Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I Remember When....

"I Remember When....

by Mike Odetalla

During the last couple of trips to Palestine, I have begun to notice a very encouraging trend in the way people see and appreciate the traditional Palestinian foods and “old ways”. There seems to be a newfound appreciation of the old fellah (farmers, peasants, and country folk) ways of preparing foods. People are nostalgic for the down to earth goodness of the foods, traditions, and everything fellah! My mother, may God bless her and keep her, used to always remind me with yet another one of her nuggets of wisdom: If it weren’t for the fellah, the medinee (city folk) would starve!

Just about every restaurant, bakery, and business touts its products by associating them with the way that they used to be done and in fact are STILL done in many Palestinian villages. Palestinians were and are a historically agrarian society. Our ties to our lands, fields, and crops are intertwined in our history and way of life. It is who we are, our identity!

Many Palestinian restaurants and bakeries, sensing the growing nostalgic trend, have begun offering foods, such as bakery products and such, which are baked according to the old ways of much simpler and happier times. Much of the foods that one would only find being prepared at home in the small rural villages of Palestine, are now being offered to a very receptive and enthusiastic Palestinian population who either still remember or have heard stories of the way things “used to be”.

Even the Israelis have taken notice of this growing trend and are trying, feebly I might add, to offer “old time Middle Eastern foods”, meaning: trying to offer Palestinian foods the way that they were prepared, by the same people that were ethnically cleansed from their homes, lands, and villages. This is but just another attempt to try to “hijack” the history of the Palestinian people and place an “Israeli” label on it. I have even heard the Israelis tout falafel, humus, and other purely Arabic foods being touted as “authentic Israeli dishes”!

When I was a child attending Beit Hanina’s boy’s school, which is located on the main road between Jerusalem and Ramallah, lunch time was a very uneasy time for us fellaheen (children from the lower part of Beit Hanina, the rural farming area and the original residents of the village) children.

Although I only attended the 1st and 2nd grade at Beit Hanina’s school before leaving for the US at the age of 8, I have very vivid memories of my time spent there. My 2 older brothers had also attended the school before moving on to high school in the city of Jerusalem. Some of the boys would walk the 2 kilometers or so to school, while some of us that lived deeper into the village, would take an old 1960 red Chevrolet, which was also used as the village taxi, to school. For the equivalent of a few pennies, the driver would pile up to 8 of us kids, along with our books, and transport us the 4 kilometers to the school. He would make several trips back and forth in order to ferry us all to school.

My mother would give me enough taxi fare to get to and from school. On the nice days, we would elect to walk home and save our money so that we could buy and ice cream, candy bar, or soda, enjoying them as we walked home along the narrow and winding road to our village. Of course, we needed to walk home 2 or 3 times to be able to “afford” a treat, but it was well worth it for us “fellaheen” who were not accustomed to such things.

The most traumatic time for me and the other boys from our village, was at lunch time. During lunch period, all of the boys would gather and eat outdoors, under trees. There was a small cafeteria located on the school grounds that sold sodas and sandwiches also.

I remember hiding behind trees with other boys from my neighborhood to eat our home made lunches, out of view of the “city” kids who made fun of us and ridiculed the way our lunches looked and were packed. My lunches usually consisted of a loaf of home baked bread, made in the taboon, the mud and clay hearth ovens used by the fellaheen, some home made cheese, Zatar, sliced tomatoes, a couple of boiled eggs, or some cucumbers, packed in a red handkerchief. The city boys used to ridicule and taunt the fellaheen children for the food we ate and the way it was packed. They shamed us into hiding in order to eat our lunches. They had the “nice and uniform” pita bread, while we had the not so nice looking home made bread.

I would plead with my mother to give me money to buy sandwiches just like the other kids, even though I knew that we could not afford such “luxuries”. There was the odd occasion, that I would save up my taxi fare, 4 days of walking, in order to be able to “buy a sandwich” and eat it out in the open just like everyone else. In reality, the store bought sandwiches were nowhere near as good as the lunch that my mother made for me, but, we wanted to fit in!

Unlike us, the city boys would eat falafel sandwiches, made with pita bread, sodas, and other foods that were sold at the school store and restaurants. Some of them even had lunch boxes, which were very alien to us. They had money, better looking clothes, and fancy foods. They tried to make us feel inferior to them in every way.

Through it all, I consistently had the highest grades in my entire grade, continuing the Odetalla legacy of my brothers before me, followed by 2 other boys that were also fellaheen!

Even my wife, who was raised in a refugee camp in Ramallah, admitted to me that she too, along with her friends, would be shamed into eating their lunch away from the city girls in Ramallah, resorting to some of the same things that we did in order to try to fit in!

Now, we see the city folk, embracing and touting the foods that their children and grandchildren used to make fun of us eating…

PS…My oldest son, when he attended a private Catholic School, used to goes out of his way to show off the lunches that his mom and I pack for him. He would brag about the benefits of eating traditional Palestinian and Arabic foods to his friends and school mates, taunting them about their “processed and manufactured artificially colored and flavored foods”!

Much has changed! The fellaheen were and will always be the bedrock of Palestinian society, life, and history. They and the land of Palestine are inseparable!

Mike Odetalla..."A seed in the eternal fruit of Palestine" 2009 All Rights reserved!

"Come, I'll tell you about Palestine"

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Charities for Palestine that I support: The Palestine Children's Relief Fund Islamic Relief USA American Near East Refugee Aid

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