Gaza. O, O, O, O.
I'm working on the production of a piece called The Shouting Fence that I wrote with the composer Richard Chew in 1999. It was inspired by a photograph of a woman in a burqa standing on a hillside shouting through a megaphone. The setting was the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights. The village was, and still is, after an endless series of border changes brought about originally by the Six Days War, divided by 50 metres of no man's land. The inhabitants would come on Fridays to either side of the fence to how can one describe it? converse. Our response to this curious, touching, disturbing ritual was an antiphonal choral piece in which two choirs sing across a divide only 20 metres, cowardly with the audience in the middle.
In one section of the piece, two women sing, through megaphones, the passage from the Song of Solomon which begins: Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm One woman sings in Hebrew, one in Arabic. It's impossible not to be struck by the similarity of the two languages. In Hebrew (excuse the iffy transliteration): Sime ni kahotam al libecha, sime ni kahotam al zroecha In Arabic: Ij'alni kakhatim alaqalbika, ij'alni kakhatim a la sa idika Of course, it's not surprising they're both Semitic languages, and have the same roots. The word anti-Semitic, habitually used as a synonym for anti-Jewish, or even anti-Israeli, actually means anti-more-or-less-everyone-in-the-Middle-East. Confusing.
What about Semitic food? The signature Semitic dish is falafel, claimed as the national dish of Israel, Egypt and Palestine. The Palestinians accuse the Israelis of having appropriated it; like almost every other point of contention in the area, the origins are murky. Actually, it's close to becoming the national dish of the world (do I mean the international dish of the world?), amazingly threatening the ubiquitous pizza. MacDonalds have unveiled their MacFalafel. National dish of vegetarians. National dish of the festival world. Consequently, there's a lot of iffy falafel on offer. Here's a good recipe, which my wife Jo makes, courtesy of Sam'n'Sam, the Wizards of Moro:
Soak 250g chickpeas overnight. Drain them. Put half of them in a saucepan with plenty of water, bring to the boil, and simmer for about 15 minutes until tender. Using a food processor, grind up the uncooked chickpeas, then the cooked ones. Put them all in a bowl with several chopped cloves of garlic, plenty of chopped parsley and coriander, 1tsp ground cumin, 1tsp ground coriander, a grated onion, 50g plain flour and a beaten egg. Mix well, and season with salt and pepper. Shape into small balls and fry in plenty of sunflower oil. Very good with pickled beetroot as well as the usual flatbread and tahini sauce or hummus. Falafel and hummus chickpeas and chickpeas slightly tautologous combination.
It would be a mistake to overstate the similarity between Jewish and Arabic cuisine. But consider also the excellent dish mujadarra (megadarra/mejadra/mudardara etc etc). It's eaten in many parts of the Arab world, and it's particularly popular with the Palestinians, but the great cookery writer Claudia Roden's Syrian Jewish aunt Rgine used to serve it, and it's very similar to several Sephardic Jewish dishes involving rice and caramelised onions.
First make caramelised onions. Take three onions, cut them in half and then slice as thinly as you possibly can. Heat 200ml sunflower oil in a frying pan, and fry the onions in batches until they are golden brown and crisp. Meanwhile, cook 200g brown or green lentils in plenty of boiling water for 10 minutes, so that they have begun to soften but still have some bite. Drain. Heat a few tbsp of olive oil in a frying pan, add 1 tbsp coriander seeds, 2 tsp cumin seeds and fry for a few seconds. Add the lentils, 200g basmati rice, 1 tsp ground allspice, 1 tsp ground cinnamon and 300ml vegetable stock or water. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, cover, and simmer gently for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat, slip a tea towel under the lid, and leave for 10 minutes. Mix in half the onions anspicesd put on a serving dish, with the rest of the onions on top. Claudia Roden's aunt used to present it regularly to guests with the comment: Excuse the food of the poor! to which the unanimous reply always was: Keep your food of kings and give us megadarra every day!''' Serve with a bowl of yoghurt and a relish of finely chopped tomatoes, cucumber, carromujadarrat, mint and parsley, mixed with lemon juice. Very good with burghul instead of rice.
I look forward to MacMujadarra. Actually, that's a lie, I don't look forward to MacMujaddara at all.
Meanwhile, the fear and the fury and the recrimination and the revenge go on. A fragile ceasefire is in place in Gaza. But you'd have to be the world's greatest optimist to believe that it will last.
The Shouting Fence will be performed at the Culture Factory in Limerick on October 17-20.
Photo: Ken Anderson.