Gaza Mom: Laila El-Haddad on Israel's genocide, intersection of Palestinian food & politics, and the legacy of Refaat Alareer

Gaza Mum: Laila El Haddad on the genocide in Gaza, intersection of Palestinian food and politics, and legacy of Refaat Alareer
10 min read
12 January, 2024

When former Al Jazeera Gaza Correspondent, journalist, policy analyst and author Laila El Haddad wrote her book The Gaza Kitchen in 2013, she had no idea that a decade later her compilation of Gazan recipes and oral family histories handed down the generations would become a written testimony to Gaza’s existence in the wake of the systematic murder of more than 23,000 of her people, and the blatant intention of the Israeli government to wipe Palestinians off the map.

Laila also did not expect that some of the book’s contributors would no longer be alive today, not due to old age, but because they have been killed by Israel’s relentless airstrikes. 

“One of the contributors was my aunt, who was killed,” Laila tells The New Arab. “A few weeks ago, I was listening to a long interview we did with her and I shared it with her daughter, my cousin because she was out of Gaza at the time. In just one swoop, my cousin lost her mother, her father, the two aunts who raised her and her grandmother (my aunt).

“Another one, who was the oldest one we interviewed in the book and shared the recipe for kishik, is now 103 and she was critically injured in an airstrike that killed several of her grandchildren. I don't know what her situation is now.”

"What I keep telling those around me, including my children, is that it’s incumbent upon us, we're obligated by the fact that we are funding this ongoing genocide with our tax dollars, to do anything we can to stop it"

The devastating loss does not end there. On December 7, 2023, Laila received the horrific news that the co-editor of her anthology Gaza Unsilenced, revered Palestinian literary scholar Refaat Alareer, was killed along with his family, in what many of his friends believe was a targeted airstrike by the Israeli Army.

The news of Refaat’s death caused shockwaves across the Arab world and Arabs of the diaspora. As well as being a much-loved professor of English literature and poet, Refaat was followed on social media by over 100,000 people who were able to appreciate his dark humour while he lived during the grimmest of circumstances.

Reflecting on the impact he had on Palestinians and her memories of working with him, Laila says, “Refaat’s legacy is that of raising an entire generation, teaching an entire generation of young Palestinians to narrate their own stories to Western audiences, in the language of those responsible for their repression.

“I remember when I first met him," Laila told The New Arab. "He came here in 2014 on a book tour and we stayed in touch. We worked on the anthology and then I met him again in Gaza in 2019. I remember him introducing me to his students as someone who was the first person to talk ordinarily and tell my story, and by large the Palestinian story in Gaza, to a Western audience, which was very touching to me.

“I always say he equipped the entire generation with the tools of literary resistance. I've rarely come across someone whose life he hasn't touched in some way. The people that he taught in Gaza are now accomplished writers, scholars and academics in their own right. So that's what I mean by saying he raised an entire generation. And I think his contributions live on through them and his words.”

Since Israel began its war on Gaza on October 7, 2023, Laila, who is now based in the American state of Maryland, has spent every waking hour taking action, whether by talking to major news channels like CNN, marching in local and national protests, or lobbying American congressmen.

This is not something new for the Gaza Mom (her alias on social media, as well as the title of her 2010 book), who has spent much of her life talking, writing, filming and raising awareness about Palestinians in Gaza who have lived under siege by Israel since 2007.

She was in Gaza reporting for Al Jazeera during the 2005 elections which Hamas came out victorious. When Hamas took complete political control of Gaza in 2007, Israel reacted by the collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza, imposing an indefinite blockade.

But this time, to say things are different would be an understatement. Laila now finds herself having to persuade her government representatives that her people are humans and that if a permanent ceasefire does not take place soon, there is a real possibility that the entire Gaza Strip will be destroyed.

“What I keep telling those around me, including my children, is that it’s incumbent upon us, we're obligated by the fact that we are funding this ongoing genocide with our tax dollars, to do anything we can to stop it, whether that's by using our voices, attending protests, writing to our representatives or lobbying our congressmen. That's not a choice we have,” Laila explains.

In addition, Laila and other visibly Muslim Arab and Palestinian Americans, are protesting, educating and raising awareness in an increasingly anti-Muslim and anti-Arab climate.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations reported that it received over 2,171 complaints of bias incidents and requests for help between October 7 and December 2, 2023.

In October, a landlord in Chicago was charged with murder and hate crimes after stabbing his six-year-old tenant Wadea Al-Fayoume to death and wounding his mother.

At the end of November, three Palestinian-American teenagers in Vermont, Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdel Hamid and Tahseen Ahmed, were shot and wounded while wearing the keffiyeh.

“We’ve definitely been more cautious,” adds Laila. “My daughter and I wear the hijab and we're always looking over our shoulders because of the significant rise in anti-Muslim hate incidents and speech, but at the same time, I'm encouraging her, a 15-year-old in public high school, to use this as a moment to educate others and raise awareness and not feel that she needs to self-censor or silence herself. She’s heard a lot of things, in different protests, people accusing her of being a baby killer and at other protests that I've attended, people shouting at us to go back home.

