Notes from the Field: Zamnning

This piece isn’t about cooking in particular, but rather about a space where I spent many days working when my children where still very young, and when working with two six months old babies was practically impossible at home.  This was my sanctuary, and with my reocrrucing visits I discovered a  microcosm that was worth examining.  At the risk of sounding judgmental, or having the piece misunderstood, I chose to write it with  a comic, and imaginative point of view. This is meant to make you laugh, and if you know me roll your eyes at my science nerd self.  It is also meant to offer indirect commentary on societal trends and relationships. Since I gave birth to my twins,  my relationship with coffee changed. A good cup of coffee brings about a great sense of safety and security; it is a legitimized break from everything that waits for me to get done.  At the end of the cup of coffee there is much to worry about, but at the beginning…the promise of a break is seductive…. 

This article first appeared in This Week in Palestine in May 2013, issue no. 181

by: Riyam Kafri AbuLaban

8:30 am, Tuesday. The weather is fairly amiable, fall is finally settling in in Ramallah, and everyone is enjoying a much needed respite from the hot weather. The watcher sits on her favourite table at Café Zamn, also known as her observation point in this particular habitat. She has a full and busy day of watching and working. People watching is much like bird watching. You must be still, quiet, silent. You must blend in with the environment you are observing. For this particular habitat, the perfect camouflage is a laptop, books, and headphones. The headphones will help fend off a particular species of Café Zamn patrons or Zamners called Socializist totalus. Socializist totalus is a super friendly subspecies of human beings. Often, they are NGO workers based in Ramallah who travel throughout Palestine fully believing that, one day, their NGO-ised work will save it.

S.Totalus visit this particular habitat for one objective, to engage in its most favourite activity, socialising. This includes small talk, a bunch of “how are you’s,” when they could not care less about how the subject of their socialising activity is actually doing or feeling. Their physical appearance can vary from trendy to normal. They mostly congregate in the smoking area, where they chain-smoke and chat at ridiculously high rates. A special subspecies of S.totalus is S.totalus wanderitis, commonly known as the wanderers. They do not belong to one particular congregation or table, but actually wander from one to the other, chatting away with any species that will listen to them.

Amongst their species, the wanderers are the non-conformers, as they like to engage with other species and do not stick to their own, a “birds of a feather flock together” in reverse. Their preferred targets are Activus foreignorus, and Fakes actives, two very talkative and colourful Zamner species, which today of all days are abundantly present. The watcher is overly excited, despite the humongous pile of work she has to get through. She cannot help but look up quietly every now and then and watch who just came in. She has been trying to catch a glimpse of A.foreignorus and F.actives for the past few weeks, but the habitat has been overly crowded with Brandus totalus and Workus officionalus. Thankfully, today, Zamn was truly budding with all types.

Observing A. foreignorus is quite satisfying. Members of this species come in all shapes, sizes, colours, and hairstyles. One thing they do have in common is a loud voice and an assumption that no one is listening to their conversation. A.foreignorus is a migratory species not native to this habitat. Based on their indigenous homes (mainly North America and Europe), it is absolutely understandable that they assume that no one is actually listening to what they are saying to their fellow A.foreignorus or any other species that they mark as good for communication (they pick their communication partners based on the lack of language barriers).

Sadly, they are highly mistaken and have yet to adapt to this new habitat, where a sense of curiosity to hear other conversations happening at nearby tables is built into the genetic makeup of the indigenous species. This is after all Palestine, and everybody’s business is everybody’s business. But I digress. A.foreignorus has become more visible in this particular region in the past few years. Scientists hypothesise that this sudden surge in this particular species of Zamners is directly proportionate to several factors: easier migratory conditions, better travelling routes, and a far friendlier climate for new species. One also cannot ignore that the large number of NGOs sprouting up serves as a perfect nesting place for such species. It will be very interesting to consider what social and evolutionary changes happen due to their presence.

A.foriegnorus is usually accompanied by a native species F.actives. F.actives is a direct product of the gradual evolutionary decrease in activism. Most F.actives are offspring of a disappearing species, True actives. T.actives is marked by a serious commitment to activism as a lifestyle. Sadly, with the death of the leftist movement, the disappearance of grassroots movements, the increase in the NGO-isation of the Palestinian cause, and its boosted dependence on international aid, T.actives have retreated into smaller, almost negligible, communities where they choose to focus on child rearing, career building, and, in many cases, dream house building. Their resultant offspring are a bunch of self-proclaimed activists who actually belong to a universal group known as Bobos, or Bourgeois Bohemians. Their physical appearance is palatable, clean, and trendy. Sometimes they have multiple piercings, and other times not. F. actives have an intrinsic tendency to organise the next Palestinian uprising on Facebook by employing the very powerful resistance tool, Twitter.

