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Robert Fisk: Tea with Bin Laden...and other stories

The distinguished Middle East correspondent of The Independent recalls the culinary highs and lows of an extraordinary career – from feasting with kings in Jordan to eating under fire in Afghanistan

Saturday 22 May 2010 00:00 BST

When the Iranian Revolutionary Guards closed the roads to journalists after Ayatollah Khomeini's return from exile in 1979, I decided to travel the country by rail. Secret policemen and soldiers always forget trains. They like road-blocks; and the journalist who wishes to elude them must remember Michael Collins' old maxim, that no one ever sees a man on a bicycle. No one ever sees a journalist on a train. So Iranian state railways – and their single-carriage restaurant cars – became my home for weeks.

Paul Julius Freiherr von Reuter – yes, the founder of the news agency – built half the railways in Iran, and after several days there wasn't much I didn't know about the massive Boy's Own Paper trains that freighted me to Qom and Ahwaz, the Tabriz express and the slow train to the shrine of Mashhad. Numbers of bogie wheels, the horse power of the diesel locos, the maximum gradient to climb below the towering cliffs of Zard Kho – "Yellow Mountain" – on the way to Tehran. And the meals.

For breakfast, it was chicken and chips with warm Pepsi and tea. For lunch, it was chicken and chips with warm Pepsi and tea. For dinner, it was chicken and chips with warm Pepsi and tea. There were variations. You could have your chicken undercooked, your chips over-fried. Every morning I entered the restaurant car with its grimy soldiers and cold families, children huddling beneath their mother's cloak, and the cook would shout out: "What you want for breakfast?" And I would bellow: "Chicken and chips!" There was nothing else. And sure enough, the poor old stringy bit of chicken embedded in fatty chips would turn up on the equally chipped Formica table.

The very train seemed to run on the stuff. On a down run, the carriages would merrily click over the rails: chicken-and-chips, chicken-and-chips, chicken-and-chips, like the mad Night Mail in Auden's movie-poem pulling up Beattock ("a steady climb, the gradient's against her but she's on time"). And after a while, I came to enjoy my chicken and chips. Like a prisoner longing for his hour of exercise, food meant freedom from my stinking bunk compartment – soil buckets were kept by the window – and so the smell of fried chips wafting down the corridors was a symbol of life. Back in Tehran, I missed chicken and chips so much that I sought out the meanest cafés to avoid the wonders of kebab bahrg and Persian salads, the first a mixture of lamb, saffron, tomatoes, onions, butter and black pepper, the second a wodge of cucumbers, onions, tomatoes and lettuce hearts. Given the junk food we reporters consume, I sometimes think we deserve to live short lives.

The one Iranian and Lebanese drink I am addicted to is dukh, or what the Lebanese call "laban sharab", literally, "drinking yoghurt". Mixed with lashings of salt – and with the exception of sweet tea – it's the most refreshing drink in the entire Middle East; one mouthful is to bathe in white paradise. Unless... During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, one of Saddam's Scud missiles blew up the Iranian dukh factory. The substitute was not the same. A senior Iranian intelligence officer and several Hezbollah supporters were dining me out one night during the war and were appalled to hear me ask for dukh. "No – don't touch it," the spy shouted at me when it arrived. "It's not the same as it was." No problem, I said, and gulped away. It tasted like a combination of rubber tyres and hot-water bottles. I coughed it up. Always take culinary advice from spies.

It was almost as bad as the night I stopped at the town of Saropi in Afghanistan during the 1979-80 Soviet invasion. There was no electricity. The invisible hotel staff said they had bread and butter. I buttered the bread in the dark. I was sick. In the morning, I awoke to see that the butter was green with age.

Eating is an odd pastime in the Middle East. I've scoffed meat shawarma from a street stand in the Syrian city of Hama and dined with King Hussein of Jordan. I've gone through every form of gippy tummy in Cairo and Assiut and all towns south during the anti-Sadat food riots, and sat at the impeccable table of Rafik Hariri when he was prime minister of Lebanon. Andreas Whittam Smith, founder and then editor of The Independent, was with me in 1993, eyeing a vast vegetable with giant spiky leaves on the prime minister's table. "Take it!" Hariri commanded him. "Well, to tell you the truth" – those readers who know our humble founder will acknowledge that this quotation must be accurate – "I'm rather frightened of it." "Give it to me," Hariri commanded and, with a twirl of knives, reduced the thing to a few pitiful fruit lozenges.

