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Carob, Fennel, and the Red Soil of Gimzo

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 23.06.2007:

Crafting Palestinian Identity

By Dr. Ali Qleibo

“It is spring, and the fennel grows in abundance in the valley of Gimzo,” sighs Dr. Fawzieh, a professor of history at Al Quds Open University in Jericho. “The fragrance of our fresh wild fennel soaks the horizon.” The spatial and temporal distance dissolves as the description of Gimzo, ten kilometres from Lod airport, becomes more intense. “We have the best olives, the most delicious carob trees, and the most fertile red soil in Palestine.”

The sense of personal identity is inextricably linked in Palestinian individual consciousness to group identity. To the existential question, “Who am I?” the answer is resolved geographically. “I am from el Majdal, Jaffa, or Gimzo.” Despite the sixty years since the Nakbeh, neither the elapsed time nor the distance from the fatherland, now accentuated by the separation wall, has succeeded in building a buffer between the refugee and his/her own homeland: the village whence the family was forced to flee in terror in 1947.

In the dusty refugee camp of Aqabet Jaber, to the left of the entrance to Jericho (facing the Intercontinental Casino), the past sixty years have had but one long grey season of waiting for the return home.

It is in the joyous context of the four seasons still enjoyed by the few surviving villages in the West Bank that the pathos of the tragedy of the Palestinian refugee can be appreciated. Seasons of almond blossom, glorious cyclamen in the rocks, anemones on the hills, wheat, barley, and lentils in the fields, apricots, mulberries, plums and peaches, grapes and figs, guavas and dates, and oranges; all the signs of time reflected in nature and still enjoyed by the West Bank Palestinian peasant who remains in his land are part and parcel of the great nostalgia that sweeps the heart of the refugees in exile. It is the aroma of his soil – spring, summer, winter, and fall – that the refugee yearns for. It is his sky, his sun, his moon, the birds in the field, the sunrise dew on the grass, the breeze that ruffles the leaves as the sun sets imprinted in his heart that sustains his solitary life abroad. Reconstructing the way that life used to be, in the form of traditional crafts, is the palliative that helps bypass the abysmal abyss of the grey reality in the refugee camp where the existential subjective calendar remains fixed on the day immediately after the Nakbeh.

The key to a house already demolished by the Israelis in Gimzo and the deed to the land of the ancestors are invariably the only concrete residue of the memory that furnishes the proof that the homeland was a reality and not a phantasm dreamed up by politicians or ideologists … and of course the inherited crafts and traditions.

“Gimzo is an ancient village,” asserts Dr. Fawzieh, whose father was the last Mukhtar in the old country and continued to be so among the community in the refugee camp. “It dates back to the Canaanite period and was mentioned in the ancient Egyptian tablets.” Her pride in her hometown has not abated. Neither time nor her geographic dislocation could diminish the pride she takes in her village. “Ramleh and Lod did not exist then … Ours is one of the oldest Palestinians towns.”

Her modern living room is almost a folk museum. Palestinian embroidery meets my eyes everywhere; it covers the cushions, it hangs as paintings on the walls, it covers the dining table. Diverse patterns and designs – floral, geometric, and figurative – are used in the various compositions. I am attracted to a particular cross pattern that decorates the cushions and the bodice of a dress in blue against white cloth. The design is obviously that of a cross. Having just visited Sebastya, where I was embarrassed to see that all the crusader crosses in the chapel once housing the tomb of St. John had been effaced, I asked, “This is a cross, isn’t it?” “No,” she shrugged her shoulders, “It is a traditional pattern.”

Tradition is sacrosanct for the Palestinians even if this respect entails overlooking referential symbolism. In fact, tradition de rigueur implies the transformation of pragmatic ecological, ideological strategic adaptations into identity markers in which the sense of historic continuity becomes the chief objective.

The professor insisted I have lunch, and the food was typical Gimzo maftul. “This is what we eat in Gimzo.”

Maftul is whole-wheat pasta dough that is rolled into tiny balls the size of rice. This local homemade pasta is served with baked chicken and a sauce of tomatoes, onions, and chick peas on the side. “Maftul is the product of the land. This is our staple in Gimzo, not rice.” Fawzieh, in typical gracious Arabic manner, shredded the chicken, put it on my plate, and continued to describe life in Gimzo.

