It was somewhere around the first bite of m'sakhan and the second glass of arak that I started to think that my panic had been unfounded. "Unfounded" is a strong word. Misdirected, perhaps. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
First, m'sakhan is a traditional Palestinian dish of wood-oven-roasted chicken covered in sumac, cinnamon, and caramelized onions, served on flatbread. Arak is an anise-flavored spirit that is ubiquitous in the drinking-friendly parts of the Middle East; it's deceptively strong and very drinkable, particularly when thinned with a little water (which causes it to turn cloudy-white). And I was eating the chicken and drinking the arak in Ramallah, the largest city in the West Bank of Israel or the state of Palestine, in one of the most contentious and contested parts of the world.
I found myself in the West Bank to attend a friend’s wedding. Jamil was born and raised in Ramallah, moved to California for a job a few years back, and has made the Bay Area his home. He was marrying a girl born and raised in Ramallah after a relatively short courtship period; practically, getting married was the best way for them to stay together, as she was unable to travel to the United States given the current restrictions in the West Bank. He had invited a number of friends and coworkers from the U.S., not expecting many, if any, to make the trip.
Like many Americans, I learned most of what I know of the situation in the West Bank from news reports and unchanging State Department warnings. An added layer to this is that I was raised Jewish—a super reformed, hyper-liberal, Northern Californian breed of Judaism, but Jewish nonetheless. With this comes certain summer-camp-esque ideas about Israel, the West Bank, and the Six Day 1967 war that resulted in the present borders, the designated Palestinian territories, and the issues of settlers in these territories.
Most of my feelings about Israel, and religion, for that matter, have done a lot of changing over the past decade and a half. But I don’t tend to write about politics, or policy, or religion. I write about food, and for better or worse, that’s the lens through which I view any new place I visit, whether it’s the West Bank or the South of France. It’s how I orient myself, how I find common ground with locals, and the means by which I gain understanding.
Which brings me back to the m’sakhan. The bite—rich and meaty, lushly spiced, and imbued with the subtle hint of wood smoke—was an affirmation. Yes, you should be here. No, coming here was not a bad idea. And most importantly, I knew I was going to learn a lot about a place that many people would quickly dismiss.
The day had started somewhat shakily. The night before we were meant to travel to Ramallah, a Palestinian minister died, or was assassinated, depending on whose account you choose to believe. I spent a tense morning obsessively reading Google News, which featured dire-sounding reports including “Israeli Defense Forces to Send Extra Battalions ... to Ramallah!” “Funeral Planned for Noon Today … In Ramallah!” “Riots Planned … In Ramallah!”
By the time our cab driver—a tall, slickly dressed Israeli-Arab named Fadhi—arrived, I felt sick to my stomach at the prospect of actually going through with the trip. I was tense with fear and anxiety, and overtaken with a feeling of inevitability. I felt an out-of-body experience coming on, like I was watching myself climb into the car, buckle my seatbelt, look out the window.
Fadhi was chatty for the 45-minute drive, quickly pointing out that Westerners really had the wrong idea about the West Bank. “It is very safety!” he insisted. “Really, it is.”
We quickly cruised past a toll-booth-like stand. “Now, we are in the West Bank. That was a checkpoint.”
“That was it?” we exclaimed, in disbelief. We had come prepared, with water and snacks, expecting questions, hours of waiting, and beyond. He grinned.
“You see, I tell you! Very safety. Very different.”
Ramallah was quiet when we arrived. Serene, almost. It wasn’t Syria, or Afghanistan. Jamil picked us up not long after our arrival, drove us around town, showed us where the funeral had taken place earlier that day. He smiled when we told him our morning concerns. “Yeah, man, that’s just another day here,” he said. “It’s safe, though. They’ll make noise about rioting, claim that reparations must be made … and then we just move on.”
But what about those noises that sounded like gunshots that we heard, right around the time of the funeral?
He laughed. “Oh yeah, that was people shooting in the air. That’s normal, though.”
Ramallah wasn’t always quiet, or serene. Before the most recent major wave of conflict in 2007, it was a place where Israelis would come pretty often to party or eat or whatever. Then, tanks rolled down the streets where we now drove; Jamil had seen people shot from his grandparents’ house, and been cut off from his nearby university by a blockade. His cavalier attitude about the hype around the minister’s death wasn’t just acclimation; it was a recognition of a very marked contrast.
Right around then, we pulled up at Falaha, a spacious restaurant with outdoor seating just outside of the city center. Jamil ordered enough food for 10: a full spread of small mezze, including hummus, baba ganoush, and a spicy pepper paste; the m’sakhan; a bottle of arak; and hookah. He beamed as, after every mouthful, we commented on the deliciousness of everything in front of us, our eyes rolling back in food-induced ecstasy.
“I just can’t believe you guys are here!” he said for third time that day. “It’s unreal.”
