The Secret to Being Smart Is in the Za’atar

Perla Kantarjian considers the immutable function of foodstuffs as poetic vehicles for home, identity, and belonging

Five silver spoons full of various spices stand out on a black background.
Photo by Tamanna Rumee via Unsplash.

When I was to leave Beirut to study in Norwich, I distinctly remember the depth of concern in my mother’s words: Վստա՞հ 3 տոպրակ զաաթարը բաւարար է ամբողջ մէկ տարուայ համար? You sure 3 packs of za’atar are enough for a whole year? I also distinctly remember not knowing how to respond to the various nuances within that multifaceted question. It’s England, mom, I eventually said. It’s ripe with Arabs. Այո, այո. There’s bound to be za’atar somewhere. 

Little did I know that on the second day of moving in, the mobilization of the za’atar forces was to already begin—the mothers of my Palestinian and Jordanian housemates, too, had made sure their za’atar fixes were on board. 

With various strains of the Levantine staple, we commenced what turned to be a social rite: olive oil drizzled into our different versions of the earthly blend of dried thyme, sesame, salt, cumin, and sumac, made into an ancestral paste which is then slathered onto wholemeal £3 toasts from Tesco. Our own version of a manakish za’atar tokenizing our unity in a foreign land. For a few seconds, we almost forgot we ever even left the Levant. The next day, I couldn’t help but render the whole thing into a poem. I titled it, plain and clear, “Levantine.”

The secret to being smart is in the za’atar, as all our mothers and teachers used to reiterate to our school-kid selves.

Such poetic inspiration however is not always around. In the heat of the semester, the cold and ghastly bodies of deadlines do especially tend to water down the gusto. When video calling mom, the cure to the agitation is constantly represcribed—you need to eat more za’atar. I need to eat more za’atar.

Of course, I need to eat more za’atar! How could I forget such a vital piece of intel? The secret to being smart is in the za’atar, as all our mothers and teachers used to reiterate to our school-kid selves. Za’atar for breakfast, za’atar in our lunch bags, the olive oil always finding a way to stain something of us during recess. Oral quiz today? Two sandwiches then. Big exam? Make that three. The brain buds have got to be activated in full. 

I remember this all as I am painstakingly and religiously munching on the concoction while trying to stimulate my head—there is a critical essay on poetics due soon. 

It takes one poem to put the whole picture into place (doesn’t it always?). This time, it is Arab-American poet Danielle Badra’s “The Eight Station,” in which she writes: “Grandmother mourned the loss of Lebanon and innocence the smell of thyme and sesame slow roasting in the oven.” I stop there. 

The technique to the refinement of the za’atar dough is intimate and surpasses the discourses around mere yeast and sugar.

Mourn. Loss. Thyme. The words splash against me like a cataract. In their distinct standings, there is an invisible connective thread. Is homesickness itself not an act of mourning? I begin digging other poems from the pens of the Levant diaspora.  I begin digging specifically for za’atar– the responsibility it is given, the role it plays. 

Levant. We say it with a schwa guided by its French origins—Lever, meaning “to rise,” refers to the point where the sun rises along the eastern Mediterranean shores that form the Levant. Contrary to its “elevating” connotation, the Levant, composed of the states of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Jordan, and adjacent areas, has long been drained by conflict and war. With most of its countries subject to threatening intrusions and unrelenting instability, displacement and exile have culminated in Levantine diasporas all over, its members clutching onto every native vessel that substantiates their sidelined nostalgias: the black seed (حَبّةُ البَرَكَة), the pomegranate molasses (دِبْس الرّمّان), the myrrh (المِرّ), the wild thyme (الزَّعْتَر البَرِّيّ), the, the, the. 

I begin to trace the physicality and presentation of said nostalgias in the writings of Anglophone Levantine diaspora poets, particularly in their infatuation with this herb, this thyme, this زَعْتَر, for the ubiquitous memory and presence of it culminates into a metonym for clinging to identity, as well as homesickness, and for quite a sensible reason. 

Among all the dismal sightings and sensory reactions to post-war Beirut, the spatiotemporal and structural situation of the za’atar within the poem is quite symbolic.

With Origanum syriacum being its scientific name, za’atar is also known by a few others, such as Lebanese oregano and Bible hyssop. Native to the Middle East, the species’ common name of za’atar is also synonymous with the traditional Middle Eastern condiment of the same name, the ingredients combination of which I have mentioned above. In past decades, homemakers of the region would forage wild thyme from the fields to especially concoct the za’atar mix for the manakish, from the root Arabic verb “naqasha” meaning “to sculpt, carve out,” with the mix being caressed over flat dough whose base is first punched with indentations to stop the puffing process. 

The technique to the refinement of the za’atar dough is intimate and surpasses the discourses around mere yeast and sugar. In her poem “Eating the Earth,” Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, who is a poet, essayist, and translator with a Palestinian, Jordanian, and Syrian heritage,  takes its recipe and hand-stretches it into a poem: 

And in the kneading

hinge forward, let the weight

of what you carry on your shoulders,

the luster of your language, shade

of your story press into the dough. 

Writing in the second person, the message she weaves may be well resonant among readers of similar backgrounds, who, forced to exile and dislocate to seek security and stable futures, depend on traditional foodstuffs as messengers of home. The word that undercurrents her lines is “possessed”– for Khalaf Tuffaha’s narrative is indeed possessed with a yearning and ache that saturate her every choice of poetic device: 

And on the dough let the green leaves

fall, drenched

sumac stars flickering among them

shards of onion in their midst.

Scatter them as the wind would

or gather them in the center of this earth

and fold them into the tender embrace

of the dough, cool and soft beneath their bodies

Here, with the falling of the “green [za’atar] leaves” and the flickering of the “sumac stars,” Khalaf Tuffaha feeds a theme of freedom while pacing her painted image with slowness that contrasts the turbulent life circumstances of the Levantine countries, a backstory to the poem’s tide. The act of sprinkling dried herbs onto dough becomes an expression of care, with the “bodies” of the herbs folded into the “tender embrace of the dough.” Khalaf Tuffaha’s stylistic decision is not mere experimental but an organically purposeful depiction of cultural nostalgia as well as activism through the culinary vessel of the manakish za’atar. In the quoted lines, the speaker not only guides the reader into the preparation steps of the traditional food, but invites them to converse with the emblematic shadow of each factoring ingredient in the process, to knead their indigenous identity, along with all the struggles, into the very fibers of the dough. This herb has a bodily composition that shares the same earthen essence as the distant motherland, she says. Allow it to transport you.

In an interview with The Massachusetts Review, Khalaf Tuffaha was asked whether there is a city or place, real or imagined, that influences her writing, to which she responded:

Yes, absolutely. Places I belong to for having lived there or visited, especially places where my family is rooted. My father’s Jerusalem, the Amman of my childhood, the Damascus of my grandmother’s stories and cuisine and accent. In early childhood, we lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, then a small and picturesque city on the Red Sea coast (…). Almost every weekend, my family would pack a thermos of tea with mint, pick up fresh baked  mana’eesh–za’atar bread–and head to the beach. My mind is a conch shell, the sound of the waves eternally crashing against that coastline, the fragrance of mint tea and za’atar always present.

And I, readers, I see this all in her poem. The same sentiment of Levantine longing has borne Palestinian-American Noor Hindi’s poem “ORIGINS AND SHATTERED CONCRETE,” published on Foundry. Hindi’s writings visit the lands of Palestine, Jordan, and the United States, having immigrated to the latter at a very young age. This particular poem is heavy on a nostalgia specific to the speaker’s life in Jordan while now an American citizen: 

despite being

a temporary visitor, with

fingers clutching suitcases,

toes steeped in American

soil, someone always reminds

you of that makeshift hospital

on Queen Rania Street

where you were born.

The speaker’s longing surfaces through the vessels of reminiscent imagery, with the za’atar overtaking the gustatory, acting as an almost-sacred symbol. Similar to Khalaf Tuffaha’s poem, Hindi’s, too, is written in the second person, with her own self being the only audience: “your name, noor ― as in light ― / spoken with a rolled r, spoken / like it should be.” This particular stylistic choice of distancing the “I” from the narrative and looking inwards instigates a sense of otherness, a division from the self, as though Hindi is observing herself through the eyes of another, quite possibly through the eyes of the people of the land she has immigrated to, where she still may very well be taken aback by the sense of otherness. Yet, this sense of otherness, as Hindi depicts, is only on “some days,” and her decision to incorporate the “some days” idea twice throughout the poem may be to establish a realization that she has already merged into the canvas of the American life, and it is only on “some days” that the yearning comes upon her. Still, it does: “some days you miss / the dusty, littered streets / of your home…/” and “some / days you want to drown / in your grandmother’s black / abaya.” She then flashbacks into a heavy memory, whilst physically yet in the Mediterranean lands: “love resides in arms / so you learned how to / walk that shattered concrete.”  By placing “arms” as a double entendre: on the surface, the plural of “arm” in relation to an embrace, on the deeper level, weaponry, Hindi provides the reasoning behind her learning to walk on shattered concrete in the first place: because there, quite simply, is where she found (finds?) love, albeit its violent structure. Similar to learning how to walk through the shatters, Hindi also “learned” to:

smoke smooth mint hookah,

dip pita bread into

zaat then zaatar, lay on rooftop

patios, haggle in crowded

bazaars, speak Arabic

Here, towards the end of the poem, Hindi reveals the culinary undercurrent that corporealizes her Arabian yearning in an almost ritualistic manner: the pita bread dipped into olive oil and then za’atar. In “American Beings,” another 14-part prose poem, published in The Adroit Journal a few years after the “ORIGINS AND SHATTERED CONCRETE” poem’s appearance, Hindi writes: “The breakfast table is my family’s connection to Palestine, to home, to Jordan. In this way, eating is sacred — and dipping pita bread into olive oil is an act of love.”  When connecting this statement to Hindi’s former idea of “love residing in arms,” we can understand that she has now, in the shelter of her American household, away from the “shattered concrete” of the Middle East, found a way to experience a fiber of that distant, overseas love: upon the altar of the breakfast table, through the gesture of dipping the pita bread into olive oil and za’atar, an act that carries Palestine and Jordan, and her Levantine roots, to her.

Hindi reveals the culinary undercurrent that corporealizes her Arabian yearning in an almost ritualistic manner.

This herb is so much more than taste and tradition. Now, I’ll be incorporating a different speaker-food substance frame into the long-standing tradition of consuming za’atar, one where the consumer is placed in a secondary positioning to the food, with the only relation being palatal, nonetheless significant, through a poem by Hedy Sabbagh Habra. 

Sabbagh Habra is a poet, artist, and essayist of Lebanese origin. She was born and raised in Egypt, but has lived in both the former and the latter before moving to Belgium and then settling in the United States. Her family left Lebanon at the onset of the civil war, as she stated in an interview with KNOT Magazine. In her prose poem, “After Twenty Five Years,” the speaker, who visits Beirut twenty-five years after instability forced them to leave, laments the loss of a Beirut they once knew. In the aforementioned interview, Sabbagh Habra noted that the poetry collection The Taste of the Earth, in which the poem appears, weaves together “personal memories” with the “larger history” of her countries of origin. To that effect, she “resorted to recollections revolving around the senses.” Fittingly, given the poet’s attribution of “memoire” to the collection, the poem is written in first person: “I came to Beirut to retrace my steps but its warmth enveloped me in its ample mantle through streets I didn’t recognize.” Throughout the poem, a bleak mood overrides the lines, with images like: “mandalun windows…disfigured by open wounds,” “a jogger…steeped in lost footsteps,” “the water seems darker,” and “the sea’s mist suffused with bitterness.” Among all the dismal sightings and sensory reactions to post-war Beirut, the spatiotemporal and structural situation of the za’atar within the poem is quite symbolic. Composed of three stanzas, the poem has 11 lines. At the central division of that number is line 5.5, which synchronically is the line that captures the warmth of the za’atar trope:  “Only the vendor of crisp sesame breads makes me feel at home; with a smile, he fills my kaak with fragrant zaatar.” Gastrocritically, through this central emplacement, the speaker not only translates a narrative message but also predicates the power of za’atar to as one at the heart of the evocation of feelings of home. By dismantling the word choice of the adverb “only” at the inception of this significant line, the reader is zoomed into the responsibility placed upon the za’atar, for amid all the sense of detachment that the returned expatriate experiences, it is only the za’atar kaak, and by association the vendor, that rekindle the speaker’s feeling of belonging. 

Food serves to mark what separates or unites a community, and how an individual perceives themselves in a certain locale.

Food serves to mark what separates or unites a community, and how an individual perceives themselves in a certain locale. For many of the displaced peoples of the Levant landscapes who have long taken off in all directions, the root connection is through a mere transported product of its fragment of earth, and their transoceanic poetry reveals the attempt at homeland mimesis through infusing metonyms into said product. 

It’s no surprise that literature has been recognized as a valuable repository for ethnography. Writers have long been tapping into the multi-layered meanings in foodstuffs that surface socio-cultural stories, and in the literature of the Levantine diaspora, I find a culinary ripeness seeping such Mediterranean memories I had forgotten to unfold from my suitcase. 

It is 8:16 AM UTC when I decide to end this attempt at essay. 10:16 in Beirut. I video call mom to wish her a lovely day. In the screen there is her and dad on the balcony, smiling and showing me the breakfast spread of fresh manakish za’atar, labneh, olives, and mint leaves. Yalla, mom says, we’re waiting for you to start eating. Կը սպասենք։ 

We’re waiting.

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