Dana Hirbawi | 25-06-2021
Gathered around an old oakwood table, a group of young Palestinian female villagers celebrate the beginning of the grape harvest by serving a meal of different dishes and beverages that they have just prepared, all made with grapes. A dark-colored grape juice with a taste that awakens the soul. Kofta, which is flavored meat neatly chopped and wrapped in grape leaves. All sorts of desserts that dip the heart in sweetness. As the women enjoy their meal with some honored guests, they listen to a series of folk songs about grapes, such as “Oh Grape, Oh My Pampered Little One.”
The Arabic word for grape is “kerm.” It’s a homonym for the name Karam, which means generous. The name is appropriate because the grape is so generous of itself — it can be used in so many different ways. Many varieties of grapes grow in the West Bank, and each village and town has its own special recipe featuring the local variety.
A quest to create Palestine’s grape recipe book
Shaima Hamad is an inquisitive young lawyer who is documenting all of Palestine’s grape food and drink — not only the name of each dish and the recipe, but also the story behind it.
As a child growing up, she used to mark on her calendar the start and end of grape season—June and September. Her attention was always drawn to the grapevine, which is traditionally located in front of the Palestinian home. “Since I was a little kid, my love for my country makes me love everything in it—its food, culture, history, geography and even the hardships, which tell us that we have a real cause to defend,” she says. According to Hamad, recognizing the history and uniqueness of Palestinian food practices will help sustain them for future generations and also strengthen national identity.
The grapevine symbolizes protection
In a Palestinian folk tale, an old man named Sheikh Mujahed lived in a home protected by the overlapping branches of a grapevine. When a thief attempted to break in, branches of the grapevine tied up his legs until Sheikh Mujahed returned home. Hamad finds a correlation between this tale and the importance of preserving Palestinian food heritage. To Hamad, the grapevine is a source of peace. “Its shade makes me feel protected inside my home,” she says. “I love sitting under it; its green leaves fill my heart with joy and relief.”
Hamad further associates the Israeli occupation with the thief who attempts to break into Sheikh Mujahed’s home. She believes that it is especially important to document Palestinian culture, because the Israeli occupation is not only stealing Palestinian land but also attempting to deny Palestinian heritage, identity and connection with the land.
Grapes go way back in Palestinian history
Hamad highlights the deep-rooted Palestinian connection to the grapevine by linking historical sites to traditional dishes. During her visit to the city of Hebron, she visited a deserted bath called Hammam Nae’m that was closed under the order of the Israeli occupation. Hamad identified inscriptions on the floor in the bath that were inspired by grape leaves, and she also found similar inscriptions at Al-Haram Al Ibrahimi (the Cave of the Patriarchs), the fourth holiest site in Islam and the second holiest site in Palestine.
Hamad’s degree in law has exposed her to what other nation can do to document and obtain official recognition for important elements of their heritage. As an example, she notes that Greece successfully obtained from the European Union a “protected designation of origin” for feta; this recognizes feta as Greek in origin and grants the country intellectual property rights for the product.
The grape-centered harvest meal
For the harvest celebration meal, Hamad made use of several recipes from her collection. For the main course, she relied on a recipe from Jerusalem for the Kofta wrapped in grape leaves. Using a recipe from Hebron, she made grape molasses, served with olive oil. The people of Hebron, or Khalayleh as they are called, historically relied on grape molasses to warm them up during the winter. For dessert, she followed a recipe from Hebron for Khabeesa, consisting of semolina with aged grape juice. She also served a dish called Al-Shadda, which is traditionally given to women after childbirth to nourish them. Its name is derived from the Arabic phrase “Shadi Haylek,” which in English means “stay strong.” Hamad noted that the Palestinians’ relationship with grapes does not end with the end of the grape season, because grapes are dried into raisins that are featured in many winter desserts.
A mission to protect Palestinian food heritage
The problem for Palestinian food heritage, however, is that Palestine is not recognized as an independent state. Therefore, it has no legal standing to protect its unique recipes and food products. This exposes the Palestinian dishes to appropriation, which then can adversely affect the national identity of Palestine. Hamad hopes that her table becomes a symbol and a cause for an entire people, allowing the world to know Palestinian culture through its food. She hopes to use her work to contribute to the formal recognition of Palestinian food and protect it from cultural appropriation.
Eventually, Hamad aspires to have a big restaurant in an old Palestinian city with a menu of grape delicacies. She believes that to understand the big picture, you must start with the small details. “That is what shapes national identity,” she insists. “All the world will know us by what we are practicing. We shall strive to celebrate our culture by practicing it. By doing so, we protect our culture.”
Posted: June 24, 2021
Mentor: Beth Stickney