Meet My Character (A Blog Tour)

Stamp from DDR (east-germany) -My good friend, the talented author Alli Sinclair, invited me to join this fun blog tour, where we introduce characters from our stories and books. My guy is a police detective from a short story published last year. I enjoyed hanging out with him so much, I’m now planning to give him his own novel.

1.) What is the name of your character? 

Johannes Christian Alexander Freiherr von Maibeck. I know, it’s a bit of a mouthful, especially for a police detective in Communist East Germany. But if history had turned out differently, he’d have been a baron like his father (that’s the Freiherr part of his name). Since being stripped of his title, he is known simply as Alexander Maibeck. Certain associates (not his friends) call him “Baron,” but never as a sign of respect.

2.) Is he/she fictional or a historic person? 

He’s fictional, but the story he appears in is set against the backdrop of real events.

3.) When and where is the story set? 

1981, Leipzig, German Democratic Republic.

4.) What should we know about him/her? 

Maibeck is a detective with the Leipzig Volkspolizei. He’s in his late forties, divorced, the father of a rebellious teenage daughter whom he adores. Their relationship is strained, however, because of what he does for a living. Like most of her friends, she views the police as the enforcers of an oppressive regime. Maibeck has worked hard to overcome the political liability of his aristocratic birth—at the expense of his family life. Once a committed Communist, he has become disillusioned with the ideology and the course his country has taken in recent years.

5.) What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life? 

While political unrest is raging in neighboring Poland in the form of protests surrounding the Solidarnosc (Solidarity) trade union strikes, a nocturnal graffiti artist is spray-painting slogans in support of the Polish strikers all over town. The East German authorities are desperate to catch the vandal, convinced that his messages are coded calls for an uprising. When Maibeck’s daughter, Katya, is arrested for smuggling subversive documents across the border and comes under the power of the brutal secret police, Maibeck must capture the elusive artist to secure her release. But if he is successful, will Katya ever speak to him again? He must choose between her life and her love.

6.) What is the personal goal of the character? 

All Maibeck has ever wanted was to fit in. Always the outsider, his yearning compelled him to divest himself of his aristocratic heritage. But now, later in life, he’s come to realize that he will always be viewed with suspicion by his Communist comrades, and his refusal to accept who he is has ruined his chances of a stable and happy family life.

7.) Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it? 

Trading Places was published in Nautilus, an online magazine. You can read the story for free here.

8.) When can we expect the book to be published or when was it published?

Although Maibeck appears in only one short story so far, more adventures are in the works and possibly even a novel. I’m off to Germany in a few months on a research trip. Stay tuned for further developments…

The authors below are next up on the tour. They will each be writing about a character from their books on October 22, so be sure to stop by their blogs next week!

Diana Chambers was born with a book in one hand and passport in the other. Maybe it was A Tale of Two Cities, but she was soon wandering Paris cobblestones. An Asian importing business led to Hollywood costume design, then scriptwriting…until her characters demanded their own novels. She writes romantic intrigues set in far corners of the world. Her first Nick Daley thriller, Stinger, was recently released by, with the sequel in production. Diana loves spicy foods and her bag is always packed. She is a member of Writers Guild of America, Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime-NorCal board.,,

Kate Wyland writes romantic suspense novels, usually in a horsey setting and often with a paranormal twist. Her novel Forewarning recently placed third in the PRG Reviewer’s Choice contest for Best Mystery/Suspense, while Wyoming Escape came in fourth. Kate is a life-long horse nut who started riding at three years old and has taken part in a variety of equestrian activities. A few years ago, she exchanged her tech writing “bug” hat for a fiction writing Stetson. She delights in combining her love of animals and country living with her fascination for mystery and suspense.

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New Blog

I haven’t updated these pages in a very long time, and there’s a good reason for that. Since October 2010, I’ve been blogging with three other suspense writers over at Novel Adventurers, where the conversation is all about travel, culture and storytelling. Between us, we regularly cover Iran, India, South America, Australia, Russia, and Turkey. On Fridays, we invite guests from all over the world to share their own travel experiences on our weekly Off the Beaten Track feature.

My observations on Persian culture and my travels to Iran can be found on Mondays.

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Hip Tehran: Vali Asr Avenue

Tehran is hip. Really. For some, the city may conjure up images of stern-faced clerics and women enveloped in black chadors or demonstrators shaking their fists and yelling “Down with America” – or more recently “Down with the dictatorship”. For me, Tehran is filled with vibrant youthful energy.

Thanks to a population boom in the 1980s, two-thirds of Iran’s population is under the age of thirty and it’s impossible not to notice the youthfulness of the crowds on the street. No wonder, then, that Tehran has more than its share of hip haunts.

Let me take you on a quick tour of some favorite Tehran hangouts:

We’ll start with brunch at the Blue Duck (Ordak Abi), a restaurant in the multistory Tandis Center that towers above Tajrish Square. The fare here is best described as East Meets West, served buffet-style. You’ll find everything from Iranian aash (bean and herb stew), halim (wheat porridge) and adasi (lentils) to French toast, pancakes with date syrup and eggs made to order. At the cold buffet across the room, the choices include cereal, yogurt, fruit, European pastries and my favorite Persian breakfast: flat bread with creamy white cheese, sliced cucumbers, juicy tomatoes and walnuts. We’ll pile our plates high, make a quick stop at the juice bar, grab one of the window booths, with their red vinyl benches, and tell the white-aproned waiter to bring us coffee or tea.

After brunch we’ll head across the square to the Tajrish Bazaar, a smaller and more upscale version of the Grand Bazaar downtown. I always make a beeline for the vegetable market at the center of a big stone hall with vaulted ceiling. The prices here are much higher than at the meydoon where my mother-in-law shops, but I like to admire the artful way in which the vendors arrange their produce.

Next we’ll take a taxi down Vali Asr Avenue to Vanak Square with its classy – and expensive – boutiques. I could use a new manteau and add to my growing collection of brightly colored scarves. Just because Islamic law dictates that women cover their hair and bodies doesn’t mean we have to look drab and dowdy. Vanak is the place to go for Islamic chic. Manteaus are getting shorter, tighter and more stylish all the time. They come in a rainbow of colors as well as poncho-style, form-fitting, belted, striped and embroidered. You can pair them with a scarf from the shop next door, which offers them in every color, style and fabric, made locally or imported from India, Italy and Japan.

Shopping is exhausting work, so we head back uptown to the Super Star, a fast food joint that is like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken all rolled up into one, complete with staff in blue and yellow uniforms and baseball caps. There is even a play area for kids featuring a yellow plastic slide.

Past the restaurant and up a short flight of stairs is a dimly lit coffee shop with the low key elegance of a jazz bar. Black armchairs cluster around wood-topped tables and abstract collages adorn the walls.

The machines lined up along the sleek bar promise a range of coffee types, from Turkish and cappuccino to espresso and an ordinary cup of Joe. There is no jazz playing here, just the buzz of low voices and the gentle click of the computer keys from the next table, where a guy is tapping away at his laptop, perhaps checking e-mail or updating his blog.

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Picnics and Rain Gods

Today is sizdah bedar, the thirteenth day of the Persian new year and the end of the two-week celebration of spring and renewal. The phrase doesn’t translate elegantly into English, but it means that on the thirteenth day of the year, you’d better not be caught indoors. Thirteen is a very unlucky number.

Iranians all over the world will celebrate sizdah bedar by heading for the nearest park or into nature, laden with picnic baskets, blankets and plenty of food to share: fruit, aash-e reshteh (New Year’s soup), special Norooz pastries and candies (to make the occasion sweeter), pistachios and tea. After all, you have to bring enough to share with friends who will be stopping by to say hello.

Our haft seen is gone by now. We’ve eaten the apples and chocolate eggs, the hyacinth blooms have faded, and the cut flowers are confined to a single vase. All that remains is the sabzeh, (lentil sprouts). They are looking quite ratty—sparse and yellowing, white with fuzzy mold at the roots.

But that is appropriate to what the sabzeh represents. The sprouts have been collecting the illness, pain and bad luck that has accumulated in our house, so they should have an unhealthy pallor by now. Tomorrow, we will perform a ritual that Persians have been practicing for centuries: we will take our sabzeh out to the wilderness and scatter it to the wind. This dissipates the bad luck, so it will not plague us through the year.

