Abu Hasan’s Meager Palestinian Repast: Memories, Past and Present

Prologue: What started out as a brief recounting of the June 21, 2021, noon meal for two friends on our back porch evoked myriad memories, past and present, and sprouted too many legs, twists, and turns in the Shahrazad style.

Between 1950 and 1959 Im (mother of) Hasan (nicknamed after her first-born) delivered milk on her donkey. She would leave the Palestinian village of Beit Safa in the wee hours of the morning to deliver goat milk to some 20 Palestinian families scattered in Occupied West Jerusalem neighborhoods. Dressed in the traditional tatreezed (embroidered) Palestinian Thowb and thin linen head scarf, and riding her donkey, she cut a regal figure. The large canisters of milk dwarfed her petite stature. My twin brother and I quickly learned that when her donkey pulled his ears towards the back of his head, he was ready to kick ass.

Sometime in 1955 Abu (father) Hasan, Im Hasan’s husband, a stone mason and jack of all trades, was employed to shore up a column on the first-floor balcony at the back of our West Jerusalem, Upper Baqa’a house. During the ten days it took to finish the project, Abu Hasan’s demeanor, humility, kindness, and artistry left an indelible impact on my life. My title, Memories, Past and Present:Abu Hasan’s Meager Palestinian Repast, is a flashback and a 2021 reenactment of the  partaking of his meager meals in my adopted country – 10,982 kilometers to the west.

Arab Cuisine:  Arabs, and especially Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese Arabs, are notorious when it comes to whipping up a delectably scrumptious feast for their families and guests. With some variation, multiple dips (with a tahiné, garlic, parsley, and lemon base) are served in small platters; taboulé, hummus, baba ghanouj, and falafel are served as finger foods;  an assortment of black and green olives add flavor, contrast, color and texture; slices of pickled baby cucumbers, fa’ous (Armenian cucumber), eggplant,  turnips, including small portions of grilled fish, chicken, or lamb, served with mounds of  flat Arab bread of all sizes,  shapes and textures – launch one’s guests into an unforgettable feast.

And these are merely the mezé/hors d’oeuvres.

The main meal might include roasted chicken stuffed with ground lamb or beef, rice, almond shavings, pine nuts, and spices. The roasted chicken, carved in smaller portions, is served on a large platter with a mountain of hashwé (rice stuffing) that is not only eye pleasing, but is also lip-smacking delicious. For sure allspice makes all the difference. Rice, ground mutton or beef, and spices are the ingredients that are rolled, mini-cigar-like, into fresh-cut grape leaves and cooked to perfection (plain home-made yogurt is served on top of the grape leaves and other dishes); the same concoction is funneled into cored out zucchini squash or the native yellow squashes of the region. Eggplant, cauliflower, okra and rice dishes are cooked in special circular pots that, when ready to be served, are tipped on large platters much as one would flip a cake from its baking pan to expose cubes of sumptuous and tender lamb or beef that grace the crown of these casserole-like dishes. And  cabbage leaves, rolled with the same ingredients, are cooked and deposited in a circular, stacked pattern some 10-12 inches high.  And sometimes either tomatoes, tomato paste, or lemon juice are added to provide a tantalizing visual and savory display of culinary art. And one should not forget the soupy, scrumptious mlukhié laced with ground coriander, garlic, and cubes of lamb, served on rice and topped with thinly sliced white onions and vinegar.

Mary, my Jerusalem Palestinian childhood friend, reminded me of all the M dishes: Makloubeh, Mloukhieh, Mujadara, Musakhan, Mansaf, Malfouf, including more recent mezé  dishes such as sautéed lamb livers,  garlic and parsley filled “طحالات-Thalat”,  and bite-sized kubbeh balls.

And the list of dishes goes on, and on.

Spices, Arab Kitchen’s Cornerstone:  Go into any Palestinian kitchen, open the fridge, or pantry, and you will find an abundance of the following: garlic, onions, fresh-cut parsley and green onions, mint, and vegetables from backyard gardens or patio planters. Fresh fruit is always present in large ceramic platters or wicker baskets. In a separate section of the pantry a mini spice museum greets the onlooker. And one’s olfactory sense is greeted with the rich aroma of bharat (spices) that emanate from scores of vials that line the shelves.

