By Hatim Kanaaneh – Arrabeh, Galilee
Summer is a trying season when it comes to deciding on the choice of fruits from my garden for breakfast. And whether to indulge my cholesterolophobia by skipping the couple of fresh eggs from my free range chickens. This year, for the past month I have been savoring the various fresh fruits added to breakfast cereal doused with a cup of delicious mqiqa. The problem already looming large on the horizon is how we will survive without mqiqa in another month when my carob ripens and loses the special heavenly, slightly astringent flavor of its unripeness.
For seventy years I had survived ignorant of the fact that carob is actually edible before it is fully ripe and its fleshy seedpods are totally dry. Till my octogenarian friend, Juma’a, Arabic for Friday, informed me about it. Last summer I went to visit him at home, to take him a bushel of carob as a gesture of gratitude for allowing me to take pictures of him and his wife in their traditional costumes, and to collect one of his handmade flutes, a gift he had promised me. He chided me for not bringing the carob a little earlier before it had fully ripened and dried up. As a young man Juma’a had tended goats in the Galilee Mountains before he joined the British armed forces. He still has his British ID card of which he is sentimentally proud. Showing it to me brought back memories of his days of youthful vigor and romance that spilled over into tales of wedding celebrations at which he played the flute to the accompaniment of the extemporaneous love songs of the prettiest girl in the village, now his old and weathered wife, Im-Mahmoud. Reverberations of the pleasant days of village celebrations accompanied the man throughout his life. Many years later, when he became a welder in an Israeli pipe factory, he had the chance to drill holes in lengths of stainless steel pipe and manufacture a plentiful supply of village style flutes. Now he gave me one of his favorites. Alas, I can’t whistle in its open end to produce the tunes.
Juma’a was my patient before I retired and turned my clinic over to my trusted namesake, my physician nephew. When he retired from the active life as a day laborer, occasionally a welder, and as a hobby farmer, abandoning both his welding skills and his land to his five boys, he quickly sank into the addictive lifestyle of a village retiree, spending most of his waking hours stretched out on his side on a mattress with his head propped up on his bent arm supported on a soft pillow or sitting cross-legged staring at the TV screen. The only interruptions were occasioned by an intruding grandchild, by the daylong well-spaced sips off black Arabic coffee, and by the five yogic exercises of prayer. Recently the wife of a retired fellow villager found him lifeless at mid-day still maintaining the classic reclining position in front of his blaring TV screen still clutching the remote control in his free hand. It brought back to Juma’a the classic dirge glorifying the hard life of toiling farmers sung by Palestinian rural women at funerals: “Mat wi-elminsa bidu wi-elbaqar yija’ar a’leh – He died clutching his plough and his oxen bleating over him.”
Shortly after retirement Juma’a started complaining of chest pain on exertion. My diagnosis of angina pectoris resulting from the narrowing of his coronary arteries was confirmed by a consulting cardiologist. I explained to him the basic anatomy underlying his complaint and the benefit of walking. I also put him on appropriate medications but these gave him headaches. So he went off his medications and started walking. He walked to the mosque five times for the prayers he did at home before; he walked to his land and interfered in his children’s less traditional cultivation methods; and he walked the dirt roads out of the village in all four directions. Soon enough he lost his chest pain.
Juma’a is not highly educated. He is functionally illiterate though he can write his name and read the Koran. He even makes out the headlines in the newspaper. But he is an intelligent man and has an analytical mind, albeit a quirky one. One of his most entertaining medical insights was about diabetes mellitus, a disease rapidly on the rise in the village in recent years. He made the right observation that diabetes strikes the better off families that could afford some semblance of Western lifestyle and Western diet. His first intuitive explanation was based on his limited understanding of modern technology and of electricity. He based this on his observation that most families afflicted with diabetes had indoor toilets with a water seal and a flushing mechanism. “It is all because of your fancy new toilets. A man with diabetes urinates in the toilet bowl and leaves it un-flushed. Another healthy man uses the toilet and as the flow of urine emanating from his body hits the content of that diabetes-charged bowl diabetes strikes him on the spot. And he takes it home to his family. Water is conductive, you know!” I took my time and explained to Juma’a the difference between electricity and diabetes. He argued back but eventually yielded reluctantly to my point of view. Then he came up with another explanation that I was less able to debunk and not so interested in debunking: “You notice that only the rich have diabetes,” and he proceeded to name the families in the village who have the disease. “These are the same families that bossed us around, we the poor of the village. They made our lives bitter and enjoyed all the sweet things in life. God is just. But He has no stones to throw at those who disobey him, as the saying goes. So what does He do? He makes those families’ lives bitter with excess sugar. God’s wisdom works in obscure ways, praised be his name!”
Then he went off on a tangent: “You wait and see. God doesn’t abandon his humble servants. If you are patient and do no harm to others, God will take revenge for you. What did we do to deserve the loss of our land to the Zionists? Look how they have driven us out of our homes in 48 and continue to starve us in Gaza and kill our children in the West Bank. God’s punishment is sure to come. We may not see it clearly. We may not even realize its purpose at first, but He knows what he is doing. Look at their dissolute youth! And at ours for that matter! When the punishment comes we will suffer too for our sins.”
On the occasion of my visit with my carob gift, Juma’a waxed nostalgic about “the good old days before the Zionists raped the wilderness with their settlements, barbed-wire fences, and cypress forests.” About his preference for the unripe carob he went on to explain: “The way we used to savor the early sweetness of the carob was to pick a few pods just as their green color faded into brown. The mountains were full of wild carob and we would be desperate for something sweet. Those were not days of toffee and chocolate and we would be hungry by the end of the long summer day. Early in the morning we would pick few unripe but sweet carobs and pound them with a clean stone on the rocks. We would put them in a container and milk a goat directly over the pulp, hide it in the shade of a bush, come back in the late afternoon tired and hungry, strain the milk with the corner of our shouras (gauzelike white head covers) and drink it with a piece of bread. You guys fret over your milk and cornflakes for breakfast. But you can’t imagine the taste of mqiqa with a piece of dry bread to the palate of a hungry shepherd.”
So now I do it my way, combining the old and the new, mqiqa and cornflakes. Often I add a couple of ripe figs though I like them fresh from the tree before I commence my daily gardening chores. Here too Juma’a’s traditional skills proved useful. One of the afflictions of the fig at the height of the summer heat is the tendency of the fruit to turn sour and rot just as it is ripening. The process starts at the tip of the delicate fruit where there is a tiny opening that admits the insect causing the damage. I had consulted with the expert at a nursery and he knew what pesticide would stop the infestation but gave me the wise advice to go natural. “You are not into figs commercially. You will always find enough healthy figs for your own consumption. So why use chemicals?” I certainly hope that the firm keeps him even if he dissuades customers from buying merchandise.
Then Juma’a came for a stroll in my orchard and saw the rotting figs. He rolled a tiny ball at the end of his gauzelike headdress, the size and shape of a Hershey kiss, and demonstrated to me what to do with it. So now every few days I spend an hour or two going around dipping a tiny cloth ball in olive oil and planting Hershey kisses on the mouths of the plump figs about to ripen in my garden. It works.
As a reward for his delightful tips I shared with Juma’a some of my learned acumen about carob: its draught resistance; the subsistence of holy men and ascetics on its fruit and hence its honorary name ‘St. John’s bread’; the use of its goat horn-like pod in ancient Egypt as the hieroglyph for ‘sweet’; and the ancient tradition of using its seed, the carat, as the weight standard for diamonds and gemstones and hence as the measure of the purity of gold. He wasn’t all that impressed. I have to come up with a more meaningful reward.
Earlier this month, as the azure summer Galilee skies began clouding over, Juma’a gave me another piece of advice: “You better pick your carob before the rains. Unlike its sister, the olive, the carob doesn’t embellish its fruit with the rains. Those plentiful sweet pods will rot on the branches if you don’t gather them.” On the spot I finished sipping the cup of coffee his unmarried handicapped daughter had made us, convinced my friend Toufiq to abandon the morning paper I found him reading and to join me for the ardent task of knocking down a dozen bushels of ripe carob pods off my tree. For two hours we balanced on its hefty branches, hung with one arm, trapeze artist-like, from higher ones, and swung with a stick in the other arm at the plentiful chandelier-like clumps of fruit. Then we descended to gather the several inch-deep dark brown layer of carob pods from the net we had spread under the tree.
You have to be gentle with the carob. By the time it has readied its fruit for the picking abundant bunches of minute flowers are already decorating its hard wood. Palestinian mothers ask a tease question to their little children that describes this phenomenon: “Shew hamli ow-mirida’a ow-tala’a a’jabal tidawa lalhabal? – Pregnant, breastfeeding and has climbed the mountain seeking fertility treatment, what is it?”
Way back in 1979, Didi and I, having already made our fateful choice of Galilee over Hawaii, started to build a permanent residence for our family on the near one acre piece of land on the then outskirts of Arrabeh that I inherited from my father. With a rough site development scheme in mind we started puttering around the still evolving structure of the house. Didi adopted a good-sized area on the sun-exposed south side of the house for her herb garden. Miriam Petrokowski, Aunty Miriam to our children, an expert horticulturalist provided advice, seeds and good company for Didi. Neighbors would look in admiration at the older blond German Jewish woman swinging a pickax with her one functioning arm and beaming her sunny smile at them. She and Didi spent as much time visiting with neighbors and relatives as they did gardening.
