Talking over Tabouleh
Falafel and faith; baklava and the downfall of Ben Ali, the former leader of Tunisia—the best food and discussion come together each Tuesday night during the weekly meeting of the Middle Eastern Society.
Now entering its 20th year, MES attracts students from all backgrounds who are interested in the Middle East and current events, said club advisor Kathy Brownback.
“We try to balance political conversations with more fun events like Falafel Ball, cooking lessons and poetry readings,” Brownback said. “Furthermore, we try to balance an interest in conflict with an interest in the people themselves, their lifestyles and the broader dimensions of life in the Middle East.”
MES, which meets on Tuesdays from 6 to 7 p.m., is run by four Exonians: seniors Rivka Hyland, Ayham Maadi, Katie Steininger and Henry Zavriyev. For Steininger, MES is one of the most enjoyable parts of her life at the Academy.
“The best part of club is the cultural gatherings and education,” Steininger said. “So many people don’t understand what goes on in the Middle East, and MES gives them a chance to ask questions and understand the Middle East better.”
MES is also known for its catered dinners. Local Lebanese caterer Karimah Naboulsi prepares a meal for club meetings in the Church basement “every couple of weeks,” Brownback said. On other nights the club meets in the Seabrook room in the Elm Street Dining Hall.
Zavriyev said that there are many delicious choices at the dinners. “There’s stuffed peppers, pita and hummus, falafel, beef and lamb,” Zavriyev said. “It’s all really great food.”
Lower Rohan Pavuluri came to MES partly because of these dinners. “I had heard about not only the discussions at Middle Eastern Society, but also the great catered food as well,” Pavuluri said. “Both are fantastic.”
MES also sponsors some of the Academy’s major events, most notably the Falafel Ball. “Falafel Ball is a cultural party, featuring music, dance and food from the Middle East,” Brownback said. “We also sell scarves and jewelry alongside food and drink; the ones that don’t sell can be bought from our booth at International Day the next year.” MES also introduces and helps to host assembly speakers, such as Philip Khoury, the Middle-Eastern history professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who spoke last week.
What differentiates MES from the Academy’s other ethnic and cultural groups is the emphasis it places on politics and current events.
Open-mindedness is the most important trait in a potential club member, Zavriyev said. “Anyone who cares about the region should come,” he said. “Anyone interested in American politics should also stop by because our foreign policy is so heavily entwined with the Middle East.”
Maadi agreed. “What’s really great is that a Palestinian co-head can talk to pro-Israeli group members with no ill will afterward,” he said. “Both students and faculty like to join in on the conversation.”
Students who regularly attend MES meetings said there are many reasons that they find it valuable.
Senior Fady Gad also enjoys feeling closer to his home country of Egypt. “The meetings act like a rope to my culture and country and help me to never feel away from home. The moment I go into the meetings it is as if I’m back in Egypt with my friends talking in Arabic and eating Arab food,” Gad said. “I feel I’m in the Middle East again. It is also helpful for getting rid of any homesickness I may have, being the only Egyptian in the school.”
The meetings also help him pop the “Exeter bubble” by exposing to him the problems and issues happening back home, Gad said.
Steininger likes getting a taste of home every week. “I live in Saudi Arabia, and it’s nice to think about home once a week and to eat some food from home as well.”
Recent turmoil in the Middle East has made MES especially valuable for Zavriyev, who attends because of the passion he has for the well-being of the region. “For me, it’s a really exciting club, especially now with the Arab Spring,” Zavriyev said. “It’s a big deal, and I personally go because I want to educate myself about the region as much as I can. I want to be able to help to build the region to its full potential as much as I can later in life.”
Brownback welcomes Exonians of all kinds to Middle Eastern Society. “Everyone is welcome to MES, and there’s a nice sense of community here,” Brownback said. “Very basic questions are welcome. Not everyone knows a lot, necessarily, so feel free to ask any questions you have. And, of course, the food is wonderful.”