|Two Dutch culinary journalists in a Palestinian camp|
I spent my Saturday in a humbling surrounding; the Palestinian city camp of Shatila. Two Dutch culinary writers/journalist are gathering Palestinian recipes for a cookbook, and were wondering whether the Palestinian Diaspora had generated anything new, as far as food was concerned. And so into the camps it was.
I know that most Lebanese have an ambiguous feeling about the Palestinians in Lebanon. On the one hand they very well realize that these people have been unlucky in an incredible way. They got screwed over and over again, by the Israelis, by the Arabs, by the international community, and – probably the most significant – by their own people. And so here they live, in absolutely deplorable circumstances, with no hope of a way out.
On the other hand, many Lebanese feel that that situation they are in is partially due to their own doing. Well, maybe not themselves, but their leaders. Poor policy making, siding with the ‘wrong’ people at the ‘wrong’ time, corruption and betrayal within their own ranks have not helped their cause much.
|Electricity wires, TV cables, generator lines, laundry lines and plastic ropes to keep it all together|
But if you ignore that, ambiguous feelings and all, and spend a day in a camp, any of the 16 camps in Lebanon, you come out with a feeling that this is just not right. Most people have no idea whatsoever what the conditions in these camps are like. Including the Lebanese. I remember that one day I did not have a translator, and my husband said he’d do the honors. I told him what camp to drive to. He had no idea where it was or how to get in. “You mean you’ve never been here?” I said. “I have never been in any of the camps,” he replied, and he didn't think any of his friends had either. He was 39 then. 39 years, and had never ever been inside a Palestinian camp.
|This alleyway is 'realtively speaking' wide, but look at the balconeys touching overhead.|
People were not meant to live this way. Surviving this way with no glimmer of hope, in a place that is narrow, dark, damp, musty and above all, absolutely overcrowded. I’ve written about this particular camp before.
Shatila was never intended to be a camp, and it was never intended to house over 10,000 people. But there they live, and they do not have any other place to go to, so they really live on top of each other. There is no sign that says “Welcome to Shatila’, there is no fence or gate to indicate you have entered. It is one very poor neighborhood blending into another. One is filled with poor Lebanese, the next one with poor Palestinians. And even those blend.
There are some roads in Shatila that will allow cars to pass through, but the majority of the infrastructure consists of narrow alleyways, crooked, like a labyrinth. It is dim, because sunlight does not reach that deep, and the wind does not blow here either. There is a stale smell of humans, refuse and food. Most of the alleyways are less than a meter wide. On both sides iron doors in the wall give access to dark rooms, where people sit on white plastic garden chairs and sleep on mattresses on the floor. I am not making this up, I’ve just come from there. You feel like in a time machine; like you are walking through a medieval town. The Middle Ages revisited. They wouldn’t be able to produce a more authentic set in Hollywood than this one.
|Peas and carrots with rice is on the menu today at Um Younes's house|
And yet, after the initial distrust, after all, what on Earth could 3 female foreigners possible want with their food, things got going. We were taken on a tour through the entire camp, in search for women who could enlighten us on traditional Palestinian dishes, and the recipes that creates them. It took some time before figuring out who to look for. It had to be ladies that still remembered Palestine, and were cooking already when in Palestine. That proved to be impossible. We’re at a fourth generation of Palestinians in this country now. If you’re looking at ladies who had been cooking in Palestine, they would now be in their advanced nineties. With the conditions they live in, that’s turned out to be impossible. The ladies we found all were taught by their mothers while in the camp.
|This is a game I used to play at school in recess|
And over time, the two kitchens, the Lebanese and Palestinian, have fused. Or rather, the Palestinian kitchen here has been infiltrated by the Lebanese. There isn’t much difference when it comes to ingredients to start with. This is logical of course, as you work with the products that are available. And so it was a search for regional differences, little ways of preparing a dish differently.
In the end, we sat in heated discussion, between women and men equally, on how a certain dish had to be prepared, and whether that was the Palestinian, Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian or Ottoman way. This region is all about fusion.
|No cars in the camp, just scooters.|
And then, when you look around in their houses, 3 small rooms at the most, to an entire family, or walk through the narrow alleyways, no sunlight, no breeze, electricity wires and laundry lines hanging overhead, and remember the history of this partciular camp (who does not remember Sabra & Shatila?), you wonder; how come they are so nice to us? Why are we being received so warmly and with open arms? Why would this guy, on his day off, go through all this effort to drag us all around this camp, and help us with our search to the authentic Palestinian Disapora cuisine? Why would they bother? Are they going to benefit from this cookbook? Are they even going to benefit from answering us one single question? Yet they went out of their way to enable us to do our work. For which we get paid, and they don’t.
The only thing I can hope for is that, with more publicity regarding the situation they’re in, somehow, little by little, more people will feel inclined to think of their side of the coin, rather than only the Israeli one (for Europeans and Americans, that is), and then maybe, maybe, one day, when Obama makes a statement like ‘ back to the borders of 1967’, people (again, Europeans and Americans) will think, ‘Of course. What other way would there be?’ And then once we have reached that point, we can start lobbying for the Right of Return.
PS. What dish did we come out with as being purely Palestinian? Makloub. Prepared especially on feats days, often by the men.