I had the lion’s share of the remaining space around the emerging house and planted a couple of seedlings of each fruit tree I found at the local nursery. As the years went by and exotic trees I planted, coffee, Mango and avocado included, succumbed to cold winters, I replaced them with more suitable and less demanding varieties. Eventually figs, grapes, pomegranates, and citrus fruits attained a majority in my orchard. At the edges I planted a variety of native Galilee seedlings: olive, oak, hawthorn, wild maple, pistachio, myrtle, rock rose, bay leaf, Judah’s tree, terebinth, and carob.
In our enthusiasm for our chosen rural lifestyle we even raised a nanny goat and built her a special abode that carries her name to this day. Then the animal proceeded to damage my trees and to bend her neck around and suckle at her own udders forcing us to overrule the objections of our children and part ways with her. Among the seedlings to which the nanny goat helped herself was the carob by her house. After the goat left us the carob sprang up again with two healthy new sprouts. I was delighted with this development and over the years took to cross-grafting branches from each trunk onto the other, thus making a natural ladder to climb up the tree. In due time, I added a well-camouflaged tree house to entice our grandchildren to visit us. And that is how Toufiq and I can now climb up the tree at a gallop.
Now comes the hard part: new technology. In past years I had neighbors collect my carob crop and received a share of the delicious and healing molasses extracted from it. Carob molasses goes well with many recipes for sweet dishes and it is the standard replacement health food stores offer for customers afflicted with chocolate allergy. It is an excellent treatment for mouth sores and is effective against diarrhea in children. I used to receive one or two liters of the stuff a year at most. Then I discovered a neighbor who extracts carob molasses for a living and I joined him in the meticulous process from beginning to end. I netted some fifteen liters. The others had been underreporting the quantity of produce.
That is not so unusual. I have grown used to a kind of overvaluation of my taste and financial means. After all, what would a doctor and his American wife need ‘rubb’ for? It is a traditional food item, not the stuff for educated palates. Besides doctors are well off and need not bother with cheap homemade items. With a similar logic, on the rare occasion that fellow villagers are willing to accept payment from me for a home produced item they often overcharge me; their gamble on me is always double or nothing.
This year I decided to do it on my own with Toufiq’s help. The plentiful crop needs to be crushed first. I remember my mother and two older sisters spending hour’s pounding the tough dry pods, looking and feeling like so many goat horns, in the stone pestle with the heavy wooden mallet, the implements otherwise reserved for tenderizing meat for kubbeh niyeh, the Middle East take on Tartar steak. But now the rubb specialist in the neighborhood has a mechanical crusher and charges little for the process. Later the pulp has to be washed and soaked overnight in water. Then comes the hardest part, squeezing out the sweet liquid to be boiled down into thick molasses. My mother and two older sisters would spend the whole day at this backbreaking chore. They would surround the family ‘lajan’, the wide, high-rimmed, round copper basin usually reserved for the daily chores of washing clothes and of needing dough. Each would sit on a stone, bend down at the waist with her extended legs hugging the lajan from her side, and would commence mashing the wet pulp and pressing out the sweet liquid from it. We, the young ones, would hang around pestering them with our impatient thirst for the heavenly juice.
I would sit close by for hours enchanted as I watched my sisters constantly switching arms, alternating the hand holding fistfuls of soaked pulp against the metal with the other pushing down pestle-like in a vigorous twisting motion to force the juice out. Mother would eventually excuse herself saving her energy for taking care of her baby and busy herself cooking the main meal of the day, leaving the more demanding task to my sisters’ better preserved muscle power. Every so often she would interrupt her own chores to come out and encourage my sisters to keep at it a little longer. She would repeatedly prod them on, addressing herself to God on their behalf with her favorite prayer: “Allah yirda aliku qad ma darro bzazi aliku – May God favor you in proportion to how much my breasts let down their milk for you!” What daughter could resist such beseeching especially when accompanied by a cup of homemade lemonade or fresh pomegranate juice? They would keep at it for a full ‘Arabic day’ – from daybreak to sunset. For days afterwards they would complain of sore muscles.
I have no intention of imitating my late sister Fatmeh or my sister Jamileh, now old, frail, and a citified Nazarene who smiles fondly remembering the good old days of strenuous daily chores, from gathering firewood to carrying water from the village spring on her head, not to mention the special ‘festivals’ of rubb making or olive picking. Twice when I travelled to India I brought back many a picture to share with sister Jamileh of Indian rural women still performing the same old tasks of fetching firewood and water on their heads, their colorful silk saris adding a romantic touch to their enslavement. She loved those pictures.
