A Reluctant Cook: On Palestinian Recipes and Search for Identity

By Rana Abdulla

An accountant by training and practice, I was forced by circumstances to learn how to cook, and to enjoy it too. My mother says that every decent woman must know how to cook, and that is where this story starts, with the search for a vast selection of my authentic recipes from Palestine that were adapted to modern life in Canada. That would open my eyes to the suffering that my people have gone through, and continue to go through.

I love food, but for some reason, I have never loved cooking. I left my parent’s home young, my mother taught me how to clean, knead the dough, but not how to cook.  However, my interaction with my mother in law taught me the importance of cooking. In her opinion, every woman, no matter what high-flying career she was in, should know how to cook.

And that is how I came to start searching for Palestinian recipes, a search that almost yielded nothing. To date, I continue cooking the indigenous recipes from my motherland and I can say that my folks really knew how to eat. Sadly, my yearning for more knowledge about my land Palestine led me to discover how oppressed my people have been, and so my story took a twist.

Having lived in Canada for a long time, with ghost memories of my land continually haunting me, I knew that my soul would find no peace and my heart no joy until I got something that would give me a tangible feel of the way my people lived or until I went for a sojourn in my motherland Palestine.

While Palestinians lived a good life in Kuwait, where I was born and grew up, they were segregated. Fathers and mothers in reunited families, told their children about Palestine. They spoke about the land from whence they had come and which they could not forget. My husband worked as a science teacher. He was always taken back to the events of 1967 when he walked on foot from Palestine to Jordan.  He was frustrated by the country’s unjust system. It was difficult to find a good job, to be promoted through one’s own efforts. It was all about who you knew.

He knew without a doubt that the days of the Palestinians were numbered in Kuwait, and that we would have to leave, for the second time, to a place unknown to us at this point. My husband was educated in French, he applied for immigration to Quebec and so we came. Few years after leaving Kuwait, the traumatic events of the Iraqi occupation, Palestinians in Kuwait were declared persona non grata. Kuwait expelled most of its Palestinians in retaliation of the PLO’s stand with Iraq.

I got married at age 17 and I only knew how to cook an egg, I was happy to marry as I thought that was more interesting than school, but didn’t know that cooking is part of marriage. I got so intimidated. I so badly needed to read a book about how to cook! Being in the kitchen was a horrific experience for me. To my surprise, my mother in law came to me and assured me in a sweet motherly tone. She promised to teach me how to cook; she really put me at ease.

It was surprising because she believed that I was never good enough for her son. She felt that I should have been fair skinned, light eyed in defiance of the dark Arab features resembling a Barbie doll. Nevertheless she wanted me to become a suitable wife for her son and grow “under her eyes”.

My mother prepared my aprons and bonnets made on her Singer 1950 sewing machine.  Throughout the years, there were epic failures, I pushed forward to challenge myself, I had to learn to cater to my husband’s palette and this was a valuable lesson which has made me appreciate my home and my material goods.  Going through the cooking tuition/apprentice from two passionate home cooks, with a keen interest in the tradition and culture of Palestinian food, the two women handed down their wisdom that was given with love, cooking free of complications and cheats, their advice was always right.  I thank them for imparting such wisdom. I appreciated every single moment spent in their company.

To date, I have written many Palestine solidarity articles, about the perpetual misery, torment, persecution, enslavement, and dehumanization of the occupation. I feel frustrated because I cannot communicate to you the full extent of this enduring evil. It transcends reality. However, I have never written even a single article on Palestinian dishes, because whatever was known of them could not be pieced together, not after Israel took our cuisines, branded them as their own without giving credit where it was due. Food is part of the history of a people. It tells a lot about people.

Hatred can be sparked by some little mishap maybe, but it can grow if it is given a sense of the injustices in human life. A defining moment in my life and journey occurred when I clearly realized that I was the child of a Palestinian mother who had filled our home with an atmosphere of love and optimism despite its being punctuated by grief and loss.