F.actives is considered to be a mutated form of T.actives. The mutation has been amplified by environmental factors such as occupation and a vacuum devoid of the leadership that could ordinarily help organise such wasted talent. Most of F.actives are intelligent, smart, and have received degrees from world-class institutions. They are normally seen socialising with A.foreignorus. Some are friends who met in some small liberal arts college where they pursued their bachelor’s degree. Coincidentally, both species do belong to the same universal group, the Bobos.

9:00 am, Thursday. Zamn is brimming with all types of species. But today the watcher is particularly excited to locate several flocks of Brandus totalus. B.totalus is, in essence, an evolutionary descendant of the peacock. Their physical appearance is that of complete beauty, but please keep in mind that beauty is relative and it is in the eyes of the beholder (scientists have yet to reach a conventional set of beauty standards). This species in particular shows off with a fully branded appearance, with a Louis Vuitton bag, Burberry shoes, Hermés scarf, and Yves Saint Laurent sunglasses (conveniently worn inside). This species is specialised in the art of showing off.

B.totalus travels in small or large flocks, and when an unassuming individual is caught alone, they are usually standing tall, head high, eyes completely covered with the latest brand of sunglasses bought at full price. (By the way a shrewd businessman friend of mine once told me that if you are ever to buy any merchandise on sale, it would have to be sunglasses, as the profit margin goes up to 300 percent. Again, I digress.) This particular posture is what has been labelled amongst behavioural scientist as the Peacock Post (PP). The PP is meant to attract attention of other species. It invites visual admiration, and repels strangers from attempting any form of direct contact.

B.totalus females are particularly experienced and have mastered the PP as an evolutionary defence mechanism of some sort (scientists are still not sure what exactly it defends against). The females of this particular species are quite interesting. As a friend of the watcher noted to her (a friend who like the watcher belongs to Workus officianalis, a very hard working and industrious species), when she comes in contact with the B.totalus females they are often discussing the difficulties of child rearing in the presence of nannies, the challenges of philanthropic and charity work in Palestine, and how difficult it is to do work outside of their indigenous habitat.

Zamn was brimming with B.totalus today. A morning ritual of theirs is to drop their offspring to school and come enjoy a morning coffee and an idle chat together. But the real treat came around 10 a.m. when a young female B.totalus arrived and plopped herself down on the couch right beside the watcher. Young B.totalus are fabulous to watch: loud, full of life, and totally trusting of their surroundings. The mix of English, Arabic, and sometimes even French is music to one’s ears, and one cannot help but notice that the young are usually well educated, because no matter what happens in Palestine, education remains a top priority.

This particular young B.totalus was discussing a familial situation with her mother, loudly. The details of the problem went something like this: the young woman was annoyed by the curfew set by her father who works in Saudi Arabia. She was arguing that she is now 23 years old and refuses to lie to her parents and, therefore, they will have to come to terms with her going out and staying out late (the disputed curfew time was 11, she was trying to push to 12. VERY REASONABLE, the watcher thought). She then expanded her argument and declared that her father sent her to Palestine to come in contact with her roots, which she has been doing by socialising at cafes and restaurants (notice the roots for this young lady are at cafes and restaurants in Ramallah). He was also apparently hoping she would find herself a very kind, well educated, ambitious, well-to-do young man who she could take as a mating partner. She then exploded into asking a very obvious and valid question, how could she possibly do that if she was under curfew and was asked to work and socialise only during the hours when the sun was up. Please note that B.totalus prefers to mate with its own or other species they mark as acceptable, such as F.actives or Workus officianalus (as long as the potential mate fits their minimum criteria of financial stability and appropriate social status).

The conversation carried on for about 45 minutes while this young female argued over Skype (A new means of communication for this generation. Whatever happened to written letters and home phones where families could have all types of arguments in the privacy of their own homes and the silent pages of handwritten letters), at which point the watcher could no longer focus on her lecture notes and decided to pack and leave. B.totalus had succeeded in marking this particular area as her own.

8:00 am, Tuesday. Tuesdays are an excellent day to observe Workus officianalus. This species is studious, industrious, and is always trying to get something accomplished in the midst of waves of cigarette smoke, sips of cold coffee (left untouched for a while as they busily typed away on their laptop). W. officionalus treats Zamn as its office and is present almost daily, particularly in the early hours of the morning. They spread their belongings over a fairly large space, order food, and feel free to clear their plates. They immediately detect any disruption in Internet signal and will demand a quick fix (sometimes their demands can get a bit aggressive). Many of them carry more than one bag, a couple of files, several books, and one set of headphones. They are always requesting the music volume to be turned down as they are on a serious deadline. And some may even have such a special relationship with the wonderfully friendly Zamn staff that they have documents dropped off and picked up from behind the desk, further supporting their impression of Zamn as a library or office.

