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Mirna Bamieh: Unveil the authentic essence of Palestinian cuisine.

Mirna Bamieh, has combined her love for art and gastronomy to establish "The Palestine Hosting Society".

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Her mission is to promote Palestinian cuisine, preserve disappearing dishes along with old family recipes, and ensure they are not forgotten.

How does Mirna Bamieh recall her childhood and adolescence, the places where she grew up and received her education, the celebrations, and the people who have influenced her path as an artist and chef today?.

-I was born in Jerusalem, my mother is Lebanese from Beirut and my father is Palestinian from Jaffa and Jerusalem. So I have connections to all these places.
Growing up, I spent the summers in Beirut, which was a significant experience for me, especially during the war. Despite the war ending, the impact of the conflict could still be felt in Lebanon. I have strong ties to my Lebanese family, as my Palestinian relatives had to leave Palestine.

My father was the only one who returned, so Beirut was the place where I truly felt the vibrant atmosphere of family gatherings, with delicious food, children playing, and aunties around.
This sense of community was rare to find in Palestine, where my uncle lived for a short period.
I believe that both cultures, Lebanese and Palestinian, have influenced me as an artist. Both cultures share a Mediterranean heritage, where food plays a central role in forming identity, relationships, and hospitality within the community.
Growing up in the midst of ongoing wars and conflicts in both places, I understand the power of food as a tool for community building, but also as a means of oppression, particularly in Palestine.

Due to the lack of fine and visual arts programs in Ramallah, I pursued a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology. However, I later pursued my passion for art by completing my MFA at Bezalel in Tel Aviv and the post-grad studies in Beirut.
My journey in education reflects their determination to explore and express myself through various artistic mediums. Although I was never a practicing psychologist or sociologist, but the tools that I learned and acquired and the depth into going into matters, I think I was trained for that and I kept applying that throughout my life.

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Could you share with us the story behind the Palestinian Host Society” and why it was important to you to explore and safeguard Palestinian cuisine?

– When I began this project, it was sparked by the energy of 2016 – a time of uncertainty, hope, and disappointment among the youth in the Middle East. The Arab Spring had shown us a glimpse of people’s power to change their lives and history, but by 2016, that hope had turned into despair. This realization deeply impacted my work.

To truly capture the essence of this moment, I knew I needed to incorporate the stories of others into my art. This journey began with “The Humming Project” concert and “Potato Talks” performance. As I delved deeper into my artistic pursuits, I found myself needing to take a step back and reflect on what it means to create art in such turbulent times. What I truly desire is for my art to convey a message, particularly expressing that art is not just a part of my life or my chosen path, but it is my entire existence. I thrive on my art, and without finding purpose in it, I would have been utterly unhappy.

In 2016, I wasn’t too thrilled with how things were going, so I turned to food. I asked myself what I truly loved as an art form, and the answer was food. I decided to give myself a break, take it seriously, and enroll in culinary school to learn the language of food. Halfway through my training, I realized that there was a wealth of knowledge and richness in Palestinian cuisine that I had never been exposed to. This knowledge wasn’t being passed down to my generation, and I wanted to change that.I wanted to understand the reasons behind it, learn the names of traditional recipes, and discover why we had stopped cooking them.

My project was groundbreaking because these questions had never been asked before. I’m proud to see that it has made an impact, with more people now reclaiming the knowledge of wild plants and traditional recipes. The interest in these culinary traditions has grown, whereas before, people questioned why anyone would be interested in such old recipes when the younger generation preferred faster options.

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 The Palestinians have an incredible past and a deep-rooted connection to their land and traditions. Agriculture has always been a vital part of their traditional society. Interestingly, I stumbled upon some information revealing that the oldest olive trees in Palestine can be traced back to the Roman era…

– I believe the significance lies in reclaiming the knowledge of the land, kitchens, stores, and the people who have lived in those places. This is especially important for a nation under occupation. It is a way for people to assert their power and preserve their own voice.

By decolonizing the collective and telling their own stories, individuals can empower themselves and future generations. It is crucial that we do not let this knowledge be lost or replaced with something else. Instead, we should make an effort to integrate it into our lives and ensure it remains alive and not forgotten.

