How I found community through food.
“I dare you to touch it,” my neighbor nudged me, pointing to the lamb’s eye—still intact—as we hovered over the cooler where it was being stored. I stood frozen until Grandma Amina gestured for us to lift the cooler and bring it to her to be seasoned.
It was an unusual sight in my hometown of Dubuque, Iowa, where animals were everywhere. Neighbors who hunted turned deer into jerky; everyone knew someone who bought and butchered a prize-winning cow from the county fair; and many high school graduations took the form of pig roasts. But to have lamb was so rare that ours traveled to us from Chicago, 180 miles away.
I always boast that Dubuque is more charming than other Iowa cities because it’s built on the bluffs—a welcome respite when driving through a state that’s mostly cornfields. It’s located 20 minutes from the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, where my dad moved in 1976, at age 33. He spent most of his life in Jordan and Syria; he was born in Palestine. My mom grew up in a town of 400 people near Dyersville called New Vienna. A sweatshirt I still wear refers to it as “the eNVy of Iowa.”
My parents met at the hospital where they worked. My dad was the first Muslim my Catholic mom had ever met. She first ate Arab food on a date with him in Chicago. As they dated, he taught her to make hummus, baba ganoush, kefta kebabs, and maqluba—a traditional Palestinian dish with lamb, rice, eggplant, vermicelli noodles, and pine nuts made in a pot and flipped over when served (maqluba means “upside down” in Arabic).
My dad’s parents immigrated to the United States in 1983, a few years after mine married. They spent considerable time in Iowa. Despite his mother’s broken English, she taught my mom to make sfeeha (meat pies) and fatayer-sabanekh (spinach folded into a “pie” like a turnover). She also exposed my mom to her proprietary blend of spices that no one has been able to replicate since she passed—fragrant allspice mixed with oregano, thyme, and more. My teta (grandma) had 15 kids, so being an excellent chef was both a feat and a necessity.
While I grew up, Dubuque was a homogenous place. A New York Times article from 1991 on racial tension in “America’s heartland” cites that the town was less than two percent racially diverse. Despite this, there were a number of families mine was close to that championed diversity. Many of them were doctors like my dad, including several Indian families who began hosting dinners, open to the community, in the early 1990s. In 1993, when I was 8 years old, my parents, along with two other Palestinian couples—both Christian—piggybacked on those well-received evenings to host an Arab dinner.
200 people bought tickets to the event held at a local church. My Arab aunts, uncles, and grandparents caravanned in from Chicago to help prepare. They joined my grandparents on my mom’s side, based in New Vienna still, who had become adept at Arab cooking.
We spent the day before preparing dips and other things we could cook in advance, all of the windows open as my mom burned eggplant skins in the oven for the baba ganoush. I hovered near the food processor to scoop my finger in and taste-test the hummus. My family recipe is without measurements: chickpeas (and some “juice” from the can), tahini, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt.
I watched Teta prepare one of the few dishes my mom hadn’t perfected, kubbah—a fried ball made with lamb, minced onions, and bulgar and stuffed with meat and pine nuts. We called them torpedos (for their shape).
I was frustrated by how much time was spent preparing salad, which I didn’t care for as a kid. Dozens of cucumbers and tomatoes were diced to be soaked in lemon and olive oil with parsley, as a sort of healthy addition to piles and piles of pita brought in from a Chicago bakery.
I asked to help when it came to making the baklava, but gave up after less than 10 minutes as the meticulous handling of filo dough, compounded by the addition of butter, was too much for me then and still is decades later.
The day of the event, a Palestinian dancing troupe entertained guests and taught people the dabke, a folk dance I do every time I attend the wedding of one of my 40-plus cousins. Women tried on traditional, hand-embroidered Palestinian dresses. And all of the food was eaten. My mom especially remembers how many people asked for recipes.
It strikes me just now how foreign even hummus had been to everyone. It was before Sabra and other brands had invaded grocery-store shelves. My mom recalls that we had to go to Chicago to get our tahini; no grocery store in a town with nearly 60,000 people carried it. While at the Arab markets in Chicago, we’d pick up other “delicacies” that I walk by daily in Brooklyn, where I live today: bitter grape leaves floating in large glass jars, gallon cans of olive oil with a cartoon of a sultan carrying a saber pointing to the gasoline-like cap, and what my sisters and I affectionately referred to as “Arabic pickles” (pickled cucumbers spicier than dill).
After the event, we began taking tahini orders for other families, carting it in from Chicago—along with the good pita—when we made trips to visit my dad’s family. If we had taken commissions, we could’ve funded another dinner easily.
And while there was never another dinner for the community, the success of the event evolved the Arab dinner into a repeatable format. My mom organized an international night at our school. As if we were in Epcot, she designed passports for families that attended, and anyone with an ethnic heritage was invited to speak (and cook). Our Palestinian room, complete with hummus and baklava samples, was always booked.
People respectfully asked questions and nothing was off limits. I remember someone even asking how accurate Aladdin was (a film my dad would not be thrilled to hear is being remade). Everyone left the night a little more open; everyone asked for recipes.
As I got older, I began to use food to connect those around me to my Palestinian heritage. I spent my 22nd birthday cooking Arab food for a dozen of my closest friends. In my mid-20s, I made an Arab spread to impress the best friend of someone I had just started dating who worked for a cookbook imprint. Even in my small Greenwich Village apartment, with a stove from the 1960s and a living room without windows, when the courses had been poorly timed and invariably too cold or too warm, my guests still left asking for recipes.
My relationship to Arab food has also helped me in times when I feel tension within myself. Last time I went to Jordan, I was embarrassed of how bad my Arabic was. But at least I could be proud of how well I knew the food and how much I loved it. The handful of times I’ve been to the mosque with my father, I’ve been awkward in prayer but eager to eat, and to talk.
Things are so much more complicated today than they were when I grew up—in Iowa, and in the world. My dad’s name is Osamah, and I can remember when his patients called him Sam because Osamah was too difficult to pronounce. That changed after 9/11.
Even in the years that followed, an attack in a place of worship would’ve been unfathomable. In October 2018, 11 people were shot in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Just last week, 50 people were gunned down in Christchurch, New Zealand. Each violent attack spurs cries for tolerance, but also elevates the voices of the intolerant. What's most ironic to me is that, as our world has seen an exponential import of hummus and a celebration of Middle Eastern food culture, so too has it seen a violent vilification of Arabs and Muslims. Between all of the yelling on social media and in politics, I worry that we’ll never go back to talking.
But I hold on to hope, and I’m encouraged by small signs—from the giant jars of tahini that now line the ethnic foods aisle of my hometown grocery store to what my dad tells me about the mosque in Florida, where he lives today.
He says that after the 2016 election, a small group of people showed up to protest and to show solidarity with those who attended the mosque. They're still showing up, holding up American flags and all kinds of signs. People from the mosque often give them water and food. On Ramadan, that group, along with other non-Muslim members of the community, are invited inside the mosque to eat—hummus, baba ganoush, rice, and kefta. And they talk.
“People think mosques are a secret place. They’re not. They’re for community, for everyone,” my dad says. “We’re all neighbors.”