Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Book event: 'The Gaza Kitchen' by Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt

Schmitt and Haddad presenting at the event
Friday 10th May saw a presentation by the authors of ‘The Gaza Kitchen’, Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt, and a live cooking demonstration in Islington.

El-Haddad and Schmitt met ‘virtually’ in 2009, with a vision to travel to Gaza and collate the recipes of the people of Gaza. The product of their travels was ‘The Gaza Kitchen’. As stated in the book's forward by Nancy Harmon Jenkins, the aim is not just to serve as a recipe book to showcase Gazan cuisine, but is 'a significant look at the people of this tiny corner of the world.'

According to Schmitt, there are four narrative strands to the book:

1)   Gazan cooking has never been documented, written down or acknowledged, something which the authors felt was important.

2)   They wanted to give a human face to Gaza by telling the human stories and personal histories of ordinary families in Gaza.

3)   The book addresses the agricultural and economical situation in Gaza, the lack of water supply, the tunnel system and the politics which all dictate what is available to cook and eat in Gaza.

4)   The book includes beautiful photography which captures daily life and the people of Gaza, as well as bringing to life some of the delicious dishes in the book.

Schmitt and El-Haddad highlighted in their presentation numerous examples of the extreme hardships that Gazans have to overcome in their everyday lives, and the impact that has on their cuisine, diets and the food industry in the Gaza Strip.

Gaza is one of the most densely populated places in the world. Despite this, farming still takes place, with farmers risking life and limb to work the land in the buffer ‘no-go’ zone which encircles the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Farmers who have had their olive and date trees razed face a 20 year wait for newly planted trees to start yielding fruit. This can put their families under great economical hardship in the meantime.

Despite being the last part of historical Palestine with access to the sea, Gazan fisherman are only permitted to go out 3 nautical miles into the sea to fish.

There are 8 to 10 hour blocks of power outages, and 80% of people in Gaza are dependent on food handouts from organisations like UNRWA.

Israel has made a radical, abrupt and intentional impoverishment of Gaza, allowing just enough food in to prevent internationally acknowledged humanitarian crisis but not enough for people to thrive or function properly. The decisions made about what is permitted to cross the border seem arbitrary; one week a particular foodstuff may not be permitted and then the next (particularly when Israel wants to dump a surplus of, say, cucumbers) it will come through in large quantities. This makes it impossible for Gazan farmers to forecast the market, who might find that their harvest is devalued when an influx of cheap produce comes through from Israel.

Nutritionists have highlighted that with each peak in violence (bombings, incursions etc) in Gaza the level of child malnutrition also peaks accordingly, as their families become more dependent on food aid with little nutritional value.

After 1948 the population in the Gaza strip tripled overnight. 80% of refugees came from towns and villages outside of Gaza, each with their own unique culinary heritage. Even after their hometowns had been wiped off the map with the creation of the state of Israel, they ensured they lived on through the recipes which they brought with them to Gaza. This meant that you could literally ‘taste’ the town or village from which they originally hailed.

El-Haddad argues that food is the “last sanctuary which Palestinians still have control over” even when they have lost control over all other aspects of their lives; their freedom, possessions, etc. They view the book not only as something which champions the unique and rich cuisine of Gaza, but as a ‘Trojan Horse’ – in essence a point of entry for opening up dialogue in the West about the political and humanitarian situation in Gaza.

 ‘The Gaza Kitchen’ carries the message that in the face of unimaginable adversity on so many levels, the tenacity and humanity of the Gazan people reigns.

Response to the book in the USA has been unexpectedly and overwhelmingly positive. El-Haddad claims that staunch Zionists have read the book and admitted it was “eye-opening”. The Washington Post published an article by a Liberal Zionist on ‘Israeli Ma’loubeh’ on Nakba Day – they included a quote by El-Haddad who explained how doing this was deeply offensive. For a US audience, it is difficult to discuss Palestine, even to mention the word ‘Palestine’, so for a national newspaper to talk about the Nakba and give a Palestinian viewpoint demonstrates, in the view of the authors, the shift in the Western world, where dialogue is becoming more open.

Tasty result of the live demo - two versions of Dagga salad 
At the end of the presentation, people were able to purchase copies of ‘The Gaza Kitchen’ which the authors were signing. There was also a live demonstration of  how to make the Gazan salad ‘Dagga’, which means ‘crush / mash’, with audience volunteers (myself included!) 

