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”

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

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.

A Tomato Education

More on the subject of “baal” tomatoes… For some weeks now, I’ve been trying to coordinate with Balkees a time that we could go together to visit our friends where they are growing their waterless summer produce. I’ve been enjoying these amazing vegetables, through her, but there is nothing like visiting the field and picking them yourself.  Balkees has been swamped with orders for her cookies (this is, after all, the height of the wedding season), but yesterday, we took advantage of a lull in the production line and headed out to the fields.

In the cool twilight, we joined the family members who were trolling the rows, pails in hand, gathering what had ripened since the previous day’s harvest. We joined in the work – and I felt almost ashamed of the joy I derive from what for them is tedious toil. There is no romance of heirloom growing, or local food magic here. Just hard work and precious little compensation.

We picked okra until my hands and arms itched from their little hairs, and then moved to the tomatoes. We picked until the sun went down on one side of the sky and a full moon rose on the opposite end. I took home a small bag of okra and two bags of tomatoes – green and red. The red, Balkees instructed, are for making tomato sauce and the green are for eating.

Today I cleaned and cut up the red tomatoes and put them in the food processor. Then I strained the tomato crush through a sieve, pushing out every bit of moisture as I’ve seen Balkees do. I washed and trimmed the okra, and the oversized ones that I once might have rejected as being too tough, I cut into pieces since Balkees said that those are her father-in-law’s favorites.

I sliced some garlic, sautéed it for a minute in olive oil, then added the okra – and after a few minutes of stirring, poured in the tomato juice, for a good long simmer.  The father-in-law was right…

Tomorrow we will have the green tomatoes for breakfast.

The Wheat Harvest

Bucking tradition, I chose Spring to go into hibernation, focusing just about all my energies on my current project, which is researching and writing about wheat as one of the Galilee’s local foods.  And while I was buried in books and traipsing around from one fascinating encounter to another, the culinary landscape made its own dramatic shift.  In the local market in Basmat Tivon, the neighboring Bedouin village, where I purchase all my produce, the winter greens have been replaced by fresh green piles of grape leaves, miniature eggplants and zucchinis for stuffing, and tender baby okra. A pile of long-stemmed malukhiya stands on the counter, the leaves of which the Bedouin women use to make a kind of deep green, mucilaginous dish to dip pita bread in.

In the fields, we’ve enjoyed the ripening chick-pea crop – picking the green pods off the stalks and opening them to reveal perfectly formed blushing-green chick peas that are delicious to munch on.  The sunflowers and corn are pushing skyward at a breathtaking rate, and while I enjoy their vital beauty, they look like interlopers on the landscape…

wheat olives 1

But as I mentioned, it is wheat that consumes my attention this Spring – watching the grain in the fields transform from green to gold – both the cultivated and the wild varieties.  Studying the history of wheat in the Galilee, I’ve learned how fatefully central it was in the lives of the people who lived here since pre-history.  Stone-age men and women collected and ate wild grasses, setting into motion the millennia-long processes that led to their domestication – right here in this part of the Eastern world.  And once wheat could be systematically cultivated in one place, humans were free to shift from wandering gatherers to living  in a settled society.  And the rest is history….

I’ve been clocking countless hours and kilometers, visiting just about every corner of the Galilee to meet people whose lives are in some way connected to wheat.  I’ve been exhilarated by the exquisite beauty of the landscape in the late afternoon light – picking up the gold in the rust colored earth out of which a sea of silvery olive branches wave in the afternoon breeze; by the camel-colored wheat fields, so ripe that they hiss in the wind like rattlesnakes. 

wheat in handThe holiday of Shavuoth, which many people here are observing today, was originally a celebration of the wheat harvest.   My own harvest from this season has been notebooks filled with notes and one very rough draft.  Now I can only wish for the energy, time and inspiration that will leaven this lump of dough into a fine creation.