For Palestinians, hospitality is the most important thing after family and freedom. So when a member of our faculty invited the international school’s teachers to his home for Thanksgiving dinner last year, we could not refuse.
We traveled by bus across Gaza City to a large villa in the town of Jaballya. There, we were greeted by our hosts and invited onto an outdoor terrace to enjoy the evening air under the shelter of lemon trees. The house and grounds were absolutely beautiful. We were content to just sit there and take in the sounds and sights, but in just a few minutes the food came. We were served platter after platter of steaming vegetables, meat pies, grape and cabbage leaf wraps and trays of spiced rice. Sitting in the middle of the trays were roast chickens arranged as if they were chasing themselves, and in one tray was a roast turkey.
Roast turkey is not a local delicacy, and seeing it reminded us of our homes and our own families. There was silence for a bit as we took in the depth of the gift. Then we dove in and in short order we were reduced to food-stunned silence.
Eating slowly at a Palestinian dinner is a matter of survival. If you falter or clean off your plate, you will immediately be served more delicious food. And not eating what you are served is simply not done. Food is as scarce as the hospitality is rich, and there are virtually no overweight people in Gaza.
When the cakes, puddings and pies came, what could we do? The deserts were all homemade and irresistible. We arose and did what honor and custom demanded – – we ate them all. It was too much, but there was no way back form the cliff’s edge, so over we went.
And once we hit bottom and could eat no more, the coffee came. Then the tea came. We sat with our friends and hosts in the garden and gave thanks to God that we were warm, loved and alive.
At some point, I looked over my host’s head and saw bullet holes in the plaster of his house. Then I remembered that on my way into the garden, I had noticed that part of the garden wall had been torn down and replaced with a colorful curtain for our visit. I wondered what these two things taken together could mean, so I walked around the outside of the garden wall.
I stood there frozen in my shoes. It looked like a scene form the battle field of Verdun. I saw nothing but piles of raw earth and building rubble. There was nothing but devastation for a quarter mile, and ruins beyond that.
This was Jaballya, the focus of the Israeli Defense Force incursion into Gaza that became known as “The Days of Atonement” by the western media.
My host later told me that I was standing on the edge of a fruit orchard, but that was gone without a trace except for the trees growing right up against his house. The bulldozers had destroyed everything in sight and stopped just short of my host’s house after toppling part of the garden wall.
I had known that a battle had been fought here because I had heard and smelled it form my own home a few miles away. Now, as I stood there looking over what had been his orchard, whatever reality I had missed hit home. I returned inside to the party and was met with smiles and, of course, more tea and food. And the blessing and the thankfulness seemed stronger now. Now that I knew what was on the other side of the wall.