Nothing but thyme in Nazareth

Return to my dad’s hometown has me savouring the flavours – and justifying my marital status


Rating: NNNNN


Nazareth, Israel – Lavender bushes the size of tanks, lemon trees and orange-red hills, the smell of sand and lemon in the wind – I’m here for my first visit to my father’s hometown, propelled by a flurry of advice from my Palestinian relatives.

“Don’t say you’re a writer.”

“Wear a cross.”

“Don’t insult the soldiers.”

Cousin Natalie watched me pack my long cotton skirts and blouses. “You’ll look like an Israeli girl,’’ she warned. She’s a veteran of visiting Nazareth.

“Here,” she says, handing me a low-cut leopard-print mini-dress, “at least take this.”

“Bring Aunt Aleece Nescafe,” cousin Mark e-mailed from London.

Nescafe? If Aunt Aleece wants Nescafe, she can have it. But I’m especially longing for ah-haway, the black-cardamom-scented coffee served in tiny cups. It’s practically the only reason I’m going.

And, of course, from everyone: “Bring back zatar.”

Ah, delicious zatar – a mixture of wild thyme, sumac, sesame seeds and salt. You dip bread into it. It’s a staple of the Palestinian breakfast and was certainly our staple growing up in Ottawa.

Amti Aleece, my father’s 80-year-old sister in Nazareth, makes the most sought-after zatar in our clan.

Day one in Nazareth. (Let’s skip the bit about the flight where I sit next to a large woman from Jerusalem who takes up half my seat but at least teaches me how to say thank you in Hebrew: toda.) I awake in my aunt’s high-ceilinged, narrow home overlooking Nazareth’s busiest street and stagger to the table.

A plate of homemade cheese, pita bread, zatar and zeitouns (olives) awaits me. And beside my plate a mug of Nescafe.

I quickly learn that it’s in extremely bad taste to discuss our status in Israel. Aleece, who has lived in her house for over 60 years, cries the day her phone and electricity bills come in.

She can’t read Hebrew. I make eye contact with the Jews in Nazareth Illit (Elite or Upper Nazareth). They scowl. Jews and Palestinians try very hard not to see each other.

I find myself throwing dazzling smiles at the Orthodox men in black hats and the grouchy Muslim guys in beards. They hate it.

I don’t get my ah-haway until the neighbour women come in to check me out. Sitting in my aunt’s living room under the fluorescent lights, they nod and smile. She translates in her small English and excellent French. I speak pidgin Arabic and basic French.

Mutter, mutter, smile, nod.

Aleece: “She says why you not married?”

Mutter, sharp intake of breath, head-shake.

“She says you very tall.” (I’m 5 foot 7).

Mutter, nod.

“She says you have nice eyes and skin.”

Aggrieved outpouring.

“She says why you not married?”

Then Fida reads our coffee grounds. She’s good. Yes, I had cried the night before. Yes, I was going to buy a cross today. (So many people are shocked that there are Palestinian Christians. Hello? Jesus of Nazareth!)

Abla had the evil eye cast upon her in church, so she has a headache. Giggling, Rana waves bread and salt around her to get rid of it. I mime the evil eye and get screams of laughter.

Every day my cousin Amal and her husband, Tufic, come with Rana, their beautiful daughter, to take me somewhere. Rowan, the other daughter, is in Italy studying Italian so she can get her medical degree there. It is very hard for Palestinian students to get into Israeli universities, so they usually go abroad.

Tufic, short, muscular, with chocolate eyes and long lashes, speaks a little English and plays tour guide as we swerve and honk through the countryside.

“Mary, this is Cana, where the first miracle occurred.”

“Mary, this is the village destroyed by Israel. Now the villagers, they live everywhere but they come once a year to make a party on the land.”

“Mary, Hezbollah – they bombed this house but they apologize.” The “carsick’’ mime goes over big with the women. We are getting raucous. By day seven, Aleece is cracking open beer to augment the ah-haway.

To explain my single status I invent horrible stories of faithless men who failed me. (He moved to South America. He left me after impregnating his mistress. He was already married.)

“Haram!” they tsk avidly. (“What a pity!”)

“Aiwa,” I say with downcast eyes. (“Yes.”)

“Is better you are free,” says Aunt Aleece finally. The women, perhaps thinking of their husbands, nod.

On the way to the airport, my driver coaches me.

“Say you are a teacher.”

“Say you are staying in a hotel.”

We are pulled over at a checkpoint by the airport. A 12-year-old (okay, 22-year-old) with a machine gun asks questions and makes me step out of the car. “Shalom toda, shalom toda,” I say.

The driver and I share a peculiar look of rueful humiliation as we move on. His name is Zeitoun, too. No relation.

“What is your occupation?” asks the 10-year-old security officer at baggage check.

“Teacher.”

“Why are you not teaching now?”

“Why are you not in school?” I think.

“Contract worker.”

“Where did you stay?”

“With my aunt in Nazareth.”

“What is her name?”

“Abu Nassar,” I say with resignation. Anything with an “Abu” is Arab, Arab, Arab. They search my suitcase for an hour. They take my 5 pounds of zatar away. They don’t know what it is.

Jesus! They live here and they don’t know zatar?

They put me in a curtained cubicle behind a locked door. The soldier makes me take off my shoes and jacket and thoroughly searches me with her hands and a metal detector. And I do mean thoroughly. Like she could have bought me a drink first.

“Toda, toda. Shalom.”

Two days after I get home, I get a call from the airport.

There is something waiting for me there. I go. And the unclaimed baggage room at Pearson smells of wild thyme.

Toda.

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