On my quest to find someone who still makes Kurdish flat bread I called my grandmother to inquire who might still make it, she gave me her niece’s number who gave me her son’s number, who gave me his wife’s number who gave me her father in law’s number who wasn’t home. When I finally reached him I introduced myself as Zarifa’s granddaughter, as everybody knows her and trying to explain my connection in the convoluted family tree would have been impossible. As soon as I mentioned my grandmother’s name he Ah’ed in recognition, but unfortunately he had just finished baking a big batch of bread, one that would last for several months. He promised he would call me but when he did I was vacationing in Rhodes and missed another opportunity. I gave up hope of ever seeing how Kurdish flat bread is baked but on my last visit to my grandmother’s I was greeted by a wonderful surprise.
When I walked into their cramped apartment I noticed she had a new couch covering and a lovely cream tablecloth but when I went to sit down my grandmother shouted
and this is when I realized that every horizontal surface of her tiny house was covered in Kurdish flatbread waiting to be baked and I was about to sit on it. Then I noticed Jaya, my grandfather’s Nepalese caregiver trying to stifle his laughter.
So on the warm winter day my Kurdish grandmother and her brawny Nepalese helper busied themselves baking traditional bread while my father, who was visiting Israel, sat with my bedridden grandfather in the sunny corner of the room. The smell of baking bread must have awoken sleeping neurons in my grandfather as I have never seen him so lucid in months.
Usually the bread consists only of water and flour, sometimes salt, never yeast but this time she added stale dark bread which kept the dough from drying out before she baked them on the saj, similar to an upside down wok. Bread baking is not the work of one, or even two, but years ago this was a communal event, bringing together the women of the village.
The Arabs and Bedouins also make flat bread on the saj but their technique is different. While my grandmother painstakingly rolls out each piece of dough, they flatten it into small discs before flipping the dough with the dexterity you get only from years of experience into something much larger and thinner. Using a pillow they flip this dough on to the saj or tanur oven wall. Although flat bread is often made using modern equipment as in the little bakery in Petra Jordan, there are some who still bake “Khoubz” the traditional way ( I first saw this video on Cmiranda’s lovely Arabic food blog, Pomegranates and Zaatar)
My grandmother is from what is now the autonomous region of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq and her technique is also shared by the nomadic Turks. When my grandmother is ready to place the bread on the saj she uses a long thin rolling pin she crafted from an old broom handle.
The Kurds of Israel, the majority of whom immigrated between 1950 and 1951, like my grandmother, were considered illiterate plebeians, the lowest level in a society run by Jews of European descent. This was partly because their skills and qualifications were not highly regarded in the new state and also because they did not share the same socialist ideology. David Ben- Gurion, first prime minister of Israel set the tone by describing them as lacking even “the most elementary knowledge” or “trace of Jewish or human education”. Golda Meir went on to ask “Shall we be able to elevate these immigrants to a suitable level of civilization?” I have met many people, decades later, brush aside the complaints by Sephardic immigrants (Jews coming from Arab lands) as over reactions, “It was hard for everyone” they said, but for those experiencing discrimination it must have been even harder. When I see Jaya, my grandfather’s caregiver, I hope that people see him and others like him as important contributors to Israeli society although they are relegated to jobs only foreign workers from third world countries accept, much like the Arab Jews decades ago. Although many eventually go back home, it is hard for me to think that people like Jaya, whom my grandmother trusts with her life, would never be qualified to settle here. Others say they have responsibility to go back to their native country, and like Dr. Seuss writes so eloquently in I Had Trouble in getting to Sollow Sollew the hero of the story eventually heads back to his home, the Valley of Vung where his problems all began to try to fix them.
But I’ve bought a big bat.
I’m all ready, you see.
Now my troubles are going
To have troubles with me!
Although my grandmother has little to offer Jaya, she does give him respect, for she remembers doing jobs exactly like he is doing today which she considers as respectful and honorable as any other. It’s funny to think, but now Jaya knows more about Kurdish bread than many of my grandmother’s descendents.
My Father’s Paradise- A son’s search for his Jewish past in Kurdish Iraq, by Ariel Sabar