Thursday, November 27, 2008

Jallab: Sunshine in a bottle

When I push open the door of the shop, a rush of scents, colors and taste sensations are waiting for me. I’ve been a customer for five years now, and it’s the same scenario, every time I walk through the door. The owner, an obese man who sits near the entrance, stares straight ahead and talks relentlessly on his portable, pausing only to transfer nuts from his paw of a hand to the corner of his mouth. A moment of recognition comes over his face and a smile when he sees me. He rarely walks around the store, content to stay on his wooden chair by the door. Brightly colored posters, advertising discount international phone cards and money transfers, cover the walls. Lebanese music floats from the radio, with occasional comments from the announcer in French and Arabic.

A quiet, energetic young man fills the shelves with packages of spices, couscous, dried rose petals and mint. He works carefully and quickly, moving methodically down the narrow aisles. In contrast, time stands still at the self-service display of olives. A woman slowly dips a spoonful of olives from the container into a plastic bag. There’s no need to hurry, as the olives tumble down and slowly fill up the bag. As I stop to watch, the olives gleam with an oily brightness, some as large and plump as grapes. The display of nuts beckons me and I pick up a bag of feves - fava beans. Fried, sliced and salted. I can almost taste them, imagining the greasy ecstasy of the crunch in my mouth.

Next my eyes move to the bottles of jallab, a syrupy molasses made with dates and rose water. Its siren call of sweetness is what brought me to the shop today. I keep a bottle in my kitchen and use it to make beverages, add to salad dressings, or sauces. I grew up in a land far from date palms and the bright sun that matures dates into succulent sugary delights. But I have seen date palms and even slept underneath them.

My mind travels back to the Western Sahara in Mauritania. I had a small tent and I chose to set it up in a grove of date palms. I hurried to erect the tent because when the sun sets in the desert, it's like a light switch has been turned off and blackness replaces the blazing sun. By the time I set up camp, huge stars appeared in the night sky. A sweet hypnotic fragrance drifted from the blossoms on the date palms. The scent enveloped me and I felt a profound sense of tranquility. I dreamed deeply that night, sheltered by the palms, as their branches gently moved in the night wind.

Back in the present moment, I add a bottle of jallab to my basket and smile. For a brief moment, I can almost hear the wind whispering in the palms.

Here’s how to use jallab:

Hear the music playing in the shop, live on Radio Orient: