The Medicine is in the Food

Great Aunti Jamillas Zaatar Cookies – recipe and more on that to come in a later post!

I know this is a privileged thing to say, but quarantine was so good for me.  When Jordan went on lockdown I went to go stay with my mother.  Hanging out with her, having absolutely no chance for any kind of FOMO, spending expedient amounts of time in the kitchen, and starting a course called “Plantcestral Remembrance for SWANA Healing” by River Rose Apothecary, was the necessary recipe to open me up to the medicine in the food.

You see, I came to make Jordan my home around 10 years ago, before that I lived in the U.S., born and raised.  Growing up, we came to visit Jordan every summer, with the occasional visit to Palestine, which is a way more difficult journey and for a whole other blog post.  Yet never in my life did I think I would live in Jordan. 

When I did (accidentally) make Jordan my home, I discovered a deep yearning inside myself to connect with my ancestors.  How did they live their lives?  How did they connect to each other, to nature?  What kinds of plants did they use in their traditional medicines and how did they use them?  What kinds of stories did they tell each other?  What kinds of mythologies did they tell?  As a storyteller and filmmaker, I have a special fascination for the mythologies. 

I began to ask questions, talk to people, and meet others with similar questions.  I connected with the indigenous practices of other cultures, trying to find a link, a similarity, something, anything!  And while I definitely did find links, I also discovered that much of the ways I was connecting to other cultures was coming from a white imperialist paradigm that wasn’t always respectful, despite my good intentions. 

I went on journeys, to the desert and to forests, still seeking but finding very few answers.  This left me feeling a deep grief and that helped me deepen my understanding of ancestral trauma.  It also left me with a feeling of being abandoned by my ancestors. 

Then quarantine happened and the SWANA Plantcestral Remembrance course started.  You might be asking, what does “SWANA” mean and what’s a “plantcestor”?  SWANA refers to South West Asia and North Africa.  It is a less colonialist way to refer to MENA (Middle East and North Africa).  The word “plantcestor” has to do with the fact that plants (in addition to animals and pretty much everything else on earth besides human beings) evolved before we did, so they are our ancestors.  Indigenous cultures, including my ancestors, knew that and respected the natural and animal world as elders.  The word “plantcestor” was coined by Layla Feghali, the founder of River Rose Remembrance and Swana Ancestral Hub.

So in that light, the first ancestor we connected with was Zaatar (thyme).  My journey with Zaatar was profound, and despite the fact that it so common, Zaatar became what I call “my gateway plant”.  Zaatar opened me up to deeply connect with and feel the medicine in plants.  Zaatar also told me that the wisdom I have been seeking, traveling, searching for, is in the indigenous foods that my mother insisted we eat growing up.

Growing up Arab in America I didn’t always realize, or appreciate, the trouble my mother went through to make sure we ate real traditional Arabic foods, pretty much everyday of our lives.  Traveling back from Jordan to the states, my mother would pack our bags with kilos of Zaatar , Maramieh (sage), Baboonej (chamomile), Sumac, white cheese, Jameed, dried grape leaves, and sometimes even sandwiches of shawarma and falafil. 

One might ask, why didn’t she just buy these things in the U.S.?  Well in my time (80’s / 90’s) there weren’t that many Arabic stores, some of the things just weren’t available.  Some things were available and could be found in the stores but they just didn’t taste the same as they did when we got them from the blad (our homeland).  So overweight suitcases it was for us!  I have so many memories as a child walking through airports with 12 big suitcases, my mother straining to ensure everything, including her daughters, got on the plane and to our home in the states, in tact.

What I realized is that the indigenous wisdom I have been seeking all along, is in the intelligence of the foods that my grandmother made and my mother after her.  There is a reason my mother insisted that we eat Arabic food growing up, despite the fact that me and my sisters often told her we wanted to eat “American food”.  There is a reason you eat zaatar with olive oil, and there is a reason my ancestors put 7 specific (and medicinal) herbs in clarified butter (samneh baladieh). 

This intelligence is even more striking when foods are eaten in season, as my ancestors would have eaten them.  It is not normal to have watermelon in the winter, it’s too cooling and provides the body with lots of water that might be lost in the summer heat.  Yet citrus season is in the winter and helps boost the immune system.  Greens like mallow leaves (khobeizeh), grow towards the end of winter and early spring, to help cleanse the system of any density from a winter with little fresh vegetables.

Connecting with the herbs through the SWANA Plantcestral Re-membrance course has been a journey of picking up the pieces of my ancestral wisdoms.  Through that journey I have begun learning about Sumerian mythology, which pretty much influenced all other mythologies in my homeland, even into Greek and Roman mythologies.  I have begun learning about folk medicines and remedies, recipes and stories.  It has been a deeply nourishing and profound journey. 

I have learned that zait wo zaatar (olive oil and zaatar – thyme, sesame and sumac – mix) is pretty much the foundation of my diet.  I have learned that I can be in relationship with plants intentionally – because we are all actually in relationship with plants, we just don’t realize it.  Through that intentional relationship, I can learn so much from the plant and what it has to offer me, and even more importantly, what I can offer it! 

This is the shift in paradigm I have long been seeking after and found in some ways but could never find as deeply as I did when I finally connected with my ancestral plants and foods.  This is the shift that is finally supporting me to come out the internal colonization that all BIPOC people suffer from, which can make us believe we are less then and our cultures are not of value.  While I know this is a lifelong journey, I feel deeply that white colonization paradigm is finally, deeply, shifting out of me. 

Through this blog, I would like to continue to share the pieces of wisdom I am gathering from my ancestors.  In addition to how this is nourishing my journey of finding harmony in my body, regulating my nervous system from intergenerational wounds and traumas, and influencing my work and film projects.

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2 thoughts on “The Medicine is in the Food

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this journey.

    I find myself on a similar path, living under my mother’s roof during these times. I started studying herbalism in May as a path to healing and who knew it would lead down the road to ancestral healing, intuitive plant medicine, and so many many questions! About who I am and where I’ve come from that have always bubbled beneath the surface. I’m also taking a course through different teacher that seems to have a lot of overlap with yours. It’s been so overwhelming to take everything I’m learning in because the more I learn the more I want to know but this learning takes time and patience. It’s also so important to grieve our ancestral trauma and our generations of disconnection from our roots due to colonialism and western expansion.

    I would love to connect with you just to share in the journey and the challenges and the questions that come up. I know for me personally at least it has been challenging to try to share the deep transformative process that I’m living day by day.

    Thank you so much for sharing, Deema.

    Much love, Shari “Dove” from the Arts for Social Change Jam 2015

    1. Shari! Wow thank you for sharing! I would love to hear more about your journey with plants and connecting to your ancestors! What course are you taking? I feel you, it can be so hard to share the depth of a particular experience! Part of the reason I started this blog and I am a filmmaker, my attempts to try to share it! Am so happy you read this and you felt some resonance! Please share more if you like and would love to connect and catch up on what is happening with you!

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