For 4,000 years, the Gaza District was a thriving and bustling spice hamlet along the Silk Road. Pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves — the spices that for centuries moved the world’s economy in their storied transit across the Old World — all passed through Gaza. The Gaza District, where my father was born and raised, connected Somalia and the Horn of Africa to the West along the Mediterranean’s land and sea routes. It was a place where fishermen sold fresh fish packed onto their boats in bustling markets, and where families barbequed fish over open flames along the coast beside salads of dill and chilis.
This once thriving spice capital is now barely recognizable in the emaciated strip that is actively being starved, scorched and sealed by the Israeli military.
A much larger area than the emaciated “strip” that constitutes Gaza today, the Gaza District gained its reputation as a place of peppers and spices. In addition to seafood, Gaza’s cuisine features dill and fresh herbs, and Gaza has long maintained a reputation as a haven of spice and as a fisherman’s paradise among Palestinians across our homeland nation and diaspora.
When Anthony Bourdain traveled to Gaza with Gazan food writer and journalist Laila el-Haddad in 2013, Palestinians were very pleased at the opportunity for the humanization of the people of Gaza, who have been held hostage for 16 years.
But the Israeli military has destroyed the once thriving district — a bustling metropolis that survived the world’s greatest empires and served as a nexus of trade by land and sea since the Bronze age. Gaza, which weathered the rule of Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans, is the place of an unfolding nightmare.
Since Israel began its genocidal war on Gaza last month, it has cut off food and water. This means that 2.3 million people in Gaza are hungry and thirsty as Israel continues to aerially bomb the 25-mile-long and 5-mile-wide strip of Palestinian land in a military campaign supported by U.S. taxpayer money and the Biden administration. On the Eastern Mediterranean Coast where ships once loaded turmeric, chili and olive oil, U.S. warships are planted, as Israel bombs hospitals filled with babies on incubators unable to flee.
Families in Gaza, who have long been forced into a system of dependence on Israeli commercial foods and humanitarian aid, are now being forced to drink non-potable water from the Mediterranean Sea or collect water from leaky faucets to ration to their children. Israel continues its violent raid on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip as well as the West Bank with over 11,000 Palestinians killed in six weeks, almost half of them children and babies.
The decimation of this vibrant spice capital didn’t start last month. Gaza has been settler colonized since 1948, militarily occupied since 1967, and under siege since 2006. This historic spice hamlet — one that connected Africa to Europe — has, for over 15 years, had to smuggle sage, cardamom, cumin, coriander and ginger, as well as chocolate, fresh meat, seeds and nuts, fishing rods, vitamins and oil for animal feed, chamomile, fertilized eggs, and other items banned in the name of security by the state of Israel. When Israel admits items like chocolate, it is only for international organizations, and not for Palestinian use.
During these years under siege, residents of Gaza have even had to import things they used to see on their shores all the time, things like cinnamon. For a long time now, Gaza has become dependent on crocks of vegetable oil, powdered milk and water supplied by international humanitarian organizations. Now Gazans are being starved by Israel of food, fuel and water while also being actively dispossessed and displaced by attacks from the air and the ground.
Israel’s current onslaught on the people trapped in Gaza — which under the constraints imposed by the siege was already described by many as an open-air concentration camp — has transformed Gaza’s beauty and abundance into a space of scarcity and massacre.
And all the while, the people who are attempting to piece together their lives amid this genocide are hungry for bread. By November 4, 2023, Israel destroyed an eleventh bakery in Gaza, and Israel’s total siege on the emaciated strip of land has meant empty bellies for over 1 million children. Some expectant mothers have been unable to feel their fetuses since the beginning of the airstrikes, and with only 2 percent of the needed supplies allowed in since October 7, the search for bread has become more ardent with each passing day.
As Palestinians in Gaza look to the skies, their eyes meet bombs and streaks of explosive chemicals falling on their gardens, churches, mosques, homes, schools, hospitals, playgrounds and bodies. Families dig their hands deep into the rubble that once was their home, searching for signs of life from loved ones unceremoniously bombed and buried. They see missiles form craters on the surface of the earth.
