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Tabun is an Arabic word for a traditional Palestinian oven.
It is usually made from clay mixed with grain straws. The tabun has a conic or volcano shape with an opening on the top from which the dough for the bread is entered and taken out. Tabun bread is flat bread eaten in our country as well in other countries of the Arab world. It is usually eaten alone, hot, or with Palestinian za’atar or thyme or other types of herbs and foods.
Tabun bread has become a typical Palestinian cultural heritage item.
The tabun bread is usually placed inside a small hut or construction. It consists of small stone layers roofed with large wooden boulders or sticks made of olive tree branches and topped by clay to prevent water leakage.
The hut or structure has usually one small window for light to come in.
The tabun is made of well-formed small pebbles or stones called in Arabic radif.
On the top of the tabun is an opening that is closed by an iron lid or covered with a wooden handle which can be opened when placing the bread dough. This closing cover helps to keep the heat. Hours before the baking process, all sides of the interior should be covered with wood or dry animal manure or, in Arabic, jift, or with the remainders of pressed olive pits after the olive oil is extracted. After closing the tabun, it is left for hours to heat up. When the heat comes, women come and carry out a process called kahir. This is the moving around of the heated manure or wood which becomes dusty with the help of an instrument named mukhar. Then the cover is opened and the baking process starts.
The bread dough takes some minutes to be baked. Each time the tabun may accommodate 3-4 loaves depending on their size. Usually 5-6 turns are needed to collect 25-30 bread loaves.
There are some vocabulary or words related to tabun which I learnt from my grandmother. For example tazbeel or the putting of manure or jift. Ghli’ is bringing the baked bread loaves out of the tabun.
My childhood memories with the tabun
- In my Najajrah family quarter in Bethlehem the tabun was owned by a branch of the Giacaman family named Abu Zeid. It used to serve a lot of families . Many times I witnessed delays in baking and our dough often used to be fermented too much, which caused some frustration.
- Another trouble was the unavailability of zibil or manure for the burning process. Throughout the year, our Abu Zeid relatives used to have enough animal manure for burning because they used to raise more animals than nowadays. Other families had less manure.
- Our relatives’ tabun was also for our house. This added to our suffering, especially at night. As a result of this difficult situation we decided to build our own tabun in our hakurah or garden.
-I also do remember the joy I felt when I woke up very early, at 4 am, to accompany my grandmother to prepare the tabun for baking bread. I always carried the siraj, a small can with oil or kerosene, while following a thread lightening up like a lamp to guide us to the tabun.
-How much I enjoyed the tabun bread hot baked, especially when it was well-baked, called mikhamish. Until now I like such a loaf of bread. One of the words used in tabun baking is da’boub – a small bread loaf baked at the end of the baking process. It is usually made up of the remainders left from the dough.
Problems of the tabun
- The process of kneading, doughing and baking used to take a lot of time.
- Fertilizing manure and wood are costly and sometimes unavailable.
- The accumulated remaining parts left out after the burning processes, and the dust needs to be transferred to agricultural lands for use as natural fertilizers. However, sometimes too much ramad or dust burns the soil.
Building the Tabun
My family used to buy the tabun cone made from white clay soil named huwar from a relative from the Ghattas family whose neighborhood is famous for such white clay soil. Many times I watched a woman building the volcano-shaped structure from huwar or white clay mixed with straws. They used also to prepare small fire grates or qaween for warming up in winter as well for small cooking or boiling purposes.
I also remember the problems that arose between my family as owners of a plot of land with white clay soil and newcomers, the refugees of Deir Abban, who built their white clay huts or houses nearby.
Because of poverty, these refugees used to take the clay from our land to use them for their tabuns and house building.