Ashraf Amra / Anadolu Agency / Getyy Images

Cooking and eating under siege

Gaza’s resourceful women prepare family meals of culinary defiance

July 24, 2014 6:00AM ET

Gaza is burning. The bombs are falling day and night, ripping through buildings, eviscerating entire families. As the horrors unfold, can we imagine what life is like at this moment in a home, in a kitchen, at the dinner table in Gaza?

It is Ramadan, after all, as we were made painfully aware over the weekend when an Israeli F-16 strike killed all 25 members of the Abu Jamaa family, including 17 children, three pregnant women and a grandmother, as they sat down for iftar, the evening meal. And even if it weren’t, families — that is, women — still have to go about getting food on the table, tending to the mundane routines of life that keep them sane. How do you feed your family under bombardment when nowhere, not even your dinner table, is safe and when there is no access to markets and farms?  

Even more important, after the smoke clears how do families continue with their lives under a longstanding siege that aims to deprive them of any sense of normalcy, freedom and productivity? What role do women, especially, play in this daily business of survival?

In 2010, we traveled to Gaza to conduct fieldwork for our book, “The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey”. We sought to compile traditional Palestinian recipes from the historic Gaza district, using food as a narrative device to explore both the impact of the Palestinian exodus of 1948 (when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, forced from their homes by invading Zionist militias, piled into Gaza) and the stories of those erased towns and villages. We also wanted to investigate the current situation: the impact of the longstanding blockade and the debate about agricultural policies, restrictions on fishing zones and access to farms.

But most important, we wanted to profile the people themselves, mainly women, to give a human face to the Palestinian story. And so we entered household after household to see how women were sustaining their families. This was shortly after Operation Cast Lead, during which Israel unleashed an unprecedented assault on Gaza, killing 1,400 Palestinians, including 300 children, and, among other things, systemically targeting the agricultural infrastructure and productive sectors of Gaza. We were awed by the vitality and grace that we witnessed in even the humblest homes. Women — some raising kids alone, some with large extended families to feed, some rural, some urban — managed to cultivate sanity, hope and some sense of normalcy in an impossible situation designed expressly to fracture all of these things.

What we concluded is this: While there is very little these women can control about their lives (when the power comes on, how much fuel is available, what sorts of produce Israel will allow into markets on a given week, whether the border crossings will open) or the destruction being wrought upon them, there is one domain in which they exercise some authority: the kitchen.

Despite everything, Gaza keeps ticking because the women there make ends meet, one way or another. Where there are power outages, cold mineral clay helps keep fruits and vegetables cool for long-term storage. Where there is no cooking fuel, old adobe ovens unused for a generation are fired up anew. Recipes like maya wi basala (water and onions) are invented to evoke familiar tastes with the few ingredients provided by humanitarian rations, which largely omit the familiar grains and olive oils of the traditional Palestinian diet. Every edible thing is taken advantage of to the utmost: Weeds like purslane are simmered into savory stews, scraps give new life as stuffing, and chicken wings produce rich broths.

Gaza’s women are infinitely elastic, stretching to cover whatever is not otherwise covered: compensating for losses, caring for the old and young, conjuring a dinner out of scraps.

What results is not the subsistence gruel of sadness and resignation but a cry of culinary defiance: We will eat our bright, rich, piquant foods and know who we are and remember where we come from. We will take care of each other, love life and not be erased.

As we interviewed people in Gaza we came to feel that this everyday kitchen valor formed the psychological bedrock of the place, keeping the population sane in insane circumstances. Both men and women spoke of cuisine with reverence, even urgency. This is vital, they said.

While the frugality and determination of women keeps Gaza fed and sane, increasingly women are also the family breadwinners. The longstanding closure of the borders and consequent collapse of Gaza’s economy have brought massive male unemployment to the Strip. Scores of international NGOs try to generate employment through all kinds of community betterment projects, but with imports and exports blocked, payments suspended and infrastructure still devastated from the 2008–09 bombardment, there’s a real limit to how much they can do. Some 80 percent of the population depends on humanitarian aid for their basic daily caloric needs, generating the despair of dependency. With diminished purchasing power, residents lose access to goods that may be available in markets. Again and again, we met women who had found small niches for themselves in the informal local market and were supporting large families through their efforts.

There was Lulu Samouni, the only one in her extended family of 15 with an income, gleaned by hand-rolling maftoul, a traditional Palestinian couscous, sun-drying it on her roof and selling it in one-kilo packages in a local store. Or Um Rami, widowed in the last war, who mended and tailored clothes in her spare little home in the Beach refugee camp. Or Hanan who, through the Union of Agricultural Workers in central Gaza, created a space for women to exchange strategies for maximizing the economy of homes and farms through the recovery of traditional techniques for pickling, drying and canning foods.

What is the cost for these women of bearing such a burden? They are the last element of adjustment in the economy, the infinitely elastic piece that must stretch to cover whatever is not otherwise covered: compensating for losses, caring for the old and young, conjuring a dinner out of scraps.

This week, destruction again rampages through the Gaza Strip and families once again take cover, hoping to wait out the storm of violence. When it is over, irrespective of the political balance that comes in its wake, the unsung labor of sustaining daily life there will begin anew with the additional burden of caring for the wounded, rebuilding homes and farms from dust and rubble, nursing traumatized children through their nightmares. Doubtless, the indefatigable women of Gaza will press on, bearing this too with their characteristic optimism and vitality, but we can’t help but wonder if there isn’t some limit.

Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt are co-authors of the award-winning documentary cookbook “The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey.” El-Haddad was Al Jazeera English’s online correspondent in Gaza from 2003 to 2006. Originally from Gaza, she now lives in Maryland, where she works as a writer, media activist and public speaker. Schmitt is a writer, researcher and social activist based in Madrid. Her work focuses on the intersections between big politics and daily life.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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