The Other Side of Paradise

On these late winter mornings, surveying each new day I feel like I am living in paradise.  The weather is so temperate, the landscape lush and forthcoming, the wheat fields exude vitality.  Back west, my family and friends are hunkered down in the cold and snow as I gratefully soak up the winter sun.  The flip side of the coin, of course, is the troubling absence of rain, casting its shadow from an ineffectual gray cloud over the pleasure of a clear blue sky.

This weekend we hosted Abu Malek and Um Malek for an afternoon visit – because they are not mobile on their own, their son brought them, accompanied by his wife and two young sons.  We sat out in the yard and chatted while Um Malek collected pecans under the tree and picked luf, and the boys played on the rope swing.  In the relaxed pastoral mood, Abu Malek declared expansively. “this is paradise”.

Our village used to be like this too – he continued – but now that it has grown so big, there is never any quiet – the traffic is noisy on the narrow streets – the houses are densely built and there is no green landscape.  Butheina, the boys’ mother, told me that in their school, there is no playground, and barely even a yard for the children to play in during recess.

Her quiet, personal testament to the discrimination experienced in Israeli Arab communities passed opaquely between us and the warm afternoon sun.  And even now, the chill of that moment sits in my bones – a rumbling reminder of how far from paradise we really are.

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Long-lost Relations

Last week I got a call that was entirely unexpected, from a man inquiring about a culinary tour.  Nothing unusual about that.  But then he went on to explain that we are, in fact, related – that my mother’s grandmother and his father’s grandmother were sisters.  My mother does not have a large family, and I certainly knew nothing about a third cousin who lives in Tel Aviv.

The more we spoke, the more excited I became.  There is something almost magical about discovering a new member of your family – like the most intimate of gifts.

I have often experienced a similar sensation with my friend Balkees, who readers of my book and blog surely remember.  In fact, it happened just yesterday when we sat together in her living room in Nazareth, savoring a long-awaited visit.  She told me about the olive harvest she’d just finished with her family.  Their 100 trees had yielded 21 jerrycans of oil – in spite of the fact that there were very few olives this year.   Few olives, but full of oil – of the best Suri variety.

I asked her about the word “leket” – the Hebrew word for gleaning which I wrote about in my previous post.  As I recalled, there was a similar word in Arabic.  “Lakat”, Balkees confirmed, means to pick – as in fruit.  As in olives.

Allocating a part of the harvest as an act of charity is also mandated in Islam, she reminded me – as it is in Judaism. And I recalled one year helping out in the harvest of olive trees planted around a mosque, where all the pickers were local villagers of little means.

Tasting fresh oil

Tasting this year’s fresh oil

Even as so much emphasis is placed on what divides Jews and Arabs, I am reminded time after time of how much we share in common.  And over our little cups of coffee and date cookies shaped like olive oil jugs, Balkees felt to me like my long-lost sister.  A woman of this land, eager to share her love of it with a kindred spirit.

An Okra Post

This is a summer post about generosity, serendipity, and okra.

On a recent visit to my esteemed friends Abu Malek and Um Malek in Kfar Manda, inevitably I left bearing gifts – two plastic bags with produce freshly picked that morning – the lubia (fresh black eyed peas in their casings) and okra that Um Malek grows in the fertile Batof Valley soil.  My gratitude over her boundless generosity is heightened by the process I have gone through, learning to accept these gifts with the same grace with which they are extended.

Some days later I came home, exhausted, after a day of work in the city.  The sun was low in the sky, and my hammock beckoned.  A quick internal survey found that I was more tired than hungry, but with my last bit of energy, I took out the okra from the fridge.  Without even trimming off the caps, I tossed them in olive oil, sprinkled them with sea salt and put them in the oven to roast.

Lying in the hammock, I did another little survey.  The breeze that was brushing over my bare arms – was it too chilly or just right?  With the golden light filtering through the olive and cypress trees, I concluded that it felt like a feather-light pashmina shawl being gently pulled up over my shoulders, and I fell asleep.