Dagga is a hot salad made with green chilli peppers, garlic, salt, ripe tomatoes, and the key ingredient of dill seed or fresh dill in large quantities. The ingredients are all mashed together in a zibdiya (pestle and mortar), and doused in a healthy glug of olive oil to cut through the heat of the chillies, and then eaten with khoubez (Arabic bread).

Getting involved in the live demo!
You can also add tahini, lemon or cucumber to the salad – in fact in Gaza each household will have their own variation and argue with you over which recipe is the best!

"Gaza has a unique, delicious and marvellous cuisine" - Maggie Schmitt

‘The Gaza Kitchen’ is on sale now – you can buy it here.


Saturday, 11 May 2013

Film review: The People and the Olive

“If the tree doesn’t survive, then I don’t survive” – Palestinian farmer, 'The People and the Olive'

Q&A at the screening of 'The People and the Olive'

28th February 2013 – In a low-key screening at the Khalili lecture theatre in SOAS University, there was yet another eye-opening and inspirational film on display from Palestine. 'The People and the Olive' is a feature length documentary following 'The Run Across Palestine' in February 2012. The Run was organised by an American non-profit organisation called 'On the Ground'. They support sustainable community development across the world and recently had undertaken a similar run across Ethiopia and raised money enough to build three schools.  This was a gruelling run undertaken by six Americans. They ran 129 miles in five days across the occupied West Bank. Their aim was to raise awareness about the struggles of Palestinian olive farmers and their determination to organise and overcome the barriers of occupation by tending their groves. In a show of solidarity, olive tree saplings were replanted along the route at locations where land was lost to illegal settler activity, and olive trees uprooted.

The opening of the film introduces the audience to the concept of the Palestinian olive tree. Palestinian culture, cuisine, proverbs, economy, landscape and peaceful resistance are all intertwined with this special tree and its fruit. This was clearly displayed in the opening of the film through emotive interviews with farmers interspersed with beautiful images of the olive grove landscape synonymous with Palestine. These showed local farmers eulogising about their 'sacred' trees and what they mean to the Palestinian people. “The same hands that raised them are the same hands that raised us” refers the uncountable generations of families looking after trees whose ages span from 200 to 2000 years old, tended from generation to generation within the same families. It was therefore difficult to watch these same farmers' testimonies of the Israeli practice of olive tree uprooting and land expropriation by illegal settlements and the state, preventing farmers from reaching their ancient trees. The pain was palpable - it was much akin to grieving a lost family member which was edified by one who said “when one tree is destroyed it’s like destroying our children”. The figures speak for themselves. The film pointed out that 500,000 olive trees have been destroyed by Israel since 2004. Of a total of 7.1 million olive trees, Palestinians are denied access to 2.1 million due to the multifaceted Israeli occupation. Indeed harvesting olives, pressing them into oil and exporting the product has been seen as a form of resistance. It serves as a reminder that Palestine exists, and that the roots of the Palestinian people are entwined with those roots that have tunnelled the soil for generations.

This introduction set the scene for an important and much undermined cause. Six fresh and energetic Americans self-labelled as “ultra-marathon runners” came to run the demanding but beautiful Palestinian landscape. Their aim was to show solidarity, to experience the hardship of Palestinian farmers and to pledge support for co-operative groups of farmers working to ensure the future of fair-trade organic Palestinian olive oil. They ran from a village outside Hebron in the south to a village called Birqin in the north, home of Canaan Fair Trade olive oil. They were subject to harassment and arrests by the Israeli police and army. Armed with nothing more than olive tree saplings intended to replace uprooted Palestinian trees, they were met with Israeli bullets and tear gas. 

Despite their challenges the runners persevered. They crossed the West Bank stopping at villages and towns on the way. At each village they were greeted by the local people in ceremonies of celebration, food, scout parades, musicians, dancers and drummers. The runners were taken in as heroes and they expressed their delight at the renowned Palestinian hospitality. In an emotional ending they finished at the Canaan Fair Trade olive oil company in the village of Birqin, where they were honoured to have an ancient olive tree named after them. 

