Like Apricots for Hepatitis

“Apricots. Feed him apricots. Or apricot jam, since it’s just past the season for fresh Apricots.”

“I heard boiled potatoes are good, too. Just make sure to avoid anything fried or fatty!”


4 year old Juju had just contracted Hepatitus A, or sfair (“the yellowish disease”) as its known here, where it is fairly rare, and as we gather around our morning coffee, there is no shortage of advice being dished on what the proper course of treatment should be.

We are in the Wavel Refugee Camp, situation just 30 km west of the Syrian border, where my husband grew up, and where several hundred Palestinian families continue to live (a fraction of the much larger camps in the rest of Lebanon). Originally a French Army barracks, Wavel is unique in several respects: is the smallest of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon; the only one in the Hezbollah stronghold of the Beqaa Valley; and the one that has surprisingly experienced the least turmoil, having been spared the massacres, incursions, and family feuds of larger camps such as Nahr al-Bared and Ay nil Hilweh, and, most notoriously, Sabra and Shatilla, despite its proximity to Syria. The camp has in the past three years, however, experienced a significant spillover of other Palestinian refugees from Syria, crowding the already teeming camp, overwhelming relief agencies, and raising rentals significantly (more on this in another post). Palestine refugees now comprise about ten percent of the population in Lebanon, according to UNRWA, who overseas their care, but are infamously lacking in many basic civil rights, are forbidden from working more than 20 professions (including medicine), cannot own land, and have the highest figures of abject poverty of any other Palestinian refugees.

“What do Apricots have to do with Hepatatius A?” I inquired, curious as to whether there was some scientific foundation to this age-old folk remedy.

“You mean Sfair”

“Yes, yes, Sfair. How are they supposed to help?”

“Who knows, they say they are good. It’s a liver disease. The liver needs nutrients”. I guess not.

Well-meaning and often nosy neighbors, cousins, and extended family all offered their own familial remedies for the sickly boy, whose highly contagious but otherwise un-extraordinary virus, I learned, does not require medication nor a change of diet. But such is life in the refugee camp, where everybody assumes the role of doctor, pharmacist, and therapist all at once, and where the line between public and private space is blurred to nearly nonexistent.

The morning banter is interrupted by other, more enthralling gossip: Muhammadayn, one of two local camp bakers, has just proposed to his long-time love interest, a woman 3 years his senior, expressing his desire to take her on as a second wife, much to the chagrin of his current wife and mother of his five children, whose side most of the camp is on. The formerly obese baker (thus the nickname “Muhammadyan”, or “two Muhammads”) is now fit as a fiddle, having vowed to shed his weight after contracting diabetes from a lifetime of consuming leftover manakeesh.

Then, there is “Halawa”, the camp bad-boy, who, after many idle years spent in the camp with no work prospects, decided to make the perilous seas voyage across the Mediterranean to Europe, after collecting enough to pay smugglers a handsome sum of some $14, 000. He now waits in Beirut for his contact in the Lebanese army to accept his cut and let him on a cargo ship to Turkey, and from there, on to Greece. Just last year, a mother and her two daughters from this very camp drowned on this very journey . But with little left to lose and nothing to gain, many young people have chosen to immigrate, either to Scandinavia (Malmo, Sweden, in particular) and more recently, to Germany), sometimes by marriage, sometimes by smuggling.

There is also news of UNRWA having run out of money, that perhaps schools won’t start on time this year. Children rejoice, parents groan. The conversation ends on a somber note from which those gathered around coconut cakes, nectarines and Nescafé still manage to derive humor: the mosque loudspeaker announces the funeral of a women who died the night before-from a heart attack, as she was dancing at a wedding.

“She fell flat on her face. Nobody knew what to do with her, so they put her on a couch and covered her up, and carried on with the wedding! She’s now in the morgue freezer. At least she went happy, and probably cooler in there than it’s been here during this heat wave!”

Kitchen Conflict!

No doubt many readers have by now heard of the death threats received by the unique takeaway restaurant, The Conflict Kitchen, in Pittsburgh last week, and their unfortunate temporary closure (and subsequent re-opening as of today, November 12).