Like many of the Persian New Year’s customs, sizdah bedar is rooted in Zoroastrian traditions. Family members who have been quarreling should make peace. Friends who have lost contact should find each other again. This belief goes back to the Zoroastrians. On this day, the Zoroastrian God Uhura Mazda, who represents goodness and purity, fights with Ahriman (the embodiment of evil). Our behavior is supposed to give one side or the other the advantage.

Some say that sizdah bedar goes back to even older times before the Zoroastrians, when ancient Persians gave a name to each day of the month and placed it in the care of a deity. The thirteenth day belonged to Tir, the god of rain, and people would pray to the deity to prevent drought later in the year. This makes a lot of sense to me right now as rain pounds my roof. I’m guessing that Tir heard the prayers.

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Norooz in Gilan

Iran’s Gilan Province stretches along the southern shore of the Caspian Sea. It is a green, fertile region where farmers grow tea, rice and silk worms. In one rice processing plant, where we stopped to buy bags of rice for family in Tehran, the owner combined two of these businesses in one building: downstairs, he stripped the husks from the rice with loud, rattling machines, while silkworms happily munched on mulberry leaves overhead. Very practical.

In Gilan Province and its Western neighbor of Mazandaran, people celebrate a special spring festival just before the Persian New Year. Young girls carry herbs and lanterns to celebrate fertility, life and good luck. The highlight of the event is a play, set outdoors, in which Pir Baba fights a black ogre to win the heart of Arous Gol (whose name means Flower Bride).

Watch a clip of this colorful celebration here. It takes place in the village of Masouleh, and the narration is in Farsi (Persian) with English subtitles.

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Cooking with Herbs

Persian cuisine has a rich tradition of using herbs, not just for flavoring, but as main ingredients in a dish. The choices range from ghormeh sabzi – an herb, lamb and bean stew – to sabzi khordan, a plate of mint, basil, scallions, cheese, walnuts and tarragon, served with bread as an appetizer. Herb cooking is at its finest during Persian New Year, when Iranians prepare the traditional meal of sabzi polo ba mahi (herbed rice and fish) and sabzi kuku (herb frittata).

My mother-in-law is a true artist when it comes to cooking with herbs. She uses no recipes, but eyeballs everything, and knows from decades of experience just how much parsley, dill or cilantro to toss into the mix. So whenever I ask her how to make a certain dish, her answer is always: “come, let me show you.”

She taught me how to prepare the following dishes, and I’ve tried to turn her demonstration into recipes. But like the best of Iranian cuisine, the trick is to learn the technique, then make the dish your own:

Sabzi Polo ba Mahi

1 bunch                  fresh parsley

1 bunch                  fresh cilantro

1 bunch                  fresh dill

1 bunch                  garlic chives (sold as tareh in Middle Eastern markets)

2-3                         fresh green garlic sprouts (looks like scallions)

3 sprigs                  fenugreek (tarragon can be substituted)

2 tablespoons         vegetable oil

1 large piece           lavash bread (2 pita breads can be substituted, split in half lengthways)

3 tablespoons         melted butter or a mild-flavored oil

1/2 teaspoon          ground saffron

2 cups                    Basmati rice

Remove the herb leaves from the stems and chop finely. Mix together in a large bowl. It’s best to do the chopping by hand, as a food processor will make the result too watery. There should be approximately 12 cups of chopped herbs. Set aside two cups of the mixture for the sabzi kuku (recipe follows).

Rinse the rice in several changes of water until the water is no longer cloudy. Bring a large pot of water (about 8 cups) and 1 tablespoon salt to boil. Add the drained rice and cook until soft. Drain.

Heat vegetable oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid, and arrange the lavash or pita bread in a single layer. Place a quarter of the rice on top, then a third of the herbs. Continue alternating layers of rice, herbs and garlic, mounding them in a pyramid shape. Poke a few holes in the mound to allow steam to escape. Cover the pot and cook at medium-high heat for 3-4 minutes or until steam starts rising from the rice. Pour the melted butter or oil over the rice, reduce the heat to low, and cover, first wrapping the pot lid in a clean kitchen towel. Cook for another 20 minutes.

Just before serving, dissolve the saffron in 2 tablespoons of hot water and remove some of the rice to a small bowl. Mix in the saffron water until the rice is yellow.

Carefully mix the rest of the rice in the pot to distribute the herbs and saffron throughout and remove to a serving dish. Arrange the saffron rice on top. Finally, take out the crispy bread and arrange around the rice or on a separate plate.

