Dining-in In Palestine

On Wednesday evening, we ate dinner in the homes of several Palestinian host families. Here are recaps on what we did and what we learned from each of our families.

Dinner at Jeries’ House – Shayna, Patty, Yvonne and Harry

Tonight, we ate dinner in Beit Sahour at the home of a Christian Orthodox Palestinian family. We ate, we danced, we sang, we made faces, we drew pictures and we caught an intimate glimpse into the life of a young family making its way in this small suburb just a short drive east from Bethlehem.

Rudaina Sahoury shares a moment with her daughter Krista. (The Land/Patty Guerra)

Rudaina Sahoury shares a moment with her daughter Krista. (The Land/Patty Guerra)

Jeries Qumsieh and Rudaina Sahoury have been married for eight years, and they have a loving and flirtatious rapport – Rudaina ribbed Jeries about domestic life, yet they shared affectionate smiles and sneaked high-fives when their daughters amused them. Rudaina is an English teacher at an Arabic elementary school, herding classrooms of 35 first, second and third graders. Jeries works as a carpenter – “buildings, furniture, anything,” he says.

They are renting their home, tucked inconspicuously among multi-family buildings on a sleepy and hilly street. Jeries said that he and his family hope to own a house one day soon, and tomorrow they are meeting with the bank to try to negotiate a loan. Photos line the walls of their living room – on one wall, a picture of the happy couple on their wedding day, and on another, a photo of their six-year old daughter Loudrah as a baby on the day of her baptism. Loudrah is the eldest of three girls, and she seems to instinctively play the role of the conscientious first-born. Her younger sisters are Sidra, three, with big curious eyes and pouty lips, and Krista, two, both mischievous and endearing in ways only toddlers can master.

Upon arrival, we were welcomed to sit in the living room, while Rudaina fetched a meal of chicken wings in a “sauce with no name,” rice with nuts, and white yogurt. When the meal was set, the four of us moved to the dinner table while Jeries and Rudaina sat on the couches, and the girls toddled around the room eating and playing with their food. Rudaina had a wry and mischievous sense of humor, and as we ate she told us the story of Krista’s birth: When pregnant with Krista, she went to the doctor to have an abortion. The doctor refused, and Rudaina had her baby, a decision she came to embrace. But ever since, she says with a grin, Krista has been exacting revenge for almost killing her.

Shayna and the girls play on the couch. (The Land/Patty Guerra)

Shayna and the girls play on the couch. (The Land/Patty Guerra)

As the meal winded down, the girls became curious with the camera app on Patty’s phone; and soon enough they had disabused themselves of their shyness. By the time dinner was over and we were back on the couches, the girls climbed all over Patty and Shayna playing and giggling. Shayna showed Loudrah her music app, and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” was met with our ridiculous dancing on the couch. Yvonne and Sidra snuck off to an adjoining room and practiced tying a bow.

During more solemn moments, Rudaina and Jeries acknowledged the challenges of life in Bethlehem – the inconvenient highway routes to Ramallah, the haunting memories of violence from the first and second intifadas, and the sputtering Palestinian economy. Rudaina, however, remained hopeful that the conflict could, one day, reach a peaceful end. Their warmth, their hospitality and – perhaps most of all – their commitment to giving their daughters the encouragement and courage to succeed, testified to this hope.

We embraced our hosts by evening’s end, and wished the anxious couple luck for tomorrow’s meeting with the bank. We promised to call them tomorrow to learn if they would be able to buy their own home. “Inshallah,” said Jeries, using the Arabic phrase for “God willing, so be it”. We echoed his optimism, “Inshallah.”

Dinner at Fadi’s House – Evan, Lisa, Yogi and Professor Goldman

“Life got worse after the wall,” says Fadi Rishwami over a dinner of rice and cabbage salad on his kitchen table in a Palestinian town just east of Bethlehem. “Sympathetic Israelis could no longer come and visit, nor could they demonstrate with the Palestinians in solidarity. So the issue moved to the back burner for many of our neighbors in Israel.” He and his wife Abeer, regularly host dinner and overnight guests through a program called Encounters, an initiative of the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem, an inter-religious group advocating for peace. He says it is his pleasure to host people in his home, to invite them for a scrumptious meal, and to show a different side of the Palestinian people. He wants to counter what he says is the most negative effect of the wall: keeping Palestinians out of Israel, and Israelis out of Palestine. “We have a saying in Arabic,” Fadi says. “If you can’t see, you can’t feel.”

To get out of the country, Fadi says the only route is through Jordan.  If Fadi wants to board a flight to Germany, where one of his six brothers lives and works as a civil engineer, he will have to drive to Jordan. Travel to Ben Gurion airport is allowed only in extenuating circumstances.

Writing a thank-you note to our guests. (The Land/Indrani Basu)

The trip to Jordan, Fadi says, used to take about an hour. But now, with a gauntlet of checkpoints run by the Israeli army, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordanian border control, he must plan to arrive the day before a flight. A recent trip home from the airport, he says, took him almost 24 hours. We just want to live a decent life,” he says.

