Thoughts on Life, Kabobs, and Najib Sidiqi

Most people, including myself, have a tendency to view life as a linear trajectory. If someone goes to a good college and then to law school, they’ll probably become a lawyer and eventually a partner until they some day retire or decide to teach law. The track is already laid.

Life, however – and yes I’m stating the obvious – is not linear, despite our simplistic assumptions. We know this but we often forget it until those unique, very human moments when we are reminded of the admirable adaptability, creativity, and ingenuity of the human spirit. These moments are often short and sweet, brief, or even fleeting reminders – the Harvard MBA grad who became a 4th grade math teacher, the girl who passed the New York Bar and then ran off to Broadway, etc. At first, it may be hard to remember such moments with such people. Yet, they’re everywhere you look and everywhere you don’t.

I like gyros (and no, this is not a digression) so I go to this place called the Kabob House on P Street NW, near Dupont Circle during lunch breaks. It’s a pretty basic canteen with stereotypical travel photography from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia – including the woman from the cover of National Geographic. I don’t know Afghan food so I can’t say to what degree the kabobs can be considered authentic. In fact, my first impression was to ask myself, is this for real? I am not familiar at all with Afghan culture or gastronomy and, frankly, I figured that filling in the massive, shameful black hole of ignorance that I have regarding that part of the world would be a lot… well… less simple. Consequently, all I know about the food at the Kabob House is that the gyros are cheap and better than anywhere else in DC and the bread is superb. The portions are huge if you get something other than a sandwich. Is the food in any way an Afghan experience? I have no idea but it’s so good, I don’t really care.

The owner is jovial, jolly even. He has a thick accent and always has some Bollywood-type music playing on the big-screen TV. When I first encountered him, I had to ask myself if this was actually happening – he was just so happy and I was not used to having someone in the food business at a canteen during lunch being in such a great mood. Every time I go there, he’s in a great mood. I go there a lot and now he calls me “friend”, which is what he calls anyone he recognizes who has been there before. He greats his real friends (not me) with a kiss on the cheek and a shake of both hands, a barrage of questions – most likely variations on the theme of “how are you?”

This is it, I thought. This is the part that is Afghan, recalling my friend’s explanations of the emphasis on hospitality in Afghan culture. Well, then, is the food? Again, I have no clue, but at this point it was undeniable that there was some other cultural influence defining the experience there – Washingtonians are just simply not that nice every day. They also don’t all speak Dari and will only shake with both hands if you’ve endorsed their campaign.

I’ve been going there for a while now but, despite the warm and welcoming atmosphere, I didn’t learn his name until one day when I was leaving the restaurant and noticed that, near the door, hung on the wall were some small, square pictures of him covered in what looked like lists of short phrases written in lavish Nasta’līq. CD covers?

My Persian not being the best (I can only say من قد کوتاه  هستم  meaning “I’m short”), I could only manage to sound out the writing on the main photo with his face on it – Najib. His name must be Najib. No way… was the Kabob guy an Afghan singer?

After a minute consulting the internet about the Kabob House, I found this brief article about him from the business’s website and got his full name – Najib Sidiqi. I immediately googled him and found his music videos. I then found his Facebook fan page, his myspace, and his Youtube channel. My favorite video is definitely Aresoo/Arozo.

I think I now know why my “friend” at the Kabob House is so jolly. He has music in his heart and he is surrounded by delicious food – who wouldn’t be? Also – he’s a singer with music videos turned multiple restaurant owner with kabobs – how cool is that? Talk about a non-linear, creative, and diverse, yet cohesive trajectory. I think that’s just awesome.

Every time I need a reminder that change is okay and I can do whatever I want with my life and be happy, I will go sate myself on a gyro and say hello to my “friend”.



Also known as Palatschinken, Omletten are the Austrian answer to the crêpe and the blintz. While this dish has been a traditional Christmas morning favorite in my family, it’s great for any warm-hearted occasion – Easter included.

