Eating under siege

An article originally published in The Atlantic in two parts.

Eating Under Siege
Maggie Schmitt

Once upon a time, Gaza was known for its citrus trees and its extraordinary seafood, the smell of jasmine in the evening. No longer: now it is hard to find any image of Gaza which does not reek of death, destruction and deprivation. And yet despite the seige, the bombings and the political turmoil which surrounds them, the people of Gaza continue to live and to create their small share of beauty and grace wherever they can. One of these places is in the kitchen.

What I want to tell you about is the kitchen, with women’s bright eyes flashing as they roll out the dough, and the herb garden religiously tended, and the delicate meal eaten in the shade of a fig tree. But alas, we are in Gaza, and I can’t talk about the kitchen without talking about everything else.

Food and cooking in Gaza have changed radically in the last few years since the whole area has been under seige. The borders of this tiny strip are entirely closed, allowing only humanitarian shipments of basic foods to enter – flour, sugar, salt, oil, pulses – and even these are entering at a rate which, according to the UN, only covers about half of the population’s most immediate needs, and that calculation assumes a totally equal distribution of aid, unlikely in the best of circumstances. Other goods enter through the Israeli border in a very limited number of trucks bearing a somewhat surreal selection of “necessities” determined by the Israel Defense Force’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. This week, for example, those necessities included persimmons and bananas but excluded almost all other food products. Everything else required to sustain the Gazan population of 1.5 million can only enter through underground tunnels from Egypt, an extraordinarily expensive clandestine trade in which many have died due to the gassing and bombing of the tunnels.

Gaza has a rich agriculture of its own, producing exquisite fruit and garden vegetables, but as the Israeli “security zone” requirements increase there is less and less arable land available to farm, making it harder to fulfill Gaza’s food requirements. Moreover, as the water available in Gaza is tightly rationed, there is ever less available for irrigation and the orchards are withering. Fish, which once formed a central part of Gazans’ diet, is now scarcely available as fishing waters have been largely closed off to Gazan boats. Chicken and meat have suffered an astronomical price increase since the bombardment of Gaza in December-January as so many animals were killed; farmers estimate that it will take several years to recuperate the lost livestock populations. In short, we are talking about cuisine in a place where – despite fertile land and hardworking people – simply acquiring foodstuffs is beyond the means of the majority, and diabetes and anemia are quickly becoming endemic.

And then there’s the question of fuel for cooking. The borders sometimes allow cooking gas to enter, sometimes not. As the power facilities have been bombed several times, electricity is very sporadic. Many families have small generators, but most of the gasoline for these must also be piped in through the tunnels, which is very expensive. Faced with the frequent impossibility of finding any kind of fuel for cooking, many families have recurred to their grandmother’s memories, fashioning traditional adobe ovens on the roofs and balconies of their modern apartment buildings.

Knowing all this makes it that much more incredible to be treated, again and again, to beautiful meals in every house one enters. Palestinian hospitality knows no bounds, and since so few foreigners are allowed to enter Gaza these days, those of us who have that privilege are showered with food and drink and attentions. In this way women stake their claim on dignity and humanity even in outrageous circumstances: we will sit together and eat, we will remember the pleasure of small things, we will live despite it all.

Palestinian cuisine is as varied as the land: from lush green valleys of the north to the desert dunes of the south. As 80% of Gaza’s population are refugees displaced in 1948, within Gaza one finds food traditions from every part of Palestine. A lot of the foods, especially those found in restaurants (hummus, ful, mutabbal, mejaddra) are common throughout the Levant. Nonetheless, a specifically Gazan cuisine does persist, distinct from other Palestinian or Levantine cuisines in its generous use of hot peppers, cumin and dill, as well as sour fruits like pomegranite, tamarind and plums. It relies heavily on fish and on poor-man’s ingredients like mustard greens and garbanzos. Many of the most classic dishes are stews cooked slowly in clay pots, unique in the region. Due to Gaza’s isolation, many of these recipes are completely unknown outside of the Strip.

Fish

Old photos show the fish market of Gaza overflowing with fresh fish: Sultan Ibrahim, or red mullet; arous, similar to sea bream; samak Moussa, a large flounder; as well as tuna, sea bass, sardines, turbot, and all manner of squids, shrimps, and crabs. The current fish market is a sad shadow of what it once was: in fact the manager of the fish market estimates that the total haul of the 60 boats which set out from the Gaza city port each night only barely adds up to what any one boat used to bring in before the waters were restricted. According to the 1994 Oslo accords Palestinians are free to fish up to 12 kilometers off the coast of Gaza, but this limit has gradually decreased to the de facto 3 kilometers imposed by the Israeli gunboats, always present on the horizon. The fishermen know that the migratory routes for fish are farther out, in deeper water, but any boat straying past the 3km limit is promptly fired upon. This limits fishing to the shallow coastal waters, where spawning grounds are being dangerously overfished. Hence the fish which arrive to market are ever smaller, ever fewer and ever more costly.
(about fishing in Gaza, please see my upcoming video)

On the rare occasion, then, that a family can afford to buy seafood, they might make a zibdiyit gambari, whole large shrimp stewed in a clay pot with tomatoes, chilis, garlic, fresh dill, sweet peppers and olive oil, and garnished with toasted pine nuts or almonds.

Or else they might make the classic sayyadiye, or “fisherman’s dish,” in which chunks of fish are fried with caramelized onions, cumin and turmeric, then water and lemon juice are added and the fish simmers until nearly done. Finally, rice is added to cook slowly in this broth with the fish.

