In Beirut, people switch languages in practically the same breath

Credit: Daniel Roy

This piece originally broadcast on PRI’s The World.

At this high-end organic farmer’s market in downtown Beirut, buyers and sellers speak a mishmash of languages, usually Arabic and English or French.

Just trying to pay for juice I have to switch back and forth from English to Arabic. The stand clerk starts in Arabic, “Here you go,” before switching in English, “these two [juices]?”

Pia Bou Khater is at the market with me. At the juice stand, she switches too. “Oh, I think I have change,” she says in English, before she continues in Arabic, “3000.”

Codeswitching this way is one of the characteristics that defines life in Beirut for visitors and for many Lebanese.

“When I’m interacting with people, like buying things or trying to bargain, I rarely switch,” Pia explains. “I do try to often figure out what the green leafy thing in question is, like, oh, is this the same as that in English? And then the word in French comes up,” she laughs, “and I’m like oh no I don’t know it in French, please stop making this difficult.”

Multilingualism the way Pia knows it isn’t uncommon in Beirut. Many people here codeswitch to varying degrees, says linguist Loubna Dimachki. “Codeswitching, what does it mean? When you’re combining two languages in one sentence or in the whole interaction,” she says, before she seamlessly uses the French word, “merci,” to say thanks to our waiter. Dimachki is considered “Francophone” — meaning, her dominant second language is French.

But that’s not the only reason she used “merci.” In Lebanon, hellos, thank-yous and how-are-yous are often said in French. Arabic is the core language, but kids are taught in French or English at school­. French- and English-language schools have been around since the 1800s, when Catholic and Anglican missionaries arrived in the region. Then, after World War I, the French ruled Lebanon until the 1940s.

But another linguist, Lina Choueri, says the regular mixing of the three languages in everyday life actually didn’t happen until much later. “I just remember it being there and my father being upset about it,” she recalls.

Choueri’s dad’s generation just communicated in Arabic. Choueri — who went to school in the 80s — codeswitched. “My father hated it! He would say, ‘When you start with a language, just stick to it! Don’t switch to another language!’”

Back at the market Pia agrees with Choueri’s dad. She’s not crazy about the idea that people should be expected to know English or French. “What if you don’t know the other two extra languages that come in the country? It’s like linguistic racism,” Pia says. English and French, even more so, were imposed through colonialism and occupation, and they’re remnants of that complicated history.

But linguist Dimachki sees all this code switching in a different light. The way people codeswitch in Beirut is unique. It’s not necessarily determined by age or ethnicity, she says, and it’s not relegated to home or school or the juice stand at the market. Multilingualism really is everywhere. Street signs are in Arabic and French, government websites often include English. Menus in lots of restaurants or cafes are in all three languages, and you’ll hear people switching between them.

That’s what makes Beirut different from cities like Barcelona, Jerusalem or Los Angeles. A person in LA might speak Spanish at home and English at work. But in Beirut, “They’re all Lebanese, talking with Lebanese, so why all this code switching?” Dimachki asks. “You’ll never see two French speaking to each other in German or in Spanish or Chinese, unless maybe there is a reason. But here, it’s a way of speaking in a sense.”

Lebanese joke that this mishmash of languages is the “Lebanese mother tongue.” “When you have ‘Lebanese mother tongue,’ it’s part of your identity in a way,” Dimachki says. “Or this is what you’re claiming to be part of your identity.”

There’s even a Lebanese mother tongue T-shirt: “Hi. Keefak? Ca va?” it reads — greetings in English, Arabic and French.

My friend Pia calls it “the bastard sentence that sums it all up.”

