Dear Mr. President,
Tonight I baked bread topped with olive oil and za'atar. I bought the spices from a shop in Pike Place market, along with some dates. The old man who runs this shop was born in Jerusalem, and when I go there, we discuss the things I have seen and the things he remembers. We don't talk politics; the tragedy of me, a white American with no ancestral ties to that land, being allowed to move more freely through it than he who was born to a family that had lived there for generations would be too much for either of us to acknowledge. Instead, we stick to the small things; the smell of bread baking on the street corners by Damascus gate, the shapes of the rolls and the sesame seeds on the outside. The beauty of the sun on the dome of the rock, the superior quality of the olive oil or hummus or tomatoes. The conversation is short, and I, at least, leave his shop feeling closer to a land that I love as though it were my own.
The taste of tonight's meal, each round of flat bread sizzling in the oven with an egg on top, smothered in the fragrant blend of thyme and other spices that make za'atar so addicting, reminds me of the first time I ate this. It was our morning meal, the bread carried along in insulated bags to keep it warm, eaten about 2 miles in to our hike. We rested near a cave, marveling at the scenery and the heat; just beginning to emerge from the shyness that still made us strangers to one another. It is amazing to me, the way a scent and a flavor can bring back these small moments, make them so real I can almost feel same sun, hear the same voices.
Sometimes it is easy to explain why I feel the way I feel about Palestine. There are certain events, certain injustices, slogans that fit nicely onto tag-board signs, which make it easy to illustrate why my values require me to feel the way that I do. Sometimes, it is not about politics or values or anything more than the smell of za'atar and fresh olive oil bread, about enjoying the memories of some one else's home. One bite, and I am back at every kitchen-table mezze, being urged to eat more.
A military and a government like Israel's can do many things; it can take away rights, and lives, and livelihoods. It can take away freedom, restrict movement and education, it can keep out old men for fear of their ideas; it can reduce identity to the color of a card. It can demolish homes and shoot protesters and wall off every piece of land worth cultivating. It can change history and re-tell stories and pretend that a whole nation has never and will never exist. But it cannot harm the smell of bread baking, the taste of dates. It cannot change za'atar. Palestine is real, Mr. President, all five of my senses and my heart tell me so. It is time that maps and globes and laws reflected this truth, as well.