On Passover I’ll pour out wine for Mahmoud

It’s Friday, which means I’m eating maklouba in the middle of the Muslim Quarter with Fadi.

My friend Amal took me there when I first started living in the Old City.

“What are you doing Friday night?” she said. “My friend Fadi works at this restaurant and he makes maklouba, and when the restaurant closes, all his friends come there to eat. Want to come?”

Um, yeah!

Maklouba is amazing. It’is chicken and onions and celery and carrots cooked with rice in a big old pot, and when it’s done, you take the pot, flip it over, tap it, and remove it from the rice. Some joke that it’s one of the pillars of Palestinian identity, along with resistance, struggle, and connection to the land.

We showed up at the restaurant after closing that first time. Fadi was waiting for us outside – he’s about our age, and he and Amal greeted each other in Arabic.

Amal doesn’t speak any Hebrew, but Fadi can but he won’t.
“My Hebrew is actually good,” he told me that night we met. “But it’s the principle of the thing.”

That first night he brought out the maklouba and plates for all of us.

“What do you think we are?” Amal asked him. “Tourists? AMERICANS?” she pushed the plates aside. “Halas – ENOUGH. Just give us forks.”

We dug into the mountain of chicken and rice and veggies and OMG it was delicious.

And the place is pretty special, too:
The restaurant is hewn in stone – like most of the buildings in the Old City. “when was it built?” I asked Fadi. “Well, this part is Byzantine,” he told me. “But look down here at the base — do you see? These are Romans. Over here is where they tied their horses. and this pillar is part of the Cardo – the road that ran through the heart of the Old City in Roman times.”

Fadi is an archaeologist and a total history geek like me, and we’re friends now. Every time I go in, we drink mint tea with sage and sugar, and he shows me more things he found — coins, or beads, a statue of a tiny goddess, and even an Egyptian scarab.

“They’re all from here,” he told me. “From right here in the Old City.”

That’s how friendship starts, I guess — a shared interests like old things and old stories. And also good food.

So I’m there often – not just Fridays – and I’m probably the only Israeli invited in to the back area where the family sits and everyone watches Arab Idol or the news or whatever else is on and shouts or cheers at the screen.

And tonight I’m back again and we are eating maklouba — no extra plates, only forks — only this time we’re joined by Mahmoud.

Mahmoud has a broad face and bright green eyes and hair clipped short, the color of steel. He doesn’t smile.

Actually, we’re sitting in HIS restaurant – he owns it — so I’ve seen him often. And as often as I’ve seen him, I’ve never seen him smile.

“I won’t shake your hand,” he tells me when Fadi introduces us. “It isn’t because you’re a Jew or an Israeli, so don’t be offended. I won’t shake your hand because you are a woman – because I am a Muslim man, and we do not shake hands with women that are not our closest relatives or our wives. You know this custom, no? You have it in your own religion.”

We do. And over the years of living here in Israel, I’ve learned when it’s ok to shake hands and when it isn’t.

He sits down. “Fadi says you are someone who listens.”

“I try to,” I say.

“Fine. So I am going to speak on behalf of everyone I know here in the Old City because you need to know the truth. Are you ready to listen?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure? You won’t like it.”

“I’m sure.”

I put my fork down and look at him.

“I know Fadi won’t speak Hebrew, but my English isn’t as good as his, so I will speak Hebrew so you will understand me. Until you learn Arabic and then I can understand you.”

I nod.

“Everyone on this street in the shuk will smile at you and sell yarmulkes and your IDF shirts and welcome you and say “Ahlan WaSalaam” and serve you tea. It is our culture to offer hospitality. We learned this from Father Ibrahim. You call him Avraham Avinu. Are you with me so far?”

“Yes.”

“But you have to understand that there is something deeper here for us, and it makes us angry, and that anger is there underneath our smiles and our mint tea and even our maklouba,” he rubs his face between his large hands and he sighs.

He drops his hands and looks at me.

“Listen: We are not killers, we are not thieves. We don’t want to hurt you. But we do have a story and that story is our truth, and that story and that truth is we were here first, and you took our land and you kicked us out of our houses and we are yearning to return.”

He’s staring at me now, and his eyes are boring into mine. The room is silent. Fadi must have turned off the tv. Everyone is looking at us. Even the kids.

