When I relocated to Palestine from the United States in the fall of 2007, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of entertainment options available. Movie theaters, bowling alleys, arcades, rock-climbing gyms, amusement parks, go-karting tracks, public parks, and organized hikes were virtually nonexistent back then, in the not-so-distant past. It’s important to note that this was also before smartphones became ubiquitous. We didn’t have YouTube or social media apps readily available on the go, so we couldn’t delve into topical rabbit holes online to pass the time either. In those days, leisurely activities were limited to going to
al-qahweh (a traditional coffee shop, reserved for men, because we didn’t have cafes yet), gathering around a laptop to watch a bootlegged DVD, or attending family celebrations such as weddings.
A night of Samar somewhere in Palestine where mezze and mashawi reign supreme.
When I wanted to spend time with family and friends, it usually revolved around food, which is perfectly fine. However, having grown up in the United States, I was used to food being secondary to the main purpose of going out. When we dined out, it was typically a quick bite before continuing with our planned activities. Here, “going out” seemed synonymous with “eating,” as if eating was an enjoyable activity in and of itself. Don’t get me wrong, savoring a meal can be a delightful sensory experience, but these dinners would last for hours on end. We would gather around a table in the early evening, prepare a meal, and then indulge in eating, drinking, and socializing until the early morning hours. I struggled to comprehend the concept of sitting around for what seemed like an eternity, surrounded by an array of dishes. I admit that initially, it appeared glutinous.
I soon understood that community plays a significant role in Palestinian culture and that we weren’t gathering to eat but eating to gather. While we enjoyed delicious food, we actually got together to enjoy each other’s company.
Over time, I chose to embrace the idea. However, rather than accepting it for what it was, my interest lay more in using these gatherings as an opportunity to improve my Arabic language skills and ask questions to better understand Palestine in all its facets. Truth be told, these extended dinners proved to be incredibly educational in that regard. Yet, it wasn’t until the summer of 2008 that I truly grasped and began to appreciate the essence of this culture of never-ending dinners.
Summer in Palestine signals the arrival of the grilling season, where mezze and
mashawi (grilled meats) reign supreme. The hearty stews, casseroles, lentil soups, and spinach pies that sustain us during the colder months give way to a vibrant selection of skewered meats, salads, and fruit that are prepared and savored after sunset. Barbecues take place at night because the daytime heat is scorching. Yet every night, as the sun descends, a breeze that originates from the Mediterranean Sea makes its way up the West Bank’s mountain chain, rustling trees and reducing the temperature by 10 to 15 degrees.
Samar is a nocturnal ritual in which families and friends gather outdoors to celebrate community, friendship, and nature through food, conversation, poetry, and music.
Naturally, the cooler weather entices people to leave their homes, where they seek shelter during the sweltering heat of the day. Similar to Ramadan, Palestine becomes more nocturnal during summer, as families and friends gather outdoors each night to enjoy one another’s company. It becomes a nightly celebration of community and nature, expressed through food, conversation, poetry, and music. This cherished seasonal ritual is known as
samar experience commences with collective culinary tasks such as chopping, mixing, seasoning, grilling, and setting the table. These activities act as icebreakers, fostering a warm and welcoming atmosphere for the evening ahead. As everyone participates, they share stories and laughs while delicious aromas fill the air. Once everyone is seated and the welcoming toast is finished, the conversations around the table take on a deeper meaning, as personal experiences and thoughts on various topics are exchanged. The table becomes a space for heartfelt discussions in which diverse perspectives are respected, fostering understanding and strengthening the bonds among those present.
When all is said and done, instead of an awkward pause, a poem is recited spontaneously. This sparks a friendly competition to see whose poem evokes the most emotion. As the evening progresses, the poems become more improvised and melodic, with words recited to a musical rhythm, echoed by others, and accompanied by the tabla. Eventually, everyone transitions from poets to musicians. The oud and nay are brought out, and the gathering transforms into an impromptu ensemble. Musical talent is not a requirement; the focus is on having fun. The playlist consists of a mix of old folk tunes and the greatest hits of iconic Arab legends, creating an ambiance steeped in nostalgia.
It quickly became apparent to me that my presumptions and preconceptions were completely misguided. I soon understood that community plays a significant role in Palestinian culture, and we weren’t gathering to eat, but rather we were eating to gather. Yes, we would indulge in food, but we were really there to indulge in each other’s company. Our relaxed, communal approach to dining serves this purpose, urging us to explore, share, and connect with one another. Our tables are adorned with a colorful mosaic of small, flavorful mezze dishes, served alongside grilled vegetables, fresh salads, succulent meats, cheese, olives, and other delightful bites. Each dish possesses a unique flavor and texture, creating a stimulating gastronomic experience that ignites our curiosity and keeps us seated around the table longer.
Navigating the intricate tapestry of tastes is an interactive adventure. As plates are passed around the table, stories are exchanged, providing an opportunity to learn more about those with whom you are sharing your meal. The atmosphere transforms into a celebration of life’s simple pleasures, serving as a reminder of the significance of meaningful relationships.
Arak is omnipresent throughout the dining experience. It sets a leisurely pace for the evening as it is sipped slowly, adding complexity to the meal and conviviality to the ambiance. It cuts through the richness of grilled meats, pairs exquisitely with marinated vegetables, and adds a refreshing touch to dips – keeping the meal interesting, all while fueling laughter and fostering a sense of camaraderie.
These days, it seems like we have an abundance of things to entertain ourselves with. Instead of searching for something to do, we often find ourselves overwhelmed by the different options, struggling to make a decision. It’s incredible to see the significant progress we have made over the past 16 years in terms of the sheer variety of recreational activities that are now available. In a way, it’s akin to browsing Netflix. The vast array of choices can be overwhelming, and when looking back at the “good old days,” it’s hard not to feel that these options sometimes blind us to the simple pleasures in life.
Truth be told, you don’t need a structured activity, a special venue, or any specific equipment to have a good time. Happiness is a state of mind. It’s a choice, and Palestine has proven to me time and time again that all you need is the outdoors, like-minded individuals, quality ingredients, and good Arak – and an unforgettable evening inevitably unfolds.
In fact, my fondest memories were created around the dinner table.
Samar nights allowed me to overcome my inhibitions, broaden my horizons, laugh harder than ever before, and forge meaningful relationships. For this reason, samar is not merely a pastime; it is a treasured tradition worth preserving. In a world saturated with distractions and superficial engagements, we should embrace the opportunity to slow down and revel in the essence of true happiness.
So before summer ends, gather around a table beneath the starlit skies of Palestine. Immerse yourself in the company of loved ones and experience the invaluable fulfilment of