Saudi chef’s passion for cooking burns bright despite challenges of multiple sclerosis

Afnan Aljaadi's passion for cooking helped her overcome her depression. (Supplied)
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Updated 08 April 2021

Saudi chef’s passion for cooking burns bright despite challenges of multiple sclerosis

  • One of the main things that helped Aljaadi overcome her depression was her passion for cooking

JEDDAH: Afnan Aljaadi was a freshman in college when she received the life-changing news that she had multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2008. Aljaadi is now one of Saudi Arabia’s leading chefs, specializing in French, Italian, and Asian cuisine. She talked to Arab News about how she has been able to make her dreams come true against the odds.

MS is a medical mystery. Its cause is still unknown, there is no cure yet, and symptoms and progress vary from person to person. It is a relatively rare autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system including the brain, cerebellum, and spinal cord. According to the American National Multiple Sclerosis Society, there are only 2.3 million people worldwide with a confirmed diagnosis of MS, 1 million of whom are in the US. 

The first symptoms Aljaadi noticed back in 2008 were dizzy spells that would cause her to faint, sensitivity to sunlight, and migraines. Her college work began to suffer and her GPA dropped significantly. Unfortunately, she told Arab News, her college professors thought she was making excuses and faking her symptoms until she had been properly diagnosed.




Afnan Aljaadi's passion for cooking helped her overcome her depression. (Supplied) 

After a series of tests and an MRI, she was transferred to a neurologist, who suggested brain and nerve radiation therapy. It took several more tests and visits to other neurologists before her diagnosis was confirmed.

“The disease was very strange. I had never heard of it before, but I am very thankful that I discovered the symptoms (early) and did not lose the ability to move,” Aljaadi said. “I was struggling so much in that first year because society did not accept the changes I was going through. That has turned me into a very reserved person.”

Aljaadi developed further symptoms: The frequency of her fainting increased, the left side of her face felt numb, and her skin became extremely sensitive to cold water. These are not uncommon — the lesions seen when patients with MS undergo an MRI can affect areas of the brain responsible for sensation, meaning many experience a loss of feeling in parts of their bodies, as well as blurred vision, weakness, and “brain fog.”

Like many people diagnosed with a life-altering condition, Aljaadi became depressed. “I went into a spiral of sadness and depression after acknowledging that I had been diagnosed with the disease and was not receptive to it,” she said.

The head of the neurology department at My Clinic in Jeddah, Dr. Rumaiza Hussein Alyafeai, a Saudi neurologist and consultant, and an MS specialist, explained how MS affects the brain and muscle function.

FASTFACT

MS is a medical mystery. Its cause is still unknown, there is no cure yet, and symptoms and progress vary from person to person. It is a relatively rare autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system including the brain, cerebellum, and spinal cord. According to the American National Multiple Sclerosis Society, there are only 2.3 million people worldwide with a confirmed diagnosis of MS, 1 million of whom are in the US.

“The immune system is not affected in itself, but some immune cells lose track of attacking foreign particles and they start to attack the myelin sheath (an insulating layer around the nerves) in the nervous system, hence the lesions start to appear,” she said.

“Among the most challenging obstacles that patients with MS might face is the lack of knowledge,” she continued. “Autoimmune diseases, in general, are quite difficult to handle as they have a variety of symptoms that make the patients pass through a sometimes overwhelming journey prior to having their diagnosis declared. You might start to see symptoms such as mood swings, depression, euphoria, forgetfulness, and emotional lability.”

One of the main things that helped Aljaadi overcome her depression was her passion for cooking. Having completed her college degree in six years, she started work as an administrator. But she also participated in several cooking competitions, and in 2013 she took part in “Master Chef,” which she credits with opening many doors for her.

She has now received two chef certifications from the acclaimed French-born Monégasque chef Alain Ducasse and French culinary school Le Cordon Bleu, and she is a certified professional pastry chef. She runs her own cake decoration business — @unemeringue (“My inspiration is generated from my passion in art, combined with my pastry skills to create edible art pieces with a unique fine taste,” she said) and has also joined the Middle Eastern food and lifestyle TV channel Fatafeat.

