When a Peaceful Fruit Became a Weapon

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On June 28th, I was at O’Hare Airport going through security, making my way back to New Jersey to visit family. My bag was pulled, opened, cautiously inspected for sharp objects, and then dug through to reach what appeared to be the prize—several packs of baking dates used to make Syrian desserts that were requested by my mom and cousin. The TSA agent asked me what the contents of the packages were, and I told him dates.

He squeezed them slightly and said, “they’re soft.”

I raised my eyebrows shrugging nonchalantly and affirmed that dates are soft. He gave them a once over again and told me to stay where I was while he checked with his superior that they were okay to take through. I already knew the outcome. The TSA agent returned two minutes later and told me that I would not be allowed to fly with them. I could go back out to the counters and check them and effectively miss my flight or give them up. My blood pressure rising, I pleaded my case. It was solid food that was sealed in a clearly labeled package. I firmly asked him to reconsider and told him I had no intention of going back out to check them.

“So you are surrendering them?”, he asked. Surrender. Like we were in a war.

Like I was holding a weapon. Like I could cause harm. I gave a long and forceful glare and walked away without another word. The white flag was flying.

I hadn’t thought much of dates before I had the opportunity to study abroad in Morocco in the fall of 2006. The Arabic word for date, tamr, is also related to the word tamur, which Medieval Arabic references define as heart and other things related to it, including blood and redness. This is fitting not only in a physical sense (many varieties ripen to a deep red color before ripening further to the stage we are accustomed to seeing) but also symbolically. Through an independent study project I did while in country, I learned that dates have been the heart of food systems and economic livelihoods for many communities across the globe, from as far back as thousands of years ago up until present day.

My most visceral memories of dates all relate back to how a simple food connects people. It was impossible to wander through the mazelike streets of Morocco’s old cities, juxtaposed so perfectly for getting lost, without coming across multiple shops selling a variety of dates of slightly different sizes, textures, and brownish/tan colors. I would stroll up to a random stand, buy half a kilo, and walk down the street eating one after another. More often than I ever expected, strangers would come up to me and say “b’saha”, which roughly translates as to your health in Arabic. And I would offer the appropriate response “Allah yatik saha” which means may God grant you good health. Our eyes would meet, and we would share a smile and this wonderful moment—an intersection of humanity, food, and culture.

During the month of Ramadan, I would sometimes find myself walking around Rabat as people were maddeningly making their routes through the city toward home or to a nearby restaurant to enjoy iftar, the evening meal with which Muslims end their daily fast. Tables lining the sidewalks of restaurants teemed with people decompressing from another hot, long day of no water and food. In this precarious moment of the day, when tempers sometimes flared, I witnessed over and over again restauranteurs, workers, and even customers share dates, a food commonly eaten to break the fast, with people who were homeless, hungry, and had nowhere to go to break the fast.

In the aftermath of my run in with TSA, I reflected on why I grew so antagonistic toward the agent. I realized after much thought that I felt embarrassed. I felt this weird shame for not even conceiving of the notion that this food I loved, this symbol of peace and connection, might not make it through security. I thought about the Arabic writing on the packages and how language can become more than just language in this context. I reflected on my privilege as a man that passes for white despite my olive skin in pretty much every situation, and I questioned whether it was different this time, perhaps I was viewed as a threat. I couldn’t help but wonder, how did we get here? How did dates become a weapon?

In the days after this incident, I found myself wishing I could have reacted differently. I wish I could have been more patient and understanding in talking to this agent who was operating in a system of capricious rules that were harming all of us, dividing us, making us distrustful of one another, pushing us further apart. And I found myself thinking what I wouldn’t do to have the moment back, to look this man in the eye, smiling, with a date in my hand extended toward him, and say “B’saha”, to your health.


Grandma’s Date Cakes

These are truly one of my favorite desserts ever. I suppose technically they are a cookie, but we call them date cakes. The buttery dough cuts the sweetness of the dates so perfectly. I never got to make these with my grandmother, but my mom tells me that she would work incredibly nimbly with a pinching tool to decorate the tops of her date cakes. If you have a pinching tool, give it a try. You can also use the tines of a fork.

Makes about 30 to 40 mini cookies, depending on size
Time: 90 minutes

For dough:
2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup fine semolina
2 sticks of unsalted butter, chilled
1/4 cup warm water

For filling:
13 oz package of baking dates (I like the Ziyad brand)
Warm water

1. To make the dough, use your hands to mix the flour, semolina, and butter in a large bowl. Break the butter down into very fine pieces to avoid clumps in the dough mixture. The biggest clumps of butter that you have should be about the size of a pea. Add about 1/4 cup warm water in small increments, and use your hands to incorporate the water into the dough. Temperature and humidity in air can effect how much water you need to use. Dough should be soft and moist, and not sticky to the touch. Cover bowl with damp towel and set aside.

2. To make filling, put baking dates in a bowl and slowly begin to add warm water. Mix with a spoon as you add water. There will be some resistance in the beginning, but it will become easier as you add more water. Keep adding water until the consistency is a little bit thicker than peanut butter. You want to be able to easily spread the filling with a knife, but want to avoid having it become too runny.

3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. We are ready to roll out the dough. Divide the dough into 6 equal parts. Using a rolling pin, roll each part into a rectangle about 1/8 inch thick and 5 inches in height. You should be able to get it to about 8 or 10 inches in length, but don’t worry too much about the length. If the dough is a bit misshapen, use a knife to cut it back into a rectangle.

4. Spread date filling into a thin layer across the dough, leaving about a 1/4 inch border on all sides of the rectangle. Starting with long edge closest to you, begin rolling away from you into a tight log. Once you have formed the log, roll back and forth over the seam several times to ensure that the seal is tight. With seal side of the log down, use a sharp knife to cut cookies to about 1 to 1 1/2 inches long, depending on how big you want them. I like to cut mine on a slight angle to get that trapezoid like shape. You should get about 4 to 6 cookies per log, depending on how big you cut them.

5. Using a pinching tool or fork, make small marks or indentations along the length of each cookie to get them a more decorative look.

6. Place cookies about an inch apart from each other on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake for about 15 to 20 minutes, until golden brown on the bottom. Make sure not to let the cookies get brown on the top.

7. Transfer to cooling rack. Once cool, dust with powdered sugar using a powdered sugar shaker or fine mesh sieve.

Cookies keep well for about 3 to 4 days in tightly sealed container. Transfer to freezer for long-term storage (Note: If transferring to freezer, hold off on dusting with powdered sugar until you are ready to serve.)

Charles Dabah