Thursday, March 31, 2011

Qahwa, Kahve, Coffee.

If you are like me–one of those people who roll out of bed in the morning groping their way to the coffeemaker before you can open your eyes, let alone think, you may be surprised to know that you owe your daily path to consciousness to a mob of curious goats. 

Once upon a ninth century, an Arab goatherd Khalid tended to his herd somewhere in the mountains of the Kaffa region of Abyssinia (Ethiopia.) He noticed that his goats seemed to become incredibly energetic after grazing on a particular wild berry, and, perhaps being slightly worn out by chasing them around, decided to try the wondrous fruits himself. He felt the same kick that generations of coffeeholics would be dying for every single morning and many afternoons, and thus the foundation for the addiction was laid.

Monks from a nearby monastery adapted Khalid’s discovery because the berries helped the monks to pray and meditate longer. Ethiopian tribesman rolled the ripe berries in animal fat, forming round balls, and packed the magic doughnuts for long tiring journeys to provide energy and sustenance. People mixed the crushed berries with cold water and left them to brew, similar to how sun tea is made today. Making coffee as a hot drink didn’t happen until the Arabs learned to boil water, but shortly thereafter they also discovered that roasting the berries gave the drink an intricate zest. They called the mighty liquid al-qahwa (or kahve) which is where the word coffee came from (not from the Kaffa region of Ethiopia.)

In the 12th century, people began to cultivate coffee trees and Arabia saw its first coffee houses, qahwa kaneh, which served as gathering places where music was played and various discussions took place. Shahs and caliphs didn’t like the free exchange of ideas that happened in qahwa kanehs and made numerous attempts to close them. In Ottoman Turkey, coffee houses were banned and people could be arrested for possession of the “devil’s berries”, which is where the saying “to spill the beans” came from. Still, underground coffee houses continued to exist.

As the popularity of coffee grew, the Arabs became very protective of their energy drink. It was prohibited to take coffee plants out of the region. Coffee exporters made sure the seeds they sold were sterile and impossible to cultivate. Nonetheless their secret escaped. Historians established that coffee’s first European appearance took place in Venice, when a shipment of aromatic beans arrived from Mocha, a Yemen port.

The Venetians learned to brew the beverage and even distributed the berries to pharmacies for medicinal purposes. In Rome, the clergy at first condemned “the drink of the devil,” but then Pope Clement VIII blessed it–after one sip. After that, coffee houses began to spread in Europe as well, eventually reaching England. Dutch traders from New Amsterdam (later renamed New York) brought coffee to America.

Since then, the world has embraced coffee. The first espresso machine was designed in 1822 in France. Italians perfected it later with high pressure. Shortly after, the first coffee percolator was invented. The increasing life pace of the 20th century produced instant coffee, invented by chemist Satori Kato. Later, came Brazilian Nescafe - freeze-dried coffee.

I don’t know if I should mention Starbucks as a great invention, although it certainly is a part of coffee history. An anti-Starbucks fan, I pledge my allegiance to the charming Italian cafés and Moroccan coffee houses. My favorite coffee is Turkish kahvesi, made in a special pot called jezver with a wide bottom and a narrow top. The recipe is simple: one third coffee, two thirds water, sugar to taste. Bring to a boil three times while skimming off the foam into your cup. Pour, let it settle and sip. It can shake a dead man awake.

So, what’s your favorite coffee and how is it made?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Ancient Games, Modern Twists

We’ve played Chutes and Ladders with our young daughters for years without ever realizing how good it was for our karma.

Turns out our Sesame Street-inspired Chutes and Ladders, the Americanized name for what the British called Snakes and Ladders, was originally a morality game from ancient India, one of a variety of family board games, in fact, that started with the invention of dice. 

Archaeologists once excavated the oldest known dice from a 5,000-year-old backgammon set in Shahr-i-Sukhta (Burnt City) in Southeastern Iran. But more recent excavations in the Indus Valley suggest a possible South Asian origin. Possibly corroborating this discovery is that dice were mentioned in the ancient Indian tomes, the Rig Veda and Mahabharata, as a means for gambling. It was even listed as one of the games the Buddha would not play. (He kept a list? Apparently, he also didn’t approve of board games, pick up sticks, hopscotch, playing with toys or balls, charades, or the olden-day version of Pictionary. There are also lists of things he would not watch [dancing and animal fights, among them] and things he wouldn’t wear [mainly anything ornamental or decorative]).

But the ancient Indians loved dice, even creating a number of popular board games with them, games the world continues to play today. The modern forms of Parcheesee and Ludo, for example came from an old game called pachisi (from pachis, which means twenty-five, the largest score that could be thrown in one shot). 

