Norma, a woman born in Bethlehem almost 70 years ago of Armenian Orthodox parents, was schooled until age 14. She was then sent out to menial work which she has done all her life. Antonio, a Roman Catholic, a man with kind eyes whom I met only through Norma’s stories and a passport photo, died 2 weeks ago.
Loved by everyone for her modesty, kindness, and stoic attitude to life, Norma is the sole bread winner for most of her offspring. Her children and grandchildren are kept in Bethlehem and out of Israel by the tyranny of the Palestinian authority and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Bethlehem, once a Christian city has been diminished to a small enclave of the Palestinian Authority. Work opportunities for Christians are limited, and when it suits the winds of politic, the ‘government” manipulates an image of a thriving Christian city, with statements that “Jesus was the first Palestinian”. The facts are that most of the Christian community was persecuted by the PLO and Fatah and continue to be treated as a sub-class, and thus most of the population has fled abroad, seeking freedom of religious practice and a right to livelihood. Because of the past infiltration of Moslem terrorists from the city, Israel limited daily work permits to people above middle age. Thus Norma is permitted to work in Israel, and yet her children are not.
Norma comes to me on an adhoc basis to iron, and to assist me in cooking, and to this neighbourhood as a housekeeper to many of my friends. I’ve learnt the secrets of bread with zaartar, rice, labneh, and “machshi”. They speak to me from my paternal grandmother’s kitchen. She was born in Burma of Iraqi Jewish heritage. A heritage rich in stories, enhanced by the winds of the silk and spice routes.
I watch Norma cooking and hear the same almost grunt-like sounds, see the smiles, and nimble fingers of my grandmother. I see my grandmother’s heavy girth keeping Norma weighted on the present and on survival. I notice the same calmness, lack of gossip, and undoubting faith in the Almighty. There are work clothes and one good dress.
For 8 years now, it has been a tradition for me to go shopping with Norma and one of her friends to Mahane Yehuda Shuk, the produce market in Jerusalem, a couple of days before Christmas to find treats unavailable in Beit Jalla or Bethlehem. For 8 years now I’ve found juicy strawberries at their best at the end of December, and fish, both, considered luxuries since they are rarely obtainable, and if so, unaffordable in Bethlehem. Only this year was different.
Mahane Yehuda has been badly damaged by the severe week of snow storms in Jerusalem, and for the first time we experienced an almost siege-like situation. No supplies in and out for almost 6 days. Store keepers threatened by authorities with huge fines if they opened, tried to repair broken and dangerously unbalanced stalls. Many owners were still without electricity or access from their homes to the
Roads were still frozen until yesterday. This was strawberry day. Before her husband died, I’d asked Norma about her Christmas menu, and she explained every detail, except for one dish which I know is traditionally filled with pine nuts, I’d noted the reason for its absence: pine nuts are now prohibitively expensive.
Loaded up with these treats I drove to the border of Israel and the Palestinian authority, in the direction of Beit Jallah. There’s a certain spot in the road where a famous dentist holds court and a surgery. This is the building where I was met by Norma and her son, Joseph. It is not the first time I’ve driven there, but certainly the first time on a frosty road. At some point I stopped to enjoy the biblical hills still covered in snow, to appreciate my primordial connection with this part of the world. The Judean desert, its hills, now dusted in a white gown of peace. It some – how equalized or neutralized the politics: we were all contending with a common adversary: unprecedented weather, and we helped one another. Inshallah it would continue.
I in my car, followed Joseph and Norma in theirs, to the border, trimmed with an enormous red sign in Hebrew, Arabic and English… BORDER DO NOT ENTER Had my car been searched, the soldiers would have found a huge carton of grinning red king strawberries and boxes of pine nuts. This border post is adjacent to an army barracks: ours. The soldiers on duty were very kind to Joseph who explained I was an Aussie who had come to pay my respects in a house of mourning, and suggested where I should park so they could watch the car. Together we then drove into Beit Jallah and Bethlehem in Joseph’s Palestinian car. As an Israeli I was not permitted to drive my car in. I could not help but think of the symbolism of Joseph leading me to a safe place in Bethlehem, at Christmas.
This was a low risk expedition. Not like the one I’d taken about 5 years ago with Ariel, a sculptor. At that time we drove to a frontier post near Hebron where a car met us, driven by a swarthy man in a kafhir. This driver placed us in the back of the car, where the seat had been removed, and in its place we were rolled under a carpet, and the kahfir wearer drove us into enemy territory in Hebron. Unwrapped, covered in dust, we alighted at the clay works where Ariel had worked with local craftsmen for 40 years. That’s another story of makluba with cauliflower and rice !!
This Christmas, Beith Jallah: The cars have changed. Old Mercedes, stretch limos, bright yellow cabs’s, and Renault tenders, and many handsome BMW and Mercedes sports cars! No one wears a seat belt, everyone smokes and cares nothing for the traffic laws.
Santa clauses danced between foods stores, minaret’s, mosques and stores selling garish carpets, satin dresses, bananas and oranges. I searched for the eyes of the women in the street, some hidden under veils and chadors, others bright and impatiently waiting for the snow to melt. There are remnants of Ottoman and British architecture, but most buildings are modern, multi-storey and uninteresting. Neon and aluminium pervade.