“The most challenging obstacle is losing control of my muscles, especially when I do my daily routine of work in pastries and cooking and all I feel is numbness,” she said. “But I am a survivor. I changed my lifestyle and understood what could hurt me. I’m still fighting it. It’s a matter of adapting and adjusting to a certain healthy lifestyle and habits to maintain a sustainable day-to-day routine.”

Finding the right diet has played an important role in living with her condition, she explained. Every patient’s dietary needs will differ, depending on their blood type and their family’s medical history.

“I follow a gluten-free diet,” Aljaadi said. “I avoid lactose, I increased the amount of vegetables I was eating and reduced my meat intake.” Exercise, especially walking, is also crucial, she added. “Continuing treatment without a healthy lifestyle will not give any satisfactory results.”

But it’s not just her physical well-being that Aljaadi needs to pay attention to, she explained. “Visiting a psychologist — just talking to a (professional) — helped me a lot,” she said. “It improved my confidence and (increased my belief) in Allah’s mercy, with patience and persistence, to accomplish my ambition.”

“Most MS patients are great warriors and heroes of their own unique stories,” Alyafeai said. “They almost always cope well with the disease (with the help of) their neurologists.”

For anyone else with MS, Aljaadi has some advice. “I’d encourage you to let go of your comfort zone to avoid bouts of depression,” she said. “Remember that your persistence is a source of energy for others who are suffering.”

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In the Iron Throne’s shadow: Arabs reflect on ‘Game of Thrones’ 10 years on

‘Game of Thrones’ topped the lists of most illegally viewed shows online, as many fans couldn’t afford or gain access to HBO’s streaming services.
Updated 17 April 2021

In the Iron Throne’s shadow: Arabs reflect on ‘Game of Thrones’ 10 years on

  • Middle Eastern fans look back on 10 years of a show that changed pop culture forever

RIYADH: Whether you loved it or hated it, followed it casually or watched every episode twice, chances are you’ve at least heard of the HBO smash hit series “Game of Thrones.” The eight-season fantasy epic, which began 10 years ago today, has secured its place in pop culture history as one of the most famous TV shows of all time.

The adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, the show began on April 17, 2011, to an audience of eager fans. Over the course of its run, the show has garnered 160 Emmy nominations, taking home 59 of them, making it one of the most successful shows in history.

Najla Hussam, an avid fantasy fan who cited Martin as one of her favorite authors, told Arab News that the show provided a way for her to bond with her father, who started reading A Song of Ice and Fire when the first volume was published in 1996.

“My dad tried for years to get me to read the novels, but I honestly just wasn’t that interested. When the TV series first came out, he asked me to watch the first season with him to see if he could get me to change my mind about it. I was hooked instantly, and once the season was over, I borrowed all the books from him so we could discuss our theories about how the future of the show might look,” she said.

The show has also gained notoriety for other reasons. Due to its exclusivity of being shown on the HBO network, the show is also famous for being the most pirated TV series of all time. Consistently throughout its run, Game of Thrones topped the lists of most illegally viewed shows online, as many fans couldn’t afford or gain access internationally to HBO’s viewing and streaming services.

In the MENA region, the show was broadcast on the Orbit Showtime Network (OSN), with previous seasons being made available via the network’s on-demand service, OSN Play. Leading up to the start of season 7, OSN launched a 24-hour binge-watching channel, with all of the previous seasons being made available.

However, in the Arab world, the show saw a lot of pirating activity for another, unusual reason; the OSN network broadcast the show in its full, uncensored version, which caused a lot of fans to hunt online for a version that removed or glossed over some of the more controversial themes.

Danya Assad, a 30-year old viewer from Riyadh, said that she only started watching the series around the start of the fourth season in 2013. She was only able to get into the fandom around the time censored episodes started to become available online.

“I heard about a Game of Thrones group online made up of fans who volunteered to censor some of the more unsavory content, and that was how I was able to start watching,” she said. “I loved the premise of the show, I’m a huge fan of fantasy television and I was definitely interested in watching, but the amount of sexual content and other disturbing themes really put me off.”

Assad said that while some fans might argue that she didn’t get the “authentic” experience of watching the show, she feels much more comfortable knowing that she was able to bypass the more controversial themes and still manage to enjoy the show.