Before Milton Bradley brought Snakes and Ladders from England to the States and changed its name, it was Moksha Patam, which literally means the path to salvation (or the ladder to salvation). The original version was based on the ideas of luck, chance, and destiny. The ladders represented the attainment of higher virtues, such as humility, faith, and knowledge, and the snakes represented vices such as greed, rage, theft, and murder. In the original game, there were more snakes than ladders, to signify how much more difficult the righteous path is than its alternative.

Another game that’s weathered the travel through time and place is chess. The Gupta dynasty in India created it sometime between the 5th and 6th century AD and called it chatrang or chaturanga, meaning “having four limbs,” which in turn was thought to represent the four divisions of the military (in those days, elephants, chariots, foot soldiers, and horsemen). Originally, the Indian military played it as a battle simulation game to work out strategywith 100 or more squares on the original chess boards compared to 64 in our most common modern form. Scholars from those days noted that one of the main reasons ancient Indians used ivory was to produce the pieces for chess and backgammon sets.

An illustration from an old Persian
manuscript shows Indian ambassadors
presenting the chatrang to the king
of Persia, Khosrow I Anushirwan.
(Photo by Firdausi)
From India, chatrang spread to Persia, which changed its name to shatranj. When attacking the piece we now know as the king, the Persians would call out “Shah!” (the Persian word for king, typically the military ruler) and shah mat for checkmate. (Hear the similarity with the current form?) From there, the game spread throughout the Arab and Greek empires then to the Byzantine empire through Spain. Once it made its way through Europe, the game took on its current form around the 15th century, with ornamental pieces shaped as kings, queens, bishops, knights, and rooks, before making its way to East Asia via the Silk Road.

Much of the world derived its names for chess from the Persian one: in Latin, shatranj became scacchi, thus influencing the names in languages derived from Latin, such as echecs in French, or inspired by the Germanic, Russian, or Slavic, such as schack in Swedish or szacyhy in Polish. Mongols call the game shatar; Ethiopians, senterej; and the Russians as shakhmaty. In German, Schachmatt means checkmate.

Plenty of food for thought next time I sit down with our beat-up board games, cluttered with pictures of Big Bird and Elmo, right?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Bean There, Done That

As a writer, I take research very seriously. I’ve invested years sampling this particular invention so I can present today’s post with good authority—chocolate.

Three thousand years ago, the people of Central and South America, and in particular, Mexico, cultivated theobroma cacao, the original cacao bean, and used it in religious ceremonies and for medicinal purposes. They found the bean could combat fatigue, not unlike the effects of coffee. For intestinal and stomach problems, a chocolate drink was mixed with the bark of the silk cotton tree. If fever and fainting were the problem, then patients consumed eight to ten cacao beans mixed with dried maize kernels.

Archaeologists in Puerto Escondido, Honduras, discovered the cacao had been cultivated as far back as 1100 to 1400 B.C. when they found a white pulp from the cacao bean in a vessel and, later, discovered the ancient Hondurans used cacao pulp as a sugar fermented to create a type of alcoholic drink. 

The Aztecs didn’t use chocolate in cooking, even though many people think they did. According to food historians, the Aztecs prepared their chocolate drink by grinding roasted cacao beans and mixing them with water and adding chili, maize, or honey. Sometimes they added flowers, and consumed the drink cool, not hot. Coriander, sage, and vanilla (extracted from the pods of orchids) were also favorite additional flavorings.

The Mayans of the Yucután drank their chocolate hot, a precursor to today’s popular drink. In 1556 A.D., a conquistador published only as the Anonymous Conqueror documented how Mayans prepared the drink. They mixed the powder with water and transferred the liquid from one basin to another so the foam rose to the top of the vessel. They stirred the drink with gold, silver, or wooden spoons and kept their mouths open wide to let as much foam as possible pass between their lips. The conquistador witnessed people drinking this concoction in the morning then walking for miles for the remainder of the day, not stopping for more food. (Probably trying to burn off those calories, methinks.)

Conquistador Francisco Hernandez sampled a variety of chocolate drinks on his travels—green cacao pods, honeyed chocolate, flowered chocolate, and a bright red chocolate made from the huitztexcolli flower. And according to accounts by the Spanish officers who dined with Montezuma in 1520 at Tenochtitlan, the king enjoyed drinking chocolate from cups made of pure gold.
After the Spanish conquistadors made their mark in the Americas, they imported chocolate to Europe. Only the wealthy could afford it, and to keep up with demand, the Spanish fleets enslaved the Mesoamericans (people of Aztec and Mayan descent) to get them to produce more cacao. Eventually, the Spanish grew their own beans and used African slaves as labor.

