Today is a special day: Marcella opens us the doors of her big house on the outskirts of Hebron, in the Occupied Territories. In her welcome we can feel all the warmth of the Palestinians and the welcoming spirit of the Italians. Marcella is from Rome, but she has been living in this tormented strip of land since 1979. She moved to follow her husband, a Palestinian doctor whom she had met in Italy. That was a long time ago, Marcella got six children from this marriage. She sold her apartment in Rome and talks with a hint of regret about it. After the death of her sister, who was the last relative she had in Italy, she feels the distance with her own country even more. However, Marcella is happy and this shows in her pride when she introduces us to her husband, her son and grandchildren who look at us curiously. Today it is a special day because we finally managed to arrange a meeting in Hebron. We are the Italian Women in Palestine, many of us are just passing by, stay for a couple of years to work on some development projects or to accompany their husbands, and then relocate to other countries; some have married Palestinians and live here without a return ticket. It is always difficult to meet because we are all scattered between Jerusalem and various parts of the West Bank. Some of us are not allowed to come to Jerusalem. The first meeting was held in Ramallah to make it possible even for the “hebronites” to participate. Today many of us traveled from Jerusalem and Ramallah to come and spend the day at Marcella’s.
After us, other “Italian Women in Hebron” arrive in small groups – Laura, recently married, who tells how she manages to make a delicious mozzarella with local milk; Zeinab, born and raised in Italy from Palestinian parents, a smile as warm as this land and a contagious dynamism; Miriam comes with her children: four beautiful multilingual daughters, affectionate and curious. Miriam apologizes for the veil that covers her hair, she says “you’re not used to see me like that, but this is what I do when I walk around here”. Then comes Patrizia, whom we had not met before: She is also full of energy and joy. The reason for the overall excitement is that we finally managed to get together under the same roof in front of the sumptous table at Marcella’s. She has obviously been working very hard for the occasion even if she denies it and says she has been helped by her daughter and daughter-in-laws.
While we chat, we hear dishes brought to the table, and once everything is ready we get up and find ourselves in front of an amazing meal: Marcella has learned a lot from this land and is particularly talented at cooking. To entertain her friends she has prepared sambusek, stuffed grape leaves, oriental salads, hummus and bread, which is of course baked at home, a thin and crispy sheet of pasta, yet warm, the perfect accompaniment to this meal which is a joy for our palates.
While dishes are filled with this delicious food, and the air smells of zatar, cumin and olives, intimate talk starts and the “Hebronites” share their their challenges in finding a balance in this culture so distant from theirs, a modus vivendi to interact with their husbands’ families; they tell us anecdotes related to cultural misunderstandings, moments of fatigue and loneliness.
Family pressure in the Palestinian culture is strong, but these women have more than one resource, they are able to react and to move amidst many challenges; they have learned to discover their new country with an open mind but faithful to their own origins.
They have given birth to children who speak perfect Arabic and Italian, they learned to cook, to express themselves in a proper way and to keep quiet when necessary.
They went through dark moments, lived through political events that left their mark on the land and in their neighborhoods, they suffered for lack of water, electricity, for the curfew… And today I am here, at this table that unites us all, Marcella’s dishes among us reduce the distance between their experience and ours, and create a bridge of friendship, proximity and curiosity. The cuisine in Palestine, as throughout the Middle East, is first of all a means to exchange love.
Dishes are abundant and nutritious and their flavour complete. The ingredients come from the earth – the delicious olives and the oil made from them, the colorful spices, the vegetables cooked in a myriad of ways. We sit at the table for a long time, eat plenty; the meal ends with a good coffee with cardamom and we try the inevitable highly sweetened pastry, that envelops us like the hospitality of these special people.
Text and Pictures by Claudia Landini