Hajji Um Khayr (al-Nahar)


Q: How old were you when you left Palestine?

A: I had five children, and was pregnant with my sixth. I was 23 years old.

Q: What special meals are prepared for a wedding?

A: In al-Nahar village they were cattle owners. Say the wedding is in al-Matn. First the headman of the village issues an invitation to all the people in the town, saying that so-and-so, the bridegroom, will marry so-and-so, the bride, on such-and-such a date, and needs, for example, milk and yogurt. So everyone milks their cattle, produces yogurt and gives him their dairy products for the wedding. One large cooking pot [dast] is equal to five or six artal: the Palestinians did not use kilograms in those days).[1] When there is a wedding in Nahar, the family of the first wedding would bring along eggplant, broccoli and alfun,[2] because al-Nahr grows no crops: they just have cattle, while the neighbouring village has crops but no cattle. So at weddings, people exchange what they have. The farms [of al-Matn] were about as far from al-Nahar as the distance between here and Wadi al-Zeineh. When there is a wedding, we take six or seven pots of yogurt and give them to the family as a gift, and when we invite them to our wedding they respond by bringing us all the crops they have as a gift. They bring their produce on camels. As well as exchanging slaughtered animals at our own weddings, we take animals to their weddings, and if they have any they bring them to ours. This custom is well established in all the towns and villages of Palestine. At weddings, sheep are slaughtered and cooked, as well as rice, beans, potato stew, eggplant, stuffed courgettes and cabbage. All the women in the area get together to cook. The wedding ends at sunset, and people start to leave. They half-fill their pots with rice and boiled meat for dinner. Wedding guests, the family and the neighbours who did not go to the wedding all eat the dinner prepared for the wedding. It was a simple, happy life.


The bride and the bridegroom eat breast of lamb stuffed with rice and pine nuts, and stitched together. They called it qass. This food was prepared specially for the bride and groom. The bride doesn’t cook for at least seven days and sometimes for up to thirty days. The bridegroom’s family cooks and brings them food. During that time the food is not special, they eat whatever there is at their family’s house.


When there is a death, for the first three or four days the family of the deceased doesn’t cook – the neighbours do that for them. For breakfast: milk, ka’ak, tea, labneh and cheese. At lunch, rice and stews. For supper, rice and stews.


It was not proper to pound the meat for kibbeh for forty days [after a death].


The English came to the country, and they distributed weights to shops equivalent to one kilo, half a kilo, and the waqiya.[3] The shops used to sell the crops of the village, the currency was silver (you could get half a ratl for half a lira). People rarely bought green vegetables because they used to grow them, but they would buy eggplant and cabbage because the ground was not well irrigated. There were wells but that water was for the livestock and for drinking. There was not enough water to grow any other crops.


If the person who died was elderly, people mourned and stopped pounding kibbeh for twenty days. If they were young, people mourned them for forty days, and it was the same for women.


A month or two before the ‘Eid, everyone who had livestock would make a gift of a saour[4] to a neighbour who had none, as well as ‘Eid cakes and dates. People would start making those cakes on the tenth day of Ramadan. Every day the women would get together in the houses and make those cakes. That would carry on until the night before the ‘Eid. The men would also help to make those cakes, decorating the dough with various pictures, of palms, flowers and so on. Every family in the village would take something to a poor family – flour, rice, an animal….


The ingredients used to make ka’ak: put aniseed and very finely sieved flour in a copper dish with cinnamon, mahaleb,[5] yeast and halqoum. Inside the ka’ak there were dates and halqoum and it was cooked at night. They would make a fireplace from stone and mud, or cook and bake bread using the tabun.[6] Dried cattle dung was used as fuel.


If someone was ill, they would give them a herb called ‘spirit of mint’ – its leaves are like the leaves of wheat. That herb was used for pain – stomach ache or indigestion. It grew wild in rocky places near the village.  They boiled it up and the patient would drink it. Another method of treatment was to hold on to the branch of a tree high off the ground, drink some water, keeping it in the mouth, swing a little bit, then spit out the water. You had to do that three times.


If someone had a cut, they would bring the herb tayun [linula viscosa],[7] pound it, press it and put it on the wound, bandaging the head or the forehead. In case of fracture, there was a doctor in the village of Ghabsiyah who used the traditional Arab method of setting bones; but there was no doctor in al-Nahar.


In the case of a difficult birth the doctor would come – he was called Anwar and he was from ‘Akka. It would take about two hours on foot, and less than an hour on a strong riding animal. First, a midwife would come and decide whether a doctor was needed. If a woman couldn’t get pregnant, there was Sheikh Abu Abdo, from Sha’b, who would treat her with Arabic herbal medicine. He would give her a bottled tincture of wild mint, thyme and sage, and the sick woman had to stay taking it until she got pregnant.


There were large jars that would fill a whole shelf, of cheese, labneh, and pickles. They used to lay in provisions of food, and they traded in livestock, milk and yoghurt. People from ‘Akka and Ghabsiyah would buy from the people of the village of al-Nahar.


Anyone with a wound shouldn’t drink water.


Apple and mastic… [unfinished sentence].


 If a woman was pregnant and the baby died, the woman would boil onion leaves with water and drink it. As for birth control, there was no such thing – a woman would keep having babies until she was no longer able to.  If the woman was pregnant and the foetus was not doing well, she would drink herbs.


The name of the midwife in al-Nahar was Naili, and another one called Rayya used to come from Sheikh Daoud. The midwife came to the house of the pregnant woman.


Recipe given by Um Khayr: Khabisa with carob.

Ingredients: powdered cinnamon sticks; sesame;starch; carob; rosewater.

Method: Place carob in boiling water, then add starch, sesame, cinnamon and rosewater. Boil all the ingredients together, then put in a dish. Good in cold weather.

[1]  Rotl singular, artal plural: a measurement of weight (archaic).

[2]  We haven’t found a translation for alfun yet.

[3]  The waqiya is equal to 200 grams, and is still used today.

[4]  Saour, a small sheep or goat a bit bigger than a kid.

[5]  Fenugreek.

[6]  The tabun was a clay oven that most village households possessed, for cooking meat dishes such as musakhan,as well as bread. See next interview with hajji Um Muhammad.

[7]  Tayun is a medicinal herb for which we haven’t yet found the English equivalent.


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