The bharat are the cornerstone of Arab kitchens.  One will always find allspice, cumin, minced garlic, paprika, cinnamon, coriander, cardamon, turmeric, nutmeg, caraway, oregano, sumac, zaatar (thyme), sesame seeds, and saffron. And shelves are almost always lined with large jars of assorted pickled vegetables, black and green olives, olive oil, rose water, and pomegranate molasses. And hanging from a pantry’s ceiling or walls one is likely to find stringed or garlanded chili peppers and garlic.

Kansas Tourists In Beirut, Lebanon: I shall never forget the reaction of a group of Mennonites to a Palestinian dinner held in Beirut, Lebanon, in their honor. When, in 1964, David, my late older brother,  was attending the Kansas-based Tabor College, a private Mennonite four-year college, he heard that some Hillsboro, Kansas locals were visiting Beirut, Lebanon. He made sure that they visit our 2nd story apartment at the end of Bliss St.   Bliss St. is named after Daniel Bliss, who founded the acclaimed American University of Beirut in 1866.

In keeping with the Arab tradition of hospitality and sparing nothing, for two whole days mother and my aunts slaved in the kitchen to cook a buffet of multiple dishes and mounds of deserts. One would have thought that a representative of the United States Government was about to grace our modest Bliss St. abode with his presence.

Never in my life had I witnessed a group of people, some 14 in number, devour the savory food with more gusto than a sailor guzzling a bottle of liquor. Besides, the Arabs’ habit of inviting their guests to seconds and thirds, almost always to the point of “being pushy,” did not help. Thinking that this was a routine Near Eastern meal, one guest opined on the splendid display of food and declared that our family must be a family of means – and joked about moving to Beirut to enjoy its blissful culinary richness partaken on Bliss Street.

A Lebanese neighbor who witnessed the event pronounced that she’d never beheld a group of starving guests consume such large amounts of food and behave in such a jovial manner.

HuffPost: Diasporic Palestinian Cuisine:  Under the title “Palestinians Living Abroad Share the Meals That Connect Them To Home,” HuffPost recently ran a nice spread about four young Palestinian women living in San Jose, Chicago, Washington, DC, and London.  “How does one approach the Palestinian table?” begins the outstanding posting. “Considering Palestine’s ancient history of political occupations and the fresh trauma of settler-colonial violence, bringing an appetite is not enough” becomes the invitation into the kitchens of 4 Palestinian women living in diaspora. Age-old favorite family recipes handed down from mothers to daughters are the cultural umbilical cord that binds diasporic Palestinians to their roots. The HuffPost piece then proceeds to state that “As Israeli forces impound homes and fence off swaths of farmland, the doggedness of Palestine’s farm-to-table philosophy seems to have deepened. In cookbooks and at community events chaired by those in the Palestinian diaspora, we’re seeing sustained emphasis on the archiving of regional nuances and local sourcing traditions. There is even a seed bank movement to preserve heirloom stock. The urgency that animates these endeavors is quite palpable.”

For those interested in Palestinian cuisine, this HuffPost posting provides a step-by-step narrative and photos of numerous delectable traditional meals that celebrate Palestinian culinary art.

In view of the almost daily frivolous anti-Semitic accusations charged by Israelis and their AIPAC supporters, politicians, and the media’s ad nauseum parroting of each other, I am very surprised that, as of today, no such accusations have been made against HuffPost.

For those interested in an upcoming on-line Palestinian meal preparation, MECA (Middle East Children’s Alliance) is sponsoring a “From Bethlehem to Gaza: Palestinian Culinary Resilience and Liberation” narrated live by Laila El-Haddad and Vivien Sansour. Monday, August 16, is the date for this venue; for details please google MECA’s website.

And I love this affirmation of highlighting food as an affirmation of Palestinian nationhood, identity, resilience, and existence. Way to go Laila and Vivien: Yes, we Palestinians have and will continue to exist, no matter how hard our Israeli  cousins  try to deny our being and presence.

The Bonds of Friendship:  I believe that it was Lee Iacocca to whom the following paraphrased statement is attributed: If one has been fortunate to have had one genuine friend in her/his lifetime, then one is truly a wealthy person.

Over the years I have had many genuine male and female friendships; even though many of these friendships are separated by miles and geography, they are still vibrantly strong. Thus, adhering to Iacocca’s adage, I consider myself to be one of the wealthiest men in the world.

Two of my closest local friendships are with former colleagues Johnny Wink and Joe Jeffers. These friendships span 50 years. Joe is the retired dean of natural sciences, and to this day Johnny holds a distinguished chair in English. Scholars par excellence and passionate advocates of a liberal arts education, Joe and Johnny have excelled as university professors, have been published extensively, and have earned many teaching awards and accolades. Between them they’ve taught a squadron of PhDs, MD’s PharmDs, DDS’s, small town doctors, professors, lab technicians, entrepreneurs, JDs, award winning poets and novelists, editors, essayists, reporters, actors, directors, and a host of high-powered English, foreign language, and science teachers. And, to boot, a professional football player, a professional bartender, a restaurant proprietor, and an FBI agent.

Breaking Bread Enriches Friendships:  Over the years I’ve invited Johnny and Joe over for a two or three course Palestinian meal prepared by La Belle Femme, and more often simply for a hummus and accouterment dish served with either beer or wine of their choice. To lend more authenticity to these meals, I’ve resolved that the next meal will start with a toast of genuine Lebanese Arak (Ouzo), a bottle of which sits in anticipation in our mini bar cabinet

In early May I sent the following invitation to J & J: “Around the end of the first week of May I plan to have a dish of hummus, very simple Palestinian repast, and have you two over to sit on the back porch, kick back, and enjoy the backyard greenery.”

My Reactions to Israeli Assaults on Palestine and Her Children:  On 10 May 2021 Israel decided “to mow the grass [yet again] in Gaza,” a phrase the Israelis have coined to describe all their previous heinous assaults on the 2.2 million starving and destitute prisoners of the tiny, forsaken piece of land called The Gaza Strip and the 3.2 million prisoners of Occupied Palestine – the West Bank.

Ever since 1967 and whenever Israel has invaded, attacked, destroyed, and occupied Palestine, Lebanon, Syria or Jordan, I did what I have always done. Even as a child living under Israeli occupation, I learned to spin a tight cocoon around myself, a kind of anesthetic barricade of security and withdrawal from the Machiavellian, quotidian horrors of evil-doers. As a pacifist, I abhor violence, especially the vindictively malevolent violence perpetrated by Israel, the US and EU, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Syria, to name but a few of the sordid characters, on helpless women and children. So caustic and brutal is Israel’s violence that even zoo animals are not spared; lions, tigers, monkeys, and other Gaza Zoo animals have been murdered (shot for sport) by members of the World’s most Moral Army and left to rot in the stench of the putrid summer heat.

And to date not a single Humane Society agency/representative, anywhere in the world, has condemned this bestial brutality on starving, caged and helpless animals whose existence was to attune Gaza children to the natural world in their unnatural prison setting. Why, may I ask? Why, and how does a government (and its many abettors in America and Europe) so adept at playing the victim card sweep such egregious Geneva Convention crimes under the rug? The silence is deafening.

And this most recent Israeli serial bludgeoning of an entire nation hit hard. I did not follow up on my invitation to my friends and isolated myself from family and friends. And on my 2-3 times-a-week 80-mile roundtrip to visit with my sister in assisted living, I was thankful that her battle with  dementia shelters her from witnessing Israel’s serial orgies of killing.

A Friend Reaches Out: Sensing my agony, on May 21/2021 Johnny sent me a lengthy email in which he stated the following:

“A month or so ago, Jack Butler [who, like me, is a pacifist and a very dear friend] wrote me a letter having to do with the State of affairs in the world.  In it he referred in passing to the unhappy state of affairs in Palestine as “the conflict which has ravaged Raouf’s heart for so many years now.” I have been thinking about that phrase daily ever since the latest round of horrors. I have been thinking about you and how long you’ve carried this burden of woe in you.

I have been thinking about you and loving you, Raouf. Hanna.”

My Prompt Response:

Habibi Hanna (Arabic for John),

Ya Hanna, Thank you for your kind and loving words. I am deeply moved – to the point of tears.

In June of 1982, and, to be exact, 39 years to the month, I wrote you a letter from Minneapolis. The Immigration History Research Center hired me as a consultant – re. Arab immigration to the US. I assisted with unpacking and archiving materials from the Philip K. Hitti Collection, travelled to five major metropolitan areas to raise funds, and helped plan an international conference on Arab American Studies.

As I recall the wording, it started out something like this: Here I am in a Minneapolis basement apartment writing you in fear and apprehension. For even though I am thousands of miles away from Israel’s clutches, The Trauma follows me like the tentacles of a monstrous octopus. Of course that reference is/was to Israel’s brutal invasion of Lebanon and the carnage Sharon left in its wake. And yet again, Israel has been/is getting away with butchering women, children, and the aged. To Israelis the killing of Palestinians has become a spectator sport. They sit in reclining chairs on the beaches of Tel Aviv and watch their air force drop guided missiles, obliterating entire families and neighborhoods in dreadful daily bloodbaths – with impunity. A few years ago they called their routine onslaught on Gaza “Mowing the Grass.”

Had it not been for a loving wife, two fine sons, a loving family, trusted and sensitive friends such as you, Joe,  Larry, Jack, Jay, the Sonheims, the Harrisons, and so many others, I would have given up on hope about human decency and faith, altogether. And I believe that Ramzy’s  [my twin brother] premature death only two weeks away from our 60th birthday was caused, in part, because of his strong feelings, his anguish, and his anger at what has continued to “ravage” Palestine and her children.

Over the years I’ve learned how to deal with this perpetual grinding of Palestinian lives in the foundries of America and Europe’s armament industries. Family, dear friends, spending hours hammering away at my keyboard, penning letters and well over 375 op. eds.  and articles (a painful experience because of the subject matter and my poor typing skills), landscaping, making art, taking photographs, and spending hours upon hours in my garden and tending to my beehives, occasional volunteer work, reading into the wee hours of the morning, walking, fishing, and a few other diversions have helped ameliorate the pain of Israeli brutality.

Yet, in spite of all the aforementioned, and I hide this from R. and the boys, I feel as though I am in a chamber of a grinding and perpetual grief and pain; that my tax dollars are supporting the Israelis is an added pain. And the guilt of surviving the Nakba and living in the lap of luxury grinds on me – constantly.

In closing, let me relive an experience you, Tony [my late oldest brother], and I had at Beijing’s Summer Palace, right there by Lake Serenity, when I christened you with the lake’s water and welcomed you into the Halaby family brotherly bond with the following words: ‘Now you are a Palestinian.’ To which Tony responded: ‘You don’t know what you’re getting into.’

Brief as my acquaintance with Jack Butler was during those younger days of our lives, his genuine friendship is stronger today than it has ever been. You two Mississippi boys faced the devilish evil of your societal upbringing and went on to live exemplary lives, always speaking power to truth, always believing in the dignity of your fellow man, always following your due north compass of decency, fairness, gentility, and love of and for the written word, and excelling in the beauty of composing beautiful poetic tableaux in words.

Enough rambling. I am out to check on the damage caused by the plethora of rain on my still struggling and puny vegetable plants.

Fondly,

Raouf

Five Stages of Grief:  I am told that Shock and Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Loneliness, Acceptance and Hope are the five stages for dealing with grief.

I am past Shock and Denial about Israel’s sick pathology of theft, intimidation, maiming, and killing. Nothing surprises any more. Violence helped birth the state, and violence continues to be its raison d’ȇtre. As for Anger, I’ve learned to cope with it and have found different means, call it an ongoing process of  modus vivendi bartering, to deal with it. This lengthy essay is one such example. Bargaining: there is nothing to bargain for or over; Israel is a colonial apartheid state propped by the US and Western Europe as a racist buffer against Arabs and Muslims and a launching pad for all hegemonic designs to control the region’s resources. Depression and Loneliness are at their worst when Israel, like the serial rapist, has a compulsion to disgorge its ejaculation of hate with the most advanced weaponry supplied to it by its American and European mendicant servants. As for Acceptance and Hope, I’ve become very adept at picking up the pieces and going on. I will never accept Israel’s brutalities and US complicity. And Hope stays alive because of a loving family a host of trusted friends around the world, and the many Jewish Voices of Conscience around the world, including the scores of Jewish CounterPunch contributors, Philip Weiss, and far too many folks to list.

Abu Hasan’s Meager Palestinian Repast: On 21June, 2021, Joe and Johnny joined me for lunch on the back porch. From that very private vantage point, our guests are afforded a large open green space with a perimeter of large trees that extend as far as the eye can see.  A large fenced-in vegetable garden sits to the right, a rock and gravel bed to catch the heavy rains runs in a diagonal line, and, for La Belle Femme’s sake, a large flower bed – a work-in-progress – in which lilacs, lantanas, peonies, rose bushes, and a butterfly bush – intended solely to attract butterflies and hummingbirds – serves as the left bookend to the garden. Three olive trees and three fig trees (one named in Rachel Corrie’s memory) are evenly spaced. Two beehives are in full view, and the 9 outdoor metal sculptures are randomly interspersed.

This very private backyard space is my cordon sanitaire, that space into which I can wander for hours at a time to commune with nature,  and to work through all the mental blocks that are part and parcel of modern living.

Within minutes of J & J’s having been seated, beer tops were popped, and with little fanfare I brought out my Palestinian lunch treat.  A tray, water glasses, three loaves of flat Arab bread, slivers of a large white onion, and crushed, made in Palestine green olives compliments of Ali Baba’s Middle Eastern Food Store and Deli.

“Gentlemen, I hope I haven’t disappointed you. We are eating this meager Palestinian repast in solidarity with the starving Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank,” I announced.  “Further, we are going to reenact Abu Hasan’s meager Palestinian repast, an event I witnessed 66 years ago in the yard of our Jerusalem home.”  I instructed J & J to tear a piece of bread into which a sliver of onion and olive were wrapped. “This is what we’re having for lunch,” I declared, “and, while eating this paltry fare, I aim to deliver the context.”

During the hours I spent watching Abu Hasan skillfully carve large chunks of Jerusalem stone into exquisite building blocks, I learned to appreciate the handling of various sculpting chisels, how to measure, how to allow for variety of size and texture, and how to sharpen the tools of the trade. Abu Hasan’s task was to shore up a loose back balcony’s reinforced concrete column that separated from its base and was dangerously gravitating from its base. Fortunately, the cantilevered upper balcony design was strong enough to keep the balcony from collapsing. To accomplish his goal, Abu Hassan reinforced the foundation and built a mason cut stone base that blended in with the rest of the original stone design.

Dressed in his traditional Palestinian shirwal (a long, loose and baggy culotte) and sitting on the ground for his lunch, Abu Hassan unfolded a clean white linen to reveal two flat bread loaves, slivers of white onion, and a large handful on green olives. “Bi’ism Illah,” (In God’s Name) he invoked, and proceeded to tear a piece of bread, and to create a wrap in which white slivers of onion and green olives were consumed. And for drink, Abu Hasan held a rotund gourd above his head and drank to satiate both hunger and thirst. Instead of olives, on certain days goat cheese supplemented his meager fare.

During my 45 minute of reminiscing and recounting my Abu Hasan and other childhood memories, J & J and I laid waste to the flat bread, slivers of white onion,, and green Jerusalem olives.

I was not about to disappoint my two friends: A dish of my special hummus, garden vegetable salad with tahiné dressing, and a made in Bulgaria can of rolled grape leaves (compliments of Ali Babba’s Deli) made for a fairly decent fare.

And for desert, J & J were invited to walk with me to view my bees’ frenzied flights as they entered the hive, laden with pollen, while others emerged to forage for pollen in the wondrous, mysterious and safe world I have carved out for my family and for me in the rural south.

Epilogue: On 23 June, 2021, almost a month after experiencing, yet again,  Palestine’s Agony,  and two days after the delightful ecstasy of therapeutic fellowship with J & J, Johnny Wink, the prolific poet, sent the following:

Dear Raouf,

I have not been able to get out of my mind the work of art that is in your backyard (not that I’ve wanted to). I think a poem about it must have begun gestating in me when first I was dazzled by what you have done there. This morning I got down on paper what I was thinking about it. You and your back yard deserve a better poem than this one, but here it is anyway.

A Friend’s Back Yard

My eyes are dazzled by what he has made,
Bringing nature and art into collusion.
I think of Yeats’ phrase  “bee-loud glade.”
I think of Whitman’s lilacs. O, sweet fusion
Of so many splendid things: Raouf’s back yard!
It’s not, this paradise, a paradise,
Although it looks the part. Trouble’s not barred
From here. O, no. Woe grips him like a vise
Even in this most blissful of sacred spaces.
Et in Arcadia ego murmurs Death.
This garden’s no retreat. All earthly places
Are marred, and yet it takes away my breath!
I think of my dear friend. His agony
And ecstasy meet here: Gethsemane.
With Much Love & Admiration,

Hanna

Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor Emeritus of English and Art. He is a writer, photographer, sculptor, an avid gardener, and a peace activist. halabys7181@outlook.com

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