“My father built our house in Bakka. Just South of here. He built it with his own hands, with stones he found, and he shaped each corner with his hands. And he planted fruit trees in the front. And in 1948, the Israelis kicked him out of his house and he fled to Jordan with my mother who was pregnant with me. He had to keep her safe, so he took her and they ran away. But after the war, he came back, and his house was still there but it was gone. Jews were living in it. His house. The house he built. The house he built for my mother and for me, and for my brothers. I want my house back. Do you understand?” He pounds the table.

“Yes.” And I want to reach for his hands and hold them, but I don’t.

“After he died, I went to the house, and an Israeli was living here. ‘this is my house,’ I told him. ‘No, it is my house,’ he told me. ‘my family has lived in it since 1948.’ ‘And my father built it before 1948,’ I told him. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘I’m sorry,’ he said and he shut the door. He’s sorry. That’s all. But what will that do? Will he leave the house my father built? Will he leave the house I was supposed to be born in? Will he leave MY HOUSE? MY HOUSE!”

Mahmoud’s voice breaks, and his eyes are shining.

“Are you still listening to me?” Mahmoud asks. “I want my house back. That’s all. I want my house back. Do you understand?”

“Yes. I do.”

And then for the first time, he smiles. And then he lets me see the tears spill over and down his face. This big, gruff man with grey hair and grand children. He’s sitting there and crying in the restaurant he owns, and I can see him as he must have been – a little boy moving from place to place, the key to the house his father built hanging from his mother’s neck. A little boy yearning with his parents for those fruit trees and those stones and that piece of land that was theirs, until just weeks before he was born.

He picks up his fork and takes a bite and gestures for me to start eating again, too.

And I am listening and I do understand. I do. Because part of being Jewish is knowing what it’s like to yearn for a homeland. And year after year after year since we first became a People, we’ve been telling the story of how we were slaves in Egypt, and how with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm God delivered us from those dire straits and into the Promised Land — The land of our ancestors. Those same deserts we walked, and the wells that nourished us, the fields we tilled and the homes we built, we have been yearning for this for thousands of years — and even still, when all around the world we say at the Seder “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem – that place of ideal wholeness and completion.

And it’s the same for Mahmoud, too.

During the Seder, at the peak of celebrating our redemption and our liberty, it is our custom to pour out wine when we read the Ten Plagues so as to diminish our joy as we remember the suffering of the Egyptians.

And this year on Passover, I will pour wine for Mahmoud, and Fadi, and Amal and their families and friends, too. Because while I celebrate being free last year next year THIS YEAR in Jerusalem — free to walk anywhere I want and eat maklouba anywhere I want and LIVE anywhere I want, they can’t.

And they are yearning for this, too.

And until we ALL are free, my glass — and heart — can’t be full completely.

(Image by Sarah Tuttle-Singer)

Sarah Tuttle-Singer

Posted by Sarah Tuttle-Singer

Sarah climbs roofs and drinks scotch and takes pictures and writes and teaches her kids to ask questions. She is is spending a year in the old city (3 months in each quarter) where she is writing a book about her experiences and the people she meets. Sarah is a work in progress, and you can follow her on Twitter and via her Facebook Page.

8 comments

Great story – passionate, sincere, honest

Rachel Sharansky Danziger
Rachel Sharansky Danziger

This essay was really interesting for me to read. It left me conflicted: on the one hand, I think it’s important to hear each other out. Arguing over facts and accuracy (and let’s face it, there’s a lot to argue about, in this narrative and in general…) won’t really get us anywhere, and reality as it is is untenable. Maybe better to just focus on listening and empathy.

On the other hand, how can we NOT argue over the relationship between our stories and the consept of truth? I can empathize with Mahmoud’s pain, but I can’t accept his story (that he was here first and we came and kicked him out) as capital T truth – not when I remember our millennia of yearning. And he can’t accept my story as capital T truth, not when his personal and immediate experience is one of dispossession. How do we move past arguing over who’s right when the stories are so central to who we are?

Adele Raemer

Beautiful story, Sarah.
Excellent questions, Rachel. I ask myself the same questions each and every time. And I could point out that the family could have remained. The story I was told by a Palestinian woman, while sitting with her in a circle in the woods near her former house (which is not livable any more – but an empty structure of stones) near Beit Jala, was that their Imams told them to flee, because “the Jews were coming and would slaughter them”. So were they kicked out, or did they run for their lives? It isn’t really relevant – what IS, is that they felt they were kicked out by the Israelis, that they feared for their lives, and they lost their homes which they, too, had built with their own hands.

And I could also point out that my family were kicked out decades ago, from their homes in Europe.

What did Mahmoud expect the man who lives in the house his father built, to say to him? “Oh- wow- sorry – here take the keys back”? At least he apologized. Empathized. (He was probably pretty shaken and surprised by the confrontation, himself!)

