In the third of our series looking at the area of transnational literature in partnership with Bath Spa University and their Centre for Transnational Creativity, Sabrin Hasbun explores her Italian-Palestinian roots.
Pasta is a universal language, almost like love, and you can find it everywhere, more easily than love. Finding a pack of pasta in Ramallah in the early nineties, though, was harder than you might think. But my Italian mother, translating her love into determination, could always lay her hand on some. Only she could. I refused to eat any kind of Arabic food. I hated Arabic food, no matter how hard my Palestinian father tried to convince me.
My bitter enemy was a dish called Bamia, a tomato stew with meat and okra (ladies’ fingers), liked by everyone for its velvety taste. To me it tasted like spit. Every time I saw it on the plate, I dodged it with my fork, like the best of the footballers, and ate just the white rice on the side. Come on: would you eat something called ‘ladies’ fingers’ in a red sauce?
There was, in fact, one food I liked in Palestine: ice cream. It might sound quite absurd for a half Italian girl, but nothing was more intriguing to me than Ramallah’s pistachio ice cream. Its bright green drew my eyes like a Martian treasure. It was served in a glass bowl, similar to a champagne chalice. I felt like an alien princess eating her precious meal. I immersed my spoon in it, through its cold cloud of vapour and played with its sticky consistency. I took a spoonful and chewed. As its first ingredient is mastic (a tree resin also used in some chewing-gum), it didn’t melt straight away, and the woody pistachio lingered like toffee on my mouth for what seemed like light years.
Unfortunately, I failed to convince my mother that I could survive solely on ice cream. So she kept on trying to find something else for me. Something Palestinian – Mamma was not a good cook of Italian dishes, but when it came to Arabic food, she was great. She suspected that in a past life she was a lazy, podgy odalisque.
One day, she decided that Kofta might be a good compromise: patties of spiced ground meat, accompanied with onion, potatoes and tomatoes. A sort of hamburger without the bun. To be on the safe side, she also prepared three western hamburgers, in case I rejected the Kofta.
There were five of us at the table: my two older brothers, my two older cousins and I. And you know, older brothers have infinite ways to change their sisters’ minds. Can you imagine adding two older cousins to the mix?
The Kofta was in front us, and so were the hamburgers.
“You like Kofta, boys, so leave the hamburgers for your sister, if she doesn’t want anything else,” Mamma said.
“But she can’t eat three hamburgers!” they protested.
I dug my heels in: “Yes I can, because I don’t want Kofta.” I hadn’t even tasted it.
When my brothers and cousins had already finished all the tray of Kofta, I was still struggling with my first burger, which was horribly dry, my mother having done her best to reaffirm her odalisque past.
“Can we have the other burgers, Mamma?” my oldest brother asked.
“No, you can’t,” I said.
Mamma tried to mediate between us, but she only convinced me to give them one of the two remaining burgers. The four boys divided the sad dry scorched piece of meat between them, looking constantly at me, waiting for a sign of regret. But nothing. I resisted. More stubborn than ever.
I had barely finished the first burger and the dry meat was blocking my throat. I couldn’t carry on.
My brothers and cousins persisted. They stayed there, staring at me with hate in their eyes, waiting for my defeat. They were no longer interested in the burger, they wanted their revenge – to see me eat every last bit.
I have wondered since then why my mother didn’t say anything. I am sure, now, that she saw in that situation the solution to everything, and may even have planned it from the start.
I eventually finished the second hamburger. Yes, I finished it, with the highest sense of disgust, dipping it in my water glass, looking with desire at the juicy sauce remaining in the Kofta tray.
That was the last time I refused to eat Palestinian food. I can’t thank my brothers and my cousins enough for having been more stubborn than me. I have discovered since then that nothing can give me more satisfaction than a well-cooked Palestinian meal, with its long detailed cooking procedure. The meat needs to be stewed before being put in the oven at a low temperature for hours. The rice needs to be soaked, washed and washed again, toasted with butter and spices to keep its crunchiness. Almonds have to be cut three times, vertically. And finally, when the rice is ready, it needs to be “opened”: with a fork, delicately, each grain is separated from the others so the mouth feels them one by one.
My favourite dish is now Mansaf, which is all of that and more. It is the Arabic Sunday Roast. Even if I wait for it a whole week, it never disappoints. A fermented bittersweet yogurt soup prepares the mouth for buttery lamb; rice, spiced with a mixture of Jamaican pepper, cardamom, cumin, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon, gives back a sense of solidity; and finally toasted almonds reminds me to go for another mouthful. Mamma used to cook it sublimely. Since her death, my father prepares it if he misses me. Trust me: I’d actually go back home just for that.
I can easily find pasta in Ramallah now, but it’s not pasta I need anymore.
Sabrin Hasbun is an Italian-Palestinian travel writer and blogger. She has always had to mediate between two cultures and every day for her is a kind of journey across borders. Italy and Palestine are her two countries and form the focus of her writing, but in the last few years she has lived in France, Japan, and the UK and has been part of the academic worlds of the University of Pisa, the Sorbonne University of Paris and Bath Spa University where she is currently completing a Masters in Travel and Nature writing. You can follow her experiences on www.sabrinisnothere.com