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Aftertaste - Out of Eden Walk

Author: Paul Salopek for National Geographic

Nablus, West Bank, 32°13'15" N, 35°15'15" E

We’re cooking: cutting up zucchinis, rolling dough, stirring pots of boiling yoghurt. We are with the women of Bait al Karama. They are teaching us about the flavors of remembrance—about its frailty, its persistence, its loss.

What is Bait al Karama?

It is a cooperative, the “House of Dignity”: dozens of women gather each month in a stone house in Nablus, a trading center founded by the Roman emperor Vespasian around the time of Christ, an ancient town bloodied by the Second Intifada, and famed outside of Arab-Israeli conflict for its olive-oil soap, its baked sweets, its still-vibrant medieval souk. The women teach cooking classes. They are writing a local cookbook. They are reviving their traditional Nablusi recipes, with all the original ingredients. This afternoon, three members, Ohood Bedawi, Beesan Ramadan, and Fatima Kadoumy, are busy making shish barak, a meat dumpling stew.

Making the dumpling "helmets" for shish barak. Nablus, West Bank. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Making the dumpling “helmets” for shish barak. Photograph by Paul Salopek

“It comes originally from Lebanon, some say Syria,” explains Kadoumy, the coop founder, solemn and soft-spoken in her black hijab.

“When we talk about Palestinian cooking, we talk about the influences from the outside,” she says. “Our history is mixed into our food. It is the food of a crossroads. It contains migrations. It is about colonialism, conquest. Our sumac [a tart, lemony spice] is a Roman ingredient. Our sweets, called canafe, are Turkish, from the Ottomans. Our bulgur grain is Mediterranean, much older here than rice. Only the akub, a thorny wild artichoke, is native to our hills. Today we are losing the habit of cooking these things. Now we eat the Kentucky Fried Chicken.”

So we pitch in, my guide Bassam Almohor and I. We do our part. We have stopped walking. We lay aside the GPS. We pick up a spoon. We pick up a paring knife. We report for duty on the front lines of cultural preservation. It is no easy task. It comes at a price: Our appetites must be sacrificed. We stuff ourselves with delicious Arabic foods.

Everyone likes to eat. In peace or war, the ultimate refuge—the sanctuary of all that is humane—lies distilled within the warmth of the kitchen. Watching the women of Nablus move briskly, efficiently, purposefully about their tasks, chatting, often joking (about men, politics, life), I am reminded of all the meals that admitted me briefly into the conflicted lives of Israelis and Palestinians.

In the tiny village of Deir es-Sudan, in the West Bank: Bassam and I slogged in, exhausted, at sunset, not knowing a soul. We camped on the concrete floor of a half-built clinic. The shopkeepers next door brought us a large platter of treats—eggs, olives, French fries, yoghurt, fresh bread. They waved away our weak, startled thanks. “The innermost chamber of my home”—one benefactor said—“is yours.”

A side trip to Tel Aviv: My Israeli walking partner, Yuval Ben-Ami, threw together, in a bowl, whatever resided at that time in his refrigerator. What was it? Even he didn’t know—a concoction of cooked beans, of greens, of rice, of mystery sauces. It was like his living space, a bohemian apartment, packed with books, musical instruments, clothes, art. A typical Yuval sentence begins, “The poet Rachel Bluwstein wrote about the Galilee as if it were another planet.” His leftover stew was reflection of his restless nomad mind.

On a kibbutz north of Haifa: Dark Georgian wine drunk from a ram’s horn, courtesy of cousins David and Moshe Beery. They emigrated from Tbilisi as children. They have grown up in uncertainty. They have known war and death. Now, they are building hotels. “To live in this place, you got to pay the rent, so to speak, my friend,” says David, ruefully. “But hey—isn’t this meal beautiful?”

A house in Ramallah, in the West bank: Bassam’s wife, Haya, served a simple, perfect meal of pickles, hummus, sausage, and vermillion tomatoes. The house vibrated with the energy of two small children. The couple lives under Israeli occupation. The daily restrictions on travel, the military raids, the roadblocks, the loss of scarce jobs to political maneuvers by the Palestinian Authority and Israel—all these humiliations are forgotten over the clean taste of olive oil. Bassam looks giddily at his son, Adam, eating. A tightness around his mouth relaxes. A certain loneliness that accompanies him everywhere, even while walking together, dissolves.

In the many-chambered heart of Nablus, the West Bank. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Inside the many-chambered heart of Nablus. Photograph by Paul Salopek

I watch Bassam now. The capable women of Nablus order him about their kitchen. He and I will part ways, soon.

We will trek north, Bassam and I, atop straw-colored ridgelines and through lemon orchards: a foot-worn landscape once traveled by Abraham, patriarch of the Middle East’s three great religions. (A development organization, Abraham Path, has surveyed such interfaith routes for foreign hikers to walk, thus aiding local communities with tourist dollars.) We will climb the dry wadis. We will part herds of goats. He will talk of the love poetry of Darwish. He will discuss, as everyone does, the mythical peace. (“It’s called a ‘process’ for a reason, Paul,” Bassam mutters. “That’s because powerful interests on all sides don’t want peace. They’re making too much money off the process.” ) He will look with infinite weariness on anyone—Israeli or Palestinian—in uniform. We will part ways in Jenin, at night, outside a bakery. I will walk on.

The smell of dust. The tang of lemon groves. Leaving Nablus, the West Bank. Photograph by Paul Salopek

The smell of dust, the tang of lemon groves. Leaving Nablus. Photograph by Paul Salopek

I watch Bassam. At this instant, in the old stone house in Nablus, he stands with a spoon raised to his lips, eyes closed.


Ohood Bedawi and Fatima Qadoumy perform the rite of remembering. Nablus, West Bank.

DMU Timestamp: February 19, 2015 14:07

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