Their general appearance is clean and sometimes elegant, although many of them who are experiencing particular pressures at work may have the occasional “unravelling at the seams” look: uncombed hair, dark circles, pale skin, dry lips, and a general do-not-talk-to-me vibe. W.officionalus hold different positions and come from different backgrounds. There are the journalists, the young professors, the NGO program coordinators, the writers (some excellent and well known writers belong to this species), the sociologists, the scientists, the graduate students finishing their PhD work in Palestine, the young foreigners trying to learn Arabic, editors, CEOs, general managers, publishers, small business owners who have yet to acquire an official space for their business, graphic designers, young entrepreneurs, bloggers, Tweeters, and the list goes on and on. They all share one passion, typing on their laptop at a high rate (a lot like what the watcher is doing at the moment), vacillating between typing, writing, reading, and occasionally taking a break to talk. They travel in small groups, two to three at a time. Behavioural scientists theorise that this is necessary to accommodate their space requirements. And they only come to Zamn with members of their own species. After all, isn’t Zamn their office space, their library, and their place of work? Some will not only work at Zamn but will even hold appointments and office hours.

W. officionalus has indigenous as well as migratory members. The watcher is a self classified W.offcionalus daughter of two honest and hardworking T.actives, friends with many A. foriegnorus, F.actives, and B.Totalus.  I have used Zamn as my office for many months, it has been my refuge away from two toddlers, my space to think, write, prepare lecture notes, and grade. During this time, I could not help but make the observations I share with you, so allow me to end this piece with the following statement.

I only write this out of a place of utter love and admiration for Palestine in general and, most importantly, for Ramallah in particular. Be that as it may, Ramallah appears to be a bubble, immune to the Israeli Occupation practices and effects felt in other cities, villages, and refugee camps. The city even sometimes appears totally aloof to the refugee camps that are within her own periphery or just outside her borders. And while other cities are ailing under the Occupation, Ramallah seems to be thriving culturally, economically, and socially. She has also, unbeknownst to her and by no personal choice, become the melting pot for all types of NGOs and governmental organisations. People also flock to Ramallah from other Palestinian cities for work, business, education, etc. She appears to be rich while everywhere else is poor, which generates quite a bit of anger and discontent. Many imply she is Palestine’s whorehouse. Some have gone as far as calling her Palestine’s whore. But we must all remember that Ramallah’s charm is her open arms, her welcoming nature, and her ability to accept all of us (different species) as part of her diverse makeup. This piece is intended for all of us to examine and reflect on ourselves, laugh, and remember that it is this exact nature that allows a chemist like me feel comfortable writing a piece like this. And this is for all of us to remember that we make Ramallah what it is. We are major contributors to the bubble effect we criticise her for. So here is to you Ramallah and the friendly staff at Zamn (thank you for letting me sit there endlessly). Salut!

My Big Fat AbuLaban Iftar

by: Riyam Kafri AbuLaban.

This piece was written and published in This Week in Palestine July 2012, edition no. 183.  

Update July 2018. Since the publication of this piece, my twins mentioned in the article are now almost seven. Several of the grandchildren of Khamis AbuLaban are now married with more than one great grandchild. His youngest son Ziad and his beautiful wife and dear friend Esperanza returned home a year ago with their two teenagers, and are now key players in this big feast. The meal now serves eighty plus family members, sometimes more. We commemorated my father-in-law’s fifteen year anniversary of his passing July 17th, 2018.  I have changed jobs, but most importantly… I still cook, one could say I have even upped my kitchen game a bit!

This is not a simply family meal, but Palestinian heritage and tradition moving through generations.  It is a reminder that we are still here; a family started by a refugee who lost everything, has not only survived but thrived and continues to thrive, and seems to have everything one needs…love

July 20, 2012 – Our Ramadan commences with a 70-person iftar that brings the entire AbuLaban family out of the woodwork. The sisters, the brothers, the daughters, the sons, the grandchildren, the great grandchildren, the brides-to-be, the grooms-to-be, the sisters-in-law, the brothers-in-law, the AbuLabans living in Ramallah, and the AbuLabans from all over the world. Seventy beautiful people sit under the age-old grapevine in our front yard and break their fast together on the first day of Ramadan. None of the food is catered, it is all homemade, and as Allahu Akbarsounds from the nearby mosques, Samira (my sister-in-law) and I smile to each other as we watch the soup evaporate, the chicken disappear, the meat vanish, and the rice platters wane. The ebb and flow of food from platters to plates, the sound of children arguing over who gets the first piece of kifta – all are signs that the AbuLabans are gathered here and now to eat and mark the continuation of a venerable tradition started by Khamis AbuLaban, father and patriarch of this extended family of Abu Shoosheh refugees who came and settled in Ramallah in 1948.

The AbuLabans are experts at hosting big gatherings; after all, to gather the immediate family means a 50 plus person congregation of men, women, children, and teenagers. But isn’t this what Palestine is all about, large extended families, big dinners, and food cooked with so much love?  Such dinners hold within their folds, the story of continued existence despite displacement and loss.

The women in our family cook like pro chefs and can dissolve the best catering company into tears. To me, the American-educated, young bride, and mother of twins, an AbuLaban Iftar sounded a lot like a scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and I kid you not, it is! I mean the best of filmmakers could not have choreographed a scene like this. And as the latest addition to the family, I had better step up to the stove and join the cook off, because this is memories in the making for me and my children and grandchildren to come. And who does not love to cook, really? 

Preparations for this joyous event begin days before Ramadan. My husband Ahmed and my brother-in-law Hisham (and now Ziad) spend their time on the phone calling everyone and confirming an already known tradition. Everyone is invited. The menu is discussed extensively and the vegetables involved in the main dishes are chosen based on what is in season. Since Ramadan is in the summer these days, maqloubeh, the ultimate comfort food for Palestinian families, would take centre stage. Firm eggplants, watery cauliflower, yellow potatoes, and bright orange carrots all expertly layered with meat and rice and slow-cooked with water and spices, then flipped onto a large platter to take its rightful place as the queen of all dishes. Alongside the queen will sit fresh, green molookhiyyeh cooked with chicken broth and finished with qadhet tomeh(garlic), sprinkled with lemon and eaten with white rice; and for those strong at heart, hot green peppers on the side. Kifta bit-heeniyyeh will give those hungry for something tangy, dense, and meaty something to look forward to. The table is then complemented with fattoush, the perfect marriage between fried bread, fresh salad vegetables, and a lemon-vinegar-oil dressing, and ornamented with the deep-crimson baladysumac that Samira gets from Sinjel. Tamarind, qamr el-deen, and soos(licorice) filled with essential minerals necessary to quench a fasting person’s thirst sit in tall glass carafes on the side, along with the rest of the soft drinks. Dates decorate the corner of every table. And of course qatayef, the dessert of the season, nervously waits in the kitchen for its turn in this theatrical production of food and love. Qatayef is the showstopper of the evening. No one forgets dense, doughy qatayefstuffed with walnuts and cinnamon or sweetened Arabic goat cheese. Some of us wait the entire year for that one particular crunchy soft moment when it meets your tongue and explodes into your mouth causing a firing of taste buds and an overload of serotonin in the synaptic cleft. Your brain glows with pleasure. Kahweh sada washes it down.


The night before, as we all anticipate hilal (crescent moon) Ramadan to be spotted in clear skies, we begin to plan the next day. The schedule is set so that as the chicken is marinated the meat is cooking, as the meat is cooking the eggplants, cauliflower, and potatoes are fried. The rice relaxes in water as it soaks and gets ready to be cooked into the perfect softness. The ground beef is spiced and made into medium-sized fingers, precooked in the oven before the thick tahini sauce and the fried potatoes are placed on top and then left to roast in the oven. Samira and I along with many of my other sisters-in-law are up as early as five in the morning. The twins are up at that time and need to be fed, so I feed them, put them back to sleep and head to the kitchen. Samira is up too, and she stands in her own kitchen trying to begin the cooking marathon. And in collective but separate kitchens we cook rhythmically, systematically, and ritualistically, only stopping every now and then to check on each other. We coordinate the use of her big gas oven, the kind only restaurants and, of course, the AbuLabans own. We decide that the last thing we should tackle is fattoushso it can stay fresh, and we often encourage each other: “Just a few more hours, the kifta is ready, the chicken is roasting; khalas, we are almost done.” While the sounds in the kitchen rise with women chattering, and the temperature from the ovens spikes to carry aromas of cooked goodness, the young nephews and nieces are busy putting together the dining area. The tables are laid with plates, spoons, forks, and glasses. It is a world-class attempt to make sure that every guest has a place. Ramadan lights are threaded through the grapevine to add a touch of ambiance. Ahmed is busy managing the team of young nephews and nieces.


Samira has been cooking for the AbuLabans for years. She has been surrounded by nine sisters-in-law who all, like trained dancers, join her at the right time in the kitchen to give her an extra pair of hands to hold a pot or chop an onion or wash the accumulating dishes. She has four more sisters who may even extend this intricate and complex cooking dance into their own kitchens and offer to bring something cooked from their own homes. I have been doing this for three years (now seven), and lucky for me and the AbuLabans, cooking is a passion passed down to me from my mother. The act of bringing food to the table makes you a provider, a mother, and the owner of your own home. The first iftar in Ramadan holds all those meanings and much more. It is a tradition started many many years ago by my father-in-law, may he rest in peace. And it was continued by Samira and my husband many years after he passed away. It is not just food; it is about love and family and memories. It is simply Palestinian.

To Khamis AbuLaban, family is all he had left after he lost his village. And when you lose all that is material and physical in life, you always hang on to what is more precious, love. This coming Ramadan will start around the tenth anniversary of his death, but this Ramadan also starts after two more of his grandchildren have gotten married and started families of their own, one of his granddaughters welcomed another member to her family, one of his daughters-in-law is expecting another baby girl, and another grandson will be on his way to the golden cage of matrimony. We will all gather under the grapevine, we will eat, laugh, yell at the children to be quiet, and plan to marry off another son or daughter soon, and we will all play our little part in keeping the Khamis AbuLaban tradition in all its Palestinian-ness alive for many years to come. Ramadan Kareem!


