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never truly remembered. The act of eating is simply too banal to mean much on its own. It requires moments of association to become more than perfunctory. Meals are acts of creation. They are remembered because she said yes, because the Pyramids flickered in candle light to the left, because they are the setting for the end, the beginning, or both. The “meal” gives context and content to the routine of existence. Our claim to cuisine is our mastery over necessity. If eating is surviving, to dine is to live. The ghosts of meals past are never cheeseburgers, lobsters, or borsch. They are new lovers caught in furtive glances and grandfathers talking about Ted Williams one last time. My memory of my time in Palestine begins and ends with meals. In between, there was food but never the moments of enlightenment or selfrealization that make eating memorable. The feeling of the food on my tongue and the tingling of my taste-buds are long since forgotten. When it comes to the middle, I mostly remember the martyrs.
We arrived in Tul Karem, Palestine at dusk. It was light enough to read the Al-Aqsa Brigade grafitti but dark enough to see the glow of far-off sheesha embers as men gathered to discuss the events of the day. Although Alex and I were moving on our own, we had caught a ride that day with a group of International Solidarity Movement volunteers. They were there to learn about forming human shields and yelling at Israeli Defense Force
soldiers. Most of them were young and American and bursting with ideology and passion. The best of them were already a bit skeptical of their own role in this big confused place. We hopped out at the Windows for Peace center and thanked them for the ride. Windows for Peace is an organization run jointly by Israeli and Palestinian women, dedicated to providing creative and artistic outlets for Palestinian children in refugee camps like the one found in Tul Karem. We had come to talk to them about volunteerism and youth reconciliation in this most volatile of political climates. It was part of a bigger trip that would take us everywhere from Serbia and Bosnia to Egypt and Palestine to Uganda and Rwanda. We were greeted at the Center with the rich smiles of volunteers and the rich smells of shwarma. In Palestine, shwarma is ground lamb and beef, slow-roasted all afternoon with parsley and onions. The meat is wrapped in aiyeesh, the bread whose name means, literally, “life.” Cabbage and pickled vegetables are added and finally tahini sauce is dribbled over the whole concoction before it’s wrapped up and stuffed into a double layer plastic bag. It is a Chipotle Burrito and a Jimmy John’s Gargantuan wrapped into one. No mouth is big enough to take it on, and when the sauce starts to leak down your cheek, you find yourself less embarrassed than worried that you might lose a bit. As we tucked in, I couldn’t help drifting from our conversation to think about how the dishes compared to other Arab food I’d eaten. Lebanon is almost as famous for its food as it is for its women. Ask anyone from Alexandria to Damascus where to go for the best fava beans and they’ll tell
you Beirut. Jordan’s national dish is a broiled lamb head on top of rice and cream sauce. In Aleppo the steamy sweet cardamom drink Sahleb warms up any November night, and if you know where to go in Cairo, you can find fresh Mango juice for just one Egyptian pound – a little less than an average stick of gum in America. But Palestine is the hidden gem of the Arab culinary world. They do spice better than the Egyptians and toppings better than the Jordanians. Unlike the Lebanese, they’re not afraid to dip into the food gutter and fry up some falafel, even when the company’s refined. Despite this, it’s not a country well-known for its food. It might be that when we think of reputable cuisine, we think in terms of elegance. Our palettes jump immediately to dainty banquets and salmon mousses. There is nothing so frilly about Palestinian food. It is French fries stuffed in pitas and various meats on various sticks. It’s well cooked beef, always cut close to the bone. Then again, it might just be that our discourse of Palestine has no room for a culinary dimension. Imagine the New York Times Sunday magazine headline...“Of Shwarma and Suicide Bombs…” But then, for me, that’s why that first shwarma was so good. Without ever knowing exactly why, I’ve been hooked on this place since I first read about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 7th grade. My interest had manifested itself in projects, papers, course work, and finally, in Fall 2004, study abroad in the region itself. During that semester, I traveled to Cairo, Beirut, Tripoli, Aleppo, Damascus, Petra, Wadi Rum, and Alexandria. I climbed Mt. Sinai in the middle of the night to watch the sun rise and slept in the desert under the
brightest Bedouin stars. Yet somehow, when December rolled around, it was almost time to leave and I was more than out of money, and I still hadn’t made it to Palestine. So as I dug into my sandwich one summer later, Aziz and Mahmud bantering on about value added taxes or something, it felt a bit like completion. It was my return to the Middle East, a place that had in subtle ways become another home. I sat there, the shwarma settling. I was happy and content to listen and finally see for myself what I had been reading about for so long.
