By JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary
Cooking and conflict? It’s a different approach, but it works, and these blended themes still resonate five years after she and co-author Maggie Schmitt first began to research their unique cookbook.
When they first came up with the idea for the book in 2009 — “writing a documentary cookbook that would weave together traditional recipes and economic and political analysis, vignettes of the current political situation and also profiles of the people, specifically of women“ — El-Haddad said they “largely got reactions of cognitive dissonance.”
“Nobody really got it. It was a struggle.”
She said they were asked: “Why would you subject Gaza to such a cruel irony and a frivolous project ? Writing about food amidst war and impoverishment and blockade?”
But when Schmitt and El-Haddad went to Gaza in 2010, she said, “everybody in Gaza immediately understood.” They were excited about the opportunity to talk about their lives, their stories, their food, and their history — “about something other than blockade, Hamas, and rockets.”
Half of Gaza’s 1.7 million residents are under 18 and 80 percent are United Nations-registered refugees. Gaza has the highest unemployment rate in the world at 43% (youth unemployment is 60%). It’s been under land, air, and sea blockade since 2007. Two in three Gazans live in poverty. Together with the West Bank, this 139-square-mile strip of land on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea makes up the Occupied Territories.
El-Haddad argued that while many people know about Gaza being besieged economically, politically and military, and that that’s a “very real and horrific” part of Gaza’s story, the image of anonymous looking apartment blocks — “cinderblocks on fire”— shouldn’t be the only image that comes to mind when people think of the place.
“People just feel that if they scream loud enough and show horrific enough pictures then its going to do the situation justice and do the people justice but it doesn’t, and they (Gazans) will be the first ones to tell you that this isn’t the image they want to be portrayed about them,” she said. “It’s dehumanizing.”
So in their project she and Schmitt shifted the lens toward the windows in those “anonymous” apartment blocks and looked inside “these intimate spaces that depict everyday ordinary life.”
In El-Haddad’s words, they wanted “to get a sense of daily life as seen from the kitchen window because that’s where families converge and stories get told, and where histories get perpetuated.”
Careful not to reduce the story to a metaphor, she said their cookbook project looks at the “daily business of survival” and documents the “constant steadfastness to stay human amidst these impossible circumstances.”
Historically Gaza was the main port on the Mediterranean, an important station on the spice route, linking southern Arabia and the Mediterranean. A crossroads between continents, this resulted in the area absorbing different influences from the eastern Mediterranean, from Greece, a little from Northern Africa, and the rest of the Middle East.
“The history of its population,” El-Haddad wrote in her Gaza Kitchen blog, “can be traced through its recipes” that have been handed down through generations.
“Gaza has a very unique, delicious and unknown food (because it’s been) geographically isolated for so long, besieged, which has resulted in a gastronomic isolation,” she said.
In the forward to The Gaza Kitchen author and Mediterranean food authority Nancy Harmon Jenkins writes: “In many ways food in Gaza is classic Palestinian, Middle Eastern cuisine, but it is unique with its own regional diversity, which includes a deep appreciation for the kick of red chili peppers, the zest of eastern spices (cardamom, cloves, cinnamon), and the soothing calm of fresh dill and dill seeds.”
Some unique-to-Gaza dishes include sumagiyya (a basic meat stew with sumac, green chard, chickpeas, dill, and red and green chilis), fattit ajir (spicy roasted watermelon salad), and tabikh baqla (a stew of fresh purslane with chickpeas and cilantro).
Another Gaza speciality is red tahina, made from dry-roasted sesame seeds. (Everywhere else it’s a pale cream color.) There’s also a Gaza version of falafel, the street food found throughout the Middle East, in which chopped chilis and fresh dill are added to the typical recipe. And Gazans make traditional stuffed grape leaves (found all across the eastern Mediterranean) their own with the addition of allspice, cardamom, nutmeg, and black pepper.
Unfortunately, as El-Haddad pointed out, these days it’s not always possible for Gazans to make what they want, exactly the way they want it.
As she described it, because there’s a blockade, what’s available depends on what ingredients are smuggled in through the tunnels (much of the food frozen or in dented cans); what’s provided by humanitarian relief agencies; and what can be locally grown. Agricultural production is limited. Half of Gaza’s farmland is inaccessible, destroyed or out of production, though there are have been some innovations in agricultural production. The fresh produce that can be had is often in limited supply and unaffordable to many Gazans. Extreme shortages of gas and electricity also play a role in what’s cooking.
“People make the same recipes that they always, did but it’s impacted by the ingredients that are available,” said El-Haddad. “To someone who leaves and goes back it’s dramatic.”
The most striking example, she said, is that over the course of five years people have almost completely eliminated olive oil from their diet. It used to be a staple. Those that have it use it for drizzling, not cooking. Prohibitively expensive, only Gaza’s elite can afford it.
People don’t use expensive things like semolina or green wheat anymore, she said; they’ll use what’s rationed out like white flour and white rice. And with dairy in short supply they use UN-rationed powdered milk to make cheeses. More processed food has has made its way into the diet.
Also, she explained how someone might make a stew with chicken wings instead of a whole chicken, or instead of using fresh meat they use frozen smuggled meat. (Because so much of the livestock has been killed there’s not enough fresh meat available).
“Fisherman (trying to get around the blockade) will actually meet their Egyptian counterparts at sea if they can (to get fish), ” she said. “So you go to the fisherman’s market and they’ll (say) this is Egyptian, this is tunnels, this is pre-frozen and these little things are from here.”
Food insecurity, El-Haddad said, is at an all time high as a result of deliberate policies by Israel; with 80% of Gaza residents dependent on some kind of handout to survive and feed their families. Israel, she said, intends to prevent development and prosperity in Gaza — “keeping the vast majority of the population aid-dependent and constantly on the brink of catastrophe, while never allowing them enough freedoms to allow them self sufficiency.”
The Palestinian cause is close to her heart. A graduate of Duke University and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. El-Haddad is a freelance journalist, author, and political analyst who also serves as a policy advisor with Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network. From 2003-2007, she was Gaza stringer for the Al-Jazeera English website and a regular contributor to the BBC World Service. She has also been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and other major media.
While El-Haddad is currently based in Maryland, she was born in Kuwait, grew up in the Gulf in the ‘80s (mostly in Saudi Arabia) and describes herself as being from Gaza City where her family is from. She spent summers there as a child, and continues to travel back to Gaza where she’s registered as a citizen. (She has always retained a Gaza identity card). Her husband, whom she met in Boston, is from northern historic Palestine and grew up in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Since he’s a registered Palestinian refugee with the UN, he is denied the right of return.
“My focus,” El-Haddad said, “is on elements that help locate us as Palestinians.”
A mother of three, she related how her first-grade son once asked her why he couldn’t find Palestine on an atlas. That was tough for her.
“Cuisine is one place that all diaspora communities can identify and locate themselves, when maps and dictionaries fail to do so,” she said.