In Israel, organ donation and religion are entwined



Yossef Dabbush has needed a new kidney for more than seven years, surpassing the average lifespan of a person on kidney dialysis. But in Israel, donation rates are a quarter of the US, organ donations are hard to come by. That’s in part due to the influence of religion: many interpret Jewish law as forbidding organ donation because a body must be whole and unaltered when buried. Another issue that doctors argue is holding them back is that brain death — when there is no brain function but the lungs and heart still work, keeping organs alive long enough to be transplanted — is not recognized by many influential rabbis. Yossef, who considers himself a devout Jew but secular, doesn’t have a problem with organ donation or brain death. Since he can’t get a kidney through the government system soon enough, Yossef navigates other ways to find a new organ. Listen to the 10-minute story in the player above.

This piece originally broadcast on Interfaith Voices.

More needs to be done to take care of these ridiculously cute cats

2015-08-25 17.31.11

This piece originally broadcast on PRI’s The World

It’s 5 p.m. and it’s feeding time for these Istanbul street cats.

“I’ve [fed them] for 10 years,” 65-year-old Veysel says. The sweet old man with kind blue eyes can’t stand to see them hungry, so he comes twice a day to make sure they eat well. He brings a giant bag of dried kibbles, and several cans of wet food. There are a lot of mouths to feed in this place, nicknamed “Cat Park.”

Veysel poses next to little cat houses provided by the municipality government in Cat Park.

The park is an attraction in this high-end Istanbul neighborhood. Cool looking guys with hipster beards sit casually as cats curl up on their laps. Kids run around trying to pet every kitten they can find. I often come by for my own kitten therapy. One of my favorite felines rubs up against my legs; her meow sounds more like a quack.

The park can be heaven for cat lovers. But not everyone agrees.

“There are people that help the cats and that’s great,” Veysel explains. But there are plenty of cruel people too. “This one woman was in the park yesterday and she was so terrible. I told her go away. I was so mad I cursed at her.”

Hilary Sable, a British woman who’s been taking care of cats in her Istanbul neighborhood for the past five years, has become a sort of fixture for the human and feline residents where she lives. As she walks the streets, people stop her for advice and cats greet her with purrs and meows. She feeds a few dozen cats each day, and takes sick ones to the vet. She knows when an unfamiliar animal has come to the neighborhood, or when a cat goes missing.

Hilary Sable says she is taking this cat to the vet.

She says it’s really tough to see Istanbul portrayed as a “cat safe haven” in the media when she’s part of a network that takes care of the animals.

“The people who come here come to the areas where the foreigners live or the tourist areas and they do not see the 90 percent of Istanbul where the cats are dying in the street from neglect, illness, being kicked by the local kids,” she says, frustrated.

Istanbul’s furry residents have been around for centuries. Old depictions of the city often include at least one cat. They’ve been loved by Ottoman sultans and even the Prophet Mohammad.

“Prophet Mohammad was on his way to war, and on his way there was a cat laying down in the middle of the road, nursing her kittens,” Aynur, an Istanbul resident visiting Cat Park, proudly explains. “The prophet diverted his entire army so he wouldn’t disrupt them.”

A cat sits on books in Istanbul. Credit: Nelson/Flickr/Creative Commons

But that love for street animals isn’t really the norm in Istanbul. People take more kindly to the cats than the street dogs, but the reality is that there are hundreds of thousands of cats in the city — in dumpsters and garbage cans, spreading disease and getting hurt on Istanbul’s crowded streets. And there are few people like Veysel, Aynur and Hilary to take care of them.

While there are some government services, there aren’t many, so this so-called “haven for cats” is often more of a hell — for the felines and the people who care about them.

View towards the Blue Mosque from the Asian side of Istanbul. Credit: Lassi Kurkijärvi/Flickr/Creative Commons

It’s not Space Odyssey, it’s the Yaybahar

Görkem Şen plays the Yaybahar with the Marmara Sea in the background. He hopes his instrument will soon be as common as a violin or cello. Credit: Courtesy of Görkem Şen
Görkem Şen plays the Yaybahar with the Marmara Sea in the background. He hopes his instrument will soon be as common as a violin or cello. Credit: Courtesy of Görkem Şen
Görkem Şen plays the Yaybahar with the Marmara Sea in the background. He hopes his instrument will soon be as common as a violin or cello. Credit: Courtesy of Görkem Şen

This piece originally aired on PRI’s The World.