Tul Karem is nothing like the refugee camps we would later see in Uganda. The children with flies that covered their faces, so persistent as to be ignored, were nowhere to be found. There were no bellies distended from parasites or malnutrition. Unlike camps like Lira and Gulu, nobody looked at us as though we might be able to write a report that might somehow change the squalor in which they lived. In Northern Uganda, a place torn apart by 19 years of child abductions and bush warfare, there are sometimes serious food shortages, but a quiet resilient hope that seems equally rooted in faith in God and faith in the “international community.” In Palestine, they have food to spare but that sort of hope is in tremendously short supply. Instead, there is cold irony and black humor. Children, especially boys, in Tul Karem search not for salvation but release. Unlike Uganda, where the enemy is rebels in the bush, a government that seems not to care, and a world that seems not to notice, Palestinian kids face their demons every day. They are the long hours spent waiting indeterminately at one of the ever-
moving checkpoints and that great big grey wall that screams “you are here and here is where you stay.” They are the nagging fears that someday it will be my turn to be arrested, held, and beaten just because. This was the refrain that we heard repeated time and time again in our few days in that camp. The trauma of being a Palestinian young man is so deeply psychological that it is nearly impossible to intellectualize. I had known, before traveling, that I was against the Wall separating Israel and the West Bank. I thought the policy of staffing mobile check points with teenage Israeli soldiers, themselves terrified, could only result in more problems. I knew these things, yet I was totally unprepared for what I actually felt standing next to the Wall, sitting next to Arab men on the buses that shuttled us between towns, looking up at the grey watchtowers knowing that all it would take was one wrong move and I could have a high-impact round pumped through my neck. To be a Palestinian teenage boy is to live in a state of constant emasculation. Work and money are controlled by the Israelis. Freedom of movement is controlled by the Israelis. Communication with the Israelis is controlled by the Palestinian National Authority - the hopelessly corrupt Palestinian National Authority. It seems like the only way to take control of your own life is to violently wrench it away from those in power. Really, the only real freedom is in your choice of death. Martyrdom is the centerpiece of struggle in Tul Karem. Every where one goes there are posters of the dead. They are little folk heroes and fallen friends. When you eat, the martyrs watch over you from all sides. They are
little postcards on the mobile falafel stand and framed posters hung in the sweet shops. But there is always ambiguity. No one ever really celebrates a situation that calls for self-annihilation. No matter how much graffiti lauds their sacrifice, those martyrs are, for the boys in the camp, not political tools but empty seats in the classroom and a missing player in the weekly soccer game. They are friends. What we fail to see in America is that the Palestinian cult of martyrdom is not about chaos, not about hate, not even, as we so often suspect, about God. It is the rational calculus of boys confronting their mortality every day. It is about asserting control over destiny, if only for a moment. Like dining, it is the recognition that just surviving is unacceptable.
We left the camp earlier than we expected. We told ourselves it was because of certain rumblings from certain groups about a certain set of Americans that they weren't so keen on having as visitors much longer. But really it was because we couldn't take the strain. There is something powerful and frightening about a place where people have such an intimate and open relationship with death. By the third day, we felt not only an intellectual comprehension but a blood-pounding-the-ears identification with the rationality of those martyrs, and that spooked the shit out of us. Taking advantage of the privilege that would follow us for the entire trip, we got out of there. We had carved a little sense of place in East Jerusalem and high tailed it back, hoping that our mainstay "Al Mattam
Restaurant" would cheer us up. As we sat waiting for our food, Alex and I talked about the whole strange affair. On the way back, as if to cement the experience, I was pulled off the Arab bus at an Israeli checkpoint and held for about forty-five minutes as the soldiers handed around my passport. One by one they grimaced at my Syrian and Lebanese stamps, mumbling in Hebrew and disgustedly scrunching the noses that their oversized helmets fell down upon. They never said a word to me. It was, again, about control. It was a release from their sometimes monotonous, sometimes terrifying routine, and a way to let me know, silly American who rides with these Arabs, who was boss. It was embarrassing and frustrating at the same time. The bus waited the entire time, and as I climbed back aboard, the grumbling acknowledgment of my broken Arabic apologies made me feel like I had been through an initiation. The delivery of the meal broke us out of our reminiscing. Luckily, I had never been the type of person for whom affected moments stymied hunger. No story I've ever told involved the words "and gosh, you know, I just couldn't eat." But as I bit into this shwarma, the one I had ordered not just for its flavor but for its sentimental value, there was no rush of connection, no homecoming in the hummus. The tahini didn't even drip down my face. The whole act was chewing and swallowing and washing it down. I gulped the last bites, finished off my Miranda orange drink and paid. We would come back to Al-Mattam a number of times before we left Palestine and Jerusalem for good, and each time the food was spectacular just as it had been before the trip to the camp. But for that one meal, there was something off. Maybe it’s that Al-Mattam was unique in its total lack of
shihadeen martyr posters. Or maybe it was that our guts were too busy squirming with a different feeling to care much about this tasty beef.
That sensation of knowing killers has faded a bit, replaced by the memory of what it was like to feel that way. Mostly I fake it when people ask me how my trip this summer was. I don't tell them about the martyrs, just like I don't tell them about child soldiers from Uganda or decaying bones left between the pews of churches in Rwanda. Instead, I just tell them about all the amazing food.
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