There is no letter “p” in the Arabic language. “Falastin” is how “Falastinians” refer to themselves. Ask a Palestinian what the word means to them, the answer will rarely be short, covering geography, history, language, land, identity and culture. It will often end with the word “home”.
This much Sami Tamimi explains in his important new book of the same name. Falastin makes a fitting companion piece to Jerusalem, the landmark cookbook he co-authored with Yotam Ottolenghi, but it’s more than that.
London-based Tamimi toured the Israeli-occupied West Bank in Palestine with a talented writer from the Ottolenghi stable,Tara Wigley.
Throughout the book, they lay before the reader the everyday difficulties encountered by Palestinians under Israel’s occupation: the Separation Wall, army checkpoints, all manner of demoralising administrative challenges.
But the book they have produced, while it acknowledges the ongoing grimness of the “facts on the ground”, is first and foremost, joyous: a celebration of the food and people of Palestine.
When I visited Palestine in 2009 to learn how Fairtrade foods – olive oil, freekeh, maftoul, za’atar and more – are produced there, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Mainstream media reporting of Palestine is framed as two sides of an evenly balanced conflict, rather than as an illegal occupation, and is routinely shorn of any explanatory historical context.
It encourages the casual observer to see Palestine as a simmering war zone. Sometimes it can be but, more often, Palestine is a wonderful place to be, its beautiful and varied landscapes home to dignified, productive people whose national identity expresses itself irrepressibly through its deep-rooted food culture.
You can visit the West Bank as a tourist. Read Falastin and you might feel an urge to do that.
Driving around Bethlehem, the satnav Waze offered the authors no directions, simply warning they were “entering an area of high risk”.
“The evidence looking around us bore no relation to the warning” they write. I’d agree.
Palestinian hospitality is renowned. Visit a Palestinian home and your plate will be loaded up. Coming from a country where not finishing food is seen as rude, I had to learn that the only way to halt the flow is to leave a little. Palestinian eating-out culture is vibrant too; its markets are opulent. Nablus market stands out in my mind as one of the best I’ve visited anywhere.
How do you do justice to all this in a book? Tamimi and Wigley set down reliable, authentic recipes for Palestinian classics, such as maqlubeh el foul el akdhar: upside-down spiced rice with lamb and broad beans.
Sami also plays around with Palestinian ingredients and techniques in the manner we’ve come to expect from the Tamimi-Ottolenghi collaboration. But what makes this volume more than a lip-licking recipe book are the profiles of the people who nurture the country’s food culture.
Take the Anza women’s co-operative near Jenin, where they shell almonds, sun-dry tomatoes, and blend the punchy seasoning ‘za’atar. I felt awe watching them making maftoul by hand, a skill that involves adding flour and water to minuscule balls of bulgar wheat and rolling each one in the palm of the hands.
These women and their families were still living in a refugee camp after being displaced by Israel from their family homes, mainly in Haifa, decades earlier.
Women are front and centre of Palestine’s food culture. Meet the yogurt-making ladies of Bethlehem who produce goat’s and sheep’s milk labneh (strained yogurt), and kishek, hard discs of sun-dried fermented yogurt and cracked bulgur to crumble over stews, salads, or in pastries.
But don’t forget the fishermen of Gaza, who keep putting to sea, although they risk being shot at or arrested by Israeli military boats, even when they are fishing within the agreed limits.
Last but not least, there’s the tenacious growers who keep producing green, grassy olive oil, even though their trees – and therefore way of life – is constantly threatened by bulldozers and fires that pave the way for more Israeli settlement building, and the further expansion of the Separation Wall. Falastin is a remarkable book, and Jenny Zarins’s photography captures the feel of the place.
Just as Falastin whets the appetite, it informs and inspires deep respect for the astonishing resilience of Palestinian people. What an achievement.