Thyme, please

Food - Bee Wilson on Oxford's tasty Morsels

By some strange cultural coincidence, there are now no fewer than half a dozen places serving Lebanese food in Oxford. This city of Morse-frequented, darkened pubs is now a Mecca for spinach triangles and curd-filled crescents. I can't really explain why this Lebanese invasion should have happened, but it is undoubtedly a good thing, for residents and restaurateurs alike.

The original Oxfordian Lebanese restaurant is Al-Shami in Walton Crescent, a quiet residential street on the edge of Jericho. Here you are served great metal platters of pickles and salad before your meal even begins: a whole head of Cos lettuce, an unsliced tomato, curving pickled chillies, carrot sticks, olives both black and green and a few little half-moons of pickled turnip, coloured pink with beetroot, which you either love or hate (and I love). Next, I advise skipping the filling main courses (various kaftas, kibbehs, charcoal-grilled vegetables or baked fish with tahini) and ordering lots of mezze instead. Among the nicest are rounds of piquant Armenian sausages (sujuk), potatoes fried with coriander, a dish of mixed crushed nuts with chilli (mohammara bil-jawz), parsley-rich tabbouleh, fried chicken livers and garlicky chicken wings. Finally, have some Lebanese coffee, strong and fragrant with cardamom, and only 75p a cup. Al-Shami is the kind of place where you see distinguished professors of philology drinking Chateau Musar and talking softly: very civilised.

The atmosphere is more rakish at Liban, a restaurant upstairs from Boswell's department store. Our first sight on entering was of a man reclining on a sofa smoking with a hubbly-bubbly. The room is decked out patriotically in red, green and white, the colours of the Lebanese flag, and Lebanese pop music plays. During the day, the waiters serve chicken nuggets to undiscerning shoppers, but the Lebanese menu is ambitious, including several dishes with thyme, the nation's favourite herb. Hoummos here is unusually smooth and comes decorated with whole chick peas, a pleasing touch. Also memorable is farkeh, patties of fresh raw minced lamb, flavoured with all-spice and decorated with mint leaves and radishes. Crudites come with two sauces, one of mild chilli and the other of a smooth, garlicky yoghurt so good we ate it all, and then felt rather malodorous. The service is excellent, as one might expect, given that Liban is run by the former head waiter at Al-Shami.

To its credit, though, Liban is not just a clone of Al-Shami. The same cannot be said of Al-Salam, near the train station, whose name and menu are both near-replicas of Al-Shami, but in a less congenial setting.

Yet another Al-Shami spin-off is Ali's on the Cowley Road, an unpretentious takeaway operation serving sandwiches and prepared dishes. Ali used to be a chef at Al-Shami, which he talks about with high feeling. His food is prized by a poet I know who writes about Scheherazade and Samarkand. She especially likes Ali's slow-cooked aubergines with chick peas and tomatoes and his wholesome moujadara of rice with brown lentils. Ali also sells thyme pitta and bottles of rosewater.

However, the finest Lebanese food to be had in Oxford is served at LB's delicatessan in Summertown. The proprietor is adamant that he has nothing to do with any of the restaurants - and indeed, the mezze and sweet cakes are made with an unusually light hand. Particularly delicious are a tender dish of bulgur wheat, a smoky and silken baba ghanoush and the okra cooked in tomatoes with not a trace of the sliminess that can afflict the vegetable. Broad beans with coriander were intensely lemony and moreish, as was a fine selection of kibbeh: a rice one, encasing meat with pine nuts, a round mushroom one and an ovoid lamb one, spicy and moist. Greedily, I wished afterwards that I had tried the chicken dishes as well. The pastries are outstandingly good, especially those made with pistachios. Behind the counter, LB's sells jars of dark-brown fig jam, packets of flat bread and large containers of those pink pickled turnips that Oxford has learnt to love.

Al-Shami, 25 Walton Crescent, OX1 (01865 310066)
Liban restaurant and hubbly-bubbly bar, 1-5 Broad Street, OX1 (01865 242494)
Al-Salam, 6 Park End Street, OX1 (01865 245710)
LB's, 253 Banbury Road, OX2 (01865 311660)

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the great cover-up

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.