However long I slept, I woke up coherent enough to quickly check on the okra.  It was roasted to a crisp. I tasted one of the little toasted pods – it was like a wonderfully upgraded potato chip.  I couldn’t have dreamed of a better snack!

roasted okra

Cactus Spirit

I recently returned from a very eventful visit to the United States, which included, among family visits and presentations, a meeting with the wonderful environmentalist, writer and local foods pioneer, Gary Paul Nabhan.  Several years ago, I read his seminal book, “Coming Home to Eat”, and his description of a visit to extended family in a village in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon has always stayed with me. The hospitality he experienced and the local foods he was served seemed so familiar. After all, the border between Northern Israel and Southern Lebanon is a line drawn in the sand (so to speak), and the indigenous foods and foodways among the Arab populations on either side of that line are very similar.

Gary gave me a book he wrote, called “The Desert Smells like Rain”, in which he documents his explorations of the foodways of the Tohono O’odham (Papago) Indians of Southern Arizona.  Once again, in an entirely different context, the descriptions of dry agriculture, the sacred relationship between farmers and always-scant rain, the exquisite balance of sustenance between cultivated and wild edible plants, and the eclipsing of traditional foodways by modern farming, all rang true to the agricultural landscape I have come to know here in the Galilee.

One story in the book stood out in particular, about how the Papago relate to the saguaro cactus – those monumental succulents that raise their bristly arms skyward across the Southwestern horizon.  According to Papago tradition, these cacti are actually members of the community, with human spirits that should be treated with utmost respect.

I couldn’t help but think of our local, ubiquitous sabra cactus, which bears its own symbolic legacy.  Well-known tradition has it that the sabra symbolizes native Israelis, who, like the cactus fruit, are “prickly on the outside and sweet on the inside”.  In Arabic, the sabra is also charged with significance, where its name is associated with the word “saber”, Arabic for patience or long-suffering, i.e. enduring the relentless heat of countless dry summer days.

Ironically, the sabra is actually indigenous to the American Southwest, and a relatively recent transplant to the Middle East.  One could only wish that the Native reverence for the human spirit, in whatever form it may take, could so successfully set down roots in this land as well.

sabra cropped

The Hakura

I recently received a telephone call from a man named Adel, from the nearby Bedouin village of Ayedat.  He is in the final stages of submitting his master’s thesis and needed help with editing the English abstract.  I frequently edit English texts on you-name-the-topic, but when he told me the subject of his thesis, I was especially pleased to help.

Adel had researched and written about the changing role of the hakura in Bedouin society in Northern Israel.  A hakura is a kind of kitchen garden that is kept next to the house. In Arab farming communities, maintaining a hakura was once very common.  According to Adel, however, only when the Bedouins here in the north gave up their nomadic ways and settled into villages did they take up the practice of keeping a hakura.

The thesis described what plants and trees were commonly found in the hakura and how they were used.  He explained that no self-respecting hakura was without an olive and fig tree, and the religious significance of those trees related to references in the Koran.

His research concluded that the hakura is a dying practice – that the young generation of Bedouins is quite content to buy their vegetables in the produce store.  The younger women he interviewed told him that they were too busy to work in a hakura.  I asked him if he felt that that answer really reflected the entire picture.

Look at my hands, he said, holding them out in front of me.  They were rough and etched with black lines.  The women teachers at my school always comment on my hands – do you think they want to ruin their fingernails working in the dirt?

Abu Malek told me that, in the old times, after a man plowed the ground for the hakura, all the rest of the work – planting, weeding, harvesting – was done by women.  How understandable that women today prefer to pay a few shekels over this backbreaking work.

The hakura may soon be a thing of the past, but Adel told me that one of the projects he plans to initiate is to circulate a questionnaire in Arab schools, asking children to interview their parents and grandparents about their experience with these home gardens.  At least another generation will maintain the hakura in their living memories.

*****

My book, Breaking Bread in Galilee, was reviewed in the current (Winter) issue of Lilith magazine.  You can read it here:

http://galileecuisine.co.il/data/images/LILWi12_final_BreakingBread.pdf

Forgetting the Bulgar

Learning Arabic is confoundingly difficult.  I have learned languages in my life – Spanish, French and Hebrew – but Arabic is something completely different.   I have never invested so much time and effort, with such meager results, as in my study of Arabic.

