LiterEature 101: The Scorpions of Zahir

coverThis particular book has been on my agenda for months. I’ve read tons of books in the past few months, but I desired to craft this one into something tasty simply because it takes place in Morocco. Hence a chance to delve into Moroccan flavors! Something new for everyone. And yet, upon completing The Scorpions of Zahir by Christine Brodien-Jones, I had a deflated sense of excitement. I couldn’t quite pin it down; certainly there was mention of the aromatic marketplaces, and phyllo-wrapped chicken with almonds and spicy roasted plums. But, the title should indicate there were some unpleasantries as well. Like a plethora of scorpions. And an abandoned soul in the desert feasting on fried purple locusts. *sigh* Nevertheless,I fought against the insects to bring you this new post. Please enjoy. With a side of spotted lizard if you desire (I assure you, I do not). (FYI scroll to the bottom if you just want the recipes)

Observations:

Oh how I yearend for the epic adventure within the wildly vibrant cover of this book. I’ve read up some lately on some of the best novel covers of the past year, and some choices I agree with (some I most assuredly do not) but for a middle grade novel, this definitely won a few points for me. The bold aqua green bordering, the rich desert backdrop, and an unusual girl at the center of everything. One must never judge a book by its cover, I wholeheartedly agree, but this cover made me dream tantalizing treks and mystical happenings. Had I known the big blue orb at the top was not the moon but rather a PLANET (evidently careening towards Earth magically) I might have entered with a few more misgivings. Still, the cover caught my eye and the synopsis reeled me in: an archaeologist’s daughter with a penchant for unbridled enthusiasm and speaking out without reigning her energy, who craves for desert sands and a chance to uncover tombs and forgotten civilizations, who stumbles upon a mythical tribe and a sacred city, a city overrun by scorpions now (ok I could do without insects)… how could I resist?

And overall, I would say for a child this is a truly exciting adventure. There’s enough real science (from astronomy to wild chemical pursuits) to balance out the huge leap of faith in visualizing a rogue planet inextricably linked to an azure stone on earth, so much so that the removal of said stone from its rightful place could rock the planet off course and onto a path heading to Earth. Right. You heard me. Plus it features intense pursuits through desert and city, rocking casbahs and palaces, friendly Moroccan folk and not-so-friendly “Westerners”. At the heart is a well-meaning young girl who learns that adventure comes with responsibility, and the value of family and friendship ranks higher than having the last word. Zagora Pym occasionally gets on my nerves–I just wish she would think before she speaks!–but I can relate to her desire for mystery-solving and adventures across the world. I like reading about a female protagonist interested in the world, interested in history and empowered female identity at such a young age.

Review:

Positive observations aside, I have some issues with this books though. Primarily one. No, two. The first being that if you’re going to type Marrakech in Arabic, make darned sure you spell it correctly. I sat for a good few minutes wondering why ym Arabic skills were failing me before figuring out that the publishers made a slight snafu. I understand Arabic script is not your forte and many letters might look similar to you, but keep in mind that some of us can see your glaring mistake.

Onto the actual critique, I was floored by how strongly this book reeked of Imperialism. I glimpsed it initially upon her first interaction with a “traditional” Moroccan man with a “cinnamon-brown face” and a basket of figs, along with a front tooth “rimmed in gold”. Fine, she can have an “authentic” encounter… in fact, let her start off being completely enamoured with the foreignness of the country as most travelers are. I’m okay with that. Mostly. As long as it dissipates into something real and equal. But then she becomes excited about all the mysterious-sounding Arabic words her father is teaching her (casbah, medina, etc). It never lets up, and I have to wonder about the author’s perspective at this point. Brodien-Jones’ bio at the end mentions how a journey to Morocco with her family inspired her wondrous feelings about the country (and her blog includes much detail). So what I take is that, despite interacting with people, despite spending time there, she leaves only with the idea that it is wild and mysterious and begs for discovery by Westerners.

Perhaps I’m being harsh. Admittedly, I can’t help but overly criticize anything I read or watch now. However, it is not lost on me that ALL the people Zagora meets (even the inevitable Azimuth tribe’s queen and princess) are either downtrodden, poor, desert nomads, or just otherwise lesser than herself. She of course does not outwardly perceive them as such, but the descriptions tell all. Zagora ends up being the savior in some ways, the one with “desert vision” who fulfills the hieroglyphic prophecy of returning to the stone to its rightful place and restoring the Azimuth tribe. She befriends many children along the way, children who contribute and make a difference in the final battles but remain second fiddle to her. This is glaringly clear when Mina, the Azimuth princess and street-smart desert rogue, concedes her initial jealousy for Zagora, ” ‘I was angry at you, Zagora, because you have desert sight and you are Sentinel of the Stone—and I wanted these things for myself. But I see now that my path is different. As long as you have the stone…, I must follow and protect you” (333-4). Touching words, and reflective of the maturation all children (and adults) must go through, but I would be annoyed too if a random white girl with no Moroccan heritage or lineage just randomly attains the title of Sentinel by universal forces that be. It just doesn’t sit well with me.

