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.