The Empire Stretches Its Dough by Marcela Sulak

Homesick last month I made Mrs. Brezina’s kolache; the dough
stretched tenderly, for I was being blessed by every woman
who has worn nursing shoes, support hose, or viewed Franz Ferdinand’s chateau
in heels with three children in tow; when my daughter wants to know
if I love her more than myself, I say “here, this one is sweet cheese and raisins.”

In Jerusalem the August dibis isn’t sweet—fine white sand falls
through the jostled purple grapes till they shed their skins, which fall
with the sand down the juicy bodies; in Arabic, dibis means
pain. It’s grape syrup, since it can’t be wine. The pain in the arms of men
with wooden paddles who, for god’s sake, stir, stir. Rafram adds, apropos
of nothing, “you should love your butcher with gifts, with flattery and smiles.”

Rafram, accused of espionage, was imprisoned for six months in Tripoli;
it isn’t a joking matter, but I suppose among his agonies
was knowing if you don’t love your butcher, someone else will. “Only
ten percent of a butcher’s meat in this country is any good, if your butcher
is mamash top-notch.” Dibis season is quite short and fervent,
innocent of factories. Rafram says you can buy it for two months, at most.

Though I forget the percentages he most likely makes up on the spot,
most saffron is fake (paprika with lemon salt). Most spices, likely as not,
are fake. Ask for whole seeds. Pound them with pestles. Know
your spice guy. Love him. It’s enough to shred your self-esteem like the roots
featured in the Ottolenghi winter slaw—are you loved enough
to get dibis? How about real saffron? If you want to know the truth,

I’m a vegetarian. You do the math. It was Ramadan—is Ramadan
still—but at the time of the culinary tour, we stood outside the acclaimed
pastry shop (“looks like a barber shop”—Rafram says). It’s kosher,
but you can’t have any during Ramadan. Mentally bookmark it: under
the billboard for “Mike’s World of Adventure Tours.”
The tehina factory was opened—slip through a few stone chambers,

lit by the drying stove fire, you could see Ibrahim, bare footed, his hair
deeply parted the same way as my grandfather’s, the same undershirt, threadbare,
the same short-sleeved embroidered blouse, the same pressed pants; his eyes fatigued
with fasting—the same cheerfulness. His long-handled shovel raked sesame seeds
to dry them, all 400 kilos, to a consistent humidity.
“Don’t you want a sip of water? “Isn’t it hard?”


“Water? No, water is Asur!” And then after a while, “Yes, it is difficult,”
he chuckled, depth, consistency of halva, “It is difficult.
But it is life. And life is difficult,” he chuckled. A heap
of men’s clothing perched on the door opening into the next chamber’s dark
as if a collective of souls took turns sleeping and waking, incarnate,
in cream, in bright-blue, buttoned and buckled, to their far-flung, intricate work.


Marcela Sulak is the author of Immigrant (Black Lawrence Press) and the chapbook, Of all the things that don’t exist, I love you best. She’s translation three collections of poetry from Bohemia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She directs the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University.