Serve with fish and wedges of Seville orange or lemon.

Sabzi Kuku

Mix two cups of the herb mixture with ½ cup chopped walnut pieces and ¼ cup dried barberries (sold in Middle Eastern markets as zereshk). Season with salt and pepper to taste and a pinch of turmeric. Mix in 4 beaten eggs. Fry in 2-3 tablespoons oil at medium-high heat in a 12-inch pan. When the bottom starts to brown, lower the temperature and cover the pan. Cook until the egg starts to set. Then flip the kuku over and brown on the other side, about ten minutes. The easiest way to do this is to cut the kuku into wedges and flip each over, or slide the whole thing onto a plate, uncooked side down, then slide it all back into the pan.

Both dishes serve 4-6 people.

Noosh-e jaan. Bon appetit. Enjoy!

Posted in Persian culture, Recipes | Tagged | 3 Comments

Eid-e Shoma Mobarak

Happy New Year!

Today celebrates two important events: Persian New Year (Norooz) and the vernal equinox. All around the world, Iranians, Afghans and Zoroastrians of all nationalities will be ringing in the new year at precisely the same moment, regardless of where they live. Because this moment is calculated according to the sun, it always changes.

Earlier this week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution recognizing the cultural and historical significance of Nowruz, expressing appreciation to Iranian-Americans for their contributions to society, and wishing Iranian-Americans and the people of Iran a prosperous new year.” I am so excited about this, I had to share it.

It is said that whatever you are doing when the new year arrives is what you will be doing nonstop for the rest of the year. I suspect it is a way to get sleepyheads to stay up late when the year changes at two in the morning. Who wants to sleep for twelve months? I am not a night person, so the only way I can stay awake is to find a good party. This is usually not a problem, because Iranians like to party – the later, the better.

In Tehran today, the year 1389 arrives at 9:02 in the evening. Halfway around the world in California, we will be celebrating at 10:32 in the morning. So I won’t need to down cup after cup of Turkish coffee to keep from dozing off.

Last night, we had our traditional New Year’s meal: sabzi polo ba mahi (herbed rice with fish). When the year changes in the morning, it’s customary to eat this dish the night before. All day, the house was fragrant with the smells of fresh herbs and saffron: parsley, cilantro, dill, green garlic and fresh fenugreek, which I can get only for a few weeks in the spring.

The first time I watched my mother-in-law prepare this dish, I understood why cooking is such a major effort for Iranian women – and why it is more fun to do it together. She buys her herbs at the meydoon (farmer’s market), where the bundles do not come nicely rinsed and clean. They have clumps of mud clinging to them, and therefore require a good thorough washing.

Then she sits down on the floor with a big metal tray amid piles of herbs for cleaning. For the next couple of hours, she, her daughters – and me, when I’m around – painstakingly pluck leaves from stalks and form fresh new piles of fragrant greens, waiting for another washing. I’m tempted to head to the supermarket and buy the packages of pre-washed, precut herbs and be done with it. But then the sabzi polo wouldn’t taste as good. And who wants to mess with tradition, anyway? That would be bad luck.

In Iran, the fish served with this meal is mahi sefid, or white fish, also known as kutum, which is native to the Caspian Sea. It is a flaky fish with a mild flavor and an overabundance of bones, but with a to-die-for flavor that more than makes up for the effort of picking flesh from the thorn-like bones. I can’t get anything that resembles it here in California, so I substitute grilled salmon. Check back tomorrow for a recipe and pictures of special Norooz dishes.

In the meantime, here is a fish market in Tonekabon, near the Caspian Sea. (The fish is not mahi sefid, which wasn’t in season at the time.)

