Recently, I was invited to have lunch with Suaad
Alsammraee and her friends at the Courtyard Retirement Home in Winooski. I got to know the 65-year-old Iraqi at a financial literacy class
organized by the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity
. Alsammraee wanted to have one last get-together in Vermont because she and her husband were moving to Oregon to be closer to their daughter. The couple resettled in the Green Mountain State in November 2013, but most of their children live in Europe.
When I arrived at 10 a.m, Alsammraee's kitchen was already in full swing. She divided tasks between Ahlam Al Attar and Houda
Musanovic and supervised them. I later found out that Alsammraee, or Sursur
, as her grandchildren call her, had prepared the dishes days in advance. Among them were trays of kofta, or minced lamb meat, and borek, a thin, flaky dough with meat filling and peas, were ready to be baked.
What caught my eye was a bag of frozen yellow balls. Al Attar was in charge of deep-frying these kubba — rice balls with meat filling and sultana or raisins. These are best eaten when they're crispy and hot, Al Attar said. When fried, the rice balls turned bright yellow because of the added turmeric powder.
Meanwhile, Musanovic made three kinds of pizza (known as "bizza" in the Middle East because there's no equivalent of "p" in the Arabic alphabet): cheese, olive, and olive with red pepper. In the Middle East, the Moroccan-born dental assistant said, it's typical for neighbors to go to one another's house if they run out of salt or other cooking essentials. Since Alsammraee's oven was being used to bake the meat dishes, Musanovic took the pizzas down to the apartment of Sahar Alsammraee, who's related to Suaad. The women looked like they could use an extra pair of hands, or rather legs, to run from one apartment to another, or to the community room. So I offered my help.
Before the other guests arrived, Musanovic covered the glass windows in the community room to provide the utmost privacy. Some women remove their headscarves if they're in a female-only setting, she explained. When I got back to Alsammraee's apartment, Musanovic and Al Attar were already starting to prepare the salads. They were also enthusiastic about taking photographs with the dishes they had prepared.
By 12:30 p.m, close to 40 women and children arrived, and a buffet-style lunch awaited them. Conversations were in Arabic, and were often interrupted as guests greeted one another with two kisses on each cheek and hugs. When Sahar Alsammraee and her elderly mother joined the party, Musanovic did the halhoula
, or ululation, a common practice by women in the Middle East during celebrations. (Regionally, the halhoula is also known as zaghrouteh, mhaha, al-yabab, al-ghatrafah and tazaghretah. )
Most of the women and children at the party were of Middle Eastern descent, including from Iraq, Jordan and Morocco. Sarah M. Childs, who has Chinese and Mexican ancestry, said she always feels honored when she's invited to an Iraqi household. Alsammraee also invited Childs' mother to her home when she was visiting from Nevada. Being welcomed into an intimate setting symbolizes the trust that her Iraqi friends have in her, she said. "I don't take it lightly," Childs added.
Another guest, Suhad Murad, said her children call Suaad Alsammraee "jaddati," Arabic for "my grandmother." Alsammraee's absence will be keenly felt by the community, she noted. Murad said she knows about 40 Iraqi families in the greater Burlington area, though she acknowledges there may be more.
Musanovic later came around to our table with some desserts that the guests had brought. But I've always found Middle Eastern desserts too sweet for my liking, and so I declined. In any case, I was more interested in eating the meat dishes. Since I observe Islamic dietary restrictions, my options are often limited to vegetarian or seafood selections at supermarkets and restaurants. [Some ethnic supermarkets sell halal meat.] And so, during private gatherings with Muslims who also observe these restrictions, I use the opportunity to satisfy my meat craving.
My favorite dishes were the chicken shawarma and kubba. The chicken shawarma was tender, though I missed the pita bread, salad and tahini that are usually served with the shredded chicken. Though I normally wouldn't think of eating a fruit and meat at the same time, the sultanas worked well to give the kubbas some sweetness. Since there were just a few pieces in each kubba, the sweetness was nice.
By 3 p.m., the crowd had thinned. Alsammraee and Al Attar made sure the community room was clean before heading to Sahar's apartment for tea with the remaining guests. Coincidentally, all those who stayed behind had attended the financial literacy class.
While making Turkish tea, Sahar admitted that she was feeling "very, very sad" about her older relatives' imminent move to Oregon. Her son and daughter, whom she hasn't seen in 10 and seven years, respectively, are in Europe. So Suaad Alsammraee and her husband are her closest relatives in Vermont. Sahar planned to visit in Washington, D.C., just days before her relatives moved to Oregon.
"Did you plan it that way to make the parting less painful?" I asked her. She nodded.
"It's a very nice time," Alsammraee said of the get-together. But she was nervous about the move and will miss her friends, she admitted. Alsammraee also lamented that she'd have to buy new furniture for her apartment and pay higher rent. Relocation is always "very, very difficult," she said.