Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
This is one of the most terrifying films I’ve ever seen. It is also one of the most eye-opening, important, and memorable.
The documentary chronicles the Syrian civil war and the downfall of its society, which led to the rise of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. But it is so much more layered and so much more complicated than those few words can convey. Pulling from over 1,000 hours of footage from the front, news clips, firsthand accounts, and iPhone footage, filmmakers Sebastian Junger (award-winning journalist, filmmaker, and best-selling author) and Nick Quested (Emmy-winning filmmaker and director) bring viewers the real story from the ground, and from the people living the nightmare.
This is not Junger’s and Quested’s first foray into war-torn areas. Their films, The Last Patrol, Korengal, the Emmy-nominated Which Way to the Front Line From Here? The Life and time of Tim Hetherington, and the Oscar-nominated Restrepo all delved into conflicts around the world. Their mission was always the same, according to Quested. “We were always looking to find the humanity in the darkest places. There’s no darker place than the Syrian civil war at the moment.”
IRAQ: A young refugee child inside the Debaga Refugee Camp. (Photo credit:Junger Quested Films LLC/Nick Quested)
But explaining the story of this country posed a special set of challenges. There is a long and complex history behind the civil war, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s determination not to go the route of his Arab Spring predecessors like Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak. The calculated and relentless incursion of ISIS into the area on both an economic and ideological level created another story. And then physically getting access to the people and the front line amidst changing allegiances was another obstacle. It took the filmmakers a year and a half and 39 trips to the area to make it happen. During that time, their network of contacts grew to include other journalists, fixers, activists, human rights workers, politicians, army commanders; and even former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. They have seamlessly knit together these disparate bits and pieces to create a clear picture of a complicated tale.
TURKEY – The Mohammad family on one of their many attempts to cross over the Mediterranean into Greece. (Photo Credit: Junger Quested Films LLC/Radwan Mohammad)
But the heart of this film lies with the ordinary citizens caught in the middle. The scenes of dozens of young children laid out in rows, dead from a gas attack are horrifying; the lone mother in the middle of the town square calling out for her kids after an attack is heart-wrenching; and then there is the story of the Mohammad brothers and their families. They were first robbed of their rights by Assad and then bombed into submission by him. For a brief period, it looked like the “people” might actually be winning this war with the help of the Syrian Free Army. But then ISIS took over and imposed a new set of rules and a religious fanaticism that included public beheadings in town centers with the dead being left there as a warning. That is when they decided to leave Syria.
The film tracks the brothers’ frightening journey from Aleppo to Turkey to Greece and back, with the Mohammad’s doing the actual filming. They were given a two-page set of instructions on how and what to shoot, according to Quested. He coached them, saying, “Try to focus on your feelings and your children’s feelings and try to give us a sense of your environment.” The result is raw, intimate, and emotional … as is the film.
When asked what he wanted people to take away from the film, Junger said, “We wanted to humanize America’s view of people who have to flee violence. This country is a beacon for people who are hopeless and desperate. We are hoping that our country can continue to be that.”
Hell on Earth will air globally on National Geographic in 171 countries and 45 languages starting Sunday, June 11th at 9 p.m.
Top photo: QAYARRAH, IRAQ – After leaving Qayarrah, ISIS sets oil fires as a parting gift for the villagers. (Photo credit:Junger Quested Films LLC/Nick Quested)
In the early-70’s, I spent over three months on a kibbutz in the Negev. It was an amazing experience in many ways, but the food was not among the highlights. Breakfasts consisted of “Israeli salad,” yogurts, bread, tea, and something we called, “chocy sauce,” a pre-curser to Nutella. Dinners were a monotonous and not very adventurous boiled chicken.
In the Kitchen
So when I heard that there was a new film about Israeli food, I was intrigued. What could a 94-minute documentary possibly have to say about a cuisine of almost no note? To my surprise, the answer is “a lot.” In the skilled hands of director Roger Sherman and the warm embrace of chef and James Beard Award-Winner Michael Solomonov, also the on-camera host, the film opened up a whole new culinary world to me. And it went well beyond just humus and falafel.
