Walking along Gaza’s streets there’s always something to notice. Today it was a man, piping batter into rounds on a large electric hotplate to cook what look like pancakes. Qatayef.
I stop to chat and photograph the process, batter turning golden, one of the owner’s sons deftly flipping the rounds from hotplate to table.
Nearly everything in Gaza is improvised for want of the real thing, thanks to the unavailability of everyday items, banned by Israel. Abu Rami, the owner, pipes the qatayef batter through half a bottle, spout-side down. It does the job.
He explains the sweet, how to make it and what filling to stuff it with, the mutters something in quick Arabic to one of his sons. Moments later, the son re-appears and I’m called into a room behind the qatayef set-up.
“Try these,” Abu Rami says, handing me freshly cooked qatayef. Finished, they are crescent-shape, stuffed with either a soft white cheese or a mixture of nuts, cinnamon and sugar, fried, and served in a sugar sauce. I decline for the moment, but put them in my bag for later.
“Tayeb, okay, you must come for iftaar tonight, meet my wife and children and have fresh qatayef,” he tells me, a perfect stranger.
At just after 7 pm, the sun hasn’t set, the call not been made to pray. I poke my head in the qatayef shop (in reality just a room with a table inside and a few more tables spread on the sidewalk for qatayef sales), earlier bustling with the father and his son’s work and customers readying for night. Empty now, I see the shop as it is every month other than Ramadan, when Abu Rami again has no work.
“I used to work construction in Israel,” he says, not the first. “Now I don’t have work. My brother lives in the Gulf; he sends money every month for my family.”
Abu Rami speaks matter of factly, not resigned, nor ashamed. This is his reality, he has no real option for employment.
Inside the apartment home, children and his wife are setting out glasses, plates of food, juice, water. It is hot on this 2nd floor, and their power has been off for hours. Abu Rami’s wife M apologizes for the heat and hands me some tissues to blot away sweat.
The call rings out and glasses empty.
Mahmoud, one of Abu Rami’s 6 kids, avoids the meat dishes. “I don’t eat chicken or beef or fish,” he tells me. I’m thrilled, a partner in vegetarianism. It’s hard to break the news to gracious hosts who want to honour their guest with the best dishes, which must contain some form of meat. I’ve met only a couple of vegetarians in Gaza, and some half-veggies who eat meat if it’s cut in tiny pieces and mixed with something. But regardless, my hosts –whether they understand herbivores or not—always serve enough salads, hummous, rice, fruit…although I know for many of them they wouldn’t normally buy the fruit, too costly.
We eat: sambosa (phyllo pastry with meat or cheese filling), wara ‘eneb (rice-stuffed grape leaves), bird’s tongue soup (becoming a favourite!), and rice-stuffed squash and eggplant.
Then the fun begins. They have so many questions: how did I get here (Free Gaza boat voyage #3); tell us about other countries; what is the language in Canada (French, English officially, and many 1st Nations dialects all over, though sadly, shamefully unofficial); what do I think the best places in Gaza are (Al Faraheen, the rural area to the east of Khan Younis; anywhere along the sea; any market place; the falafel stand across from Shifa)…
Merva, Abu Rami’s wife, does beautiful stitching: wall-hangings, sofa covers, tray covers, even shoes and protective cases for mobile phones.
Her sons proudly show off mom’s hand-work. Amazingly, for all of the time she puts into each piece, she only sells them for 100 shekels for a small square (that’s about $25 for 2 months work). But, this helps the family out.
They unduly praise my broken Arabic (very broken) and upon learning that I’ve not yet learned to read, we begin to study each Arabic letter.
It becomes impossible to hear. Three children are simultaneously telling me how to write a letter and how it changes depending on the position in the word, and at the same time Merva is asking more questions and the grandmother is trying to decide where she’s seen me. It’s a 7 voice choir of chaos and I can’t stop laughing: none seem to notice how impossible it is to hear any one of them.
I leave this charming family and am escorted home in one of Gaza’s 6 (apparently) tuk-tuks. For Abu Rami, it’s the best solution: he can put a few kids inside when necessary, but the fuel costs are far less than a car. And for a man without a job in a Strip under siege and a family to feed, every shekel counts.