Friday, September 03, 2004

Martha Stewart of the Middle East

My roommates in New York City used to tease me for my carefully constructed hummus "masterpieces" I would create for every dinner party we threw. Putting aside the extreme care to the actual making of the yummilicious hummus, I would fret for at least a half an hour over the symetrical texurization, the balance and placement of paprika and thyme (za'atar) spinkles, and the final addition of whole chickpeas and a sprig of parsley for "visual effect." I worried over each platter of hummus like a hen with her chicks, I tell you, and was saddened as it met its eventual gastronomical demise.

My love affair with hummus began with my semester abroad in Jerusalem, January-April 1999. I was known as "The Pita Princess" by my roommates (I guess they found it amusing that I horded bags of pita in my underwear drawer) but the truth is this: the pita was just a means to the true end of hummus. Simply a tool in order to consume as much of the divine stuff as humanly possible.

Tears fild my eyes, then, when this morning....for the first time in five years...I had true Jersualem hummus. That's right, I have returned--I am in Jersualem AS WE SPEAK. As many of you know (you--you know who YOU are), I have been living in Cairo for the last two months. My Mother is visiting and I couldn't let this opportunity pass to visit The Place Where It All Began with the woman who, incidentally, is ALSO the place where it all began (for me, that is). Our original plan to make the 14 hour trek from Cairo to Jerusalem overland was frustrated by the simple fact that the only route we could find does indeed cross through a war zone (Gaza). I love my mother, and fear the wrath of my father, so we boycotted that idea and decided to fly. No easy task, I tell you, purchasing a ticket on an Israel airline for a flight leaving within 24 hours. The experience involved going out to the airport to the CORRECT terminal (don't worry about trying to find out which terminal is won't be the right one) and asking atleast 10 people the same question. After I received THREE similar answers I followed their advice...and eventually found the airline office down stairs, down a hall, up more stairs, down another hall, past a partially flooded part of the hallway, and near the offices for Air Hungry. Interesting.

The very accomodating Arab women running the show at El Al, Israeli Airlines, made my reservation on a computer dating back to the Pharonic Era, and off I went back through the lookinglass to my mother waiting outside the airport with Jamel, a Palistinian man with whom we'd hitchiked a ride to the airport (yes, I have thoroughly corrupted my mother). We shared a celebratory coca cola with Jamel at his office and returned back to the city center for more adventures. A very delicious shuwarma, a visit to my sudanese friend Manal, a guava juice on a houseboat, AND two weddings later, we headed back out to the airport. For reasons unknown to me, we had to purchase the tickets at 11:00pm, although the flight didn't leave till the perfectly logical hour of 3:00am. I was internally grumbling about this, but now see the wisdom in it: it only took an hour to get the paper ticket processed and paid for, and another mere TWO HOURS to go through the Israeli airline security precedures. I know they have to be careful, but they acted like they thought I was an accomplice to Hitler because I actually WANT to study Arabic. I didn't help matters when I rather rudely brushed off a man who approached me who later turned out to be an Israeli security and intelligence officer. It was a little dicey for a while there...but EVENTUALLY we were let through and made our flight.

The exausting effects of no sleep were entirely overcome by the joy of seeing My City again. We caught a shuttle from the airport to as far as East Jerusalem as our driver would go ("Do you think I am crazy? I am JEWISH!" he said) and found our way to Damascus Gate. It was 6:00am AND a Friday (Muslim day off) and the Old City was silent. We walked across and out of Lion's Gate across Kidron Valley, doubled back and around to a hotel directly inside Jaffa Gate recommended by my trusty old LP. After a not-so-quick nap we set out again and explored the Jewish Quarter and the neighborhoods bordering the Old City on the West and South West sides (for those of you that know my political orientation and are surprised by this, don't be alarmed: I have not turned Zionist on was a choice based on necessity, not on priority).

We intended to end our night with a visit to the Western Wall. Politics and religion aside, the goings on at the Western Wall are fascinating for any student of culture. There was an eyeful: the Hassidic Jews recited parts of scripture, rocking back and forth. The more secular Jews quietly tucknig a slip of prayer into the ancient wall. And impossible to miss were the obviously European/American Jews on pilgrimage. This group turned out to be the most entertaining to watch, as they frequently burst into song (aiy yai yai yai, yai yai yai yai yai yai) and dance (the Jewish conga).

It was after about thirty minutes of close-up observation and my mother and I were sitting at the far end of the plaza that borders the wall. We were reflecting on what we had seen when we were approached by two female Morman missionaries. Ha! No, the white shirts and name tags aren't to be found in Palestine, but these two girls fit the description to a "tee." Tights, skirts, sensible shoes, and books under their arms, these two students at the Jewish Seminary for Girls INVITED us gentiles to join them for Shabbat dinner...and what the heck....we did! And that is what I have been up to all evening....supping on chala bread, MORE HUMMUS, and something called Kagl or Kogl (strange!) in the home of a rabbi tucked deep within the Jewish Quarter. So maybe I don't identify with Israeli politics...but I am grateful for the opporunity to peel back a layer from a culture very mysterious to me and deepen my understanding.

Shabbat Shalom,


1 comment:

Heba said...

Hun, I am SO THERE for our trip. Just let me OK things with the prof on Tuesday and then we can start planning. Hil, you were BORN to blog! You're fabulous! I'm still recovering from the shock of your mother HITCH-HIKING, but I think it awesome. I am salivating at the thought of hummus from the Homeland. Jamila, that's where it all started! Our passion for all things Middle Eastern. I am pained that you have returned without your Heba, but so happy that you are there. Please eat some circle bread with zatar for me. And kiss the wall of the Jerusalem Center for me. And give Hadj Nasser a kiss from me if he's still around. AND, if you can find any Arabic versions of the Makarena on CD I will pay you to send them to me! And a masha'allah sticker of course. Don't forget to where your hijab tonight. =) Love ya.