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Monday, August 08, 2005

Desert trick to try at home

[Yes, I meant 'desert' and not 'dessert']

One of my favorite places to eat in Beer Sheva is a little Yemenite restaurant located on a small one-way side-street in the heart of the 'old city'.  The place is a bit dumpy, and the small seating area is open to the street (read: no air conditioning), but the food is fresh, authentic and delicious!

The first time I was taken to this place (I don't know if it even has a name) by one of my co-workers, I was impressed by both the excellent quality of the food... and the copious quantity of fresh-baked breads, salads, soups and grilled meats that crashed like waves upon the table. 

The crowning achievement, though, was the Hummus. 

Like all the other dishes on the menu, the restaurant made it's own Hummus.  I suspect they grind in some peanuts with every batch because there was a distinct nuttiness about the flavor that made it irresistible!

However much this may sound like a restaurant review, I actually wanted to share a bit of desert wisdom that I learned as we were being walked (rolled) out of the restaurant by the friendly owner.

On the way out through the large open entryway of the place I noticed several small clear plastic bags of water hanging by strings from the awning.  As we stood outside on the sidewalk chatting with the owner, my eyes were drawn again and again to these small bags of water.

The owner noticed me staring at the suspended bags and offered an amazing explanation about their function.

He said that a Bedouin friend of his had told him that the way the desert tribes keep flies out of their tents is to hang such bags of water at the entrance.  Once upon a time they had used small glass bottles of water... but the little clear sandwich bags work just as well and don't hurt when someone inadvertently bumps into them with their head.

Once he'd shared this explanation with us it occurred to me that, despite the restaurant being open to the street, we had not seen a single fly inside.  This may not sound like anything worth mentioning... unless you've experienced the fly-potential of Beer Sheva in the summertime. 

In this desert town, flies are everywhere!  The Souk (open air market) is teeming with the annoying buzz of flies... and nearly anywhere one stands or sits outside these days necessitates a fairly constant waving motion with the hand or a newspaper to keep the flies from alighting on face or food.

But sure enough... the restaurant had been fly-free!

I asked him to explain the science behind the little bags of water and he half-closed his eyes, stuck out his chin and offered a shrug that anyone not born to a middle eastern culture could never hope to imitate.  It was the sort of shrug to make the Gallic version seem vague!

After a moment he offered up that perhaps the way the light shines through the water scares the flies away.  He was clearly humoring me with his guess, though... because this tentative statement was followed by yet another one of his broad meaningful shrugs... after which he waved us to our car.

I don't know about you... but I'm dying to try this at home!

[Update: Here are some links I found that indicate there might actually be some science behind this bit of desert wisdom: HERE, HERE and HERE for starters]

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Posted by David Bogner on August 8, 2005 | Permalink

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Brilliant! (are you going to write to Clay Thompson and tell him that it might come from the desert?)

About the hummus - it might be znobarim they grind into it, as it adds a nice nuttey flavour to it, other than thina, of course. Have you tried a fresh malawah with zhoug and tomatoe chutney?

Posted by: mademoiselle a. | Aug 8, 2005 12:10:34 PM

It works, trust me. I've used them a few times when doing some barbies outside, though you might want to thicken your skin to handle the ridicule you'll get from friends...

Posted by: as | Aug 8, 2005 12:18:22 PM

mademoiselle a. ... I can't believe you didn't know about this before! What with at least part of your family hailing from this sand-blown part of the world I was sure I'd get a comment from you saying something like, "Oh that?... of course! I've been making little decorative glass fly repelling thingies for years!" :-) I'll have to ask the owner about the secret ingredient in the humus. I've had the fresh pita and malawah they bake at this place, and among the little dishes of salads are bowls of both green and red zhoug (I prefer the red). I'm not sure about the last thing though since I usually associate chutneys with Indian food.

AngloSaxy... If it means not having to have flies landing on my food and on my face, I'll put up with just about anything. However, if someone really pushes too hard I can always set a place for them outside the water-baggies sphere of influence! :-)

Posted by: David | Aug 8, 2005 12:38:46 PM

Oh this was so interesting - WE DO IT TOO! In all of Portugal you can see litle plastic bags filled w water hanging from the ceiling. We did have moors but no bedouins so this is definitely a brilliant little chew-on fact. Amazing how the world can be a little pea!

Posted by: Lioness | Aug 8, 2005 1:25:51 PM

Oh and David? Stop talking abt humus and malawah unless you're going to provide hors-d'oeuvres, you cruel cruel man!

