by: Riyam Kafri AbuLaban.
This piece was written and published in This Week in Palestine July 2012, edition no. 183.
Update July 2018. Since the publication of this piece, my twins mentioned in the article are now almost seven. Several of the grandchildren of Khamis AbuLaban are now married with more than one great grandchild. His youngest son Ziad and his beautiful wife and dear friend Esperanza returned home a year ago with their two teenagers, and are now key players in this big feast. The meal now serves eighty plus family members, sometimes more. We commemorated my father-in-law’s fifteen year anniversary of his passing July 17th, 2018. I have changed jobs, but most importantly… I still cook, one could say I have even upped my kitchen game a bit!
This is not a simply family meal, but Palestinian heritage and tradition moving through generations. It is a reminder that we are still here; a family started by a refugee who lost everything, has not only survived but thrived and continues to thrive, and seems to have everything one needs…love
July 20, 2012 – Our Ramadan commences with a 70-person iftar that brings the entire AbuLaban family out of the woodwork. The sisters, the brothers, the daughters, the sons, the grandchildren, the great grandchildren, the brides-to-be, the grooms-to-be, the sisters-in-law, the brothers-in-law, the AbuLabans living in Ramallah, and the AbuLabans from all over the world. Seventy beautiful people sit under the age-old grapevine in our front yard and break their fast together on the first day of Ramadan. None of the food is catered, it is all homemade, and as Allahu Akbarsounds from the nearby mosques, Samira (my sister-in-law) and I smile to each other as we watch the soup evaporate, the chicken disappear, the meat vanish, and the rice platters wane. The ebb and flow of food from platters to plates, the sound of children arguing over who gets the first piece of kifta – all are signs that the AbuLabans are gathered here and now to eat and mark the continuation of a venerable tradition started by Khamis AbuLaban, father and patriarch of this extended family of Abu Shoosheh refugees who came and settled in Ramallah in 1948.
The AbuLabans are experts at hosting big gatherings; after all, to gather the immediate family means a 50 plus person congregation of men, women, children, and teenagers. But isn’t this what Palestine is all about, large extended families, big dinners, and food cooked with so much love? Such dinners hold within their folds, the story of continued existence despite displacement and loss.
The women in our family cook like pro chefs and can dissolve the best catering company into tears. To me, the American-educated, young bride, and mother of twins, an AbuLaban Iftar sounded a lot like a scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and I kid you not, it is! I mean the best of filmmakers could not have choreographed a scene like this. And as the latest addition to the family, I had better step up to the stove and join the cook off, because this is memories in the making for me and my children and grandchildren to come. And who does not love to cook, really?
Preparations for this joyous event begin days before Ramadan. My husband Ahmed and my brother-in-law Hisham (and now Ziad) spend their time on the phone calling everyone and confirming an already known tradition. Everyone is invited. The menu is discussed extensively and the vegetables involved in the main dishes are chosen based on what is in season. Since Ramadan is in the summer these days, maqloubeh, the ultimate comfort food for Palestinian families, would take centre stage. Firm eggplants, watery cauliflower, yellow potatoes, and bright orange carrots all expertly layered with meat and rice and slow-cooked with water and spices, then flipped onto a large platter to take its rightful place as the queen of all dishes. Alongside the queen will sit fresh, green molookhiyyeh cooked with chicken broth and finished with qadhet tomeh(garlic), sprinkled with lemon and eaten with white rice; and for those strong at heart, hot green peppers on the side. Kifta bit-heeniyyeh will give those hungry for something tangy, dense, and meaty something to look forward to. The table is then complemented with fattoush, the perfect marriage between fried bread, fresh salad vegetables, and a lemon-vinegar-oil dressing, and ornamented with the deep-crimson baladysumac that Samira gets from Sinjel. Tamarind, qamr el-deen, and soos(licorice) filled with essential minerals necessary to quench a fasting person’s thirst sit in tall glass carafes on the side, along with the rest of the soft drinks. Dates decorate the corner of every table. And of course qatayef, the dessert of the season, nervously waits in the kitchen for its turn in this theatrical production of food and love. Qatayef is the showstopper of the evening. No one forgets dense, doughy qatayefstuffed with walnuts and cinnamon or sweetened Arabic goat cheese. Some of us wait the entire year for that one particular crunchy soft moment when it meets your tongue and explodes into your mouth causing a firing of taste buds and an overload of serotonin in the synaptic cleft. Your brain glows with pleasure. Kahweh sada washes it down.
The night before, as we all anticipate hilal (crescent moon) Ramadan to be spotted in clear skies, we begin to plan the next day. The schedule is set so that as the chicken is marinated the meat is cooking, as the meat is cooking the eggplants, cauliflower, and potatoes are fried. The rice relaxes in water as it soaks and gets ready to be cooked into the perfect softness. The ground beef is spiced and made into medium-sized fingers, precooked in the oven before the thick tahini sauce and the fried potatoes are placed on top and then left to roast in the oven. Samira and I along with many of my other sisters-in-law are up as early as five in the morning. The twins are up at that time and need to be fed, so I feed them, put them back to sleep and head to the kitchen. Samira is up too, and she stands in her own kitchen trying to begin the cooking marathon. And in collective but separate kitchens we cook rhythmically, systematically, and ritualistically, only stopping every now and then to check on each other. We coordinate the use of her big gas oven, the kind only restaurants and, of course, the AbuLabans own. We decide that the last thing we should tackle is fattoushso it can stay fresh, and we often encourage each other: “Just a few more hours, the kifta is ready, the chicken is roasting; khalas, we are almost done.” While the sounds in the kitchen rise with women chattering, and the temperature from the ovens spikes to carry aromas of cooked goodness, the young nephews and nieces are busy putting together the dining area. The tables are laid with plates, spoons, forks, and glasses. It is a world-class attempt to make sure that every guest has a place. Ramadan lights are threaded through the grapevine to add a touch of ambiance. Ahmed is busy managing the team of young nephews and nieces.
Samira has been cooking for the AbuLabans for years. She has been surrounded by nine sisters-in-law who all, like trained dancers, join her at the right time in the kitchen to give her an extra pair of hands to hold a pot or chop an onion or wash the accumulating dishes. She has four more sisters who may even extend this intricate and complex cooking dance into their own kitchens and offer to bring something cooked from their own homes. I have been doing this for three years (now seven), and lucky for me and the AbuLabans, cooking is a passion passed down to me from my mother. The act of bringing food to the table makes you a provider, a mother, and the owner of your own home. The first iftar in Ramadan holds all those meanings and much more. It is a tradition started many many years ago by my father-in-law, may he rest in peace. And it was continued by Samira and my husband many years after he passed away. It is not just food; it is about love and family and memories. It is simply Palestinian.
To Khamis AbuLaban, family is all he had left after he lost his village. And when you lose all that is material and physical in life, you always hang on to what is more precious, love. This coming Ramadan will start around the tenth anniversary of his death, but this Ramadan also starts after two more of his grandchildren have gotten married and started families of their own, one of his granddaughters welcomed another member to her family, one of his daughters-in-law is expecting another baby girl, and another grandson will be on his way to the golden cage of matrimony. We will all gather under the grapevine, we will eat, laugh, yell at the children to be quiet, and plan to marry off another son or daughter soon, and we will all play our little part in keeping the Khamis AbuLaban tradition in all its Palestinian-ness alive for many years to come. Ramadan Kareem!