Olive oil and yoghurt, yoghurt and olive oil

No matter how they’re packaged, “peace” initiatives will do little until Israel’s oppression of Palestinians ends. (Rami Swidan/MaanImages)


As a child in early-1940s Palestine, I grew up in a small village of 1,500 individuals with its roots in biblical times. I would like to tell you an anecdote from my childhood that I recalled as I was reading the news the other day.

Life was simple, tranquil and often hard but despite the lack of modern amenities or even what was then available in the city, it was happy. There was no electricity or running water. We used kerosene lamps that gave poor lighting and kerosene stoves for cooking. The best stoves for indoor cooking were of the Swedish-made Primus or Radius brands. Weather-permitting, we cooked outdoors, often using a pottery pot, placed on three stones with a wood-fire underneath.

Food was tastier, simpler and healthier then, although we had no refrigerators. People dried fruits for the long, harsh winter, first by oiling them (which preserved tenderness) and then exposing them to the hot summer sun. Vegetables were sprayed with sea salt before drying. All our winter tomatoes were sun-dried, although nowadays that is a delicacy.

Bread-making was a well-honed process as well. You started with the grain, usually wheat, which was stone ground. I remember the mill was made of two round, heavy coarse black stones on top of each other with a three-inch diameter hole in the center of the top stone. Women (men never did the milling) turned the heavy top stone around with a wood handle while slowly putting wheat in the middle hole. Flour emerged sparingly from between the two stone wheels. The process was repeated daily as wheat was easier to store as grains than flour. Rarely, people carried their wheat to big mills in the city to grind all at once.

The dough made from this flour was left to ferment before being baked over hot round stones inside a thick clay dome called a taboun — which many still use today. The taboun had to be heated by covering it with slow-burning straw and dry manure without flames; it took many hours before it was ready to use. The stones on the ground absorbed the right amount of heat for the baking process to be perfect — producing delicious bread.

Women had to carry water many times a day from the village spring. I often wondered how young women balanced the large pottery jars perfectly on their heads without using their hands as they carried water up from the spring. During village celebrations, the women often danced with jars on their heads to demonstrate their skill, balance and prowess.

Jars, often larger, were used for storing olive oil to supply families with their needs until the next season. People used the same jars year after year, and the porous pottery became saturated with oil. People believed that the jars never needed to be washed because the oil in them never spoiled. Now we know that oil should not be exposed to either heat or light to maintain its color and taste. This wisdom was already built in to the thick-walled pottery storage jars.

Jars were also used to store homemade jams made of grapes, apricots and quince. From grapes they also made a heavy sweet molasses which was a great source of energy as well as a stable source of healthy diet in winter. All such winter supplies were naturally sterilized by prolonged cooking; they therefore kept well with no need for refrigeration.

Villagers were mostly illiterate, but that did not mean they lacked wisdom (though there was a boys school established in 1888, and girls had formal education when UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, established a school in the early 1950s). Despite the distance of formal governmental authorities or police (which ventured out of the city only when there was a serious problem), people followed strict rules and traditions of conduct toward each other.

The hard life that people led, and the necessity of putting all one’s efforts into ensuring you had the means to survive, meant people had little time for nonsense. So, now, after this pleasant digression, let me come back to the anecdote.

I remember that whenever my mother was upset, she would express her anger by uttering the Arabic expression “zeit ou laban, laban ou zeit.” It meant nothing to me until I grew older and my mother explained this common expression of disagreement. My mother said that a man once asked his wife to prepare lunch. When the wife asked what he wanted, the husband answered “laban ou zeit,” which means yoghurt with olive oil — something people ate then and now with fresh bread as a simple and delicious meal. You mean “zeit ou laban” — olive oil with yoghurt? — the wife replied, reversing the order. No, the husband insisted, “laban ou zeit” not “zeit ou laban.” The story goes that the disagreement between the two escalated into a furious quarrel with dire consequences. Neither the wife nor the husband wanted to admit that it made no difference no matter how one would arrange the two simple ingredients.

For the villagers, this story came to stand for any disagreement where the positions being put forward were essentially indistinguishable. So I found myself muttering this ancient expression last week as I read about a new “peace” plan offered by former Israeli deputy prime minister and former army chief Shaul Mofaz.

Despite the hype, it turned out to be nothing more than recycling of familiar worn-out schemes, repeatedly put forward by Israel and then abandoned: a Palestinian state with “temporary borders” on 50 to 60 percent of the West Bank with large Jewish-only settlement blocs annexed to Israel.

Of course Mofaz’s scheme was presented as a great departure — especially since he suggested that he would talk to Hamas in the course of implementing it. But just like all the previous schemes, Jerusalem and the rights of Palestinian refugees would be off the table. With the Palestinians offered no more than about 15 percent of historic Palestine broken up into isolated enclaves, it was simply a case of Mofaz offering “laban ou zeit,” when all the other Israeli schemes offered “zeit ou laban.”

Similarly, French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to host an international summit in Paris to “break the deadlock” in the Middle East peace process sounds indeed like suggesting that putting the “zeit and laban” in a different container would change it into caviar. It is hard to understand how simple facts escape the notice of leaders of the caliber of the French president. The problem is not how, where, or who would attend, and at what level. Rather, it what the conference would be able to discuss with zero options at hand.

The same can be said for all the other “peace process” schemes from Madrid to Oslo to the Clinton parameters, the “Geneva initiative,” the Road Map, Annapolis, and finally the failed mission of US envoy George Mitchell. They can all be summed up in that village wisdom which despite decades of Israeli oppression still survives, and provides much needed clarity, today: “Zeit ou laban, laban ou zeit.”

Hasan Abu Nimah is the former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations. This essay first appeared in The Jordan Times and is republished with the author’s permission.