Look in any good Middle Eastern or Arabic grocery store and they will have a jar of what we Iraqis call silan (“see-lan”), a syrup, made from dates. Iraqi dates deliver the thickest syrup. When you mix finely ground walnuts with the silan (usually at around a 4:1 ratio of silan to dates) to thicken the texture into a “mortar” you have Iraqi Haroset. Dayenu!
In my Grandmother’s time, making silan by hand was a daylong labor of love—She cooked and stirred and squeezed the dates dry in cheesecloth for hours. I watched how the brown juice turned into thick syrup, silan! The sheen in the pot glistened, “its not ready till you see that shine,” she taught me.
And now, this once laborious process has been dramatically changed by imported silan found in Arabic and Middle Eastern grocery stores, an electric blender makes grinding down the walnuts into a matter of minutes.
I have yet to meet one person who has not fallen in love with the taste and asks “what is in it?” only to be shocked by the simplicity of this “mortar” for the bricks our people laid.
When it was my turn to carry on the tradition and turn the world on to Iraqi Haroset, I found a can of silan in a Middle Eastern grocery store in San Francisco. Like, Passover magic, I felt like I had waded through the sea when I found silan, all ready, no cheesecloth, no sweating over a hot stove for hours. Same taste. No kidding, the same from scratch home-made taste.
But the following year, Passover was coming, and the store stopped carrying it. It just so happened that my lover and I were going to be in New York before Passover and I had heard about a particularly well-stocked Arabic grocery store on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.
We found it there – big cans of thick Iraqi date syrup. “Judy, come here, I found the Silan!” I yelled out loud. The worried look on her face betrayed the “oh no, how are we going to carry all this back on the plane?”
Overhearing us, the shopkeeper’s curiousity stirred up. “How do you know silan?” he asked “My mother is from Baghdad” I answered my face still lit up with excitement.
“Are you sisters?“(the inevitable question)
“no, we are together, not sisters”
“Ok, no problem!” he smiled, backing away from ‘Awkward’, as I loaded the 8 over sized cans onto the counter, and asking him where I could find the moulokia.
“Mouloukia”? he repeated surprised again, as he pointed me towards the back of the store where the dried herbs were piled into gunnysacks.
I filled a paper bag with what looked like some kind of dried grass, mouloukia, an Egyptian staple. This was for my dad, whom I was sure had not seen mouloukia since leaving Egypt. I was thrilled to find it although I had no clue how to cook it.
“You know mouloukia?” Now the guy in the back of the store was asking.
“Yes, its for my father, he is from Egypt…”
“Egypt? I am also!”
“Do you know Mansoura? My father is from Mansoura…”
“I am from Mansoura!” he yelled at me in joy.
Small world. Amazing world. I was loving Atlantic Avenue.
He was a new immigrant to the United States. My dad was out of Egypt before this man, Yacoub, was born.
“Your mother is also Egyptian?” he asked me.
“No, she is from Baghdad. We are Jews, mother from Iraq father from Egypt.”
“Your father is also a Jew?”
“Yes…” I felt the anxiety in me, in him…
“Mansoura, I can’t believe it!” He interrupts our pause, attempting perhaps to integrate the unknown Jew as his countryman, who is from his town on top of it…
“Mansoura…” he repeats out loud to himself now, stepping back for a moment deep in memory. Homesick, the way I have seen my father so many times.
I know this space, this dance of going back in time. For my father, every time he “returned” (in his mind) to Egypt, I could expect to hear the inevitable: “We Wahba’s were ‘real’ Egyptians (going back two thousand plus years)…there were so many of us, our village in Midhghram was known to the fellahin as “Kfar Wahba,” the Wahba village.
His grandfather was considered a holy man by both Jews and Muslims alike in the village. It is a big deal for a Jew to be revered by Muslims. It didn’t happen often.
As much as my father loved his Egypt, as much he loved being both a Jew and an Egyptian, our conversations typically devolved into how despite all of our history we were kicked out and forced to promise never to return.
It meant nothing to Gamel Abdel-Nasser then to force us out and it means nothing to Mohammed Morsi today to pretend we were never there. There’s the rub. Its one thing to expel, another to pretend we never existed.
And I will keep reminding anyone I can that we were there, for a very long time, before Nasser, before Morsi, before the advent of Islam.
An Egyptian friend of mine who was born and raised in Cairo and expelled in 1956 for being a Jew, shared a recent experience of meeting a young woman from Cairo at an airport. She was on her phone, speaking in Arabic. He struck up a conversation with her in their mutual language. When she found out he was a Jew, she wanted to know how he came to speak the Egyptian dialect of Arabic so well? She was stunned when he told her that he was an Egyptian Jew.
In her generation there were no Jews in her country, and in her mind there was no such thing as an Egyptian Jew. We were removed. Most of our synagogues have been converted into warehouses or destroyed. Our memory erased, our ancient cemeteries are gone.
And this is why I am compelled to keep talking, repeating our history, the way we repeat the Haggadah. We are mandated not to forget.
Every time I have the space to write I will re-tell our story.
I won’t forget, be it Kfar Wahba in the land of Moses, Baghdad where we all began, or Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn with its shelves of silan and bags of mouloukia.
And I know the shopkeepers won’t forget the lesbian couple who thought they had reached Paradise in their store.
Rachel Wahba is a writer, psychotherapist in private practice in San Francisco and Marin, and the co-founder of Olivia Travel. An Egyptian-Iraqi Jew, Rachel was born in India and grew up stateless in Japan. The many dimensions of exile and displacement are a constant theme in her work as a writer, therapist, and in her activism in JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa).