Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 9 December 2019

A cuisine under siege: How Israel and Hamas have left Gazan food on the chopping board

Under a dire blockade and corrupt leadership, Palestinians have been forced to turn to food handouts to find a sliver of culinary joy

Riham Hamdi Attwa as she prepares to serve a large plate of Mujaddara, a traditional Middle Eastern dish of lentils, rice and caramelised onions. Heidi Levine for The National
Riham Hamdi Attwa as she prepares to serve a large plate of Mujaddara, a traditional Middle Eastern dish of lentils, rice and caramelised onions. Heidi Levine for The National

Besieged Gaza these days tastes like the bare minimum for getting by: bread, lentils and rice, with a growing slice of hunger and thirst.

The palate of this tiny enclave along the Mediterranean Sea was not, of course, always this way.

Historically a nexus for trade between Africa and the Middle East, Gaza’s rich cuisine developed a distinction for hearty dishes and spicy flavours. With a mastery of seasonings like cumin, sumac, nutmeg, dill and hot pepper, Palestinians in Gaza perfected the art of sayadiyah, a fish-based rice turnover, rumaniyya, sour pomegranate, lentils and eggplant stew, and spicy chopped tomato dagga Gazan salad.

Influxes of Palestinian refugees after 1948 from what is now Israel brought new culinary techniques and preferences. It also heightened food as an identity maker for a stateless and displaced people.

“Gaza’s cuisine – like it’s culture and its political reality – is both inseparably linked to the rest of Palestine and very specific to local conditions,” write Laila El Haddad and Maggie Schmidt in their narrative cookbook, The Gaza Kitchen.

Palestinians in Gaza are quick to praise their shatta, ubiquitous spicy sauce, famed red tahini, in which the sesame seeds are roasted whole, and unique knafa ghazawiya, the sweet pastry sans cheese made from a base of bulgur and nuts.

Today though, Gaza’s foodways – and the political and economic networks intertwined with them — are rotting through. This deterioration comes as Palestinian food witnesses a surge in popularity abroad as chefs from the region reinvent their native cuisine, books like The Gaza Kitchen are published and Instagrammers go viral with Palestinian dishes.

“Gaza has been transformed from a fertile, productive and sustainable territory into a radically impoverished political powder keg, with no autonomy and at the brink of ecological disaster, through a combination of physical violence and economic destabilisation,” Ms Haddad and Ms Schmidt write.

With little sentimentality, Gazans recall how it was better before.

Before 2007, when Hamas, an extremist group, ousted Fatah, its Palestinian rival, in a bloody civil war and enforced its repressive and conservative rule. Before Israel and Egypt imposed a land and sea blockade and two million people were suddenly trapped in growing humanitarian and economic crises. Before the three wars with Israel and the deaths, destruction, and traumas that now every Gazan carries, everyday.

Najih El Khalir, 44, waits at a window to receive food rations at a UNRWA food distribution centre in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza city on June 18, 2019. Heidi Levine for The National
Najih El Khalir, 44, waits at a window to receive food rations at a UNRWA food distribution centre in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza city on June 18, 2019. Heidi Levine for The National

The United Nations warns that Gaza will be “unliveable” by 2020 — just six months away. Sewage pours into the sea, 97 per cent of the water from Gaza’s main source is contaminated and there are dire electricity and medical shortages.

People, of course, will keep living nonetheless.

Riham Hamdi Attwa is 24, has four kids and both she and her husband, who she married at sixteen, are unemployed. Her monthly budget is around 100 to 150 shekels (Dh106 to 159): 30 to 40 for electricity, 24 for water and 60 to 70 on food. The burden falls on Ms Attwa to feed the family and make it work. They eat meat once every two or three months at special events.

Like more than one million Palestinian refugees in Gaza, Ms Attwa receives food aid from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) four times a year: usually rice, lentils, oil, powdered milk, flour, tahini, sugar and canned sardines. Like many, sometimes she sells part of it, such as the good-quality tahini, when cash is particularly tight.

Food aid has become so vital because Israel’s land and sea restrictions on Gaza’s imports and exports have kept people and the economy effectively locked up, say human rights groups. In this way, food is subsumed to politics at every stage.

Israel says the limits on food in and out are for security reasons. The list of what is allowed in, however, is seemingly arbitrary: at one point chocolate, ground coriander and industrial margarine were forbidden (but consumer packages allowed). In 2009, it was no pasta and lentils until then United States Senator John Kerry visited and asked why.

Riham Hamdi Attwa, 24, shopping at a market in Gaza City on July 17, 2019. She has four kids and both she and her husband are unemployed. Heidi Levine / The National
Riham Hamdi Attwa, 24, shopping at a market in Gaza City on July 17, 2019. She has four kids and both she and her husband are unemployed. Heidi Levine / The National

Through a freedom of information request in 2012, Israeli NGO Gisha found that in 2008 the Israeli military counted the number of calories needed to enter Gaza in order to ensure enough was coming in to avoid malnutrition. Israel places restrictions on fishing zones and agricultural areas along the buffer zone, further disrupting food cycles.

Israel has eased many of these restrictions over time. Now everything is allowed except for those marked “dual use”, a broad term for anything that could be used as or part of a weapon.

But the overall regime of restrictions has “instilled in Gazans a strong sense of uncertainty and complete lack of control over their food choices,” according to Israeli researchers Aeyal Gross and Tamar Friedman in a 2015 study.

“Some of the additions to the [banned] list were even made to further Israeli economic interests, such as protecting the market prices of local Israeli farmers with excess agricultural produce,” they said.

In the first few years of the siege, the Hamas-run tunnels to Egypt were the lifeline out: for a price, just about anything could be brought through, even KFC chicken. But then, in 2013, Israel and Egypt destroyed the tunnels and cut off a key source of income and access for Hamas, as well as average Gazans. In the years since, Hamas’ repressive taxes, fines and corruption have also crushed the economy while Gazans complain Hamas members keep living, and eating, large.

Mohamed Fawda watches over onions, and tomatoes roasting over a small electric coil burner at his mother's home in Twam, in the northern area of the Gaza Strip .(Photo by Heidi Levine For The National).
Mohamed Fawda watches over onions, and tomatoes roasting over a small electric coil burner at his mother's home in Twam, in the northern area of the Gaza Strip .(Photo by Heidi Levine For The National).

So it is that food aid is now a defining feature of Gaza’s cuisine. Mujadara, a Middle East dish of lentils and rice topped with fried onions (one shekel for a kilo) and yogurt (perhaps made from the UNRWA powdered milk) has become a household staple. Without the quarterly packages from UNRWA, Gazans like Ms Attwa wouldn’t get by.

In 2016, UNRWA revamped the packages, comprised of largely imported items, to make the offerings more nutritionally balanced following complaints from beneficiaries about the quality and quantity.

Nothing, though, prepared people for the impact of the United States cutting off all aid to UNRWA last year, forcing the agency to cut down overall services. Suddenly the simple rice and flour had to stretch further and further. Gazans do not want to be aid-dependent and some Palestinians are critical of UNRWA for not doing more to change that; but in the current conditions, they cannot just be weaned off it.

The World Food Programme, which provides food aid to impoverished Gazans who are not refugees (and therefore not served by UNRWA) has piloted a different approach: credit card-like vouchers with $10 (Dh38) a month per family member to spend on Palestinian produced products at participating supermarkets. The idea is to give people more options and control while supporting the local economy, says WFP spokesperson Raphael Duboispean. It is additionally a more dignified system than having to wait in lines for UNRWA’s offerings.

But it is also a far more expensive format to implement: WFP serves 210,000 people, while UNRWA has to feed over one million. And every agency is underfunded and cutting back as the needs grow.

Back at Ms Attwa’s mother’s kitchen in Twam, northern Gaza, she is cooking up the usual mujadara and something rare: meat sumaghiyyeh, a sumac-based specialty beloved during holidays like Eid al Fitr and other celebrations.

Ms Attwa lives in Johor al Deek in central Gaza and doesn’t get to markets or to see her mother often because of the cost of transportation.

The meat for today’s meal cost 12 shekels for half a kilo of beef. Another two shekels for a kilo of chard, three shekels for the chickpeas, three shekels for a small container of tahini, on top of the costs of whole sumac seeds, dill, chili pepper, coriander, cloves, salt, garlic, oil, cooking gas and flour. Tomatoes and cucumbers for a side salad are another shekel a kilo each.

Ms Attwa’s mother, Zakiya Fawda, 59, lives in a run-down cement home with a tarpaulin on top. Ms Fawda used to love to cook up maftoul, wheat and bulgur-based couscous, and other staples like eggplant, leafy and slick malokhiya, and okra. Now her eyesight is largely gone and her hands can no longer chop, she says. So her son’s two wives, who live in the same extended house, have taken on the cooking responsibilities. No one has a job or finished high school and they pay no rent, as they are squatting in a house on government-owned land.

Ms Attwa’s Osama, 6, Mahmoud, 5, Mohaned, 4, and Sarah, 19-months, and their cousins entertain themselves with string and water bottles as the adults cook.

First the meat is browned, then the onions and chard chopped and sautéed. Next the whole sumac berries are boiled, the seeds strained and the liquid squeezed out and set aside to cool. The sumac-infused water is mixed with flour to thicken.

Next, using a mortar and pestle, the dill, garlic, salt and chili pepper are ground into a fragrant paste. Then it is all put together: in a large pot, the broth, sumac-mixture, chard, meat, dill and pepper paste, and chickpeas are whisked, boiled and set aside to simmer. In the final act, the tahini is mixed in, the dish is heated once more, and then it is poured into smaller dishes to set aside and cool.

The family gathers around a plastic sheet to eat. The energetic kids cannot wait and dive into a platter of mujadara first.

The savory-spicy flavour of the sumaghiyyeh lingers on the tongue for a moment, leaving one wanting more.

“Everything used to be better,” Ms Fawda muses.

Updated: August 7, 2019 04:29 PM

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