Common Roots

Among all the countless tragedies and losses of this current war is the blow that has been dealt to the already fragile relationships between Jews and Arabs in Israel.  Even in the best of times, suspicion and distrust have been the default sentiments among most Israeli citizens about their “other” counterparts.  And it is against this background that I have, for years, been trying to present a more open-hearted alternative.

Crossing the cultural divide and finding a place in the lives of Palestinians, Druze and Bedouins living in Israel has been one of the most important and transformative efforts of my life – that makes me feel like there is some reason why I am living in this problematic country, instead of in the comfort of the United States.

From these acquaintances and friendships, I have come to understand and appreciate how genuinely connected these people are to this place – whose history and culture – particularly their culinary traditions, which stand out most to me – are rooted in this land.  This is where I find our common roots – because as foreign and religiously unaffiliated as I am,  I do feel a tremendous spiritual connection with this land that I can only explain as originating somewhere deep in my genetic makeup.

This common connection to the land, in fact, is what makes me feel, for example,  that my Palestinian friend Balkees and I are like sisters – that our roots are intertwined somewhere deep in ancient history.

The grapes, wheat and olives of this land grow out of earth that has been steeped in blood.  Yet for every pursuer of war, I am convinced that there are a hundred that would embrace peace with both hands if it was offered to them – no matter what side of the divide.  I pray that the day will soon come that that will happen.

cleaning sesame seeds

cleaning locally grown sesame seeds

Back from Oxford

I just returned from my first time participating in the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery – an annual conference of food historians and other professionals and non-professionals who are engaged in food inquiry.  It was an extraordinary experience to be in the company of so many like-minded individuals from all over the globe, in a setting that was edifying, convivial, and simply lovely.

I presented a talk on the El Babour Mill in Nazareth, illustrating that an unmediated, entirely local and personal relationship between the land, the farmer, the miller and the consumer still exists in the Arab communities in the Galilee.  Speaking to an audience that appreciates the value of local and traditional foodways in historical and social contexts, and having the opportunity to hear such a range of fascinating presentations, was a gift.

And now I am back, to my pastoral Galilee setting which is, in its own way, as beautiful as the refined and manicured gardens of Oxford.  From there, the conflict here seemed remote, but from here, it is geographically and personally much closer to home, and the consciousness of it is almost paralyzing.  Trying to make sense of what is going on, I consider this narrative and that one, finally discarding them all in recognition of a complexity that defies individual understanding, and the broad appeal of that lowest common denominator of an eye for an eye.

For respite, I dip into the fascinating book I bought at the Symposium, “Tastes of Byzantium”, written by the eminent food scholar Andrew Dalby, one of the longstanding Symposium participants.  But even through the heady descriptions of the spice trade and markets of Constantinople, the subtext of battle, intrigue and power struggles wafts through, and I am reminded of how tragically little human nature has changed over the millennia.

talk

Thanks to Pamela Sheldon Johns for photo

st catz

Beautiful St. Catz

When the scales will tip

These are grim times here, where a disproportionate number of innocent people are enduring great suffering because of the actions of a few.  Nothing new about that, and yet it is heartrending every time.  In the pastoral Palestinian town of Arrabe in the Galilee near the Bet Netufa Valley, they are mourning a 14 year old who happened to be too close to the Syrian border as he accompanied his father to work on the first day of school vacation.  Another victim, another family’s tragedy.

I was just in Arrabe and neighboring Sakhnin last week, tagging along with a small delegation of bakers from France who are seeking local farmers to grow ancient varieties of wheat for them.  As we opened the day at the Towns Association for Environmental Quality, an NGO  in Sakhnin doing education and research on sustainable agriculture, the challenges of communication across the cultural divide were fascinating to observe.  The idea that these visitors actually wanted to grow wheat which produces significantly lower yields than the usual varieties was counter-intuitive, in spite of their assurances that they were prepared to pay significantly more than the market value in recognition of the quality of the product.

examining wheat varieties

examining wheat varieties

One of the bakers pulled out his Ipad to show the farmers photos of the artisanal breads he bakes, unaware that the elegant loaves on the screen did not correspond at all to the local perception of what bread even looks like.  But good will, courtesy and respect go a long way in overcoming these obstacles, and the groundwork was established for future cooperation.