In Fadi and Abeer Rishmawi’s kitchen in Beit Sahour, the books rest on a pair of Eifel Tower-shaped bookends. Hanna, their oldest son joined us at the dinner table wearing an Oxford University sweatshirt. A cross hung above the door, and pictures of Jesus on the wall next to photos of Fadi and Abeer. Their oldest daughter, Emili, rushed into the kitchen giving her mom a hung and confessing, “I have just been awarded a scholarship to travel to Bruges, Belgium, to study for a masters degree in Diplomatic Relations.” Her bachelors degree in French would finally be put to use.  Her parents’ faces beamed with pride.

The Rishmawis, however, did not take what they had for granted. “We all have jobs. More importantly, my children have promising opportunities in their lives. This is my hope.” The evening continued with conversations about Hinduism, Indian cuisine, Italian spices, and even the vegan birthday treats served at their youngest daughter, Jina’s, recent birthday celebrations. We sipped tea in their living room and promised to meet them again in the near future—perhaps next time, in New York.  Our dinner with the Rishmawis only encouraged us.

Dinner at Anwar’s House – Poppie, John, Devi and Kali

Just a short car ride East from Bethlehem is the town of Beit Sahour, or “Shepherd’s Field” – the place where an angel is said to have proclaimed the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. Our dinner host, Anwar, traces his ancestry in Beit Sahour to a time before the virgin birth.

“The Old Testament doesn’t talk about the state of Israel, it talks about the people of Israel,” said Anwar, who is Greek Orthodox. “I’m Christian, I believe that Jesus is King of Israel, so I believe I am one of the Israeli people. I am one of the people of Israel.”

But as a Palestinian, Anwar’s access to the state of Israel is restricted. He requires a special document in order to pass through the border checkpoint into Jerusalem on his daily commute to work. Even so, Anwar considers himself luckier than most. He was hired to do construction work for a Franciscan monastery in Jerusalem, and they gave him the permit that only employers can provide. It is valid for one year.

Anwar remembers when, some twenty years ago, it took him only five minutes to drive into Jerusalem. Now, he has to leave Beit Sahour at 4 am to ensure he arrives at work by 7 am, given the unpredictability of the border security. When the guards are lax, he said, it can take fifteen minutes. If the guards are new or if they’re settlers, he said, it can take up to three hours.

From their back porch overlooking a sweeping hillside, Anwar and his wife, Miravad, can see Har Homa, the southernmost extension of Israeli settlements from Jerusalem. The Palestinian couple has watched the spread of these settlements over the past eight years, and are anticipating a time when they will soon fill the entire landscape.

“It used to be like a forest,” said Miravad. She said she used to see deer running through there. Now, just settlements.

Anwar said that the only solution he sees is a single state solution, where everyone has freedom of movement and equal opportunity. He isn’t willing to die for the land, or to see his children die for the land. You can buy land, but not human life, he said.

Dinner at Souad’s House – Rachel, Jihii, Saman and Indrani

The evening began with Souad’s daughter picking us up. We had a good laugh about having five different religions represented by the five women in the car– Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism. When we arrived at the multi-family house, we met some of Souad’s children and grandchildren who went in and out throughout the evening. Our main companions were Souad and her grandsons Alla’, 17, and Emanoul, 14.

Souad teaches us how to make stuffed grape leaves (The Land/Indrani Basu)

Since we were early for the family’s scheduled dinner time, we opted to have some homemade tea before dinner. Seeing grape leaves drying on the windowsill, we asked what Souad was planning to make with them. Jihii was excited to learn a new dish and therefore offered to help with the cooking and made mahshee (zucchini stuffed with beef and rice) and warehek diwali (stuffed grape leaves) for a lunch Souad was planning the next day.   The rest of us spent time sipping tea and chatting in the living room.

Emanoul brought out his tabla (drum) and invited a friend over to play beats for us. At seven o’clock, we gathered around the dining table to eat with Souad and Alla’ while the younger boys went out. We ate delicious maklubeh (upside down rice), chicken, yogurt, salad, pita bread dipped in olive oil and homegrown za’tar, followed by bananas for dessert.

After dinner, we helped Souad clear the plates and then went up to the roof of her house with Alla’ to see a view of Bethlehem. We then took pictures and giggled with the family in the living room and wrote a thank you note in Souad’s guest book.

On our way back to the hotel, the boys took us on a tour of their neighborhood.  We visited the Shepherd’s Field of Beit Sahour. We also stopped at the Bethlehem Study Center, where Alla’s older brother Emad works. It’s a newly opened community space featuring hydroponic gardens, a café, meeting rooms, movie screenings and a study space at the bottom of what used to be a well.

The younger boys then walked us home as we took pictures and listened to American and Arabic music on their cell phones.



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