Oct 17 ● BY Anam Raheem
Ismail knows the proper way to debone denis, a Gazan specialty we chose on an ordinary Tuesday. Hold the tail of the roasted fish with a light grip and lift the spine until it unknots from the flaky flesh. “Going slow is the secret,” he divulges. We watch carefully, mesmerized by his steady control. Preparing for our own attempts, we timidly pinch the tails of our fish.
“My grandfather and his father were fishermen,” Ismail says softly, tracing the lineage of his expertise. Behind him, the setting sun melts into the Mediterranean, dyeing the sky with swirls of amber, amethyst, and ruby. I slip my feet out of my sandals and dig my toes into the cool sand. The salty breeze pairs with seafood like a fine wine.
Piling spines of tiny, delicate bones in front of our plates, the feast begins. Torn up pita pinched between fingers reach every which way into the battalion of plastic bowls studding the table’s center. Some hands grazing thick pools of parsley-speckled tahini, others scooping delicate slivers of denis into concoctions of lemon juice and minced chill. Small pots of earthen clay hold roasted shrimp in a tomatoey sauce encrusted with a dense layer of golden sesame.
Our table teems with chatter, everyone’s inner storyteller and comedian alive and well. Suddenly, an Arabic version of “Happy Birthday” hurtling through the café’s speaker system trumps our joyful cacophony, commanding our attention to three waiters striding to a table of young girls. The waiters present a perfectly manicured chocolate cake with a single candle, an exaggerated flare spewing flaming sparks. The birthday girl’s flock of friends morphs into an octopus, each tentacle holding an iPhone, primed to archive the spectacle with selfies. Along with the rest of the café’s patrons, we clap in time to the up-tempo rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Celebration thrives in Gaza—awkward, earnest, unbridled.
Plunged in the secondhand glee of the birthday, the earth shakes. Our eardrums burst. The dinner table flips, sending its legs into the air, a cartwheel of destruction that returns our feast to the sand. The jet roars. To the right, a fiery cloud, an extension of the sunset brought to shore. How fickle is fire, the element of transformation. In a single moment it transmutes joy into terror. We make our way to the street, our feet trudging through the graveyard of our feast, submerging tiny, delicate bones into earth.