Tale of Batanjan

Over a homemade plate of babaghanoosh (smoked eggplant dip), your father asks you if you know just how much your jiddo—his father—loved batanjan (eggplant). You tear a piece of pita, dip and take a bite. You shake your head no.

“It was 1982,” your father says. “The Israelis were occupying lubnan then, trying to get to the Palestinian camps, and they’d put a curfew in place. People barely had time to get their supplies before going home for the night. And God help those who didn’t make it back in time!

“Well, your jiddo had finished picking out everything he needed and was in line to pay. And who did he happen to end up next to but his good friend, Hajj Sunbul?

“‘Listen,’ Sunbul told him, ‘There’s another market not too far from here. And when I saw the batanjan they were selling, I saw your face in their skins, I swear it. If they were meant for anyone, it’s you.’”

Your father pauses for another bite.  You add some oil to the babaghanoosh, remembering how when you were much younger you used to try to draw faces over the hummus, the labne and babaghanoosh when pouring the oil. Now you don’t draw a face. You just watch the oil sink in.

Your father continues:

“He was cutting it close, your jiddo. In his place most would have just gone home; it was that near to the time. But he couldn’t resist. He had to try the other market.

“To hear him tell the story, they were every bit as beautiful as Hajj Sunbul made them out to be. He placed them in his bag with the care that they deserved, big, firm purple treasures that they were. And of course he didn’t make it back. He was stopped at a checkpoint, and the Israelis threw all of his goods to the floor. Including the batanjan; the last thing he saw before the soldiers blindfolded him was a final glint of their purple hides.

“They put him on a truck and drove him to their base for processing, along with all the other stragglers they’d rounded up. That was the way back then. They drove everyone through the city, atop a truck, tied and blindfolded. To make an example.

“Another practice of theirs was to claim local businesses for military use. That night everyone who’d been caught was being taken to what used to be a fruit processing plant; of course when the Israelis approached the original owner, he didn’t have much say in whether or not to let them use the building.

“But lucky for your jiddo, that man was there that night. He knew your jiddo well, and so when he saw him among all the people the Israelis had rounded up, he spoke up for him. He begged, and he pleaded, and somehow, it worked. They let your jiddo go.”

Another pause. Both of you are still.

“Is that it?”

The first time you’ve spoken.

Your father thinks for a moment.

“A few weeks after that, the Israelis came to your jiddo’s house. They wanted to use his shipping company for similar operations, just as they’d done with the owner of the fruit plant. He had to leave the country for months.”

Your father smiles, looks away.

“What do you think?” he asks, his gaze still elsewhere.

“Was it worth it?”

Not sure what to say, you tear off some more bread.

You take your last bite, and the two of you begin to clear the dishes.

 

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Omar Zahzah

Omar Zahzah is a PhD student in comparative literature at UCLA of Lebanese Palestinian origin as well as a member of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM).

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