After visiting the epic expanse of the Bet Netufa valley for a close-up look at the wheat fields, we came back to Arrabe, to the restored stone building that houses Afnan AlGalil, a non-profit for empowering local women.  Our hostesses served us a lunch prepared entirely from products grown in and around the Valley – bulgar in mejadre (with lentils) and shulbata (with vegetables and tomato sauce), farike, okra in tomato sauce, labaneh, stuffed grape leaves and zucchini and fresh, whole wheat pita.   The room was suffused with pride, dignity, generosity and hospitality – and we came away uplifted in body and spirit.

I just wonder when the scales will tip, and the forces of universal tolerance, respect and love will set the regional agenda.  IMG_3441afnan algalil

batof

The “Batof”

Tipping the Seasonal Scale

In the Galilee the year is divided about equally into two seasons.  The first, which starts in the fall, can be called the rainy season, although it is more accurately described as the period during which rain may or may not come.  In the second season, quite surely it will not.

As one would expect in nature, there is no single point where one season ends and the other takes over.  Instead, there is a substantial, liminal period of erratic weather between the two. This interval roughly coincides with the seven weeks plus one day between Passover and Shavuoth – which ended this past Wednesday.

The day broke hazy and hot, and by afternoon the temperature outside topped one hundred (40 Celsius).  Even after sundown, the heat persisted and at one point the wind picked up, sending blasts of burning air through the darkness.  The next morning was thirty degrees cooler, but the air was thick and yellow.  By noon, a pathetic sprinkle of rain made the briefest appearance.  Then the sky cleared back to blue.

All this is to show that the long, hot and dry half of the year is imminent.  Yet even in the traditional agricultural landscape of the Galilee, dry does not mean desiccated. Moisture from the underground water table and morning dew will sustain the second season’s grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and baal vegetables – even without the benefit of irrigation, until the next cycle.

Perhaps we can find in this last act of climatic theatrics, a reminder to appreciate the extraordinary environmental equilibrium that is about to be restored.

pomegrantes to come

 

Wheat, and Zaatar, to the Mill

I’ve started to research in earnest for the paper I’m going to present at the Oxford Symposium this summer.  The subject of the symposium is markets, and I will talk about the market in Nazareth as a site of pilgrimage, not just for Christians visiting the site(s) where the Annunciation is believed to have taken place, but also for the local fellaheen and their descendants, who brought, and still bring, their wheat to be ground at the El Babour mill*.

The cavernous rooms of El Babour’s Ottoman-era stone building, that once housed massive flour milling machinery, are now filled with orderly sacks and shelves of grains, pulses and local dry goods.  The milling machines that still operate are relegated to the building’s stone-cobbled back courtyard, where villagers and their pack animals once waited for their turn at the mill.  Yet for all the modern adaptations, this place continues to function as a living mill and I am fascinated by its enduring place in Galilee Arab society in our times.

In the past few weeks I have spent many hours at El Babour, where the kind and gracious owners, Tony and Jarjoura Kanaza, patiently answer my questions and reminisce about the mill around which their family’s history has revolved for several generations.  I waited to interview people who are bringing bulgar or farike to be milled, to document a ritual that has been practiced in this part of the world for millennia. But one after the other, the customers who came for milling services brought bags of zaatar,  not wheat.   This is the season for zaatar, and instead of crushing the dried leaves through a sieve to achieve the consistency needed for the eponymous spice mixture, a machine at El Babour does the job in seconds.  This concession to time-saving is not the only adaptation to the eminently local and politically loaded practice of producing zaatar that I have seen (for more on this subject, see the chapter on zaatar in my book, Breaking Bread in Galilee).

For the second year, now, an enterprising Palestinian-Israeli farmer has leased a field on which he cultivates rows of zaatar, where you can “pick your own” without risking a fine (wild zaatar is now a protected plant, and illegal to pick).  The field’s many patrons attest to a desire for control over every step of the zaatar-making process, starting at its roots, that has not been entirely eclipsed by (among others) the ready availability of commercial zaatar mixtures.

