New Internationalist

Take one za’atar tea and call me in the morning

Palestinians seem to have this inherent knowledge of what foods and herbs are best according to the situation, time, ailment or celebration. Certainly, the average Palestinian knows a lot more than I do.

When I was ill last year with a nasty sinus infection, I wasn’t given any nose-drops or other medication. I was made to eat lemons, peel and all, or when not eating them, stuff them up my nose and inhale. Fairly painful, but also amazingly successful.

Photo by Gabriele aka Yellow.Cat under a CC licence.

Lemons are a natural healer for a variety of ailments and are a general boon to the immune system. Not surprisingly, lemon is found in most Palestinian dishes: hummous, roasted eggplant, salad, and is added liberally to chicken and fish meals, served as a juice, or just eaten peeled like an orange. Lemon and other citrus trees flourished in Gaza until about a decade ago, when Israeli bulldozers upped their campaign of destruction, demolishing nearly all the fruit, nut and olive trees along Gaza’s border.

Garlic is another healer found in most foods and was also thrown into a mug of lemon and parsley I was made to drink/eat another time I was ill.

But these are also common worldwide; there are a number of herbs and plants, even fruit I’d never encountered before, or if so in a different incarnation, for eating purposes only.


Photo by Eva Bartlett.

Zaatar, known as wild thyme, traditionally flourishes in the hills of occupied Palestine, less so in flat Gaza. Za’atar has a number of different varieties, but the three I’ve seen are used in breads, for tea, and as a herb condiment with olive-oil soaked bread.

Ilham, from the occupied West Bank, was a professional with home-grown herbs. She always had za’atar chai ready for sipping, deftly plucked and folded fat za’atar leaves into olive-oiled bread dough, and made her own dried za’atar spice.  

Za’atar, I’ve learned, is good for your memory, and also helps clean the stomach.

Merimmea is another wild herb usually used in tea only, as far as I know. Its taste is unlike za’atar or anything I’ve had around the world and is good for upset stomachs and getting rid of gas, among other benefits.

There’s mint and ginger, not exclusive to Palestine, good for the immune system, blood pressure, heart, relaxation, and amazing teas as well.

There’s anise, which I’d used in baking before but which a grandmotherly healer tells me helps with relaxation and digestion, stomach pain and coughs.  

And then there are a number of herbs and seeds I don’t know the English names for: shomar, amoora, and ekkleel jebal among them, good for your general health but also helpful for diabetics, asthmatics, and the heart.

A year ago, during winter, I roasted eggplant over a fire in a shelter with friends. When stepping outside into the cooler air  I was told with concern to wait and drink cold water before leaving the hot room, lest I get ill from the sudden temperature change. I’m told that if you sleep with a fan on but no blanket, you’ll have chest problems.

Maybe these are all obvious things, but I certainly never grew up knowing them (thankfully I’m in one piece). The common knowledge of what food or drink is good for you, will help with ailments, is complemented by a history of herb sellers and doctors, massage and cupping.

Gaza has its share of alternative care clinics, some legit and some lacking real training. But what has most impressed me so far is the knowledge of alternative and herbal remedies passed down from generation to generation, and in the case of the true healers, shared without fee.

An obligation to Allah, most would say, but also characteristic of the traditionally generous Palestinian society still seen today, despite siege and occupation.

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