By 1657, a Frenchman opened London’s first chocolate house. And in 1689, Dr. Hans Sloane discovered a drink made from chocolate in Jamaica. The bitter taste didn’t appeal to him, though, so he mixed it with milk. He sold the powdered chocolate in tins to the Cadbury brothers in 1897 and, in my humble opinion, the world changed for the better. The Dutch van Houten family created what is known as “dutched chocolate”—a method that squeezes out cocoa butter, enabling the chocolate to be set hard in molds. Yes, history’s very first chocolate bars! But it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that these little bars of joy saw mass production and became available to the general populace.

In 1899, Jean Tobler opened up a chocolate factor in Berne, Switzerland, changing the course of chocolate once again. He invented the modern Toblerone by combining almonds and a unique blend of cocoa. My mouth thanks you, Mr. Tobler, but my waistline doesn’t!

A Mr. Rudolfe Lindt thought adding cocoa butter back into the cocoa mass of crushed and ground beans might be a good idea. He did this, lengthened the kneading process, and a velvety smooth and very shiny type of chocolate was born. Mr. Lindt, you are to blame for those extra hours I should be pounding the pavement!

So next time you wander into Starbucks for a hot chocolate or a mochaccino, perhaps pause and give thanks to the clever Mesoamericans for discovering a little thing that has brought joy to many over the centuries.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Water, Water...Underground

The Kavir Desert of central Iran is the last place I’d go looking for a piece of verdant paradise. But in the Fin suburb south of Kashan, on the edge of this great salt desert, lies a beautiful oasis called Bagh-e Fin (Fin Garden). Enclosed by sand-colored brick walls, the garden is a refuge of cypress-lined paths bordering blue-tiled channels that connect pavilions built over shallow pools of clear water. If you sit on a bench by one of the many bubbling fountains and breathe in the cool, jasmine-scented air, you’ll forget the heat and dust of the arid landscape beyond the enclosure.

The Fin Garden draws its water from the Cheshmeh Suleiman (Solomon’s Spring), located a short distance away. According to local lore, this spring has been the lifeblood of the local population for 7,000 years—and it has never dried up in all that time. But the most astonishing thing about this spring is not its longevity or Biblical name, but the fact that it is part of a man-made water system that dates back to antiquity. Known as a qanat, it is like a Roman aqueduct—turned upside down.

Qanats were invented by the Persians in pre-Islamic times as a way to ensure a regular water supply for settlements and agriculture in arid regions.They begin with a reservoir in the mountains for collecting snow runoff. Qanat builders, known as muqannis, dig a channel deep underground leading from the reservoir to the final destination, sometimes covering distances of many miles. Then they sink shafts at intervals to tap into the underground channel and bring the water to the surface. Some qanats make use of existing subterranean streams or a series of natural springs. In Iran, 22,000 qanats are still in operation today. Running the water underground, rather than in Roman-style aqueducts, prevents evaporation in the desert heat.

These Persian aqueducts are so difficult and time consuming to build and maintain that the Achaemenian kings of ancient Persia awarded land grants to anyone who could create one. It is astonishing how they could have been constructed at all without the use of heavy machinery, power tools, or even modern surveying equipment. Yet even in ancient times, the technology spread throughout the Middle East and as far west as Spain. In fact, the term, qanat, comes from the Arabic; the Persians called their water system a kareez.

Ab anbar (cistern) with 4 badgirs, Yazd, Iran
Photo by Michal Salaban
In some desert cities, including Kashan, the qanat is combined with a traditional ventilation system called a badgir (literally, wind trap). This is a wind tower constructed above a building and designed to capture the wind and direct it down into the interior, where the air passes over cool water flowing through the qanat. The result is a natural air-conditioning system.

The oldest qanat still in operation lies in the northeastern Iranian province of Razavi Khorasan, which shares borders with Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. This aqueduct supplies water to nearly 40,000 people in and around the city of Gonabad. It is estimated to be 2,500 years old and is being considered as a UNESCO world heritage site.

The Kashan qanat captured my imagination on a visit to the Fin Garden. Our guide explained how the water system fed the small fountains bubbling along the garden’s narrow water channels by using precisely calculated angles and the force of gravity rather than pumps.  Later, after we left the cool shade of the leafy oasis, the guide led us down a dusty lane to another walled enclosure. This turned out to be the Cheshmeh Suleiman, a pool of dark water surrounded by gray rock. I sat on a stone and gazed into the spring, which looked deep enough to emanate from the very center of the earth. How clever the ancient Persians were, I thought, to channel this unassuming pool of water through the ground and carve a life-supporting environment out of the desert.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Off the Beaten Track: Murder in Passy--A Conversation with Cara Black

Cara Black is back! A few months ago, she chatted with me about her best-selling and award-nominated Aimée Leduc Investigation series, set in Paris. Today, we discuss her latest novel, Murder in Passy, which was released earlier this month. To learn more about Cara and her books, visit her website at On Tuesdays, she can be found blogging about France at And check out her earlier interview with me here at Novel Adventurers.
Cara, in Aimée’s latest adventure, things get very personal for her. Can you briefly tells us what the book is about?