In Turkey, a new instrument has been invented that makes crazy galactic and laser-gun sounds. It’s called the Yaybahar, and it’s completely acoustic. “This is real time, acoustic, string synthesizer,” Gorkem Sen, the instrument’s creator, explains.

Gorkem invented the Yaybahar about six years ago in a hunt for his own unique sound. The 33-year-old musician looked for inspiration to find his own unique sounds from all sorts of instruments: the Australian didgeridoo, the Turkish Ney and, most importantly, the thunder drum. The thunder drum is a small cylindrical instrument that has two drum-like membranes linked by a spring. When it’s shaken, it makes big, echoing sounds, like rolling thunder — and like the Yaybahar.

The Yaybahar is huge — it takes up Gorkem’s living room. The membranes are hooked to two very long springs that bounce all over when they’re touched. The springs attach to a tall neck – like a guitar or cello, but with just two strings.

After much trial and error, Gorkem found out that when he hits the membranes with a padded drum stick, the sound reverberates. When runs his finger down a coil, it makes an odd galactic “whoosh.” And when he plucks a string on the fingerboard, it goes “pew” — a laser-gun-like sound.

It is very cool — but is it music? “The first times of Yaybahar it’s a really, really bad noise. It makes really bad noise,” Gorkem admits. But it has evolved after six years of practice and much tweaking to the instrument itself. “Now it’s more musical. This noise now is more musical.”

Along with his ability to play it, the instrument itself has evolved from as many as 30 coils and membranes down to the two-springed Yaybahar Gorkem plays today.

The bouncy coils play a huge role in the Yaybahar’s unique sound — so it makes sense that the instrument is named for them. “The coil string is ‘yay,’” Gorkem explains. “Bahar” also means spring — as in the season. The whole idea of new life, a new beginning is important to Gorkem, he says.

One of his favorite songs to play is Gnossienne No. 1 by the French composer Erik Satie. The song is usually played on the piano. For the Yaybahar, Gorkem uses a bow on the strings, like one would on a cello. The result is a rich, reverberating sound that feels like it gets deep into your ears. “When you listen live this is really effective, really good mood and really good frequencies on the air,” Gorkem says. “It’s really delicious for ears.”

Gorkem and his Yaybahar have been touring lately in Turkey and around Europe. Audiences have loved it, he says. Though he admits it’s probably still mostly a curiosity. But in the future, he can see it becoming a new class of instrument. Until then, Gorkem wants to focus on understanding the full potential of the Yaybahar, and all the sound it has to offer.

The making of a Syrian refugee celebrity chef — in Gaza

Chef Wareef Kassem Hameedo. Credit: Lauren Bohn

This piece originally broadcast on PRI’s The World with a written piece and photo from Lauren Bohn.

Chef Wareef Kassem Hameedo. Credit: Lauren Bohn
Chef Wareef Kassem Hameedo. Credit: Lauren Bohn

When Wareef Kassem Hamedo was growing up in the Syrian city of Aleppo, he dreamt of opening his own restaurant. The city, famed for its mouth-watering culinary traditions, was a gastronomic playground perfect for a man who believes that “food isn’t just food, it has a soul.”

Last fall, Wareef’s dream finally came true when the 35-year-old opened Soriana (Our Syria). But the narrow, bustling two-floor restaurant sits not in his hometown, but in another of the most war-torn places in the world: the Gaza Strip.

“If you had told me when I was younger that I’d start a home and restaurant in Gaza, I’d laugh,” he says, grinning with a piece of chicken wedged between his teeth on a blistering summer afternoon in Gaza City. “Life is uncertain. The journey always surprises you.”

