Just barely remembering my manners, I uttered a quick “Shukran,” before taking my first bite, thanking the Palestinian woman placing heaping plates of rice and chicken and stuffed grape leaves on the table in front of me. My gratitude was entirely genuine, and I began to shovel the food down rapidly, eager to replace the last 15 kilometers’ worth of calories. As one of the local guides reached across the table to load up his dish with seconds, he paused, observed all of us in the midst of our feeding frenzy, and smiled. “We have an old Palestinian saying,” he told us. “It’s something like…” he struggled for a moment, searching for the best way to convey the heart of the proverb in English. “It’s something like, ‘As much as you love, this is how much you will eat.’” And, having shared this with us, he shamelessly scooped another mountain of the delicious, home-cooked food onto his plate.
We laughed, agreeing that our appetites had rendered us a pretty loving bunch after our first day hiking on the new Jenin section of the Abraham Path. But the old proverb stuck with me over the next five days, repeating itself frequently in my mind. As much as you love, this is how much you will eat. I was reminded of the phrase later that night, when I sat on the couch with our homestay family in their living room. Next to me sat the family’s grandmother, her face tanned and weathered from 80 years of Middle Eastern sunshine but her eyes still alert and curious and her mouth more given to grinning than to any other expression. Noticing I had finished my (third) bowl of popcorn, she grabbed her own bowl and – despite my protestation – patted me on the back as if to assure me that I would not starve and began to pour half of her own popcorn into my bowl, her rheumatic hands shaking and causing the plates to clink together cheerfully as she did so.
I thought of the saying again as we came to Arabe village and wound our way through the narrow, stone alleyways of the old city. Upon our arrival, two of our hosts from the village immediately brought us a staggering spread of delicious foods they’d been preparing for us all day: musakkhin and mujaddara and harisi, all these previously foreign words which now awaken in me a rumbling stomach and extra-active salivary glands. We thanked the women profusely; they smiled and nodded their understanding. Both chatted with us a bit, occasionally stumbling over a word in English. One of them laughed apologetically, “I’m not so good at English. Cooking food for people – that’s what I’m good at.”
And I was reminded of the proverb repeatedly as I walked the trail itself with our local guides. As we traversed the countryside – now drowning in fields of wildflowers up to our waists, now victoriously summiting a stunning mountain, now poking around in ancient stone dwellings – our guides would periodically dart into the surrounding vegetation, emerging with some apparently edible piece of nature and urging us to try it with that ubiquitous Arabic demand: “Kulli, kulli! Eat, eat!” They would then proceed to describe the traditional dishes their wives and mothers and grandmothers had made from the plant; and often, they would supplement this gastronomic instruction with an old folk tale or song featuring the plant. Traditional foods, connectedness with the land, cultural heritage…they are all tangled one with another, the guides told us.
As much as you love, this is how much you will eat. The longer I walked the path, the more I began to understand this correlation. Even if our guide hadn’t shared the proverb with us – even if I hadn’t heard it put into so many words – I think I would still have intuitively felt the truth behind this sentence. I couldn’t have missed it. The spirit of hospitality and community and connection is as alive around the Palestinian table today as it was thousands of years ago when Abraham invited weary travelers to join him for a meal in the shade of the oak trees.