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.

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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

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.

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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.

Tomatoes Without Watering

It’s tomato season and all of a sudden these quintessential summer fruits have taken center stage. First, through Slow Food Movement connections, I recently had the good fortune to meet Roberta – a lovely US ex-pat who gave up city life to live on a farm in the Po Valley, learn Italian cooking and raise heirloom tomatoes. In Israel for a social event, she was taking advantage of the time to check out the cutting edge in tomato cultivation, meeting with agricultural researchers and growers.

I told her about my own angle of interest – trying to find farmers who are still practicing ancient foodways – and in this case, growing vegetables in the summer without watering. In the Hebrew Bible, the promised land is described to the Israelites as a place where, unlike in Egypt where the fields were “irrigated by foot as in a vegetable garden” (Deuteronomy 11:10) – that is, drawing water from the Nile – there, they would find a “land of mountains and valleys that drinks water from heaven”.

In fact, the climate and topography in the Galilee are such that agriculture can be practiced with water coming only from rains and morning dew. For millennia, grain and legumes were grown in the winter and vegetables and fruits in the summer, in this way. These days, pumped water reaches the vast majority of agricultural land. Yet here and there are pockets of land that are still being cultivated without external irrigation.

One such plot of farmland belongs to friends – a family of “fellaheen” who are practicing the type of farming they know from previous generations – and among the few Arab farmers left in the Galilee for whom traditional agriculture is their sole livelihood. And these days, those fields are producing tomatoes – glowing green and red and folding over and into themselves – each a delightful sculpture.

Balkees, my friend and partner in food exploration, explained to me that in Arabic, crops that are grown with only the water from the rains and dew are called “baal”. This is not to be confused with “baladi” – which refers to vegetables that are raised traditionally – without the benefit of new varieties and greenhouse growing conditions. Baladi vegetables can be found in most Arab produce markets – the “baal” tomatoes are rare indeed.

Farike

On the last day of Passover, which this year coincided with Easter Monday, I got the call. Friends of my friend Balkees – farmers in the village of Mashhad, just outside Nazareth – were making farike and we were invited to join.

Farike – for the unfamiliar – is wheat, harvested when the kernels are fully developed but still green, roasted over a fire, threshed, dried and ground, with the end result looking like a green-ish bulgar. In Biblical times, roasted grain was one of the agricultural products sanctioned for sacrifice at the Temple. Today it is a beloved staple of Galilee Arab cuisine.

Because agriculture in the Arab sector in Israel is on a steep decline, much of the farike that is sold in stores is imported from Turkey. But if you are fortunate enough to know a local farmer who happens to still undertake the extreme toil of raising wheat and producing farike, then you can buy it from him and enjoy the true “local food”. I was even more fortunate, and was invited to come and take part in the process.

In the rich agricultural plateau between Nazareth, we faced a wheatfield that was green on one part and golden on the other – the latter being a different variety and intended for producing flour.

yellow field next to green

 It would be harvested with a combine, while the relatively small field for farike had to be harvested by hand…

The two sons of the farmer, Abu Salach – strong young men in their early twenties – handed us short, wooden-handled sickles, and showed us how to wrap the curve of the blade around a bunch of wheat stalks, then holding just below the ear, to pull sharply.

Within an hour we filled several large cloth bags with the green ears of wheat – yet we covered just a fraction of the entire field.

At the nearby threshing floor, the ears of wheat picked on the preceding days were drying on tarps in the sun. In order for the exterior parts of the wheat to burn properly, the ears have to be dried for two days. The brothers spread a thick layer of wheat over a metal frame and lit the pile, tossing it with a pitchfork to spread the flames. When they were all charred, they went to another tarp for an additional drying before threshing in a machine that would be attached to the family tractor.  The cleaned grains would be dried again, this time in the shade so as not to fade their green color, before being stored in sacks.

This April has been unseasonably cool, and this morning there was even a short rainfall. All I could think of was all that wheat out on the tarps, getting wet – the product of so much difficult labor perhaps destroyed. With so much at stake, one can understand how compelling was the promise from Deuteronomy: ‘If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil. (Deuteronomy 11:13-14).’