Handala and Harry Potter

Over Winter Break, my children started to read Harry Potter. A fan myself, my heart was swelling with joy and pride. Eight years old and holding their books, sometimes to the light of a mobile phone to read, I was thrilled that they have discovered the joy of reading, the escape into a good book’s pages. And Harry, Hermoine and Ron were good characters to fall in love with, or at least that is what I thought.

I would take Hermoine over any Disney princess, any day. Knowledgeable, well read, knows her way around any library, intelligent and inquisitive. Hermoine never really needed anyone to help her, she never batted her eyelashes to get Ron or Harry to do anything for her. So, yes, I was thrilled, that we were out of the princess and prince woods and into the Harry Potter world.

And yes of course I prefer Harry and Ron over any Disney prince, from Prince Charming who went on his good looks and toothy smile to sleeping beauty’s prince, who apparently kissed girls in their sleep, without their consent one would assume (imagine if sleeping beauty got up and slapped him…that would have been funny)

Ron’s humility, his sense of humor, his loyalty and his arachnophobia make him approachable and believable. He is a character with so much humanity that one cannot help but love him. He tells a human story of friendship. For children, making friends is their first experience in building relationships, and creating their own social space where they grow, learn, experiment and express themselves. And Ron does exactly that, out of a very ordinary family (nothing ordinary about Mrs. Weasley’s kitchen, yet still apart from the magic, the Weasley’s are a hardworking middle class, maybe lower middle class family), Ron makes friends, and brings values like honesty and loyalty to life.

And there is Harry, rising from the ashes of tragedy, with a good heart, despite all the evil he has seen. Harry was no different than many children across the world today. Losing his parents in a war, turning into a refugee as a baby; sent to live in a cellar underneath the stairs; mistreated by those who claimed to be family, but adamantly refused to treat him as their own. Judged for who he is and where he came from, I couldn’t help but think of all the refugee children who met the same fate Harry had. The interconnections between the two stories stared back at me, and there was one child, one particular refugee child that kept popping in my head…his hands clasped behind his back, his patched shirt, his bare feet vividly dancing in front of my face, a black and white outline of a character, Handala…

Without any magic, or a Dumbeldore to look after him, Handala is practically on his own, he was and remains ten (maybe 11) years old. Having lost everything, Handala does not grow up; over the years and decades he remains a child..His face turned away from the world, his hands clasped behind his back, he patiently waits to return home. On the walls of refugee camps spray painted, he waits. He swings helplessly from silver key chains, his back still turned to the world, he faithfully waits. On the chests of young women he hangs from necklaces nestled under warm scarves wrapped artfully around their necks, or heads; he rests listening to their heartbeats and he tirelessly waits. Shared as an animation, or printed in white and black in newspaper cartoons, Handala never shows us his face; all he does us wait. One wonders if beyond the turned back there are tears; or a patient smile, or a sarcastic look…Or maybe he is angry?

Handala is no different than Harry. And if they ever met, maybe they would become friends? Harry would teach him how to swing a wand (Hermoine would be the one to teach him different spells though, especially the complicated ones); or how to use the Pensieve to collect memories. Or they might been perfectly content eating chocolate frogs, and vanilla wafers, on the Hogwarts Express laughing and talking. Harry’s scar would match Handala’s scratched marks. Handala would share a citrusy orange, while telling Harry how much he wishes to see his home again. Harry would swoop Handala on a quick trip over Palestine. They may be mistaken for a handmade drone, and may have to escape the iron dome missiles quickly, but Harry would handle the situation and disapparate them back to the train cart safely.

They would argue over which is the more interesting game Quidditch or Football (the real football, i.e. soccer). The argument would be heated, Harry would claim that football is boring; no one gets to fly, there is only one ball, and it rarely leaves the grass. Handala would defend football, and argue that quidditch cannot be played anywhere anytime, but football is not constrained to the field and the match. All you need is a ball, two stones as your goal post and children who want to play. In fact the most beautiful football is played on the streets with makeshift balls and very loud children. However, Handala would marvel at the opportunity to fly freely to the highest of altitudes on a broomstick. Both children would agree that Quidditch and soccer are far better than American football, and would joke at the weird shaped ball and the grunting player faces. They would laugh and quickly turn to eat more chocolate.

Harry’s scar would burn, Handala’s shadowy scratches would tingle, and they would become fast friends. Harry would smile, Handala would stand with his hands clasped, his face staring out the window, and would secretly smile. Harry wouldn’t see Handala’s face, and being a wizard, having met all kinds of magical creatures, he wouldn’t mind.

Handala would think Harry is a magical hero, but it is Harry, in his humility and kindness who is quick to recognize that it is Handala who is magical and heroic. Muggle born, with no supernatural powers, no wand, no magic, Handala is just as mysterious, just as enamoring, and just as heroic; his power is patience and perseverance…

Everyone knows Harry Potter’s happy ending, but we still wait for Handala’s happy ending to come. We can only hope it would be as magically just as Harry’s

In the meantime, I stand in my kitchen baking ginger bread cookies in the shape of Handala; I decorate them and bring them to life on my kitchen counter. The kids are curious…they ask questions, the conversation takes on all kinds of shapes, they want to know what will happen next to Handala, they want to read on about Harry (although they know the ending too well), we talk, we dream, we imagine what Handala’s face might look like. We agree that the only happy ending is for Handala to return home…

As I sit down to write this, they read over my shoulder; and as the questions continue , my heart fills with hope.


Metamorphosis II: Dear Motherhood

After one year of giving birth, I sat in a cafe frantically writing this letter to motherhood, before picking up the twins form day care. I read this now and recognize how paramount that year was, and how thankful I am that i became a mother.