This Article First Appeared in This Week in Palestine in the April 2015 issue 204. (

by: Riyam Kafri AbuLaban



“Khobaizeh (mallow) carries the DNA of our heritage,” said Vivien Sansour. She stood by her kitchen counter cutting green velvety khobaizeh leaves that we had just picked in Al-Walajeh, a small village outside of Beit Jala. Al-Walajeh was once a green haven and a productive agricultural community. Today, however, the village is strangled by the Israeli Segregation Wall and the systematic illegal confiscation of land. The people of Al-Walajeh have been displaced three times: once in 1948, again in 1967, and more recently, as the Wall came cutting through their lands and homes. Three generations of refugees with first-person memory reside here. Three generations tell the story of the Palestinian diaspora and punctuate it with semicolons of lettuce, fijel, fool, and, of course, khobaizeh.

Vivien is a dear friend, an agriculture specialist, and an avid forager. When she talks about edible wild plants, I feel as though my own grandmother were talking to me. She is knowledgeable and passionate about the land; not the symbolic land but the actual physical soil, rocks, plants, and animals, and all the bounty – from wild plants to cultivated produce – that makes its way into our kitchens and onto our cooking counters. To Vivien cooking isn’t an isolated incident that happens in a well-lit kitchen with stainless steel counters and razor-sharp knives. To her, cooking is a direct relationship between the land, human experience, and the table. It is an expression of trust between humankind and Mother Nature.


Like many cuisines around the Mediterranean region and the world, Palestinian cuisine begins with edible wild plants, a fact that relates painfully to forced alienation from ancestral lands, most forcefully in 1948. Nakba narrative focuses on displacement and dispossession. Palestinian refugees who were expelled from their villages and survived for days in hills and fields as they walked from one destroyed village to the next often relate that they ate hindbeh, lufaiteh, huwairneh, and of course, khobaizeh. In other words, they foraged their way to survival. While foraging may seem to be the latest trend in gastronomy, here it is an age-old craft; it is a way of life, and it is where our cooking originates. It is what our ancestors did in the privacy of their kitchens, away from fancy cooking shows and gregarious food writers.


♦ “In al-khala (nature), I reconnect to an earlier way of being – before agriculture existed – without the need to control our surroundings, but rather with complete faith that it will provide. We may have gained some things with the transition to agriculture, but we lost some of our instinctual trust.” Vivien



On that day in Al-Walajeh, I was in search of many things. I wanted to begin telling the story of Palestinian food away from all that is stereotypical and mainstream; I was also searching for my own self; my own relationship to Palestine, its land and food, and the meaning that such a relationship might carry in its folds. I, with my formal education, which by all accounts should have taken me away from the kitchen, found myself gravitating towards it. Vivien believes that the ancient community-held knowledge of plants, food, and agriculture that is present in places such as Al-Walajeh, and more importantly in the people of Al-Walajeh, is precious knowledge that is worth seeking and defending. As a young girl, I was pushed out of the kitchen. My mother’s response was always “Miliha‘aalaal-tabeekh (you still have time before you start cooking), roohy odrosy (go do your homework).” My mother systematically pushed us out of the kitchen and preferred that we read books rather than make our beds or learn to do laundry. Vivien’s mother was not that different; Vivien recalls being thrown out of the kitchen. The extent of our relationship with cooking was to fetch missing ingredients for the dishes our mothers were expertly cooking. Having developed my own interest in food and food writing, I still see the disapproving looks my mother gives me when I express my passion for msakhan or mansaf, or when I post photos of mabroosheh and ka’ak bi ajweh on Facebook.

For us – like it is for many, even if we don’t consciously know it – cooking can sometimes be an act of resistance. Given that cooking is directly tied to the land, and the land is a vanishing body, it is only natural that we hang on to our old recipes and traditional dishes. We need to take an interest in our cuisine, which seems to be becoming less ours and more theirs (the Israelis’). With the fading landscape there are disappearing edible wild plants that have adorned our tables for generations and that are slowly becoming scarcer on our lunch and dinner tables. Food, then, is not an isolated hedonistic pleasure; it is culture, tradition, heritage, and identity.

When people are displaced, they leave behind all that is physical and carry with them all that is metaphorical. They carry their identity tenderly and protect it from time, loss, and forgetfulness. Food becomes an act of remembrance; and cooking, then, feeds hungry mouths and more. It is no longer tied to a woman’s traditional role. It is, rather, a resistance tool, a ritual of return to the Palestine we love and long for, a measure of perseverance. When I first talked to Vivien about this piece, we chose khobaizeh because it was in season, but the more I learned about it, the more I realized that khobaizeh is much more than a weed that grows on the side of the road.

Khobaizeh is not native only to Palestine. In fact, it is found almost everywhere in the world – from sunny Californian sidewalks to ancient Chinese temples. In the Mediterranean area, however, people are known to cook and eat khobaizeh in various recipes. In Palestine, this is the one dish that everyone eats at least once in his or her lifetime. It is the one dish that everyone hates during childhood but loves in adulthood. Khobaizeh is the coming-of-age dish. It is the dish you fall in love with as an adult because you finally fall in love with Palestine, and it finally dawns on you why your parents spent years explaining to you why you should be Palestinian; why you should come home after finishing that university degree; and why your PhD means a lot more here than in Europe, the United States, or anywhere else in the world. Khobaizeh is a Palestinian dish, and it embodies everything about Palestinian cuisine.




Khobaizeh represents resilience and return. It comes back every year, no matter how many times it is cut. We can trust khobaizeh to be there, right under the fig tree, right beside the lettuce head, right by the side of the road. It sprouts everywhere, no matter how harsh the conditions. It sends roots into the ground and refuses to leave. Khobaizeh is symbolic of all that is Palestinian, the determination to live despite all, to exist, to stay, and to never leave. Khobaizeh is Mother Nature’s way of saying to us, “Trust me, I will provide for you.”


♦ “During the first Intifada, people turned their little backyards into small farms. We planted tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, and many other greens. We ate our own produce and boycotted Israeli produce and products. I was a child back then, and whether my mother knew this or not, her kitchen was a tool of resistance at the time.” Riyam


Before we became modern societies, when we were hunters and gatherers, we trusted nature, we ate whatever was available in the wild. We trusted that Mother Nature would provide for us every day of the year, every season. We trusted her to give us what we needed. As humans became more domesticated and more modernized, I think, we lost that trust. Vivien believes that this trust is forcibly broken in the world in general and in Palestine in particular because of the writhing metropolises that are expanding into natural habitats, as well as the brutal Israeli occupation practices against the land and the cancerous illegal settlements that are erected on hilltops. The end result is a shrinking wild habitat and dwindling agricultural land. Farmers are intentionally targeted by land confiscation, olive-tree uprooting, and water shortage. We no longer trust that the land can provide for us regardless of whether we cultivate it or walk through it to pick all that is edible. When I asked Vivien why she cooked, she said that it was because she wanted to restore that trust. She wanted to protect her own heritage and inherit the know-how of Palestinian cuisine from our elders “because, for now, we have them to ask for help. But when they are long gone and our children are trying to cook their food, who will they ask?” And then I think and wonder, “How will they teach their own children that khobaizeh is not just a dish to hate when you are young, like broccoli and cauliflower, but rather a story of resilience and resistance?”


Palestinians seem to have fewer and fewer tools to resist Israeli occupation. Kitchens are intimate spaces were families share their stories and pass on knowledge and history. We spring from our own dishes, and rarely are our dinner tables devoid of stories of the 1948 Nakba or the 1967 Naksa. It is food that brings us together, and it is food that will keep us together. It is khobaizeh insistently returning every year that will stand witness to villages that existed and to a people that lived and continue to live. In her article on ethnobotany, Vivien recalls the village of Imwas through the small pomegranate, fig, and olive trees growing silently underneath the cedar and pine trees in Canada Park, built on the ruins of Imwas. The people of Imwas have been forced out, the stone houses are nothing but dust blowing in the wind, and Imwas may no longer be recognizable, but it is our own trees that will remain “to stand witness to an unperfected crime.”


♦ It seems so frivolous to be a Palestinian food writer; at the same time almost offensive to and detached from the starving children of Al-Yarmouk and Gaza. “But when we go in there saying, ‘We actually want to see you make maklouba,’ so much other stuff comes along with it. In the course of making maklouba, we would hear about Um Sultan’s farm by the border that was razed by Israeli armored bulldozers two different times, forcing them to relocate, and how that impacted their lives. So you get the back stories.” –Laila El Haddad, co-author of The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey.


We are so in love with Palestine, we carry maps of her in gold and silver necklaces that nestle on top of our hearts. We write poetry about her, we mourn her loss, we fight for her. We lose our loved ones for her, we teach our children to never question her. But what is Palestine, if it is not soil, ecosystems, wild plants and animals, agriculture, and of course food? What is Palestine without the seasonal sautéed khobaizeh dish topped with crunchy onions and cooked by our elders – our mothers and grandmothers – and the young – Vivien and me?

Photo Credit: Vivien Sansour and Ayad Arafeh

The Splendid Palestinian Table

This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of This Week in Palestine ( 

By Riyam Kafri AbuLaban

When children are asked to name things that they love about their mothers, food is one of the most reoccurring items on their lists. They will tell you that they love her laser-beam eyes that seem to find lost toys and detect lies before they even make their way to their mouths. Answers will vary from one child to another, but generally children will cite their mother’s food as one of the things they love about her. Food’s emotional fingerprint is stamped into our memory and emotions at a very young age. Nothing tastes like mom’s food, but more importantly nothing feels like it. As we age, we pursue cooking to replicate those dishes in the hopes of reviving childhood memories and all the feelings that come with them, and in the hopes that we can create similar experiences for our own children. Food is, therefore, not just sustenance, and our journeys into our kitchens are not only a daily chore to put food on our family tables, but rather a deliberate, creative process in which memories, love, belonging, loss, celebration, and a sense of identity are created and engrained for both those of us who cook and those who eat.


