Sycamore Nuts: An Unholy Experience in the Holy Land

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This is post number one from our CRCDS delegation of witness and solidarity in Israel/Palestine.  You will later see entries more profound, religious, inspiring, and touching than this one.  Today I am telling you a "Stupid American" story involving appetite, ignorance, and the tourist trade in the "world's oldest city," Jericho, in the West Bank, an occupied Palestinian territory.

After several days of encountering distressing realities like the Palestine walled refugee camp of Aida near Bethlehem, historic locales like the Old City of Jerusalem, and such holy sites as the Mount of Olives and the Tomb of Mary, we ventured today to the mythically endowed historical site Masada, to the Qumran caves, and then had the crazy experience of putting our bodies, in various states of undress and mineral mud application, into the thick waters of the Dead Sea. Sweaty and tired, we landed at last at a souvenir shop in Jericho. We wanted booty.

At this large market, among the jewelry and lotions and sundry treats was a display of foods, including Medjul dates and some other nut-like things.  I tasted a few; they were good, with a nice coating of salt to replace the 4 pound of salt I had lost through sweat. Stephanie Sauvé, Dean of Academic Life, was in fact purchasing a packet of the nuts at the checkout line when she explained that they were called "sycamore" nuts.  Who knew!  Something exotic from the Holy Land.  I bought my own $6 packet and as we loaded back into the bus, I threw a bunch of them into my mouth and passed the container to the others on the bus.  Yum.

Briliant Jean Zaru, our Quaker Palestianian activist guest and longtime friend of Dr. Melanie May, was sitting in the row in front of me.  When she tasted the nuts, she said to me, "These are not sycamore nuts.  We don't know of any such thing as sycamore nuts."  Then what the heck were they, I wondered?

Jean explained.  "In the store I tasted one of these, and they are what we call 'kabuki, which are peanuts coated in dough.  All the nut stores in Palestine have these.  They are certainly not sycamore nuts."  She explained that she told the store worker that she was onto their trick. "Oh, you can't fool a Palestinian!" the man confided.

Well, he clearly fooled me, American Doofus.  I was glad to know the truth and nevertheless kept chowing down on these gustatory imposters.  All was well until Debbie, a few rows back, interjected that it mattered to her that these were fake sycamore nuts; her peanut allergy jumped out as soon as she put one to her lips!  She suspected that our sycamore nuts were not as billed.

OK, now I was pissed.  We had Jean to decode the tourist trade scams for us. What about others, those with peanut allergies who might actually sicken or die from this fraud?  Thank God that Debbie caught it in time.  My American activist mind wanted to go back to the shop, chew the owners out, and report them to whoever dealt with this kind of ruse.

Of course, instead of that I popped another sycamore nut into my mouth and had to let it go.  Lesson learned.

This is the odd mix of the Holy Land.  One minute you are staring up at a cave in the high buttes where a shepherd threw a stone and found ancient scrolls.  Then you float in the Dead Sea, whose historic waters are receding as its minerals are harvested for youth-enhancing cosmetics.  Then you buy killer nuts.

Pretty soon I am going to Google sycamore nuts.  Maybe they actually exist.

— Barbara Zelter (M.A., 2011)