Long Reads

Growing Up Palestinian in Iowa—Before Hummus, 9/11 & Christchurch

How I found community through food.

March 22, 2019
Photo by Khalid El Khatib

“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.”

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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).

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Top Comment:
“Jeez, calm down. Not only do different dialects of Arabic exist but there's no way you can accurately transliterate most words! ”
— ok F.
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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.

My mother. Photo by Khalid El Khatib

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.

My relationship to Arab food has helped me in times when I feel tension within myself.

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.”

16 Comments

Lila A. April 7, 2019
Thank you! Your story sounds so familiar to my family's story! My Palestinian father taught his American wife (my mom) and us three kids to cook. And we all are still cooking! I share Palestinian food and recipes with friends and strangers alike, whenever I am asked. You are right, food, and other culture, is a wonderful bridge to real relationships.

Best wishes,

Lila
 
Panfusine March 24, 2019
You echo the nostalgia in every first generation immigrant with your beautiful words. Thank you for this piece.
 
Eric K. April 3, 2019
Gosh, you always leave the most poetic comments. Thank you.
 
Lydia M. March 24, 2019
As a Middle Easterner, it irritates me to see our foods given names that are not correct, so I'm surprised to read that you learned to prepare "baba ghanoush" in your Arabic household. Maybe Palestinians pronounced it that way, but my family and friends prepare "baba ghanouj" and we love "kibbee" in all forms, but I never heard the dish pronounced as "kibbah." We also have a dessert or pastry made with filo dough, called b'alaweh. I think the Greeks make a dessert called "baklava."
 
greenglass March 24, 2019
I appreciate your love for your own language and culture. If I had gotten irritated every time someone mis-pronounced or mis-translated an English word or custom during my six years in the Middle East it would have been a very depressing time. Thankfully, it was joyful instead.
 
ok F. March 24, 2019
Jeez, calm down. Not only do different dialects of Arabic exist but there's no way you can accurately transliterate most words!
 
Rasha A. April 10, 2019
Relax. Seems like your knowledge of the different arabic dialects is lacking. Kibbe as you call it is pronouced Kibbah by many Palestinians and Jordanians. In fact the only two dialects in which the Kibbe pronunciation is common is Syrian and Lebanese. Iraqis say Kubbah. Khaleejis say Kibbah or Kubbah. You may say b'alaweh but the majority of the Arab world says Baqlawah. If the author decided to call the dish Baklava because that is the name familiar to westerners then so be it. Perhaps you should expand your knowledge of arabic before criticizing others.
 
greenglass March 23, 2019
Love it--I grew up in Iowa and spent four years living in Palestine. Food was such an important part of my experience there, and I still love cooking Palestinian food for others. It's an amazing way to share the culture.
 
Debbie G. March 23, 2019
What an amazing read Khalid! Thanks to you for sharing your thoughts with us!
 
Caitlin G. March 23, 2019
well told. i love this: "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."
 
Fayza March 22, 2019
Reading your story felt like a breeze. Just enough wind to cool me down yet not too much as to blow me away.
Yes, food have a way of bringing people together. Prophet Mohammed PBUH taught us that if we want to speak with someone about something important or you want to teach your child something, speak with them just after their meal. I have found that advice to be most effective when wanting to convey my opinion to my children especially when its not aligned with theirs.
We can't fight those who are clearly mentally sick but we can continue to share food.
 
Faten R. March 22, 2019
Thank you Khalid for the beautifully written article. I totally share your view on the current issues and what you wrote about Arab food hits right home with me. Memories of taste and smell of the dishes my grandma Zaynab used to make accompanies me everywhere I go.

Being a second generation Arab, there's no escape of my affair with the Middle East cuisine, I even ended up with my own artisan spice range featuring mainly Arab ingredients and spices when sourcing for authentic spices got too difficult. One of my favorite moment was when my Baba exclaimed that the shakshouka I made tasted exactly like the one he had in Beirut, something that he's longed for decades.

Keep inspiring us to spread love, joy and knowledge of the beautiful and peaceful religion and culture.

Much love from Malaysia.
 
Michele March 22, 2019
I have been fortunate enough to spend some time in the Middle East and had the privilege of being invited into homes to share meals and experience the culture as an honored guest. The warmth and generosity is often breathtaking. Your story is beautiful and echoes what I have found. It saddens me to see where we are now, but I hope that the continued sharing of food, the breaking of bread, serves to connect us and repair some of the damage that has happened. Thank you so much for sharing this.
 
Nancy W. March 22, 2019
Echoing the previous poster; this was beautiful. Thank you for sharing it.
 
Brinda A. March 22, 2019
This is so beautiful, Khalid—thank you for sharing your story. I'm continually amazed and heartened by the ways food can connect us.
 
Eric K. March 22, 2019
+1

Really lovely and important narrative. Thank you for sharing it with us.