Food is culture and not a simple hedonistic pleasure that lasts for the duration of a meal. If it were just that, then food memoires and food writing wouldn’t be among the most popular types of literature. I remember the first time I came to realize the power of food for me. I was in my second year of college in the United States and was considerably homesick. I went to the kitchen to make tabbouleh and stuffed eggplants for myself and friends coming over for dinner, and it was as if I were transposed back in time to my mother’s kitchen. As I recreated those two dishes, I was guided by my intuition, my visual memory, and my muscle memory as I felt my way around the kitchen and carved the eggplants, chopped the parsley, soaked the bourghul, and juiced the lemons. And when the food hit my tongue, my taste memory took me back to my mother’s kitchen again. The experience was powerful, but I am not sure it cured me of my homesickness; it perhaps made it even worse.

Food and cuisine are deeply engrained into our psyche, and it is no wonder that when someone tries to steal it, or claim it, or “appropriate” it as their own, our stomachs turn, quite literally and figuratively. The first time I stood in the grocery store holding in my hand a container of “Israeli hummus” nearly 22 years ago, I had to reconcile my feelings of homesickness, hunger, craving for food from home, and the fact that thehummus I knew was not Israeli. For me it was Palestinian, made with Nabulsi tahini, lemons from Tulkarem, and garbanzo beans dried by some old Palestinian woman in a nearby village, and rehydrated and cooked for hours by my mother. It made an appearance on our Friday breakfast table. And it was eat-it-by-the-spoon delicious, just ask my sister who until the age of five insisted on eating it with a spoon, she loved it so much. Little did I know (back then when I was a child) that 20-some years later, I would stand in the grocery store trying to convince myself not to buy the “Israeli hummus” and reach for the peanut butter instead, because deep down in my stomach, something turned, telling me that this would only culminate in a series of encounters with Israeli knafeh(a sweet made with cheese and pastry, soaked in sugar), falafel, sahlab(a starchy hot drink enjoyed mostly in winter), shakshouka(sautéed tomatoes with onions and sunny-side-up eggs), makloubeh(a dish with rice and fried cauliflower, eggplant, and potatoes), shawerma (a sandwich with shreds of meat, salad, and tahini sauce), and more, as I became more interested in food and cooking.


I most certainly do not want to spiral into a conversation of my hummus, your hummus. The conversation on hummus these days seems to take over much of the food-writing scene, including articles in peer-reviewed academic journals such as Gastronomica (published by the University of California Press) and mainstream media outlets such as The Guardian. Conversations on Middle Eastern cuisine must continue to be sophisticated and not trivialized. They rather need to remain cultured and complex, much like the subject matter that is multi-layered and diverse in its stories and history. On the other hand, this conversation is very personal and intimate. Who we are today and how we eat is largely shaped by the food presented to us as children. So, although conversations on hummus may seem redundant, we need not degrade them into “Hummus Wars” as if they were some reality show on the Food Network. Neither can they be settled by a scholarly declaration of “Our Hummus,” as if to please two feuding sides into a deceiving claim of co-existence.

It isn’t the claim to the food that bothers me, per se, because we Palestinians are aware that our claim to hummus isn’t an exclusive one but rather part of a mosaic of Middle Eastern and Levant cuisine. It is the underlying message and attempt to erase Palestinian and Arab claim to these dishes that is infuriating. “The controversy about Israel’s appropriation of Palestinian food has nothing to do with Jews eating Arabic food, but rather with a systematic approach to disappear Palestinians in all their details.” (Steven Salaita) It would be trivial and immature not to recognize that Arab Jews did exist and that they cooked and ate the cuisines of the countries and regions they lived in. But to attribute without the slightest recognition those dishes to Israel is nothing short of blatant, outright theft. Forget appropriation and call it exactly what it is, theft.

Palestinians recognize that their cuisine is part of a broader regional cuisine. What the world needs to recognize is that this region is the cradle of all civilizations, and the land of Mesopotamia cooked different versions of dishes now pictured on Instagram and Twitter and dubbed “Israeli” long before Israel ever existed as a political entity.

I am aware that people are agitated when talking about culture and food appropriation. That is not appropriation, they might claim, it is fusion. But what we have here is not cuisine fusion, because fusion, much like interdisciplinary approaches in education, may very well be asymmetrical, where one cuisine contributes more to the fusion dish than the other. However, both cuisines are properly recognized, respected, and celebrated. While fusion is a celebration of cultures coming together, food appropriation and theft occur when one culture simply steals the food of another without any recognition of the existence of the other.

