It’s 8.30pm, and I have just returned from lunch. I was at Hannah’s house; she is a friend and colleague, and she invited eight of us over for lunch after work today. Gazans love their food, and so they should; it’s a wonderfully succulent and sensual diet of vegetables, meat, fragrant rice, salads and fruit, laced with garlic, lemon and olive oil, and served on enormous, tempting platters. Hannah cooked enough to feed about 30 of us.
Her table was laden with warah ainab, grape leaves stuffed with rice and meat, then steamed, and khudra, rice and lamb baked in large clay vessels; it’s a traditional Gazan dish, and the meat is so soft after being slowly baked for hours that it falls apart as you spoon it onto your plate. We had spare ribs, meat and rice fritters (kbah) and fresh salad. It was all home-made and divine. Afterwards, dozy and sated as big cats, we collapsed on the couches for coffee. Arabic coffee is sharp and strong and in Gaza is served without sugar. It works. Afterwards Hannah suggested we went down to her courtyard for dessert. ‘Dessert!’ We groaned collectively. ‘Please Hannah – we don’t need dessert!’
But she was having none of it; so we trooped downstairs to the courtyard, and sat amidst her roses, the rosemary, sage, and mint bushes, and the zaatar flowers so beloved of Palestinians. Gazans dry the zaatar flower seeds, then crumble them into olive oil to serve with bread. A while later dessert arrived: it was a huge tray of knaffah, a rich sweet cake made with white cheese, pastry, and a mass of sugar. ‘We don’t have much to enjoy in Gaza,’ said Hannah’s sister, Azrah. ‘But we have our hospitality.’
Hospitality is a massive part of Gazan culture. People will invite you for lunch after knowing you for less than five minutes, and they want you to come. Gazans love their family and friends fiercely. But families are struggling amidst chronic poverty, depression, violence, and Hamas/Fatah political sectarianism that sometimes has fathers and brothers who live in the same street refusing to speak to each other. The divorce rate is increasing as more women find their home lives unbearable, and the majority of Gazans cannot afford to eat the kind of feast we were still enjoying. We slowly ate our knaffah, then a while later we shared fresh fruit, and afterwards we drank tea with mint leaves. We gossiped and laughed, and lingered as the sunset slowly blushed across the sky.