Aimée's concerned when Morbier, her godfather and police commissaire, asks a favor—a personal one concerning his haut bourgoise girlfriend, Xavierre, who lives in village-like Passy in the chic 16th arrondissement. After Xavierre's murder, Morbier is a suspect. Determined to vindicate him, Aimée's investigation leads to Basque ETA nationalists, police corruption, and a kidnapped Spanish princess.
In all your novels, the arrondissements where the stories are set become a character in the book. Passy is no different. Can you tell us something about this neighborhood, it’s history, and what sets it apart from other parts of Paris?

Passy is like a village enclave nestled in this residential and very exclusive district. The type of district where the maids wear pearls, Heidi :). But before Passy was incorporated into Paris in 1860, it was in the suburbs, outside Paris. A village where Empress Eugenie, Napoleon III's wife, took the Passy curative waters and where Balzac hid, escaping his creditors and writing some of his more than one hundred novels.

Unlike much of Paris, Passy closes up early at night and contains some of the highest priced real estate in the world. But there's an old world feeling, a little stuffy and conservative. Yet if you scratch underneath, you find a feeling of community: this village where everyone knows one another.

There is a Basque theme in this story. What is the Basque connection to Passy?

I discovered a Basque Cultural Center had existed in Passy, near the police station—a 30’s style commissariat—and Basques had a history of living in Passy. A thread existed (now the Center's moved away), but the stories I heard about their festivals and cultural activities interested me and pointed to a more diverse Passy than just the upper crust. 

The bad guys in Murder in Passy belong to the Basque separatist group, ETA, of Spain. Who are they and what do they hope to accomplish?

ETA is the militant extremist wing that splintered off from the Basque Nationalist Party. In the 60's, 70's, people were sympathetic to Basque nationalism, since Franco, then dictator of Spain, outlawed it and persecuted Basques who wanted autonomy. But soon the Basque Nationalists disavowed the bombings and threats of terror, saying that the Basqueland should be legitimized without violence. The Basque language is revered, and the “home” Basqueland straddling Spain and France is distinct and has been for centuries. In Murder in Passy, the ETA use violence as a rationale for political activism—but is it really that or an excuse? I've got many Basque friends who call themselves nationalists and want a separate homeland but refuse to sanction violence and feel ETA hurts their cause.

You do a lot of hands-on research for your books. How did you approach your investigations into Basque culture and ETA? Did you visit the Basqueland or interview members of the organization?

Yes, Heidi, and that opened my eyes to the conflict Basques in France and Spain feel over ETA. I visited Bilbao, St. Jean de Luz, Bayonne, and Biarritz and love the warmth, generosity, and humanity of those I met. Some of them had been imprisoned for seven years by Franco in the 70's, one woman even on death row, who was pardoned when Franco died. This marked them for life, but even after their harrowing experiences, they work in the system now to legitimately change the government and to uphold Basque autonomy.

I know you like to get down and dirty when you explore the settings in your books (crawling through Paris sewers and such). In Murder in Passy, you have some very exciting scenes set in the tunnels beneath the Passy reservoir. What was it like exploring these passageways, and did you already have the scenes in your head while you went through the tunnels?

Heidi, when I explored those tunnels and heard the stories of the French Gestapo torturing people underground I just knew I had to use it in the book. The underground tunnels are an even temperature, a bit damp and just massive windings and twistings and turnings under arches of old stone. I felt strange things emanating from what I later learned had been a torture area....

A mysterious law-enforcement outfit called the EPIGN makes an appearance in this book. Who are they and what is their mission?

The EPIGN are military, elite-trained anti-terrorist, recovery and extraction units. Liken them to our Delta Force or Navy Seals. The crème de la crème. 

Aimée does not have a lot of luck in love, does she? Any chance that she will meet Monsieur Right?

Oh, Heidi, it's never easy for Aimée. The girl has a penchant for bad boys, what can I say?

What is next for Aimée ?

I'm in edits now for next March—Murder at the Lantern Rouge!

I’m looking forward to that one. Thanks for chatting with me again, Cara!

Thanks for having me back, Heidi.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


An ancient Slavic festival, Maslenitsa (Ма́сленица) is essentially a sun outing, which celebrates the imminent end of winter. While it doesn’t necessarily happen on the day of the Spring Equinox, it is a spring-welcoming Slavic mythology holiday, which also corresponds to the Western Christian Carnival. It occurs during the last week before Lent—that is, the seventh week before Paskha – Easter.