It’s been a wayward one for the chef, even before signs of unrest in Syria eventually forced him — and nearly 11 million others — to leave their homes. The petite, red-headed foodie earned a degree in mechanical engineering to please his father “like a good Syrian son,” but continued to work in restaurants, always believing that he’d one day have his own.

When anti-government protests swept Syria in 2011, he never thought they’d devolve into a civil war that would claim more than 200,000 lives and displace more than half the country’s population. But he knew it was time to leave — a reality he long refused to accept — when his neighbors were killed and his own home was damaged from nearby shelling.

“There was no food, no electricity,” he recalls, speaking only in past tense when talking about his country. “At some point, you have to make a decision even when it’s impossible.”

Three years ago, Hamedo fled restive Aleppo to Turkey, traveling mostly by foot. Not long after, a friend told him about a job opening at a restaurant in Cairo. So he set off on another voyage, this time 44 hours by sea, to Egypt.

But after eight months in Cairo, rising anti-Syrian sentiment and poor working conditions in Cairo meant Wareef had to move on. He weighed his two remaining options: He could pay a smuggler to take him to Europe by boat, an often-perilous journey, or he could go to Gaza, where a Palestinian friend offered him a job at a restaurant.

He rolled the jagged dice and decided to move to a place he only knew through headlines of death and destruction. In May 2013, he entered the Philadelphia-sized territory through one of the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza.

“People thought I was crazy,” he said, his co-workers chuckling in the small kitchen behind him as he recounted his cinematic timeline. Wareef didn’t tell his family — many of whom are now refugees in Turkey — he was in Gaza until four months after he arrived. “I didn’t want them to worry … I was leaving one war zone for another.”

Indeed, life is anything but a refuge in Gaza, where unemployment is at 43 percent — the highest in the world — and almost 80 percent of the population depends on aid. Leaving is a privilege for the few who are able to obtain the necessary permits to travel through the territory’s tightly controlled borders. A year after last summer’s 50-day war, in which 2,000 Palestinians and 70 Israelis were killed, infrastructure and lives are still caught in the balance.

Wareef doesn’t know when or if he will see his own family again. His Syrian passport expired and renewing it at a Syrian embassy or consulate isn’t an option in Gaza. Nor is leaving. He’s doubly sieged, he says.

So for now, he settles on reminders of Syria through his food and the charcoal sketches of Aleppo that adorn the walls of his restaurant. For many Gazans who complain of a mundane day-to-day existence, bereft of variety or novelty, Soriana is an exotic retreat. It’s a step inside the home of a cousin they’ve never been able to meet.

“We always heard of Syrian kibbeh, but never ate it,” said 28-year-old Ahmed Sedki, who stopped in for a quick bite. The dish of minced beef or lamb and burghul wheat has become Hamedo’s speciality. “We like his style. He’s not Gazan, but we feel close to him.”

Inspired by their enthusiasm for different food, the charismatic chef launched a cooking show called “Chef Wareef” on local TV to teach Gazans how to make favorites from Aleppo and abroad (his crepes are in high demand). The five-minute tutorials aired every day during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and Hamedo hopes to extend the series into a full-length program. His Facebook fan page, chock-full of recipes and photographs of rolling tables of food and cleverly sculpted watermelons, already has more than 11,000 likes.

Beyond his culinary achievements, Wareef reached another milestone in Gaza: He found love at first sight.

“You know it when you see it,” he says, his cheeks flushed and eyes resolute. He met Maha Abualkass, a Gazan journalist, when she interviewed him for a story on Syrian refugees. (He says she’s also a good cook.) “I didn’t think I would find love in Gaza … but it’s a blessing after so much suffering.”

They married a month and a half before last summer’s war. He stayed by her side as she ran to cover harrowing scenes that have become all too familiar for both of them.

“It was like Syria,” he says, smoothing the edges of his black double-breasted chef’s coat. “Except in Syria, it’s even worse. There are no cameras.”

Still, Hamedo finds solace in a cuisine that has been both his anchor and lifeboat.