Many people line up at dawn to get bread, especially as supplies dwindle. But some bakeries will not open tonight or tomorrow because they do not have fuel or electricity, or due to a fear that the aroma of fresh-baked bread across Gaza could instigate an aerial bombardment. Just a few weeks ago, the Rustom Bakery in southern Gaza was offering fresh-baked pizzas, packed shawarma sandwiches and Thai wraps, and even had a delivery service. Today, images circulate of fresh baked bread scattered among rock and ruin, covered in spilled blood.
They also search for lentils or rice or powdered milk or beans amid the growing craters of earth and rubble that very recently contained signs of life. Even before this expressly genocidal massacre, 80 percent of the people in Gaza were food insecure. They combine boiled water with rations of milk powder to replicate a farmer’s cheese, or jibna baladya. This resourcefulness and creativity have made Gaza’s foodways pliable, flexible and durable despite the painful reality of 2.2 million living in history’s largest and most densely packed concentration camp, 100 percent of whom are currently food and life insecure.
Neuroanthropologist John Allen has argued that the taste, smell and texture of food can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back memories not just of eating food itself but also of place and setting. But what about the taste, smell and texture of hunger? Of devastation? Of genocide?
Israel’s active process of deprivation, starvation and mass murder has made it impossible to cook Gaza’s aromatic qidra — rice cooked in a vessel often with lamb or chicken spiced with nutmeg, ground red pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, black pepper and turmeric (spices that have been a part of Gaza’s cultures and food traditions for generations).
Israel’s genocide and starvation campaign keeps us from the meals we should be having to celebrate Gaza’s 2000-year rich history as a sacred Palestinian place — like the fried fish cooked over an open fire beside the Mediterranean shore, to be enjoyed with a tahini salad, fresh bread and pickles.
The colors of the watermelon are reflected in the Palestinian flag: red like the seeds in our soil, green like our harvest next year inshallah, and black and white like the clarity of our truth. It seems we have much to learn from the watermelons in Gaza. In the hot summers of southern Gaza’s Mediterranean coast, locals roast unripe watermelon over flames in the tradition of Palestinian Bedouins. Others store watermelon in the cool part of the home until sundown, then crack it open and serve it alongside salty white cheese and mint tea.
When Israel banned Palestinian flags from being displayed in public spaces in 1967, the watermelon replaced it, only to be fortified by the artworks of Palestinian artists like Khaled Hourani, who in 2007 painted a slice of watermelon as part of the Subjective Atlas of Palestine project. Content creators and protestors alike claim the watermelon as a signifier of Palestinian steadfastness. Artists Against Apartheid have had an exhibit dedicated to the melon long before the October genocide began.
What is a recipe against starvation? What is the antidote to violence, death, deprivation?
Watermelons come in 1,200 varieties, none of which are genetically modified. They were first recorded near Gaza 5,000 years ago. They are 70 percent flesh, 30 percent rind, 92 percent water, and 100 percent edible. They are packed with potassium, magnesium, and vitamins A and C. They can prevent cell damage due to their rich antioxidant content, including vitamin C. They can improve the heart and protect against cancer, inflammation and chronic illness. They can also protect against skin ailments, degenerative blindness, muscular issues and indigestion. The watermelon provides an abundance of water, sustenance for the body, full happy bellies and replenishment of the collective.
In the context of genocide and deprivation, our abundance is created, or at least imagined, as simply as the watermelon grows in Gaza. In the space between life and looming death, Palestinians in Gaza make bread and pizza by repurposing industrial materials, squatting and huddling over the makeshift tin oven, and blessing the hands of the elderly women who prepare it. The children drink in rainwater, mouths open to the sky, and express gratitude for their thirst quenched even if temporarily.
The watermelon’s regenerative qualities and ubiquitous presence across Palestinian media reminds us that there is something fierce born of this earth manifested into an unspoken bond and a promise — between a homeland, its ancestors and families, homes and harvests, bodies and water.
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