For my birthday last month, I received a book each from two close friends. Each one of them – the books and the friends – has made a tremendous impression on me.
At long last, I have my own copy of the wonderful Jerusalem cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. I find much that resonates in the conversation and friendship the two authors share, where food is the creative meeting point in their culturally disparate backgrounds. I too have been blessed with similar experiences, and the relationships I have developed with Arab Galileans that began with discussions over food continue to be a source of joy and inspiration.
The second book is Sir Richard Burton’s original 1885 translation of The Thousand and One Nights. Storytelling is an esteemed art in Arab culture, and I recently read a wonderful novel called The Hakawati, which introduces, among others, these itinerant Middle-Eastern storytellers. The hakawati would travel from city to city, setting himself up in a tavern and telling his tales in nightly installments, always stopping at the point of greatest suspense, guaranteeing an audience for the following night. In Scheherezade’s case, keeping her royal audience’s curiosity alive was what kept herself alive (and keeps me turning the pages night after night). The exquisite detail, metaphor, fantastical creatures, heroism, lust and drama she weaves into her tales make the sanitized versions we read as children seem as pallid as the Scandinavian winter sun.
At the market in Nazareth the other day, I visited the Mahroum Arab pastry emporium, with its expansive spread of traditional sweets. As we marveled at the myriad shaped confections of pastry and filaments, nuts and syrup drenched cheese, the shop owner brought out a fresh tray, packed with little perfumed envelopes of flaky pastry wrapped around a creamy sahlab (a type of pudding traditionally made from orchid root) filling and sprinkled with crushed nuts. These exquisite pastries, he explained, are called Bride’s Lips.
Still warm from the oven, the sensual pleasure of those lips would not be out of place in any tale of enchanted princesses and their jinns. Now, like a true Orientalist, I can’t wait to go back to Mahroum for the next installment.