I’m sure that other folks know this dish under the name of Pfannkuchen or Eierkuchen. The fact is there are many different names, which vary by region within German-speaking Europe (Deutscher Sprachraum). Most Austrians don’t even use the word Omletten (which is what Tiroleans say) but rather the Slavic loan word Palatschinken. There is a lot of dialectical differentiation in the various regions within Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. The University of Augsburg Department of German Language and Literature Studies (Germanistik) has produced great isogloss maps, including this one (which shows the multiple words for this delicious Germanic pancake).

There are many Omletten recipes available, given the many different forms of the dish, that I’m sure would suit most anyone’s taste. However, I find a minimalist approach sufficient because slight adjustments will allow you to adapt it to your own circumstantial needs. The basic recipe is as follows:

  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 – 2.5 cups milk
  • 4 eggs
  • Pinch of salt
  • Butter / oil for frying

Other things you’ll need to dress the omletten will be some sort of jam, preserve or compote, and confectioner’s sugar. It’s also good with butter and honey, melted chocolate, or Nutella.

Put the flour in a big bowl with the two cups of milk. Separate the yolks from the whites of all four eggs, adding the yolks to the big bowl and saving the whites separately. Throw your pinch of salt in the big bowl. Beat your egg whites until they are firm. Mix everything that’s in the big bowl until it’s smooth and then fold in the egg whites.

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This method of folding in the beaten egg whites is common to a lot of delicious Austrian goodies (including the Sacher Torte and Salzburger Nockerln). In this case, it gives the Omletten their puffy, light texture. However, it does have a tendency to thicken the batter, so keep some milk handy for thinning if it comes out too thick on the pan.

Why I Don’t Like CNN Either

I work in an international, governmental context and, like most folks who work in Washington D.C., there’s always a television on with CNN or Fox News somewhere. Through the constant exposure and, thus, opportunities for analysis that I have had vis-à-vis these networks, I have come to the conclusion that there are multitudes of ways in which they compromise their journalistic integrity (I know, I sound like Mr. Obvious).

While I usually have something to say about Fox, today my beef is all with CNN.

What stood out to me this morning is CNN’s ridiculously unnecessary, redundant, and juvenile practice of showing viral Youtube videos. What, if any, value could that serve? Most of their viewers who have televisions already have access to Youtube and can see such videos at their own volition. Since when does a video of a short person and a bearded man lip-syncing in their living room in a comical manner have anything to do with “news’? Am I supposed to run to my neighbor’s house and ask them if their relatives are okay and if they’ve heard about it? I mean, imagine! The global implications of two bored people lip-syncing!

I don’t even need to get into the idiocy of discussing random viewers’ comments that have been posted on Twitter – a.k.a. reporting gossip.

How does this compromise journalistic integrity? Simple. This “information”, which is not able to be considered news (rather spontaneous popular fascinations of American netizens), takes the place of arguably important stories on developments within the United States and around the world. By dedicating air time to the dregs of internet entertainment, CNN is effectively denying their viewers the ability to learn of important developments in other areas. As journalists, the folks at CNN should be appalled by their own delusional practice of proliferating ignorance in the American public by refraining from thorough journalistic reporting. How far will this practice go? How much time per day does CNN spend showing useless information? I would like to see a study done. Will we reach a point when CNN becomes the next Tosh2.0?

I can’t help but feel that American news media outlets have come down with a severe ailment that impairs journalistic practices. The symptoms are vile. Are news media in other countries afflicted with the same degenerate trend?

left shoe right shoe white shoe bright shoe

I went shopping the other day. Like any other conditioned American in his early twenties, the main stops on my spending route included H&M and Urban Outfitters – stores that sell in my size and maintain a certain fundamentally minimalist and tolerable style (mostly). Such stores, unfortunately, also happen to be the ringleaders of the mainstream American clothing circus. In other words – I’m buying exactly the same stuff that every other clowned consumer is buying.

Pros: price, size, minimalist style options.

Cons: mediocre textile quality, forced fashion conformity.

