Recently, my friend Michael and I were invited to a Palestinian woman’s house for a traditional meal. On a Friday afternoon, we walked down a street which was brightened by sunlight to her home on the corner. When we entered, one of her daughters was mopping the floor whilst barefoot, leaving a sheen of water on the tiles. Another daughter watched over her own little girl. This little girl’s eyes were like dark oak and when I sat her on my lap, she would turn her head and gape at me. Michael told me that she had a reputation for staring. Our host’s son, meanwhile, told us how he supported Barcelona and was likely a better footballer than Lionel Messi. We teased him about a girl in his class, who he had apparently been in love with for about four years. The lady of the house was preparing the food in the kitchen, but her voice traveled through the narrow hallway into the living room to welcome us. After some time, she joined us, her face painted with make-up and her long, black hair glistening from a recent bath.
It had almost slipped my mind that we were in Bethlehem, a West Bank city now under occupation and closed from Israel by what is called “the separation barrier,” when she began telling me about her husband. He used to suffer from epileptic seizures and after one particularly scary episode, she was desperate to get him to a hospital in the sister city of Jerusalem a mere eight kilometers away. At an Israeli checkpoint between the West Bank and Israel, they were detained for several hours, during the course of which her husband suffered brain damage and went into a coma. When she finally got him to the hospital, he died shortly thereafter.
The pungency of the story hung in the air around me and was only tempered when an enormous silver plate replete with stuffed zucchini’s and grape leaves appeared, giving off its own aroma. The dish, Kusa Warak Diwali, takes hours of meticulous work and our host had individually hollowed each zucchini and wrapped every grape leaf, filling all of them to the brim with rice and sprinklings of cumin, cardemum, lemon juice, olive oil, and English pepper. Spice-filled steam rose proudly from the food. By the time we were ready to eat, various extended family members had arrived. We all sat around a small table and ate directly from the plate together with our hands, dipping the stuffed zucchinis and grape leaves into a side dish of yoghurt as we wished. I love eating with my hands and the food seemed to taste even more heavenly with this added tactile quality and when I could smell its flavor on my fingers. I expressed my gratitude to our host, for all the toil and courage it must have taken.
I shall not easily forget the meal and the experience of Palestinian hospitality Michael and I had that day. I only wish our host’s husband could have enjoyed it with us. His wife is a wonderful cook. I’m sure he would have been as filled with pride as the zucchinis and grape leaves were with rice and spices.