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Mystic Karabeej Halab

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 18.09.2009:

Kamel Mohammad Ismael Abu ‘Jway’ed, has achieved great fame in the mountains of Hebron. Over the past ten years, the cement enclosure that serves as a bus stop at Al-Majd has come to be closely associated with the most savoury karabeej halab. From 3:00 p.m. until sunset cars from as far away as Dura and Dhahiriyeh pull up by the bus stop, which has been turned into a kitchenette, driven by the best tasting karabeej halab in Palestine. Karabeej halab is a pastry made of dough, which is deep fried until it becomes crunchy. It has a bright orange or yellow colour and is dunked in ‘ater, sugar syrup. It can be eaten either warm or cold. The name karabeej is the plural of kurbaj, the Arabic word meaning whip, and describes its 20-centimetre whip-like shape. Halaby refers to the city of origin, Halab, Aleppo.

Referred to as early as the ninth century in al-Baghdadi’s famous cookbook, karabeej halab has also been described in earlier poetry. It is a typical sweet of the Muslim world. As Mushabak it is associated with secondary Muslim holidays such as the Mawled el Nabawi, Prophet’s birthday, or al isra’ wal miraj, which commemorates the Night Journey of the Prophet from Mecca to Jerusalem. As awwameh or luqmat al-qadi these round mouthful-sized pastries are a great treat sold as a sweet snack in all Arab cities. Nablus is famous for its flat pancake-shaped zalabiah, sweetened with pumpkin or carrot molasses. The surface of a kurbaj is ridged due to having been piped from a syringe with a star-shaped nozzle. The famous medieval musician and trendsetter Ziryab carried it along to Andalusia where it survives as the ubiquitous Churro.

Karabeej halab are sold by street vendors who will often fry them right on the street stand and sell them hot. More visible is the sight of youths in villages peddling them on trays.

“I realised in the mid-1990s,” Kamel explained the reasons underlying his choice of career, “that sooner or later my work in the field of construction in Israel would come to an end. So I began to look for an alternate source of income.”

While visiting Amman he tasted the yellow whip-shaped karabeej halab, a local snack. “I had already had experience in making atayef during the month of Ramadan. The idea of making karabeej halab became an obsession.”

A perfectionist, Kamel went to Hebron to learn the secret of the karabeej halab. Even as an apprentice, he was denied access to the recipe, which his various masters jealously guarded. He only saw the dough fully prepared, at the final stage ready to be fried. He gave up and returned to Al-Majd.

“It took me a full year to perfect my recipe. I took a clerical job in Sikkeh Preparatory Mixed School,” he said pointing to the school behind me.

“Why is it called Sikkeh when it is in Al-Majd?” I asked.

“It derived its name from Sheikh Sikkeh.”

“Is there a sheikh here? And is the school mixed?”

“Yes, girls and boys go to the same school until tenth grade.” I remained silent. “The sanctuary still exists but it is dwarfed by the buildings around it…”

“After I fry it to a crispy orange, I usually omit the last stage of dunking the kurbaj in the sweet sugar syrup. The taste of the batter bears great resemblance to the best tasting Belgian waffle.”

The sweet pastry that Kamel (Abu Wisam) makes is truly scrumptious. During our exploratory rides in the Palestinian countryside Mom, Aida, Abed, and I punctuate our trips with a stopover at Al-Majd’s bus stop.

By then I had eaten three karabeej. Aida and Abed were on their second, and Mom wanted to know the secret of the most scrumptious karabeej halab: crunchy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside pastry.

“Don’t give me the complete recipe,” Mom began. “But do you use yoghurt in the batter?”

“Once I had reached the perfect mix for my recipes I told my wife that should she divulge the secret even to her mother I would instantly divorce her,” Kamel persisted. To appease me he added, “but I can you tell about my name, ‘Jway’ed.”

I smiled helplessly. I know he has trained generations of young Palestinian dance troupes that toured in Turkey, Jordan, Morocco. I had wanted to learn of his unending energy and ambitions that underlie the special charm he exudes and that attracts all his “fans” from the mountains of Hebron. But I had been in many situations where instead of answering my questions the informants defer to me by relating what they deem more significant anecdotes.

“My great ancestor favoured sleeping on the ja’ed, sheepskin, whereas his only brother slept face down. Hence my cousins’ clans acquired the nickname ‘Mqaffi, sleeping face-downward. As for my clan, we were nicknamed ‘Jway’ed, after the ja’ed my ancestor enjoyed sleeping on.”

Wisam, his son, enjoyed hearing the story retold maybe a thousand and one times. His looks, however, earn him more than a medal (wisam), for he is waseem, handsome.

“You were too hasty in giving your son this name, Wisam,” I joked as I decided that I had had enough karabeej halab for the month. “He deserves the name Waseem.”

Wisam has already earned many medals as the lead dancer in the Dura region. The father/son team makes a great duo at the bus stop at Al-Majd, on the site of an ancient Roman city situated between the ancient Canaanite city Bet Mirsim and Beit Awwa, selling the best karabeej halab and offering a hearty welcome into the Qaysi region.

Interview conducted and article written by Dr. Ali Qleibo

TWIP August 2009

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