Maslenitsa originates from the word Ма́слo (butter), and is also known as Pancake Week. Maslenitsa has a dual ancestry – pagan and Christian – with their traditions tightly interwoven. For example, eating meat during Maslenitsa is not allowed by the Russian Orthodox Church, but since milk, cheese, and other dairy products are permitted, people make the traditional blinis – pancakes; their round yellow disks symbolize the sun, which is certainly a pagan observation. Historically, the holiday had its own mascot: Lady Maslenitsa (sometimes known as Kostroma), represented by a brightly dressed straw effigy. As a culmination of the week-long feast on Sunday evening, Lady Maslenitsa is given to the fire, and all the leftover blintzes are thrown into it as well – for a good reason: the ashes are buried in the snow to "fertilize the crops."

Maslenitsa is a fun holiday: people eat, drink, dance, play instruments, and engage in strength contests – all to welcome spring. Traditionally, the Russian Maslenitsa also included masquerades, snowball fights, sledding and lots of horse sleigh rides. Some regions and villages followed a certain scheduleeach day had its designated activity: one day for sleigh-riding, another for the sons-in-law to visit their parents-in-law, another day for visiting the godparents, and so on.

During the Soviet era, Maslenitsa, like many other religious holidays, was not officially celebrated; however, everyone made blinis and pancakes and shared them with families and friends. After Perestroika, the outdoor festivities resumed, even though some people considered it an artificial restoration of a dead tradition. Lady Maslenitsa seems to have made its comeback – it was simply too much fun to miss.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Let The Festivities Begin

Photo by FaceMePLS
Last Sunday marked a day of celebrating around the world. In the Northern Hemisphere, spring arrived, and with it, festival season. It also happened to be Persian New Year, World Storytelling Day (an event the Novel Adventurers observe every day), and the original date of Earth Day from back in 1970 (it moved to April in more recent years). Some cultures celebrate the arrival of spring by planting their crops on the vernal equinox, as the Mayans once did centuries ago.

In Japan, Vernal Equinox Day is even a national holiday, though this year, it takes on a tragic significance, considering it’s the day the Japanese visit family graves and hold family reunions.

This time of year also holds religious significance for various faiths. The Jewish Passover falls on the first full moon day after the vernal equinox, as does the Christian observance of Easter.

Starting last Sunday, a cluster of festivities take place per the Hindu calendar, starting with Holi, the Hindu New Year, also known as the Festival of Colors. Depending on region, that event can last anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks. It begins on the first full moon day at the end of the winter season and culminates on the last full moon day. In the days preceding the festival, followers are supposed to clean their houses, and on the night before the celebration day, some communities light a bonfire and gather around it to sing and dance. But the main event takes place on the vernal equinox, with a playful festival in which people throw colored powder and water on each other to celebrate. They also throw water-filled balloons. In some parts of India, people mix bhang (marijuana) in their drink and food. (Talk about spirited.)

Source: Victoria Albert Museum
According to Hindu folklore, the festival has its roots in an old mythological story, but Lord Krishna is believed to have popularized the event in later times. (Above is a painting, circa 1788, of Radha, Krishna's beloved, celebrating Holi with the women in their village.)

The southern part of India, known as the Deccan region, celebrates Holi along with the rest of the country, but also observes another new year soon after it. Ugadi or Yugadi marks an epoch or an era and right now, we’re in the Kali Yuga (epoch), which marks the date when Lord Krishna left the world (midnight between February 17 and 18, in the year 3102 B.C.). That event is now observed on the first new moon day of the Spring Equinox.

This year, Ugadi falls on April 4, which happens to mark the beginning of yet another important Hindu festival, Navratri, which literally means nine nights. Navratri occurs four times a year, one for each season, but the most popular one occurs in the fall. All four are celebrated by worshipping devi, the divine goddess, in all her diverse forms and often with nine days of fasting, culminating in a prayer ceremony and a day of indulging in rich sweets and savories. Many Indian women consider Navratri their most important festival, because it’s the one that celebrates the many aspects of feminine divinity (among them, strength, fertility, wisdom, courage, and comfort). Young girls are often invited to be part of the prayer rituals, as they represent purity. And in a tribute to the changing season, some Hindus begin the observances by sprouting seeds.

Here's a short video, a three-minute ad, about how it feels to experience Holi, also known as the festival of color. (Not to give anything away, but it’s worth watching for the surprise ending).