Unfortunately, even something as simple as olives becomes a target during the olive harvest in Palestine. Israel attacks farmers and confiscates their olives, knowing how significant this season is for Palestinians. They go to extreme lengths, such as uprooting trees and damaging the land.

 

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Is there a particular dish or recipe that has a special place in your heart? If so, could you explain why it is important to preserve it?

– I always answer this question in the same way because my family is originally from Yafa, and this dish is a specialty from there. It’s made with eggplants and pomegranate, cooked in sour pomegranate molasses, pomegranate juice, and spices, and topped with fried onion. Trust me, it’s absolutely delicious and I always enjoy it as part of my dinner routine.

But today, I’ll give you a different answer. Since the war, I haven’t been able to be with my family, so I moved to Lisbon to work and grow roses. I’m really missing my mom’s Maklouba and hoping to find it here. People have been sending me other foods, which are tasty but not quite the same as my mom’s recipe. Maklouba is a Palestinian dish made with layers of vegetables, protein, and rice, all cooked together and then flipped to serve. It’s a true delight!

What I’ve discovered during my research is that each region has its own unique recipe for Maklouba, depending on what vegetables are grown in the surrounding villages. In Nablus, they incorporate a variety of vegetables like cauliflower, eggplant, carrots, and even hummus. They make it with chicken and sometimes add chickpeas too. Their lands are incredibly fertile, so they take advantage of the abundance of vegetables.

On the other hand, in Jerusalem, they have a strict separation of ingredients. They have a special love for the eggplants from Batir, a variety native to the region. These eggplants are often paired with lamb or cauliflower with chicken. The reason for this separation is the limited availability of land for planting in Jerusalem. The city heavily relies on neighboring villages for their supply of vegetables, creating a sense of scarcity and limitation, especially in the old city of Jerusalem.

It tastes absolutely fantastic! This Palestinian dish consists of layers of vegetables. To begin, you layer rice, then protein such as chicken or meat, and finally vegetables. In Jerusalem, eggplant or cauliflower is commonly used. If cauliflower is used, chicken is added, while lamb is used with eggplant. Additional vegetables are included based on the Jerusalem recipe. Everything is cooked together with spices, then flipped upside down. This dish is known as Maqluba, which translates to “upside down” in Arabic. Once flipped, you’ll discover the meat on top, followed by the vegetables and rice. It’s truly delightful! Pair it with yogurt and salads. Each region has its own version depending on the locally grown vegetables. In Nablus, a variety of vegetables like cauliflower, eggplant, carrots, and chickpeas are used, usually cooked with chicken. In Jerusalem, the options are eggplant with lamb or cauliflower with chicken, reflecting the limited land for planting in the city.

When visiting Lebanon, they fully immerse themselves in the Mazzeh culture. In contrast, we have a unique farming culture where we gather around one table to share food and savor hearty dishes together.

In Jordan, the landscape is more arid, resulting in a limited variety of ingredients. This has shaped distinct culinary customs, with a strong emphasis on preservation. For instance, they incorporate bajame, preserved yogurt, as a prominent element in their dishes.

It’s all about celebrating the diversities. Then there’s Israel, which has integrated aspects of Palestinian cuisine, blurring the culinary boundaries even further. This underscores the importance for Palestinians to advocate for and safeguard their culinary legacy, which is currently under threat.

 

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Do you think that the lack of information from certain media outlets or the abandonment of powerful nations towards the Palestinians implies a lack of awareness or knowledge about Palestinian culture among the Western population?

– It’s not unknown, it’s dispossessed.
And this dispossession resulted in it not being known and somehow flattened with the
Middle Eastern kitchen, which is a colonial term. There’s some connections, definitely between the food in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the kitchen of Palestine, but there’s very specificities as well.

These differences arise not only from varying migration patterns, but also from the unique spices and the spiritual significance attached to eating and gathering. Additionally, Palestinian culture has a rich tradition of utilizing wild plants, which is shared with the northern and southern regions of Lebanon.

However, in Lebanon, there is a stronger emphasis on the culture of Massey. In Palestine, there is a different, more communal culture of sharing food and enjoying larger dishes together. Jordan, on the other hand, has less variety in terms of available land and relies more on preservation techniques, such as the use of preserved yogurt (Jami) as a key ingredient in their cuisine. So, yes, there are notable differences.

