House of Meat
In Bethlehem, the tomato tells of steadfast resistance
In a place where conflict permeates life, food is a medium through which women steadfastly resist occupation and the societal expectations imposed upon their gender.
By Rachel Hobley
She wants washing lines full and much, much rice to cook for lunch
And a large, large kettle boiling in the afternoon
And the table for everyone in the evening, its tablecloth dripping with the sesame of chatter.
She wants the smell of garlic at noon to gather the absent ones
And is surprised that the mother’s stew is weaker than the power of governments and that her pastry in the evening
Dries on a sheet untouched by any hand.
- Mourid Barghouti, I Saw Ramallah
In this stanza about his mother, Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti captures the ways that food and the political, economic, and social context of occupation intertwine in the lives of Palestinian women. In Palestine, women are the stewards of food and dominions of feeding. Making decisions about the kitchen, preserving culinary knowledge, maintaining familial honour through exceptional cooking — all are tasks which fall to the women of Palestine, whose food culture has been shaped over centuries by the natural riches of the land that lies between the Jordan River and the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. Through this work, they embody the principles of sumud (steadfastness), a concept which encapsulates the essence of the Palestinian story.
A means of resistance to the Israeli occupation of parts of what is today the West Bank and Gaza Strip, sumud means continuing forward despite the challenges of the context. It has become a way of life in a region where being — especially being — on the land is in itself an act of resistance. Since 1967, life in Palestine has been warped by poverty, unemployment, food insecurity, surveillance, and military attacks. Palestinian women in particular exist within what Pamela Urrutia Arestizábal calls a “continuum of violence”, made-up of oppression under occupation and traditional patriarchal structures. Yet in the spirit of sumud, their lives go on. Central to this steadfastness is food, an anchor to family and place even in times of conflict.
To understand these dynamics more deeply, I want to take you to “Beit-lehem” — a town in the West Bank whose name means "house of meat" in Arabic and "house of bread" in Hebrew. Cleaved from Jerusalem by a militarized eight-metre-high separation wall, in Bethlehem the clashes, detentions, and disruptions of occupation underscore the rhythm of the everyday.
It’s 2018, and true to David Sutton’s adage that anthropologists “choose their field sites based on gustatory preferences,” I find myself there as part of my master’s research, looking for a culinary narrative to challenge the downtrodden Palestinian “story” often portrayed in mainstream media. It is through this journey that I find myself shopping and cooking with three women: Salma, Yara, and Maryam1, who together form three generations of a Palestinian Christian family.
Food is a uniting factor across all the generations. Salma, the matriarch, taught her daughter, Yara — who is now a 70-year-old wife and mother of four — how to shop and cook. In turn, Yara passed these skills down to her daughter-in-law, Maryam. Over a hot Bethlehem summer, they then taught me how to core courgettes to fill them, roll warak dewali (stuffed vine leaves), scrub the spikes from cactus flowers, and make thick tomato sauce — one of their most cherished family recipes used to preserve the tomatoes that are vital to their cooking all year round. Through the humble acts of provisioning and preparing the sauce, Yara, Maryam and Salma demonstrate how they resist the constraints of occupation and socially prescribed gender roles. Following the tomato helps us to see the radical in the mundane and to reimagine our understandings of resistance against systemic oppression.
Choosing the perfect tomato is tricky. Yara says that it should be without a hint of green, and smell like summer. But if you find the right one, does it matter where it comes from?
Yara and I are at the suq (market) to buy vegetables for dinner. The street of the suq is covered and mostly used by pedestrians. Beef carcasses are suspended in glass-fronted butcher shops, the tops of their meat hooks adorned with bunches of parsley. The smell of offal cooking in the heat hangs heavy in the air. Balding Palestinian men and their apprentices flank tables stacked high with punnets of produce, most of which are from Israel. But some sellers, in a different part of the suq, have fresh fruit and vegetables that is balady, which literally means “my land” — seeded and nurtured in Palestine.
Yara approaches a woman sitting with a huge bag of tomatoes. These ones are balady, she tells me, and you can tell because of their taut skin, which is even in colour, not tacky with chemicals, and never squishy.
“Ithnaan shekkel!” [“Two shekkels”], the seller says. Rejecting many of the tomatoes the seller selects for her, Yara rifles deeply in the pile. When satisfied with her haul, she reaches for her purse, double-checking the price. “Arba3a shekkel” [“Four shekkels”], the seller says.
No. That’s too much. Yara tuts as she walks away. It is clear that she enjoys the performance of haggling, and the seller quickly relents: “Khallas! Ithnaan shekkel!” [“Enough! Two shekkels!”] Yara pays and hands the heavy sack of tomatoes to me.
Yara and her daughter-in-law Maryam both prefer to buy balady produce. For one, they prefer the taste. Palestinian vegetables are often cultivated using rainwater, a choice made largely from necessity — 85% of the annual groundwater yield of the West Bank is extracted by Israel, leaving Palestinians only 15% for their domestic and agricultural use — but one that has a distinctive taste, known as ba’ali, as well as look and feel. Occasionally that summer, I would buy non-balady tomatoes, cucumbers, mint, onions, and lemon to dice into a fresh and addictive Arabic salad. If Yara had come to steal one of the ingredients from my fridge, she would have known immediately where it came from.
Buying balady is also a key tenet of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Campaign, a global Palestinian-led movement that aims to use non-violent pressure, including product boycotts, to end the occupation. Some BDS campaigns actively promote the cooking of “slow-food”, using only balady produce. But the realities of occupation mean that buying balady is not always possible. Climate change is driving increasingly erratic weather patterns that impact the ability of farmers to cultivate their crops with rainwater. As it becomes harder and harder to grow crops naturally, Palestinian farmers have had to increase their use of pesticides to be able to compete with the abundance of Israeli-grown produce that floods the market. The increasing restrictions on the use of arable land in the Jordan Valley, the so-called “food basket of Palestine”, where 85% of the land is now fully under Israeli military control, means that sometimes, Israeli produce is the only option available.
The scarcity of Palestinian produce means that refusal of non-balady is not automatic. In Bethlehem, where hospitality is the backbone of family honour, putting traditional dishes on the table is very important, so women persist in buying the ingredients they need regardless of their origins. Yara can deduce where produce was grown just by matching the surname of the seller with the region they came from; armed with this information, she will then decide whether to buy. Maryam, Yara’s daughter-in-law, relies on shopkeepers to tell her that a product is from Israel, or looks for a sticker. And if she knows it’s from Israel, does she try and avoid it? “No,” she tells me. “I don’t!”
Their nonchalance about buying non-balady surprises me, but it’s simply another representation of sumud. You continue, despite the circumstances. Refusing to let every facet of your life — in this case, the food you make for your family — be dictated by politics is, in its own way, an act of resistance. It is as Yara says:
It [sumud] means getting the children to school every day, keeping what is Palestinian and teaching it. It means cooking and eating every day, no matter what is happening.
A few weeks later, with tomato season still in full swing, I enter Yara’s narrow, white-painted kitchen, the floor tiles cool and tacky beneath our bare feet. The house is quiet, aside from the hum of the fridge and the drone of the small TV in the corner. But don’t be fooled by the tranquillity — much work lies ahead.
Yara has collected seventy kilos of tomatoes in boxes fresh from the suq. She tells me that making tomato sauce is her favourite way to preserve the taste of summer. She learned to make it from her mother, Salma, and in turn taught her daughter-in-law, Maryam. Now, she wanted to pass the recipe on to me.
My mother used to say put this, put that, put this on the fire. While she was sitting, she would tell me put the onion on, do this, do that. When my aunt comes and sees me rolling malfouf [stuffed cabbage], she says ‘Wow, Yara, you are good! You are like us!’ I am happy because I know how to do the things.
Yara is committed to protecting the recipes which allow her and her family to maintain a modicum of normalcy in everyday life. While she is unable to protect Palestinian land, sumud means that she can play a role in protecting the intangible Palestinian culture by passing on culinary knowledge.
