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Letter from Birzeit, #5: Family Dinner

October 13, 2013
by Maya Rose Goldman Maya Rose Goldman is a third-year student at the University of Chicago, where she studies Human Rights, Anthropology, and Arabic. After a visit to Palestine in the Spring of 2012, she became passionate about understanding the situation in the Occupied Territories and the relationship between Israel and Palestine. In August, she returned to the West Bank to study at Birzeit University, from where she has been writing these letters.

Family Dinner

September 13 img_0266Last night was truly incredible. My roommates and I went to have dinner at a family’s home (the same family I wrote about earlier: they had built a house that was destroyed by the IDF just after it was completed and furnished), and never have I felt so welcomed and embraced. When we arrived, we were seated in the living room for some pre-dinner conversation with the mother’s (Um Faras) sister-in-law and her daughter, and Um Faras’s daughter (Hala) and niece (Aseel), while Um Faras busily brought the plates and plates and plates (really, it seemed never-ending) of food from the kitchen to the dining room. The sister-in-law, Lina, spoke to us almost exclusively in Arabic and told us that she had lived in Chicago and then Wisconsin for five years, running a supermarket and staying with her sister. She then revealed to us that she had moved there twenty years ago, which shocked us — she didn’t look a day over 30! And when we said to her in Arabic, “I’m sorry, but can we ask your age?” she cracked up and made us guess. We still didn’t believe her when she told us she was 42. Shirley then asked, “What’s your secret??” And Lina gave us the four secrets: 1. “Love life.” 2. “Let life love you.” 3. “Practice.”(I think this has something to do with drinking lots of water?) 4. “Take care of your skin.” After a bit, we were ushered into the dining room where a long table was covered with large platters of food, all of which smelled new and incredible. There was bread, called msakhin (مسخن), which is covered in onions and sumac and almond slices (and a whole lot of oil). There was an entire round pan of roasted vegetables — Um Faras knew I was vegetarian, and actually everything on that table aside from the yogurt and chicken was vegan — a colorful salad, a platter of rice with almond slices, soup made with a grain that I believe was called “friqiya,” and then the chicken and yogurt. We started with the soup, which was so flavorful and which Um Faras was kind enough to make without chicken broth. I’d never had a grain like this before, and it was really interesting. We were given spoons for the soup, but basically everything else was eaten by hand and we all got so messy! The bread was undoubtedly the best thing on that table — and when I tried to reach for just a tiny bit more, Lina broke in and ripped off a massive piece for me and did not stop insisting that I eat the whole thing. The msakhin bread is very thin, so you can really focus on the flavors on top of it. Every bit of food was extremely flavorful and expertly cooked, and I was in physical pain afterward because all of the women kept adding more food to our plates no matter how much we protested. After dinner, we all moved outside to a lovely picnic table and a ton of chairs in front of the home. We all gathered there to drink tea — and then eat fruit and then drink coffee and then eat chickpeas (I couldn’t manage the last two; it was really overwhelming and I kind of never want to eat again) — and after some time, all of the women from next door arrived and joined us. Whenever someone new arrived, each of us stood, shook her hand, and kissed each of her cheeks twice. It all felt very European and I can’t even count how many cheeks I kissed last night. img_0268I spent most of the evening talking to Hala and Aseel, who were both incredibly patient with me — even when I needed them to repeat something four or five times, which was not an uncommon occurrence. Honestly, I did really well during the pre-dinner chat and then the dinner conversation, which was a huge accomplishment; I really felt a difference between the day I arrived in Palestine and last night in terms of my ability to speak and understand. But by the time we transitioned to the outside conversation, my mind was exhausted and I was really struggling. Still, these two girls were so kind about it, and they both spoke slowly and clearly for me. Hala and I talked a lot, and she complimented the blonde in my hair (she didn’t believe that it was natural) — we then compared how we each tie our hair in buns — and then asked me about my very-chipped manicure. I told her I really like to paint my nails, but I didn’t bring any colors to Palestine with me. So of course she jumped up and returned several minutes later with two handfuls of nail polish from her room. She showed me her favorite, and then I picked my favorite. I asked her if she ever gives herself a manicure, and she said sometimes she’ll do it on a vacation, but then she has to take it off because it’s prohibited in school. Aseel then brought out all of her colors and showed me her favorites, as well as explained all of the more obscure colors to me. My favorite was عنبي, which basically means “grape-colored.” And then both girls gave me two of their colors, insisting that I take them because “whenever you wear them you will think of us.” It was the cutest thing and I felt so bad taking so many from them, especially because one of them was Hala’s favorite color, but they really insisted. Aseel also spent a good deal of time showing me pictures of her and her family on her iPad, and then she asked me if I wanted to go on a hike with her one day soon — we’d start out in the morning, then come back to her house in the afternoon for some tea and relaxation, and then we would make stuffed grape leaves. How could I say no to an invitation like that?? She also asked me for fashion advice, which I found hilarious. I had to confess to her that I knew nothing about fashion, and she was definitely disappointed about that. Aseel is only a year or two younger than I am, and she’s currently in college studying Islamic law. Apparently a major like that will allow her to do pretty much anything once she graduates. All in all, it was wonderful and I’m really looking forward to spending time with this family again. And now begins a day of reading about the effects of Zionism on the Palestinian people and finishing the films “The Law in These Parts” and “Occupation 101″ (both of which I highly recommend, and the latter can be found in HD on YouTube). Click here for all Maya’s Letters from Birzeit.