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking (and eating!) in Conflict Kitchen after being invited by founder Jon Rubin. Truth be told, I’ve been a fan of the Kitchen ever since its establishment in 2010, and have been secretly wishing they would one day do a Palestine iteration at which I could speak. After all, this seemed right up my alley: A place that literally serves up food for thought! You CAN have your cake and eat it too! Many years and one cookbook later, my dream was fulfilled.

And so it was.  On October 16, I spoke alongside Omar Abuhejleh, the Palestinian owner of the Allegro Hearth Bakery, one of Pittsburgh’s most popular specialty bakeries, in the heart of a historically Jewish squirrel Hill neighborhood, and Ziad Adamo, whose family owns a popular Middle Eastern restaurant in Pittsburgh.  Omar spoke about the continued fragmentation of the Palestinian population both in historic Palestine and abroad, and the effects of being separated from one’s land.

It was a lively lunchtime conversation, had over steaming plates of Maftoul, Muskahan, Salata Gazawiya, followed by an even more inspiring dinner the next day, cooked by their chef using recipes from The Gaza Kitchen.

What makes Conflict Kitchen unique is its commitment to sharing the struggles, lives, and histories of peoples in area with which the US is either IN conflict or has furthered conflict in their own unmediated voices, and in so doing, , to encourage re-engagement and understanding.   A project by Carnegie Mellon University art professor Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski, “Conflict Kitchen uses the social relations of food and economic exchange to engage the general public in discussions about countries, cultures, and people that they might know little about outside of the polarizing rhetoric of governmental politics and the narrow lens of media headlines.”

This most recent Palestine iteration has been their most popular yet, serving up to 400 people a day.  But that has not shielded it from controversy The focus has been on so-called “anti-Israeli sentiments” (see: interviews with Palestinians, about their lives in Palestine, under occupation, in their own land) printed on on the wrappers that the food comes packaged in, which include interviews with Palestinians on subjects ranging from culture to politics-a staple of all other Conflict Kitchen iterations.


“Perhaps it is hard for some people to hear that Palestinians are not happy with Israeli policies or the actions of some of its citizens, but to cast their viewpoints as simply anti-Israel is to reinforce the simplest, most polarizing, and dehumanizing reading of their lives and perpetuate the silencing of their voices” said a statement issued by Conflict Kitchen this past weekend.

Among the critics, according to Haaretz, B’nai B’rith International, “wrote a letter to the Heinz Endowments late last month to express dismay that the $50,000 grant it gave Conflict Kitchen was being used for what it called “anti-Israel propaganda”, though Heinz Endowments later denied the money was being used for this iteration of the project (oh the horror if it was, right!?).

When it comes down to it, its hard for the mainstream media to accept a Palestinian narrative as it is, without automatically assuming it is by its very nature biased (despite CK’s multiple attempts to get Pittsburgh media to interview Palestinians on the controversy, none were). This is a common theme in the media’s dealings with Palestinians-whose voices are never viewed as credible enough on their own.  Even as I was interviewed by NPR station in Pittsburgh during my stay, I was ] asked whether I thought this Palestinian iteration by its very nature anti-Israeli. My response, in short: sharing the struggles of your people’s history, their continuation violation of their rights, freedoms, the fragmentation of their nation, is pro-justice, not anti-Israeli.

And that is precisely why what Conflict Kitchen is doing has been perceived as so threatening: its unsettling to read accounts by Palestinians of what Zionist militias did in 1948, and what continues to happen till this day to Palestinian land and lives. Its a reminder that in the wake of Israel’s founding, an entire nation was un-founded, uprooted, violently, purposefully, maliciously, and that this simple and cruel fact is for all practical purposes either denied or never discussed in Israel.