Posted in Holidays, Persian culture | Tagged | 4 Comments

The Seven Seens

I put up our haft seen yesterday. Here is a picture of it:

Haft seen translates as “seven seens”. Seen is the 15th letter of the Arabic alphabet, which is also the writing system used in Persian, and it sounds like an “s”. The haft seen arrangement has many items celebrating spring, but seven of them are special. Their names start with the letter seen, and they have symbolic significance:

sib (apples) for beauty and good health

sabzeh (lentil sprouts) symbolizing rebirth

samanu (wheat pudding) for affluence. Samanu is sweet, although it is made entirely of wheat berries that are soaked and sprouted for days, then cooked all night and pounded into a paste. The sweetness comes entirely from the wheat’s natural sugars.

serkeh (vinegar) for wisdom and patience

senjed (dried fruit of the oleaster tree) for love. When the oleaster tree is in full bloom, the fragrance of its blossoms is said to make people fall in love.

somaq (sumac berries) symbolizing the color of the sunrise and therefore also the “new day” (Norooz)

sir (garlic) symbolizing medicine

Many of the other items in the haft seen are auspicious (and some also begin with the letter seen):

sekeh (gold coins). Placing them in your haft seen means that your money will multiply over the course of the year. I must put the wrong coins in mine, because that one never seems to work for me.

Koran or poetry: I put a copy of the Iranian poet Hafez’s Divan in the center of my haft seen. It is trilingual: Persian, English and German and represents my three cultures.

sombol (hyacinths) because they are among the first flowers to bloom in the spring. And they smell nice.

Yaz (jasmine) – this isn’t traditional, but jasmine is the first flower to bloom in my garden, so in it goes.

Adjeel – A special mixture of nuts and dried fruit

Pastries – to make the coming months sweet.

Decorated eggs – for fertility (mine are chocolate in colorful wrappers)

The mirror and candlestick are also symbolic. I light the candles at night and the flame reflects off the mirror, creating the illusion of fire and water. This makes me think of the Zoroastrians, who started the tradition.

Usually there are also a few goldfish swimming in a bowl of water. I leave this out because I never know what to do with little tykes after the holiday is over. In Iran, vendors stand on the corner in every bazaar with big tanks and lots of goldfish swimming around. They will scoop the fish out with a net and deposit them into a water-filled plastic bag for you to take home – quickly before the oxygen is gone.

Apart from being pretty, the goldfish serve a practical function. They tell you precisely when the year changes. The fish swim in circles in one direction, but at the moment the new year arrives, they abruptly turn around and head the other way. No matter how long I sit in front of the fishbowl and stare, I’ve never seen this amazing event. It must happen when I blink.

Our haft seen will remain in place until the thirteenth day of Norooz. Then we will take the sabzeh outside and scatter the sprouts away for good luck.

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Fire Festival

Last night, we went in search of a bonfire to jump over to celebrate chahar shanbeh souri (see my last post), and this is what we found:

I could have left my seven-league boots at home, but it was fun anyway.

Then came the dancing. First the kids:

Then the adults (these dancers are from southern Iran – with an Arab flair):

No fireworks or beating pots with metal spoons, but there was enough kebab to feed a small, hungry nation.

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Red Wednesday

A few years ago, when I visited Iran on Persian New Year, I discovered the most exciting ritual of the holiday. It’s called chahar shanbeh souri, or Red Wednesday, and it is always celebrated during the night between the last Tuesday and Wednesday of the Iranian year. The tradition goes back thousands of years; those Zoroastrians sure knew how to throw a good party.

Like khooneh tekooni (see my previous post), chahar shanbeh souri is all about tossing out the old and embracing the new. But this time, you do it with fire.

That night in Tehran, the festivities started well before dark – with firecrackers, sparklers and plenty of noisemakers. As if this weren’t enough racket, people were going door-to-door banging pots with big metal spoons, symbolically chasing away the old year to make room for the new. This is not a night to catch up on your sleep.

We went into the back yard with a few pieces of old crockery and smashed them on the hard, stone path. The idea was to release all the pain and bad luck that had accumulated over the past months, supposedly contained within those few old jars. Did it work? Who knows? It felt good, anyway.

Later, after dark, we headed up the mountain to a street where people had built bonfires right in the middle of the road. With music blaring from open windows, cars honking, people cheering from the sidelines, we all jumped over the bonfires chanting a phrase that translates roughly as: take my sickly yellow color and give me your vibrant redness. Symbolically, we were asking the fire to cleanse away the sickness and troubles of the past and leave us with health and good luck in the months to come.

I’ve since celebrated this ritual in California, but that first experience stayed with me through the years. It impressed me so much that I stuck a version of it in my current novel-in-progress.

Tonight after dark, I’ll be going out to find a bonfire to jump over so I can ask it to give me good health and fortune in the months to come.

In the meantime, check out this video to get a quick taste of this fun holiday tradition:

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