Canaan Fair Trade olive oil
Following the screening, a question and answer section took place with Claire (one of the runners), Odeh (an olive farmer), Atif Choudury (from Zaytoun CIC) and Manal (from the Canaan fair trade olive oil cooperative).  They really gave a face to Palestinian olive oil and passionately spoke of the benefits the Canaan cooperative has yielded to its members. Odeh spoke of being able to send his children to university and building a house whilst his community have invested in their infrastructure and their arable lands with the cooperative proceeds. Manal also reminded us that there is a story and family behind each bottle of olive oil. This product and the cooperative is a marvel in two ways. Firstly, each bottle is subject to the occupation. This means restrictions in movements, land expropriation and demolition, and soaring costs of exportation through an apartheid system. Its arrival at European and American dinner tables is an achievement in itself. However secondly, despite the conditions, Canaan olive oil is of an exceptional quality. In a taste competition in a German food festival with olive oil connoisseurs, Palestinian organic olive oil came 9th out of 94 specialty highly refined organic olive oils. Most of these oils came from heavily subsidised European groves against which Palestinian oil more than holds its own in quality. I for one will be buying organic fair-trade Palestinian olive oil. Visit the Zaytoun CIC website for more details on the story behind Palestinian produce and how to buy it.


Monday, 10 December 2012

An Evening for Gaza

Serving Ma'louba
We finally hosted our first event last Saturday after launching online eight months ago!

Following Israel's latest attack on Gaza last month, we felt there was no better time to host our first event, with all money raised going to Medical Aid for Palestinians - who are doing a great job of helping the people in Gaza following the attack.

We had a challenge on our hands, having only two weeks to find a venue, get the food bought and cooked, guests invited and entertainment lined up. Luckily, we have very supportive family and friends, who all helped make the evening a great success.

Jo O'Neill from MAP addresses the guests
The food was provided by hardworking family members, who made enough mezze, ma'louba, bizzella and basboosa to feed 40 hungry guests!

A group of volunteers were brilliant at setting up the venue, serving food and drinks, and tackling the mountain of washing up at the end of the evening.

Jo O'Neill from MAP was kind enough to come and speak to the guests about the charity, and the vital work they do in Gaza and beyond.

Al Zaytouna dabke group did a wonderful job of entertaining the crowds, and even got people on their feet dancing!

Zaytoun CIC set up a stall selling artisan Palestinian produce, and kindly donated a percentage of their profits to MAP on the night.

Al Zaytouna performed some brilliant dabke on the evening
Special thanks also go out to Dave and Pat Tomlinson of Saint Luke's Church who gave us the use of their space for no fee.

So far we have raised over £1500 for MAP and we couldn't be more thrilled. We couldn't have done it without the collective hard work of family and friends, and of all the guests who came along, donated generously and supported our first event so warmly. Thank you so much.

For those of you who weren't able to attend, here are some more pictures of the evening below.

Zaytoun's stall selling Palestinian produce
Saint Luke's Church
Kanafe - traditional sweet from Nablus

See you at our next event!


Saturday, 24 November 2012

Shadia Mansour and the Musical Intifada

Shadia Mansour - the 'First Lady of Arabic Hip Hop'
Have you heard of Shadia Mansour? If you haven't, then you need to!

Mansour, a British Palestinian rapper, is one of the shining examples of a new generation of politically conscious hip hop artists, whose lyrics focus on the Middle East, and Palestine in particular.

Along with other artists such as Lowkey, Akala and Logic, Mansour is part of a musical uprising, or resistance, speaking out against the Israeli occupation and firmly putting Palestine on the map by reasserting its existence.

Mansour was born in London and comes from a family of musicians and activists - the late Juliano Mer-Khamis was her cousin - and grew up singing classical Arab protest songs.

When she hit her teens, Mansour turned to hip hop, collaborating with other like-minded artists and performing in the traditional Palestinian thawb (traditional ankle-length dress, with embroidery on the front).

Mansour often performs in the Palestinian Thawb
Her first single, Al Kuffiyeh Arabeyyeh, with rapper M-1 of Dead Prez, was a defiant, passionate response to learning that an American company had brought out a blue and white version of the iconic Palestinian garment, with stars of David on it:

Now these dogs are starting to wear it as a trend
No matter how they design it, no matter how they change its color
The keffiyeh is Arab, and it will stay Arab
The scarf, they want it
Our intellect, they want it
Our dignity, they want it
Everything that’s ours, they want it
We won’t be silent, we won’t allow it
It suits them to steal something that ain’t theirs and claim that it is

Mansour is a star on the ascent; having toured the US, UK and the Palestinian Territories with other artists such as Lowkey (British Iraqi MC and Activist), and being signed to Chuck D of Public Enemy's online label Slam Jamz.

She believes herself to be a 'messenger', speaking out against oppression and occupation. Cafe Palestine  thinks Mansour is a fantastic example of a talented Palestinian playing a vital role in the cultural resistance for Palestine.

Below are a couple of her tracks - Al Kuffiyeh Arabeyyeh with M-1 and Long Live Palestine 2, by Lowkey ft D.A.M. (Palestinian hip hop collective), The Narcicyst (Canadian Iraqi rapper) and Shadia Mansour.


Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Unto the Breach - a new show by Al Zaytouna Dance Theatre

Revolution scene from the show's preview - Laban, June 2012

Al Zaytouna Dance Theatre, a London-based Palestinian dabke dance theatre company, are currently putting the final touches to their new show, Unto the Breach.

The show, which makes its debut at the arts depot theatre in North Finchley on the 9th and 10th November, is an adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry V.

Set in modern-day Palestine and inspired by the recent Arab Spring, the show uses the Shakespearian play as a foundation to convey the universal themes of courage, determination and loyalty - enabling a wider Western audience to relate to the Palestinian struggle via a vehicle they are familiar with.

Working on a dramatic scene in rehearsals

The show had its preview in June at Laban dance studios, to a select audience of critics. The full show in November has been built on the feedback given at the preview, and is supported by a BBC Performing Arts Grant.

Unto the Breach offers the audience contemporary and Palestinian folk dance, poetry, theatre and digital media, as well as traditional Palestinian music and original compositions by David Randall (guitarist from Faithless).

Actress Clare Quinn plays the Shakespearian Chorus, with a script which builds on the original text by using language to paint a picture of modern-day Palestine, rather than 15th century France.

Hadjer Nacer, one of the director's and a performer in the show, gave us an exclusive interview about the group and the latest show (below).

Tickets for Unto the Breach are £16 in advance (£14 for concessions) or £19 on the door, and can be bought by calling the artsdepot box office on 020 8369 5454, or on the theatre's online site.

Join the Facebook event for the show here.

Leila x

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Amnesty International - Commemorating Al-Nakba

In May I went to an event at Amnesty International to commemorate the Nakba and celebrate Palestinian culture.

There was a dabke performance by Zajel, a young group from London, music from Phil Monsour and Raast, a talk from Atif from Zaytoun and poetry from Rafeef Ziadah.

Below are a selection of videos from the evening.

Leila x

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Richard II - Palestinian Shakespeare comes to the Globe

Ashtar Theatre receive a rapturous applause 

On Saturday night Ashtar Theatre, a Palestinian theatre group formed in Jerusalem in 1991 but now based in Ramallah, performed Shakespeare's Richard II at Shakespeare's Globe as part of the 'Globe to Globe' festival, with all 37 Shakespeare plays performed in 37 languages.

Ashtar Theatre was established by two Palestinian actors - Edward Muallem and Iman Aoun - and is a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting commitment to change, training, performing and bringing shows to marginalised audiences, who may not be able to come to their theatre in Ramallah. Ashtar are perhaps best known for their production The Gaza Monologues, which told the real stories of children from Gaza following the Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip in December 2008.

Against a backdrop of political discourse surrounding the Globe's decision to allow the Israeli theatre company Habima to participate in the festival, despite its record of involvement with illegally-built Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, the significance of a Palestinian theatre company being invited to perform was sadly somewhat overlooked.

Nevertheless, Ashtar's performance was highly commendable. Although performed in Arabic, two digital screens mounted each side of the stage summarised briefly in English the events in each scene. The acting was highly polished, with characters using the entire theatre space, not just the stage, to run amongst the audience, interacting with individuals and delivering lines from the steps leading down into the standing area of the 'globe'. The competency of the cast was tested when a helicopter flew over the top of the globe, drowning out the voices onstage, but this was deftly included into the scene, much to the laughter and applause of the audience!

For non-arabic speakers, the delivery of lines, facial expressions and music effectively created the mood in each scene and enabled the audience to grasp easily what action was taking place. Heavy emotion was contrasted well with light-hearted touches of humour, particularly emanating from the laughable, vain King when he interacted with the audience of 'peasants' watching from the 'cattle area'.

One particularly moving scene between Richard II (played by Sami Metwasi) and his Queen (Bayan Shbib) effectively portrayed their anguish, despair and love for one another in a way which did not require an understanding of the words spoken to feel the emotions of the fateful pair. The King's demise at the end of the play was handled in a way which almost made you pity the narcissistic, petty Richard.

My beautiful souvenir from the play!
There was a palpable sense of pride throughout the audience during the bow at the end of the play. Palestinian flags were waved, roses were thrown and the cast returned to bow several times due to such high demand! I ended up with a beautiful white rose when it was thrown back into the audience (along with many other flowers from the gracious cast).