Family Meal

West Bank–Fawwar, 2014

Noise in the front doorway, sounds of cars passing on the street. Holy Day prayer service had ended and more guests had arrived for weekly family gathering. 

I was introduced to Farouk’s sister Miriam and her husband Fahim. Three young women extended hasty greetings and then disappeared into the kitchen to assist Leya. I caught the name of one, Noor, a niece of Farouk. Younger sons Faisal and Hamza extended polite greetings and then disappeared with their cousins to play outdoors in the courtyard.

There were a lot of names in a strange tongue. I wouldn’t remember them all for awhile. 

The house filled with chatter in Arabic and much laughter. At least I could understand one of the two. Occasionally, someone spoke to me in English. I was offered more tea—enough times to be water-logged by the time we were called to table.

The dining room has one purpose—gathering to eat. Aside from one cabinet for dishes in a far corner, the room was filled with one long wide table. Eighteen of us (I counted.) gathered around the long table. I was ushered by Farouk to a seat at one end to honor a guest. Farouk sat at the opposite end. 

When we were seated and blessings were offered, the women jumped into motion. Platters and bowls filled the table in rapid order. I could not keep count of the dishes. Some were familiar—hummus, pita bread (which I learned to call khubz,) olives, lemon wedges, baba ganoush. I was introduced to something new and delicious—rice and flavored meats wrapped in grape leaves. Delightful—I never did learn to pronounce the name of it.

As the platters were distributed, hungry hands lifted them and began filling plates. The center of the table had remained bare. Suddenly, I understood why. Leya emerged carrying a gigantic platter, which she placed in the middle spot. A heaping mound of bright yellow rice (what we might call rice pilaf) was piled high with pieces of roasted chicken. Why I never took a picture of this display, I can only regret. This platter of food proclaimed abundance that must be shared.

Leya reached for my plate and dished up a generous portion of rice with two pieces of chicken. Once I had been served, hands reached in from all directions to fill plates around the table. And no one would let me finish. Each time my plate leveled so that I could see china, someone offered me another portion. I finally had to raise my hands over my plate and declare myself finished.

Throughout the meal, conversation bounced about the room. Everyone had something to say about one topic or another. I couldn’t understand a word of Arabic. But it was clear—these people had passion about their lives and were eager to share it. I observed no discrimination of age or sex. Men, women, boys all spoke at will. Usually two or more people were speaking at once. Lively, animated, passionate, friendly—these people shared bonds that were evident even to a stranger, who understood not one word. 

Frequently, someone would pause. The room would quiet, while one or another person spoke to me in English. For a few minutes, he or she would update me on the discussion and tell me the different opinions and points of view.

One conversation made a deep impression. That topic will be the focus of our next memoir.

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