Posted by: Lioness | Aug 8, 2005 1:27:46 PM

I'm with you , Lioness... just had lunch and mouth is watering anyway. Will baggies help against enormous Norwegian mosquitos? Flies aren't a big problem here...but I've never seen mosquitos this big!!!

Posted by: nrg | Aug 8, 2005 1:46:13 PM

I'm with you , Lioness... just had lunch and mouth is watering anyway. Will baggies help against enormous Norwegian mosquitos? Flies aren't a big problem here...but I've never seen mosquitos this big!!!

oh, nope, just read the 1st link... no help on the mosquito front...oh well...

Posted by: nrg | Aug 8, 2005 1:50:56 PM

Funny. I've seen those plastic bags hanging from ceilings here in Argentina (not at the southwest where I live, but at the humid, hot north where there are LOTS of flies) whose purpose was to scare them away, but it didn't work at all! Flies seemed to be pretty comfortable with them. May be the number or distribution of bags around the room is important, and so may be the amount and angle of the light coming from outside. *shrug*

'Dessert' tricks would be appreciated as well :)

Posted by: Sandra | Aug 8, 2005 3:08:54 PM

Wow. Two posts, two restaurants. I'd love to try 'em both! Can you get to Gavna at all using public transportation?

Posted by: Rahel | Aug 8, 2005 3:11:27 PM

Well, we don't have fly problems here [or rather, we stick to sticky paper if need be]...and as far as the part in TA is concerned, we probably must take into consideration the Romanian origin.

The tomatoe chutney is Yemenite. It's actually nothint else than finely squashed beef tomatoes with a bit of salt and pepper, and they serve it right on the malawah.

Talking about restaurants. When will you make your way up to Ein Camonim????

Posted by: mademoiselle a. | Aug 8, 2005 3:28:02 PM

ive DEFINATELY noticed the flies. kinda of annoying really.

and if you cant tell by the comment, im here in Beer Sheva! and i love it so far. started uplan today, hopefully that will help me understand somemore of your posts!

Posted by: Lisa | Aug 8, 2005 4:29:32 PM

What an interesting phenomenon. I did some Googling around and found lots of references to the water bag trick but without any definitive explanation. It looks like one of these folk wisdoms that's been around forever that's just begging for some scientific testing. Lots of sites I found suggest that the shimmering light drives the flies away, but unless they did some sort of experiment, how would they possibly know that? It doesn't work on blind flies? They tried it with an opaque bag? No one says. If Gil and Ari are still in summer vacation and have some free time, may I suggest they do an experiment? They could even write it up. I bet their school teacher would be very impressed.

Pick a room in your house (or an area like a patio outside) where you can attract lots of flies. Find a food that they especially go for, and have the same food every day for a few days. (If the Bogners rebel at the idea of the same dinner a few nights in a row, have the same food every Wednesday for a few weeks.) Have Gil be the data collector. His job, while the fly-attractive food is out, is to count how many flies he sees in the course of one hour. Ari can be the experimenter. Without telling Gil which night is which, one evening she'll put water filled baggies outside the door to the room (or in a perimeter outside the outdoor area). Another night she'll hang empty bags without water. Another night she won't hang anything. The last night she'll hang the water filled ziplock bags inside paper bags so the ziplock bags can't be seen by the flies. Gil will be sworn to do his best not to look where the bags are hanging so that his count won't be biased by knowledge of the experimental condition. They will post their results on a Photo Friday [Science Edition]. (You'll be the photographer.) The world will have gained valuable information about an old Bedouin custom. The Bogners will have bonded doing something kind of fun(!?). The kids will have learned about the scientific method.

Or not. Better ask Zahava first.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Aug 8, 2005 4:36:44 PM

Lioness... Several others have checked in from around the globe to report water-filled baggie sightings as well. This leads me to believe that perhaps this is a rather universal custom that was adopted by people wherever flies are found! :-) Oh, and as far as the food talk goes... it sounds like someone is overdue for a trip to Israel!

nrg... boy, that was easy! you answered your own question before i even had a chance to look it up for you. :-)

Sandra... Perhaps the Argentinian flies are a hardier bunch... or maybe it would be much, much worse if the bags of water weren't there. hmmm.

Rahel... Unfortunately Gavna is barely accessible with private transportation! :-) I actually think it would be the PERFECT informal spot for a blogger bash, but I doubt we could convince all those Gush Dan people to schlep all the way to Gush Etzion.

mademoiselle a. ... Ahaaaah!, so that's what you call it. Yes, they had that on the table along with the requisite egg. Oh, and as far as your question, "When will you make your way up to Ein Camonim????" ... the answer is 'whenever you and your husband come to Israel again and join us there!