Norma and Yosef live in the same complex of old Oriental style housing. Yosef and his wife Tamar, their 4 boys live in a tiny apartment, with Norma upstairs in another with the only visible grape vine on their flat roof. The children grow up playing in the small area with cousins and extended family, who live nearby, in a very modest family compound . Unlike theJerusalem areas where Norma works, here there is not a tree, nor a flower, only the distant desert hills now snow covered, and the top of the Nativity church on the horizon. The apartment was tiny, spotlessly clean and loved: I am their first Israeli guest. A small formica table was surrounded by a group of ochre coloured, plastic chairs which were unstacked when the children came in to eat. They do not all come in at one time, but rather in keeping with a Middle Eastern culture, one by one, or perhaps a few at a time. Then after each child had finished a meal, the chairs were immediately cleaned and re-stacked. What a great idea for a tiny room. I was embarrassed when they lit the heating – something they can ill afford and I insisted I was hot. I was enclosed by 2 sofas, 2 arm chairs, drapes, and some lovingly cleaned figurines imitating lladro and lalique, and about 4 Mary’s elegantly poised on the kitchen bench. Each smiling at us as we began lunch. In fact the Mary near the sink kept winking at me, confirming Norma’s urging and that of my grandmother: “eat darling, eat, take more; that’s not enough !” No crucifixes or confrontational bleeding images here. Just loving female energy.
Tamar had prepared 4 kilos of ‘kusa machshi’ a favourite of mine. These are tiny heirloom zucchini filled with meat and rice, and poached slowly in a tomato based broth. My Iraqi grandmother had made machasha from tomatoes and onions. Norma’s family makes the same dish with the same vegetables only I find that the zucchini are lighter and thus my preference. These vegetables filled with meat, have become a legend throughout the region, and each family protects their recipe closely.
Tamar’s offering today are zucchini filled with rice and meat, and each vegetable lovingly cleaned and sparkling in a broth I at first presumed had been thickened with egg yolk. How conditioned I am to kosher food. One taste of this delicious sauce and I realized it was yoghurt. The traditional method of the region: meat with yoghurt. I would savour the hint of goat, the balance between lemon and salt and the zucchini….and had to simply do the right thing and enjoy it. They kept piling my plate with more! Dessert was pomelo and oranges from Jericho from Tamar’s family home. These citrus fruits are the stuff of which stories are made of.
The famous strawberries had remained in their special cartons, and were put aside for the following day, Christmas Eve, when the family would enjoy them as part of the festive meal. The pine nuts were taken to a safe place, to be included in dishes for special occasions
After lunch, I was then invited to the ‘living room” – aka the other side of the table on 2 velvet orange sofas, and we looked lovingly at the family photo albums, sipping Arabic coffee spiced with cardamom and sugar. Everything was sparkling and clean, reminding me of the stories of Christian tradition, the stars of Bethlehem. Norma proudly pointing out the furniture and stove she’d help provide on instalment plans. We laughed at my scattering of broken Arabic expressions, and at the similarity of our family photos and our family structure and values.
Here’s a kosher adaptation of Norma and Tamar’s “kussar machsi”
Barhar A middle eastern spice dating from the 16th century, made up of a mix of ground clove buds, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and allspice, Available at Middle Eastern stores
Kafir A scarf used as a head covering usually in Moslem and Bedouin traditions
Kusa Arabic for zucchini
Labneh Soft cheese made from strained yoghurt. It was often ‘set’ in biblical times by the white sap from fresh figs, known as a natural ‘renet’.
Machshi Arabic for Vegetables filled with either meat or rice or a combination of both. Also known in my family as Machasha
Makluba A traditional middle eastern dish made with rice and chicken or meat such as lamb, and fried vegetables such as potato, eggplant, cauliflower. These are placed in a pot, which is then flipped upside down when served, hence the name Makluba, which translates literally as “upside-down”.
Pomelo The pomelo, is a crisp citrus fruit native to Southeast Asia. Grown in the middle east, harvested in winter.. It is usually pale green to yellow when ripe, with sweet white flesh and very thick albedo
Zaartar Arabic for Hyssop . [a cousin of oregano] Used in middle eastern kitchens as a freshly picked herb, or dried and mixed with sesame seeds and salt and used as an accompaniment to bread and olive oil, or in cooking.
You’ll need a large dutch oven with a lid. A deep pot will not work
A sharp knife
A mixing bowl, preferably glass or stainless steel
A long thin metal gauging tool used to remove the inner fleshy part of root vegetables, but not an apple corer
20 small zucchini -wash and cut off the green prickly end, and leave uncut, the rounded smooth end of each piece.
1/ 2 kg ground beef
1/ 4 kg scraps of meat similar to that you use for stock,
1 /3 cup olive oil, or similar such as corn or sunflower. Never use canola oil
2 cups of Persian rice which is washed several times until the water is clear
1 x 850 gm can of peeled tomatoes or the equivalent of fresh tomato pulp
1 x large tomato sliced thinly
To add to the rice
1 x teaspoon of salt
1 x teaspoons of ground black, pepper,
2 x teaspoons of bahar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon tumeric
Add 1 /3 cup oil
Pour 1/3 oil into the base of the pot
Place the scraps of meat onto the oil.
Then clean and prepare the zucchini and remove the centre pulp from each of these. The traditional tool for this work is a long, thin ‘gauger’.
Place the rice and ground beef into the mixing bowl and stir until these 2 major elements are well integrated and the meat is not in clumps.
Add the remaining 1 /3 cup of oil and the seasoning and spices listed above.
Fill the vegetables. As you fill each zucchini place it directly into the pot. Begin with a perimeter of vegetables and then work towards the centre. Keep the zucchini horizontal and not vertical
When all the zucchini are placed in the pot, pour over them the peeled tomatoes, and add enough warm water to just cover the vegetables.
The final touch is covering with the slices of tomato. Cover the pot with the lid.
Bring to slow boil and then reduce to simmer until vegetables are cooked.
Allow the Machshi to cool in the pot. Once cool, and for storage purposes if you don’t eat the dish immediately, separate the liquid from veggies. Store the liquid separately from the zucchini and simply pour over the machshi to re-heat as you require them
Note: another method is to use this recipe but bake the zucchini in an oven rather that cook on a stove.