. We’re served a hot Chinese soup and warm tea, which are included in your purchase and prolong the meal. I watch as groups of friends  at nearby tables eat together, splitting multiple dishes, spinning them back and forth to each other using a lazy susan. Bellies satisfied, we’re off to the race of work and the return commute.

This time, on the way home, I stopped for a bowl of wonton soup in an alley way.  I savored the soothing umami broth. It was one magical moment before I resumed the rhythm of subway, work, sleep.

Yemen Protesters Whip Up Revolutionary Zeal

 By Erika Solomon for Reuters

By nightfall, thousands of anti-government protesters in a scrappy tent city in Yemen’s capital Sanaa catch their breath and begin to cheer musicians clambering onto a rickety stage.

“Let’s give a round of applause for the big hit, “Mother of the Martyr, Bride of Blood,” their host shouts.

Sometimes jubilant, sometimes mournful, protest songs — or revolutionary anthems, as their creators call them — are the pulse of a nine-month-old movement still struggling to end the 33-year rule of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Streets that earlier swarmed with motorbikes whisking bloodied protesters away for treatment are instead filled with candy vendors and children. The smell of popcorn drifts through crowds of men cross-legged in the street as singers croon on a platform plastered with photos of those killed in protests.

“They stir my love for the revolution, they lift my spirits,” said protester Salem Jabbar, 23, sitting transfixed in “Change Square,” the 4-km (2.5-mile) stretch in the heart of Sanaa that protesters occupy with their ramshackle tents. Continue reading

Even in Shell-shocked Yemen, the Wedding Must Go On

By Erika Solomon
SANAA | Wed Oct 5, 2011

Even as Yemen’s crumbling capital shudders from machinegun fire, cars line up, covered in lace and blinking lights as if for some fairytale gala.
It is high season for weddings in Yemen.

Along this ramshackle, dusty stretch of bridal shops, brothers and uncles puffed with pride decorate wedding cars and brides are ushered into beauty salons. They share a note of unexpected optimism in Sanaa, where more than 100 have been killed in one of the bloodiest episodes of an eight-month revolt against the president.

The country seems to become more fractured by the day.

“Well, yes, the situation is bad. But so what? We’ve booked the hall, the musician. Stop the wedding? No — it has to be done,” says Abdelwahab al-Mansour, decorating his white SUV with red roses and glitter before escorting his niece to her wedding in style.

Tens of thousands of protesters have struggled unsuccessfully to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh from his 33-year rule and have now sparked a bloody, on-off battle between his loyalist forces and troops backing the opposition.

That all seems a world away to the short, bearded Mansour. The 50-year-old is dressed impeccably in traditional tribal attire — a starched white robe, his ornate half-moon-shaped Jambiya dagger tucked into a green patterned sash.

Mansour puts the finishing touches on his car when more rat-a-tat of gunfire bursts out. Mansour and some friends stand calmly and watch with amusement. “It’s no big deal, relax,” they laugh.

Sanaa’s “coiffure street,” as locals call it, is dotted with hair salons and shops overflowing with sparkling white gowns and long trains. Others sell decorations — draping the family car with plenty of sequins, lace and bouquets of flowers is de rigueur.

For many, a dark gloom hangs over the city as it becomes increasingly divided by checkpoints and roadblocks. Some were cooped up at home for days after their street became a war zone of rocket propelled grenades and gunfights.

Naji Saweiry, 23, decorates a white van for his two sisters who he says weren’t very enthusiastic about having to wedge one of the happiest days of their lives into one of the darker chapters of their country’s history.

“It’s a double wedding and I’m doing my best to make it special,” he said. “The wedding hall is packed with guests, everyone is coming, despite the problems. Maybe right now people wanted something to find a little joy in.”


For shopkeepers, there is little good cheer to find despite the small crowds gathering on their street. As night sets in, some crank up generators to keep the lights on in a city where electricity has become scarce.

In the storefronts of less wealthy businessmen, the dresses glitter by candlelight.

“This year was a disaster. We’ve lost 60 percent of our business. Some of the shops next door have lost so much money they can’t pay rent,” says Amar Rafai, 26, shaking his head. He works at a bridal shop where rows of frothy, sequined dresses hang from the ceiling.

“It’s not that customers are scared of the violence, they’re scared of losing their livelihood. Most want to save their money, or they’ve lost their jobs.”

Yemenis were already scraping by before the turmoil, with unemployment above 35 percent and nearly half living on less than $2 a day. Food prices have skyrocketed, more than double sometimes, while fuel and water shortages are widespread.

“Normally we make about 10 million rials a year (about $44,000). The wedding dresses would fly off the shelf,” says shopkeeper Nishwan Shamiri, 26. “This year the owner is putting in money out of his own pocket. I don’t get it, things had calmed but then all the violence came back. God help us.”

Later, the sounds of gunshots taper off and a few bridal parties speed away. Though they insist on holding a wedding, most say it’s best to quickly wrap up celebrations that once lingered late into the night.

Abdulwahab al-Mansour, jumping in his truck to fetch his niece, says it is the uncertainty Yemen faces that fed his determination to carry on with the wedding.

“No one knows how long things will stay like this. Will it take a year or two years? Another day or a few months? We don’t know. So we have to celebrate, in spite of it all.”


To Abaya or not to Abaya?

By al-Sarsara

Sunday evening in Manama. The girls cover their faces with their long black veils as tear gas seeps into the alleyway. “Down with the regime! Down, down Hamad!” they shout, as the boys bang on pans, walls, anything. Following my hostile environment training protocol, I try to keep a safe distance from Bahrain’s rowdy masses.

A few seconds later, the police rush in and everyone flees. I realize the futility of trying to separate myself from them inside this cramped alleyway. One woman grabs me by the hand and we race up the stairs of a crumbling building to the roof. And then she turns on me.

“Why aren’t you wearing an abaya? Are you crazy?” she shouts. “They will spot you a mile away!”

As if on cue, a policeman holding a sound grenade launcher looks suspiciously at me when my unscarved head peeps over the wall. The owner of the stranger’s house we have run inside hands me a black headscarf. This will do for now, she says, as we cautiously peer at the street skirmishes below.

It’s a difficult question—to abaya or not to abaya? Continue reading