Floods, Fruit, and Fettah Part II…Finally the Fettah!

In Part I of this story, I wrote that Eid need not worry about pests on his fruit crops growing in Zaranik. I should have been more specific. He was not worried enough about pests to spray chemicals or pesticides. His was to be an organic garden, as are all traditional Bedouin gardens. So, some caterpillars had a wee munch on the young plants but not enough to destroy the crop. Then along came some larger pests who were not deterred by the wire fencing. The camels! They had a BIG munch on the growing watermelons so Eid’s harvest was disappointingly small. Next year, Eid plans on spending more time in Zaranik so that he can keep a better eye on his crops!

Despite the small harvest, Eid delivered on his promise of baby watermelon fettah (sometimes spelled fata, fatta or fattah). Fettah, in this sense, basically means “small bits of broken bread.” It is a popular dish in many Arab and Middle Eastern countries – Morocco, Yemen, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, and others – each with their own unique variation. But Eid’s watermelon fettah just may be my favorite! The taste was delicious – smoky and full of garlic – and the texture perfect, chewy with a little bit of crunch from some of the more toasted bits of bread.

Although the Bedouin make several types of fettah, the baby watermelon fettah is a special dish that is not made very often. In fact, these days, it is unknown to many Bedouin, especially those living along the coast. In the past, when there was more rain and hence more gardens, this fettah was prepared more often. Many, many thanks to Eid for sharing this delicious tradition with me!

The “Recipe”

Fettah 3ajar requires only a short list of simple ingredients: young watermelons, chili peppers, garlic, olive oil, and salt. Tomatoes are optional (and in my opinion, a tasty addition). And of course, flour, water, and salt are needed to make the tab-banna, the Bedouin bread baked under hot coals.

The first step, after getting your fire started, is to roast the baby watermelons. If you are using tomatoes, they won’t need as long to cook so don’t put them on the fire quite yet.

As the melons grill, prepare the dough for the tab-banna by mixing flour, water, and a bit of salt. Leave the dough to set as you wait for the veggies to grill.

Once the veggies are ready to be removed from the fire, roll out or flatten your dough for the tab-banna. The coals will be nice and hot – perfect for baking this thick bread.

Place the dough beneath the coals.

Chop the garlic and chili peppers. By now, the grilled melons should be cool enough to handle. Remove the charred skin and rinse with water. Put the melon, tomatoes, garlic, salt, and chili peppers into a bowl and mash together with a fork.

At this point, stop to check on the tab-banna. It will need to be flipped over and covered again in the hot coals. Continue baking, checking often until the bread is ready.

Once it is baked and the sand dusted off, it is ready to become fettah! Eid placed the tab-banna on an empty flour sack and began pounding the bread with a heavy stone. Once the bread has had a good beating, it will be easier to break up into small bits, which is the next step.

When all the bread has been broken into bits, mix the pieces into the bowl with the mashed roasted fruit. Add some olive oil and stir together thoroughly. Empty the fettah onto a large serving platter. Give everyone a spoon and dig in!

Floods, Fruit, and Fettah Part I

In October, as the Bedouin sit drinking tea, their eyes anxiously scan the skies. The people are waiting, searching, hoping for any hint of a coming storm. They pray to Allah to deliver water to their desert home. Their livelihood depends on it.

This year, on the 17th of January 2010, their prayers were answered. The skies grew dark and threatening, the clouds full and heavy. Lightning flashed. People smiled. And finally, it rained – and the sighs of relief sounded almost as loud as the thunder. The Bedouin rejoiced and gave thanks to Allah for this precious gift.

But the rain wasn’t light and it didn’t stop. For the first time in nearly 40 years, enough rain poured down to cause flash floods throughout the wadis and plains of both north and south Sinai.

Unfortunately, with these storms and floods came destruction. People were killed, animals and vehicles swept away, houses collapsed, and roads washed out. Ras Sudr and El Arish received most of the damage in Sinai. *

Although the rains can sometimes be devastating, Bedouin mostly find them to be refreshing, helping to keep their land healthy and clean – and reassuring, providing an essential ingredient to their life in the desert.

After the rain, as the water soaks into the ground, the desert springs to life. Small green sprouts begin to appear. Throughout springtime, both young and established plants continue to grow and bud, sprinkling the desert with red, yellow, white, pink, and purple blooms.

Bedouin begin to collect herbs such as Chamomile, Lavender Cotton, Judean Wormwood, and Nihaida. The herbs, used either individually or in a mix, are sprinkled onto salads, boiled in soups, or infused in hot water to prepare healing drinks.

The herds of goats, sheep, and camels kept by the Bedouin munch happily on the fresh greens. The goats will provide nutritious milk that the women will then make into ghee and cheese. The camels will grow strong and healthy, giving them energy to carry the Bedouin and their supplies on their desert journeys. The wild animals – the gazelles, foxes, and rabbits – are also drawn to the extra water and vegetation. The people are delighted to see the return of these animals to their environment. For the Bedouin, this is as it should be, this is how it always was.

The rain also refills the underground reserves of water that the Bedouin tap with wells to draw drinking water. Rain water is also collected, if there is enough, and used to irrigate crops of fruit trees.

The silt that is carried through the wadis with the rain is rich in nutrients, perfect for growing plants. If the rains come early in the season, between October and December, the water helps the Bedouin to grow crops such as wheat, lentils, and barley. Rain that falls later in the season, like the ones this past January, is good for growing watermelon, cucumbers, tomatoes, pumpkins, and sweet melons.

In April, Eid began planting seeds – watermelon, sweet melon, and pumpkin – in a valley in Zaranik. He describes the earth of Sinai as a bowl, a bowl that collects and stores the rain water. If there’s enough water in the bowl, it breaks through to the surface in the form of a spring or oasis. And it is from these underground bowls that his seeds will draw their water. After digging dozens of rows of shallow pits and planting the seeds, Eid will do little else besides an occasional check-up. He does not need to bring water or worry about pests. His crops are completely organic and their roots will grow to reach the water stored below ground.

In August, the melons will be fully ripe. But in June and July, some of the young watermelons will be harvested early. These baby melons will be used to prepare a traditional Bedouin dish – Watermelon Fettah. Eid has promised a safari to Zaranik where he will prepare the fettah for me, so stay tuned for Part II – the recipe and photos of this unique meal. My mouth is watering already!

* Happening only a week after the horrible earthquake in Haiti, the international and English-language news coverage of the floods was limited and brief. Here are a handful of news accounts for those interested:

7 dead in Egypt, Israel flooding

Egypt: Heavy rains, flooding kill 15

Up to 12 killed, dozens homeless in Egypt floods