Our very existence, emboldened by our own voices, our narrative, our food, our identity, is a threat to the dominant discourse that informs the general public’s views on who Palestinians are and what rights they have. But more so, it is a threat to those opposed to recognizing Palestinians as full human beings entitled to freedoms, rights, and self-determination. The reaction is usually to resort to silencing Palestinian voices altogether or resorting to claims of antisemitism (an invitation I was given to speak at Pittsburgh’s World Affairs Council was abruptly withdrawn after a board member expressed concern about bringing “anti-Israeli” speakers and how the Jewish community would respond).

Here, it would serve us well to cite Franz Fanon, who so eloquently argued in his Wretched of the Earth that colonizers and occupiers make a determine effort to devalue or invisible the history of the native people they control and thus heir hope of a future national culture.

In the end, the naysayers and ne’er-do-wellers did not have their way. Jon Rubin told me he expects hundreds of people to be there today in support during the restaurant’s reopening, and hopefully, some good will come of the controversy in generating renewed interested and curiosity in Palestine and about what the heck is so threatening about Palestinian food and freedom.

Gaza Redux: Parts Unknown

So, its been a while, I confess. Things happened: Both a book (The Gaza Kitchen!), and a child (Malaak, now 10 months!), were born. Between book touring and baby boobing (often at the same time!), my poor blog has been neglected. But no more!


I’ll start with a bit of shameless self-promotion: This past June, I (and a then 8 month old Malaak!) had the true pleasure of meeting Anthony Bourdain, showing him around parts of Gaza, while we filmed a portion of the episode that will air this Sunday (“Jerusalem“).    Tune in this Sunday, September 15, 9pm EST, to watch the season premiere of “Parts Unknown” on CNN. As many of you know, Bourdain was one of the many people who praised our documentary cookbook-The Gaza Kitchen.  I won’t give away all the details, but I will say this:  is-he’s one heck of a baby-sitter!!

With the production crew, and Bourdain (right); Beach Camp, Gaza Strip, June 2013.

With the production crew, and Bourdain (right); Beach Camp, Gaza Strip, June 2013.

Gaza under fire 2.0

On the evening of November 14, Gaza time, shortly before Maghrib prayer, Israeli warships unleashed a series of deadly attacks on crowded Gaza City on more than twenty locations, the first of many more in the days since. Thus far, 16 Palestinians have been killed, including a 7-year-old girl, 10 month old Hanin Tafish, a pregnant woman, and a 13 yr old aspiring soccer player-Hamid Abu Daqqa. He died in his Real Madrid shirt, before he could finish the second half.

Among the dead: Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari, whom Israeli liquidated in an extra-judicial killing, as it has dozens of times in the past with no heed or consequence. Jabari was instrumental in the prisoner swap negotiations that led to the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and was noted for his role in transforming Hamas’s armed wing. He has evaded Israeli assassination attempts in the past (one in which his son was killed). His killing signaled a clear escalation on part of Israel, and a deadly reminder to Palestinians that they can be squashed like ants at a moment’s notice when and where Israel pleases, so long as Israel is never held accountable. Israeli officials have named this latest deadly assault “Operation Pillar of Cloud”– a reference, noted Ben Soffa, to a manifestation of God. (“Why not just go the whole hog & say it’s a divine act?” he continued.)

The sky continues to rein terror on Palestinians in Gaza tonight, as my mother fearfully conveyed over Skype this morning. The city was in flames as night fell. And everyone in the besieged territory will be watching carefully to see how Hamas will respond to this latest Israeli escalation, which is sure to pose a challenge to their leadership there. They cannot risk or afford another full scale assault politically speaking, but a non-response will be viewed as a sign of weakness.

The timing seems remarkably similar to Israel’s war in Gaza four years ago, called Operation Cast Lead: we are fast approaching winter, during a lame duck U.S. Congress following a U.S. election and prior to an Israeli one. Benjamin Netanyahu surely wants to stack his deck (“bodies for ballots“, as Yousef Munayyer put it). But that’s where the comparisons end. This time around, the Arab Street has awakened. A new government in Egypt that is not helping to enforce the siege on Gaza in collusion with Israel as Hosni Mubarak’s was,and the new FM is planning on visiting Gaza on Friday in a show of solidarity and a clear message to Israel. Hamas’s leadership is no longer based in Damascus. In addition, a U.N. vote on upgrading Palestine’s status in the U.S. to a non-member observer state is fast approaching. Israel has already threatened to annul the Oslo accords—already on life-support—in response (which may be a welcome move by many Palestinians). In reality, all this could mean very little on the ground except to put the extent and ferocity of any impending Israeli attacks in check.

It bears reminding that however this latest episode is parsed to pieces and blame is issued—rockets, retaliation, escalation, deterrence, and all the other familiar buzzwords—the Gaza Strip is still under siege, is still under effective Israeli control (over borders, air and sea space, population registry, and taxation) and thus occupation (contrary to Gil Troy’s opinion in these pages). Palestinians in Gaza cannot do something as simple as visit family in the Ramallah, pray in Jerusalem, study in Bethlehem, love and live together in Jenin, and vice versa. Exports like fish and furniture and produce, once vital to the economy, are still banned from leaving Gaza. Aid dependence has skyrocketed as a result of a siege policy whose tenants intend to deprive Palestinians of not of food, but of freedoms, development and prosperity and leave them perpetually teetering on the edge of humanitarian crisis. So instead of talking about deterrence, perhaps the focus should instead be on granting Palestinians their freedoms; on letting them live free of constant Israeli terror and control.

Rafah: breaking it down

Its been a while since I’ve blogged, I realize. Much too long. This has been mainly due to being completely engrossed in finishing the Gaza Kitchen, which as many of you might now, is nearly out (advanced orders now being taken!) and has gotten some rave early reviews from the likes of Claudi Roden, Anthony Bourdain, and Ghada Karmi. But I want to get back in the swing of things-so to start I’m posting a piece I recently wrote for al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, on the status of Rafah (think of it as everything you ever wanted to know about the Rafah Crossing!) from last month…


When it comes to understanding the complicated realities of the Gaza Strip, the Rafah Crossing ranks among the greatest sources of confusion: Many people know it is the main gateway in and out of the blockaded Palestinian territory, and that it is frequently closed. But other details are fuzzy. Many are likely unaware that even when the crossing is supposedly “open”, it is still closed to large segments of the population – both the Palestinian residents of Gaza and others.

The government of the newly elected Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi and Hamas leaders were scheduled to meet mid-September to discuss border security and easing of passage through the Rafah Crossing, according to press reports. The outcome remains to be seen, but so far successive Egyptian governments have adopted the Israeli principles governing the Crossing, even though Israel itself no longer manages it. Simply put, those principles are that, only Gaza Palestinians listed in the Israeli-controlled population registry are permitted to use the crossing. Visitors and non-resident Palestinians – even Palestinians from the West Bank – are still forbidden from entering Gaza, and this includes the spouses of resident Palestinians. Moreover, most young males face great difficulty in passing in or out and are often denied permission outright by Egyptian authorities.

Last month, the Crossing made the headlines again after a series of attacks by masked gunmen on military checkpoints in the Sinai. The Egyptian government closed Rafah indefinitely, much to the dismay of the Gaza Palestinians, who saw no reason for the closure and had no hand in the attacks. The Egyptian move brought back chilling reminders of the policies of years past carried out by both Israel and the government of the deposed president Hosni Mubarak, when the crossing was explicitly closed (according to leaked policy documents at the time) as a punitive measure, a form of collective punishment on the civilian residents of Gaza.

The Mursi government eventually reversed its decision, after having stranded thousands of Palestinians on either side of the border – but it remains an open question how much influence Mursi wields regarding the border crossing, which is controlled by the Egyptian border patrol.

Read more here on the Al-Shabaka website.

The people have spoken, the people were heard

Yesterday, I reconnected with a former high school teacher of mine. Her name was Mary Doherty. Ms. Doherty was a mentor to me and instrumental in guiding me to where I am today. It took me years to locate her- and yesterday, finally, through the miracle of the Social Network, I did.

