Notes from America: Who Ate my Cheese!

January 15, 2016 OPINION/NEWS

By

Ahmed Tharwat

‘Who Moved My Cheese?’ is a self improvement book written by Spencer Johnson, co-author of ‘The One Minute Manager’.

The book illustrates the vital importance of being able to deal with unexpected change and is often distributed by managers to employees as a motivational tool but, as was reported in a review, “the lessons it teaches can benefit literally anyone, young or old, rich or poor, looking for less stress and more success in every aspect of work and life.”

Who ate my cheese, is a story about self preservation. It is about Arab Americans and their cheese. Arab Americans in tough times would seek comfort and refuge in the warmness of their ethnic foods. As their nomad ancestors had done for hundreds of years before them; carrying their food wherever they go would save them from the harsh inhospitable desert terrain. Uh… the frying sizzling of falafel, the richness aroma of shaworma (Gyro), the tanning smoothness of BABA GHANNOU and Hummus, the beauty of artfully display of meza and the heavy sweetness of Baklava all take us back to the comfort and security of our home.

But no other Middle Eastern food reflects our ethnicity and identity as feta cheese; we have as many different kind of feta cheese as nationalities; Egyptian, Greek, Lebanese, Moroccan, and Palestinian, and we try them all. So if you want to measure the Arab American melting pot index in the US, don’t look at the employment or housing index, you should look at Who Ate my Cheese? Look at the consumption of feta index and its ratio to the consumption of American cheese. Americans seems to treat cheese as dead food that is wrapped in plastic bags and kept in the refrigerator like corpses. Arabs treat cheese like fresh meat that should be cut before your eyes and kept in the open for everyone to see and smell. Second generation Arab American children however, lose this reverence right after their first trip to a McDonald’s restaurant and experience the taste of the melted cheese in their ‘Happy Meal’.

Egyptians don’t usually throw their cheese away; for them, there is really no such thing as expiration date. When it gets old, they just give it another name. Cheese starts with a name like Areesh, when it gets mushy it is Creamy, then Brameely, and when you can’t stand its rotten smell, it is Mish. They say that there are more people in Egypt who die from eating feta than gun shots, but that was before the revolution of course.

Early on, feta cheese proudly accepted its prominent culinary status in our house. Every morning at the breakfast table I prepare for my daughter the Egyptian breakfast trio, feta cheese, pita bread and black olives. My daughter enjoyed eating it as much as listening to my Egyptian boy stories. “Tell me a story when you are little boy” she always asked me playfully. Now I have to quietly sneak my feta in her breakfast sandwich under the cover of American cheese, which is perfectly fine with me. I understand her feelings.

When I was a youngster growing up in an Egyptian village in the 60’s, our school used to get American aid in the form of a big block of wrapped cheese. I was so fascinated when for the first time I experienced cheese that was different in taste and color, not to mention its beautiful glossy plastic wraps. Under protest from my resentful parents, I deserted my ethnic feta cheese and in its place I demanded the colorful American cheese which was as flashy as America movies. Rejecting your native feta is like rejecting your identity; here went the villager’s attitude.

My wife and I are very careful about bringing this ethnic culinary warfare to our family breakfast table. To reinforce our daughter’s ethnicity and multicultural heritage; American cheese and feta cheese will peacefully coexist on our breakfast table along with the cereals. However, lately and in the mist of post 9/11 and rising of Trump bigotry culture that fraught the news, the situation at our household has gotten a little edgy and our homeland security alarm system could reach the color red in a hurry. Then one cheese will be ethnically cleansed from our breakfast table, “It smells bad and too sheepish,” my wife starts to protest loudly, declaring this ‘chemical warfare’ and humiliating my beloved feta, triggering my reflexive defense sequence, the American cheese then becoming the infidel’s cheese. My daughter who never was interested in this type of table manner, would quietly walk away with her cereal, to the basement, better known now in our household as the bunker.

 

 

 

 

 

Ahmed Tharwat

Ahmed Tharwat is host and producer of the Arab-American TV show BelAhdan, TPT Mondays, 10:30pm. On twitter @ahmediatv.

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