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A taste of Palestine

27 January 2017

Malcolm Doney joins a group of foodies and activists of all religious persuasions for a food-based tour of Palestine



Colourful: the Arab bazaar at Damascus Gate, in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem

Colourful: the Arab bazaar at Damascus Gate, in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem

TAKRED does not know what to make of having a man in her kit­chen. In fact, she doesn’t look as if she is used to having anyone else in her kitchen at all. A fierce alpha female, this is clearly her domain. But, this evening, she is having to share it with three English people, in­­­­cluding me.

That is not to say that she is not friendly or welcoming. She is all of those, as she hustles us into her cramped kitchen and starts pre­paring a traditional Palestinian dish, makloubeh: peeling and chopping onions and garlic, and heating olive oil in a saucepan. There are gestures, and a running commentary in Arabic, translated occasionally by her teen­age daughter. We do our best to join in the food prep, when allowed.

We are on a ten-day “Taste of Palestine” tour, the first organ­ised by the human-rights organ­isation Amos Trust, in part­ner­ship with Zaytoun, a company that provides a UK market for fairly-traded Pal­estinian food products. Twenty-eight of us have joined the trip, and our ages range from 23 to 79; there is an overlapping mix of dedicated foodies, domestic chefs, activists, the faithful, agnostics, atheists, and innocents abroad.

We spend most of our time on the West Bank territories, but finish in the north, in Nazareth and Galilee. Among other things, we shop in food markets; discuss with farmers access to water, land, and markets; help with the olive harvest; and examine how produce is pro­cessed and packaged for export. Most importantly, however, we cook and eat with Palestinians. This is how I have come to be in Takred’s kitchen, in the homely apartment that she shares with her husband, Issac, her mother, their children, and their grandchildren.

The family live in Aida refugee camp, in Bethlehem. The term “refugee camp” conjures up rows of tents, or, at best, a shanty town; this is not the case in Palestine. Aida, for example, was established as a tem­porary settlement in 1950, when residents were told that they would be there for a matter of weeks or months. Sixty-six years later, it is a small town that looks like a slum: rubbish is strewn in the streets, and walls are daubed with graffiti. It houses 4700 people in concrete dwellings, close to the forbidding separation wall that bars Palestin­ians’ access to Israel.

I know that there is an Israeli narrative that includes their nation’s history, identity, and security; that was absent on this trip, but that was not its purpose.

Palestinians are rightly proud of their food: aromatic rice-and-lentil dishes; delicious salads, alive with lemon and mint; melt-in-your-mouth chicken and lamb, marinated in oil and spices; and taboon flat­bread warm from the stove. After this trip, if you want a recipe for fatteh, msabaha, maftoul, molokhia, mansaf, knafeh, mujadara, or sahlab, I’m your man.

Food here is bound up with identity. Makloubeh, for instance, is a one-pot celebration dish. Every family has its own version passed down the generations. It is a meal that reminds you that you are surrounded by your nearest and dearest — except, for these people, it is also a reminder that their home has been stolen, and that their land has been occupied.

They came to Aida having been driven from their villages in 1948, in what is known as Nakba (”the catastrophe”), when 700,000 Pal­estinians lost their homes. Over the entrance to the camp there is a giant key. Many families here still hold on to the keys of the houses that they were forced to leave.

Makloubeh means “upside-down”. It is prepared and cooked in layers of rice, onion, garlic, potatoes, aubergine, and chicken, with flaked almonds and parsley. Turmeric is added, together with generous quantities of makloubeh spice: black pepper, paprika, ground cumin, ground coriander, cloves, cin­namon, and cardamom. The dish arrives at the table in the pot and then — with great ceremony — it is overturned on to a plate, to rap­turous applause.

The cooking and eating of makloubeh is emblematic of much of what we experience on this tour: farmers, producers, chefs, and fam­ilies are all justifiably proud of what they produce, and the trad­itions they draw from. They are generous with their time and food, and they are unfailingly hospitable. But there is always the sour aftertaste of the Israeli occupation, which is a con­stant threat to their livelihoods, and restricts their move­­­­ment. Even in areas of the West Bank nominally under Palestinian control, Israeli security forces can enter at will. Time and again people say to us: “I feel like a prisoner.”

