In Gaza, Eating Under Siege

To view a slide show featuring images of the farms, markets, and people that make up Gaza's food culture, click here.

Once upon a time, Gaza was known for its citrus trees and its extraordinary seafood, the smell of jasmine in the evening. No longer: now it is hard to find any image of Gaza that does not reek of death, destruction and deprivation. And yet despite the siege, the bombings, and the political turmoil that surrounds them, the people of Gaza continue to live and to create their small share of beauty and grace wherever they can. One of these places is in the kitchen.

What I want to tell you about is the kitchen, with women's bright eyes flashing as they roll out the dough, and the herb garden religiously tended, and the delicate meal eaten in the shade of a fig tree. But alas, we are in Gaza, and I can't talk about the kitchen without talking about everything else.
We are talking about cuisine in a place where simply acquiring foodstuffs is beyond the means of the majority, and diabetes and anemia are quickly becoming endemic.

Food and cooking in Gaza have changed radically in the last few years since the whole area has been under siege. The borders of this tiny strip are entirely closed, allowing only humanitarian shipments of basic foods to enter--flour, sugar, salt, oil, pulses--and even these are entering at a rate which, according to the UN, only covers about half of the population's most immediate needs. (And that calculation assumes a totally equal distribution of aid, unlikely in the best of circumstances.)

Other goods enter through the Israeli border in a very limited number of trucks bearing a somewhat surreal selection of "necessities" determined by the Israel Defense Force's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. One week when I was there, for example, those necessities included persimmons and bananas but excluded almost all other food products. Everything else required to sustain the Gazan population of 1.5 million can only enter through underground tunnels from Egypt, an extraordinarily expensive clandestine trade in which many have died due to the gassing and bombing of the tunnels.


Photo by Amir Sadafi

Gaza has a rich agriculture of its own, producing exquisite fruit and garden vegetables, but as the Israeli "security zone" requirements increase there is less and less arable land available to farm, making it harder to fulfill Gaza's food requirements. Moreover, as the water available in Gaza is tightly rationed, there is ever less available for irrigation, and the orchards are withering. Fish, which once formed a central part of Gazans' diet, is now scarcely available as fishing waters have been largely closed off to Gazan boats.

Chicken and meat have suffered an astronomical price increase since the bombardment of Gaza in December and January as so many animals were killed; farmers estimate that it will take several years to recuperate the lost livestock populations. In short, we are talking about cuisine in a place where--despite fertile land and hardworking people--simply acquiring foodstuffs is beyond the means of the majority, and diabetes and anemia are quickly becoming endemic.

And then there's the question of fuel for cooking. The borders sometimes allow cooking gas to enter, sometimes not. As the power facilities have been bombed several times, electricity is very sporadic. Many families have small generators, but most of the gasoline for these must also be piped in through the tunnels, which is very expensive. Faced with the frequent impossibility of finding any kind of fuel for cooking, many families have recurred to their grandmother's memories, fashioning traditional adobe ovens on the roofs and balconies of their modern apartment buildings.

Knowing all this makes it that much more incredible to be treated, again and again, to beautiful meals in every house one enters. Palestinian hospitality knows no bounds, and since so few foreigners are allowed to enter Gaza these days, those of us who have that privilege are showered with food and drink and attentions. In this way women stake their claim on dignity and humanity even in outrageous circumstances: we will sit together and eat, we will remember the pleasure of small things, we will live despite it all.

To read the second part of Maggie Schmitt's series on food in Gaza, click here.

To read the second part of Maggie Schmitt's series on food in Gaza, click here.