King Hussein sat centre of a candle-lit table – there were candles in the bookcases, as well – that overflowed with an Arab mezze and flowers. The mezze was traditional: hummus (cooked chickpeas, garlic, tahini paste, lemon juice and black pepper), falafel (white beans, garlic, parsley, onions, coriander and, of course, black pepper), buraks (grated feta and mozzarella cheese, eggs, parsley, chives, mint, pastry, melted butter), tabbouleh (bulgar wheat, lemon juice, olive oil, tomatoes, parsley, mint and yet more black pepper) and yoghurt with cucumber. That was just the first course. There was a packet of cigarettes on the table in front of the king. He acknowledged their presence, his inability to give them up. They killed him.

In truth, I can attest that the humblest family in Afghanistan, Iran, Syria or Egypt will insist on feasting any visiting journalist, no matter the colour of his passport, his infidel status or his failure to remove his shoes before entering their home. Family life revolves around meals. Serious conversation in the Middle East begins after the first onion or sip of water. I suspect that the act of eating is so basic to life that hosts believe their guests will tell them the truth. No nonsense about the weather or the state of the roads. It's straight in. "Mr Robert, will there be another war in Lebanon this year?" (answer: not this year, maybe next, because both the Israelis and the Hezbollah want a war) or "Don't the Americans realise they cannot win in Afghanistan?" (answer: not yet, but they will lose, and then they'll leave saying they've won). By now, we're into the baked fish with nuts, the baked aubergine and the Turkish salad and, yes, the chicken and chips.

Arab men seem to like meat in huge amounts. Osama bin Laden – in the only meal I took with him – was more ascetic. "We will now pray and then eat," he announced the last time I met him, on a mountain in Afghanistan. There were many prayers – not by me – but little food. Bin Laden sat next to me on the ground, a tablecloth laid on the bare earth in front of us, mosquitoes swooping from the hot sky. He sipped hot sweet tea, he ate white cheese on top of the big, floppy naan bread so popular in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he bit at an onion head and he drank yoghurt. Then he went back to his tent to warn me that he prayed to God that He would permit him – Bin Laden – and his followers "to turn America into a shadow of itself".

Being a child of post-war austerity, I grew up in the grey Britain of ration cards. No oranges and bananas. I was fed a diet of cabbage, carrots and beetroot and developed an insane hatred of all three. Alas, one of the specialities of the Lebanese city of Sidon is carrot juice. And one of the favourite street drinks in Tehran is beetroot juice. I've tried both. They are as terrible as ever.

There is no ducking the prohibition on alcohol in the Koran; there's no re-interpretation that can possibly allow wine to bless the dinner table – even though some of the greatest poetry of Iran and Iraq involves the drinking of wine (often by drunken poets). But, of course, there is excellent Lebanese red wine (Kifraya, Musar) and quite good Egyptian wine (the best, I must reveal, is made from grapes imported from France) and there is fine Algerian wine (thank you to the former French colonists) and there is Lebanese arak – the "milk of Lebanon", they claim it to be, probably because this gives alcoholism a healthy veneer. Distilled from rice or coconut milk, it's a close relative of ouzo and absinthe, hangs on the breath and is definitely not to be drunk before interviewing Muslim divines.

I once visited a Christian village in south-east Lebanon, almost 20 of whose inhabitants had gone down with the Titanic in 1912. They insisted I take breakfast with glasses of arak – knocked back by women and children as well as men. My wobbly notes record the villagers' miserable deaths, except for a teenage girl who left her husband and baby behind to cross the Atlantic and make a fortune, was rescued from the Atlantic when the Titanic foundered, made her fortune in the lumber industry in Canada, then returned to her Lebanese village – only to find that her friends accused her of stealing the insurance payments for those who had died. Alas, she had no grave. It is a tradition in this Christian village that coffins stand for 10 years in a chapel; the bones are then thrown down a local well. At least, after several araks, that was the story.