I survived…One year later, and I am still alive. I do not sleep, I do not eat, and washing my hair is a luxury, but I made it and I may have turned into a better person.  I have two tiny people that remind me daily that life is sweet and short, much like a mini Mars bar, just when you start enjoying it, it ends.

 As my day starts and my level of stress shoots to star high levels, the piled undone laundry starts to develop an attitude, and the unprepared lecture notes start to guilt trip me into wondering what kind of person I have become.  What happened to the talented, smart, intelligent, career oriented, size 8 wearing, 15 km running woman I once was? And just as the sight of a morning jogger starts to pinch my heart and bring severe awareness to my protruding belly, and my wide hips, and just as my colleague writes me a long email passive aggressively reprimanding me for missing yet another academic committee meeting, and just as I race out of campus only to be stopped at Qalandia…for hours; just as the world starts to cave in, these tiny feet, and tiny teeth, and innocent eyes that gather the most beautiful expressions a human face can gather remind me that I am no longer who I once was, that I have irreversibly changed.  I may have been the career oriented, size 8 wearing, 15 km running woman, but back then I was only a caterpillar slowly swallowing everything in front of me, unable to ever feel full or satisfied.  I did not know back then, just like a caterpillar does not know that we were both only fulfilling our destiny. That soon we will emerge out of cocoons, butterflies with wings to carry us as far away as possible from everything that is mundane, to the honey centers of jasmine and rose. My soul has wings now, and it sores beyond all that is daily and boring.  It can see the bigger picture even when my children are sick, and I am on my way to yet another doctor’s appointment in the middle of a thunderstorm.  

A student of mine approached me cautiously a few weeks ago; she said that I made her cry last year.  She was terrified of taking a course with me, but was pleasantly surprised when she finally did.  “You changed, professor, you are not as difficult as you used to be,” she confessed.  I was not sure what to do, should I be embarrassed for what I once was?  Or should I be happy that I have changed.  My students have always known me to be tough, but never was the intention to make anyone cry.  She said that I still held them at very high expectations, but that I was gentler and more compassionate. I wanted to hug my student so hard and tell her that motherhood changes everything. It softens the heart, and awakens the conscience, and opens up the brain to fresh air.  It rewires all emotional, biochemical and hormonal pathways, and the end result is a new human being.  The caterpillar undergoes major biochemical and physiological changes too, it grows wings, legs, and tentacles; its body becomes skinnier and lighter to fly away. As it emerges out of its cocoon, it is changed forever. And I have emerged out of my cocoon.   

Yes, there are days when I cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I do wake up feeling much like Gregor Samsa did, a giant vermin, ugly, frantically trying to gain control over my body and everything else. There are days when I am no longer a butterfly but a ferret running frantically on its wheel and getting nowhere.  A look in the mirror could send me into uncontrollable crying episodes as I lament the dark circles under my eyes, the ungroomed person I have become with milk, egg, and lentil soup stains on almost every piece of clothing. But soon enough Basil’s belly laugh comes rolling into my ear and rudely interrupts my self-pity. Then I snap back and remember that I am neither a ferret nor an ugly giant vermin.  I am a butterfly.  Or Taima’s unlimited babbling that starts at 6 a.m. and does not stop until she falls asleep trustingly in her father’s arms at 8 p.m. swirls around me, and then I am transformed again from self loathing to sweet reality. 

Yes I have cried endlessly this year.  I have cried alone, with the children around, in my car, in my bed, while changing diapers, while cooking dinner, in the kitchen, while grading papers, while reading scientific literature that made no sense at all at 2 a.m. while trying to a make a deadline for an article in This Week in Palestine, while missing mixing body butters and scrubs. I have cried everywhere you can think of as the pressures of life caved in. I cried when Basil could not breathe from his broncholitis and when Taima was rushed to the emergency room on her first birthday. I cried when I missed the Christmas tree lighting in Ramallah, and when I gave my midterms three weeks before finals. I cried when I realized that I have not said one meaningful sentence to Ahmed for months, and when we could not finish a simple conversation because Taima woke up full of tears and vomit, sick again.  I cried when Basil woke up and screamed for two hours every day for the past month. I cried when the only sleep I got where between the hours of 9 p.m. and 11 p.m.  I have cried a lot this year. But (and please underline this but) I have also laughed. It is difficult to say which I did more off crying or laughing, but when I did laugh, it was the kind of laugh that uncoils from the bottom of your tummy and roars through your entire body.  I can say I have experienced pure joy, the kind that only a mother knows. 

As the year ends, and I continue to search for me and find me in between written lines, cooked dinners, decorated Christmas trees, graded or ungraded papers, endless laundry, stolen quiet moments (even if they are in the bathroom),  I just have one request from you dear Motherhood; have mercy on me and Ahmed. Give us the wisdom and strength to raise these children to become better than us.  Give us the strength to raise them lovers of life and humanity, fighters for justice, kind, compassionate, well read, well written, well spoken, strong, very Palestinian individuals who will be able to face life even after we stop to exist.  And give me, personally, the ability to understand that I have forever…morphed. 

Happy New Year!



Welcome to Palestine! A country in waiting!

First Pubished on The Big Olive. And the waiting continues…

Welcome to the land of waiting.  People here are born waiting. Waiting to return to a homeland lost, and from the looks of it, in the most desperate moments, lost forever.  Waiting to return to a home they still carry a key for in their hand and a memory in their heart, an image hidden in the folds of their dreams, that sadly and in the most realistic moments, they know no longer exists.

 In Palestine you wait for Ramadan, just like you wait for a breath of fresh air in a crowded restaurant in NYC, you wait for a  tasree7 (permit),  you wait for the paycheck, or even worse you wait for the job.

You wait for schools to open, for the strike to end, for the checkpoint to be removed, for the accident rubble to be cleared. You wait for the Allenby bridge to empty, you wait for the doctor to finally come in on time.

In Palestine you wait. You wait for your dreams to happen.

You wait to leave the refugee camp, you wait to leave the village, you wait to arrive to Ramallah, you wait for destiny to embrace you, but she really never does.  In fact at the first stop she slaps you hard in the face and leaves her mark, and then you spend a lifetime waiting for that wound to heal. It never does. 

In Palestine you wait to graduate, you wait to find a job, you wait for the next job to be better.

In Palestine you wait to get married, then you wait to have children then you wait for them to grow, then you wait for them to become doctors…trust me they will not.

In Palestine you wait in line endlessly to receive permission to see Palestine that is yours.  And after you finally get a chance to see her, you realize she looks nothing like what your grandparents described, and nothing like the country your mother cries over.  You wait to see her, only to realize, she did not wait for you. 

In Palestine you wait for the birth of a child anxiously with the hope she is not born on a checkpoint.  In Palestine you wait for  the hunger strike to end.  You wait for sons and daughters to be released from prison, only to be rearrested again, at the next checkpoint on the next trip, on their way to find a job and start a life.

In Palestine you wait for your paycheck only to have it hijacked by hungry loan payments and red hot gasoline prices. 

In Palestine , you wait endlessly in Qalandia to get home.  Keep waiting…this might take hours. . 

You wait for the summer to end in the hopes that winter will bring more peace, and you wait for winter to end in the hopes that summer will bring more warmth. 

And in Palestine you wait  for the next eruption, the next intifada, the next incursion, the next war…And that always happens


On Running

First published: 2012 on The Big Olive. The truth is, although I gave up running and replaced it with yoga, I never stopped being a runner.

Dedicated to all women runners.  Actually to all women out there who seem to always be running to something or from something. Here is to running towards your dreams and not away from your fears…

The road does not ask questions. It does not care if she is wearing hijab, or shorts. The road does not judge if she runs fast or walks slow. It is not bothered by her earphones or her choice of music.  It does not label her as liberal or  conservative.  It does not question her ethics based on her hair color or her clothes.  The road never wonders what she does for a living, or how many children she has. It does not ask  about her age, or when will she get married. It does not encourage her to get married young or old.

The road is present every day, she can go to it at her leisure. The road curls around her village, her town, her neighborhood or around her house; it offers her solace from the noise that is her life.  The road will not beat her, it will not put her down. It will not judge her for being Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, or Hindu for that matter.  It will not ask her if her shoes are expensive or cheap.  The road will not stop her from pursuing her dream, it will not pull her out of school and marry her off to a man triple her age.  The road is there for her to run on it, to free her mind, to rest her soul from all that is ugly, all that is violent.  The road will not rape her, or rob her of her innocence.  It will not leave bruises all over her body. It will not promise to love her only to control her.  The road with its dark asphalt, its sharp turns and soft hills, will offer her a good morning summer breeze or a good evening winter chill.  The road does not care  if she gave birth naturally or if she even opted for a C-section. The road will not ask her how many months did she breast feed and then judge her  motherhood based on that.  It will not label her too skinny, too fat, too dark or too light. 

The road will not ask why her dress is too short, or her skirt is too long.  It will give her space to think, because she can think. It will give her a place to feel because she can feel.  The road will not debate with her whether she has the right to open bank accounts for her children, or if she can remarry if the love of her life died. The road does not care if she was single, married, divorced, widowed or none of the above.  The road will not promise to love her, marry her, father her children and then slaughter her over a custody battle.  It will not throw her in a well for a crime she did not commit.  It will not kill her because she is a woman.

The road will never question her honor, and it will not kill her in the name of honor.  The road is there for her to stand, demonstrate, RUN, walk, play, laugh, scream.  And sometimes the road is there for her to get away or at least try to get away, so the next time you see a woman running frantically, if you are not ready to propel her to what she is running towards or protects her from whatever she is running away from, just make way so she can at least get away…


To Paris: A letter to the Jaba Checkpoint Soldier

Back when I was commuting between Abu Dis and Ramallah daily, and most especially when I was pregnant with twins and my belly was doing all the driving, I was stopped on my way home every day to be on the Jaba Checkpoint and asked where I was going… Everyday I had to fight the urge to say Paris!

Dear Jabaa’ Checkpoint Soldier

                I am going to Ramallah. I will always be going to Ramallah when I pass you.  Day in day out, that will always be my destination.  Where else could I be going in my Palestinian plates car and Palestinian ID passing through your precious little checkpoint? Paris, mathalan [for example] ? For the thousandth time, I do not speak Hebrew.   No, I do not carry any fancy foreign passport.  Yes,  I speak English fluently, because I am smart, I worked hard, and instead of spending my teenage years learning how to use a gun, I spent them holed up in my room, reading books and learning how to use my pen.

Much to your surprise,  I am a professor of chemistry, of all subjects.  Please collect your jaw off the floor.  I spent eleven years studying abroad, in the United states to be exact.  I did not consider remaining there, and I did not apply for a green card. The only green card I carry is my Palestinian I.D. It does not grant me any privileges, in fact it has sometimes deprived me of  basic rights, like the freedom of movement in my own country.  But I hang on to it dearly, and  will not replace it with the “good” green card, as you so eloquently put it. Where is that accent of yours from? Russia? Is that why you came to “Israel”, looking for the equivalent of a”good” green card? 

Don’t you get tired of stopping my car every day? Isn’t it a bit monotonous to be asking me the same question? “Where are you going? Lawain?” Every day I have to discipline my urge to get  lippy with you .  I have to stop the words from throwing themselves at you and then exploding in your face (no pun intended, or maybe it is).  What I really want to say in response to your ridiculous question: To Paris!! I am going to Paris!!  Through your checkpoint I hope the world will receive me with wide strong arms. I hope it will cradle my dreams and handle them with care, and that it will not crush them like you have managed to do with the hopes and dreams of all Palestinians in the past present and many generations to come.  To Paris, so I can have creamy butter croissant, and good coffee early in the morning, and fine aged wine with my deliciously fresh salad in the evening. To Paris, so I can attend contemporary dance festivals  and poetry readings. So I can walk in open air markets.   To Paris, so I can meet smart educated people, and have endless philosophical discussions filled with rhetorical questions pondering the state of the world.  To Paris, so I can sit on my window sill and yearn for better times at home.  So I can live and breathe everything Palestinian like it was the last breath after a long struggle with a terminal illness.  To Paris, so I can never forget your checkpoint and the long boring humiliating unnecessary delays, so I can carry the cries of a pregnant woman giving birth at your checkpoint in the creases of my wrinkled dress, and the endless spaces of my soul. To Paris, so I can tell the world about my students sitting on the ground, shirtless, handcuffed for one reason and one reason only…they don’t carry the “good” green card.  So I can write countless blog entries about men, women and children who were once trying to get somewhere but never did because of your checkpoint.  To Paris, so I can write about Palestine like a distant land that inhabits the warmest chambers of one’s heart, so close yet so unattainable.

But wait just a second!  I do that already, all day every day right here, just twenty minutes beyond your checkpoint in a tiny little town called Ramallah. So NO of course I am not going to Paris, I am still going to Ramallah.  And I still yearn for Palestine and better times, every day, all day.

Please wipe that shocked look off your face.  Release the grip on your gun. And relax the angles of your mouth, it appears that you are smiling, or maybe just smirking.  I am not an untamed animal trying to escape my cage, I do not have a tail growing out of my behind. This is not a zoo.  I am a woman, and to your grave disappointment you and I belong to the same species. We are both Homo sapiens, a.k.a  humans.  Contemplate THAT  while you wait to harass the next car passing through your precious checkpoint.  In the meantime, I am still going to Ramallah!!!

Not So Sincerely,

An Educated Palestinian Woman ( possibly your worst and your government’s worst nightmare and Palestine’s best potential) 


A Note on Writing

First Published on The Big Olive. Was dedicated to my students in AbuDis, and is dedicated today to all my TOK students writing their essays and asking for more time…

I found me-happy liberated soulful me- in sentences and punctuation. I found fresh air in paragraphs with long descriptive adjectives, loaded with sarcasm once and emotional flourish other times.  I found happy unhindered me lost between question marks and exclamation points.  I found ME in writing.  Writing was an old hobby that was pushed away with structures, reactions and jarring scientific literature.  But thankfully, gratefully, writing found me and saved me.

I write out of this quiet space, in the wee hours of the morning, when my mind is still quiet, and the sounds of life, the noise I should say, has not awakened into chaos.  It happens just before the coffee aroma takes over the kitchen, and movement takes over my day.  It happens away from the road, Abu Dis, the twins, and far away from Ramallah.  My thoughts breathe steadily, and the rhythm of it all takes shape.  My chest tickles as the words pour uncontrollably on my screen, and my spirit battles with my very scientific mind that wants to correct every sentence and spell every word correctly on the first try.  And then it all takes a life of its own, and I no longer can control what is it I am trying to write. I often sit down inspired by many things, Qalandia, the chaos on campus, the wide eyed students coming to terms with their intellectual ability, my children’s smile.  I sit in front of my screen intending to take this inspiration for a specific ride with very defined parameters, but rarely do I ever accomplish this goal.  Writing shapes itself, thoughts come out of their hidden compartments and find refuge on paper.  Sentences huddle together to make paragraphs and paragraphs slowly gel to tell a story.  Deep in my brain, feelings dislodge themselves from their shelves and slowly undulate towards my fingers to take their rightful place on paper.  As I sit and write, I slowly sink into my inner soul, and  find an inner peace that  is not of any other place.  The silence deepens, the writing quickens, my breath steadies a cool energy like a fresh Fall breeze uncoils like a serpent  from the  bottom of my spine and rises up towards the center of my brain, and sssshhhhhh there it is…divine silence just breath. Breathe in…breathe out….

The sounds of life stirring on the street scare away my thoughts, and my meditative state slowly coils back into my tail bone. My thoughts and feelings scurry back into their compartments and shelves deep in my brain, and my soulful moment abruptly ends as life takes over again…the coffee is ready, the babies are crying, Abu Dis awaits, and the day has begun.  I take comfort in the hope that I get to feel this again soon, in the quietness of another morning  and the details of another piece.

 Writing has made me whole, writing has made me more human, more motherly.  I found happy peaceful ME in between comas and exclamation points. Writing for my soul is running for my body.  It has shed the extra weight of unwanted thoughts, negative ugly feelings, and left my soulful self to explore and become a better mother, wife, lover, daughter and most important of all, as one of my students put it, a better teacher and human being.


The Splendid Palestinian Table

This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of This Week in Palestine (www.thisweekinpalestine.com) 

By Riyam Kafri AbuLaban

When children are asked to name things that they love about their mothers, food is one of the most reoccurring items on their lists. They will tell you that they love her laser-beam eyes that seem to find lost toys and detect lies before they even make their way to their mouths. Answers will vary from one child to another, but generally children will cite their mother’s food as one of the things they love about her. Food’s emotional fingerprint is stamped into our memory and emotions at a very young age. Nothing tastes like mom’s food, but more importantly nothing feels like it. As we age, we pursue cooking to replicate those dishes in the hopes of reviving childhood memories and all the feelings that come with them, and in the hopes that we can create similar experiences for our own children. Food is, therefore, not just sustenance, and our journeys into our kitchens are not only a daily chore to put food on our family tables, but rather a deliberate, creative process in which memories, love, belonging, loss, celebration, and a sense of identity are created and engrained for both those of us who cook and those who eat.


Food is culture and not a simple hedonistic pleasure that lasts for the duration of a meal. If it were just that, then food memoires and food writing wouldn’t be among the most popular types of literature. I remember the first time I came to realize the power of food for me. I was in my second year of college in the United States and was considerably homesick. I went to the kitchen to make tabbouleh and stuffed eggplants for myself and friends coming over for dinner, and it was as if I were transposed back in time to my mother’s kitchen. As I recreated those two dishes, I was guided by my intuition, my visual memory, and my muscle memory as I felt my way around the kitchen and carved the eggplants, chopped the parsley, soaked the bourghul, and juiced the lemons. And when the food hit my tongue, my taste memory took me back to my mother’s kitchen again. The experience was powerful, but I am not sure it cured me of my homesickness; it perhaps made it even worse.

Food and cuisine are deeply engrained into our psyche, and it is no wonder that when someone tries to steal it, or claim it, or “appropriate” it as their own, our stomachs turn, quite literally and figuratively. The first time I stood in the grocery store holding in my hand a container of “Israeli hummus” nearly 22 years ago, I had to reconcile my feelings of homesickness, hunger, craving for food from home, and the fact that thehummus I knew was not Israeli. For me it was Palestinian, made with Nabulsi tahini, lemons from Tulkarem, and garbanzo beans dried by some old Palestinian woman in a nearby village, and rehydrated and cooked for hours by my mother. It made an appearance on our Friday breakfast table. And it was eat-it-by-the-spoon delicious, just ask my sister who until the age of five insisted on eating it with a spoon, she loved it so much. Little did I know (back then when I was a child) that 20-some years later, I would stand in the grocery store trying to convince myself not to buy the “Israeli hummus” and reach for the peanut butter instead, because deep down in my stomach, something turned, telling me that this would only culminate in a series of encounters with Israeli knafeh(a sweet made with cheese and pastry, soaked in sugar), falafel, sahlab(a starchy hot drink enjoyed mostly in winter), shakshouka(sautéed tomatoes with onions and sunny-side-up eggs), makloubeh(a dish with rice and fried cauliflower, eggplant, and potatoes), shawerma (a sandwich with shreds of meat, salad, and tahini sauce), and more, as I became more interested in food and cooking.


I most certainly do not want to spiral into a conversation of my hummus, your hummus. The conversation on hummus these days seems to take over much of the food-writing scene, including articles in peer-reviewed academic journals such as Gastronomica (published by the University of California Press) and mainstream media outlets such as The Guardian. Conversations on Middle Eastern cuisine must continue to be sophisticated and not trivialized. They rather need to remain cultured and complex, much like the subject matter that is multi-layered and diverse in its stories and history. On the other hand, this conversation is very personal and intimate. Who we are today and how we eat is largely shaped by the food presented to us as children. So, although conversations on hummus may seem redundant, we need not degrade them into “Hummus Wars” as if they were some reality show on the Food Network. Neither can they be settled by a scholarly declaration of “Our Hummus,” as if to please two feuding sides into a deceiving claim of co-existence.

It isn’t the claim to the food that bothers me, per se, because we Palestinians are aware that our claim to hummus isn’t an exclusive one but rather part of a mosaic of Middle Eastern and Levant cuisine. It is the underlying message and attempt to erase Palestinian and Arab claim to these dishes that is infuriating. “The controversy about Israel’s appropriation of Palestinian food has nothing to do with Jews eating Arabic food, but rather with a systematic approach to disappear Palestinians in all their details.” (Steven Salaita) It would be trivial and immature not to recognize that Arab Jews did exist and that they cooked and ate the cuisines of the countries and regions they lived in. But to attribute without the slightest recognition those dishes to Israel is nothing short of blatant, outright theft. Forget appropriation and call it exactly what it is, theft.

Palestinians recognize that their cuisine is part of a broader regional cuisine. What the world needs to recognize is that this region is the cradle of all civilizations, and the land of Mesopotamia cooked different versions of dishes now pictured on Instagram and Twitter and dubbed “Israeli” long before Israel ever existed as a political entity.

I am aware that people are agitated when talking about culture and food appropriation. That is not appropriation, they might claim, it is fusion. But what we have here is not cuisine fusion, because fusion, much like interdisciplinary approaches in education, may very well be asymmetrical, where one cuisine contributes more to the fusion dish than the other. However, both cuisines are properly recognized, respected, and celebrated. While fusion is a celebration of cultures coming together, food appropriation and theft occur when one culture simply steals the food of another without any recognition of the existence of the other.

Palestinians do not eat food only to survive. Our cuisine is a product of a long-standing relationship with our land: mahashi(vegetables, mostly zucchini and eggplant, stuffed with rice and minced meat) are enjoyed in the winter to warm your heart and give you energy; watery spinach, rich in iron, is just what you need at the end of a cold day; khobbaizeh(malva parviflora) grows abundantly in late winter/early spring and is full of vitamins and nutrients needed to revitalize us after the cold season. And in the spring, there is fool akhdar biz-zeit(green beans with olive oil) and za’atar akhdar(“green,” i.e., fresh thyme) for salads and salty pastries. The intrinsic connection we have with our land brings to our table colorful dishes and into our kitchens and cuisine intricate techniques of preparation and preservation: kneading, baking, stuffing, rolling, drying, pickling, and much more. Our food is a representation of the villages we lived in, the land we farmed, the olives we harvested, the weddings we danced in, and the funerals we walked in. Dishes connected to destroyed villages still make their way to our tables as we cook to remember a lost land and threatened existence.

For Palestinians forced out of their land in 1948, food is in the past tense, only to be brought into the present when dishes from their villages are made today to bring back a glimpse of the colorful squash, herbs, and crops of village life. For those who live in Gaza, food in the refugee camp is unwholesome, an unfinished puzzle with pieces missing.

So when The New York Timesclaims that Israeli sahlabis the new latte, or when international food bloggers visiting Jerusalem claim that they enjoyed Israeli delicacies in the Old City and post pictures of themselves with Abu Mohammad making halawehin the background, our stomachs will turn in pain and rejection. It is quite ironic that as Rachel Ray tweeted colorful photos of “Israeli mezza” that featured baba ghanoush(eggplant dip), hummus, and tabbouleh just a few days before Christmas, Christian Palestinians were making that exact same mezza for Christmas Eve. To claim that this mezza is exclusively Israeli is no different from white American churches hanging photos of a blond, blue-eyed Jesus Christ. That is not appropriation, whether intentional or not; those who do it are participating in the theft and disappearance of a culture.

In recent years, Palestinian food enthusiasts, bloggers, writers, artists, and anthropologists have started to gain momentum. Laila El-Haddad, Rula Bishara, Joudie Kalla, and many more food enthusiasts are making a splash on the food-culture scene and are reclaiming Palestinian dishes with superb recipes and riveting family stories. If you ask most of them, they would tell you that they write to keep a record for themselves, that their books began mainly as memories they wanted to preserve. Many of these writers reside outside Palestine.

I think the challenge of being a food writer in Palestine is quite obvious. How can we write about food and the richness of our cuisine when we are surrounded in every direction by land confiscation, child prisoners, unemployment, and poverty? How can we talk about food when hunger strikes are on and off in Israeli prisons? I myself haven’t reconciled this jarring difference, but I know that if we do not move to make our presence known on the food-culture scene, we will continue to watch our favorite childhood dishes be hijacked. Perhaps if we continue to cook together, always connecting our dishes to the land we came from, it stops being food-writing for the sake of pleasure but rather a conversation on identity and existence.

A new project called Palestine’s Hosting Society began last August by the artist Mirna Bamieh. The collective has several projects from food tours to family dinners to restaurant takeovers where Palestinian ingredients are reimagined in fusion dishes and restaurant cuisine. It is dynamic as more people join and reinvent and rejuvenate the collective so that it may tell a broader story. The family dinner project documents the food traditions of Palestinian families as people cook and invite others to their dinners, and tables become a space to explore food and hospitality politics, share experiences, and reconstruct people’s relationship with food, place, and space. In Haifa, Suzan Matar, hosted a dinner with the theme Min Moonet Sitti(From My Mother’s Pantry), where she featured dishes made from the typical Middle Eastern pantry with things like sun-dried tomatoes, homemade maftool(hand-rolled tiny pasta pearls), pickled vegetables, and home-dried labaneh(strained yoghurt). While her grandmother is Lebanese, those items and techniques are staples in any of our kitchens. More projects like this one are needed as Palestinians living in Palestine reclaim their dinner tables and with them, their connection to their lands. Another family dinner featured the Gazan kitchen with such dishes as rummanieh, originally from Yafa, which became part of the Gazan kitchen as refugees brought it with them. Rummaniehhas now been nearly forgotten in Yafa, but that night people were able to rediscover Gaza through the smells and tastes of the dishes served. (www.palestinehostingsociety.com)

Our struggle is uphill; dishes we have known and loved since our childhood will continue to be claimed as Israeli. Musakhan(glazed onions served on a special bread with chicken, roasted pine nuts, and freshly pressed olive oil, spiced with sumac and allspice) will most probably be appropriated as holiday food in Israel, and knafehwill take different shapes and forms as its theft continues. As you dip your bread into yet another “Israeli dip” and tweet pictures of it from the heart of Ramallah, Nablus, or Jerusalem, I hope you taste in the ripples of the olive oil the confiscated groves and their burnt trees, I pray you feel the dispossession that afflicts Palestine and Palestinians, but also their resilient spirit and determination to continue to exist.


A Letter To Motherhood

This is an entry from my old blog The Big Olive: The Tales of Two Professors . I wrote a letter to motherhood during my first few months. We assume that one turns into a wife/husband the moment they get married, and then turn to a parent the moment a child is placed into our arms. Truth is I am still learning to be a mother, and I am not even sure I am good at it, there are days when I think, yup this is it, if I am going to fail at anything it is definitely parenting. Without further delay, here is the Letter to Motherhood

Dear Motherhood;

Hello. I don’t suppose you recognize my voice. In fact I am quite sure you are stunned at my audacity in contacting you so early in the game. After all it has only been four months since I joined your fearless frontlines, but if you could, just for a few minutes, listen to me, I would be forever grateful…Moherhood, you are kicking my butt, any chance you can ease up on me? I know the request is quite funny. I can only imagine your graceful, beautiful goddess self-you know the kind that glides not walks- having a hearty laugh over this rooky’s plea, my very not so graceful, disheveled, not showered for days, spit up filled shirt wearing self. I should probably not ask or pray for easier days. I should just be surprised and thankful when they do happen. Right? After all I have the toughest job in the world-I am a mother (maybe if I stand in front of the mirror, and repeat it over and over it will sink deeper into my brain, oh don’t worry my heart has no problems with it, it was sold on this new title on the first day; it is the practical part that wants everything systemized that gets challenged every now and then.)

Please know that it is not the obvious big sacrifices that are so painful to make. It certainly is not the I will become a stay at home mom for the coming seven months and give up the promotion of my life sacrifice. And it certainly is not I will choose a different career path to accommodate my new post in life-Mother. Those are obvious and come to me as second nature. It is the I will sacrifice my shower to feed my child and risk everyone avoiding me at Friday morning brunch, because I STINK. Or I will give up sleep, until the babies sleep, and risk becoming legally insane. Or I will give up an hour of rest to cook dinner early so I can feed the babies, put them to bed and have one uninterrupted meal (that NEVER works by the way). Or I will sacrifice eating altogether so I can change the babies and get them ready for their doctor’s appointment, only to arrive LATE yet again…And the list goes on..

I am sure you are in stitches over this letter and wonder why anyone would bother telling you any of this. Actually I am almost ashamed to be saying these things outloud. But I am sure that every new mother has thought about these things and was too afraid to admit them. So forgive me for asking again, can you please go easy on me, and other mothers like me. I ask you to please remember that just a few months ago, we were carefree, sometimes careless individuals who could have not fathomed holding a life in their hands. And by the way can you please ask other more trained soldiers in your frontline to stop telling the biggest white lie known to human beings? It does not get easier after the first three months. I KNOW, by now, that the shit has yet to hit the fan (excuse my French, I should probably learn new vocabulary now that I am raising children), that once those little feet hit the ground, they will hit them running and that is most certainly accompanied by cyclones of chaos, toys, and long hours of baby tv. But I am also SURE that with these tiny cyclones of madness come hurricanes of contagious laughter that can melt icebergs, and floods of excitement for the countless firsts, and endless days trips, play dates, and lunch dates with Teta, Khalto and Amto (grandma, mother’s sister, and father’s sister). I understand that the happiness that has come my way will only get bigger, louder and better…and the challenges will also get bigger, louder and harder…

Motherhood, I fully realize that my daily sacrifices seem trivial in the face of world hunger and the many starving children that do not have neither breast milk nor formula, so forgive me for my selfishness. I am also aware that given the country I live in, I am so lucky for the plethora of bounty we have, and that unlike most mothers who live elsewhere I don’t need an Oprah special to remind me of poverty, hunger, apartheid, oppression and suffering as it resides just a couple of streets away. I am fully aware of all my fellow mothers whose children are sick, or imprisoned or injured. And I KNOW that it is only a stroke of blessed fate that my children were born into this family where they will find endless nurture, love, and colorful childhood memories to cheer up an entire nation. Please know that I am thankful for the plenty of everything…

But, I still cannot help but want to ask for your help. If you could just grant me the grace, the intelligence, the patience, the compassion, the strength and most important the health to live it all, the bravery and the courage to admit not to always enjoy it all and the long life to look back and smile at it all, for me, my husband and our tiny village of loved ones helping us through it all. That is all I ask. See, quite simple isn’t it?

Thank you for entertaining my words and taking the time to listen. I think I am done for now…Oh no, rest assured you will be hearing from me again…very soon. Oh and one more thing, before I let you go, since it is mother’s day here, and I really want to bake a cake for my mother, is it too much to ask for an easy day today? Thank you, Motherhood. Talk to you soon.



Lentil Sweet Potato Soup

Lentil soup is a staple in Palestinian cuisine, this recipe brings together my Palestinian self an my sweet potato loving southern self together.


3 medium to large sweet potatoes cubed

2 medium to large regular potatoes cubed

1 large onion chopped

2 cups lentil

A piece of ginger (2 inches long)

1 cube chicken bullion in 2 L of boiled water (you can use chicken broth)

1 Tbsp Butter

Salt to taste


  1. Heat your sauce pan and add the butter to melt

2. Add the chopped onions and saute until they become clear

3. Add the sweet and regular cubed potatoes and sprinkle with salt

4. Stir around a bit then lower the heat and cover the pot for a minutes allowing the potatoes to steam cook and become tender

5. Add the washed lentils stir a bit

6. Add the water and chicken bullion, bring to a roaring boil then let simmer until everything is cooked (around 30 mi)

7. Turn the heat off, allow soup to cool, then pure using a blender

8. Pour the pured soup in a pot and warm before serving

9. Serve with lemons and a dash of ground cumin.

Orange Cake

Oranges are a Palestinian national treasure, a staple on our tables, and most definitely in our desserts. Orange cake makes an appearance on birthday tables, and with afternoon coffee and tea. We have all grown up eating orange cake, some are made with semolina and drenched with kater (qater) , others made with flour and decorated with a sugar based glaze. The recipe below is adapted from vibrant book of Palestine on a Plate and have been changed in many ways to reflect my style and love for baking and cake decorating. It is one of my attempts to make Palestinian orange cake into a layered cake.


3-4 oranges (depending on size)

115 g butter

115 g olive oil

250 g sugar

6 egg whites

437 g flour

3 Tbsp Baking Powder

5 drops vanilla flavoring or 2 tsp vanilla extract

For the Butter Cream

340 g Butter

680 g powdered sugar sifted

40-60 mL whole milk

2 tsp vanilla extract or 5 drops vanilla flavoring (whatever is available).

Edible Gold Dust for dusting.