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Castles in the Clouds

I’ll admit, it feels kind of weird writing about the spring equinox when I’m about to head into a different season in my part of the world. Outside my window the leaves are turning from green to shades of gold, orange and red and the air has a distinct chill, despite the blue skies and sunny days. My little office in Australia seems so distant from Mexico where people from all around the world are about to celebrate a centuries old tradition—the vernal equinox.

Located on the Yucután Peninsula in Mexico, Chichén Itzá is surrounded by lush landscapes and azure waters. It was built by the Maya civilization (around 600 A.D.) and was a sophisticated urban centre of their empire from A.D. 750 to 1200. The Toltecs invaded the Mayas around A.D. 1000 and this led to a merger of the two cultures, as evidenced by the array of wonderful architectural styles at this UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

One of the best known structures is the Temple of Kukulcan (Maya for Quetzalcoatl, check this post here for more on this). Often referred to as El Castillo (the castle), this step pyramid has stairways leading up each of the four sides, meeting at the temple on the top. During the spring and fall (or autumn, depending on where you’re from) equinoxes, the rising and setting sun casts a shadow in the shape of the plumed serpent, Kukulcan, along the west side of the north staircase. The shadow slithers down the northern side of the pyramid until it reaches the serpent’s head at the base.

The pyramid itself is 79 feet (24 meters) high and the base square measure 181 feet (53.3 meters) across. Add another 20 feet (6 meters) for the temple on top of El Castillo and you’ve got one impressive example of ancient architecture. The stairs leading up to the temple have 91 steps on each side and, when added together with the temple platform as the final step, totals 365 steps—the number of days for the Haab year according to the Mayas. The Haab was the solar year calculated by the Mayas and is the basis for our modern calendar.

Photo by Bruno Girin
By using the sun, moon and astronomy, the Mayas could work out the seasons and know exactly when they would change. Their skills in astronomy were so advanced they could predict solar eclipses as evidenced by el caracol, the observatory at Chichén Itzá. There’s no doubt in my mind the world would be a different place had it not been for the skilled builders and mathematicians of this era. Fortunately, we’re able to witness the spring equinox like the Maya did thousands of years ago.

So as I glance at my desk calendar and watch the days roll into months, I reflect on the Mayas and how their knowledge and inventions affect us today. I wonder what they’d think about me typing on my laptop, sitting on my chair with wheels and drinking hot chocolate (the Mayas were fond of this delectable delight). And what would they think about the hordes of tourists that flock to Chichén Itzá to watch the serpent snake its way down the Temple of Kukulcan? I guess we’ll never know, but as a writer, these are questions that fuel the creative fire. Hmmm…. perhaps the next book should be set in Mexico.

Monday, March 21, 2011

'Tis That Time...

Spring is here! It arrived yesterday at precisely 4:21 p.m. in my local time zone. How do I know this? Because at that precise moment, Iranians, Afghans, and Zoroastrians of all nationalities were busy ringing in the new year.

Eid-e Norouz, or Persian New Year, is celebrated on the vernal equinox. Instead of breaking out the bubbly at midnight on December 31, Persians mark the new year at the moment the sun crosses the equator, dividing day and night into equal lengths. The time of the equinox changes from year to year, but usually it occurs on March 20 or 21.

This holiday is such a big deal to Iranians that the festivities can’t be crammed into a single day. In fact, two whole weeks are required, with the celebrations ending on the thirteenth day after the spring equinox.

Here are a few of my favorite Eid-e Norouz traditions:

Khooneh tekooneh (shaking the house): Calling this a favorite tradition is actually quite a stretch. It involves cleaning the house from top to bottom. Unlike the superficial housekeeping I usually get away with (dragging the vacuum across the high traffic areas and swatting at last month’s accumulation of dust), khooneh tekooneh means getting into every nook and cranny, shaking out the carpets, and washing the windows. It may be hard work, but if I let the ritual slide, bad luck will chase my family throughout the year.

Chahar shanbeh souri (fire festival): Like the spring cleaning ritual, this one is all about tossing out the old and embracing the new. But this time you do it with fire. You start out by smashing old crockery to release the pain and bad luck that has built up in the past months. Then you go out and make a whole lot of noise by setting off firecrackers and banging on old metal pots with heavy spoons. If that doesn’t scare the devil away, nothing will. But the rituals don’t end there. After dark, you build a bonfire and jump over it, chanting a phrase into the fire that roughly translates as: take my sickly color and give me your vibrant redness. The idea is for the fire to burn away the illness and troubles of the past and leave you with good health and better luck in the future.

