Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 18.02.2006:
To understand Arab and Palestinian food traditions it is important to go back to one of the roots of Arabic culinary culture: Bedouin life. Traditionally, Middle Eastern Bedouin followed a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle. They lived in tents made of camel or goat hair. The Bedouin in the Negev tended sheep and camels which provided them with cheese, butter and yoghurt. The yoghurt was dried to save it for Winter. The Bedouin ate the meat from their sheep or camels.
The Bedouin would grow some vegetables in the wadis (valleys) or desert oases. By building dams they created a water supply. Products included tomatoes, cucumber, zucchini (courgette), eggplant, and fruits such as water melon, honey melon, figs and dates. Similar to the yoghurt, they dried vegetables and fruits for Winter time. From flour, water and a bit of salt, the Bedouin baked shrak, a special flat bread which is used for meals like mansaff. Having access to only a limited range of products, Bedouin rarely used sugar in their daily life.
After 50 years the Bedouin lifestyle has changed very fast. Most no longer live in tents but in houses. The wood and fire are replaced by the electric oven and the Bedouin no longer need to dry food for Winter. Dairy products and cattle meat are replaced by products from the market.
Although the household is modernized, still some Bedouin mothers bake the bread themselves and prepare it on fire and wood. Not all Bedouin can afford the comfort of present-day life; many prefer to slaughter sheep and chickens instead of buying meat from the market.
Some kinds of food quickly disappear from the Bedouin kitchen. Salah Abu Hani from Rahat remembers the bread his mother used to make, called gurs. It was baked in a special way. The dough was put on a round metal plate under a fire. To give it a special taste, it was sprinkled with coal. His mother used to prepare bazena during Winter, dough baked in yellow butter and milk. Few people still make it.
Food preparation and the Bedouin family
In traditional food preparation, the mother is the main cook. She is assisted by her daughters who, among other things, gather wood for the fire. The mother starts at four o’clock in the morning, baking the bread and preparing the breakfast for her husband and children. Besides cleaning the house she prepares lunch and supper, both hot meals. Only on special occasions, for instance when an important guest is invited, the man prepares the food. As proof that he really slaughtered the sheep or lamb, he shows the guest a knife full of blood. For these occasions the women prepare the bread and rice.
When a woman has her period, she is considered unclean to cook and she would not be able to prepare the meals for her family. One of her relatives would do the cooking. According to tradition, the guest eats first and only then the male host will follow. After they finish, the women and children follow. Men and women used to eat separately but nowadays you can find Bedouin families who eat together.
Modern kitchen tools make food preparation less tiresome for Bedouin mothers. Instead of two hot meals she can prepare one large dish for both lunch and dinner. However, Bedouin women, especially those with many children, often still face a daunting task.
Food and “table” manners
If Bedouin offer food to their guests, it is not in the first place to fill their stomachs but to show respect. It is therefore very impolite for the guest to overfeed himself. The guest should know that eating much shows bad manners. He has to eat quickly and finish before the host. There is a saying amongst Bedouin: “It is better to visit somebody with a full stomach and old clothes.” According to the prophet Mohammed, people should not each too much. Eat what you need. There are other sayings: “Eat as camels (quickly) and get up before moon.” “The demands of the stomach should not always be complied with.” Self-restraint is a virtue.
Bedouin used to have a hard life. Food was scarce and therefore valuable. However, even when they could barely afford it, Bedouin were always obliged to prepare a meal for a guest. They would borrow ingredients from their neighbours. It is also a rule that the guest should never eat alone. To keep him comfortable, the host would join eating and stop eating as soon as the guest has finished his meal.
The Bedouin eat in groups who sit around one tray. Everybody keeps their side. Touching the other side would be greedy and impolite. Sharing a meal is connected with honor and trust. For instance, when there is a problem between tribes, the sheikhs would visit each other. When coffee is offered, they would not touch the cups unless the problem is solved. The coffee ceremony is like confirming a treaty. After settling the conflict, the tribal leaders share a meal. In this way the treaty is sealed forever. Violating such a treaty is very shameful. When tribes want to settle accounts, they will never share meals.
Proverb: “The one who eats with you will never betray you.” Sharing a meal is not only a social occasion. When you do business or settle a disagreement the act of inviting someone for a meal helps to break the ice, or to build and strengthen a relationship.
“A person who does not want to eat does not want to give.” If you accept generosity you are willing to give as well.
Food and magic in Bedouin life
Presently Bedouin will ask for medical treatment if they are ill. However, the darwish, a kind of magician, is still important for spiritual healing. If a person is considered to be possessed by a demon or when somebody wants to harm somebody in one way or another, the darwish can put something in the food or coffee to heal or protect him. There are some practices which are aimed at overcoming fear or preventing the evil eye. If you are afraid for something or somebody you may slaughter a black cock early in the morning and bury it. In the evening you eat it and all fears are gone. If a man and woman marry without the family’s permission, a darwish can be consulted to harm the couple. To prevent them raising a family, the darwish may prepare something for the man’s meal so that he will not be able to sleep with his wife.
From: “Sahteen: Discover the Palestinian Culture by Eating”, published by the Freres School, Bethlehem, part of the Culture and Palestine series issued by the Arab Educational Institute-Open Windows, Bethlehem, 1999. To order the book, send a mail to firstname.lastname@example.org