November 23

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Gaza Dispatch: Dinner

Middle East travel tip: If a local – especially a local woman – asks you what you know about the indigenous cuisine, plead ignorance. This almost always leads to an invitation for dinner.

About a week ago, one of the poets I had the honour of meeting here in Gazan, Donia Amal Ismail, asked me if I’d ever eaten maqlouba. I told her I had. “I even cooked it once,” I said before I realized my error and hastened to add “But I don’t think I made it properly.”

Less than twenty-four hours later I was sitting at Donia’s dining room table as she unveiled her maqlouba, an upside-down rice casserole with chicken, eggplant, chickpeas, tomatoes and a bewildering spice blend warm with cinnamon and chili powder. She served minted yogurt, a salad made of tomatoes and cucumbers, and orange Fanta poured into champagne flutes affixed with tiny stickers declaring ‘Hand Blown in Italy.’

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We drank tea in Donia’s salon afterwards. She recalled the day in 1985 when Israeli soldiers picked her up from school in an army jeep and expelled her and the rest of her family across the Egyptian border. As she told her story, Donia’s two teenage daughters hovered behind her to correct her English every time she made an error.

I received another dinner invitation a few days later, this time because I revealed to another Gazan woman, named Haneen, that I’d never eaten maftoul. “I have a surprise for you,” she said on the phone before fetching me from my apartment and bringing me to hers. The surprise was that Haneen wouldn’t be cooking at all. “My neighbor will cook for us,” Haneen said. Turns out Wisam is a celebrity chef who hosts a weekly cooking show on one of the Palestinian television channels. When we crossed the hall and opened the door, this is what Wisam had waiting for us:

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Each plate bore a serving of musakhan, sumac-spiced roast chicken on a bed of thin taboon bread and baked onions. The spice-blend was Wisam’s own. So, too, were the black olives shining in a shallow dish of oil. The rest of the table held bowls of garlicky yogurt, a plate of fresh arugula leaves, a somewhat out of place pizza, and the promised maftoul: Palestinian couscous flavoured with the typically-Gazan marriage of hot peppers and dill seed. Haneen scolded me for trying to eat with silverware. We dug in with our fingers. By the time I was finished, I was sticky to the wrists and very happy.

After dinner, Haneen’s three children – two daughters and a son – and Wisam’s daughter performed for me. The older girls dressed up in embroidered Palestinian dresses, then danced, sang and recited patriotic poems for us. Haneen’s son Omar played the qanun, a heavy zither that he plucked with deft fingers. For a finale, Haneen’s youngest daughter, the 3 year-old Habiba, did a few somersaults on the sofa before standing in the middle of the room to recite two poems for me.

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Before I came to Gaza, I feared I might not be able to find much beauty to write about in this starved and broken place. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried.

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