But here’s the thing: none of it is really relevant. The whole issue of who kicked whom out is a history to remember and empathize with…commemorating and weeping over our losses is legitimate, but until we ALL put our efforts and emphasis on moving FORWARD, we will always remain stuck in our heartaches from the past, and they will devour us. We all need to figure out how to build our futures together in this land to which we are all linked, and where we are all linked to each other.

Your Arab friends say they were here first, before the Jews, and then talk about the Roman artifacts around you in the Old City. The Arabs came to the region hundreds of years after the Romans had been here, whereas the Jews had already been here well before the Roman Conquest. While the Arab residents surely deserve a dignified solution, such a dignified solution does not ensue from lying about history. Acknowledging that Arabs came after the Jews will not cause us to kick them out. They have the rights of long-term residents in the area. They do not have to make up history for that.

Thank you for sharing this. Lots of pre-Pesach food for thought here.

What Maxim and Rachel and Adele said…

And there is so much that could be added.

Like, why does Fadi not speak Hebrew on principle? What sort of principle is that? I get it — he thinks it’s the language of occupation. Of imperial conquest and colonial rule. But it’s not. The truth is, Hebrew is an indigenous language from the Canaanite family while Arabic was imported through imperial conquest. We need not shove that truth down his throat, embarrassing or belittling or intimidating him, but it is the truth. And much pain derives from refusing to face it.

And why does Mahmoud feel the need to say, “We are not killers, we are not thieves. We don’t want to hurt you”? The lady doth protest too much, methinks. I don’t mean that his assurances are insincere and that he personally thinks otherwise. But he feels the assurances are necessary because too many who act in the name of his narrative think otherwise.

And what good are the assurances? Imagine the Jew living in the home in Bakka answering, “I am not a thief. I don’t want to hurt you. But this home, which was once yours, is now mine. That’s just how it is.” Can Mahmoud find comfort in that?

The Passover pouring out wine analogy is a good one because it recognizes the Egyptians’ humanity and pain and loss without wholly accepting their narrative at the expense of ours and insisting that the proper remedy is our own re-enslavement. It recognizes that perfect solutions are not possible.

Does Mahmoud understand that perfect solutions are not possible? If you asked him what compromise between Jewish maximalism and Palestinian maximalism he’d recommend or be willing to live with, what would he say? How many drops of wine, so to speak, will the Palestinians remove from their cup to mourn for Jewish losses, and much loss will they accept in order to accommodate us?

This story is fantastic. Mahmoud’s father built a house some 80 years ago, and therefore “he was here first”. Nobody else lived “here”, according to Mahmoud’s “logic”. Clearly, Mahmoud is doing alright, he is not living in the street, he has a home and a business. But thats not good enough for Mahmoud. Like a toddler throwing a tantrum because he wants HIS OLD TOY AND NOT ANY OTHER!!! Mahmoud wants THAT house and nothing else will do. Mahmoud and his friends live in Israel, but do not see themselves as Israeli. Israel has made Arabic one of the official state languages, taught in public schools and used on signs. But Mahmoud and his friends refuse to speak Hebrew, because it is offensive to them. There is a family living in “Mahmoud’s old house”. Where they’ve come from and why, Mahmoud doesn’t care. He just wants them to pack up their stuff and go away. Where will they go? Why should Mahmoud care! His father build that house and thefore that place is forever his, no matter how many decades pass. What a fantastic life philosophy! We should all do this. Move to some place, build something, then no matter how many decades we’re gone, it will forever remain ours… OH WAIT WE DID BUILD ON THIS LAND. I guess by Mahmoud’s logic Israel belongs to us and “we were here first”.

Sarah, what about Jews in Arab countries? Massacres, loosing their homes, having to flee. Can they return and receive their belongings, land, etc. ?

I do believe, whether or not the Arabs who left did so because of fear or otherwise should get restitution, just like Jews have gotten by at least the Germans.( I don’t know how many of the countries where lived was returned to them. Definitely not in sepharfic countries.) They deserve at least that much.

I dunno about this story.. As a Palestinian living here in the Land, I keep hearing the same stories over and over, the Jews did this and the Jews did that.. Basically blaming them even for our false life decisions!
Constantly living in the past and playing the victim card sounds to me like blaming the current German generation for what their ancestors did back in the Holocaust.
Let’s live in the now and find ways to leave this place better than we found it, instead of just reciting an old rusty narrative.
Bests.

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