British and US soldiers in plain clothes celebrate Thanksgiving day in Kuwait City, November 25, 2004. Expatriates from an American company in Kuwait hosted the soldiers who are based in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. (Yasser al-Zayyat/AFP via Getty Images)

Turkey in Turkey: Seeking a Taste of Home Abroad

Americans celebrate the uniquely American holiday abroad

The American short-story writer O. Henry said: “There is one day that is ours. Thanksgiving Day is the one day that is purely American.”

As citizens of the world’s superpower, Americans are unique. This extends to US citizens abroad, particularly in the Middle East. During Thanksgiving, this distinctiveness is even more extenuated.

In Turkey, chef Kay Habip hosted a pop-up Thanksgiving over the weekend. Her dinner included a selection of meats like chicken with a cardamom, ginger, garlic and black pepper rub and potato puree, which she describes as “a traditional Thanksgiving carb.”

“I enjoy doing special festivals. I like the idea of being grateful for what the year has brought us. It highlights positivity, which is good energy for everyone,” Habip told The Media Line.

A pop-up restaurant differs from a standard restaurant not only because of its temporary nature but because it is more personal. Thanksgiving is particularly conducive to this kind of environment, especially for Americans away from home.

“It’s more of an overall experience than just really good food. … A dinner party with strangers who become friends,” Habip said. “Sometimes people talk about personal sensitive things and a table of [guests] act as therapists, supporters and advisers.”

In Jerusalem, Israeli-American Katherine Leff incorporates a Jewish twist to her Thanksgiving, which she celebrates over Shabbat. Leff, a student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, immigrated to Israel in 2007 from Toledo, Ohio. Leff has dinner with her family Friday and on Saturday, she gathers with her mostly American friends who are first-generation Israeli.

“Culturally, we all feel more Israeli than American, but Thanksgiving is a nice excuse to get together as a whole group and eat good food,” Leff said. “Here, Thanksgiving is not really a big deal at all, it’s basically just Shabbat dinner with turkey, but there is something nostalgic about eating the classic foods.”

“I don’t particularly miss the US this time of year,” she continued, “especially since I really grew up more in Israel than in the States. Nevertheless, it’s still a fun tradition, one that I can see myself continuing to do in the future.”

However, for those who immigrated to Israel more recently, Thanksgiving is often a difficult time. The Lone Soldier Center in Israel is hosting a Thanksgiving meal for roughly 500 to 600 Israelis who immigrated without their families and joined the Israeli military. For young Americans, adding Israeli citizenship often means participating in the army under Israel’s mandatory draft.

“The holidays usually end up being the hardest time for lone soldiers from around the world, who are used to celebrating them with their families,” Yehoshua Sigala, the marketing director at the Lone Soldier Center, told The Media Line. “With religious holidays, it tends to be a little easier, since the whole rest of the country is celebrating as well and they are often invited to meals with friends.”

“Secular holidays like Thanksgiving are different, though,” he added, “which is why the Lone Soldier Center decided, soon after being established, to host a Thanksgiving dinner for all lone soldiers.”

Meanwhile in Egypt, the Italian restaurant Eish & Malh will host its own fifth Thanksgiving celebration Thursday. Approximately 100 Americans are expected to attend.

“We serve all the traditional things,” Nadia Dropkin, a New Yorker and co-owner of the restaurant, told The Media Line. “Cranberry sauce that I bring from New York, … roasted sweet potatoes, stuffing, gravy.”

Skipping over to Bahrain, the American-owned Big Texas Barbeque & Waffle House restaurant in Manama offers those serving their country a reprieve from the loneliness they might feel during the family-centered holiday. “The majority are military and have nowhere else to go so they go to their ‘Big Texas family’ to celebrate,” Elara Aitken, the restaurant’s marketing director, told The Media Line.

She says that it is important to the restaurant’s owner, Radford Cox, a former military man himself, that Americans feel a sense of belonging, especially when they are separated from their loved ones.

“It’s very important to him that everyone has someplace to go,” Aitken said.

Thanksgiving also provides American organizations in the Middle East an opportunity to introduce foreigners to American culture.

The American Business Council Kuwait (ABCK) hosted a Thanksgiving dinner last week for around 120 people at the US Embassy in Amman where a senior official gave a talk about the origins of the holiday.

In addition to bolstering US-Kuwaiti trade, the council – which tries to promote American values and other aspects of American society in the country – annually puts on Thanksgiving and other American holiday events.

“We had the turkey and all the types of food you would typically have at Thanksgiving dinner,” Dalia Badih, events and public relations coordinator at ABCK told The Media Line.

They will be hosting another Thanksgiving event during the actual holiday, which will be another opportunity to introduce locals to the American holiday spirit.

Thanksgiving in general provides American expats in the Middle East the inimitable opportunity to rekindle their connection to the US and feel connected to the other compatriots in the region.

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