Born and raised outside Palestine, I was always yearning to go back there, to the land that my father had left to keep his children safe. As a child, I got addicted to watching the news; my parents cut news clips from the newspapers for me to read.  I kept thinking that things would eventually get better. A person killed every day on average in occupied Palestine is not that bad after all, I would tell myself. But I could not help facing reality. The loss of my parents’ home was an irreplaceable loss. Ever since I was little, I knew that I was attached to this land and that going back there would give me fulfillment. However, I just could not up and go because there were so many restrictions.

With so many beguiling accounts of the Intifada, the Israel occupation and general imprisonment of the masses in occupied Palestine, to an extent where a Palestinian had to have a permit to come back home, there is every reason to leave Palestine and never look back again. While that is true, strife, trouble, death and war seems to tie people tightly to their motherland and that is why no Palestinian is ashamed to call their country home.

Mention Palestine and the first thing that pops to mind is the never-ending conflict between Palestine and Israel. Depending on which side of the story you have heard, you will blame one of the two. However, the truth is that Palestine has been attacked time and again simply on the basis of its lack of as much muscle and firepower as Israel! Palestinians are a proud people. They know their history. Most important, they know the boundaries of their land. They have faith that one day they will be free and then life can go on as normal.

It is a story of sadness. It is hard to imagine that a sick person would be left to die just because Israel has the borders closed. As the world sits and watches as Gaza which is a part of Palestine is annexed away, the people of Palestine are only fighting for the most basic of rights, that of ownership and for a town that they have owned since time immemorial. While Israel seems determined to separate Gaza from where it belongs, that of course cannot be allowed, and no country would allow that. This is what has led to open Israel aggression against defenseless women and children.

Growing up, my father has shared tales and painted images that were very vivid in my mind of the dire situation of life in Palestine. This, and the urge to go verify whether it was all true made me want to go all the more.

When I talked to my family and friends in Palestine, it hit me how hard life had become there. Ok, so I had seen it in the Western Media, but most of the scripts that we got from those were pro-Israel and therefore they never showed the whole picture. But for that inborn Palestinian resilience, I know that I would never have ventured to go there.

However, deep into my preparations, I had a change of heart. How could I write of cuisines of a people who had been displaced from their home, a people who were free but everywhere in chains? People, grown up, supposedly independent but who could not even visit their kin in their former hometown just because their town had fallen under Israel? This is why the split must not be allowed at all! How can you be restricted from visiting your own home, visit the neighbors that you grew up with, be asked to show a permit to visit the village where you were born?

Israel was created by usurping Palestinian rights, Israelis find it necessary to deny Palestinians of their national rights and identity. This Israeli insecurity (or paranoia) increases whenever Palestinians assert their national identity. The simple truth is that the Palestinian people are a normal people with normal aspirations. They are no better but they are no worse than any other national group. What they aspire to, above all, is a piece of land to call their own, to live in freedom and dignity. As so often in the tragic history of Palestine, the victims were blamed for their own misfortunes. Establishing the state of Israel in May 1948 involved a monumental injustice to the Palestinians.

I believe that all people are born equal. That is why I have never been pro-Arab or anti-Jewish, and I will never be. However, I am against the injustice that the Palestinians living in Occupied Palestine are facing, the depravity, the hunger, sickness, pain and death. Ok, my gourmet journey is stayed away for now, but it is not over because I believe that one day Palestine will be free and that she will bloom as is her right. God help me and if it is His will that I be alive by then, I will surely go in search of the indelible cuisines of my people. Then I will tell the world about it and for all the cuisines that Israel has taken from my people, I will let the world know.

Anger? I am not angry, I am just disappointed that the world has just closed its eyes to the Palestinians side of the story about the occupation. The western Media has been upbeat about how Palestinian militants launch attacks in Israel and then later on when Israel retaliates; they front women and children to portray attacks on civilians by Israel. However, in my research and follow up of the Palestine situation, I came across some really disturbing situations. In my time that I have been in the west, I can comfortably say that not even a single time have they ever reported anything right.

