They say we are all children of the same God, but it’s clear we don’t act like it. For centuries we’ve slaughtered one another in the name of God. We’ve enslaved, oppressed, reviled and ridiculed our fellow men and women because their god just looked at us funny. I belong to a people who, because we chose not to believe in somebody else’s idea of God, suffered 2,000 years of mayhem at the hands of true believers. I’m over it — sort of — but a quick glance in any history book makes me wary of those who say the path of human unity is through the Divine.
No, God often divides us. Food unites us.
If you want to see people argue, get them talking about each other’s God. If you want to see them laugh and talk, get them eating each other’s food.
I saw this with my own eyes for the first time in 1984 in a kitchen in East Jerusalem. I was living in West Jerusalem at the time, the Jewish half of the, um, united city. East Jerusalem was the exclusively Arab half of the, um, united city. The Israeli Jews I had befriended warned me against venturing there. They themselves stayed away, and not without reason. The week I arrived in Israel, an American studying in a yeshiva wandered into one of the many confusing alleyways of the Arab Quarter and was set upon and stabbed. He died from his wounds — he was my age.
But the Old City lured me time and again. West Jerusalem was lively and imbued with culture and art. But East Jerusalem was exotic, the Jerusalem of the photogravures, and, let’s face it, that’s where the great food was.
And that’s where I met Bilal.
I had come out of the Old City via the Damascus Gate when we spotted each other. He was a Palestinian man around my age, sitting on a bottom step reading National Geographic. Damascus Gate was below street level, so the hordes of tourists and residents had to descend a series of steps to enter it. The Arab women dressed from toe to head in robes and dresses. The American and European women, especially the young ladies, pranced down in light skirts to beat the Jerusalem heat.
Sitting at the bottom of the steps and looking up, Bilal and his friends showed me, was better than National Geographic.
So we bonded over girls and ended up talking about Israel, the Palestinians, history, America, movies — he was my first Palestinian, and I was his first American. A few weeks after we met, he invited me to his home for lunch.
His apartment in East Jerusalem had a nice-sized living room with much smaller rooms surrounding it. In the kitchen, his mother was busy chopping tomatoes and cucumbers for salad.
The kitchen was the size of a broom closet. There was a small counter, and next to it a kerosene stove, the kind Israeli pioneers used. On top she had a covered tin contraption in which she was baking her cake — that was her oven.
Bilal wanted me to sit with him in the living room, where guests were received, but I had to watch his mother cook. Here she lived, in a kitchen smaller than a Wolf range, turning out meal after meal for friends and family. She cut vegetables using a small, serrated knife with a lime-green plastic handle. She was right-handed. Her left hand was the cutting board.
Bilal translated. She explained that the white powder she used in her hummus was lemon salt. She rubbed her okra with salt to remove the slime. Her tabouli was exceptional. Until that afternoon, I only knew tabouli as the stuff of college vegetarian menus — mounds of soaked cracked wheat studded with flavorless bits of parsley and tomato. Bilal’s mother explained that tabouli was supposed to be parsley and mint, with just a sprinkle of bulgar. It made sense: what I’d been eating was just cold breakfast cereal with vegetables.
We sat down to a meal of hummus, eggplant, tabouli, an okra-and-meat stew and a semolina cake.
I’d see Bilal and his friend Khalil often over the next three years. There were some intense parties in secret caravansary rooms off those same forbidden alleyways; there was the time Bilal knocked on my door and asked to use my apartment to entertain his girlfriend — a religious Jewish woman. There were the hummus lunches and the night Bilal introduced me to the world of Ramadan desserts, late-night pancakes soaked in sugar syrup and warm cheese kunafee under a layer of syrup-drenched shredded filo. And there was my last meeting with Khalil, when he told me Bilal had been arrested in the First Intifada, and who knew what would happen.
Who knew? After that I lost touch with both men. We had fun; we had food, and then God got in the way.
This is the tabouli Bilal’s mother taught me to make. It is not the gloppy, wheaty stuff of natural food stores. It is really more of a parsley salad, with some bulgar added for texture.
1/2 cup bulgar wheat
1/2 cup boiling water
2 bunches Italian parsley
1 bunch mint
1 small onion, chopped fine
1 head romaine lettuce, sliced thin
1 cucumber, chopped
1 tomato, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup olive oil
2 lemons, juiced
salt and pepper
Rinse bulgar and drain. Pour boiling water over bulgar, and let sit for 20 minutes. Drain. Wash parsley and mint well; chop fine. Chop onion, cucumber and tomato, and mince garlic. Add all ingredients, including olive oil and lemon juice, in a bowl and toss. Adjust seasoning to taste. Serve cool or at room temperature.
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