“I loved Game of Thrones because of the political intrigue, for the richness and depth of the lore and the history, because of the unexpected plot twists like the Red Wedding, for things such as the fashion and the set dressing. By removing the gratuitous sexual content and some of the more violent scenes, I don’t think I missed out on much,” she said.

A man stands atop the ancient fortress of Ait-ben-Haddou, where scenes depicting the fictional city of Yunkai from ‘Game of Thrones’ were filmed. (Getty Images)

The show has seen its fair share of controversy over the past decade. Despite the accolades heaped on the show, the amount of violence portrayed in the series, including the deaths of many innocents and children, the sexual content, and heavy themes such as incest and rape, have drawn much ire from fans and critics alike.

“I couldn’t make it past the first few episodes, honestly,” Talal Ashour, another Saudi fantasy fan, said. “I can understand the appeal, but to me Game of Thrones just crossed way too many boundaries. It’s a beautifully crafted show, and I’m still amazed by certain aspects of it, like the CGI dragons or the fact that they created a whole new language for the Dothraki, but I couldn’t get passed the darker aspects of the show.”

But perhaps the biggest let-down for fans of the series was the ending, which many fans believe was a massive disappointment and a departure from the grandeur of the previous seasons.

“Game of Thrones ended for me after Season 7,” Hussam said. “The more they started to deviate from the books, the less I started to enjoy it. I think the writers did fine when they had more content from the original books to work with, but once they started doing their own thing, it all just went downhill.”

Martin, notorious among fans for being slow to produce new novels, published the latest book in A Song of Ice and Fire in 2011, the same year the show began. Martin told the press at the time that the novel had taken six years to write, and that a sixth novel out of a planned seven, “The Winds of Winter,” was still in the works.

“I think the writers thought they could go off what they had and that the sixth book would be out by the time the series caught up,” Assad said. “It’s such a shame that they couldn’t or wouldn’t delay the series until the book came out. A lot of fans were unhappy with the way the series ended. I feel like we deserved better.”

Assad is not alone in that. A change.org petition appealing to HBO with a request to remake the final season with “competent writers” began circulating online the day the final episode debuted, with almost 2 million people signing and the numbers still increasing two years later.

However, despite the controversies and the overall disappointment with the way the series ended, the show has retained a strong fanbase in the Middle East.

“I had a Game of Thrones-themed birthday party in 2019,” Hussam said. “I dressed up as Daenerys, all of my friends came in costume, and my cake was a replica of the box that held Dany’s dragon eggs in it, including three edible cake eggs. It’s the best birthday I’ve ever had.”

“I don’t think one bad season can ruin the whole series,” said Assad. “Even if the ending was disappointing, the other seasons are still incredible to behold. Maybe in time I’ll be able to go back and watch the show and enjoy it even more. And if the ending still disappoints me after the second time, I can always hold out hope for ‘The Winds of Winter.’”


What We Are Eating Today: Roxy and Lala in Jeddah

Updated 16 April 2021

What We Are Eating Today: Roxy and Lala in Jeddah

Roxy and Lala is a mother and daughter business inspired by the family’s grandmother, who has Spanish roots and used to be a very good baker in her hometown in Peru.
The Jeddah brand offers a type of cookie called “Alfajor,” an Andalusian cookie dating back to the 8th century. It is a variant of the popular Castilian sweet known as alaju (a sweet made of almond paste, nuts, breadcrumbs, and honey) and the name derives from the Arabic word Al-Fakher, meaning luxurious.
The recipe for Alfajor, which is made of butter, eggs, sugar, corn starch, flour, was brought to Spain by the Arabs, and the colonizing Spaniards later introduced it to America.
Roxy and Lala offer the classic Alfajor cookies with different fillings, including the original filing of the homemade “dulce de leche,” a caramel mixture that requires a lot of attention, Nutella, Italian meringue, and peanut butter.
If you want a present for your loved ones, the brand offers a Ramadan box with 30 pieces and more, with a small Ramadan lantern and Ramadan wrapping paper.
For more information and order, visit their Instagram @roxyandlalaco.sa or the website roxyandlala.com


What We Are Reading Today: The Third Pole by Mark Synnott

Updated 16 April 2021

What We Are Reading Today: The Third Pole by Mark Synnott

Mark Synnott’s The Third Pole transport readers to Mount Everest during the 2019 climbing season as he searches for the remains of Sandy Irvine that may help prove the British summited Everest in the 1920s.