In the Tomato Field
Traveling up and down this tiny [the size of New Jersey] but incredibly diverse country, viewers are introduced to Israel’s history, culture, and religions. Michael meets chefs, restaurateurs, farmers, winemakers, and journalists and delves deep into the origins of the foods they grow and cook, their families, and the immigrant experience. And what an experience it is. This “new” cuisine draws from thousands of years of history and over 150 different countries and cultures including Bulgaria, Russia, Germany, Turkey, Poland, Ethiopia, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Palestine. All of them celebrate the bounty and abundance of the local products around them. As one chef says, “It’s the flavor of Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel.”
With the Cheesemaker
The film is also a heartfelt reminder of Solomonov’s own heritage. He was born in Israel but grew up in Pittsburgh eating his Romanian grandmother’s cheese and potato “borekas,” a dish he recreates on camera. During the production, he also visits the place where his brother was killed during the Yom Kippur fighting in 2003. That history led Michael to re-examine his own Israeli/Sephardic roots; and ultimately to open his restaurant, Zahav, which means “gold” in Hebrew.
Fishing in the Galilee
From a filmmaking standpoint, this doc is a lovely little gem. The pacing and editing is spot on; the chefs, farmers, and restaurateurs are passionate and articulate; and the scenes of the landscapes are stunning. Kudos also to the light, atmospheric touch of the music created by Amit Gur and Moshe Da’aboul.
So what is Israeli Cuisine? Like any good recipe or great dish, it is a subtle and ever-changing mosaic of rich and colorful flavors; full of history and personal stories; and all of it touched with love.
Even though it was near a local high school, it was always a quiet neighborhood in Lanham, MD. That all changed in 2012, when a massive construction project began rising from 16.5 acres of land that had been purchased initially and partially in 1993.
The concept became the Diyanet Center of America (DCA), which opened its doors in 2015. But the DCA, which claims to be the largest Muslim campus in the Western Hemisphere, has made an extraordinary effort to be a part of the community, and after the construction phase ended, it has done its best to blend into the neighborhood.
The DCA was designed and supported by the local Turkish-American Muslim community. It serves as a house of worship as well as a place where Muslims conduct their cultural, social, educational and fitness activities. The DCA also organizes inter-faith programs on the site.
In addition to a mosque, the campus includes a cultural center, auditorium, social hall, cafeteria, library, exhibition halls, as well as a Turkish baths, a swimming pool and fitness center, including a basketball court, guest homes, and an education center. The many worshipers and community members visiting the DCA park in an underground garage.
The mosque is the centerpiece of the center. It was modeled after the style of 16th-century Ottoman architecture. Much of the construction materials and artisans came from Turkey. The weight of the domes is supported by four marble pillars. The mosque is an engineering marvel, from the domes and minarets to the courtyard.
Every item, from Arabic inscriptions to the design of the carpeting has been meticulously planned. The interior of the mosque includes many features that help enhance the prayerful experience.
The DCA welcomes all visitors, whether Muslim or not, to share their vision of a facility that they hope will lead to a greater understanding of their religion and of the Turkish people, and which will foster peace between all.
What are the odds for sitting on an international flight by Turkish Airlines with fantastic food of mixed east-west aroma flanked by one Iraqi gentleman and one Iranian lady (who amusingly knew each other’s nationality but never talked)? Well, not big at all, but that did happen to me, so I deem myself very lucky. A pretty delightful closure for my first ever trip to the exquisitely rich Istanbul full of historic charm and grandeur. Istanbul had been high on my list of must-go places in the world. Since it’s hard for me to take time off work in the spring, which is supposedly the best season to visit Turkey, and its climate is mild enough for winter trips, I decided to travel there during the week prior to Christmas. That is, before the European vacationers descend in drones during the Christmas holiday, which usually drives up the prices for hotels, etc. as well.
