Issue No.
104, December 2006 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Beit Reema: Modern Taboon is made of cement - Photo by Ali Qleibo
Photo by Palestine Image Bank
Preparing lentils for traditinal stew
Photo by Ali Qleibo
Photo by Palestine Image Bank
Photo by Palestine Image Bank

Modernity and Authenticity: The Evolution of the Palestinian Kitchen
By Dr. Ali Qleibo

‘Identity’ is a highly elusive, transient, and ephemeral concept. ‘Who Am I’, ‘Where do I come from?’ is a narrative historic reconstruction of the self. On the collective level, the quest for identity is a highly complex discourse composed of an infinite number of cultural elements whose meaning is resolved in the individual subjective consciousness. The referential value of identity is relative and is confined in the diversity of its expressions to a specific point in time and space. On a subjective plane, cultural identity for the native is an experiential representation of the absolute real. The tendency in the native discursive quest for collective identity is to project and establish a sense of continuity between the lived moment and the past to confirm and give legitimacy to the present, which is interpreted as the absolute real.

But this is untrue. The belief that Palestinians have always had similar lifestyles, the same types of houses, or the same culinary traditions is mythological. In fact, the uniformity of present-day Palestinians, especially in the kitchen, is a rather recent modern development. Modern, by the way, does not exclude authenticity. Identity is a by-product of social life; it is a dynamic and environmentally sensitive process. To hold a static view of cultural identity is to expect the Palestinians to live their lives in a cultural heritage museum in order to preserve a nostalgic, romanticized image of an obsolete way of life.

The Palestinian kitchen, one of the most sacrosanct family symbols, has undergone great change. From its traditional spatial exclusion outside the living/sleeping space•almost on a par with the ‘outhouse’•it has moved into the living room as the American dream overwhelmed the Palestinian imagination. The kitchen/living room has become a popular, modernist, contemporary architectural feature of many local homes. This is a far cry from the kitchen of the fifties and sixties, which was relegated to a remote, almost separate part of the house next to the bathroom. Both toilet and kitchen were designated as ‘impure’, and entering and leaving required slipping into special slippers (hence the survival of the hand-wash sink outside the bathroom, a relic of the traditional binary opposition of pure/impure (tahara/najaseh). One could wash his or her hands without entering the bathroom. Returning from the marketplace (impurity) or from a funeral (greater impurity), father had to enter the house through the kitchen door. He would wash his hands in the sink and then proceed to the living space.

Palestinian peasants and Bedouins shared our bourgeois categorical separation of the pure and the impure. Though the ‘kitchen’ was conceived differently, the basic symbolic categories defined the symbolism of the space according to function. Traditionally, the taboon, the peasant oven, was a small, circular construction of rough-hewn stones built in the backyard. There was no specific room where plates were washed, no running water, and no plumbing. Food preparation and kitchen-utensil cleaning were performed in the courtyard of the house. The only space that was used specifically for cooking was the taboon. The small room centres on the oven, whose fuel consisted of dry sheep-droppings. Its size did not exceed two square meters. Bread (khubiz taboon), the daily staple, was baked there. In fact, the taboon may be viewed as a baking oven and is inextricably linked with musakhan, chicken that is baked in olive oil and onions, seasoned with sumac, on taboon bread. An open fire, in the open air under an old, huge tree, served for making the various stews … But nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century peasants did not eat ‘bourgeois’ cuisine.

My first insight into the radical difference between past and present peasant, Bedouin, and bourgeois Palestinian cuisine and the diversity of Palestinian social groups was triggered by the nostalgic memories of my friend Yasmine. Totally Parisian in image, language, and culture, she recalls fondly her early childhood. Ramallah was a small, dusty, poor village. She remembers ‘waiting for that special delicacy, the kebab sandwich, that father [the mukhtar of Ramallah eighty years ago] would bring from the big city. He would return from Jerusalem astride his donkey late in the afternoon, the kebab already cold and stale, but I would eat it with great relish. Meat,’ she added, ‘was reserved for festive occasions, for weddings or special holidays when a lamb would be slaughtered.’ There were neither falafel nor hummos vendors then. Za’tar, olive oil, and olives were in abundance. Everyone baked bread in the taboon in the courtyard of the house.

In Yasmine’s dusty village, the daily meal consisted mainly of stewed vegetables and/or cereals served in one big wooden platter (batieh), into which were dipped morsels of taboon bread. The staples that dominate contemporary Palestinian cuisine, namely, yakhanee (stewed meat with vegetables in various sauces) and mahashee (stuffed vegetables), were typical of bourgeois cuisine and had developed under Turkish influence. The Turkish recipes were passed down through intermarriages between local notables and the Ottoman ruling elites and adapted to local taste. These standard urban staples were relatively unknown in the countryside. Yasmine further explained that in Ramallah, ‘They did not know marmalades or any preserves. These things came with time and money.’ Peasants ate the local produce of the land. The stews were made of lentils, whole-grain wheat (freek), or dried beans that were cooked together with onions, leeks, squash, pumpkin, tomatoes, etc….

The hardship and frugality of life outside the urban centres continued until recently. Abu Hassan and Tafesh, my construction workers twenty years ago, would not eat from our cooked yakhnee fasuliah (stewed beans with meat). It was considered too fatty, and it gave them stomach cramps. Our sweets were similarly shunned. Their teeth would ache after sweets. Instead of our bourgeois cuisine and heavy desserts, they dunked bread into yoghurt with great relish. On the side, they would have fresh cucumbers and tomatoes. Such a meal was constituted as healthy. Our food made them sick!

Modernity implied the dissolving of categories underlying traditional aesthetics. My generation witnessed the homogenization of Palestinian culture and, corollary to that, the nostalgic reminiscences of the way life used to be. Social change in Palestine witnessed the urbanization of the Bedouins and peasants and the standardization of Palestinian cuisine. The process of change rapidly increased following the political and economic upheavals in the second part of the twentieth century. The Nakbeh, the Palestinian Diaspora, the Arabian Gulf, the Americas, and the corollary influx of cash dissolved the traditional, distinctive consumer lifestyles. In the desert, in the countryside, and in the city, every home cooks in the same type of kitchen and every family eats the same food!

The rupture with the traditional way of life and the emergence of the modern national Palestinian identity find their full expression in our kitchens: we all eat the same food prepared in an almost-uniform kitchen. From Khan Yunis, in southern Palestine to Ein al Duke in the Jordan Valley, all Palestinians cook and eat the same food. A contemporary suburban way of life has superseded the three strict cultural systems: Bedouin, peasant, and urban.

The kitchen moved into the house only in the fifties when the houses became bigger and when sleeping rooms became architecturally separate from living rooms. As the standard of living rose, the kitchen was assigned its own architectural space inside the house. My friend, Abd el Latif Bargouthi, explained that even then, his father would tolerate neither kitchen nor bathroom under the same roof in his new home in Kufor Ein, built in the late 1950’s. Both were relegated to a space adjunct to, but outside, the living/sleeping quarters and had their respective separate doorways from outside. In the sixties and seventies, the kitchen and the bathroom moved into the living/sleeping space, but two pairs of special shoes were de rigueur, one for the bathroom and one for the kitchen. By the eighties, the entire binary opposition of pure and impure collapsed. The introduction of the American-style kitchen/living room silently marked the passing of the old world.

This article does not lament the loss of a traditional way of life. Rather, from the ashes of the Nakbeh, the Palestinians, like the phoenix, have resurrected with a new consciousness and a deeper awareness not only of the diversity of their cultural heritage but also of their identity as an aesthetic, personal decision•an act of wilful, pragmatic choice.

As we drive through our mountains, the aroma of the taboon still lingers. In the cool evening breeze at the end of a hot summer day, the smell of the dry sheep-dung has a magical, soothing effect: We are home. The villages have become sprawling suburbs. Satellite antennas sit comfortably on all the villa roofs. Cellular and ground telephones are in every home. Computers and internet services render even the most geographically isolated village connected to the world at large. The smoke of the taboon drifts to impart the new landscape with its inalienable identity: Palestine survives.

The Bedouins have become sedentary. Bedouins have moved into cement houses with modern kitchens. The tents have come to assume a decorative value, a matter of prestige. The tannour, the open fire on which is placed a metal wok-like pan for baking bread, is glimpsed here and there. Animal husbandry thrives. Shepherds and sheep dot the landscape. Bedouin women still prepare traditional cheese, butter, and dried yoghurt balls (jmeed) for mansaf. One may still see Bedouin women waiting for public transportation on the highways as they carry their domestic products to sell in Jerusalem, Jericho, Ramallah, and Nablus …

Contemporary Palestinians watch the same satellite soap operas and access the same Yahoo and Google. We live in the same houses, furnish them with the same furniture, and most important, we all eat the same food. The urbanization of Palestine has become complete. A totally new, vital Palestinian identity has been produced. Against all odds, the Palestinians, sha’b el jabareen, are here to stay.



Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, author, and artist. He can be reached at aqleibo@yahoo.com.

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