To view a slide show featuring images of the food, farms, and people that make up Gaza's food culture, click here.
Not for nothing is this a holiday meal: the chicken required to make this dish has increased more than 100 percent in price since the bombings last January. One chicken can now cost as much as $18, as three of Gaza's 11 chicken farms were completely leveled by Israeli tanks, two more were severely damaged, and even the farms not directly damaged lost most of their animals for lack of fuel with which to heat the henhouses.
The massive unemployment in Gaza owing to the destruction of its productive sector and the impossibility of exporting through closed borders has reduced the per-capita daily income to about $2 a day. The ingredients for this splendid traditional dish would therefore cost more than two weeks' income for an average Gazan given the current situation.
Of course, grilled kebab is the king of street foods, served in a pita bread with grilled onions and a little plate of pickled vegetables. But traditional home-cooking tends more to the slow stews, meat so tender it melts at the touch of the fork. Sumaggiye is one of these dishes, perhaps the most quintessentially Gazan. It is a stew of beef, chickpeas and chard, married with the unique combination of lemony sumac and tahini. It is served with fried garlic and chili and mopped up with fresh pita bread. During the holiday season at the end of Ramadan, neighbors give each other bowls of sumaggiye, each family having its particular style of making the dish.
Lambs can be smuggled through the tunnels--they trot right through--whereas calves generally panic or don't fit.As beef is now almost completely unavailable in Gaza, this and other dishes are being made with lamb if they are being made at all. Lambs can be smuggled through the tunnels--they trot right through--whereas calves generally panic or don't fit. The minimum number of calves necessary to feed Gaza, according to the Israeli "Red Lines" document, is 300 a week, but even before the crossings were completely closed fewer than 100 entered per week. Now none enter at all, though small quantities of frozen meat are occasionally allowed in.
This has grievous consequences on both sides of the border. In Gaza it means malnutrition, astronomical prices, and the accumulation of power in the hands of those who run the tunnels. In Israel it means a breakdown of the trade relations that were once extremely lucrative for Israeli farmers.
The siege, or, as Israel calls it, the "restriction of luxury products" (like paper, shoes and rice), does have some economic benefits for Israeli farmers, however. If they have lost an enormous market, they have gained a dumping ground that serves to regulate market prices. What is or what is not a luxury, Gazans told me, seems to be determined by the surpluses produced by Israeli farms: when i visited, for example, the Israeli markets were glutted with melons, and at least three trucks a week of melons were entering Gaza. Whole neighborhoods of Gaza, I was told, were living largely off of melons.
Mustafa, a farmer I visited on the eastern border of Gaza who was harvesting his melons, lamented that there was no market at all for them: so many had so suddenly entered through the border. This was probably just as well, he added, as his melon patch was abutting the "security" limit from the border, and when working there he and his sons were occasionally shot at. Their farm, like so many others, is directly in the shadow of the border wall and its watchtowers.
Every once in a while jet planes drop a box of leaflets to the ground, advising them of new security limits: a couple of weeks ago the security limit was increased to 300 meters from the border, putting the melon patch in a danger zone. His children, he told me, know very well up to which row of vegetables they can play and after which row they will be shot.
During the bombardment last January, Mustafa's family was fortunate enough not to have their farm bulldozed, as some of their neighbors did, but they did lose almost all their livestock when their barn was hit by artillery fire. Some 25 goats and sheep were killed while the family huddled in the house listening to the continuous din of the nearby watchtower firing over their farm and into the refugee camp just beyond their lands.
"Where could we go?" says Mustafa's elderly father, who clearly remembers 1948 when the refugees arrived and the border fence crossing their land was first erected. "We will live here or die here, we have no other choice."
And so they continue to farm what land is left to them, and it's a beautiful farm. Tidy rows of tiny pale zucchini, eggplants both white and purple, peppers both sweet and hot, some broad beans, some corn. The water pump is under a spreading mulberry tree, and mulberry-stained kids play in the shade. "Of course we're optimistic," says Mustafa, with a gentle smile, compassionate with my incomprehension. "We have to be. The land is good, God will provide."
Thanks to Laila Al-Haddad, Rami Almeghari, Mond Mishal and Amir Sadafi.
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To read the first part of Maggie Schmitt's series on food in Gaza, click here.