We sit down at her kitchen table and using small, serrated knives, remove the tomato stems and then quarter the fruits on chopping boards. The juice runs off the table onto our knees. Batch by batch, we blend the tomatoes and pour them into a large saucepan. We add generous pinches of salt and bring them to a boil. Yara tastes each batch as they bubble to make sure the sauce is both delicious and sufficiently salted to preserve the tomatoes.
As we bottle the sauce, the air is thick with steam. Throughout the process, Yara explains what we are doing and why, then allows me to feel the action in my body.
“Make it [the lid] as tight as you can,” Yara tells me. “Any air that enters ruins it, and we want it to stay the whole year.”
My hands pulse with the satisfaction of screwing a lid onto a recycled bottle, with the contents still warm, and creating a seal that will last for months.
My journey around the tables of Bethlehem found culinary delight in the feasts folded into the hands of the women I came to know. Their palms read like a recipe: garlic, thyme, olive oil. But in Palestine, such traditional recipes are rarely written down. In Yara’s kitchen, I only ever saw her use two: the first for a twisted “cookie” with rose essence, dates, and walnuts (demanding precise baking measurements), and the second for lasagne (a dish Yara had never cooked before). Any attempts to ask about the use of written recipes beyond these dishes were met with scorn, even by Maryam, who, as part of the younger generation, could access recipes on the internet easily. When I ask her about using recipes, she exclaims “What recipes? We cook from our head! Shoo [what] recipes! What blasphemy!”
Women are the purveyors of embodied culinary knowledge, not because men cannot learn it but because Palestinian society expects that a good woman is a good cook. A mother-in-law helps teach her daughter-in-law to cook both to maintain the family’s reputation as a generous host, and to assure sufficient care for her son. In the context of patrilocality, with wives sometimes moving to live with the family of their husband, a woman’s performance in the kitchen can reflect onto the mother-in-law’s household.
Not all Palestinian women feel comfortable with this gendered division of labour. Maryam tells me that when she stays in the kitchen for hours on end, no one tells her to come out. But when she wants to get ready for an event and takes the time to put on makeup, her family will demand, “Why?! You are using so much many colours, so many pencils. Stop it — we are waiting for you.”
But these household dynamics are changing. The economic situation in Palestine has been precarious for decades due to the occupation and has worsened significantly in recent years with the impacts of COVID-19 and global economic decline. Women are increasingly engaging in both informal and formal work, leaving less time for domestic duties like learning and making traditional recipes. As a result, men are spending more time cooking.
Technological advances have also shifted society’s demands on women’s time. Maryam, for example, preserves her tomatoes differently than Yara, her mother-in-law:
I put them in the freezer because I don’t like it her [Yara’s] way. The tomato sauce is too acidic, it causes something in the stomach that makes you sick. I put it in the freezer. I think it’s healthier.
Maryam has been learning more about the health implications of different recipes on social media, as a result of public health campaigns that are being run in the West Bank to counter the rising levels of diabetes and heart conditions. In her view, Yara’s sauce is too salty — another reason that it’s better to go with whole, frozen tomatoes instead.
The impact of these changes on the knowledge transmission of culinary knowledge remains to be seen. But as circumstances change, so too will the practices of steadfast resistance. Says Yara:
I don’t live like my mother or my mother-in-law. My daughters-in-law don’t live like me. Every twenty years there is a big change. Palestinian women and men of future generations will find their own ways.
What remains constant is the importance of decisions made by Palestinian women like Salma, Yara, and Maryam. Whether they choose to buy balady or not, cook in traditional ways or not — these considerations are anything but banal. When the day-to-day is dictated by the pressures of occupation and womanhood, each choice that one can make constitutes a small act of resistance, a commitment to sumud in the face of seemingly endless constraint.
From a background in social anthropology, Rachel Hobley works in humanitarian and development research and advocacy. For her, sharing food stories helps build connections and understanding through a shared humanity.
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Pseudonyms have been used throughout this article.