Maggie Schmitt

Where is Um Hana tonight? The tanks rolled into Beit Lahiya weeks ago, the air exploding around them. At first I pictured her and her four bright daughters huddled in the stairwell or the pantry. I’ve been holding on to an image of her singing to them, braiding and rebraiding their sleek hair, making up rhymes and word-games to distract them from the faceless destruction rampaging through their streets, while the dust and smoke choke the doves in their rooftop cote and smother the flowering basil. Now watching the news even that bittersweet image becomes implausible. I picture them in one of the UN schools, crammed in with hundreds of other families, sweating in the still July air and waiting. I try not to picture them, its too horrible.

I am thousands of miles away; the night sounds only of crickets and frogs, my own child is sweetly sleeping in the next room. Um Hana, I wish I could share this quiet with you. Instead I’m haunted by the roar of fighter planes.

I only spent a couple of afternoons with Um Hana - when Laila El-Haddad and I were in Gaza doing the fieldwork for what would become our book The Gaza Kitchen - but she stuck with me: her easy smile and flashing humor, the steady vitality of her presence. Back then, she talked about “the last war”, referring to the 2008-2009 Israeli incursion. White phosphorus rained down over her neighborhood that time. Yet another episode in this interminable war must be sickeningly familiar. In Gaza, there is no safe place to go, no end in sight, no reassurance that “everything will be alright.” There is nowhere to turn but inwards: the beating heart of each household huddled tight in windowless rooms, the unwavering commitment to stay human. 

Many of the people we interviewed in Gaza talked about how they survived the twenty two days of “the last war” on tightly rationed and quickly-dwindling household supplies, with no access to cooking gas. Some risked gunfire to go looking for bread. I wonder what they’re eating tonight, and how long this will go on? But for us (and for those we interviewed, it turns out), the real story isn’t limited to those moments when Gaza makes the news under a barrage of fire. The real story is all the rest of the time, day and night, over years and over generations, as each individual and each family stuggles to resist despair and desperation. Jobs lost, incomes frozen, lands razed, hard-won scholarships forgone, vital medical procedures denied… and then, every so often, a fit of remorseless destruction. And through it all, in each one of those concrete-block apartments you see on the news, someone — nearly always a woman — is getting kids dressed and getting old folks bathed, finding some way to prepare a meal to rally sinking stomachs and spirits. Holding tightly to small daily routines just to keep everyone sane.

And when the storm passes, irrespective of the political balance it leaves in its wake, to their already impossible burdens these women add care for the wounded, recuperation of homes and farms from dust and rubble, nursing traumatized children through nightmares… and no doubt the indefatigable women of Gaza will be up to the task, pressing on with their peculiar mixture of steely will and gentle touch and inconceivable good humor.

Several years ago, when we started The Gaza Kitchen project, it seemed that we had really struck on something: you could narrate what was happening in a place like Gaza from a totally different angle — and a much more richly insightful one — if you began your research in the kitchen and worked outwards from there. I still firmly believe that, and I hope to make this new column a forum for further exploring the possibilities that approach offers, not only in Gaza but in various different contexts. After writing the book on Gaza and doing a slew of related articles and conferences, however, a few persistent and disturbing questions linger. As I inaugurate this column, I would like to begin to think some of these through.

In the book, Laila and I treat the women of Gaza as heroines.  And I do believe they are: it is heroic to put life before despair, sustaining the mundane habits of the everyday irrespective of circumstances. It is heroic to create little havens of pleasure and joy in the midst of suffering, conjuring up ingredients to make beautiful meals and generously sharing these with neighbors. It is heroic to shepherd along the body of kitchen wisdom from generation to generation, sustaining an important element of cultural history and identity in a context of cultural erasure. This is the stuff that keeps a society going, the material warp and woof of what makes us human. This is, par excellence, the Palestinian principle of sumud, or steadfastness: we will not be moved, we will continue our daily lives, we will not forget who we are. 

And yet it bothers me to find myself participating in a particular kind of romanticism. Sumud is classically represented as a pregnant peasant woman: the mother of the nation, the long-suffering feminine earth. In any other context, such imagery would prompt a scathing feminist critique (who wants to be an allegory?), but here I am reproducing it. I don’t mean to depict the private sphere as a haven of peace against the ravages of public life; quite the contrary, I want to show the kitchen as a place absolutely fraught with politics at every level. But by focusing on women’s heroics in the domestic sphere, what is being erased? Previous generations of Palestinian resistance were notable for the role of women in militias, leadership, politics. Now, while massively educated and professionalized, a conservative turn has landed many back in the kitchen and silenced talk of redistributing care work. By singing their domestic exploits, we honor the value of what they do and the intelligence with which they do it, but also unwittingly affirm that that is what they are “meant” to do. A conundrum.

These ambivalences are there, inherent in this practice of writing from the kitchen; all we can do is work with them, push their limits, seek a balance. In the end, I am convinced that the undertaking is still worthwhile. This week, as Gaza appears on TV screens once again as either helpless victim or as crazed aggressor, a geopolitical dilemma and inevitable tragedy, I dearly hope that the view we’ve provided “through the kitchen window” allows some readers to see the place differently. For me, the intimacy of kitchen research — long afternoons of cooking and conversation — binds me to Um Hana in Beit Lahiya, where tanks have taken the streets; to Um Rami in Meghazi Camp, where missiles are falling; to Um Sultan in Bani Suhaila village, where drones have targeted several neighbors. I picture them in their stairwells and store-rooms, waiting out the horror, as helpless as I am to stop the escalation but taking firmly in hand the matter of how to prepare something hearty and filling for the pre-dawn meal.