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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Arab Cultural Festival: The Day the Hummus Died

The minute I got a message from my friend Ruth about Seoul's Arab Cultural Festival, I immediately replied YES. I'm not Arab (someone asked me that when I mentioned attending the festival) but I love Middle Eastern food so naturally, anywhere there might be hummus or falafel, you're going to find me.

When the organizers advertised a souk, I pictured tents filled with goodies to bring back to my apartment -- interesting crafts, maybe some silk scarves and, of course, lots of yummy food and spices.

Ruth, Karen and I arrived at the National Theater of Korea at 6:00, two hours after the market opened but also two hours before it was due to close. We found a long line stretching to the food tent, which advertised free Lebanese snacks, and settled in to wait. Less than 10 minutes later, we were at the head of the line only to be told that they were out of food. Sorry, better luck next time.

To say we were disappointed doesn't begin to cover it. Even as we walked from the subway to the theatre, we imagined carting home tubs of tabbouleh, sacks of spices and packages of pita. Nothing. Nada. Zip.

Well, there was a postage stamp-sized square of baklava. Better than nothing.

It still cracks me up to see people eating non-Asian food with chopsticks.

The festival consisted of five tents arranged in a semi-circle in the theatre parking lot. One tent had food (or, advertised having food), another gave away copies of the Arabic-Korean Koran; you could buy some interesting crafts in one tent; the other two were full of do-it-yourself calligraphy and henna.

Dancers performed in the center of it all and many of the major Arab countries were represented by people in traditional dress -- Saudi Arabia, Morrocco, Lebanon, Qatar, U.A.E., Oman, Sudan....

The highlight of the night was a traditional display of song and dance in a space-age open-air ampitheatre by a Qatari performance group. Their songs ranged from pearl diving chants (during which they showed incredible video footage of men diving for pearls sans scuba gear) to songs accompanying a bride's move to her new husband's home.

Each song had a different meaning and tone, yet there was a strong common thread among them all. It was fascinating to see how well Qataris have mantained their sense of tradition and history. The entire show was simply done with basic instruments and powerful Arabic chanting.

While the night didn't quite live up to its potential, it nevertheless a fun outing and a chance to learn about new cultures. Talking to the man next to me, who was from Beiruit, struck up a strong desire to visit that part of the world. It's somewhere that has always intimidated me (let's face it, you don't hear much positive news from the Middle East these days) but has also been the subject of so many travel daydreams.

I don't know when I'll get there -- maybe a couple of years, at best -- but Lebanon has quickly moved to near the top of my must-visit list. Anyone else?