It’s Friday, which means I’m eating maklouba in the middle of the Muslim Quarter with Fadi.
My friend Leila took me there when I first started living in the Old City.
“What are you doing Friday night?” she said. “My friend Fadi works at this restaurant and he makes maklouba.”
Maklouba is AH-MAY-ZING. It’is chicken and onions and celery and carrots cooked with rice in a big old pot, and when it’s done, you take the pot, flip it over, tap it, and remove it from the rice. Some joke that it’s one of the pillars of Palestinian identity, along with resistance, struggle, and connection to the land.
We showed up at the restaurant after closing that first time. Fadi was waiting for us outside – he’s about our age, and he and Leila greeted each other in Arabic.
Leila doesn’t speak any Hebrew, but Fadi can but he won’t.
“My Hebrew is actually good,” he told me that night we met. “But it’s the principle of the thing.”
That first night he brought out the maklouba and plates for all of us.
“What do you think we are?” Leila asked him. “Tourists? AMERICANS?” she pushed the plates aside. “Halas – ENOUGH. Just give us forks.”
We dug into the mountain of chicken and rice and veggies and OMG it was delicious.
And the place is pretty special, too:
The restaurant is hewn in stone – like most of the buildings in the Old City. “when was it built?” I asked Fadi. “Well, this part is Byzantine,” he told me. “But look down here at the base — do you see? These are Romans. Over here is where they tied their horses. and this pillar is part of the Cardo – the road that ran through the heart of the Old City in Roman times.”
Fadi is an archaeologist and a total history geek like me, and we’re friends now. Every time I go in, we drink mint tea with sage and sugar, and he shows me more things he found — coins, or beads, a statue of a tiny goddess, and even an Egyptian scarab.
“They’re all from here,” he told me. “From right here in the Old City.”
That’s how friendship starts, I guess — a shared interests like old things and old stories. And also good food.
So I’m there often – not just Fridays – and I’m probably the only Israeli invited in to the back area where the family sits and everyone watches Arab Idol or the news or whatever else is on and shouts or cheers at the screen.
And tonight I’m back again and we are eating maklouba — no extra plates, only forks — only this time we’re joined by Mahmoud.
Mahmoud has a broad face and bright green eyes and hair clipped short, the color of steel. He doesn’t smile.
Actually, we’re sitting in HIS restaurant – he owns it — so I’ve seen him often. And as often as I’ve seen him, I’ve never seen him smile.
“I won’t shake your hand,” he tells me when Fadi introduces us. “It isn’t because you’re a Jew or an Israeli, so don’t be offended. I won’t shake your hand because you are a woman – because I am a Muslim man, and we do not shake hands with women that are not our closest relatives or our wives. You know this custom, no? You have it in your own religion.”
We do. And over the years of living here in Israel, I’ve learned when it’s ok to shake hands and when it isn’t.
He sits down. “Fadi says you are someone who listens.”
“I try to,” I say.
“Fine. So I am going to speak on behalf of everyone I know here in the Old City because you need to know the truth. Are you ready to listen?”
“Are you sure? You won’t like it.”
I put my fork down and look at him.
“I know Fadi won’t speak Hebrew, but my English isn’t as good as his, so I will speak Hebrew so you will understand me. Until you learn Arabic and then I can understand you.”
“Everyone on this street in the shuk will smile at you and sell yarmulkes and your IDF shirts and welcome you and say “Ahlan WaSalaam” and serve you tea. It is our culture to offer hospitality. We learned this from Father Ibrahim. You call him Avraham Avinu. Are you with me so far?”
“But you have to understand that there is something deeper here for us, and it makes us angry, and that anger is there underneath our smiles and our mint tea and even our maklouba,” he rubs his face between his large hands and he sighs.
He drops his hands and looks at me.
“Listen: We are not killers, we are not thieves. We don’t want to hurt you. But we do have a story and that story is our truth, and that story and that truth is we were here first, and you took our land and you kicked us out of our houses and we are yearning to return.”
He’s staring at me now, and his eyes are boring into mine. The room is silent. Fadi must have turned off the tv. Everyone is looking at us. Even the kids.
“My father built our house in Bakka. Just South of here. He built it with his own hands, with stones he found, and he shaped each corner with his hands. And he planted fruit trees in the front. And in 1948, the Israelis kicked him out of his house and he fled to Jordan with my mother who was pregnant with me. He had to keep her safe, so he took her and they ran away. But after the war, he came back, and his house was still there but it was gone. Jews were living in it. His house. The house he built. The house he built for my mother and for me, and for my brothers. I want my house back. Do you understand?” He pounds the table.
“Yes.” And I want to reach for his hands and hold them, but I don’t.
“After he died, I went to the house, and an Israeli was living here. ‘this is my house,’ I told him. ‘No, it is my house,’ he told me. ‘my family has lived in it since 1948.’ ‘And my father built it before 1948,’ I told him. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘I’m sorry,’ he said and he shut the door. He’s sorry. That’s all. But what will that do? Will he leave the house my father built? Will he leave the house I was supposed to be born in? Will he leave MY HOUSE? MY HOUSE!”
Mahmoud’s voice breaks, and his eyes are shining.
“Are you still listening to me?” Mahmoud asks. “I want my house back. That’s all. I want my house back. Do you understand?”
“Yes. I do.”
And then for the first time, he smiles. And then he lets me see the tears spill over and down his face. This big, gruff man with grey hair and grand children. He’s sitting there and crying in the restaurant he owns, and I can see him as he must have been – a little boy moving from place to place, the key to the house his father built hanging from his mother’s neck. A little boy yearning with his parents for those fruit trees and those stones and that piece of land that was theirs, until just weeks before he was born.
He picks up his fork and takes a bite and gestures for me to start eating again, too.
And I am listening and I do understand. I do. Because part of being Jewish is knowing what it’s like to yearn for a homeland. And year after year after year since we first became a People, we’ve been telling the story of how we were slaves in Egypt, and how with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm God delivered us from those dire straits and into the Promised Land — The land of our ancestors. Those same deserts we walked, and the wells that nourished us, the fields we tilled and the homes we built, we have been yearning for this for thousands of years — and even still, when all around the world we say at the Seder “Next year in Jerusalem.”
Jerusalem – that place of ideal wholeness and completion.
And it’s the same for Mahmoud, too.
During the Seder, at the peak of celebrating our redemption and our liberty, it is our custom to pour out wine when we read the Ten Plagues so as to diminish our joy as we remember the suffering of the Egyptians.
And this year on Passover, I will pour wine for Mahmoud, and Fadi, and Leila and their families and friends, too. Because while I celebrate being free last year next year THIS YEAR in Jerusalem — free to walk anywhere I want and eat maklouba anywhere I want and LIVE anywhere I want, they can’t.
And they are yearning for this, too.
And until we ALL are free, my glass — and heart — cannot be completely full.
For more stories like these, check out Sarah’s memoir about living in the Old City, Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered
This story first appeared on Jerusalem Moments