For a Middle East Thanksgiving, turkey and couscous

But celebrating the season's holiday has now become almost impossible for American expats living in terror-plagued Yemen.

November 24, 2010 17:42
4 minute read.

Turkey. (photo credit: ajc)

As Americans living everywhere from Morocco to Iraq gather around their Thanksgiving tables Thursday, they will be forsaking afternoon football, nippy weather and autumn foliage. Many will be complementing it with couscous stuffing instead of cranberry sauce or succotash.

But when it comes to the turkey, only the Americans on the most outlying parts of the region will be forced to make do without the culinary centerpiece of America’s oldest and deepest-rooted holiday.

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“In Egypt, they raise a lot of turkeys, so they’re sold at the supermarkets. Here we have almost everything you could think of as far as American food goes,” Latifa Taylor, who works in the American embassy in Cairo with her husband, told The Media Line.

Whether they are teaching English as a second language in Egypt, patrolling the streets of Baghdad, or helping to run oil installations in Saudi Arabia, Americas have substantial presence in the Middle East. For many of them, the holiday acts as a way not only to showcase a national tradition but to engage in a little table-side diplomacy in a region where America is not always the most popular of countries.

Since the family left the United States in the early 1990s, the Taylor family has kept up the tradition wherever they have gone. Still, cooking and eating is the focal point of the Thanksgiving holiday and most Americans are careful to make sure the traditional array of food is served.

“We cook Arab dishes on a regular basis, but we would try not to include them in a Thanksgiving meal. I think a lot of the [Middle Eastern] salads would show up. I wouldn’t blink to see them as part of a Thanksgiving table in Jordan,” Sarah Harpending, assistant director of the Center for Oriental Research, an institute based in Amman, Jordan, told The Media Line.

Harpending has lived in Jordan for a decade, but has tried to keep the holiday every year and share it with local friends, mostly Arabs who lived in the US for a long enough stretch to acquire a taste for the holiday and its cuisine. “I feel bad when I miss it,” she said.

Taylor tries to mix a bit of local cuisine into the meal, but not at the expense of diluting the taste and look of the traditional meal. “In some cases, we even try to incorporate local flavors. For example, I will make couscous stuffing, but I also make bread stuffing as well,” she said.

Turkey is of course the essential centerpiece of any Thanksgiving table. Despite the bird being native to the forests of the Americas, it was introduced to Europe through Spain by the returning Conquistadors in 1498, and has since spread throughout the world. Frozen turkey, along with many other traditional American foods served this time of year, is readily available in many Middle East countries.

Beyond expatriate and the diplomatic community, the largest concentration of Americans in the Middle East is the American troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. While there numbers have fallen from a peak of 170,000 in 2007, there are currently about 48,000 stationed in Iraq and each gets to enjoy a holiday dinner in a mammoth Pentagon undertaking. Another 95,000 are in Afghanistan.

Thanksgiving preparations by the Defense Logistics Agency began last spring, long before the typical holiday host would be searching the Internet for a stuffing recipe. The Army’s turkey-meisters have arranged for 244,000 pounds of bird to be readied for the troops as well as 8,600 cans of sweet potatoes and more than 38,000 pies to be served in 225 different locations throughout Iraq and Afghanistan.

Young Americans in Israel are also being provided for on the Thanksgiving holiday. The Lone Soldiers Center, a Tel Aviv-based organization that provides help for immigrant soldiers serving in the Israel Defense Forces with no nearby family, is holding a Thanksgiving dinner for 200 American-born soldiers.

Not everywhere in the region, however, can Americans comfortably gather around the table and feast on turkey.

Robert Majure, director of the American International School in Sana’a, Yemen, has watched sadly as celebrating the holiday becomes progressively more difficult during the 17 years he has been in the country.

Yemen has emerged at the center of an al-Qaida cell targeting Americans and other Westerners. In its latest action, it sought to bring down cargo jets on their way to America before a tip-off to intelligence services thwarted the plan. Last month, the US State Department warned Americans to avoid “non-essential” travel to the country.

“I used to go to Thanksgiving dinner, but because of the security situation there aren’t many foreign people around anymore. I don’t think I’ve been to a Thanksgiving meal in two or three years,” Majure said. “Even when you go around town you do a double-take when you see a foreigner.”

The land is not just bereft of Americans, but also turkey to eat and children to create a family atmosphere, he said.

“On Thanksgiving you need family, you need kids,” he said. “Even at the embassy everyone is on bachelor status. People don’t come to Yemen with their children anymore.”

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