“What we've been trying to say, and help people understand, is that there's a direct link between the dehumanising rhetoric made by Israeli officials that are then repeated over and over by American officials and how that affects us as visibly Muslim Palestinian women because I think a lot of people weren't seeing that. It's a scary sort of electrified climate. We never know what to expect.”

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The United States' very public support of the Israeli government and its actions in Gaza, alongside its financial, diplomatic and military assistance, continued veto-ing of resolutions calling for a ceasefire in both the United Nation’s General Assembly and Security Council, and Biden’s constant public blunders, reaffirming disinformation by taking everything Israel says at face value, has lost the support of many Arab American Democratic Party supporters and has further fuelled a disconnect between the Arab American community and the American government.

“Biden had a chance pretty early on to course correct, but he didn't, and he just made things worse,” highlights Laila. “I think it was his very public and brazen statements, casting doubt on the deaths of Palestinians, repeating fabrications and dehumanising rhetoric by Israeli officials, even when his administration told him these have not been proven.

"The fact that he did this, publicly and repeatedly, was very hurtful to our communities and I think it will cost him the election for sure. It was a huge slap in the face to a lot of people who voted for him and more generally fundraised for the Democratic Party," Laila explains. 

“There's not a single person that I've spoken to, both in the Palestinian Christian and Muslim communities and the broader Arab American community, that have expressed any interest in voting for him, so they would just most likely sit the election out or vote for an independent or just write in a candidate.

“People who have been in this field for a long time, whether they're analysts or veterans, have been saying that it almost feels like 20 years of work and effort they put into making strides and gains in terms of representation and voices has just gone down the drain,” she adds.

"The optimist and the Muslim in me, the person of faith in me, must believe there is always a purpose and hope to be derived from even the darkest and most desperate of situations"

Among one of the many things that Laila did not anticipate happening when she wrote The Gaza Kitchen, was that it would one day become an act of cultural conservation.

Laila has been very vocal over the years on the intersection of food and politics; among Israel’s many colonialist policies is one of ‘food washing’ in which it has not only stolen Palestinian land and claimed it as its own but also stolen Palestinian cuisine and claimed it as its own.

Israel has tried to show the rest of the world that it has its own ‘Mediterranean’ culinary culture by culturally appropriating Palestinian recipes. From knafeh to hummus, these are dishes that were created by Palestinian families stretching back centuries, and The Gaza Kitchen documents this.

Laila's Maqlouba from her cookbook 'The Gaza Kitchen' [Getty Images]
Laila's Maqlouba from her cookbook The Gaza Kitchen [Getty Images]

The book also demonstrates how resourceful Gazans have been in more recent years since the blockade and how this has affected everything from the types and amount of crops available to farmers, to the types and amount of fish available to fishermen.

“I had the idea for The Gaza Kitchen for years, and then somehow the opportunity presented itself. And I went with it, not really thinking or realising just how important it would become. I had felt it was a silly idea; we talked about this fear of people thinking of it as frivolous at the time; this is really before the idea of Palestinian cookbooks took off,” Laila explains.

“A lot of really well-established chefs went on to say that it inspired them to write their own books. The more the years go on, the prouder and more humbled I am that we wrote it with very minimal resources and I do feel now we're at this moment where I feel like Gaza's facing this sort of existential crisis and really a true threat of being completely wiped off the map without exaggeration, so the book has become more important than ever.

“It’s interesting to see that a lot of the aspects of life that we documented back then, how people overcame the blockade, are resurfacing now," Laila continues.

"For example, the use of clay ovens to overcome the blockage on the entry of fuel back at that time and again now in a much more extreme way. Resorting to making a lot of simple meals with whatever is available to them is something that I think Palestinians in Gaza have become particularly adept at.

"Water has now become a luxury. A properly cooked meal has become a luxury. My family was sharing a video with me of how they made musakhan but without chicken. They made it with just onions and olive oil, and that was it. The Gaza Kitchen documented just how resourceful the Palestinians in Gaza have been in terms of what's available to them since they were put under siege.”

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With an educational background in politics, history and public policy, we could not escape asking Laila the question that is on everyone’s minds: what is the endgame for Israel’s annihilation of Gaza?

“The optimist and the Muslim in me, the person of faith in me, must believe there is always a purpose and hope to be derived from even the darkest and most desperate of situations. The pragmatist in me looks at this and sees the end game to be the majority of the Palestinians in Gaza being pushed into Sinai.

"And we've seen this unfolding slowly, but truly, in a way that is strategic so that it doesn't look so appalling. It's not as though everyone is just forced out in one fell swoop. It's been systematic and it’s happened in stages, similar to how the Nakba [in 1948] happened. There was a whole plan for different regions and areas. This is the assessment of a lot of my friends, including Israeli friends who are sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians.

“I'm not going to lie; the situation is pretty grim. Even if there was a ceasefire now, half of Gaza is completely destroyed and we're talking about a very small little strip of land. I don't know what lives people have to go back to."

Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author who is based in Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, published by Hashtag Press

Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA