There is a shadow in her room; it traverses the cracked walls and holed ceiling. At night it hides maybe in the remnants of her closet, maybe under the bed with tattered sheets, maybe it disappears, she does not know where it lurks, perhaps inside her heart.
It dances on her walls, expanding, shrinking, attacking, retreating. All day it dances She lays in her bed in surrender to its advances, Then she stands in defiance, slides into her clothes and walks out. She slams the door behind her, But the shadow bolts under the dresser, over the bed, through the door and straight ahead.
It climbs the walls in the corridors it crawls the broken floors, it swings back and forth from the burnt grapevine pergola. It moans a sad moan in her ears, and hovers heavily over her shoulders.
It clouds her eyes with grey melancholy It burdens her voice and inhibits her smiles. But without it, she is an aimless bee without a hive.
On a hot summer night, the sea crashed into the beach urgently The sky glowed white phosphorus hot, He arrived more beautiful than the moon, more luminous than the sun.
Her heart gave in to the softness of his skin, the tenderness in his cooes They placed him in her arms, a crying, swaddled bundle, and her heart took a tumble
They stitched her insides back together, To her chest she pulled him closer his head she smelled His face she caressed A magnificent feeling to become a mother..
During the years, she learned That her heart will break everytime he fell That his laughter is the edge of heaven That his tears are the gates to hell She learned That she will cry at every first day and last day of school That his voice will salve her soul in the midst of endless explosions She learned that the voice will change quickly from a cry to a roar, but his eyes will sparkle just the same, like the moon glistening in the sea.
It was a fateful morning when he left the house, his eyes iridescent with laughter In between breakfast and teasing banter He kissed her cheeks and asked for her blessings. He was a bright spot in all the darkness, an oil lamp in the endless electricity outages. He was as sweet as bottled water.
On that fateful humid May morning, She found his eyes,first… a light extinguished His smile, second…a rose wilted His hand, third, wrapped around his phone…a signal killed His legs, last, two limp logs splayed to the East and West
She birthed him from the mouth of rubble, head first, shoulders and torso second, hands and phone, third, then two limp broken legs...
She held him to her chest, this time, a silent swaddled bundle In his place sixty seven shadows hover
There is a particular sadness in cheesecake, a melancholic after taste, flat and blunt. It is creamy and sweet on the edges, but heavy in the middle. A sadness that registers on the tongue and releases memories into my synaptic cleft with electric speed.
Replaced with sadness are memories of my father standing in our kitchen making the cake from a German recipe written in German on a piece of graphing paper. The operation was carried with surgical precision and scientific accuracy. My mother found herself demoted in her own kitchen to su chef or second surgeon. She would eye my father with grave concern, like a mother would eye her toddler dashing straight into a mud puddle, pondering the dreadful aftermath, but giving in to the inevitable mess.
With her lips sealed thin tight, mother helped. A few protests would escape her mouth, just as quark came flying off the spatula to land flat on one of the kitchen cabinets. Sometimes the comment would turn into an argument, and other times she would reign in the comment, and continue to stand there watchfully. It looked like Mama was not enjoying any of this, and Baba loved every minute of it. Now I know that the instantaneous argument was a necessary ingredient that ultimately made the cake taste particularly happy.
Happy tasted light, creamy with hints of lemon zest, and notes of rum flavor or was it real rum? Happy had whiffs of sour on the edges, but was perfectly sweet in the center. It had the laughter of children growing up, the excitement the first slice carried with it as Mama lifted it expertly out of the pan. It had the seriousness of classical music and the memories of a younger version of Baba that must have lived freely and danced carelessly in what sounded to us a magical and far away place called Dresden.
I believe Baba was happiest when he was in Dresden; immersed in his books, electrified by the science and carried lightly on melodies of his favorite symphonies. Baba was a complicated man, Palestinian fallah meets German professor; poverty stricken meets eduationally fed; socialist fighter meets middle class comfort. The fluidity of Arabic language collides with the discipline of German culture.
Cheesecake was happiness for my father. A piece of his complex soul, a peace offering extended to us, his teenage children. Deafened by our own lives, he must have felt invisible; unheard and unseen. It was an invitation to get to know him. It was a concave view of his complexity. But for us, at least that immediate moment of heightened consciousness, it was simply delicious, irreplicable cheesecake.
Cheesecake, meant Baba taking over the kitchen for a half a day, and Mama cleaning after him for days. It was a tasty inconvenience. But it was also a moment of peace, when everyone would grow quiet, the arguing, the laughing and the loudness tethered to children came to a screeching halt.
The house abandoned its daily noises and listened intently to the signs of brewing coffee, the clicking and clacking of dishes and utensils as the table was set. And as quiet spread its thick blanket, the chairs were drawn and three children with their parents plopped themselves in anticipation.
The click of the springform pan announced that it was time. The kitchen smiled broadly, proud it survived another cheesecake adventure. The knife silently slid into the cake, and a hushed swoosh was heard as it traveled down through the filling reaching the crust. Then my mother pried the first piece out of the pan, careful not to break it apart. We stared through the arabesque of her arms, cradling our faces with drooling mouths, each hoping that the first piece made its way to their plate.
Eventually we each got a piece, and coffee gurgled into Mama and Baba’s cups. Then the competition of who ate slowest ensued. I watched around the table as I began the swift journey of my fork pressing into the cake , only to be surprised by the crust’s slight resistance before it gave way into crumbly surrender. Then I lifted my fork, slowly, surely to my mouth. My lips parted; the cake made its way into my mouth. My tongue received the piece eagerly, and as it sighed its flavors out, an explosion of thickness, creaminess, light tangues of lemon awakened my taste buds. The flavors waltzed in my mouth, as I started preparing the next bite.
There was a particular happiness in cheesecake that I missed. I was busy being a teenager who was branding her family annoying, dysfunctional and any other adjective that came rushing to mind. But it is exactly moments like this , when families sit around tables in silence to enjoy a meal, or a piece of dessert that memories are made. It is the stuff families are made off. It is what we take for granted as children, the love and safety of parents and the warmth of belonging together.
I had the same dream again…creamy silky cheesecake, Baba in my kitchen, mixing the ingredients, smiling at me. Sugar, cream cheese, butter, a dash of rum flavor, or vanilla, and eggs. He reminds me not to forget the juice of a half lemon and grated lemon peel. I hover around him, trying to register every move. But when I ask him questions, he does not answer. He just pours the batter into the pan, and opens the oven door. I reach out to help him, suddenly he is gone, he gets sucked into the darkness. I lose my footing and fall into the oven behind him. He disappears, and I come crashing into my bed…. The dream ends abruptly; I wake up sweaty, panting for air, with a blunt pain in my chest.
Decades after Baba’s cheesecake adventures met its abrupt end at the hands of multiple coronary thrombosis, I was blinded with bottomless grief and found myself in a state of perpetual hunger for hints of him in everything. I became acutely aware of all the similarities I share with him but never admitted to. So I embarked on a journey to recreate his cake in a desperate search for a hint of him in a bite.
My journey is ornate with endless failures. In my notebook, I enter one failed attempt after the other. One time the quark was too salty, another time, not enough sugar, the third time the consistency was all wrong, not dense enough, not creamy enough, too light, too airy, not enough vanilla, and the list goes on and on. My notebook reads like the hall of fame of failures and the disappointed looks on my siblings’ faces are trophies shining on its walls lustrously.
I regret not translating the recipe into English or Arabic. A continued pang of pain throbs against my heart that I never made the cake with him. He spent so much time with the children, yet we could never squeeze an afternoon to bake. Life always interrupted with a meeting or a phone call, or a sick child. I desperately wished I filmed him making it. Although my memories were as crystal clear as a glass ornament, they were devoid of color and sound. They receded into foggy compartments, there and not really there.
Many times I find myself remembering his wrinkled dark hands, opening the quark/labneh and pouring it into the food processor bowl. I imagine I am standing right beside him taking notes, talking to him. I see him smiling, answering my questions with scientific rigour. I think he would have loved this rare moment of attention from his eldest daughter. The. busy one, who resided comfortably in the distant Sunday dinners, occasional birthdays, Christmas Eves and Eid gatherings. Always busy, always on the run…
Often the images in my head are vivid that memory and imagination mix together, and become indiscernible. But one thing remains and perseveres, the cheesecake. The finer details of its flavors, the happiness it once brought and the particular sadness it now brings.
There is a particular sadness to cheesecake these days. One that persistently comes up in every attempt to recreate dad’s version and in the realization that to die means to not live. A painful recognition to come to is the mortality of our parents, the mortality of ourselves.
It is hard to imagine Baba not enjoying cheesecake. How fragile life is! How flimsy are its pleasures! We take them for granted, casting them aside as mundane and worldly, and only when death takes our loved ones, do we understand their preciousness.
My dad lived a full life with a successful career, a vibrant family with a wife who was equal parts homemaker and intellectual partner. A father who raised the bar high for his children, and never took any excuses. It is the fullness of his life that leaves behind an array of pain and memory. The more one lives, the more love there is to mourn.
All faiths and cultures believe that death leads to a better place. Does it? Or is this what mortals tell themselves to ease the pain of loss. On the eve of what would have been Baba’s 87th birthday, I can only pray that he is indeed in a better place where eternal peace and happiness envelope him warmly.
Over Winter Break, my children started to read Harry Potter. A fan myself, my heart was swelling with joy and pride. Eight years old and holding their books, sometimes to the light of a mobile phone to read, I was thrilled that they have discovered the joy of reading, the escape into a good book’s pages. And Harry, Hermoine and Ron were good characters to fall in love with, or at least that is what I thought.
I would take Hermoine over any Disney princess, any day. Knowledgeable, well read, knows her way around any library, intelligent and inquisitive. Hermoine never really needed anyone to help her, she never batted her eyelashes to get Ron or Harry to do anything for her. So, yes, I was thrilled, that we were out of the princess and prince woods and into the Harry Potter world.
And yes of course I prefer Harry and Ron over any Disney prince, from Prince Charming who went on his good looks and toothy smile to sleeping beauty’s prince, who apparently kissed girls in their sleep, without their consent one would assume (imagine if sleeping beauty got up and slapped him…that would have been funny)
Ron’s humility, his sense of humor, his loyalty and his arachnophobia make him approachable and believable. He is a character with so much humanity that one cannot help but love him. He tells a human story of friendship. For children, making friends is their first experience in building relationships, and creating their own social space where they grow, learn, experiment and express themselves. And Ron does exactly that, out of a very ordinary family (nothing ordinary about Mrs. Weasley’s kitchen, yet still apart from the magic, the Weasley’s are a hardworking middle class, maybe lower middle class family), Ron makes friends, and brings values like honesty and loyalty to life.
And there is Harry, rising from the ashes of tragedy, with a good heart, despite all the evil he has seen. Harry was no different than many children across the world today. Losing his parents in a war, turning into a refugee as a baby; sent to live in a cellar underneath the stairs; mistreated by those who claimed to be family, but adamantly refused to treat him as their own. Judged for who he is and where he came from, I couldn’t help but think of all the refugee children who met the same fate Harry had. The interconnections between the two stories stared back at me, and there was one child, one particular refugee child that kept popping in my head…his hands clasped behind his back, his patched shirt, his bare feet vividly dancing in front of my face, a black and white outline of a character, Handala…
Without any magic, or a Dumbeldore to look after him, Handala is practically on his own, he was and remains ten (maybe 11) years old. Having lost everything, Handala does not grow up; over the years and decades he remains a child..His face turned away from the world, his hands clasped behind his back, he patiently waits to return home. On the walls of refugee camps spray painted, he waits. He swings helplessly from silver key chains, his back still turned to the world, he faithfully waits. On the chests of young women he hangs from necklaces nestled under warm scarves wrapped artfully around their necks, or heads; he rests listening to their heartbeats and he tirelessly waits. Shared as an animation, or printed in white and black in newspaper cartoons, Handala never shows us his face; all he does us wait. One wonders if beyond the turned back there are tears; or a patient smile, or a sarcastic look…Or maybe he is angry?
Handala is no different than Harry. And if they ever met, maybe they would become friends? Harry would teach him how to swing a wand (Hermoine would be the one to teach him different spells though, especially the complicated ones); or how to use the Pensieve to collect memories. Or they might been perfectly content eating chocolate frogs, and vanilla wafers, on the Hogwarts Express laughing and talking. Harry’s scar would match Handala’s scratched marks. Handala would share a citrusy orange, while telling Harry how much he wishes to see his home again. Harry would swoop Handala on a quick trip over Palestine. They may be mistaken for a handmade drone, and may have to escape the iron dome missiles quickly, but Harry would handle the situation and disapparate them back to the train cart safely.
They would argue over which is the more interesting game Quidditch or Football (the real football, i.e. soccer). The argument would be heated, Harry would claim that football is boring; no one gets to fly, there is only one ball, and it rarely leaves the grass. Handala would defend football, and argue that quidditch cannot be played anywhere anytime, but football is not constrained to the field and the match. All you need is a ball, two stones as your goal post and children who want to play. In fact the most beautiful football is played on the streets with makeshift balls and very loud children. However, Handala would marvel at the opportunity to fly freely to the highest of altitudes on a broomstick. Both children would agree that Quidditch and soccer are far better than American football, and would joke at the weird shaped ball and the grunting player faces. They would laugh and quickly turn to eat more chocolate.
Harry’s scar would burn, Handala’s shadowy scratches would tingle, and they would become fast friends. Harry would smile, Handala would stand with his hands clasped, his face staring out the window, and would secretly smile. Harry wouldn’t see Handala’s face, and being a wizard, having met all kinds of magical creatures, he wouldn’t mind.
Handala would think Harry is a magical hero, but it is Harry, in his humility and kindness who is quick to recognize that it is Handala who is magical and heroic. Muggle born, with no supernatural powers, no wand, no magic, Handala is just as mysterious, just as enamoring, and just as heroic; his power is patience and perseverance…
Everyone knows Harry Potter’s happy ending, but we still wait for Handala’s happy ending to come. We can only hope it would be as magically just as Harry’s
In the meantime, I stand in my kitchen baking ginger bread cookies in the shape of Handala; I decorate them and bring them to life on my kitchen counter. The kids are curious…they ask questions, the conversation takes on all kinds of shapes, they want to know what will happen next to Handala, they want to read on about Harry (although they know the ending too well), we talk, we dream, we imagine what Handala’s face might look like. We agree that the only happy ending is for Handala to return home…
As I sit down to write this, they read over my shoulder; and as the questions continue , my heart fills with hope.
After one year of giving birth, I sat in a cafe frantically writing this letter to motherhood, before picking up the twins form day care. I read this now and recognize how paramount that year was, and how thankful I am that i became a mother.
I survived…One year later, and I am still alive. I do not sleep, I do not eat, and washing my hair is a luxury, but I made it and I may have turned into a better person. I have two tiny people that remind me daily that life is sweet and short, much like a mini Mars bar, just when you start enjoying it, it ends.
As my day starts and my level of stress shoots to star high levels, the piled undone laundry starts to develop an attitude, and the unprepared lecture notes start to guilt trip me into wondering what kind of person I have become. What happened to the talented, smart, intelligent, career oriented, size 8 wearing, 15 km running woman I once was? And just as the sight of a morning jogger starts to pinch my heart and bring severe awareness to my protruding belly, and my wide hips, and just as my colleague writes me a long email passive aggressively reprimanding me for missing yet another academic committee meeting, and just as I race out of campus only to be stopped at Qalandia…for hours; just as the world starts to cave in, these tiny feet, and tiny teeth, and innocent eyes that gather the most beautiful expressions a human face can gather remind me that I am no longer who I once was, that I have irreversibly changed. I may have been the career oriented, size 8 wearing, 15 km running woman, but back then I was only a caterpillar slowly swallowing everything in front of me, unable to ever feel full or satisfied. I did not know back then, just like a caterpillar does not know that we were both only fulfilling our destiny. That soon we will emerge out of cocoons, butterflies with wings to carry us as far away as possible from everything that is mundane, to the honey centers of jasmine and rose. My soul has wings now, and it sores beyond all that is daily and boring. It can see the bigger picture even when my children are sick, and I am on my way to yet another doctor’s appointment in the middle of a thunderstorm.
A student of mine approached me cautiously a few weeks ago; she said that I made her cry last year. She was terrified of taking a course with me, but was pleasantly surprised when she finally did. “You changed, professor, you are not as difficult as you used to be,” she confessed. I was not sure what to do, should I be embarrassed for what I once was? Or should I be happy that I have changed. My students have always known me to be tough, but never was the intention to make anyone cry. She said that I still held them at very high expectations, but that I was gentler and more compassionate. I wanted to hug my student so hard and tell her that motherhood changes everything. It softens the heart, and awakens the conscience, and opens up the brain to fresh air. It rewires all emotional, biochemical and hormonal pathways, and the end result is a new human being. The caterpillar undergoes major biochemical and physiological changes too, it grows wings, legs, and tentacles; its body becomes skinnier and lighter to fly away. As it emerges out of its cocoon, it is changed forever. And I have emerged out of my cocoon.
Yes, there are days when I cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I do wake up feeling much like Gregor Samsa did, a giant vermin, ugly, frantically trying to gain control over my body and everything else. There are days when I am no longer a butterfly but a ferret running frantically on its wheel and getting nowhere. A look in the mirror could send me into uncontrollable crying episodes as I lament the dark circles under my eyes, the ungroomed person I have become with milk, egg, and lentil soup stains on almost every piece of clothing. But soon enough Basil’s belly laugh comes rolling into my ear and rudely interrupts my self-pity. Then I snap back and remember that I am neither a ferret nor an ugly giant vermin. I am a butterfly. Or Taima’s unlimited babbling that starts at 6 a.m. and does not stop until she falls asleep trustingly in her father’s arms at 8 p.m. swirls around me, and then I am transformed again from self loathing to sweet reality.
Yes I have cried endlessly this year. I have cried alone, with the children around, in my car, in my bed, while changing diapers, while cooking dinner, in the kitchen, while grading papers, while reading scientific literature that made no sense at all at 2 a.m. while trying to a make a deadline for an article in This Week in Palestine, while missing mixing body butters and scrubs. I have cried everywhere you can think of as the pressures of life caved in. I cried when Basil could not breathe from his broncholitis and when Taima was rushed to the emergency room on her first birthday. I cried when I missed the Christmas tree lighting in Ramallah, and when I gave my midterms three weeks before finals. I cried when I realized that I have not said one meaningful sentence to Ahmed for months, and when we could not finish a simple conversation because Taima woke up full of tears and vomit, sick again. I cried when Basil woke up and screamed for two hours every day for the past month. I cried when the only sleep I got where between the hours of 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. I have cried a lot this year. But (and please underline this but) I have also laughed. It is difficult to say which I did more off crying or laughing, but when I did laugh, it was the kind of laugh that uncoils from the bottom of your tummy and roars through your entire body. I can say I have experienced pure joy, the kind that only a mother knows.
As the year ends, and I continue to search for me and find me in between written lines, cooked dinners, decorated Christmas trees, graded or ungraded papers, endless laundry, stolen quiet moments (even if they are in the bathroom), I just have one request from you dear Motherhood; have mercy on me and Ahmed. Give us the wisdom and strength to raise these children to become better than us. Give us the strength to raise them lovers of life and humanity, fighters for justice, kind, compassionate, well read, well written, well spoken, strong, very Palestinian individuals who will be able to face life even after we stop to exist. And give me, personally, the ability to understand that I have forever…morphed.
First Pubished on The Big Olive. And the waiting continues…
Welcome to the land of waiting. People here are born waiting. Waiting to return to a homeland lost, and from the looks of it, in the most desperate moments, lost forever. Waiting to return to a home they still carry a key for in their hand and a memory in their heart, an image hidden in the folds of their dreams, that sadly and in the most realistic moments, they know no longer exists.
In Palestine you wait for Ramadan, just like you wait for a breath of fresh air in a crowded restaurant in NYC, you wait for a tasree7 (permit), you wait for the paycheck, or even worse you wait for the job.
You wait for schools to open, for the strike to end, for the checkpoint to be removed, for the accident rubble to be cleared. You wait for the Allenby bridge to empty, you wait for the doctor to finally come in on time.
In Palestine you wait. You wait for your dreams to happen.
You wait to leave the refugee camp, you wait to leave the village, you wait to arrive to Ramallah, you wait for destiny to embrace you, but she really never does. In fact at the first stop she slaps you hard in the face and leaves her mark, and then you spend a lifetime waiting for that wound to heal. It never does.
In Palestine you wait to graduate, you wait to find a job, you wait for the next job to be better.
In Palestine you wait to get married, then you wait to have children then you wait for them to grow, then you wait for them to become doctors…trust me they will not.
In Palestine you wait in line endlessly to receive permission to see Palestine that is yours. And after you finally get a chance to see her, you realize she looks nothing like what your grandparents described, and nothing like the country your mother cries over. You wait to see her, only to realize, she did not wait for you.
In Palestine you wait for the birth of a child anxiously with the hope she is not born on a checkpoint. In Palestine you wait for the hunger strike to end. You wait for sons and daughters to be released from prison, only to be rearrested again, at the next checkpoint on the next trip, on their way to find a job and start a life.
In Palestine you wait for your paycheck only to have it hijacked by hungry loan payments and red hot gasoline prices.
In Palestine , you wait endlessly in Qalandia to get home. Keep waiting…this might take hours. .
You wait for the summer to end in the hopes that winter will bring more peace, and you wait for winter to end in the hopes that summer will bring more warmth.
And in Palestine you wait for the next eruption, the next intifada, the next incursion, the next war…And that always happens
This article first appeared in This Week in Palestine April 2013. My background in medicinal organic chemistry, along with two years spent in Palestinian Medicinal Plants research motivated the writing of this particular piece. Back then, i was still searching for my voice as a writer and a foodie, and I could not reconcile my PhD self with my writing self. So I used science to justify my love for writing and for cooking. Today, I have come a long way, and i am no longer afraid to admit that I love to research and write about food and that I wish to use food as a tool to tell bigger stories of love, hope, family, sumood (perseverance and steadfastness) struggles medicinal and scientific knowledge. Enjoy the read, and leave me your comments.
Cut the leaves right at the stem, slice in half and remove the main vein. Place in a strainer and wash repeatedly with water, squeezing the leaves between washes….
Arum Palaestinum, Black Lily, Loof Falasteeny, is a beautiful plant with bright-green leaves and a black calla lily flower that blooms in early spring in Palestine. This unassuming beauty is a busy manufacturing centre of antioxidant, anti-cancer, and anti-many-other-diseases compounds. It belongs to the plant family Aracea (a-RAY-see-eh), the genus Arum, and the species so appropriately known as Palaestinum. Reports of this particular plant flowering in California are found in the literature; usually it is reported to flower alongside its white calla lily cousin. But in Palestine, Loof blooms in shady warm areas, on its own. It is a culinary delicacy served in a variety of forms – sautéed in olive oil with onions, cooked in a tomato-based sauce with wheat flour or whole wheat bread – a delicacy enjoyed for years in the kitchens of those who appreciate it and know how to prepare it.
You must wash and squeeze the leaves to get rid of their bitter taste, which causes numbness in the mouth. A sign of a master chef is a Loof dish that does not numb one’s tongue. Some might prefer to boil the leaves and decant them several times to get rid of the toxins.
It is this exact toxicity that makes Loof an interesting plant to study for biological activity. Herbal medicine in Palestine forms an integral part of medical care and has been largely unchanged for many generations. All Palestinians are subject (throughout their lifespan) to all types of decoctions, macerations, and oil-based remedies. Mothers get their knowledge from their own mothers who have inherited this information from their own mothers, grandmothers, fathers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, etc. For an upset stomach, drink sage tea; for a cold, make chamomile tea, quickly and hurriedly, and infuse with fresh honey from this year’s harvest. For beautiful hair, massage your head with olive oil before washing it. For beautiful skin, use sugar, lemon, and olive oil to scrub your face, the resulting glow competes with the best and, of course, most expensive spa treatments. And for anti-aging or anti-cancer effects, a Loof-based cream, or pill? Maybe?
Also important to note here Palestine as a region holds 3 percent of the world’s biodiversity, including medicinal plants.
Although Palestinian herbal medicine is deeply ingrained in the culture, a serious and central effort to document the ethnopharmacological knowledge and support it with a comprehensive natural-product-screening programme is still lacking (at the time it was lacking, and was limited to individual effort, this may have changed in this day and age). Many brave efforts of young scientists in various Palestinian universities exist, but a more central project is needed. Much like everything else, traditional medicinal plant knowledge is being hijacked by Israeli culture and scientists.
Pour a good amount of olive oil into a saucepan on medium heat. Chop an onion or two into fine squares; add to the warm oil, and sauté. Add your chopped Loof leaves and stir. Keep stirring until the onions are clear and barely visible, and your bright green leaves are dark and wilted.
Studies show that Loof has antioxidant activity. Chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and ageing are all associated with the presence of high levels of reactive oxygen species, in other words radicals. In general, radicals (as chemists like to call them, not to be confused with other types of radicals such as political ones) are reactive species that can pretty much eat through anything. They can attack proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates, and cause both structural and functional changes. Radicals are serious troublemakers for those in search of eternal youth. They can break down skin tissue and cause wrinkles, age spots, and fine lines. So imagine if in Palestine we find the one plant that can seriously stop such damage, or, to be less vain and more humble, at least significantly slow it down. Radicals are also associated with cancer. Cancer, till this day, remains a shape-shifting disease. It has many causes that range from lifestyle, nutrition, age, weight, and genetics on the macro level, to the more precise causes, such as the uncontrolled cell proliferation – the inability of our cells to stop dividing. The presence of radicals that can cause genetic damage to our cells and render them unable to stop dividing is hypothesised to be a cause of cancer. Medicinal plants with antioxidant compounds that can neutralise these highly reactive species may be another mode of attack. It may be just another weapon that can help secure at least one victory in a battle in the war against one of the worst diseases in the history of modern medicine.
According to the literature, Loof has significant amounts of phenolic compounds. Phenolic compounds are a special family of alcohols that exhibit interesting biological activity. For example, they are responsible for the red colour in berries, which also exhibits antioxidant and anti-aging activity. Phenolic functionality has also been associated with other biological activities and has made excellent medicinal compound targets. The key feature of phenols is their acidic alcohol group, which is significantly more acidic than a regular alcohol (for example, ethanol). The presence of a benzene ring (a special unsaturated six-membered ring) causes this high acidity as well as the ability to react with radicals to form more stable compounds. We call benzene rings a conjugated pi system that is capable of resonance stabilisation. In other words, the presence of the benzene ring stabilises the compound and accounts for its ability to react in various ways.
To serve this in a tomato sauce, peel your tomatoes, chop them into fine pieces, and gradually add them to the saucepan and stir. Then add water, a dash of salt and some pepper, and let the mixture simmer over low heat.
As Loof blooms around this time of the year, we natural-product explorers and foodies alike feel a bit of hope, a tinge of potential, and a skip of the heartbeat as we macerate leaves in the lab, or chop in the kitchen. A sense of stability mixed with a dash of aspiration engulfs us as we serve Loof to a sick relative, or as we push through a small extract on the HPLC in the lab.
We hope that perhaps this time next year, we might hold in a test tube an extract that promises a treatment for cancer or a wrinkle free old age. We hope that Palestinian research will blossom into efforts to document a long history of herbal medicine and further support what is recognized to be folk knowledge with scientific results that can preserve this tradition and protect it from theft and appropriation, as well as provide a basis for serious research efforts, achievements, and publications. The importance of research-active academics cannot be highlighted enough. Not only will it provide working opportunities for many highly educated Palestinians but it will ultimately make us better teachers.
Once the Loof stew is ready you can serve it with whole wheat bread for dipping, or with whole wheat maftool (couscous), or with bread crumbs covered with the stew.
Equally, food research and anthropology is just as essential. Understanding the ethnobotany of Palestinian plants, the traditions by which they are prepared and served on tables for centuries now is a fundamental factor in preserving and dispersing our story and narrative.
You may choose to garnish the stew with lemon… Bon Appetite!
I love cake…As a child I would sneak into the kitchen to get an extra piece of left over cake that my mother baked for one of our birthdays. I could never get enough of the spongy, airy, sweet creation that was light enough to melt on my tougue, dense enough to leave a taste mark. My mother’s chocolate cake in particular was just that, and I could swear the air bubbles trapped in the cake itself tasted like chocoalte. Of course now I know that that the air trapped in cakes or even bread travels to the back of our mouths carrying aromatic compounds into our sinus cavities, enhancing our tasting experience and amplifying flavors. This is probably why spongy, airfilled cakes are an obsession for those of us who love to bake. My mother’s chocolate cake was all that and a bit more with a homemmade chocolate cream frosting that I do not have a recipe for, just a memory of a taste explosion in my mouth. Since then I have been in search of the perfect birthday cake. Along the road, I fell in love with spongy, white vanilla cakes and below I am sharing with you a recipe I developed after trying out so many. I cannot say it has been perfected, but I think it is worth a try..
375 g unsalted butter (room temperature)
375 g Confectionary Sugar
5 tsp vanilla
8 large eggs at room temp.
150 g Palestinian Yogurt (sour and delicious)
503 g all purpose flour.
51/4 tsp baking powder
5 tbsp water
For the frosting: Pick your favorite Buttercream frosting and go to town! I haven’t found the perfect recipe and I am still experimenting with the different ones I have.
In my search for the perfect cake, a quest that took a more serious commitment about four years ago, I discovered the origins of birthday cakes and celebrations. There isn’t one conclusive story on where birthday cake came from. It is thought that its orgin dates back to Ancient Egyptian celebrations of Pharoh coronations. They believed that when a new Pharoh was crowned they became a god, and they celebrated their “birth” by making a sweet bread like cake. This celebration was exculsive to pharoh’s coronations and not their actual birth, and meer mortals did not have birthdays at the time. The Egyptians were also the first to introduce the concept of Ka’ak El Eid (Kaak El Eid: A coming of Age Story ) so the fact that the tradition of celebrating birth with something sweet comes at no surprise. Considering that they were the first to invent bread, it is not surprising that they were the first to make birthday cakes, even if to celebrate the transcedence to immortality.
Preheat oven to 180 C. Pull out the eggs and butter from the fridge, and be patient with your self. Having eggs, and butter at room temperature is important and makes mixing the ingredients together easier and smoother.
Putting together wheat, water, fat, and sugar is truly fascinating… The discovery or the invention of bread, was certainly a turning point for us as a species. The ability to mix water, with flour and then bake it may have been the reason we survived. It is such a simple recipe, and with the addition of sugar, fat (butter or oil), chocolate, eggs, bread became more interesting, and cake was born.
Cream the butter, and the sugar together in a stand mixer at medium speed. Add the vanilla and eggs alternating egg, vanila. Sift your flour and whisk the baking powder in it.
The Ancient Greeks borrowed the clebration of pharohs “births” from the Egyptians to celebrate their goddess of the moon,Artemis, by offering her a round cake decorated with candles. The candles were lit to emmulate the glow of the moon and the goddess’s beauty. In both ancient Egypt and ancient Greece “birthday celebrations” were exculsive to religious figures. No comoner’s birthday was celebrated at the time.
Alternate the addition of flour and yogurt. Mix well until you have a homogeneous batter. Add the water one tbsp at a time and mix a little longer on medium speed.
Comoner’s brithdays were first celebrated during the Roman empire. Roman citizens held birthday parties for family and friends, while more famous citizens were celebrated by the government publically. Perhaps the most special birthday for Roman citizens was the fiftieth when a special cake made with wheat flour, honey and cheese was baked, and the half century old citizen was celebrated by their family and friends. I cannot help but wonder if the origins of the big five-O, or the big four-O birthday parties comes from this particular Roman empire tradition.
Interestingly enough, the birthday cakes mentioned above did not look anything like today’s versions. If anything they were cultural expressions of the places they orginated from. Wheat flour, cheese, honey were all abundant ingredients and it makes sense that they made an appearance in sweets.
Allow the cake to cool down, then cut into three layers. Decorate with your favorite chocolate butter cream icing. I use a recipe from the Better Homes Cookbook, but there are plenty of version online like the one from the Stay At Home Chef. The truth is, don’t be afraid to experiment with this until you find the perfect version for you.
Birthday cakes as we know them today are the creation of German bakers in the 18th century. Germany has a rich tradtion of baking, just take a look at their amazing cheese cakes, chocolate cakes, strudles and more. It is the home of the haute coutour version of chocolate cake, black forest cake. That the birthday cake came form German bakers is not surprising. Cakes, however, remained exclusive to the wealthy, because ingredients were considered a luxury. It wasn’t until the indsutrial revolution and mass production taking over the world, that they became readily available, and birthday cakes became a popular tradtion.
With that, the transformation of birthdays was complete. What started as the celebration of the immortal gods, became the celebration of the mortal human birth.
Birthday cakes take different shapes and forms, frosted, filled with fruits, filled with jelly, covered with sugar frosting, covered with nuts and drenched with katar (sugar syrup), but the purpose is the same; it is a an opportunity to be thankful and share in the joy of having completed another year on this earth. It is an opportunity to appreciate the belssings of sharing life with those we love. Life is a delicate gift that is never guaranteed and easily terminated. So go ahead take a bite of your birthday cake and thank God for another chance at life, so many may not have this opportunity.
Note: I would love to hear back from you after you tried the cake. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or simply leave a comment. Advice, hints, recipes for butter cream frosting are all welcome!
Taima, my six year old daughter loves pancakes in all shapes forms and styles. Today she stood by me in the kitchen and added three of everything to make pancakes. She was hungry, dinner was not ready yet, and she wanted something sweet tihlayeh as she and her brother like to call it. “Something to give us a sugar rush mama!”
1.5 cups all purpose flour (or as Taima puts it 3 halves)
3 Tbsp Yogurt
180 mL Milk (3 x 60 mL portions)
3 tsp baking powder
3 tsp vanilla
Pancakes in our home are a favorite. They are a reminder that life can still be as fluffy and spongy and soft even if just for a brief moment. But perhaps pancakes serve a bigger purpose, they are our Sunday breakfast ritual, and a staple during Christmas break. They are a sanctuary from the rigorous schedule we keep and an important element of their favorite past-time, “quality time with Mama and Baba.”
She added three eggs, to three tablespoons of yogurt, to 3 (60 mL) portions i.e 3/4 cup of milk, and whisked them in a bowl.
Having spent six years in Tennessee, nothing says lazy weekend like a stack of pancakes, and while I love my Palestinian cuisine, nothing warms my heart like butter milk panckakes with melted butter and warm maple syrup. It seems that somewhere along the line of raising my children, I passed this love to them. And as you can imagine, we have gone through many versions of panckakes, until today Taima literally made the best version!
She then added 1.5 cups of all purpose flour in 3 half cup measurements and whisked even more. After that she added the baking powder (3 tsp) and the vanilla (you guessed it 3 tsps!
I think our complex personalities shine through our cooking. I am Palestinian, but there is a good old warm Southern woman, with wide hips, a messy bun, and an apron around her waste hiding inside me, waiting to pop out at the site of the first pancake, or the smell of the first piece of fried chicken!
Beyond the pancakes, and the fact that Taima’s recipe tasted much better than mine, what started like a tingle in my heart turned into a full fledged wrench in my chest. My daughter was growing up. Less than four years ago, she had her first bite of my panckakes and today she hands me over the fork to have a bite of her own. And before we know it, she will be graduating high school heading to college.
Whether intentionally or not, but letting the pancake batter stand for about ten minutes allowed the baking powder to work its magic. We heated the a small pan, slathered it with lots of butter and poured a ladle of batter. We lowered the heat, and watched the bubble form and pop, then flipped it over. Taima used also a teddy bare shaped pan.
There is so much of Taima that reminds of me as a child. Her eagerness to learn, her dedicaiton to her studies, her love of reading and writing. As I watched her gulp down the pancakes, I couldn’t help but worry whether she will get the same opportunities (if not better ones ) I had as a child and a teenager or not. What will it be like to live here in thirty years? It is already difficult now, will it bettter? Will it be worse?
Taima stacked the panckakes then dusted them with powdered sugar, she cut a piece (with my help) and we then took a photo that immediately made it onto instagram right before she dug in!
Will she be uprooted from her home, forced to leave in the middle of the night, leaving all of her memories behind including our favorite picture ? Uncertainty is part of life, but in Palestine uncertainty can mean the difference between living and dying having a home or loosing everything.
I am sure that mothers across the word worry about their children’s future every waking minute and in their dreams. I am sure they watch their children in the rear mirror while driving and wonder what will it be like five, ten and twenty years down the line for them. I realize I am no different than any soccer mom in any suburb anywhere else in the world, but then again, I have watched Palestine dip into what many call the worse era of our history. I watched Syria destroyed, torn into bloody pieces. What about all the soccer moms there, did they ever think their children will end up in refugee camps? I watched Yemen burn into a pile of black soot, what about the mothers there? Did they ever expect that one day they are making pancakes, and the next their children are dying. And then there is Gaza…expected to be inhabitable by 2020. A few hours away, and there, I am sure people don’t need to wonder what their children’s future would be like, because the present is proof enough of what waits just around the corner of time….
Taima, I hope the twinkle in you eyes never fades, that smile never shrinks in width, and that eagerness to learn only grows. I hope you will always measure you self worth by the good you do in the world, not by the length of your hair, the width of your waste, or the color of you lips. I hope you will pursue your dreams, and never succumb to the harsh realities. I pray that your father and I will have the strength and ability to stand by you always, and that we will help you raise your children, and spoil them with unnecessary gifts. We love you and Basil very much, you light our lives with joy!
The first time my mother made Kaak o Maamoul for Eid, I was around 12 maybe 13 years old. She did her research, and by research I mean she called friends, and visited with neighbours to understand how maamoul is made. The internet was the stuff of the future, and no one’s life was powered by Google at the time.
New recipes were shared frantically among friends, or discovered on an idle weekend morning while watching television, preferably the Syrian channel, because Syrians are the best at food.
Let me explain, back then you had access to about 5 channels. The Jordanian television (channels 1 and 2). The Israeli television; channel 1 in Arabic which you only watched for the 7:30 news and the Friday evening Arabi film, and Channel 2, which we never watched since we did not speak Hebrew. The Syrian television, channel 1, which we could watch only if the weather was clear. In the winter, someone had to go on the roof to adjust the antennaa to get a signal.
1 kg of Samolina
400 g margarine (two 200 g sticks)
2 ounces vegetable oil (or canoal oil)
1 kg of date paste (the good, owey goowy kind)
2 Tbsp Sugar
1 tsp Active Yeast
Rose Water (1 L)
Orange Blossom ( 1 L)
Mastic Gum ( 1 tsp)
Anise (2 Tbsp)
1 Tbsp cinnamon
1 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp nutmeg
2 Tbsp olive oil
For the nut fillings you can use pistachios with honey, or walnuts with cinnamon. I always start with the dates because everyone loves the dates!
Preheat the oven to 185 C
So my mother researched kaak and maamoul making, bought the raw materials (ingredients listed above) and embarked on this new experiment. She stood in her small kitchen and started what we call Bass El Smeed (kneading the samolina). The Samolina is worked with the softened margarine by hand (these days I use a mixer, and it works beautifully), and is left to soak up the fat for at least one full day.
In a bowl, add the softened margarine (400 g) to the samolina ( 1000 g/ 1 kg) and mix until the samolina is crumbly and is well coated with the margarine. Add 2 0z of vegetable oil and mix a bit more. Let stand until the following day. The longer it stands the softer your samolina is and the more incorporated the fat is with it.
Then there were decisions to make, important ones. What should we use, the famous Ma’amoul mold, or the decorating tongues? In Tulkarem, my mother’s hometown, everyone used the mold. Those are hand made from wood, and you can still buy them from Nablus. There are also the made in china plastic molds (picutred below, but they are too slippery to use). The molds we use today are probably direct descendants of the molds used in Ancient Egypt, the origin of Ka’ak and Ma’amoul.
The Ancient Egyptians were ther first to make these cookies for a variety of occaions, and it is thought that they made around 100 variations in shapes and stuffing. Drawings on Pyramid walls detail the making and offering processes. Although this cookie continued to make its celebrated appearances throughout the history of Egypt, research indicates that it gained popularity during the Fatimy Dynasty rule, when a center “Dar Al Futra” was created especially to make what these cookies and everything else usually exchanged during Eid holidays.
One day later (or maybe two), ground your anise with your mastic gum (2 Tbsp of Anise and 1 Tsp of mastic gum) Add 1 Tbsp of the ground mix to your samolina with 2 Tbsp sugar, and 1 tsp active yeast.
Another important decision to make, a decision that will essentially become your siganture, is what will you work your samolina with? Orange blossom and rose water? Milk? Will you add a little bit of flour? Will you add mastic, what spices and herbs can you add? Or will you buy the ready spice mix? Every answer is a key ingredient to the kaak maker you become and the level of expertise you will be viewed to hold. For example a cookie made of only smeed (samolina) and decorated with tongues not the mold is often a sign of culinary mastery….
As you could have guessed, my mother, chose the all samolina, rose water and orange blosom recipe and from then on, spent years experimenting every Eid until she was finally happy with the outcome, and so where we. I have since then experimented with her recipe, and what I share with you is one version I found to gurantee a crumbly cookie that holds beautifully. We both use the tongue to decorate the cookies not the mold.
In a measuring cup, measure 200 mL of rose water and 100 mL of Orange blossom water. Add the water mix gradually to you dough and work with your hands until you have a maleable, slighly moist dough that does not stick to your hands. The art and magic is in this step. Too much water will make the dough difficult to work, and dry dough will crumble way before you put it in the oven.
Since its inception, Kaak making, was a team effort. The women in the family or in the Hara (the block) would get together to help each other. So for her first time making maamoul, my mother joined our neighbors at Um Amjad’s house. Together I believe ( I could be wrong) they made 12 kg of samolina which can easily translate to 24 kg of ready to eat cookies. I remeber my mother was gone for a couple of days, we were left to fend for ourselves. This meant we played with our bicycyles endlessly in the street and ate ridiculous amounts of ice-cream. She did come home to give us lunch, but left in a hurry to return to Um Amjad’s house.
We were not allowed near the kitchen for fear that our long hair will make it into the dough, or worse, that we would get burnt by the round electric ovens used to bake the cookies in. Both are equally tragic incidents that must be avoided at all costs.
Cut your dough into small balls. The balls should be smaller than the size of a golf ball, I think a generous pinch is the perfect size because you want enough dough to protect your tender date paste
In Um Amjad’s kitchen the sub taks at hand were divided amone the women. The one who mixed the rose and orange blossom water with the dough, the one who cut the dough into circles, the ones who rolled date paste into strings, the one who stuffed the dough , and the one who decorated the kaak.
In Ramallah, people opt for decorating tongues not molds. They are small tongues with a zizagged edge used to doecorate the cookie with patterns. It is thought that this pattern is meant to give the cookie the look of a crown similar to the one Jesus Christ wore during his Crucification. I am not sure of this fact though, and I will confirm it once I can. In Ramallah, almost everyone uses tongues, so no matter what the origin of the docoration is, the tradition clearly melted across religious lines and is now nothing but a sign that Easter and Eid are here! And the cookies are symbolic of the sweet reward after long days of fasting for both Christians during lent, and Muslims during Ramadan.
Mix your date paste with 1 Tbsp cinnamon, 1 tsp cloves, 1/4 tsp nutmeg and 2 Tbsp olive oil. Work the paste with your hands unitl evenly mixed. Cut into small balls. You can also roll out into short strings. Or you can keep in a lump and take a small amount for each cookie.
In many years to come, my mother would encourage us to help. We were charged with two tasks; rolling the date paste into strings, and if we proved to be trustworthy, we were asked to decorate the cookies which meant we could proudly boast about it when guests came to our home for Eid.
Take one ball, flatten it with your fingers into a circle; take a small amount of date paste and place in a ring on the insdie of the circle. Fold the dough over the dates and shape into a disk. Take the unsharpenned end of a pencil and make a whole in the center. Put down and repeat.
Making Kaak o’ Maamoul is a power play in one’s own kitchen. It is a mark that you are a force to be reckonned with. And it speaks volumes on kitchen power relations within a family. Palestinian (and Arab kitchens) much like other tratidional kitchens in the world are filled with power relations. Some are cross generational others are not; new bride vs. older women, new mother trying to establish her own traditions, unamarried daugther vs. daughters-in-law; unmarried daughters vs mother.
Kitchens are complex hieracial power houses. You can of course choose to look at them as a place where women are held in bondage; cooking, cleaning, barefoot, and unkept. Or you can re-iamgine them as places of bounty, fertility and love.
You can choose to imagine an unkept woman sweating her way through a summer afternoon while she makes ka’ak, or you can look passt the sweat and watch a rather curvacious goddess with a messy bun piled on top of her head, wiping away smudges of flour as she tenderly stuffs the cookies, decorates them and then relentlessly sears them in an unforgiving oven.
Using tognuges gently pinch the cookie all the way around in vertica lines. Pinch the top of the cookie in diagonal lines. Make sure you do it gently and you don’t over pinch that your date filling (or nut filling) is showing) Place on parchment paper and allow to rest for at least an hour.
She is perhaps a successful business woman, a well educated professor, a teacher, and a writer. Or she is staying at home to care for her children until they grow up. Women are complex and multilayered, and they are able to transition in and out of their kitchens into the work force with what seems like a lot of grace. They pursue everything they do with attention to detail, never compromising any, always expecting perfection.
Bake in a preheated oven at 185 C. Watch over your cookies carefully, and turn the pan twice. It will take about 10 minutes to bake, pull out just as the tops start to get a sligh golden brown color and let cool.
Kitchens are the womb of sustenance, the center in which our early identities are formed. They are symbols of perseverance acrosst the ages. If we did not learn to cook, we would not have survived as a species. And while the discourse on kitchens is often been associated with women opression, it might be worth entertaining the idea that kitchens are strongholds, not prisons, that a kitchen is the epicenter of our cultural identiy.
The most important conversations I had with my mother as a child were in the kitchen. The decision to study abroad, the news that I met someone I want to marry, the endless discussions of career choices, countless tears of joy, and just as many tears of pain. When my mother had a stent placed in one of her coronary arteries, the kitchen became my source of power, as I prepared the Eid meal for all of us and she watched over. I want us to dare to reimainge the kitchen as place where we are most human, because cooking is an essence of our humanity. What if we reclaim the kitchen narrative away from tradition and mysogynistic discourse.
Whether it is a co-op kitchen in Burj El Barajneh refugee camp in Lebanon where women cook traditional Palestinian dishes of their destoryed villages and sell them, or a large modern state of the art kitchen in a new home in Ramallah, where a PhD in Chemsitry dares to admit her love of food, cooking and food politics, we are all connected. Our early identity is formed through our food experiences as we watch our mothers, aunts and grandmothers cook and serve food. As they discuss what vegetable is in season, and where to get the best labaneh. Our connection to our land begins with a boiling pot of mlokhiyyeh or bamieh.
Once cooled, dust with powdered sugar or don’t, whichever you like…drown each bite with a sip of coffee (Arabic coffee, Espresso, or filter coffee, your choice really) or even better a cup of tea with mints…
Kaak and Maamoul is a silent conversation I have with myself. When I make it, I do it alone; a far contrast from Um Amjad and my mohter’s noisy kitchens when all the neighbours came around to help out. Cooking for me has always been a solitary act, a place to lose one’s self away from day to day life. But making kaak is also a silent coming of age conversation I have with my mother; a daugther who left the nest to maker her own.
On the first day of Eid my parents visit me in the afternoon; my mother sits in our living room and reaches for one of the cookies. She bites into it, and across the room she approves of the taste, or offers a hint for next year. In that moment, we become equals, two career women who never shied away from their rolls as mothers and wives meticulously providing their families a life time of love and traditions…
She acknowledge the similarities we share whether at home or in our career choices; even if she openly objects to the many projects I get myself into and she most certainly does not fully understand why after ten years of a PhD in chemistry, I have abandoned the lab completely and moved into the kitchen instead!
Happy Eid Adha to all!
For more advice or questions about kaak making, you canfind us on Facebook, or you can email us at email@example.com