Palestinians do not eat food only to survive. Our cuisine is a product of a long-standing relationship with our land: mahashi(vegetables, mostly zucchini and eggplant, stuffed with rice and minced meat) are enjoyed in the winter to warm your heart and give you energy; watery spinach, rich in iron, is just what you need at the end of a cold day; khobbaizeh(malva parviflora) grows abundantly in late winter/early spring and is full of vitamins and nutrients needed to revitalize us after the cold season. And in the spring, there is fool akhdar biz-zeit(green beans with olive oil) and za’atar akhdar(“green,” i.e., fresh thyme) for salads and salty pastries. The intrinsic connection we have with our land brings to our table colorful dishes and into our kitchens and cuisine intricate techniques of preparation and preservation: kneading, baking, stuffing, rolling, drying, pickling, and much more. Our food is a representation of the villages we lived in, the land we farmed, the olives we harvested, the weddings we danced in, and the funerals we walked in. Dishes connected to destroyed villages still make their way to our tables as we cook to remember a lost land and threatened existence.

For Palestinians forced out of their land in 1948, food is in the past tense, only to be brought into the present when dishes from their villages are made today to bring back a glimpse of the colorful squash, herbs, and crops of village life. For those who live in Gaza, food in the refugee camp is unwholesome, an unfinished puzzle with pieces missing.

So when The New York Timesclaims that Israeli sahlabis the new latte, or when international food bloggers visiting Jerusalem claim that they enjoyed Israeli delicacies in the Old City and post pictures of themselves with Abu Mohammad making halawehin the background, our stomachs will turn in pain and rejection. It is quite ironic that as Rachel Ray tweeted colorful photos of “Israeli mezza” that featured baba ghanoush(eggplant dip), hummus, and tabbouleh just a few days before Christmas, Christian Palestinians were making that exact same mezza for Christmas Eve. To claim that this mezza is exclusively Israeli is no different from white American churches hanging photos of a blond, blue-eyed Jesus Christ. That is not appropriation, whether intentional or not; those who do it are participating in the theft and disappearance of a culture.

In recent years, Palestinian food enthusiasts, bloggers, writers, artists, and anthropologists have started to gain momentum. Laila El-Haddad, Rula Bishara, Joudie Kalla, and many more food enthusiasts are making a splash on the food-culture scene and are reclaiming Palestinian dishes with superb recipes and riveting family stories. If you ask most of them, they would tell you that they write to keep a record for themselves, that their books began mainly as memories they wanted to preserve. Many of these writers reside outside Palestine.

I think the challenge of being a food writer in Palestine is quite obvious. How can we write about food and the richness of our cuisine when we are surrounded in every direction by land confiscation, child prisoners, unemployment, and poverty? How can we talk about food when hunger strikes are on and off in Israeli prisons? I myself haven’t reconciled this jarring difference, but I know that if we do not move to make our presence known on the food-culture scene, we will continue to watch our favorite childhood dishes be hijacked. Perhaps if we continue to cook together, always connecting our dishes to the land we came from, it stops being food-writing for the sake of pleasure but rather a conversation on identity and existence.

A new project called Palestine’s Hosting Society began last August by the artist Mirna Bamieh. The collective has several projects from food tours to family dinners to restaurant takeovers where Palestinian ingredients are reimagined in fusion dishes and restaurant cuisine. It is dynamic as more people join and reinvent and rejuvenate the collective so that it may tell a broader story. The family dinner project documents the food traditions of Palestinian families as people cook and invite others to their dinners, and tables become a space to explore food and hospitality politics, share experiences, and reconstruct people’s relationship with food, place, and space. In Haifa, Suzan Matar, hosted a dinner with the theme Min Moonet Sitti(From My Mother’s Pantry), where she featured dishes made from the typical Middle Eastern pantry with things like sun-dried tomatoes, homemade maftool(hand-rolled tiny pasta pearls), pickled vegetables, and home-dried labaneh(strained yoghurt). While her grandmother is Lebanese, those items and techniques are staples in any of our kitchens. More projects like this one are needed as Palestinians living in Palestine reclaim their dinner tables and with them, their connection to their lands. Another family dinner featured the Gazan kitchen with such dishes as rummanieh, originally from Yafa, which became part of the Gazan kitchen as refugees brought it with them. Rummaniehhas now been nearly forgotten in Yafa, but that night people were able to rediscover Gaza through the smells and tastes of the dishes served. (

Our struggle is uphill; dishes we have known and loved since our childhood will continue to be claimed as Israeli. Musakhan(glazed onions served on a special bread with chicken, roasted pine nuts, and freshly pressed olive oil, spiced with sumac and allspice) will most probably be appropriated as holiday food in Israel, and knafehwill take different shapes and forms as its theft continues. As you dip your bread into yet another “Israeli dip” and tweet pictures of it from the heart of Ramallah, Nablus, or Jerusalem, I hope you taste in the ripples of the olive oil the confiscated groves and their burnt trees, I pray you feel the dispossession that afflicts Palestine and Palestinians, but also their resilient spirit and determination to continue to exist.