To Make The Cake

  1. Boil the three oranges for 30 minutes in turning water, let cool for a while, until you are able to handle them. Then cut up, remove seeds and puree in a food processor.
  2. Sift flour, and measure baking powder.
  3. In a bowl of a stand mixer or using a hand mixer, whip the olive oil and the butter together for a minute, add the sugar and continue whipping until mixture is light and airy. Slowly add the egg whites, and continue whipping at medium speed. The mixture should become more fluffy and soft.
  4. Add baking powder to orange pure and stir, the mixture will start to bubble.
  5. Switch from whisk to paddle attachment on your stand mixer and alternate adding the flour and the orange-baking powder puree. Once all are incorporated, add the vanilla.
  6. Allow the batter to rest while you grease and line three 9 inch round pans. Preheat over to 170 C.
  7. Divide the batter into the three pans, and bake each layer around 16-20 minutes, depending on your oven. Check with a toothpick, if center comes out clean, remove immediately.
  8. Allow to cool, then turn over and remove parchment paper from the bottom.

To Make The Butter Cream:

1. Sift 680 g of powdered sugar.

Place 340 g of butter into the bowl of a stand mixer, using the whisk attachment, beat the butter for a minute. Add the lemon juice and vanilla (if you are adding any) and continue beating. I like to add my flavors to the butter first before adding the sugar.


2. Start adding the sugar 1/4 cup at a time. Please be sure to add slowly and allow the sugar to incorporate so that you continue to have a smooth buttercream and avoid graininess.


3. Halfway through adding the sugar, add 60 mL of room temperature-warm milk. Whisk well then continue to add the sugar.

To Decorate a Regular Cake:

  1. I made a chocolate butter cream along with the vanilla butter cream for the filling, in addition to the ingredients for the butter cream above add 4 Tbsp chocolate powder.
  2. Once the chocolate butter cream is ready, place one layer on the turn table and apply a generous layer of chocolate butter cream, place the second cake, make sure it is level. Here you want to get in there really, and make sure everything is sitting right. Add the final layer.
  3. Add a crumb coat and smooth it out. Refrigerate for thirty minutes.
  4. Add another butter cream layer and smooth out for a final look

For the Crescent Cake:

  1. Carve out the shape of a large Crescent. You can find templates on the internet, just print them in the size that you need and use it to guide your carving. I eyeballed it and it worked well.
  2. Apply crumb coat to the crescent, refrigerate for thirty minutes.
  3. Apply a final coat in the color you prefer, and decorate as you wish. I used star cut out and dusted them edible gold dust to capture the Ramadan Spirit at the time.

Palestinian Coconut Layer Cake

Coconut cake soaked with qater (Sugar Syrup) is a staple in many Palestinian homes and across the Levant: Jordan, Syria and Lebanon to name a few. It is usually made as a one layer cake then served warm or chilled with tea or coffee. Simple, but absolutely delicious. Some versions use semolina, others use flour.

I am presenting today, my own version of coconut cake, which still can very much be made into a one layer cake, or it can be made into a layered cake. I developed this recipe especially for Ahmed (my husband’s) birthday.

What you will find is a meeting of East and West. Middle eastern notes of rose water and lemon, come through and mix with vanilla and creamy butterness in the cake icing…exactly what I want to accomplish when I set out to make this cake


For The Cake:

115 g Butter (room temperature)

115 g Canola oil

300 g sugar

2 tsp vanilla extract

5 drops vanilla flavoring

6 large egg whites (room temperature)

360 mL Yogurt thinned with water

1/4 cup Labaneh

437 g Cake Flour

100-150 g Coconut Shaving

For the Syrup

60 mL Lemon Juice

175 mL Water

175 g Sugar

2 Tsp Rose Water

For the Butter Cream

340 g Butter

60 mL Lemon Juice

40-60 mL whole milk or cream (slightly warm)

680 g Powdered (Icing Sugar)

5 drops vanilla flavoring

10 mL Rose Water

30 mL Lemon Juice

Various gel food coloring.

Edible Gold Dust


For the Cake:

1. Separate egg whites and let stand. Cream oil, butter and sugar until they become light in color and fluffy. Add egg whites gradually and continue to whisk using stand mixer or hand mixer until it becomes white in color and fluffy.





2. In the mean time, sift the flour and baking powder, measure coconut, labaneh, and yogurt and switch from the whisk to the paddle attachment.


3. Start by adding the labaneh. Then alternate the flour, yogurt, and coconut. Make sure that every time you continue to scrap the sides every now and then. Add 2 tsp vanilla extract and 5 drops vanilla falvoring


4. Pre-heat the oven to 180 C while allowing the cake batter to rest. The batter will double in size.

5. Divide the batter into three cake pans greased and lined with parchment paper.


7. Place pan in the oven and take down temperature to 160 C. Bake each layer for 20 minutes watching closely and checking with a toothpick before taking out of the oven. Please do not open your oven door the first 15 minute. Start checking the cake after fifteen minutes. Depending on the heat of your oven, the cake should be ready in twenty minutes or so.

For the Syrup

Mix 125 mL lemon juice with 175 mL water and 150 g sugar. Bring to a gentle boil. Let it simmer until syrup thickens slightly, then remove from the heat.

Add 2 tsp rose water and let the syrup cool for a few minutes, then pour onto baked layers, one layer at a time.

Vanilla, Lemon and Rose Butter Cream

1. Sift 680 g of powdered sugar.

Place 340 g of butter into the bowl of a stand mixer, using the whisk attachment, beat the butter for a minute. Add the lemon juice and continue beating.


2. Start adding the sugar 1/4 cup at a time. Please be sure to add slowly and allow the sugar to incorporate so that you continue to have a smooth buttercream and avoid graininess.


3. Halfway through adding the sugar, add 60 mL of room temperature-warm milk along with vanilla flavoring and rose water

Finish adding the sugar.

4. If you are going to use this butter cream with various colors, divide into different bowls and add the coloring to each separately. I used Turquoise, purple and orange gel color to produce three different colors.

I then created the water color illusion using the three colors.

For a magical touch, I finished the cake with gold dust. See Gallery below!

Cake Decoration

Happy Birthday!
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