But I appreciate the candid nature of this storytelling, no matter how unintended it is; one can read truth in the colorful splatters of paint, no matter how integrated they seem, no matter how randomly scattered they appear to be. Some colors will always appear more prominently, some shades will inevitably get deference from the artist. My curiosity lies in wondering when a Zagora won’t end up being THAT special, but instead just special enough to know who to help instead of being the savior. When does that happen?

Ok that was a rambling, and I apologize. It was a cute story, with some creative twists and turns. Certainly has some flaws to iron out, but the casbah descriptions were beautiful (it’s clear where Brodien-Jones’ rapture with Morocco resides) and the number of characters all had distinct personalities as well as a fair amount of depth. And it ends with a girl feeling empowered by her female heritage as a smart, determined, gifted girl. So, onto the food.

Food:

I was actually recommended a dish by one of my professors involving a delicious blend of couscous, dates, almonds and spices… but the husband refuses to eat anything with dates as a dinner item and I don’t see myself eating couscous for dessert so… eventually, eventually. Nevertheless, I took this opportunity to just try some new spices mostly, and I thought about some of the food that would be readily at hand for an adventurer (nothing fancy, primarily just staples, easy to make and going to represent and appeal to a young person). Zagora strikes me as adventurous in her pursuits and her eating habits, but she also would crave something warm, homely and nurturing. After which she can explore into wilder territory, aromatic, pungent, sweet and fresh. I decided to cook two dishes (both for the book and beacuase I wanted to): Moroccan Couscous (or in my case, quinoa) and Spinach and Chickpea Stew.moroccan couscous (quinoa here)First up: Moroccan Couscous (or Quinoa)

Ingredients

  • 1 cup couscous (I used quinoa for this, because I had it in store)
  • 2 cups of water/chicken/veggie broth (I used 4 tbsp vegetable broth powder for 2 cups of water)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp ginger powder
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp cumin powder
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp chili powder
  • salt to your preference (I started with scant 1 tsp)
  • raisins and shredded carrots to mix in
  • wedge of lime

close up quinoaIn a large pot, bring the water/broth to a slow boil and add all the spices and the olive oil to it (alternatively, cook your couscous as directed by whatever the packaging says, adding all the spices). Let it slowly cook and once all the water is gone, remove from heat. Stir in the carrots and raisins, and squeeze some fresh lime on top. Cover it for a few minutes to let the steam plump up the raisins and you’re good to go. You may want to garnish with some cilantro but that’s up to you. I made this with quinoa instead of couscous as mentioned, and I think couscous would be better personally. I don’t always favor the quinoa taste, but all the other spiced flavors blend so well, it does feel like something I’ve never cooked before. And quite honestly, how much easier can that be??

Second batter up: Spinach and Chickpea Stewphoto 1

Ingredients

  • 1 can chickpeas, thoroughly rinsed and drained
  • 1 yellow onion, sliced
  • 3/4 tbsp cumin powder
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 tsp coriander seeds
  • 4 dried red chilies
  • Salt to your preference (start with 1/2 or 1 tsp)
  • 3 cups fresh spinach
  • 2-3 tomatoes, pureed
  • 1/2 cup water (if needed)
  • 1/2 tsp mint (optional)

In a large pan of some sort, heat up 3-4 tbsp olive oil to medium. Add the onions and sauté for a good 10 minutes, so they begin to turn melty and translucent. Add the cumin, cinnamon stick, coriander, salt and red chilies, mixing in thoroughly. In a separate smaller pan begin sautéing the spinach so it can wilt and cook down a tad before adding to the mix. With the spinach going separately, add the tomato puree, chickpeas and water if needed to nearly cover the beans, reduce the heat to low and cover so the tomatoes can simmer. Once the oil begins to separate from the tomato/water you can add the spinach and increase the temp to medium-low, stirring to allow the spinach to full incorporate all the flavors. It’s done once the water has reduced the sauce to the consistency you like. Sprinkle a little mint on top if you like that added zest (but if you don’t like mint, feel free to leave out).spinach and chickpeas This is kind of all sorts of awesome served atop the couscous, but can also be had with plain rice or roti/bread of your wish.

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