Or they might simply grill the fish, marinated first in coriander, chili, cumin and lemon juice and then stuffed with cilantro and garlic. Such grilled fish can be had at any of the sea-side restaurants in Gaza city, where families gather to smoke shisha and drink tea and watch the children fly kites on the beach.

Chicken

Festive pride of the Palestinian table, maqluba (literally “upside down”) is one of a long lineage of spiced upside-down rice dishes made from Iran to Egypt since at least medieval times. In Palestine many versions are made, using either chicken or lamb, cauliflower or eggplant. The one I was served in the Meghazi refugee camp in Gaza and am still thinking about with awe was made with chicken and cauliflower. The chicken is sauteed in large chunks with onions, and the cauliflower deep fried until browned but not cooked through. Rice is then soaked for a half an hour, drained, and mixed with baharat, a classic Levantine spice mix of black peppercorns, allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg and a bit of samneh, a clarified butter. All these ingredients are then layered into a large greased pot: first the chicken, then a layer of toasted almonds, then the cauliflower, and then the soaked and spiced rice. Water is added to cover, and the pot is set to simmer very slowly until the rice is cooked. To serve, the entire pot is turned upside down onto a large tray, making a beautiful glazed mound.

Not for nothing is this a holiday meal: the chicken required to make this dish has increased more than 100% in price since the bombings last January. One chicken can now cost as much as $18, as three of Gaza’s eleven chicken farms were completely levelled by Israeli tanks, two more were severely damaged, and even the farms not directly damaged lost most of their animals for lack of fuel with which to heat the henhouses. The massive unemployment in Gaza due to the complete destruction of its productive sector and the impossiblity of exporting through closed borders has reduced the per capita daily income to about two dollars a day. The ingredients for this splendid traditional dish would therefore cost more than two weeks income for an average Gazan given the current situation.

Meat

Of course, the grilled kebab is the king of street foods, served in a pita bread with grilled onions and a little plate of pickled vegetables. But traditional home-cooking tends more to the slow stews, meat so tender it melts at the touch of the fork. Sumaggiye is one of these dishes, perhaps the most quintessentially Gazan. It is a stew of beef, chickpeas and chard, married with the unique combination of lemony sumac and tahini. It is served with fried garlic and chili, and mopped up with fresh pita bread. During the holiday season at the end of Ramadan neighbors give each other bowls of sumaggiye, each family having its particular style of making the dish.

As beef is now almost completely unavailable in Gaza, this and other dishes are being made with lamb if they are being made at all. Lambs can be smuggled through the tunnels – they trot right through – whereas calves generally panic or don’t fit. The minimum number of calves necessary to feed Gaza, according to the Israeli “Red Lines” document, is 300 a week, but even before the crossings were completely closed less than 100 entered per week. Now none enter at all, though small quantities of frozen meat are occasionally allowed in.

This has grievous consequences on both sides of the border. In Gaza it means malnutrition, astronomical prices and the accumulation of power in the hands of those who run the tunnels. In Israel it means a breakdown of trade relations which were once extremely lucrative for Israeli farmers.

Farms

The seige, or as Israel calls it the “restriction of luxury products” (like paper, shoes and rice), does have some economic benefits for Israeli farmers, however. If on the one hand they have lost an enormous market, they have gained a dumping ground which serves to regulate market prices. What is or what is not a luxury seems to be determined by the surpluses produced by Israeli farms: right now, for example, the Israeli markets are glutted with melons, and at least three trucks a week of melons are entering into Gaza. There are whole neighborhoods of Gaza living largely off of melons.

Mustafa, a farmer I visited on the eastern border of Gaza who was harvesting his melons lamented that there was no market at all for them, so many had entered through the border all of a sudden. This, he mused, was probably just as well, as his melon patch was abutting the ‘security’ limit from the border, and when working there he and his sons were occasionally shot at. Their farm, like so many others, is directly in the shadow of the border wall and its watchtowers. Every once in a while jet planes drop a box of leaflets to the ground, advising them of new security limits: a couple of weeks ago the security limit was increased to 300 meters from the border, putting the melon patch in a danger zone. His children know very well up to which row of vegetables they can play, and after which row they will be shot.

During the bombardment last January Mustafa’s family was fortunate enough not to have their farm bulldozed, as some of their neighbors did, but they did lose almost all their livestock when their barn was hit by artillery fire. Some 25 goats and sheep were killed, while the family huddled in the house listening to the continuous din of the nearby watchtower firing over their farm and into the refugee camp just beyond their lands. “Where could we go?” says Mustafa’s elderly father, who clearly remembers 1948 when the refugees arrived and the border fence crossing their land was first erected. “We will live here or die here, we have no other choice.”

And so they continue to farm what land is left to them, and it’s a beautiful farm. Tidy rows of tiny pale zucchini, eggplants both white and purple, peppers both sweet and hot, some broad beans, some corn. The water pump is under a spreading mulberry tree, and mulberry-stained kids play in the shade. “Of course we’re optimistic,” says Mustafa, with a gentle smile, compassionate with my incomprension. “We have to be. The land is good, God will provide.”

Thanks to Laila Al-Haddad, Rami Almeghari, Mond Mishal and Amir Sadafi.

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This entry was posted in Agriculture, Food, Gaza, Palestine. Bookmark the permalink.

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