The rules of grammar, the vocabulary, the accent – each of them stubbornly elude my grasp.  The other students in my Arabic class, all native Israeli Jews, don’t seem to be progressing any faster, albeit having the advantage of a Semitic mother tongue.  The Tower of Babel comes to mind again and again.

The bright side of Arabic class is the homework – which provides a very good reason to visit my friend Abu Malek in Kfar Manda.   Abu Malek is a retired high school language teacher, and over the years he has patiently worked through my lessons with me, spicing them up with proverbs and tales.

Today we sat on the rooftop porch in the warm winter sun and crafted sentences from my list of vocabulary words – under, over, inside, outside, this far and no more.  Just as we finished our last sentence, Um Malek brought up a tray with lunch – a platter of bright green tabouleh.

tabouleh

I love the way tabouleh is made here, with its overwhelming emphasis on fresh parsley.   Um Malek doesn’t speak Hebrew or English, and I asked Abu Malek to explain to her that in the States, tabouleh is made with more bulgar than parsley. Here, I told her, there is so much green that the bulgar is barely perceptible.  She burst into laughter, and explained that she’d forgotten to add the bulgar.

And we all laughed together because each of us has forgotten the bulgar at some point, and more than once.  On that rooftop this afternoon, we modestly scaled our own Tower of Babel , celebrating what we have in common over what separates us, reaching out to each other through friendship, laughter and a meal lovingly prepared and shared.

Abu Malek

   *** 

  Two auspicious developments regarding my book  “Breaking Bread in Galilee”:

  1.  A review recently appeared in the Jewish Review of Books, putting me in very distinguished company:

http://www.jewishreviewofbooks.com

2.  The legendary Kitchen Arts and Letters bookstore in New York City just re-ordered copies of my book.  I am so pleased.

A Time to Pick Olives

Once again the olive harvest.  I like to speculate that not an autumn has passed since they were first cultivated, back in obscure pre-history, that people haven’t gathered olives here in this place that I live. Taking part in this ritual makes me feel like the tiniest link in a very long chain.

But the analogy goes further, or wider. A few days ago I joined my friend Balkees’ family as they harvested their olive grove in the village of Kfar Reine, outside Nazareth.  About ten men and women – Balkees’ brothers, sisters and sisters-in-law were at work when I got there mid-afternoon. They pulled tarps from under one tree to another and we circled the branches, pulling down their olives till they rained down onto the canvas.  The children ran from tree to tree, collecting olives in buckets, climbing in the branches, and sifting out leaves in an improvised sieve – the screen of an electric fan.  Everyone chatted, joked and laughed, all in Arabic, and I understood only a small fraction.

But that didn’t matter.  The conversation accompanied my work like the most pleasant background music while I focused on the olives – black, green and purple, fleshy and lean, plump and wrinkled, intact and bruised. I heard the muezzin calling and the children shouting. I felt the heat of the sun ease as the day wore on and the shadows of the trees grew longer.  I sipped a small glass of thick, black, cardamom-scented coffee, then returned to the olives.

But most of all, I felt a part of something larger – like I was woven into the fabric of village life that still endures in the Galilee.  Where the community depends on the contribution of each person’s hands, and rewards that effort not only with a year’s supply of olive oil, but with a sense of place, value, belonging and accomplishment.

How few are the opportunities in our modern lives to experience this.  I think my sister, who just pounded miles of pavement on behalf of the Obama campaign, knows the feeling well.

An ingenious sifter

Post Ramadan Post

The entire month of Ramadan has passed by and I never managed to publish a post about this very culinarily charged period.  For those of you who don’t know, the month of Ramadan is observed by Muslims with daily fasting.  Because the timing of Muslim holidays is calculated using a lunar calendar, the date that Ramadan begins shifts backwards each year by about 11 days.  For many years now, Ramadan has fallen during the hottest summer season.

holiday cookies waiting to be baked

Fasting in this region’s brutal heat is no easy undertaking – particularly for 30 long sweltering days.  Yet several of my Muslim friends have told me that they wait all year long for this holy month, despite the hardship.  One day, when Balkees was complaining how exhausted she felt, I asked her about the seeming paradox.  Just the opportunity to answer my question seemed to pep her up.