“I know I’m lucky, unlike so many others,” he says, wiping beads of sweat from his brow. The lunch crowd would soon trickle in, waiting to be served by the celebrity chef who has become one of their own. “But I will truly achieve my dreams when I open Soriana back in Aleppo. That’s the hope every day. It never goes away. That’s the dream.”

He sat silently for a minute, his eyes vaguely moist from chopped onions nearby or memories far away or both. A customer gently tapped on his shoulder, waking him from a stolen daydream.

“You are Chef Hamedo, right?” the Gazan asked with a jolt of discovery. Hamedo lifted his shoulders instantly and nodded.

“Nice to meet you,” the man beamed. “You are always welcome in Gaza.”

Dalia Mortada is The GroundTruth Project’s 2015 Middle East fellow and Lauren Bohn is GroundTruth’s Middle East correspondent. This story was produced by part a series called “Syrian Kitchens” about the diaspora of Syrian refugees who have fled the country’s civil war.

Fattoush with eggplant

Fattoush with eggplant by chef Wareef Kassem Hamedo.

Credit: Courtesy of Wareef Kassem Hamedo/Facebook


  • 2 eggplants
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 2 pieces of Arabic bread cut into cubes
  • 2 cucumbers
  • 2 tomatoes
  • 2 radishes
  • Fresh mint
  • 5 lettuce leaves
  • Fresh parsley
  • 100 grams black olives
  • 100 grams of baladi cheese
  • 2 tablespoons apple vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
  • 1 teaspoon sumac
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • Oil

How to prepare:

  • Cut the bread into squares; put oil in a deep saucepan and fry the bread
  • Put bread on napkins to absorb the oil and leave aside
  • Peel eggplant and fry it in oil; put on napkins to absorb the oil
  • Prepare eggplant sauce
  • Mix yogurt with minced garlic, salt, pomegranate molasses and lemon
  • Put the sliced ​​cucumbers and tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, parsley and mint in a bowl and mix well
  • Add the vinegar, oil, lemon, sumac and salt and mix well
  • Use the bread to make a bed on the serving plate and then put half the amount of eggplant then put fattoush components, and then add the toasted bread, olives, cheese, cut squares and the rest of the fried eggplant
  • Decorate with slices of onion and lettuce leaves
  • Add pomegranate molasses to the dish

Here Chef Wareef teaches home cooks to make an Aleppo favorite: juicy, tomato-infused kebabs called Kebab Al-Khashkhash. He adjusted the recipe so that people could make it at home in the oven, as opposed to the usual way of cooking it over the grill (gets good about a minute in).

Erdogan’s move means dark days for Kurds in Turkey


Turkey’s President Erdogan has shaken up the domestic political sphere with his decision to end the peace process with the Kurds. As Dalia Mortada reports from Istanbul the repercussions could be powerful. [This piece originally appeared on DW.]

Following a week of violence between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), including airstrikes over the weekend on PKK outposts in northern Iraq, Erdogan’s statement was not too surprising. But what he said next was: the president recommended immunity be lifted on Kurdish parliamentarians so they can be investigated for “links to terrorism.”

“If [President Recep Tayyip Erdogan] says people from the HDP [the mostly Kurdish People’s Democratic Party] are terrorists, the AKP [Justice and Development Party, which Erdogan once led], which has supported IS all this time are terrorists just as much,” 23-year-old Burak declares through a mouthful of watermelon and cheese.

The young Kurdish man is having breakfast with his friends at the café where they work before customers start streaming in. The coffeehouse is a popular stop for many in this lively Istanbul neighborhood. The bright red and orange table cloths are adorned with geometric patterns popular in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast, and people often come for a taste of something different: creamy, nutty Kurdish coffee.

people demonstrating

photo: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty ImagesAnger against the AKP and Erdogan is growing

“Last week, we lost 30 young people to a bombing that this government allowed,” says Mert, Burak’s quieter, more subdued friend. The 22-year-old sets down his fork as he recalls last Monday’s suicide attack in Suruc, southern Turkey, against a group of youth activists en route to the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani on a humanitarian mission. “It was the police that carried out the attack,” Mert says before Burak interrupts him, “No, it’s the AKP, it’s the government.”

