Food is an important ingredient of culture. The flavours, textures, colours and aromas of the traditional dishes we grow up eating are deeply rooted in our memory and linked with the joy and comfort of being surrounded by family and friends. For people who live away from home or outside their homeland, their traditional food becomes a poignant reminder of home, and a powerful connection with the past that defines their identity. The latest exhibition at Tabari Artspace, Hungry for Home, draws on this sentiment using traditional Palestinian food to explore deep-rooted cultural codes and memories.
The show features Haifa-based Palestinian artist Samah Shihadi’s hyper-realistic pencil and charcoal drawings of traditional Palestinian dishes and communal eating practices along with nostalgic texts by New York-based Palestinian writer Ranya Tabari Idliby. Together the words and images convey the collective experience of displacement, lost identity and longing for home of the Palestinian diaspora.
Tabari Idliby’s parents were born in historic Palestine but were forced into exile in 1948. She was born in 1965 in Kuwait, educated in the US and UK and is now based in New York. What she knows about her Palestinian heritage was mostly learnt through the food and conversations at the dinner table. She co-authored The Faith Club, a best-seller about the friendship between three New Yorkers of different faiths, and in 2014 she wrote Burqas, Baseball and Apple Pie: Being Muslim in America sharing her experiences in post 9/11 America. She is currently writing her third book, Hungry for Home.
“For Palestinians living in the diaspora, the table is an anchor point. It is where families gather and community is built. It is where memories of a Palestine lost are shared and where a threatened Palestinian culture lives and thrives. We find our memories in the yearning for the fruits and harvest of our land. My family’s meals were often served in the shadow of loss. The table was where they would commiserate, share stories and find solace,” Tabari Idliby says.
Shihadi was born in 1987 in Sha’ab Village and moved to Haifa for her education. As a Hebrew speaking Palestinian living in Israel, she grew up in the heart of the conflict and has been exposed to both sides of the story. Since moving away from her family, she finds comfort in food and cooking, which are tangible reminders of her childhood and family. For her, the dining table is a symbol of home that reawakens Palestinian traditions, recipes and stories, anchoring the displaced and exiled to their roots.
For Palestinians living in the diaspora, the table is an anchor point. It is where families gather and community is built. It is where memories of a Palestine lost are shared.
The show has been conceptualised and curated by Maliha Al Tabari, the gallery’s director. She is a Palestinian who grew up in Saudi Arabia and is raising her own family in the UAE. At the opening of the show she welcomed guests with a buffet of traditional Palestinian dishes and produce such as olives, fruits and herbs, bringing alive the drawings and texts on display.
“For second-generation Palestinians who were born outside Palestine, like my cousin Ranya and me, and for our children the only connection with Palestine and Palestinian culture is the traditional food we eat, the recipes that have been handed down to us by our elders, and the stories we have heard at the dining table. The idea for this show emerged from a conversation with Ranya about her third book. I had seen Samah’s work and was impressed by it. So when Ranya told me that she is writing a memoir about Palestinian food and culinary traditions, I requested Samah to create drawings around the same theme. This show is about Palestinian culture, our fields, our produce, our cities and our home that we all long for,” she says.
In her signature style, Shihadi has created 18 hyper-realistic drawings for the show that are so accurate and detailed that they look like photographs. Some depict popular Palestinian dishes such as Manakesh and Labaneh, while others show women making the bread for the Manakesh or rolling grape leaves for dolma. Another set of drawings shows families sitting at the dining table enjoying the meal and the conversation. The drawings are based on her own memories of watching her mother and older sisters cooking and of her family getting together for meals. The people in the drawings look relaxed and happy, enjoying the food and the company of loved ones.
The accompanying texts by Tabari Idliby highlight the significance of the traditional dishes, ingredients and feasts and recall the stories of Palestine she has heard from her elders at the table.
“Food reminds us that Palestine — an absent homeland — is alive and remains in the aromas and recipes of our lives. The table is where Palestinians make homes regardless of our transience as refugees and the permanence of our transience as Palestinians. Around the table we learn of homes lost in villages razed; we walk along paths we can no longer walk. We meet neighbours; connect to family and listen to stories of ancestors buried in land denied. ‘Just like it tasted in Palestine’ is a rare compliment, given to the most exceptional of fruits that transport us back to a paradise lost. Around the table we imagine a fertile land of orange groves, grapevines, berries, biblical figs and olives – not the barren land for a people without a land,” she writes.
In another set of drawings, the mood is different. These are landscapes depicting olive groves, the Biblical Lake Tiberius, a picnic laid out in a meadow and giant cactus plants. The absence of people in these evocative scenes is a sad reminder of those who were forced to leave, and the presence of pine trees speaks about the replacement of olive trees with pines in a deliberate attempt to change the landscape and obliterate Palestinian history, memory and identity. The indigenous cactus, known as Sabr is a motif often used in Palestinian culture as a symbol of patience, dispossession and attachment to the land.
But the most poignant drawing in this set is Bundle from Home, Bukje. The layered work shows a home where some things tied up in a keffiyeh are placed on a table next to a painting of a house. The little bundle or bukje represents the belongings, memories and sorrow of Palestinian refugees as they prepared to leave their homes forever.
Tabari Idliby’s text for this drawing narrates the story of her grandmother who was reluctant to leave her home, vineyards and orchards but was coaxed by British officers to do so for the safety of her daughters and left with nothing but a small bundle of her belongings in the mistaken belief that she would return soon.
Shihadi’s drawings also include the ‘Hanging’ series, showing typical Palestinian herbs and vegetables such as zaatar, garlic, chillies and okra hung out to dry, once again evoking tradition and the flavours and aromas of home. Perhaps, the title of this series and the imagery of foods hanging from ropes refer to the situation of Palestinian refugees suspended in a state of transience and hungry for home.
Jyoti Kalsi is a arts-enthusiast based in Dubai.
Hungry for Home will run at Tabari Artspace, DIFC until January 15.