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The Hummus In Oslo Is Good, But For Gazans The Aftertaste Is Bitter

posted on: Feb 9, 2015

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For a long time I’ve been claiming — and shocking some of my friends — that living for such a long time among the Palestinians entitles me to mock some of their customs. That is, I’m allowed to make generalizations as if I were the last of the Orientalists.

Here’s a generalization: Even abroad the Palestinians eschew unfamiliar food. A Palestinian who lands in Japan will first look for a Palestinian restaurant. At best he’ll be willing to compromise on a Lebanese place, or maybe a Turkish one.

I don’t know if you can find Palestinian food in Tokyo, but in Oslo there’s a Palestinian restaurant called Habibi, where I was taken last week by two Gazans, one older and the other young. They didn’t know any vegan restaurants in their new homeland.

And it wasn’t just any Palestinian restaurant but the restaurant of a man named Amer, born in Gaza’s Nuseirat refugee camp. Amer, the scion of a family of refugees from Lydda (Lod), has been in Norway for 35 years.

His Arabic words are sometimes confused and heavy, he said. He last visited Gaza 10 years ago. Five years ago he visited Ramallah.

And no, he didn’t have trouble at Ben-Gurion Airport. (“Do you know it’s next to our city Lydda?”) He didn’t have trouble when he flashed his Norwegian passport and the computer showed that his name was once listed in the Palestinian Population Registry, which is controlled by Israel, and was erased when he didn’t return after six years.

(This of course is an opportunity to mention once again that Israel controls the Palestinian Population Registry to this day. Not one Palestinian around the world can register as a resident of the Gaza Strip or the West Bank and receive proper ID papers if Israel does not give its approval. And as we know, Israel rarely gives its approval.)

Let’s get back to Habibi. The two Gazans explained the problem to the owner, for whom it wasn’t a problem at all, and he went out to the kitchen to rustle up some vegan dishes for us.

And so, on an evening two degrees below zero Celsius, two Gazan exiles and I behaved according to my Orientalist generalization. We ate hummus, tahini and stuffed grape leaves in the Norwegian capital, which to its detriment has become a synonym for deception, lies and disaster for the Palestinians. Only the squash had a seasoning that reminded me of an Indian dish.

Drowning at sea

Amer said his entire family remained in Gaza, and the two more recent Gazan arrivals in Norway, also born in refugee camps, were amazed.

They basically said: Apparently you’re the only one who didn’t look for ways to bring more family members with him and after him. If they could, all the Gazans would leave the Strip — except for the Hamas hard core.

And the young man asked me: “Have you heard about the 400 Gazans who drowned in the sea when they tried to reach Europe? Had they been asked before they died, they would have said: It’s better to die all at once and not die a little bit every day.”

The young man is married to a Norwegian woman, and about two years ago he had to return to Gaza until their papers were ready. He was in the Strip during the last war and left during a lull via the Erez crossing, with about 200 Palestinians with foreign citizenship and permits to settle abroad.

They were held at the checkpoint for 11 hours so Shin Bet security-service officers could interrogate them, try to extort information and brag about the database of information they already had about their neighbors.

Because Gaza is a shtetl, it turns out I’ve known the young man’s older brother for nearly 25 years. But even before I discovered that, I felt free enough to say that I didn’t dare ask people over the phone everything I’d like to know.

But now I could ask: Do people blame Hamas too for their intolerable situation? After all, we only know about protests against the UNRWA agency for Palestinian refugees, and against representatives of the Ramallah government and the United Nations.

The young man replied: “You’re right that it’s impossible to ask. But don’t blame them for not being able to answer honestly. Everybody’s paranoid. Everybody feels he’s under surveillance all the time — by Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. And of course people also blame Hamas for their situation, but they can’t do so openly.

“What’s called life in Gaza doesn’t let anybody think about oneself, to know oneself, to know what he or she really likes and wants. Only now am I beginning to ask myself who I am, what I want. In Gaza, people’s ambition is to play cards, or for there to be electricity in the evening, or for the bomb not to fall near their house, or for the rain not to make the sewage overflow. What aspirations can there be for people serving a life sentence like the Gazans?

“People’s concern in Gaza is how to kill time. My brother is a merchant and makes a decent living. But life isn’t only money. A person has to develop inside, in his soul. But nobody has plans, because they’re not only serving life sentences, they could die at any moment. Is it any wonder that people are becoming increasingly religious? When death is breathing down your neck, you prepare for Allah.”

And another generalization: Gazan generosity. The owner of Habibi adamantly refused to let us pay for the meal.

Amira Hass tweets at @Hass_Haaretz

Amira Hass is a writer for Haaretz