The rubb-making challenge has weighed on my mind the whole year since I made the momentous decision to attempt it myself. Last May in Hawaii I had an inspiration. We were invited to the graduation luau -Hawaiian feast- of Didi’s youngest cousin’s youngest daughter. The Girl’s grandfather, our ‘uncle David,’ was a marvelous handyman in his younger days. As a part Hawaiian, he excelled in making haupia, the delicious coconut pudding specialty that is a must desert at all authentic luaus. He had made his own mechanical press for extracting coconut milk using a metal frame, a washing machine drum, and a car jack. I was fascinated by the contraption and took several pictures of it from various angles. The inventor was intrigued and I explained the cause of my interest. He offered to make me one. But with his stroke, from which he was still recuperating, I knew he couldn’t. Besides it was too heavy to carry back all the way to the Galilee. With the new limitations airlines have placed on luggage it would cost a mint.
Back in Arrabeh I showed the pictures to Toufiq’s son, Morsi. He teaches mechanics at a technical school and is clever with his hands. He volunteered to secure a copy for me. His father-in-law is a welder and has all that is needed in his shop at home. I offered to reward both with a share of the produce. The deal was sealed.
Last week Morsi informed me that his mother-in-law has let it be known that the strange machine her husband has been working on should be finished by the afternoon. I readied my Subaru outback by putting down its backseats flat, picked Toufiq up and headed to Yaffa, their village on the outskirts of Nazareth. As we arrived at his front yard Abu-Ahmad was still busy putting the final touches to the mechanical press. We sat around sipping the compulsory freshly-made Turkish coffee and nibbling at a selection of seasonal fruits. Soon he was finished and proudly presented his new creation to us.
Abu-Ahmad is a retired welder, a little younger than our age. Toufiq and I had dealt with him before in negotiating all the social minutiae of the engagement and then the marriage of his daughter, Nidaa’, to Morsi. She is now approaching the due date of her first pregnancy, ready to fulfill the first major duty of a new village daughter-in-law, to deliver a grandson. On multiple occasions that we exchanged visits with the man we came to know Abu-Ahmad as the retiree with the diminutive stature and quiet reticent demeanor, slow of motion, deliberate of action, and always smiling. This time, as we caught him at work in his metal shop, he was a different man: vigorous, quick, almost feisty, a slight scowl on his face, energetically rushing around in his backward baseball cap and rust-stained blue denim overalls. He was in his true mettle, so to speak, a totally different man.
He apologized for the slight delay and proceeded to show us the details of his handiwork, reassuring us that the whole rubb production business was a breeze to him. After all, as a welder, in his younger days he had worked for years on the construction of the Elite chocolate factory in Upper Nazareth and therefore was familiar with the flow mechanics of viscous fluids, rubb not being much different from molten chocolate. Too bad the bastards fired him in favor of Jewish welders for the permanent maintenance jobs. Security considerations were given as the excuse. Not unlike Tnuva, the dairy industry giant that supplied some of its butter, milk and cheese to the Israeli armed forces and hence couldn’t employ Arabs.
Abu-Ahmad was adamant about refusing payment for his work. We eventually relented and offered to cover only the price of the materials he used. He still refused and now we owe him much in rubb when it gets made. We lifted the heavy machine to the back of the car and drove away with our trove. As we left Yaffa Toufiq half jokingly raised the security issue again: “This thing looks suspicious, too much like a catapult. What if there is a security check tonight, what if they have one of those impromptu checkpoints on the way home? If whoever looks in the car is Russian we are in trouble. An Ethiopian immigrant or a Bedouin would likely accept our explanation; they would be familiar with carob and homemade molasses. But a Russian immigrant from the city is sure to think we are on our way to a hilltop to shell the Haifa port, the oil refinery, or the armament factory outside Sakhnin. Let us change course and drive home by way of Eilaboun.” Equally in jest I explained that driving in that direction is even riskier. The munitions depot there is infinitely more sensitive and if a Russian immigrant soldier is to accuse us of a planned attack with our catapult it would be Israel’s atomic arsenal we would be accused of targeting. In a more somber tone I shared with Toufiq the assertion made in a detailed report by the Arab Human Rights Association of Nazareth after the 2006 invasion of Lebanon that our Galilee Arab villages have been deliberately selected for locating Israeli military installations, witness the above examples of Sakhnin and Eilaboun.
Fortunately, we traveled home unimpeded and my press has undergone inspection by dozens of curious friends and relatives, adults and children alike. I have emailed pictures of it to Hawaii with acknowledgement of the original patent rights. I am not sure Uncle David will ever taste khabisa, the very same pudding served at Hawaiian luaus except for the carob flavor replacing that of coconuts, yet another feature shared by natives in Hawaii and Palestine.
-Hatim Kanaaneh, M.D. is the author of A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Isreal. He completed his medical and public health degrees at Harvard in 1970. He then returned to Galilee where, in 1973, he became the Public Health Doctor of the sub-district of Acre. He is the founder of the NGO, the Galilee Society (The Arab National Society for Health Research and Services). He has written extensively on human rights.