Furthermore, the Israeli appropriation of Palestinian cuisine further dilutes this culinary culture. This is why it is crucial to amplify the voices of Palestinians and make known the true essence of Palestinian cuisine, as it is currently under threat. When discussing a people and a land that have been dispossessed, preserving the culture and stories becomes even more important.

These stories are an integral part of who we are. Our land has been taken, our lives have been taken, and our history is being suppressed. We have no control over the land, the water, or anything else. However, we still have our own stories, and it is our responsibility to share and preserve them.

 

 

 

Can art be a way to preserve culture during these turbulent times?

-It’s a complex question, but one thing is certain: during these turbulent times, I am unable to perform as an artist.

Instead, I have turned to other mediums such as installation and ceramics. I create elaborate and large-scale installations centered around fermentation and preservation. While I am grateful to have this part of my artistic practice, I am unable to create performances at the moment.

The ongoing genocide, famine, and injustice in Gaza have silenced me. How can I create tables of sharing and celebration when there are people suffering from hunger? Right now, I have put my hope on hold. However, I firmly believe that art can indeed be a way to preserve culture. It has the power to save the artist during these turbulent times.

Personally, I feel it in my very being. As a Palestinian, it is difficult to put into words the times we are living in. Without my art, without being an artist, without the ability to create, think, and immerse myself in something greater than myself, which is art, I don’t know how I would have coped. Being an artist is a blessing, and it is saving me before it creates a larger impact. Art, without a doubt, possesses its own power. But for now, I wholeheartedly believe that it has the power to save the artist during these turbulent tim

 

Do you believe that your example, as a committed woman, can be a reference for new generations?

– I’ve never been described as a committed woman, but it’s nice to hear that you think so. It sounds like I could be an inspiration to others. I believe that my work in the food industry has inspired many artists to explore traditional cuisine and create their own unique projects. Even if they don’t explicitly acknowledge it or mention my name, the influence is evident.

When I first started, people questioned what I was doing. But what I hope the new generations can learn from my journey is the importance of constantly reinventing oneself. If your work can be easily copied, it becomes your responsibility to make it truly unique. Find your own voice and create something that only you can do.

 

Can you tell me about your current artistic projects and how you would describe your work at the moment?

If you take a look at my website and explore my portfolio, you’ll notice a common theme running through all my projects. I discovered my artistic voice early on, but I constantly strive to grow and experiment with new mediums. For instance, ceramics has become a significant part of my work in 2021.

I’ve always been involved in installations, even before studying art. But now, my installations include elements like sound, ceramics, video, and more. So, what I want the new generations to learn or be inspired by is the courage to find their own voice. It’s not an easy task, but it’s also about finding the sentence that only you can say, making you truly unique. That’s what sets you apart.

 

When delving deeper into Palestinian culture, who are some people in the fields of music, literature, poetry, culinary arts, or film that you would like us to keep in mind?

– I find the Palestinian musicians in Palestine truly amazing and inspiring.
The creativity of artists working with sound to craft songs and melodies is truly inspiring. Currently, I am working on a piece called The Turth Things.
I am preparing for The Turth Things exhibition, which will debut on April 26 in Cordova with TB821 and the C3A.
I also have another project with the same museum focusing on Olives, where I am collaborating with the talented singer and folkloric song researcher, Bintumbare.
I am captivated by the richness of her voice and thrilled to be working with her on the Olives project. Previously, I collaborated with Sarunam Shashi on the soundtrack for the Tojar film. While I am not a music creator myself, I deeply appreciate music and sound, which are integral to my installations.
Sound is a crucial element in my work. Writing is also essential to me, as it is a part of my practice, and I have a great love for poetry.
I believe that our generation and the younger one are producing incredible literature. It’s not just about the classics like San Canavanian, Mahamud Darish, and La Bla, but also about the emerging talents like Daliya Tahom, Maya Abur Hayat, and many other writers whose works I admire.
Poetry resonates with me deeply. In terms of film, I admire Kamal Jafari’s work, as well as Michelle Flafis’ films.

 

 

PALESTINE HOSTING SOCIETY

 

Photos courtesy: Mirna Bamieh

 

 

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