APRIL 12, 2018

Olives, Lemons, and Za’atar

“But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.” – Hemingway, from Old Man and the Sea


Now, when the grandchildren returned to Nazareth, no matter how short a time, the old man felt it was his utmost duty to show, to even elongate, the sense of ceremony for breakfast. It had been that way in the old days, but without trying, and they all remembered, Mariah and Simone, and Paulo, that every morning began that grand feast laid out onto the table before mother scurried off to teach at the local elementary school, and they, as children, packed up their own lunches and more slowly walked to school themselves under the cover of fig trees. The old man only now recognized fully that he had been the only man in those days to have assisted with the cooking of the Za’atar at the bread kiln or on weekends to have taken over the very important task of the creating the eggs and potatoes. No, this was not done then; the men of other families would be found on their small seats low to the ground sipping their morning drinks and under their bread discussing the realities of politics…or perhaps the condition of their short walks home the night previous from the corner tavern. Today the men had inched a little closer to the kitchen but it should never be taken for granted, he said to himself, some things must be shown and understood. He heated the oil in the pan, then the onions, a few chile peppers (never give up on the peppers!) then tossed the small cubes of potatoes in, tossing them until browned and softened. He often timed this part of the production and could be seen quickly glancing at the broad face of his large watch – he once had lost track of time, and the mother, who was already in a hurry in the mornings, did not have time for such mistakes. “If they come out too brown or black, they will sit. Nobody will eat the black potatoes,” she said, two long hands on hips covered by a black dress which matched the dark black draw of her hair. “Oh, don’t you worry,” he would say, pointing to the watch, “39 seconds left and counting. Now don’t interrupt, or they will be black!” This was always a good natured exchange and before any of them knew it, the table was stacked by apricot jams, creamy butters, and cheese balls. They had sat down under the shade of trees; it was not yet 7:30 in the morning; a faint smell of the sea might have risen up from ‘the Cyprus’ they used to say.