Now, this would not be a significant or blog-worthy event except that this story came full-circle yesterday. Our virtual re-union coincided with the remarkable events that unfolded in Egypt. And many years ago, 16 to be exact, Ms. Doherty single-handedly helped me stand up to the Mubarak Regime. I’m not saying this to be grandiose. I’m saying it because its true. I have always remembered this incident, which forever changed how I found myself dealing with situations of incomprehensible repression and overwhelming odds. Namely, the lesson I learned was to never allow the situation to own me, but to own the situation.

What happened was as follows: I was part of our highschool Model United Nations club in Bahrain. We were invited to participate in another school’s conference in Cairo (the Cairo American College). And so the necessary preparations were made, tickets were booked, and visas were issued. Except mine. It was 1995, and Cairo, still seething from Arafat’s poorly played decision to ally himself with Saddam Hussein, was as punishment still banning Palestinians from entering Egypt. Though I was not an American citizen, the American ambassador intervened on my behalf, our school being affiliated with the Department of Defense, and one of our club’s advisers being a formal naval officer. But the answer was always the same: impossible. There are orders-high ones-and nothing can change them, we were told. But Ms. Doherty, my economics teacher and head of the club, wouldn’t have it. It came down to 2 am the morning before our group’s scheduled departure.

After obtaining approval from the school-and my mother (who was well-aware of the consequences of her decision, but wanted me to try anyway), Ms. Doherty decided to take me with the class to Cairo-without a Visa. She stayed up to 4 o’clock in the morning finding a chaperon from the school that would agree to go with me in case I got stranded in Cairo Airport. And eventually she did. We left at 8 am and by some miracle, Bahraini airport officials did not notice I lacked an Egyptian visa. Eventually we made it to Cairo Airport. All of the students passed through unhindered, and then came my turn. We waited anxiously, as the customs officials flipped through my passport time and again, in search of the missing visa.

“You’ll have to come with us” came the stern response, after the official finally noticed the “Gaza” stamp in my passport. Ms. Doherty, a small, strong, woman in her 60s at least, and very close to retirement, would not take no for an answer, even when I thought we should throw the towel in. She stood-not sat-by my side in the face of the amn il dawla officials-the dreaded state security- to which my case was eventually referred for 14 hours straight, shift after shift, “no” after “no”, “go back” after “go back”. “Ms. Doherty, please, sit down and rest” I pleaded with her. “I will not. I will stay standing untl they recognize we are not going anywhere. You will get through” she stated as though it was an inevitable.

Eventually she had to continue on through with the students, and the chaperon remained with me. But she left with clear instructions to stand my ground until I got through. “But how? how can I stand up to such a system?” I asked, just 16 years old. “You have to show them you really want it, and that you won’t back down”.

The next day, bleary eyed and exhausted, I was brought into the security office for the 4rth or 5th time that night, and the question this time was completely unexpected: “You’re not backing down are you?” asked the official. “No sir, I’m not” I replied bluntly. “Well young girl you really do us proud” came the reply, in a rare moment of sincerity. He left his office without further comment and suddenly I was ushered through customs without even a stamp in my passport. I was stunned, and would be for days and years to come.

The story does not always end this way. Years later, in 2008, as many of my readers know, when facing a similar dilemma with my two young children, we were not allowed through and eventually deported back to the United States, without valid visas. And decades before this, my grandmother was held for hours as they screened her, in the same waiting hall. And after her, my mother, newly pregnant with my brother. “Why?? Why are you not letting us through? What is our crime except that we were born Palestinian” they told the officials.

I never thought anything of my own trial, as a young 16 year old-at least I didn’t think of it as more than a turning point in my own personal growth. Until yesterday. When in the day of triumph, the Egyptian people, banded together, and together, they overcame the repressive will of the regime, and overcame the fear and repression that regime had planted in their minds. And there was no turning back. They owned the situation-the situation no longer owned them. A situation that, as it affected 4 generations of my family-from my grandmother down to my children- has repressed them, mentally and physically. Now, it has come to an end. The people have spoken-the people have acted, and the people were heard.