I travel to the north several times a year. As the bus rolls up the country, I’ve looked at the Arab and Druze villages covering the Galilee hills and wondered about the people; how they live, what they eat. It looks rural and Arabic, it has an atmosphere of a by-gone day, but I know that the larger towns have community centers, clinics and regional schools.
There is open and free travel to anywhere. All the same, I get the impression that village people tend to stay where they are, especially the women. It’s the men who move around for business purposes, or with the Druze, to serve in the army.
As my cooking has grown to reflect Middle-Eastern flavors, I’ve come to appreciate regional Arabic foods. But most of my exposure to these foods has come from fabulous cookbooks like those of Claudia Rodin or Yotam Ottolenghi, or from meals featuring ethnic cuisine at kosher restaurants. I never expected to walk safely in a Druze or Arab village, much less to cook and eat in one. But a few weeks ago, I did.
The Galileat website caught my eye while I researching an article I wrote for the Jerusalem Post. The site offers culinary workshops where groups together with an Arab or Druze family in their home, then sit down with the family to feast. One of the workshops is kosher. That intrigued me, naturally. I mentioned it in the article. A few days later, an email from Paul Nirens, director of Galileat, arrived in my inbox with an invitation to take part in the next kosher workshop. Was I interested?
What a question.
Meeting me at the Acre train station, Paul drove me up to the Druze village of Sajur. The ancient grave of Rabbi Shimon Shazuri is located nearby, and it seems that his name, Arabicized, became Sajur.
Jovial and voluble, Paul talked about the Galileat enterprise and how, in the short time it’s been operating, it has already benefited local families.
“This is a business, of course,” he said in his Australian accent. “I make money from it, and the families are making money from it. But part of my satisfaction comes from seeing how the women are becoming empowered by their new income. They enjoy the respect from the tourists and get more respect at home. Their self-esteem is going up.
I loved the street murals depicting idyllic rural life. Notice, though, that women’s features are not painted into the faces. A question of modesty? Or a sign of repression?
How about this mural on the walls of the local olive-pressing house?
The following photo shows women grinding grain in a hand-mill and baking flatbread on a saj (like I did with my blogger friends at a forager’s lunch once). All the street mural photos were taken as we drove past…to explain why they look like I took them out of a car window.
Having some time before the workshop, Paul took me to meet a woman whom he’s trying to persuade to join Galileat as a hostess. She told me to call her Peninah. She is a widow, weighing working with Galileat to supplement her income against possibly losing her widow’s pension if she does. Her cooking is legendary and Paul says, “People just fall in love with her.” I could see why. Look at that beautiful face.
Peninah talked about life as a village woman in a Druze village where religious law holds sway.
“Women here don’t drive,” she said quietly. “I’m not allowed to get a driver’s licence. And if I were to receive mixed groups into my home, I would be ostracized. That means three months when I couldn’t go to the hilweh (public prayer house) to pray, except for once a week, to ask forgiveness.” It seems that she could do much more for herself if allowed. “I’m not even among the most religious,” she continued. “There are some who are much more strict, sort of like your Ultra-Orthodox Jews.”
Out of simple hospitality, she poured coffee out of a long-handled finjan and offered us and beautiful fruit from her own garden.
The pear I ate was the most delicious pear I’ve ever eaten, sweet, firm and fragrant, with the essence of Pear melting in the mouth, as if I’d eaten the first pear G-d had ever created. Many Druze grow vegetables and fruit trees on their properties. I also saw barrels for collecting rainwater on roofs, and cords of wood stacked up beside houses, indicating wood-burning stoves in the living rooms.
It gets mighty cold up there in winter, and although the houses are completely modern, the Druze prefer to heat their homes the old-fashioned, self-reliant way.
But it was time to join the group at Sohweelah and Ri’ad Ibrahim’s restaurant in Sajur.
Paul had added me to a group who had read my Jerusalem Post article and become curious about the kosher workshop. Sohweelah directed the operations, while Ri’ad talked to us about how the Druze live. Both speak excellent Hebrew, and Ri’ad, having served in the Israeli army for 30 years, is entirely knowledgeable about Jewish life and culture.
A kashrut supervisor from the regional rabbinical council comes to make their kitchen fit for kosher-keeping tourists. The couple explained how the supervisor arrives the day before a scheduled group, kashers the entire kitchen, checks leafy greens, flours and pulses for bugs, then locks the facility up and takes away the key. When the group arrives, he returns to light the fires and open the kitchen again. I saw the kashrut certificate, which was original (not a photocopy) and up-t0-date, and was satisfied.
What did we cook? Well, there was sinyeh: lamb patties grilled and then baked with tahini. The patties were light and the sauce simply delicious. I’ll be posting the recipe, and a few more, in the next few days.
Tabuleh with pomegranate seeds. Chopped salad. Sambusak filled with a spicy combination of potatoes, onions, and green peppers. Stuffed zucchini.
More, and different foods appeared on the table as we sat down to lunch, like the house choumous with tabuleh and chopped salad;
rice with fried vermicelli noodles, topped with ground lamb (the more meat at a meal, the more luxury and the more respect shown);
fresh mushrooms and chickpeas in a hot (as in fiery) sauce; pittot topped with za’atar;
and delicate baklawa for dessert.
I can’t wait to show you the sinyeh recipe, and the recipe for stuffed zukes, which was surprisingly simple. But this post has gone on at length already. Meantime, please admire the ancient quern (hand-mill for grinding wheat into flour). Ri’ad’s grandmother had used it.
And I loved their antique phone. It was just the house phone that had been sitting around like that since it was last used and disconnected.
Thanks, Paul Nirens, for the extraordinary experience and the chance to speak with a Druze woman in her own village. Not to mention the most delicious ethnic menu, some of which I’ve already cooked again at home. Next post, sinyeh.( Sinyeh later.)