For example, in the BBC coverage of the wall that Israel was building, encroaching on the Palestinian territory, destroying farms and building in the process, the BBC, never once in its’ so-called ‘fair coverage’ of the affair showed how Palestinians were suffering as they were displaced to give way to the building of the illegal wall. In contrast, the media largely concentrated on spreading the notion that the illegal occupiers of Jewish land were bound to face a hard time when the wall would finally be in place.

How unfair, and what a wrong image that portrays. However, one thing that is for sure is that the media in the west will never come out with the true story about the Palestinian Intifada and that is why it is our duty now to do it online. What makes it even harder is that the western media is the most watched and followed in the World. However, I and other likeminded people who have seen how the western media reports this have taken it upon ourselves to help our motherland. Like my mother used to tell me, it is not what we can do collectively, you know, enmass that counts, but it is what we do individually. What will my outcry do, amongst so much loss? Amongst the hunger and pain, and what with the electronic Intifada going viral with stories from Palestine that people find hard to believe?

It is like a story I read one day of a boy who walked along the seashore that had many where he found an abundance of beached starfish that would perish on shore. He picked them up one by one and tossed them back into the water. Seeing that the starfish were so many, in thousands, one man asked the boy what he thought he could do about all of them. The boy replied that knew he could not save all of them but that the one he tossed back to the sea would live, and that would make all the difference. That is my position.

The world may have given up on the Palestinians, but we know that our identity matters a lot. We will not give up. We will each do our small part. The people who come out of Palestine will tell others what life is like there. We will continue telling the truth until everyone’s ears are ringing with the truth, for the truth is the truth is the truth!

Honesty is the best policy but what happens when it is only one sided? Well the smart thing would be for the honest party to continue being honest and that is what Palestinians will continue doing. Even if the whole world sides with Israel in its policy of open aggression against Palestine, we will continue getting out, and we will tell the truth. For those of us who have been born and brought up in the west, one of the greatest honors that we can do our beloved nation is to go there, see, taste, feel, hear and even partake of the pain that our kith and kin are going through, then come out and tell the world what is really going on.

I have had a very eventful life in the West. Ok, by the western standards, I know it looks boring but considering what my brothers and sisters in my motherland go through, it is a rich life. However, on the other hand, it is an empty life because I could not even eat Palestinian food. Remember about looking for a recipe indigenous to Palestine? Now, at last I understand what they mean when they say that home is always best because it is. There is that wanton feeling in me, to go out, to suffer with my people, to go through what they are going through because I feel that only that way will I be able to give a firsthand experience.

Above all, I want the world to hear the whole truth one day, and appreciate for what it is; the truth. The world should know that the sympathy seeking stories about how missiles are shot at Israel is just a curtain, to cover what is really happening behind the scenes. Israel is powerful, has powerful allies and is sadistic in the way that it locks ordinary citizens out of their homes, out of their ancient homeland where they have lived for generations and suddenly, they have to get a permit to go home. If this is not the definition of inhuman, what is? Why does the western media refuse to tell the truth as it is?

As I prepare to sojourn into Palestine, there is only one thing in my mind; to see, to experience and then continue with the push for freedom. That is not terrorism, is it? If we do not stand up for our rights, we know very well that no one will and that is why the fight must go on relentlessly. Unlike our Israel Brothers though, we will not fight with guns and brutality, but we will continue raising our voices, louder until someone listens.

That’s my story. Not a pretty one, is it? It started out as a search for the best Palestinian recipes but later on, it became a search for identity, for establishment and for liberty. The struggle for human rights must continue.

– Rana Abdulla is a Palestinian Canadian writer and activist, originally from the Palestinian village of Balaa near Tulkarem. She is an advocate for refugee rights, and her work has been highlighted by Canadian media.  She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

1 Comment

  1. I know this might sound strange from all you have been through but could we get a recipe. Food connects us and helps to have a happy story. I have looked in Israeli news for happy news and they don’t have a clue. I have found happy news here. May God keep you

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