Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Tribute to Anthony Shadid---Who Explained to the World the Importance of the Mihbaj Coffee Grinder


Anthony Shadid almost died twice before he finally died from an acute asthma attack at the age of 43 while working in Syria. In 2002, he was shot in the shoulder in Ramallah, and then in 2011, he was kidnapped in Libya and held captive with two other reporters for five days. He lived to tell about both incidents and to continue reporting, with bases in Baghdad and Beirut. 

Throughout his career, during which time he was an international journalist at AP, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, he won numerous awards—including the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting (once in 2004 and then again in 2010)--- for his coverage of the Middle East. His eye was trained on the humanity of the people in the countries he covered, as much as the geopolitical facts.

Shadid’s family immigrated to Oklahoma from Lebanon before he was born.  He developed a strong Lebanese identity that he explored in a memoir-in-progress, “House of Stone.” In excerpts recently published in the New York Times, Shadid wrote about the family’s homestead in old Marjayoun, which Is now Lebanon. He talked about the area’s history of deep family roots and strong traditions, as well as intermittent wars, famine, starvation and destruction. 

The Shadid clan has been able to maintain a homestead, which translates into the word ‘bayt’ in Arabic, in Marjayoun, and Anthony has spent time there with his family. He was devastated in 2006 when Lebanon was once again involved in a war, and his family’s ‘bayt’ was wrecked. However, he made sure that over time the house was rebuilt. Renovations were complete in 2009. 

One aspect of ‘bayt’ according to Anthony, was each family’s coffee tradition. He wrote, “Their possessions were few, but each family was said to have brought the wooden mihbaj, to prepare their coffee, and the iron saj to bake their bread. The very sound of grinding coffee was considered an invitation to anyone and everyone to come. Stay, it suggested. Seek shelter.”

The mihbaj can be used to grind coffee and also as a percussion instrument. It seems that if you only have a few things, it’s good to drink hot coffee and then be able to make percussive rhythmic sounds. When Shadid experienced his asthma attack, it was his third in the space of less than a week. He apparently was not in a position to use quick-acting albuterol as a rescue remedy to relieve his symptoms. Nor was he able to quickly drink a cup of coffee, which can temporarily improve airway function and ameliorate symptoms in a pinch. Shadid was trying to leave Syria on foot with his colleague. He was walking behind a horse---and the allergenic effect simply overwhelmed his body’s defenses. 

About a week before Anthony Shadid died, I happened to be watching CNN. I had never really focused on him before, but I actually stopped multitasking and looked at this handsome, vital reporter, whose brow was furrowed in concern and whose language was crisp. I looked at him intently and thought, "Wow, that's Anthony Shadid." His eyes were clear.  He was the father of a girl and a boy, and an incredibly gifted journalist with a true love of humanity.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Java and Justice


Last week, Starbucks came out in favor of marriage equality. In their letter of support, Karen Holmes, executive vice president, Starbucks, noted Starbucks’s “lengthy history leading and supporting policies that promote equality and inclusion.”

This position is one hundred percent consistent with Starbucks’s visible commitment to diversity and inclusion---a policy that permeates every sphere of Starbucks. The people who work there, the people who consume coffee and food there, the people who sit for hours working, socializing, and sometimes just having a place to go.

Starbucks is the place to find solitude and companionship. Starbucks is where people go to write their books, find their mates, launch their new businesses, plan their divorces, celebrate their promotions and victories, and to cry with their friends.

When my marriage needs a little pick-me-up, we head to the movies and Starbucks….After all, we can do both in the 3 hours that comprises the amount of time that the baby will stay with a non-family member. There is magic at Starbucks. Low lights, nice seating, bits and pieces of Italian floating around, lending an aura of romance and adventure to the occasion.

Right now, I have friends for whom Starbucks is the staging area for major events, unfolding life changes, and burgeoning careers. One friend is writing a play. She is diligent, relentless, and remarkably talented. She is also caffeinated. On any given day, she is writing her 20 pages, blogging successfully, and generally being a good friend to me and her other friends.

Another friend is running a small business amidst an intense family challenge that is occurring in the background and greatly challenging her family’s emotional resources. She is prevailing, tending gently an determinedly to the needs of her family, and restoring herself and her sense of well-being over cups of coffee and a nice window seat.

Starbucks represents the site of many different, often intersecting, vibrant communities---and being part of a tight-knit community can lead to better health and a longer life. A 10-year study found that older people with a large circle of friends were 22% less likely to die during the study period. Another study, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology in 2006, looked at what happened to 2,835 nurses with breast cancer based on their social networks. Compared with women with strong social networks, women who were socially isolated were 66% more likely to die (from any cause) and twice as likely to die from breast cancer.
On any given day, I know that I can walk into Starbucks and run into my friends, either alone, with each other, or with their kids. We can work. We can play. We can hang out with our kids….all over a cup of coffee.