Alexandria, Egypt. Summer, 1966, during the Six Day War.
4.am. We arose silently, dressed, gathered our meagre belongings and went outside. The police, also silent, led us into their waiting cars, the engines idling softly, ready to move.. Then quietly, quietly, they drove off. They suggested that we duck down if we saw anyone on the streets. The fear – theirs and ours –was palpable. We could almost smell it. A few days back they’d already rescued (at great danger to their own lives) an Arabic-speaking American who was almost lynched as he tried to mingle in this tense fear-ridden, American-hating city. And, a few days before that, “Israeli” (= American) bombs showered Alexandria. I’d been holed up in a blackened shelter, standing room only, as “my” bombs tried to kill us. One kind woman in the darkness attempted to convince the others that I was German, not American. “Hmmm” had been their only answer.
But today, with luck, we might be going to safety on a German freighter …IF we could get to the port. Unaware of how long this war would take, all the foreigners had left before us on any plane that would take them. Then no more planes dared to come into the airports. This was our only, and last chance. These police had been protecting us, the enemy, from their own people. It would be so easy for the angry crowds to turn on them, too. They would be glad to get rid of us and complete their duty as human shield against the enraged mobs, goaded by summer heat and American betrayal. Then they – and we – loosened our rigid terror as customs officers and coast guard took us over, glad to be their prisoners now. Our Police Protectors rapidly dissolved into the dawn as they hastily drove away. The customs officers politely relieved us of our cameras (oh no! all my pictures up Mt Sinai! Me on a camel!) and any other “surveillance” equipment, assuring us that all would be returned when we came back to Egypt (yeah right). We were led onto the massive freighter. There were three huge gaping chasms on this ship meant for iron ore, or some other great galumphing bulk. One chasm was for single women, one for men, and one for families.
We climbed down the metal ladder bolted to the chasm’s wall, and found a bit of floor to claim as our own, then struggled up again, and went on deck. And waited, waited, waited, wondering if we would be taken back on land for some trite reason. Word started spreading that the very ill American with the perforated ulcer, whizzed here straight from the hospital, wasn’t going to make it, this his last chance to get away from the fighting.
Finally the huge freighter pulled away from shore. I said goodbye to the land I loved, my students, my friendships, my incredible experiences – but now displaced, going nowhere, in light sandals, a thin skirt, sleeveless top, and a suitcase. .
For well over five decades this episode was solidly locked away in my memory…
Until one day, as I walked down a Welsh street in Wales, I was attracted to a table with books whose title leapt out and embedded itself into my own past: Displaced Dishes that found their way to Samos Refugee Camp. It is an enchanting book! Thirty different recipes – vegetarian, vegan, and meat dishes alike, with beautiful colourful photos and simple recipes, donated by refugees now in Samos, Greece. The stories behind these recipes are not told but implied. Just reading the fragment of introduction accompanying each dish makes a deep impression and shows the wide array of people and countries represented in the refugee camps across Europe, demonstrating the vast scale of modern displacement. You can read more in the introduction to the book. And what touches my heart the most is that each dish is of a cherished homeland no longer attainable, and in many cases no longer in existence. I am therefore filled with great respect, even love, for the people whose recipes I follow in my own huge kitchen of safety and opulence. May I never forget them.
Whatever your tastes are, get yourselves a copy of this book….for bedtime reading or to try a few unusual combinations of everyday ingredients. 100% of the profits go straight into services for those who live in the Refugee Camp in Samos. Better yet, why not pop over to Samos and do a bit of volunteering yourself!
ISBN 978-1-5272-3212-9 Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Contributed by Shayma from Kuwait. We used to eat a version of this on Wednesday lunchtimes in the Egyptian school where I taught. It is made with a plant that is hard to find in Europe, so Shayma uses spinach instead. It is a beautiful colourful side dish, a hearty accompaniment to grilled meat, fish, or beans. Vegans can enjoy it, too, if you substitute the butter in the spinach for non animal oil. It’s served in three layers, and I wish my photos were as lovely as the one in the book.
- The roast vegetables. Hot oven (200C or 400 F). In a large mixing bowl stir together 4 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons ground coriander, and 2 teaspoons salt until they make a paste. Add 2 aubergines (eggplants) sliced 1 cm (1/2 inch) thick, 2 red peppers sliced 1 cm thick, and 2 red onions sliced likewise. Mix well to coat them oil with the oil. Divide the mixed vegetables evenly between two roasting pans and roast for about 30 minutes, until aubergine is tender and golden brown, rotating the pans front to back and top to bottom halfway through cooking.
- Cook Rice according to your preferred way.
- Saute spinach (with stems, I notice from the photo) in melted butter/oil with 1 bayleaf, and 1 cinnamon stick until coated with oil. Add 8 ozs (1 cup) vegetable stock. Cook for two minutes.
Build your presentation! Pile rice into a large serving bowl. Top with spinach, and then the vegetables. Eat hot.
Note: This would taste good with Hamid’s (from Iran) spiked rosemary bread. It is an old recipe from Bukhara in Uzbekistan. I’d never made bread with ras el hanout before. Just managed to snap a picture before it disappeared into us!