Stories of Siege and Zatar

By Samah Jabr

Palestinian women cooking.
My practice in the mental health clinic of Ramallah where I see many rural people has taught  me much about the local myths about our natural plants and herbs.

Most Palestinian are farmers who simply want to live productively on their land, but are not allowed to because of Israeli practices and discriminatory laws of land confiscation, expansion of settlements, wall-building and sanctioned state and settler violence and intimidation. 
Among other things, Palestinians are very fond of their food. We have several inspiring myths that affirm the supra healing power of Palestinian wild weeds and herbs.

Very early in my career, I learned not to express my skepticism about the healing power of natural herbs because there is no scientific evidence of the local claims. I'd better hide my objectivity in cautiousness in front of grandmas and people overenthusiastic about the healing qualities of our herbs. 

For many, the supra-powerful quality of our herbs is part of their belief system; herbs have a symbolic meaning for the nation; they make up the folklore of the Palestinian nation, often mentioned in our songs and poetry and exemplified in our proverbs.

 Attachment to wild herbs is attributed to the nostalgia and contemplative longing we feel when thinking of a home, people and times that are no more there, of friends and neighbors we had once and lost, of the loves that have come and gone. 

We need the smells and tastes to shape our tasteless life, to go to different journeys down the memory lane to a better past.

Herbal food also evokes emotionally laden memories. Distinctive odors associated with certain events can elicit memories for those events and emotions whenever its scent is present. 

The role of food in human life becomes more important in an ethno-political conflict, especially in the face of a national genocide.

A Bounty of the Homeland

Zatar is the most popular among Palestinian herbs. Zatar is the Arabic name of the herb thyme, Origanum majorana. It is used both as an herb and as a condiment: a mixture of ground thyme, sumac and toasted sesame seeds. It grows in the Mediterranean Basin countries over the slightly warm hills and mountains and has a strong smell and taste.

Zatar has been used along with other spiced salts as a staple in Middle Eastern recipes from medieval times to the present. It is used as a seasoning for meats and vegetables and is regularly eaten with olive oil and cheese in Palestine. It is believed to cure many diseases and to strengthen the immune system in humans and, above all, it helps to speed retrieval of information stored and speed the ease of assimilation.
Although z atar can usually be found in Middle Eastern markets in the West, Palestinians of the diaspora long to have their share of the herb picked in springtime from the hills of Palestine. A mother or a grandmother should do the job of drying the leafs of the zatar plant and then grind it and mix it with sumac and other spices, along with toasted sesame seeds. The mixture is finally packed and shipped together with a bottle of olive oil in a parcel of love to friends and relatives to enjoy some of the bounties of a homeland.
Many Palestinians believe that this particular spice mixture makes the mind alert and improves memory. I think that the origin of this belief comes from economic factors: zatar is relatively cheap and available in every home; children are encouraged to eat zatar before they head to school and are told it makes them more intelligent, so as to discourage them from asking for more expensive food items and urge them to meet what is expected of them: being smart at school!

Tastes, smells, plants and food are the anchors of memory, invoking a much wider context. For many Palestinians, plants serve as signifiers of the house, village and region from which they hailed. The attachment between the Palestinian people and their land is unparalleled.

Attachment to wild herbs is attributed to the nostalgia and contemplative longing we feel when thinking of a home, people and times that are no more there, of friends and neighbors we had once and lost, of the loves that have come and gone.  We need the smells and tastes to shape our tasteless life, to go to different journeys down the memory lane to a better past.

Zatar Under Israeli Law
Palestinian families have picked wild zatar for hundreds of years and have learned from their ancestors how to care for the yield of future years. But Israel declared the plant as a protected species on the verge of extinction due to over-harvesting in 1977.

Thus, under Israeli law, offenders risk fines of up to $4,000 or six months imprisonment for picking the amount of zatar needed for the weekly consumption of an ordinary Palestinian family.
Some Israeli companies "domesticated" and produced the plant to market it commercially, and Palestinians are expected to buy ready-made domesticated zatar instead of gathering the leaves and preparing the mix at home. 
"We'll eat zatar and weeds, but we won't betray and we won't be humiliated," Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyyeh said when the international community and Israel announced a boycott and cut off international financial aid following the Palestinian election of January 2006.

Israel has turned Gaza into a concentration camp and waged a war through policies and laws that are slowly choking the life from Gaza. There is nothing in Gaza to eat, people there are starving, and there is no light because they cut off the electricity. We have seen footage of a kid being kept alive by a hand pump, because that was the only way to get oxygen into his lungs, since the electricity had been cut off. 

But the pressure and tactics have not resulted in a desire for compromise, and the Gazans have not bowed to pressure to drop armed resistance or recognize Israel. This could have been one of the secrets of zatar, as well.

Unforgettable Stories 

Over an unforgettable breakfast of manakeesh (zatar can also be spread on a dough base with olive oil and baked like a pizza), a senior Palestinian colleague in London told me one of the saddest stories I've ever heard: she lived in Bourj el-Barajneh during the "camps' war," which led to mass starvation of Palestinian refugees in Beirut and in her camp. The siege lasted at one point for a six-month period. While some refugees were forced to eat cats and dogs, they, a relatively privileged family, could eat zatar bread from time to time.

One day a piece of that bread was missing and her father brutally interrogated them to find where that piece disappeared. No one admitted to have eaten it, and the boys were beaten up ruthlessly but they denied stealing the zatar bread.  

Before the siege ended, her eldest brother was killed in the confrontations that took place in the camp. When the siege was finally over and they went on to rearrange their home and life, they found a piece of rotten bread in the mattress of her killed brother. They knew it was the stolen zatar bread that her brother stole, but could not eat alone.

Not long ago, Jewish refugees used to come to Palestinian bakeries attracted by the smell of zatar; there were ones who appreciated the original taste and the real aroma.
We, the Palestinians, are the natural herbs growing out of the red soil of this land, since a time much older than Israel has been a state. In spite of all the efforts to fool our memory, to domesticate, dilute and falsify who we really are, there, on the top of the mountains there will continue to be a few untamed natural herbs with the real zest and character of the Palestine.

My mental associations with zatar seem to be endless, the stories and narratives are countless, sometimes they bring joy, sometimes they bring sadness, very often they leave me numb.

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