How I came to be a
Bondi 'hummus tragic'
the personal story within the story
My hummus journey starts far away from the hummus frontline. Far away from Jerusalem's Wailing Wall and Beirut's mosques-in another time, another country-at the opposite end of the world. It starts in the arms of a young woman..
Hummus and sex
When I was 17 I fell in love with a caftan wearing Jewish girl from Moorabbin in suburban, but increasingly multi-cultural, Melbourne, Australia. Juliette's parents, from Romania and Germany, were Shoah, or Holocaust, survivors. When she took me home, a Westie 'Goy boy' from Sunshine, we ate the most fabulous Jewish food, chicken and matzo ball soup and schnitzel, a far cry from my hitherto Anglo' diet of lamb and three veg. I was smitten by the girl, her culture, family and cuisine. And through my girlfriend and her small Melbourne suburban family I felt something of the pain of the Shoah and its profound meaning for their lives.
There was considerable fear and trepidation being taken to Moorabbin to meet the entire Mendelovitz mishpukhe (family). I wasn't Jewish after all. But my first taste of matzo ball soup and chicken schnitzel, falling off the plate, soon helped me cross the cultural frontier. Anne Mendelovitz was an enlightened mother, and Goys who loved her daughter and her chicken soup were most welcome. Matzo and love were ever lastingly linked in my teenage, hormone rampant, brain. And next came hummus.
On our way home from school Juliette and I would stop off at 'Lebanese House', the first Middle Eastern restaurant in Melbourne in the early 1970s. We'd buy felafel in pita with lashings of creamy, dribbly, hummus. This is where my love of mashed chick peas and my orientalist fantasy of 'exotic' dark haired women pureed together.
Trevor Graham 1973
But at the end of that school year my girlfriend packed her bags and left for a kibbutz and all the hummus and felafel she could eat in Israel. I was heartbroken. Juliette arrived just in time for the Yom Kippur War with Egypt and Syria, which Arabs call the Ramadan War (AKA the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and the Fourth Arab-Israeli War). More than 20,000 soldiers on both sides were killed in 3 weeks. Both worried and envious I imagined my girlfriend (ex-girlfriend actually) on the kibbutz, working the fields by day, singing 'Hava Nagila' (Hebrew: הבה נגילה) by night, which translates as 'Let's Rejoice' and eating hummus every day-all she desired-as bombs and rockets exploded around her. Our hummus dates were over.
Dad in Palestine, back row on right
But as it turns out hummus, Palestine,and this story are in my family blood. My father, Corporal John Haigh Graham, served during World War 2 in the 2nd/6th Battalion. Dad embarked for the Middle East in April 1941 and took his R&R in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine, before fighting at El Alamein in northern Egypt. It was a strategic battle, a turning point in World War 2 and helped save the Jewish town of Tel Aviv from General Rommel's' advancing German Infantry.
The Hummus War History
Me with Mum and Dad
When I was a child dad would pull out his war medals, his photographs and hand coloured post cards-souvenirs from Jerusalem-including his keffiyeh or Palestinian headdress. Looking like an Aussie Lawrence of Arabia, Dad would wear the keffiyeh and tell stories, for hours, about the old city of Jerusalem, the food he ate, beautiful Palestinian women, the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Wailing Wall. There is 35mm footage in the Australian War Memorial of Australian troops holding a surf carnival in Gaza, running cross country and egg and spoon races, before facing the bloody battles and ferocious bombardment of the Western Desert campaign. Dad's reminisces eventually took him down a maudlin path as he opened one Fosters beer after another, and remembered the mates he lost. In his inebriated state he would pontificate about the state of the contemporary Middle East;
"Bloody Jews and Arabs. They'll never make peace."
Dad at Anzac Day
Later in life, as Lebanese refugees from the civil war settled in Melbourne and opened restaurants, dad rediscovered his favorite foods from his war years-hummus and olives. These foods prompted a bitter sweet memory for my father-of youthful adventure and loss. Meeting my Jewish girlfriend too, reminded dad of Palestine. He was deeply affected and always interested in this part of the world.
One of Trevor Graham's friends, 91 year old artist Yosl Bergner in Tel Aviv
Screening rushes to Yosl of himself painting a bowl of hummus
One of my old friends is the 90 year old Israeli/Australian artist, Yosl Bergner. I made a film about Yosl, his life and art, in 1987 called painting the Town. Yosl's sombre studio in Tel Aviv is stuffed with over 70 years of painting and the smell of turps and pigment. He has a theory that informs his paintings of suitcases and kitchen utensils travelling, floating, through desert landscapes. Jews and their chattels have been forced to travel everywhere throughout history, as pogrom after pogrom in Europe, chased them to the far flung corners of the planet. They took with them their household goods, their refugee suitcases stuffed with all they could carry;
"But when they find themselves in their new land, like Israel, they are like actors on a stage. What they don't realise is that the scenery has changed behind them. They act 'their part' but it is all out of context. Well we Jews in Israel are like that."
Yosl Bergner's family in Warsaw
His biggest regret about his new adopted land, he fled Warsaw for Australia in 1937 and moved to Israel in 1951, is that Yiddish is not the national language of the Jewish state;
"Speaking Hebrew is like adopting hummus as our national dish."
He still prefers the old foods of Krakow and Lodz, the gefilte fish and matzo balls, made in his mother Fanya's kitchen. But he's also a realist
"We Jews are here."
He raises his hands, he is an active hand talker (but his hands speak Yiddish);
"We are alive. When I was boy in the ghetto in Warsaw who could have imagined that I would one day live in Tel Aviv eating chick peas and olive oil. Ah it is a tragedy, the full bloody catastrophe as Zorba says."
Love and hummus were fated to intertwine yet again in my life. When I was in my mid forties I met a young Syrian woman at a documentary film festival in Toronto. Lisa-Marie, raised in the US, was breathtakingly beautiful, sharp witted and sharp tongued in Arabic and English. My 'exotic dark haired' weakness, and rampant mid-life crisis hormones, came to the fore and we quickly fell in love. With a Syrian father and a Lebanese mother, chickpeas were in her blood. But I was nearly 20 years older, and our mutual passion, love of hummus, couldn't change that.
Through this new love I came to intimately understand what Al-Naqba, the Catastrophe, the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948, meant to Arabs, the anger and pain of the Palestinian dispossession, and the lack of acknowledgement of Palestinian legitimacy in the West.
I couldn't help feeling my life was one of multiple & long term, hummus-inspired, allegiances. A Jewish girlfriend, a Syrian girlfriend, with so much in common in love, taste and lust for life. It raised a bigger question. Why do people who share the same passions and have a common ancient food custom kill each other?
So, love and lust, hummus and hormones, for me, these are lasting ingredients. That's how I became a hummus tragic. And unlike the Arab-Israeli conflict, my personal story within the story ends on a happy ever after note. A Portuguese Rose who loves her hummus.
Rose and baby Angelita