Ramadan is a month full of her* she told me.  Her in Arabic translates to goodness.  You use the word her when saying good morning or good evening.  But her also signifies abundance and wellbeing.  During Ramadan, Balkees explained, the whole family sits together every evening for the break-the-fast dinner and it doesn’t matter what you serve, there is always enough and no one complains.

Sometimes you need to take away what you take for granted to appreciate what you have.  And in Balkees’ house, there is no shortage of her.

 *pronounced like “hair” from the back of the throat

Timeless

Living in the Galilee, I am occasionally gifted with transcendent moments of timelessness – where the landscape and the scene that unfolds within it have more to do with thousands of years of history, than the blink of an eye of the latest decades.

At least once a summer, together with Balkees and Muhammad, Ron and I visit friends at their agricultural field not far from Nazareth.  Their plot is small – just a few acres – planted with tomatoes, okra, fakus, zucchini and black eyed peas – a few rows of each.  We arrive at twilight, after the crushing summer heat – when the various family members are at work, trolling the rows with pails, gathering the ripe produce.

We always help with the work, and each of us sets off, pail in hand, guided by some internal compass to his or her own row.  Again, here is the soft orange light and the distant muted hills, the crumbling dirt and rustle of leaves nudged aside to unveil fakus, dark green and hairy – different and the same, every summer.

The produce in this field is grown “baal” – without any irrigation.  The varieties are adapted for this type of growth, and the owner of the field saves the seeds from season to season.  This is the way this land was farmed since the dawn of agriculture, and our friends are among the last of the local farmers who are still perpetuating it.

And as the sun slips behind the horizon, I wonder if we’ll meet again next year, to participate in this backbreaking labor that, by contemporary standards,  yields so little.  The tomatoes I bring home have flavor that sears the palate, and the fakus are crunchy cool delights.

****

PeaceXPeace – an organization that promotes peacebuilding between women around the world, published a piece about my book and work.  If you’re curious, here’s the link:

Breaking Bread in Galilee – Food as a Bridge Across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide

Pining for Fakus

Summertime – and fakus are in season.  Fakus are like a downy, zucchini-skinned cucumber but tangier, crunchier and more refreshing than your average cuke.  They are eaten raw, without peeling – their fuzz is as inoffensive as that of a peach.

 I first encountered fakus in the “baal” vegetable field of friends – who grow summer vegetables for small-scale commerce in the local Arab market – without watering.  The fakus were scattered here and there among the tomatoes, okra and zucchini – pale green and snaky.

On a recent visit to Kfar Manda, Um Malek gave me a bag of fakus from her “hakura” (vegetable garden).   With some of them, I made a cold yoghurt-fakus soup, and with the others I scooped out the seeds, mixed them with labaneh, crushed garlic, and chopped mint leaves – then spread the mixture into the emptied insides, like the peanut butter filled celery-stick boats I ate as a child.  This is actually a childhood recipe from Balkees, whose mother used to prepare fakus boats for her and her siblings.

Dr. Harry Paris, who is a scientist at Neve Yaar, our nearby agricultural research station, just published an article about fakus, where he asserts that they are, in fact, the squash that the Israelites so pined for during their desert wanderings.  He draws evidence from Egyptian illustrations, among others, and a description from Yehuda Hanassi, of the process of removing the little hairs from the squash – calling it “fikus”.   The eventual evolution to the Arabic “fakus” is not such a long shot.

The zucchini’s now on the market, he explained, are a variety imported from the Americas, and cucumbers do not have the stripey exterior depicted by the Egyptians.

Life as a “locavore” is always a challenge, but when “local” is the Galilee, there is a special  satisfaction of eating a local food with such a distinguished provenance.