CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- oday for breakfast I ate my own homemade guava jam over yogurt in Palestine, or the West Bank in Israel, where I am currently teaching. The guavas were local, yogurt from a farmer's cow.
Not bombs or violence, but how to reciprocate kindness, is my biggest problem in Palestine. How to say thank you to every street seller proffering me free tea, every stranger paying my cab cost. I have never had to pay for a meal when I have been with friends, and families regularly offer me their warmest bed, most elaborate meal. Guests are holy in Palestinian culture.
Finally, I found a gift, though modest: homemade jam. I have made guava, plum, persimmon and cinnamon-pear, to name a few (one part sugar to one part cut fruit, boiled and stirred for an hour and poured into sterilized glass jars, then inverted.) Whenever I go to someone's home, I bring a jar. The first question the family always asks: "Did you make it?" "Yes," I reply. And they are satisfied.
In Palestinian culture, the barometer of quality is whether something is homemade or not (or made in Turkey, but that's a joke because Palestinians think Turkey makes the finest things). Few Palestinians go to restaurants because they are of the firm belief that their own cooking is best. They have hand-picked the ingredients, they know the recipe; the dish has been imbued with hours of skill and time, and that is sacred.
This holiday season I have two encouragements, which I, too, hope to follow. These are, to make my presents or purchase ones that have been designed by local artisans and crafters. My holiday gift mantra is to support hands I know. Gifts should be more than a money exchange. Gifts people have made for me are always the ones I treasure most: a drawing, granola, scarf, dollhouse, doll.
It is false to think only artists have the ability to create. All people are inherently creative, and, somehow as we grow older, commercial society tries to make us forget this truism. All it takes is time, initiative and a trip to the library for a book, or a search online to learn how to make something.
The jam had its own story: I was talking to my French housemate about how I love the fresh fruits in Palestine and how they would be scrumptious in jam. Let's make jam, She encouraged, suggesting we use it for gifts. I was wildly skeptical: How could a small jar of fruit equal more kindness than I have ever witnessed in my life, I rationalized? Whether the gift exchange is fair or not is unclear. Some things feel too large to ever reciprocate, however, I continue to make jam here, and, when I give it, people continue to smile.
Kaufman is a Charlestonian currently teaching English literature at An-Najah National University in Palestine.