Haft seen (the seven seens): Seen is the 15th letter of the Persian alphabet, and the haft seen is a festive arrangement of seven auspicious items whose names all begin with this letter: seeb (apples) for beauty and good health; sabzeh (lentil sprouts) for rebirth; samanu (wheat pudding) for affluence (this one really should be perseverance, since it takes weeks to make samanu, from soaking and sprouting the wheat berries to stirring the pudding for hours as it cooks); serkeh (vinegar) for wisdom and patience; senjed (dried fruit of the oleaster tree) for love—it is said that the fragrance of oleaster blossoms makes people fall in love; somaq (sumac berries) symbolizing the color of the sunrise; seer (garlic) for its medicinal properties; sekeh (gold coins), which are supposed to make your money multiply over the course of the year if you put them in your haft seen.

Sabzi polo ba mahi: Even the traditional holiday meal is a celebration of spring. Herbed rice with parsley, cilantro, dill, fresh green garlic sprouts, fenugreek leaves, and a splash of yellow saffron is paired with fried or grilled fish. In Iran, the fish is wild mahi sefid (white fish) from the Caspian Sea. Here in California, I prepare grilled salmon, which adds a nice pink color to the white, green, and yellow rice. I usually chop up twice as many herbs as needed for the rice and use half for another Norouz specialty: an herbed frittata called kuku sabzi. A recipe can be found here.

Seezdah bedar: Iranians love a picnic, and the more the merrier. On the last day of the Norouz holiday, everyone heads for the nearest park or into nature, laden with picnic baskets, blankets, and plenty of food to share. It is the thirteenth day of Farvardeen (the first month of the Iranian calendar) and bad luck to stay indoors. The haft seen is dismantled on this day—in our house, all the edible parts have long been consumed. Only the sabzeh remains, now yellowed and wilting, for it has been soaking up the family’s quarrels and bad vibes. According to tradition, you take these lentil sprouts outdoors and scatter them to the wind, dissipating all that negativity.

Persian New Year is about making a fresh start. Even the name, Norouz, mean “new day”. (And in case you’re wondering about my name, Noroozy, it is derived from Norouz.) But if you missed the equinox yesterday, never fear. You have thirteen more days to celebrate the rites of spring.

Eid-e shoma mobarak! Happy New Year!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: A Traveling Theatre... Site?

We all have heard of traveling theatres, but how about a traveling theatre site? Our guest this week is Karen Tortora-Lee, the managing Director, editor-in-chief, and founder of, who tells the story of how she’s taken her New York theatre review publication on the road. As a reviewer, she has covered everything from the Fringe Festival to the First Irish Festival, from the New York Musical Festival to the Midtown International Festival, and even the Fight Festival in Manhattan, Brooklyn and QueensShe currently serves as vice chair of the board of directors for Maieutic Theatre Works.


When I started in 2009, I had a very clear goal in mind I wanted to highlight, showcase, and celebrate the amazingly talented people I came in contact with every day. I wanted The Happiest Medium to be the virtual Elaine's a place where people could stop in for a while and see some regulars, or see some new faces, but always feel that they were welcomed ... and always know they were in an environment that was safe, inclusive, and fun. 

From the feedback we've consistently gotten so far, I have to say we've definitely created some sort of je ne sais quoi that people don't get from other sites. Maybe it's the little stars in the background. Okay, okay maybe it's really that we have some of the best dang contributors around (Antonio Minino, Dianna Martin, Geoffrey Paddy Johnson, Stephen Tortora-Lee, and Lina Zeldovich as well as fabulous guest writers) who write with heart, style, flair and pull no punches. These writers know their stuff.

After our first (very successful) year, a lot of people have asked me where we intend to take the site. After all, no one ever stays where they are, right? There's always another hill to climb, another high score to beat. Since we cover so much of the Off-Off-Broadway scene people think the natural path is to move on to Off-Broadway, then Broadway.

First of all, we do cover Off-Broadway occasionally
and I've had the opportunity to review some Broadway shows as well. I'm grateful, but really . . . it's not all it's cracked up to be. If I want to continue the initial goal of THM then covering and re-covering the same small group of shows on Broadway that everyone else is covering doesn't seem that appealing to me. I mean, face it does the world need another reporting of what happened at the Spider Man musical last night?

So our second year at THM is all about making a reality of what I like to call Operation: Off The Grid
as in off the grid of Manhattan. Yes, it's scary. But hear me out: I had the opportunity to review a show in New Jersey last October, and it blew me away. Now come on I'm not naive. I don't believe that the only talent you'll find is in NYC. But I just didn't expect a small theatre in New Jersey to be so lush, layered, and fantastic.

Since I believe my calling is to amplify the audience's experience, I wanted to tell the world! AND I wanted to see what else is out there. Theatres in Maine, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Chicago, Massachusetts, Cleveland! So we're taking THM on the road. Just like Man vs. Food seeks out those amazing gastronomical gems hidden away in every city, we want to find those small regional theaters that are blowing away their local audiences season after season
and make a connection with them.