The walls were adorned with straw trays, tabaq ash. She followed the direction of my eyes. “In Gimzo, we ate on the floor, and the food was served on these trays.” The straw trays for food have lost their traditional function and perfectly round shape. On her wall they have now assumed a political referential value. The colour and the pattern have been transformed to represent the Palestinian flag and a kuffieh pattern dotted in black and white juts out of one side to depict the full map of Palestine.

In her visit to my house, Dr. Fawzieh had examined a sample of Chinese embroidery that Ms. Xiaon, my Chinese friend, had given me. It was not the panda depicted in the embroidery that had aroused Fawzieh’s curiosity but rather the technique. Unlike the commercial Palestinian embroidery, which has a front and a back, in Chinese embroidery, both sides are perfectly finished. “This resembles el nole method,” Dr Fawzieh exclaimed. “It is Palestinian too.” As I ate (hosts don’t eat with guests in the countryside), she brought out all the embroidery, including el nole specimens, to show the diversity, dexterity, and wealth of Gimzo’s cultural heritage.

Dr. Fawzieh has her own great collection of embroidery representing the diverse stitch patterns. She showed me numerous shawls, vests, dresses, jackets, tablecloths, napkins, pillows, and cushion cases. She weaves using both straw and wool. She makes pottery. I was impressed.

“How did you learn all these skills?”

“During the summer vacations, mother kept us at home and taught us embroidery and everything. Until now, I even make the dough for maftul and roll it out by hand.”

Her work is not for sale. The refugee camp holds various events, and her works are showpieces in these exhibits.

Born after the Nakbeh in Aqbet Jaber refugee camp, Dr. Fawzieh has grafted Gimzo to Jericho pending the time of the return home. “In Ramadan my father missed most of all the carob of Gimzo.” She spoke reverently of her dead father. “So in our visit to Gimzo, before the first Intifada, I brought seeds from our trees. I planted them, and now it is the only carob tree in the Jordan valley. Every Ramadan I prepare kharrub (a carob drink that is drunk with the food exclusively in Ramadan), and we have the whole month’s supply of our kharrub from Gimzo.” I could not help but think of the parallel with my own father, who had grown up in the old country, and always expressed his nostalgia for coastal Palestine in his craving for jummez fruit, a variety of sycamore tree that does not grow in our mountains. After the 1967 war, when we would go to the family farm in Gaza, his biggest pleasure was to park the car on the side of the road near el Masmieh, famous for its jummez, and enjoy the fresh fruits that he joyfully picked from the trees on the roadside.

On the way to Ben Gurion airport, I had always passed by a neutral road sign, “Gimzo Junction.” This spring I went to smell the fragrant fennel and visit the village of my friend Fawzieh. Gimzo’s meadows have become a pine forest, a beautiful nature reserve. A forbidding kibbutz stood in its place. My daughter and I were disappointed. We did not venture into the village. Fawzieh describes the village:

“The cemetery remains intact. The Israelis have bulldozed many houses … but some traces remain. When we used to walk through the remains of the village, my father and mother discerned the houses and spoke of the families that lived there …”

I close my eyes and try to imagine the return to a home now in ruins. Even if mother were to die, even if all the familiar faces were to change … Jerusalem will always be my home. My friend, Professor Ibrahim Abu Lughod, used to go weekly to swim in the sea of Jaffa. I once asked him how he could tolerate the pain of seeing his city destroyed, transformed, and populated with strangers. “Once I am in the sea,” he answered, “Jaffa on the shore remains unchanged for me.”

Her troubled voice brings me back to Aqbat Jaber and to the reality of Gimzo.

“I took the soil in my hand. I kissed it, and I looked up to our sky. I turned my eyes to our olive trees and burst into tears. My father and brothers tried to calm me down but I was sobbing out of control. This is my home. Rumanian immigrants now live on our land. The pain was unbearable.”

She continued, “The Rumanian Jewish immigrants brought me water to drink and asked what was bothering me. I told them. ‘This is my land. This is my home.’

“We had no choice,” they answered. “Sorry. The government brought us here.”

I was very angry and asked, “What do I do with your sorrow? The fact remains that you are on my land, and I am a refugee.”

Sixty years have passed, and the memory remains fresh. Reality is that of the heart. Palestine and the homeland are a wound that time will not heal. The love of the fatherland is a chronic condition and not a passing illness.

Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, author, and artist. He can be reached at


This Week in Palestine

May 2007

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