Back at the Haifa University library, delving into the literature on food anthropology, a reference to a “short food chain” struck me as a precise, if not laconic, summary of traditional Galilee Arab foodways.  And remarkably, with all the pressures and diversions of modern life, these traditions adapt and endure.

* More on the fascinating history of milling in Nazareth in a future post…

milling zaatar at El Babour

Milling zaatar at El Babour  

Pick your own zaatar

Pick your own zaatar

Relating to Wheat

These spring days, the roaring of combines rumbles in the background – rending thick fields of wheat into neat rows of shorn stalks.  In the pre-industrial order of local agriculture, not only would this method of harvesting be unfathomable to a farmer watching from the side, but also the timing.  Why would anyone cut down their good wheat almost two months ahead of time, just as the grains in the ears were maturing (unless they were planning to roast it, but such a large portion of the crop?).

The reason, of course, is that all this wheat is being cut as hay, destined to feed the thousands of cows whose milk supplies Israel’s burgeoning dairy industry.  It may be hard to imagine, but until the German Templers came to Palestine in the late 19th century, there was no cow-based dairy industry here, let alone any practice of growing a food crop as fodder.

Yet now, we feed wheat to the cows, and at the same time, more and more people are developing allergies to the ubiquitous gluten-heavy grain which has been bred specifically to meet the needs of industrial food processing.

The relationship between wheat and human subsistence – once so elegantly straightforward – has become complicated in our times.   I find this to be especially perplexing here in the western curve of the Fertile Crescent, where the symbiosis between humans and their staple grain is so deeply and locally rooted.

During Passover, when the “luxury” of leavened products is set aside, it is worthwhile considering the price we pay for soft, air-filled bread, and if we are truly and healthfully sustained by foods produced using methods that are environmentally and humanely questionable.

pesach 2014

From my Galilee home, during this season steeped with spiritual significance, I extend best wishes to you all for the spring holidays!

Spring Fodder

How to catch an acute dose of spring fever – open the bedroom window at 4 AM; when the chill, citrus blossom-drenched air surges into the room, inhale deeply until intoxicated. 

Winter is my favorite season here – the magical emergence of new seasonal growth that we experience from December, in other parts of the world is most commonly associated with spring.  So if winter here is like spring, then the real spring is a riot!  By mid-March, the crazy blooming and blossoming of flowers, undergrowth, and trees is simply out of control.

I recently read about spring as it was experienced here about a century ago, in the first volume of Gustav Dalman’s “Work and Culture in Palestine”, written in German in the 1920s, and recently translated into English.  It is an extraordinary work that documents traditional life in this place as it was practiced more or less since antiquity, just before European and global intervention led to its almost total demise.

The first volume (of 8 in all), focuses on the seasons, and it was very exciting to consider Dalman’s account of spring with all its commotion in the background.  He explains that the wild growth in spring, which at this point is almost waist-high (and which I tended to look at only for its culinary qualities) represented a celebration of fodder for the animals of farmers and herders.  From a fellaheen saying that he quotes (and I paraphrase), the shepherd before spring needs to be smart, but when spring arrives, he can sit back and relax.  Fattened up on the bounty of fresh greens, the cows, goats and sheep give rich and abundant milk – a true expression of the fat of the land.

Dalman speaks of the sap rising in the trees during this season – the expression is familiar, of course, and in my more “interconnected” moments, I’ve visualized trees surging with life energy, but I never understood it in such a visceral way.  These days, I feel like I am tapping into these same energies of growth and renewal for my new academic pursuits.  To my great surprise and delight, a proposal I submitted to the prestigious Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery was accepted, so I will be talking about the wonderful wheat mill in Nazareth, El Babour, in England this July.

In the meantime, if spring is all around, or just around the corner, I hope you enjoy the rising sap as well!

fodder

fodder cut from my neighbor’s yard

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.

20140301_165222

 

Rest and Refuel

Ron came home the other day, full and contented after an excellent meal at one of our favorite gas-station restaurants – Nimmer, near Golani Junction. You may be raising an eyebrow, like I did when I first moved to Israel, about the prospect of eating in proximity of gas pumps. But as it turns out, gas station restaurants can generally be counted on for fresh, tasty, if not formulaic, “Middle-Eastern” food.

As I delved into the culinary traditions of this region, I came to understand that gas station restaurants came into being in response to an age-old need to sustain travelers en route. From the time that merchants carried goods from points East to points West, resting stops were established at strategic points along their trade routes. Known in Arabic as “khans”, they offered caravan travelers and their pack animals a place to sleep and refuel. Certain khans continued to function through the beginning of the 20th century, and can still be seen today – one of my favorites is now a parking lot in Nazareth, but there are superlative examples in Akko as well.

And as it turns out, just down the road from Nimmer, covered in overgrowth, are the remains of a khan built during the Mameluke period (around the 16th century?), known as Khan el Tujar, or the khan of the vendors. A friend of mine – a food historian who is studying the evolution of local markets – invited me on an expedition to explore it. She explained that it was built near the junction between two Roman roads and that it had, until the early 1900s, hosted a weekly market. The question she was pondering was what led to its sudden decline.

We clambered over the rubble, peered through exquisite vaulted spaces, and discovered the remains of a well and a mosque. She found a piece of Mameluke-era pottery with its distinctive yellow glaze, and I found a chip of carnelian stone – too smooth and shiny to be just a pebble. We ate tiny dark-brown almonds picked off a stunted tree and cracked open with stones, and chewed on wild fennel seeds collected from the starbursts that topped stalks as high as our shoulders. Then we rested on a pile of stones, filling up on the beauty of Mount Tabor and the rolling olive-covered hills.khan 4

khan 2khan 1

Wild to Cultivated to Wild

What a great pleasure it is to have a hakura, or kitchen garden, next to the house – particularly when its yields peak in mid-winter. Yesterday I stripped the hakura of just about all of the swiss chard to make a crispy filo-layered pie.  Washing and trimming the fleshy leaves, I realized how viscerally I love fresh greens – wild or cultivated.  In fact, new sprouts of waxy luf leaves are unfolding all over the yard, beyond the orderly rows of the hakura.  And even if I haven’t mastered the technique of cooking them, I will soon harvest them and bring them to someone who has.  

The changing of the year has been a time of self-examination, and now, almost two years after my book came out, I’ve decided that I need to return to what I feel is my calling – to research and write about how the local foods are grown, processed and prepared in traditional ways in the Palestinian-Israeli and Bedouin communities of the Galilee.  This time, however, I want to do it in an academic context – to structure my work in an orderly fashion, and to join a community of like-minded people documenting traditional foodways around the world.

Looking for a potential home at the University of Haifa, I have spoken to several faculty members from different departments.  With Prof. Guy Bar-Oz in the Archaeology Department, who is a specialist in pre-historic and ancient foodways in this region, I had a particularly fascinating conversation.  When I told him my interest in foraging and the process of domestication of edible wild plants that I observe to be happening in our times, he countered with something that stopped me in my tracks.   How do you know that the wild mallow that you collect wasn’t once domesticated as a crop some time back in history, and just fell out of use over time and reverted back to a wild state?  How do I know indeed!  Clearly, there is so much to learn, and I am eager to dive in.

A few days ago, driving home from an exhausting day at a job that is more draining than I’d bargained for, I saw at the edge of the hills an older Bedouin man walking with three frisky little boys, presumably his grandchildren.  In his hands were two plastic bags full of freshly gathered luf.  My first urge was to pull over on the side of the road and follow him, to ask him about his foraging habits and what he had planned for that luf – his evening meal or perhaps to share with an ailing family member or friend.

But I drove on, more determined than ever that by foraging season next year, I’ll be able to ask those questions not just to satisfy my own curiosity, but to make their answers accessible to anyone who shares an interest in hearing them.  And I know that there are many, indeed.

stripped chard

Stripped Chard

 

jan luf

Wild Cousin Luf