Our goal is to eventually have a network of theatres all across America that are being reviewed by local reviewers and are checking in with us. A national chain of Happiest Mediums!  

Honestly, if you would have asked me in 2009 what I would have seen just one year later for THM, I never would have imagined we'd have come as far as we did in the first year. So now, I don't put limits on what to expect. The bigger your dream, the more likely you are to succeed, because honestly,  when you're dreaming up something HUGE for which there is no blueprint yet, there is no wrong way to get there. So gas up the car, set the GPS to the next playhouse, and save two seats on the aisle for me.

THE HAPPIEST MEDIUM’s mission is to highlight, showcase and celebrate talent and creativity in all its forms and to write about it in a way that will ignite a spark for you too. THE HAPPIEST MEDIUM is a continuing media sponsor of The Planet Connections Festivities, and this year sponsored the FRIGID NEW YORK 2011 Festival. If you are a theater enthusiast and love the controversial and edgy off-Broadway productions, stop by to see what’s currently playing and what’s a must-see.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Broken Images

Broken Images, a one-woman play, ran a single night at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center yesterday, attracting a full house, despite its middle of the week showing.

Dubbed a psychological thriller, it’s the story of an Indian author who writes short stories in Hindi but doesn’t achieve widespread fame until she publishes her first novel in English, leaving her to deal with issues of identity and guilt. The story is about so much more—not just language, but various layers of identity, awareness, interpretation, perception, perspective, love, and betrayal. There were also messages about the alienation we feel from ubiquitous technology and media and a modern take on an age-old folklore. And while those themes may sound overdone, the play felt fresh and powerful.

A few things about this show caught my attention from the get-go. Not only the rave reviews, but the high-caliber names associated with the play. One of India’s premier actresses, Shabana Azmi, plays the title role, as the author who banters almost exclusively in English with what appears to be her alter ego—common sense, conscience, or maybe devil’s advocate—shown on a large, plasma-screen monitor. Azmi has always been on the cutting edge. One of her most stunning and gutsy roles came in 1996, when already a well-regarded celebrity, Azmi played a lesbian in Deepa Mehta’s landmark film, Fire, a role that included a love scene.

In Broken Images, she spends an hour alone on stage, holding the audience spellbound with her incredible stage presence combined with a powerful script written by one of India’s leading playwrights, Girish Karnad (also a noted director and actor). The performance was directed by renowned theatre actor and producer Alyque Padamsee, who’s also known for his supporting role as Pakistan’s founding father in the film Gandhi.

The story of Broken Images starts with the author, Manjula Sharma, giving a short presentation introducing the movie version of her now-bestselling book. In the talk, she explains how she's been criticized for writing it in English instead of her native language, why she chose that language (because, she explains, that's how it came to her), and how much her family supported her through its writing. At the end of her presentation, she prepares to leave the set but her image on the monitor televising her presentation keeps talking. Only this time, her image on screen is addressing herself on the stage. The audience doesn't know exactly who the character on the screen is supposed to represent—Manjula’s inner self or her outer one, her conscience or her ego—but regardless, the TV Manjula begins probing her on-stage self about the same issues she’d discussed in the presentation, slowly unraveling the real story of how and why the book came about and the role her family played in it.

It's just one actor whose splintered character interacts with herself  on screen and on set, using well-coordinated dialogue and body language. There's no other set change, no costume change, and few props other than that large monitor. Nothing really happens in the physical sense. And yet the audience knows something important, something big is happening on stage. The storyline moves quickly, changing and twisting, making you think a lot and feel a lot. I hadn't realized I was holding my breath through most of it until the end when I finally exhaled.

The complex layers of the language and identity themes in Broken Images are fascinating. The character discusses the criticism she receives as an author writing in a colonial language, yet the title of the play comes from the English poem, The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot: “….for you know only/A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,/And the dead tree gives no shelter….” Playwright Girish Karnad wrote the original script as the protagonist having written her earlier stories in her native South Indian language, Kannada. Somewhere along the way, Karnad adapted the show to larger audiences, changing his character from a Kannada author to a Hindi one. And while the play has been performed in Kannada, Hindi, and now in English, Karnad himself, it’s worth noting, is Konkani. So the duality of languages and identity layers the real-life drama of the performance as well.

Director Padamsee somewhat addresses these ironies on the play’s official site ( We live today in a double world. Who we project ourselves to be … and who we really are…. In our discussions at rehearsals, we found out more about ourselves than the characters in Girish’s play. Broken [i]mages sometimes re-create themselves in new and unexpected avatars.”

It’s incredible how much punch could be packed into a one-woman, 60-minute show, but by the end, the flawless acting and script transcend what you think a play can do.