One and the same

To the young men, the “Islamic State” (IS) group and the government are one and the same. They’re not the only ones who believe that: the PKK, which long led an armed resistance for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey but had agreed to a ceasefire since 2013, killed two police officers in retaliation for the Suruc bombing.

“By doing that, the PKK gave the government the excuse it needed to unleash the military campaign against them,” explains political scientist Mehmet Ali Tugtan. “It’s not like they’re responding to a catastrophe, they’re capitalizing on it,” he adds. Turkey also launched airstrikes against IS last week, for the first time since the group made headlines as it gained ground in Syria and Iraq. “The government is consistent in saying, ‘We were attacked by the Islamic State, so we hit back; we were attacked by the PKK, so we hit back.'”

‘Anti-terror’ campaign continues

Ayub Nuri, the English-language editor of the Kurdish news website, agrees. The problem, he says, is that the Turkish government doesn’t differentiate between the PKK and Kurdish civil society: politicians, intellectuals or journalists. “This has long been the case – even before the peace negotiations – Kurdish politicians, intellectuals and journalists, are prosecuted [for links to terrorism] and end up in jail,” he explains. “On the other hand the Kurdish MPs say, ‘PKK is an armed group based in the mountains, we are elected by the people,’ trying to distance themselves from the organization.”

Regaining the initiative

Many view Erdogan’s statements against Kurdish parliamentarians as a way to regain the AKP’s majority in Parliament. Rudaw, the news site Nuri edits, receives comments from Kurds all over the world. “I would say 60 percent to 70 percent of our readers…think the airstrikes [and Erdogan’s comments] are his way of making up for the June elections,” Nuri says, when the AKP lost its majority for the first time since they entered the government in 2002, and the Kurdish-focused HDP passed into parliament with 13 percent of the vote. Following Erdogan’s statements, the HDP’s co-chair Selahattin Demirtas said, “We have committed no unforgiveable crimes. Our only crime was winning 13 percent of the vote.”

The June 7 parliamentary elections were historic: no Kurdish-oriented party had ever surpassed Turkey’s 10 percent threshold – the highest in the world – to enter parliament. “The HDP played a major role in the AKP losing its majority,” Tugtan explains. Since no party came out on top, politicians have been forced to negotiate a coalition government. The deadline is fast approaching for them to reach an agreement; if they don’t, Erdogan could call a new election.

Amid allegations of being linked to terrorism, the new elections could yield very different results. “In that scenario, the HDP could be marginalized enough that they can’t enter parliament,” the political scientist says. The fear, Tugtan says, is that this could trigger even more violence, similar to what Turkey saw in the 1990s when the PKK was fighting for Kurdish independence. “Once again we have a crisis at an intersection of power transition and it seems like no matter how you feel about the maturity of Turkish democracy this power transfer will remain a problem.”

street protests

photo: REUTERS/Murad SezerA harbinger of things to come?

Nuri says regressing to those days is unlikely. “A very small minority are calling for a direct revolt against Turkey and armed conflict,” he says, “I think the majority wants peace,” including local politicians and leadership in the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan.

But Mert is not as optimistic. “If the HDP doesn’t make it into parliament [in the case of an early election], there really could be a civil war,” he says, sucking on an olive pit. Hassan, sitting across from him, pipes in, “It could even be worse than the 90s – there’s a lot more going on here,” referring to the spillover from Syria’s own violent crisis just across Turkey’s southern border.

Burak’s, Mert’s and Hassan’s families all migrated from Turkey’s Kurdish southeast to Istanbul more than a decade ago to escape instability and violence. “If a civil war begins, where else will we go?” Hassan wonders.