On Being a Vegetarian in Nablus

“I know this is an odd question, but do you have to eat meat?” wrote a close friend of mine in response to an email I sent her about my experiences in Nablus.  As she once discovered on a previous trip abroad that we took together, traveling abroad as a vegetarian can be laden with all sorts of challenges, from finding the right balance of vitamins in a foreign diet to explaining one's motivations for being a vegetarian in a culturally appropriate way. In response to my friend’s question, no, Alhamdulillah, I have not had to eat meat at any point during my stay in Nablus.  On a day-to-day basis, it is not at all difficult to avoid meat, because my American colleagues and I buy our groceries ourselves, so we have a lot of control over what we eat.  We often take turns cooking dinner for one another, and they all know that I am vegetarian, so when one of my American colleagues cooks, he or she will let me know whether it contains meat and encourage me to eat it if it does not.

In fact, my American colleagues and I generally do not buy meat much at all, so on a day-to-day basis, all of us lead a near-vegetarian lifestyle.  It is not difficult to eat a meatless diet, because there is such a variety of good food here in Nablus.  Virtually all of the produce is grown locally inside of the West Bank, and whenever we want more exotic food items like soy milk or black beans, we head to our favorite supermarket in a mall on Rafidia Street that has imported products in stock.

When we go out to restaurants or community members’ houses, meat is available, but there are always plenty of vegetarian options as well.  On the day my fellow interns and I went olive-picking in Beit Furik, everyone else ate from the heaping platters of maqloubeh with chicken on top, but our host’s family surprised me with a special meatless version of the traditional Palestinian dish.  When my fellow interns and I joined our Kalimatna Initiative partners and classroom volunteers for a hike on the Abraham Path, we ate lunch at our guide's family's house, and once again, my hosts brought me a special plate laden with rice, yogurt, salad, pickles, and all sorts of vegetarian food.

I was fairly bowled over by those two experiences, because in the past and under different circumstances, I have frequently found myself having to pick around the meat dishes and make do with some rather unsatisfying side dishes.  However, I have found the reverse to be true in Nablus.  Rather than letting me fend for myself, my Palestinian hosts have often gone to great lengths to give me the choicest meal of all!  I think the key is just letting them know of my dietary considerations beforehand, and from there, their incredible Palestinian hospitality kicks in.

Initially, I was rather surprised by such a willingness to accommodate me, because vegetarianism is a very foreign concept in Palestine.  Although most of the Palestinians to whom I have mentioned that I am vegetarian are often rather surprised about it, they have all been very respectful of my choice.   Over the past 14 years in which I have made the conscious decision to be a vegetarian, I have learned to steel myself for a barrage of hard-pressing questions from Americans and foreigners alike, but all of my Palestinian acquaintances who have chosen to question me about my vegetarianism have done so in a tactful way.

One such time when my vegetarianism was an object of curiosity was before dinner at the house of my aerobics class translator, Hanin.  Her family was curious to know why I did not eat meat, and after I had uttered a sentence or two explaining why I am a vegetarian, my translator summed up my words in Arabic, announcing in a definitive fashion that I "take pity on the animals."  Her family nodded sympathetically, signally no further explanation was necessary, and we eagerly headed to the dinner table to start eating.


Julie is an intern at TYO Nablus.