I honestly don’t feel bad enough about wearing the same things as everyone else to completely abandon these stores given the aforementioned pros. Yet, at the same time, while I was rummaging through the sales rack with a bunch of other short men in their early twenties, I felt struck by a sudden need to break out of that pattern.

In the past, when I have felt this same urge to don something  “unique” (in the sense that I won’t run into some identically vested doppelgänger in the street somewhere), I have resorted to drawing/painting on t-shirts and wearing them. This time, however,  I wanted something slightly different (and hopefully less painfully cliché). I saw some $10 white canvas shoes and, predictably, decided to apply the same concept to them.

This is what I wound up with.

I showed my friends at work and their response was – “Wah! People in Korea do this all the time!”. So much for originality. At least I like them.

And, yes, I do wear them in public.

“Café Europa: life after communism” by Slavenka Drakulić

I recently finished reading a great book recommended by a friend of mine (who is very enthusiastic about the Balkans) called Café Europa, by Slavenka Drakulić. A collection of beautifully well-written, thought-provoking narratives and interrogative reflections on communist life in former Yugoslavia, Drakulić’s writing brings new life to some age-old questions about nation, society, and the identity of Europe.

All 24 essay/narratives and even the introduction (which reads beautifully and any person would be at a true loss for skipping it) are phenomenal. Drakulić can certainly write and it is no surprise that she has been compared to Duras, Beckett, and Camus.

The contents of her essays are also beautifully crafted – each with its own point of focus, its own short story or reflection that contributes to the greater discourse of the book on the whole. There’s no doubt that each reader will find his or her own connection with a few essays in particular. For me, I found myself most touched by “My Frustration with Germany”, “A Croat among Jews”, and “My Father’s Guilt”. I think these essays really show the difficulty, on both levels of the state and the individual, of dealing with the greater guilt and responsibility of a nation/people. I cannot agree more with the importance of remembering our own actions in history – good and bad – as both nations and individuals. Drakulić’s conclusion that both the nation and the self need to participate in the recognition of history reminds me of Joan Didion’s essay “On Self-Respect”.

Great book. Great author. I can’t wait to read another one of her works. Drakulić, for me, has also managed to breach my ignorance of the deeply complicated and poorly understood western Balkans. Ironically, I saw Ambassador Avni Spahiu of Kosovo speak this evening and I am feeling more and more drawn to the region. Maybe I should learn some BCS and some Albanian.

Голоса – Chicago Russian Folk Choir

Back in college I sang with a choir called Golosá (Голоса), which was awesome in so many ways and I am very happy to have had the opportunity to sing with them. Golosá will be performing in Chicago on April 30 as part of a Soviet cultural expo. If you’re at all interested in Russia(n), traditional music, or choral performances, you should definitely check it out.

Founded in 1997, Golosá has been rocking the Chicago scene for quite a while and has recently had its first concert tour on the East coast. You can read about the history of the group and the extremely unique musical tradition here on their website (no-one else makes music like this in the States). You can also get a good taste of the style of music (sacred to secular) on this page. I recommend listening to the following for starters.

Zhavrononok ti Moy

Vechernaya Zastolnaya

Chorni Voron

Ach Ti Styep Shirokaya

Golosá choir members and their performances are also notoriously lots of fun. In addition to traditional clothes and the occasional choreography, they often get together for food, drink, music, and merriment – you can watch them do so on Golosafan’s youtube channel 🙂 Very fun.

Scholarships Abroad Abound

The truth about continuing one’s education is that it is expensive – particularly here in the United States. As tuition skyrockets and the economy continues to lag, competition for good jobs increases and pushes the expectations for education to ever higher standards. You will hear a recent college graduate argue with his or her parents about the future. The youth will say that they cannot get a job without a higher degree and the parent will defer to experience and assert that a college degree is enough to find serious pay.  For some industries, this argument is entirely moot, for market has already decided for both parties that a BA will earn significantly less than an advanced or professional degree and confine one to the lower few rungs of the ladder. The question, thus, becomes – are you ready for the debt?

