From the Gitmo Cookbook: Emad Hassan’s Zorbian at Brooklyn’s Yemen Cafe
All photos by Matt Zuras

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From the Gitmo Cookbook: Emad Hassan’s Zorbian at Brooklyn’s Yemen Cafe

For the last 12 years, Emad Hassan has been a prisoner at Guantánamo Bay. While his diet today consists solely of intranasally administered cans of TwoCal, he misses food from the outside world a great deal. Especially his mother's zorbian.
November 12, 2014, 10:00am

​ For the last 12 years, Emad Hassan has been a prisoner at Guantánamo Bay. A 35-year-old Yemeni citizen, he arrived there in 2002 after being arrested by Pakistani security forces and sold for a bounty of $5,000 to the US.

Like many members of the majority Yemeni population at Guantánamo, however, Hassan is stuck in a cruel limbo. He has been cleared for release since 2009, but because the US and Yemeni governments have been unable to come to an agreement over the exchange of Guantánamo prisoners—the US still considers Yemen a security risk—Hassan and other prisoners recommended for transfer have simply been forced to wait.

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A 2008 memo by the US Department of Defense concluded that "[if] released without rehabilitation, close supervision, and means to successfully reintegrate into his [Hassan's] society as a law abiding citizen, it is assessed detainee would likely reengage in his extremist activities." But Hassan's lawyer says that his client is nothing but "an intelligent, thoroughly decent man from Yemen who never was an extremist." According to Reprieve UK, a nonprofit advocacy organization working with Guantánamo prisoners, Hassan is "an intellectual with a passion for poetry, ranging from the great Sufi poets like Rumi, to English poets such as Wilfred Owen."

The way that Hassan, who was a student in Pakistan at the time of his arrest, ended up at Gitmo sounds like the perverse plot of an absurd drama. When he was asked by US interrogators if he was aware of Al Qaeda, he said that he knew it well. Hassan was allegedly referring, however, to the village of al-Qaidah, north of Aden, near his hometown. He's now spent a third of his life in a detention center, held without charge or trial, because of a miscommunication. The spiderweb of red tape that has entangled American foreign policy with Yemen hasn't helped either, of course.

For over half of his time there, Hassan has led a hunger strike to protest the brutal treatment of Gitmo prisoners. He says he is subjected to force-feedings twice daily. The doctors there now must use only his left nostril because the right one has closed up from the repeated insertion and removal of a 43-inch plastic tube.

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In January, Hassan wrote a dispatch from Gitmo, wrenchingly describing the force-feedings and treatment of the prisoners there. He claimed that the practice employed by the medical staff puts the digestive system into overdrive, making prisoners defecate on themselves in their chairs during the process. "If I vomit on myself at any time during the procedure," he wrote, "they start the atrocity all over again, though they don't necessarily let me wash off before it begins."

Today, his diet consists strictly of intranasally administered cans of TwoCal, a liquid nutritional supplement. Before he began his hunger strike, however, Hassan was passionate about food, even going as far as making a variation on zhug, a Yemeni hot sauce, with the ingredients available at Gitmo. Prior to his arrival there, he loved Cinnamon Melts from McDonald's, sweet and milky coffee, pizza, and spaghetti, but he also misses soft cheeses, yogurt, and fruit. Back in Yemen, he was especially fond of making tuna.

The thing he misses most, however, is his mother's zorbian, a Yemeni staple consisting of rice and meat. The dish is believed to have originated in India, and indeed zorbian looks very similar to biryani. It was likely brought to Yemen from Hyderabad, the birthplace of biryani, during the long emigration and trade relationship that Hadhramaut shared with India (before Pakistan became independent in 1947, that is).


In order to learn more about Hassan's favorite dish, I went to Brooklyn's Yemen Cafe. The Cafe, which opened in 1986 as something of a social club for the Yemeni immigrant community, has long been the best-known and lauded Yemeni restaurant in New York. Once inside, I was introduced to Chef Yaya, who walked me through the restaurant's version of zorbian.

It begins with a well-heated pan and some oil, in which onions are sautéed for several minutes. Yaya then adds cubes of lamb—"cheap meat," he says, mostly from the leg—which is browned in the oil. (Chicken can be substituted for the lamb.)

Then comes tomato paste, salt, and a few spoonfuls of spices, including cumin and curry powder, depending on the customer's wishes. Dry fried, the spices toast and release their perfume as the tomato paste caramelizes over the meat.

Finally, it's topped off with fragrant basmati rice that's been cooked with sticks of cinnamon. The whole thing is vigorously mixed together before being presented simply with a side of salad, soup, and zhug.

After receiving a generous helping of zorbian from Yaya, I sat down with Nasser Alsubai and Alssedieg "Sid" Nassir, the two close friends who manage Yemen Cafe's Bay Ridge location, to talk a little bit about Hassan's favorite dish. Like many foods in the Middle East, the exact ingredients are fluid and subject to regional variation. Hassan's mother's version, for example, includes potatoes, yogurt, and par-cooked rice; the dish is then topped with dough and finished in an oven, in which the rice finishes cooking and absorbs the moisture from the meat. In the south of Yemen, zorbian often includes raisins and nuts. Yemen Cafe's is comparatively simple, but well-balanced with spice, acid, and appropriately fatty lamb.

"If you go up north, near Bilad al-Sham—like Palestine or Jordan—they have a similar dish like that, but they eat it with yogurt," Sid told me. "It's like a language with different dialects."

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Once I'd finished the zorbian, Sid and Nasser shared with me an obscenely large helping of fatah, a delicious sort of bread pudding cooked in smoked brown butter and drowned in cream, honey, and nigella seeds. ("It's like crack," Sid said between spoonfuls.) While discussing zorbian, I told them about Hassan's situation and the conversation turned political.

Even for American Yemenis like Sid and Nasser, the US's complicated relationship with the Yemeni government has serious ramifications. Nasser brought up the issue of the US embassy in Yemen recently seizing the passports of American citizens of Yemeni descent, claiming that they were fraudulently issued. According to a report in The Guardian, some of those citizens have been detained for hours-long interrogations, while others have been simply stranded in the country for up to a year.

Nasser and Sid's families both hail from the outskirts of Rada'—"That's where they say Al Qaeda is," Nasser noted—and they return each year to spend time with their relatives there. Both of them have had issues with US immigration and customs officials on their return trips, but it's the situation inside Yemen that's the most frustrating.

"Every time something happens in Yemen, we get screwed because the embassy closes, our files get backed up—all this drama," Nasser told me. He's been trying to bring his wife back to the US for the last four years. "I took her to the Department of State, and you know what they said? They said, 'Due to the national security matters in Yemen, we can't allow our people to stay there, so we had to take them out. There's not a lot of people working there—there's only three people there moving passports and everything. We're sorry but we don't have time and we can't do anything right now.'"

Before I left, our conversation briefly returned to Hassan, and Nasser shook his head. "It's an injustice," he says. "I feel bad for this kid."

So do I. I realize that I'm generously stuffed with the food that Hassan misses so dearly, while his stomach is full of nothing but four cans of TwoCal and the water the medical staff uses to wash out the feed bags. And who knows when, or even if, he'll get to taste zorbian again.

"We heard some good news about President Obama wanting to send people home, but we do not want to hang our hopes on it," Hassan wrote in his January letter. "Hope is like a mirage; you can see it, but can't touch it."

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