We didn’t spend all that much time in Ramallah: three days and three nights. But the feeling of strangeness, disbelief, and fear dissipated quickly. Overall, it's a small, crowded city; there’s only so much land that can be developed in the rocky, hilly landscape, and most of it has been built up, making any property very expensive. Jamil’s driving tours included a lot of twists and turns; it gave the impression that the city was much bigger than it actually is. In reality, everything is closely clustered together, with a downtown area connected by a few major squares. We spent a fair amount of time walking around and pushing our way through the daily market, drinking strong, sweet coffee from a cart on the street.
“Where are you from?” the men at the market would greet us.
“California,” we’d say, a little cautiously at first.
“American!” they’d crow. “You are welcome here!”
There’s a very present Christian population in Ramallah: One of those downtown squares was dominated by a massive Christmas tree when we were there in December. There's a vibrant and bustling bar scene. Most restaurants serve alcohol (including Taybeh beer, brewed just eight kilometers away), which definitely is not a given in the Middle East.
But the sheer closeness of the region, and the claustrophobia of the West Bank, became clear in another drive with Jamil later that night. We were up on a small ridge, from which we could see Jerusalem, just 10 kilometers away. Seven kilometers north, on the right-hand side, was the Beit-El Israeli Settlement. Across the road from that was Jalazone refugee camp, dating back to 1949.
Attempting to understand when, and how, residents of the West Bank can enter into Israel proper can lead you down a rabbit hole of confusing bureaucracy and legislation. Suffice it to say, if you’re a Palestinian living the West Bank, it's safe to assume you probably can’t enter at all, unless you’ve been granted a permit designating a specific purpose (say, a visit to a hospital or embassy) with a strict time limit. There are checkpoints that Palestinians have to use, while Israeli settlers or tourists, like us, can pass through less restrictive border points.
Fadhi had explained much of this during our drive to Ramallah, along with the different zones into which the West Bank was divided. Area A, which includes Ramallah, makes up about three percent of the West Bank and is governed by the Palestinian Authority, or the elected representatives of the Palestinian Territories. Area B falls under “joint” jurisdiction, which, according to Fadhi, meaning there’s no real governing or civil infrastructure happening at all. Area C is controlled fully by the Israeli government, and includes all Israeli settlements. This was clear enough in conversation, but seeing it in person—how close together everything is, how limited movement is for much of the population of the West Bank—is striking. This is not a lot of land we’re talking about: about 5,500 square kilometers.
This is all compounded by the presence of a wall, the Wall, that separates any and all Palestinian-inhabited territory from Israel. It’s massive, imposing, and peppered with guard towers; some areas (particularly around Bethlehem) are covered with graffiti and art (Banksy has infamously left his mark on the wall, multiple times). Some of it is angry and anti-Semitic, but mostly it’s moving and tragic, beautiful in its attempted protest. “All walls come down eventually,” reads one message in green cursive. “Make hummus, not walls,” says another in big block letters. The paint may well have been wet on an entry starting, “From Ferguson to Palestine … .”
Our first trip along the wall was that first night in Ramallah: after gorging ourselves on m’sakhan and mezze, after I had had met the bride and attended her bridal shower, after I’d been hugged and fed (again) and pulled onto the dance floor by both her and Jamil’s families. We drove along its massive length, knowing that without it, Jerusalem would be no more than 10 minutes away.
But Jamil was not one to linger on this; not when we hadn’t tried the most important Palestinian food of all, despite protestations that we were too full to ever eat again. We turned back into town for a round of k’nafeh, a dessert of melted, salty, mozzarella-like cheese, covered with crisp, shredded phyllo dough and doused in sugar syrup. At Zalatimo, the k’nafeh is prepared in massive sheets, served in slabs the size of my face, and comes hot, the cheese molten. It’s salty and sweet, melty and crunchy, and maybe the best thing I’ve ever tasted. It doesn’t erase the sadness of seeing the Wall, but it doesn’t hurt, either.
I won’t claim that three days in one city in the West Bank, under the guidance of a friend, gives me any higher knowledge about the situation in the Middle East. It’s important to mention that I genuinely loved my time in Israel, which bookended these few days in Ramallah. Tel Aviv, in particular, was a city in which I felt immediately at home; the food there is damn good, too.
I have my thoughts about the conflict—that both sides are often in the wrong, and far too inflexible, and stubbornly unproductive—but I don’t write about politics, or policy, or religion. I write about food. I don’t have a solution to the mess in the Middle East, nor would I claim the acumen to attempt to come up with one. I do know this: It took me three days, and really, one meal, to change my perception of one part of this region. Maybe that doesn’t mean much, but it was a powerful reminder for me that food can be so much more than just sustenance.
Lauren Sloss is a San Francisco-based freelancer who writes about food, music, and travel. She loves avocados, hates bananas, and is prone to stints in Brooklyn, Istanbul, and Bali. Find her on Twitter @laurensloss.
Photo by the author.
The Concourse is Deadspin's home for culture/food/whatever coverage. Follow us on Twitter.