Fountains Between Mosques
After landing at dusk and clumsily navigating the local ATMs and the metro ticketing machine (with scant English instructions), without mentioning several transfers on the public transit system and yes, incredibly warm and hospitable locals (mostly with gestures though), I stepped off the tram in the well-known Sultanahmet; and…I was seriously surprised by the first thing I saw in front of me – Burger King. More than a bit disappointed, I walked towards the direction of the hotel (given by the all helpful locals at the station). Immediately, I felt engulfed by several indescribably marvelous wonders: the call to prayers, a semi-musical otherworldly chanting emanating from afar; the majestic silhouette of two mosques with their well-lit, resplendent minarets set against the thickening darkness; and, the dazzlingly colorful dancing fountains in the middle of a giant square in between the two mosques. Totally in awe, I stopped walking, trying to take in the grand and exotic atmosphere.
Vowing to return in the daylight, I continued on, zigzagging along several winding streets, before finally finding the petite yet quaint and enchanting family-run Sphendon Hotel. Once again, my stubborn preference for boutique hotels with unique character over big chain hotels, didn’t fail me. The deco, the rooftop deck, the garden view from the breakfast room, the cute gadgets in the tiny bathroom, and even the lamp and small area rug in the bedroom charmed me. An attentive staff, always ready to help and make small talk, served a variety of carefully prepared foods at breakfast.
Interior of Hagia Sophia
Over the next several days, I was nearly overwhelmed by the depth and breadth of what there was to see and do in Istanbul: the impressive, almost ritual dinners of distinctive Turkish style (loved the hanging figs, unique Turkish ambient, and rose tea in the exquisite tea cup) in Old Town’s traditional restaurants; the tasting of Turkish coffee at Sark Kahvesi, that traditional coffeehouse and Istanbul institution filled with signs of heritage, especially from the Ottoman era, inside the Grand Bazaar; the treat of a thoughtful guided tour of Hagia Sophia and subsequently a cup of warm, delicious and much-needed Salep by a knowledgeable and generous local college student; the legendary and utterly splendid Pera Palace Hotel best known for its association with the Orient Express in the 1920s and an iconic reminder of Istanbul’s historically being at the cross-roads between Orient and Occident; the unbelievable chance encounter with a Mandarin-speaking Uyghur who used to live in Xinjiang, China on the street to the Spice Market; interesting conversations at a traditional Turkish bath with three friendly women who now live in Istanbul after migrating from Tajikistan; the day-long Bosphorus cruise that traces Istanbul’s massive grandeur and glorious past; the unforgettably soulful whirling dervish experience; and the ultimate treat of observing up close the sacred ceremony of Islamic prayers of pious Muslims at the Blue Mosque after being granted an exceptional invitation of access (due to my all curious yet sincere questions) while the conventional rule would have completely blocked me from this experience. The list can go on a lot longer.
And of course there are the local people, with their incredible warmth, kindness, and being so sincere, gracious, and down to earth (with little materialistic tinge except perhaps those somewhat annoying market vendors), not arrogant nor diffident. Memories from my trip about this genuinely loving, kind and considerate people abound and will long stay with me. Absolution is perhaps interpreted in various ways by different people in today’s world; yet it’s deeply moving to me, which helps explain the more spiritual side of this lovely people. Rick Stevens certainly wasn’t biased when he noted Turkish people are probably his favorite people on earth.
The juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern, East and West, and the co-existence of different historic periods and diverse religions and ethnicities (most vividly manifest in the city’s architecture, including along Istiklal Street in the New District) deeply fascinated me. As the intersections of Asia and Europe, where multiple trends, ideals, cultures as well as goods have always converged in history, probably more than anything else the strategic location of this magnificent and open-minded city have made its people who they are. No wonder Napoleon once said, “If our whole world would be one country, then Istanbul would be its capital!”
Just as I had expected, I didn’t exhaust all the must-see and must-do on my list during this first trip. Yet, I’ve got plenty of lasting memories to savor and treasure. As I was looking out to the sea from the hotel terrace at the crack of dawn on my last day in the city, and as I said thank you to a wheel-chair bound yet extremely thoughtful old Turkish gentleman who, on my way to the airport, tried his best to remind me it’s time to transfer to another subway even though he doesn’t speak English, I felt sad to say goodbye and I knew I will be traveling back to this stunning world city someday, if only to experience the unparalleled warm hospitality, generosity and infectious spirituality of its people.