Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Bomb Scares, and a Recipe for Fear and Absurdity

Last week, an unattended box caused fear and panic at a gas station in Marshalls Creek, PA, according to this account and this account.

With the New York and New Jersey bombings still fresh, and the tri-state area recently on high alert, someone spotted an unattended box with Arabic print at a Gulf gas station and called the police. 

The police were called. The bomb squad came. The area was shut down. Until they realized that this unattended Arabic box was a box of cookies.  

Not just any cookies, but ma'amool cookies. They are a delicate, crumbly semolina and butter cookie, stuffed with spiced dates or nuts, and then either formed by hand or pressed in a mold, and sprinkled with powdered sugar when cooled. They are the quintessential Middle Eastern holiday cookie, used by both Muslims and Christians to celebrate their high feasts. Before Easter, and Eid, women gather in kitchens to turn out hundreds of these cookies, which are sealed into containers and served with coffee throughout the holiday season.

But on that day, in that box, those cookies struck terror.

Living with Bomb Scares

To me, this story is new, and yet also familiar. In Jerusalem, we were trained to always keep an eye out for any suspicious, unattended packages in public spaces. Bus stops, buses, benches, trash cans, everyone was always on high alert. If you stepped away from your things for a moment, someone would ask, loudly, Is that yours? If no one claimed the item immediately, the bomb squad would be called, and then, it would be blown up.  

So, yeah, this happened a lot.

I had classmates who rode the public bus back and forth to school, carrying backpacks and their violin case, or clarinet, or saxophone. One kid left his clarinet on the bus.  It was blown up.

After school, we would sit in front of the school waiting for our parents to pick us up, or for the bus or a friend or a taxi, our backpacks and jackets strewn about. More than once, a teenager jumped into his parent's car and left his backpack behind. It was blown up.  

My favorite story though, was the story my Arab grandfather liked to tell, as he sat to eat in his low, stiff armchair, a platter of fried fish balanced on his lap.  His smooth, tan face relaxed as he settled into the arc of the story, and then rose into animated laughter.

Once, when I was a young man in Haifa, I decided to take a dip in the sea. It was a hot day, and I needed to cool off. I left my underwear in a plastic bag on the beach, tied up neatly, of course. I went for a nice swim. When I came back, there was the bomb squad, surrounding my plastic bag of underwear.  Would you believe it? They blew up my underwear.  Just like that!

We, the grandchildren, would erupt into laughter.  Grandpa's underwear!  They BLEW. IT. UP.  His underwear!

Hey!  I said.  That's mine!  It's just my underwear!  But it was too late.  They already had it surrounded.  They were already blowing it up.  

The lesson is, little children:  never leave your underwear unattended.  

We'd wipe away our tears of laughter, and then tell another tale, another thing once lost, then found and blown up, passing the ma'mool cookies, brushing away the crumbs and swallowing down the little prickly, unspoken edges of the story.

Because that is how it is. It's all coiled together,  absurdity twisted together with the grotesque.  There is only one way to swallow it all down. They are afraid, and we are afraid, afraid of a bag, afraid of cookies, afraid of underwear, afraid of a language, afraid of a color of skin.  We are afraid also because they are afraid.  

I heard my grandfather tell this story enough times that it has melted a little in my mind. But in these days, I can still see the sand, dotted with sunbathers on spread blankets.  I see the plastic bag, dropped into the sand. I see my grandfather, young, dripping wet from the sea, watching as the robots blow up his underwear.


  1. Oh thank you for sharing this story and your thoughts with us. I so appreciate your openness about yourself, your family and your culture. My Jewish family is also from Israel/Palestine, and I have lived in the region and know well the bomb fears. Let's walk, cook and eat side by side through the absurdity, and face the fears together.

  2. I agree with Joelle...we fight back with joy when we walk, cook and eat side by side through the absurdity, facing the fears together and I would add, holding tightly to our faith. Thank you, Rhoda for sharing this raw glimpse into your life. Now, about those cookies! You can't so beautifully describe them and then leave us hanging without the recipe!

  3. Beautiful story and so true about fear. Glad you shared this.

  4. Thanks for your story. I'm planning to make my first maamoul this year (for christmas ;)). When I finally use my moulds (they are waiting since 5 years!), I will try to think of the good things that connects us all, not of the fear (and the things people will do because of fear...).

    1. Yes, we all need to use food as a powerful connector these days. Thank you for sharing.

  5. I like the recipe and must give it a try.
    Don't forget to explore best Traditional kitchen designs


Trying this recipe? A question or a comment? I'd love to hear from you!