This was an interesting look into Synnott’s quest to find the body of Irvine who was lost on Everest in 1924.

A mountaineer and rock climber himself, Synnott skillfully describes early 20th century exploration, then dives into a story about Everest that merges mystery, adventure and history into a single tragic bundle.

Synnott writes a compelling story that combines the 2019 season on Everest, historical attempts to climb Mt. Everest, and mountaineering culture as a whole.

He “describes horror stories about frostbite and strokes (blood clots are more likely at high altitudes) and oxygen tanks that hit empty at the worst possible moment,” Edward Dolnick said in a review for The New York Times.

Synnott “knows how to keep readers turning the pages, and they will speed their way to his mystery’s resolution. But any Everest story today has an unavoidable dark side.” said Dolnick.


J-Rod are done: Jennifer Lopez, Alex Rodriguez have split

Updated 15 April 2021

J-Rod are done: Jennifer Lopez, Alex Rodriguez have split

  • Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez told the ‘Today’ show, in a joint statement, that they are calling off their two-year engagement
  • The couple was given the nickname ‘J-Rod’ three years ago after they landed on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine

LOS ANGELES: J-Lo and A-Rod are no longer J-Rod — officially.
Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez told the “Today” show Thursday in a joint statement that they are calling off their two-year engagement.
“We have realized we are better as friends and look forward to remaining so. We will continue to work together and support each other on our shared businesses and projects,” it said.
“We wish the best for each other and one another’s children. Out of respect for them, the only other comment we have to say is thank you to everyone who has sent kind words and support.”
The couple started dating in early 2017. They issued a statement in March that disputed reports they were breaking up.
The couple was given the nickname “J-Rod” three years ago after they landed on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.


Egypt to unveil ‘portion’ of 3,000-year old city

Updated 10 April 2021

Egypt to unveil ‘portion’ of 3,000-year old city

  • Famed Egyptologist Zahi Hawass had announced earlier this week the discovery of the “lost golden city”
  • Items of jewelry have been unearthed, along with colored pottery vessels, scarab beetle amulets and mud bricks

LUXOR: Archaeologists near Luxor have unearthed just a portion of the “largest” ancient city ever found in Egypt and dating to a golden pharaonic age 3,000 years ago, officials said Saturday.
Famed Egyptologist Zahi Hawass had announced earlier this week the discovery of the “lost golden city,” saying the site was uncovered near Luxor, home of the legendary Valley of the Kings.
“We found one portion of the city only. But the city extends to the west and the north,” Hawass told AFP Saturday ahead of a press conference in the archaeologically rich area.
Betsy Bryan, professor of Egyptian art and archaeology at Johns Hopkins University, had said the find was the “second most important archaeological discovery since the tomb of Tutankhamun” nearly a century ago, according to the excavation team’s statement on Thursday.
Items of jewelry have been unearthed, along with colored pottery vessels, scarab beetle amulets and mud bricks bearing seals of Amenhotep III.
The team began excavations in September between the temples of Ramses III and Amenhotep III near Luxor, some 500 kilometers (300 miles) south of Cairo.
Amenhotep III inherited an empire that stretched from the Euphrates River in modern Iraq and Syria to Sudan and died around 1354 BC, ancient historians say.
He ruled for nearly four decades, a reign known for its opulence and the grandeur of its monuments, including the Colossi of Memnon — two massive stone statues near Luxor that represent him and his wife.
“It’s not only a city — we can see... economic activity, workshops and ovens,” Mostafa Waziri, head of the country’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, said Saturday.
Since the announcement, some scholars have disputed that Hawass and his team have succeeded where others had failed by locating the city.
Egyptologist Tarek Farag posted Friday on Facebook that the area was first excavated more than a century ago by a team from New York’s Metropolitan Museum.
But Waziri dismissed these concerns, saying previous digs had taken place further afield to the south the site.