Lisa... Welcome! I read on your blog that you had arrived safely but wanted to let you get settled in before saying hello. No pressure, but please know that you have an open invitation to join us whenever you have a free evening or free shabbat. As I've said in the past, I pass right by the university every day on my way to and from work.

Doctor Bean... For that much work I had better be getting some kind of grant money! I can see the grant application now: "Request for $10,000 in funding for a double-blind study of common housefly aversion to suspended water bags" :-)

Posted by: David | Aug 8, 2005 5:17:04 PM

I am glad that I didn't miss out on this because I am sure that many blogs will soon be buzzing about it.

Posted by: Jack | Aug 8, 2005 5:34:30 PM

Bish and I spied the water bag trick high up in the mountains in Cyprus.

Posted by: Imshin | Aug 8, 2005 6:46:39 PM

Jack... It's a good thing for you that you had a great post up today (the one with the beginning and middle... but no end yet). :-)

Imshin... That's five distinct parts of the world that have checked in so far with baggie sightings. I'd say there must be something to this. May I assume it was working there in Cyprus where you saw it?

Posted by: David | Aug 8, 2005 9:15:38 PM

Glad you enjoyed it. More to come on that front.

Posted by: Jack | Aug 8, 2005 9:55:37 PM

How fascinating (and the hummus sounds awesome, too)! I remember from my time in Israel what a huge problem it was with flies buzzing around all the felafel stands I visited. I contracted a bacteria in Israel and one theory is that this bacteria is carried by flies.

I will remember this interesting tidbit about the water bags.

Now if I could just figure out how to get rid of the mosquitoes here in TX. They are just awful and they carry West Nile Virus, so can be deadly too. I am about ready to enclose our patio.

Posted by: Stacey | Aug 8, 2005 10:20:27 PM

Just checking in to report all the restaurants around the lakes in Oklahoma have the little bags. I thought it was an old Cherokee custom!
Carol

Posted by: Carol Feldman | Aug 9, 2005 1:25:58 AM

$10,000? Why are you selling yourself so short? You could probably get $7,000 just to make your chopped liver to attract the flies. Then Gil and Ari would each need their own research assistant stipends of $4K each....

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Aug 9, 2005 1:44:51 AM

Could you fill the bags with Tang and get the same results.

Posted by: Jack | Aug 9, 2005 1:57:18 AM

Never seen any of these little bags here in Australia, and flies are definately a problem. I guess we tend to rely on the "bush salute" (waving a hand constantly across the face) or flyscreens to keep the flies away. Will definately give this trick a try next summer though. Thanks!

Posted by: zemirah | Aug 9, 2005 2:37:45 AM

We have a serious fly problem under the overhang outside our shul. I would try this, but people would probably freak out and think it was a terrorist plot.

Posted by: ball-and-chain | Aug 9, 2005 7:08:40 AM

Stacey... I remember when West Nile was first becoming news in our area (Connecticut) and the health department was spraying to kill the mosquitoes and putting tablets in all standing water to kill their larvae. Aren't they doing this sort of thing over there?

Carol... Back to the old country for a visit? I'd be interested to hear your impressions of OK after life here.

Doctor Bean... Who says the research assistants get paid? I see them as more the unpaid intern sort. :-)

Jack... Only if it were an IV bag with a slow drip and your chair sitting underneath. It wouldn't do much for the flies but you probably wouldn't notice them once the 'tang' started flowing.

Zemirah... I was about to ask why you don't try it now during >this summer... but then I realized it's winter there. Clearly it's been a while since I visited down under. :-)

Ball-and-chain... In my experience, people don't usually argue with success. although, we are talking about a shul, so criticism is sort of mandatory... even if it works.

Posted by: David | Aug 9, 2005 8:41:52 AM

This is great David! Having had the privilege to dine with a maasai family in their community far from the city once, I couldn’t help notice all the flies that swarmed the food and little kids eyes’ and nose as we fed, I’ll be sure to take this Middle Eastern wisdom to them next time I visit :-)

Posted by: kakarizz | Aug 9, 2005 10:19:23 AM

Kakarizz... I'm serious... when are you going to write that book??? :-)

Posted by: David | Aug 9, 2005 5:46:16 PM

:-) let me read your book in the making, first.....I seek inspiration.

Posted by: kakarizz | Aug 10, 2005 8:56:31 AM

Kakarizz... The difference is that not many people would buy a book about a middle-aged Jew from suburbia USA who now lives in Suburbia Israel. You on the other hand have had (and continue to have) some unbelievable adventures!!! That book writes itself!

Posted by: David | Aug 10, 2005 11:47:52 AM

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