There is a stark contrast between the communities almost everywhere we go. Palestinians mostly live and work in the valleys and the plains, but they are constantly overlooked by expanding European-style settler townships on practically every hill-top. These aren’t small develop­ments, but often entire towns, with property available at bargain prices, boasting mains water, lawns, swim­ming pools, a consistent energy supply, refuse collections, and good roads into the cities, which only Israelis can use. Down below, the Palestinians are paying the same taxes as the settlers, but with a fraction of the benefits.

We visit farmers in Jiftik, near Jericho, in the Jordan valley, the heartland of Palestinian agriculture. Israel has retained almost complete control of this area, including land allocation, planning and construc­tion, and infrastructure.

These farmers, banded together in co-operatives (you can buy their products in the UK via Zeytoun), are producing dates, grapes, and aubergines. But they do so against crippling odds: they are forbidden to dig new wells, or develop existing ones; obtaining construction permits — for anything from animal shelters to housing — is nigh on impossible; and demolition of prop­erty deemed to be unauthorised takes place daily, we are told: Israeli agri-businesses are offered the land that is confiscated.

”This is not occupation,” one farmer says, “This is colonisation. They are removing our means of survival.”

As a result, many farmers in Palestine are growing crops in a similar fashion to their parents’ and grandparents’ — with limited ma­­chinery, and relying on siblings and offspring to play their part. In Nus Jbeil, near Nablus, we “help” Kadhir and Ransees Mansour start their olive harvest. In 300 heat, we spread tarpaulins under the trees and, pick, shake, or beat the peppery tasting Nabali olives from trees in their 200-year-old grove.

The Mansours are part of a local olive-growing co-operative that sells to Canaan Fair Trade in Jenin near by, which then packages and sells to an international market. At the harvest, we are promised a picnic, but a feast arrives, cooked by Grand­­ma: chicken with a yoghurt sauce together with freekeh soup, mujadarrah, and molokiah (a bit like dandelion soup).

It is hard not to leave this country angry. But I also leave inspired and nourished by those we meet in the bustling markets of Jerusalem and Hebron; in the homes we visit in refugee camps such as Aida and Arroub; in the fileds in Jiftlik; in the newly launched arts-based café bar in Nazareth; and at a women’s collective making school lunches in the village of Sebastia. We are greeted everywhere with small paper cups of strong coffee ground with cardamom.

I spend a memorable morning fuelling the prototype, home-made, mud-brick oven constructed by Mahrai in his garage in the over­crowded refugee camp of Al-
Arroub, north of Hebron, in the southern West Bank. This deter­mined, entrepreneurial man had made this beast, which will cook 50 chickens at a time, as an exper­i­ment. It is fuelled by dis­carded cartons and paper, together with dried cakes of olive pulp, biqaya alzzaytun, left over from pressing. We cook 25 chickens — liberally spiced and wrapped in foil — for his friends and extended family. He plans to build another oven, and to install it in a chicken restaurant in Hebron which he hopes to open this year.

Then there is Daoud “David” Nassar, a Palestinian Christian, who, against the threat of con­fiscation, clings on to his rare hilltop farm, south-west of Bethlehem, where his family have lived since 1916. The Israelis have declared it state land. His apricot trees were destroyed ten days before harvest, his property was vandalised, and there have been successions of demo­­lition orders — notwithstand­ing that he has papers proving his ownership which go back more than 90 years. He has presented his claims at the court, with no judg­ment, for 25 years, at a cost of $180,000. All for just over 100 acres of land.

Daoud likes to retell the Israelis their own story of Naboth’s vine­yard. And he has turned his organic farm into a place of pilgrimage, inviting the world to his “Tent of Nations”, where he runs educational work-camps through­out the year. “We refuse to be enemies,” he says. He urges his fellow Palestinians: “Don’t sit down and cry: stand up and act.” He resists with humour, stories, and creativity. But he re­­mains implac­able. “Before we talk about peace, we have to talk about justice,” he says. Food for thought.



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