Sometimes it is the simplest drink or food that satisfies. I remember one baking summer day in Qom, waiting to speak to Khomeini, when an English student of Shi'ism offered me a bronze bowl of near-freezing water. Never has mere water tasted so good, another peek into paradise. Or the dust-cloaked journey to the Panjshir Valley in Afghanistan when, famished and finding a "chaikana" – a tea-house – I found they were frying eggs and serving them with naan bread and I spent half an hour in silence slurping egg from bread right out of the frying pan. Once, hot and frightened during an Israeli army raid on a village where I was staying in southern Lebanon, a man working in an orchard – and who may have been helping the resistance – held out to me a dawn-cooled mandarin, slicing it open with a hooked knife. It tasted about as sweet as life could be on that dangerous morning. Do condemned men, I remember thinking, enjoy their last meals?

Beirut is a happy place to live, wars permitting, and probably serves the cleanest and spiciest food in the Middle East. Coffee by the sea at the Manara restaurant, a few hundred metres from my apartment on the Corniche, the waves breaking only two foot away – journalists have a habit of always referring to "hot sticky coffee" and "scalding hot sweet tea", as if the Arabs would serve it cold or (unless asked otherwise) unsugared – is a great way of starting the day. The fishermen perch on rocks beside the table, the waves frothing round them. I like to take lunch in the Abdul-Wahab al-Inglisi restaurant, the only café I know that was named after a hanged man. Actually it's named after the street which bears the name of one of the Lebanese martyrs hanged by the Turks in 1915 (in Martyrs' Square in central Beirut, which is how it also got its name) but it lives up to the fulfilment of the independence that Abdul-Wahab sought, the most congenial mezzes, the finest fruit and vegetables, the best arak, the cleanest hubble-bubble pipes.

Or there's the dim old Spaghetteria, set back from the sea in west Beirut – the only restaurant to stay open throughout Lebanon's 15-year civil war. It lost a mirror to shellfire around 1975 and a window to the bomb that killed the aforesaid Hariri 30 years later. Its fish are fresh – I love the "sultan ibrahim" (red snappers), although I always check that the eyes are clear. Many years ago, during the war, when electricity was as scarce as peace, I was served a steak that gave me acute food poisoning for two days and lay in bed calling for the death sentence for all waiters. But the fish are now impeccable, the Italian dishes reasonably priced, the waiters (I always imagine) 150 years old and they know how to serve a gin and tonic.

I guess that sums up the city in which I live. You arrive from London or Paris and smell the cardamom in the coffee and you realise you are in the Middle East. You arrive from Tehran or Baghdad and order a gin and tonic (and buy The Independent) and you have arrived in the West. All things to all dinner guests. Tel Aviv, with its unique blend of Arabic and east European food, comes a close second to Beirut. After all, it's got more Moroccan (Jewish) restaurants and Iranian (Jewish) restaurants than most Middle East cities. Israelis, I long ago concluded, eat well. So do Palestinians, although they will correctly tell you than many of the oranges you eat in Tel Aviv are from orchards which are legally owned by the Arabs who lost them in 1948.

My Beirut driver Abed and I often buy each other cheese "manouches" – big folds of hot, thick-floured bread wrapped around wads of boiling yellow cheese – although my landlord Mustafa probably produces the best (number two being a street concession in the hill-town of Sofar). I have never understood why the manouche – there is a "zaatar" variety, if you like to clog your teeth with thyme – has not migrated to Syria or Jordan or "Palestine". I guess some food never crosses borders. Beirut's chocolates do, of course, along with the finest pistachio nuts from Rifai's Roastery – beware, the Syrian variety: they are thin and have a dry Baathist flavour – and the vast pressed orange juices that you buy on the street. There's a café in Hamra street which bears the name "Malek al-asir" – the "King of Juice". I like superlatives because I always remember the flower shop in Yalding, Kent, which assured customers that "Bang's Begonias Bloom the Best".

For obvious reasons, reporters in the Middle East spend a lot of time at funeral feasts, dutifully nibbling the food set out to honour the memory of rogues, dictators, vagabonds, murderers, "martyrs", war criminals and saintly prelates. My saddest meal was in a bleak village called Turungzai, outside Peshawar in the North East Frontier province of Pakistan. It was a place of open sewers and screeching children and was the home of Saifullah, one of the first victims of America's 2001 attack on Afghanistan. He had been a student who had taken money to Kabul for "suffering" Afghans – his brother admitted he might also have been a fighter – and he was blown to bits with 35 other men in one of the first US Cruise missile strikes on Kabul. They had just buried Saifullah – his name means "Sword of God" – as a martyr in the grubby little village cemetery and his father Hedayatullah invited me to eat with the family. There was roast chicken and "mitha" sweets and pots of milk and tea. With his fingers, Hedayatullah tugged hunks of chicken from the brazier, scrunched them up in his bare hands and then handed them to me to eat. I glanced at my Pashto translator who gravely nodded at me. I ate them all. Quite good, really. We survived. My translator is now a bigwig in the Afghan government. I remain a Middle East Correspondent, supposedly immune to all sickness.

But there is one culinary experience that never fails to floor me. It occurs after giving lectures at universities very far from Lebanon. I eat well the week before, lunching out at Lebanese restaurants, drinking the same "hot sticky coffee" that we always write about. And after an 18-hour flight, I arrive in Vancouver or – after a 36-hour flight – in Sydney, give a rip-roaring lecture and then, tottering with tiredness, am given an invitation by my hosts in words that are invariably the same: "Robert, we have a special surprise for you tonight – we are taking you to a Lebanese restaurant!" Oh yes, God bless my soul, what a jolly good idea. In fact, there's nothing I like better than to travel thousands of miles from Lebanon and, swaying with fatigue, eat yet more Lebanese food. The cook, always, is a Druze, who wants to tell me what "really" happened in the 1984 mountain war (at which I was present). Sometimes, even chickpeas can be boring.

But hold on. And this is a real reminder. Memo to Abed, my driver: it's your turn to buy the manouche.

Claudia Roden's tabbouleh

Serves 4

This is a homely old-style version of the very green and tart parsley and mint salad you find in Lebanese restaurants. Indian and Middle Eastern stores sell large bunches of flat-leaf parsley weighing between 200-250g.

120g fine bulgur
500g firm ripe tomatoes, diced
Salt and pepper
tsp ground cinnamon
¼tsp ground allspice
Juice of 1 lemon or more to taste
4 spring onions, thinly sliced
A large bunch of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped by hand
A bunch of mint, finely chopped by hand
150ml extra virgin olive oil
2 gem lettuces to garnish or for serving

Soak the bulgur in plenty of cold water for 10 minutes. Rinse in a colander and put into a bowl with the tomatoes. Leave for 30 minutes to absorb all of the tomato juices. Mix gently with the rest of the ingredients except the lettuce.

A traditional way of eating tabbouleh is to scoop it up with small gem lettuce leaves or very young vine leaves.

Claudia Roden's falafel

Serves 10

These flavoursome broad bean rissoles, called ta'amia in Cairo, are a national dish of Egypt.

500g dried split broad beans, soaked in cold water for 24 hours
Salt and pepper
2tsp ground cumin
1tsp ground coriander
A pinch of chilli powder (optional)
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 large onion, very finely chopped or grated
5 spring onions, very finely chopped
6 cloves garlic, crushed
A large bunch of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
A large bunch of coriander, finely chopped
Sunflower or light vegetable oil for deep-frying

The long soaking of the beans to soften them is all-important. Drain the beans very well and let them dry out a little on a towel. Then put them through the food processor until they form a paste, adding salt and pepper, cumin, coriander, chilli powder and bicarbonate of soda. The paste must be so smooth and soft that it will hold together when you fry it. (If the paste does not hold together it usually means that it has not been properly mashed. You can remedy this by adding 2-3 tablespoons of flour.)

Let it rest for at least 30 minutes.

Add the rest of the ingredients except the oil. If you chop or grate the onions in the food processor, strain them to get rid of the juice.

Knead the mixture well with your hands. Take small lumps and make flat, round shapes 5cm in diameter and cm thick. Let them rest for 15 minutes, then fry them in deep hot oil until they are crisp and brown, turning them over once. Lift out with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.

Serve hot, accompanied by hummus, a tomato and cucumber salad and pitta bread.

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