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    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.


    In case you missed the episode…


    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.


    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.


    Palestinian: Lost in Representation?

    I recently appeared on Aljazeera’s “The Stream”, to discuss the Russell Tribunal and Palestinian representation-or lack thereof. In essence, who speaks for the Palestinians? The consensus seems to be -no one! Good show with lots of contributors from within Palestine and outside of it.


    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.


    How Congress is crushing Palestine

    A few weeks ago, I emailed an old friend in Gaza, a thirty something economist, to seek out his expertise. Years ago, when I was living in Gaza, he and I frequently exchanged thoughts on the situation, particularly during the frenzy of the Disengagement, and I always valued his opinion. That was then.

    I was writing a side-bar on the economic situation for my forthcoming book, The Gaza Kitchen, and was trying to remember a phrase he had frequently used to describe the paradoxical way that the Palestinian economy as a whole, and particular in Gaza, functions, where aid dependence is nearly 80%, yet where prices on par with a developed country.

    Was it “lopsided economy” I asked him in an email, a response to a “happy holidays” message he had sent out to all his friends?

    His response, which had nothing -and everything-to do with my question, took me by surprise:

    Hi Laila. Things haven’t been good in Gaza lately. I was laid-off work 2 months ago when the US Congress decided to freeze aid to the PA. So the US company I was working with laid-off 30 of its employees, and I was one of the unfortunate ones. The Gaza job market is still going through a dry spell. Imagine a market that does not produces more than 10 vacancies / month at best!

    I am trying to apply outside Gaza, but opportunities without good connections and a foreign citizenship are very difficult to get. In 2009, I tried to renew my Egyptian residency and move out of Gaza for good. However, the Egyptian authorities denied my request. So I am left struggling here applying for whatever jobs there are even if they are a down-grade from where I used to be.

    I hope that you, your husband and the kids are all well. Anyway, sorry to respond with a very gloomy email, and I still believe that one has to keep faith and try to survive the ups and downs of life.

    Gaza is commonly associated with gloom, so the email, one might argue, should not have caught me by surprise. After all, two in three Gazans live in poverty; three-quarters of the population is food insecure or vulnerable, and roughly one-third of the work-force is unemployed-a figure that nearly doubles when one takes into account the youth, who make up more than half the population. 30, 000 people join their ranks every year.

    In spite of this, the most secure have always been the urban elite (or else, one might argue, anyone with an excellent command of English and a fixer contract. Media is the one enterprise that seems to thrive in such dark times), but in particular those who work with the countless international organizations and NGOs, who increasingly over the past few years have come to rely on local hires.

    Yet here is one of these so-called “western minded moderates”, to quote a frequent and favorite refrain of Congress, educated in Cairo’s American University,booted from his job as a direct result of this same Congress’s policies aimed at, what exactly? Punishing the PA for its statehood bid? For attempting to reconcile with Hamas? Or simply in deference to Israel, their masters?

    The West Bank, the conventional thinking might go, is a different story: we have become accustomed to hearing glowing World Bank reports about how well Fayyad’s Ramallah is doing. Earlier today, I came across a TIME blog post which depicts a similarly gloomy outcast, one that many Palestinian analysts have argued was a long-time coming:

    In a donor economy – which Palestine emphatically is – tides and waves are governed by the whims of distant overlords as much as by global finance. Since 2007, Washington has sent some $4 billion to the West Bank, intent on encouraging the moderate governance of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, whose secular Fatah party the militants of Islamist Hamas had just chucked out of Gaza. While Israel enforced a siege on the coastal strip in hopes of making Hamas less popular, the international community gushed dollars into Ramallah. Thus did the city just north of Jerusalem take on the look of a boom town, its hills stippled with construction cranes and flashy new restaurants, especially on the north end, where aid agencies and “non-governmental organizations” set up shop…the effort put money in the pockets of the educated, Western-oriented locals who worked there. Those are the people being laid off now.


    I Complain, therefore I am

    Just came back from Detroit where I attended the ADC-Michigan annual awards gala, during which I received the Literary Leadership Award for my work in Gaza Mom. During my allotted two minutes, I read a selection from the book with which many be familiar, called “I Complain, therefore I am”, from 2006 (and which first appeared in the Guardian).

    At the time, I wasn’t yet aware of Newt Gingrich’s disgusting Palestinians-don’t-exist comments, but given the circumstances, re-posting my entry seems timely. As an aside, the [lack of] response to Gingrich’s comments is simply appalling, as was the thunderous applause he received when he unabashedly restated his beliefs during the Iowa Republican debate.

    Well Newt, this piece is for you.

    I’m fairly certain I exist.

    Descartes tells me so, and before him, Ibn Sina. And when my son drags me out of bed to play with him in the pre-dawn hours, I really know I do.

    So you can imagine how distraught I was when my existence was cast into serious doubt by a major airline.

    After booking a flight online with British Airways out of Cairo (the nearest accessible airport for Palestinians here, eight hours and a border crossing away from Gaza), I attempted to enter my “passenger details”, including country of citizenship and residence.

    Most people wouldn’t give this a second thought. But being the owner of a Palestinian Authority passport (which one can acquire only on the basis of an Israeli-issued ID card), I have become accustomed to dealing with Kafkaesque complications in routine matters.

    And sure enough, in the drop-down menu of countries, I found the British Indian Ocean Territory, the Isle of Man and even Tuvalu – but no Palestine.

    Now, I understand “Palestine” does not exist on any western maps, so I would have settled for Palestinian territories (though Palestinian bantustans may be more appropriate), Gaza Strip and West Bank or even Palestinian Authority, as my “pursuant to the Oslo accord”-issued passport states.

    But none of these options existed. And neither, it seemed, did I.

    I was confused. Where in the world is Laila El-Haddad if not in Palestine, I thought? Certainly not in Israel (as one of many customer relations representatives casually suggested).

    I sent an email of complaint to BA humbly suggesting that they amend the omission. Several days later, the reply came: “We are unable to assist you with your query via email. Please call your general enquiries department on…then select your country from the drop-down list.”

    Frustrated, I sent a follow-up email and was told to contact my “nearest general enquiries department” (if I was to take that literally, that would be Tel Aviv). Instead, I opted for customer relations in the UK, whose web support told me there was no guarantee I would ever get a definite answer.

    I relayed the tale to my friend, whose own status as an east Jerusalemite is even more precarious than mine as a post-disengagement Gazan. “Could it be,” she posited, “that there is no definite answer because we aren’t considered definite people?”

    I’ll leave that for British Airways to answer.


    Gaza’s Food Heritage-in Saudi Aramco World

    A bit tardy of me to only post this now-but have been insanely busy putting the finishing touches on the first draft of our book! If you happen to live near Madrid or DC, stop by for some of the fruits of our kitchen-testing! In the meantime, enjoy this article-the product of many months of hard work, published in Saudi Aramco World magazine. Consider it a prelude to our book!

    As home to the largest concentration of refugees within historic Palestine, Gaza is an extraordinary place to encounter culinary traditions, not only from hundreds of towns and villages that now exist only in memory—depopulated and destroyed during the Palestinian exodus of 1948—but also from the rest of Gaza’s long history.

    Through decades of conflict, families in Gaza have held to recipes and foodways as sources of comfort, pleasure and pride. Unable to control much else in their lives, Gazans are renowned for lavishing care and attention on food and family. Visiting kitchens up and down the Gaza Strip, talking to women about cooking and about life, offers lessons in the vital art of getting by with grace.

    More here:

    Saudi Aramco World : Gaza's Food Heritage.