Debt? Is there another option available? Here’s an idea from left field (just one of many viable left-field ideas) – how about a foreign government scholarship? Hm? Wouldn’t you like an MA, MS, MPP, PhD, LLM, or MBA that’s fully paid for? How about a stipend? And a plane ticket? Free housing! No debt! No catch! Sound like a scam? If this were a television commercial with an 800 number it would be but, thankfully, it’s not.

There are plenty of foreign governments that provide a range scholarships (including full-boat ones!) to Americans.  A former colleague of mine had lunch with Ambassador Hamid from Brunei last year. Ambassador Hamid indicated that Brunei’s government gives away about 5 scholarships per year for Americans who want to obtain a master’s degree, covering multiple different fields. PhD options and BA options are also available. He also indicated that in the application cycle for the year of 2010, the Embassy of Brunei Darussalam did not receive even one single application.

While some countries that offer government scholarships to Americans, like Germany, tend to have significantly more competitive applicant pools, Ambassador Hamid’s comments prove that there are valuable, enriching opportunities waiting to be seized. It’s just a matter of whether or not you are willing to seek them out and take hold of them.

Below, I have made a list of some of the government scholarship programs I have heard of through my exposure to various diplomatic missions here in Washington. I’m sure that this list is in no way comprehensive. There are bound to be more. If there is a particular country to which you are interested in going that is not listed below, I highly advise that you contact their Embassy and ask to speak with the officer who covers education (you can find some contact info here or just do a Google search). There will be someone at the mission who is charged with the duty of explaining to curious Americans whether or not such opportunities exist in their country. Sometimes, finding this kind of information takes a bit of digging. However, if you are willing, it could very well pay off in the end – especially if you’re finding information that others have not found.

Perhaps you’re skeptical. Perhaps, you think that most people already know about these opportunities. The fact is that even at the University of Chicago the Career Advice and Planning Services advisers and the individual faculty advisers (even those who focus on international studies, scholarships, and study abroad programs) are not entirely aware of these opportunities. When I was there, not one individual even suggested that they might exist. Fortunately, they do. Here are just a few of them:

Austria: The Oesterreichischer Austauschdienst (OEAD) offers research grants and scholarships for studying various fields in Austrian Universities.

Brunei: Most likely, you will need to contact the Embassy directly for information about the scholarship and an application form for the current cycle.

China, People’s Republic of: Information about Chinese government scholarships are available through the China Scholarship Council’s website.

China (Taiwan), Republic of: Taiwan also has its own set of scholarships that cover both degree programs (BA, MA, PhD) and language enhancement programs. You can read about them here.

Germany: Offering many programs through the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (or DAAD), German government scholarships can even sponsor you to study in other European countries in addition to Germany (depending on the degree program and field of study). Read all about it on the DAAD website.

Indonesia: While I’m unaware of Indonesian government scholarships, there is a great organization called USINDO that offers some grants and fellowships for study in Indonesia. These vary from year to year.

Japan: There are an array of scholarships for study in Japan. These can be extremely competitive. The most comprehensive scholarship program the Japanese government offers is the Monbukagakusho Scholarship (offered by the Ministry of Education). You can read about the Japanese government study programs on the Study in Japan website.

Korea, Republic of: South Korea offers a great scholarship program for Americans to study in Korea. BA, MA, PhD, and professional degree programs are available. The scholarship also covers a year of language study. You can read about the Korean Government Scholarship Program on the National Institute for International Education website.

Switzerland:  The Swiss government offers scholarships for foreign students to attend universities, arts, and music schools. Check out their website here.

There are some websites that try to post these types of opportunities. One such website that I find to be fairly informative and relatively easily navigable is Scholarships Online. They also tweet as they go @ScholarshipsDB.

Many scholarships are also offered by Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Singapore, and so forth. For the sake of space I have not listed them all here. While some are general and can be applied to multiple disciplines, many are also specific to certain fields of study – such as computer science, engineering, biotechnology, robotics, etc. As in some of the examples above, some countries also offer grants for language acquisition, like Italy.