Peacemaking Starts with Hospitality

Yaprak is unmolded onto a platter for serving.

Yaprak is a dish common to the Middle East, called dolma in Turkey, Arab countries, Iran, and elsewhere. Every region has its own variation, reflecting the unique traditions and intricacies of each culture.

I was introduced to yaprak and Kurdish hospitality my first week here over dinner with Preemptive Love staff and some local Kurdish friends. We spent the evening sitting in their backyard, surrounded by fruit trees, beehives, and turkeys. I was forewarned: the wife likely spent all day cooking this meal as a special treat for guests.

When she brought out an empty platter and a big pot, it didn’t look like a complex meal...then she flipped the pot, revealing a mountain of leaves and colorful vegetables stuffed with rice, meat, and spices.

A close-up photo of the Kurdish dish Yaprak, vegetables and leaves stuffed with a meat and rice mixture.

It was one of the most incredible meals of my life.

The next time I ate yaprak was last weekend, and this time I got to help with preparation! On Saturday, we arrived at the house right after lunch. One of the kids invited us in and paused at the doorway while we took off our shoes.

Fatma, the lady of the house, came out to greet us, kissing me on the cheek three times. She welcomed us into the kitchen and we watched as Fatma, her daughter, and her granddaughter cleaned, hollowed out, and fried eggplants, zucchini, tomatoes, onions, and potatoes. Once they had moved on to cooking the rice, meat, and tomato filling I asked what spices they were using and had a jar of “mixed spices” thrust under my nose.

It was more educational to watch Fatma’s swift hands than to ask questions.

The process of the Kurdish dish yaprak being made.

I followed suit when Fatma sat on the rug on the kitchen floor where she had placed the bowls of ingredients. I watched her pick up a leaf of the spinach-like green that is the base of the dish, place a little filling at the top, roll it up, and put it in the bottom of the pot. I tried myself and was corrected from rolling the leaves inside out.

After doing it wrong a few more times Fatma told me I was a slow learner, but allowed me to help anyway.

The Kurdish dish yaprak being prepared.

Once all the wrapped leaves and stuffed vegetables were packed into the pot and the pot placed onto the stove, we were summoned into the living room to drink tea and chat.

Hours later Fatma, her two daughters, son-in-law, six grandchildren, and the five Americans I was with sat again on the floor of the kitchen to eat. I served myself a modest portion of yaprak before multiple hands gestured in my direction indicating I hadn’t taken enough. I piled more on my plate and followed Fatma as she ripped off pieces of flatbread and used it as a canvas for extra rice. After cleaning my plate I was scolded for not eating more and Fatma stubbornly got up herself to serve me more.  

After dinner was more tea, more conversation, and fruit to end the night.

Layering of ingredients in the preparation of the Kurdish dish yaprak.

I left the evening feeling blessed as a guest of Fatma’s house, cared about as a person, in awe of the Kurdish people, and relieved to be out of the discomfort of immersion in a culture I didn’t understand.

Despite the discomfort, I want to go back. You cannot be in a Kurdish house for more than five minutes before being offered water, any break in activity leads to tea, and an attempt to leave inevitably leads to repeated invitations to stay for dinner. Meals can last for hours as a time; conversation, jokes, and stories go round and round.

As a guest, you are treated as part of the family, told that whatever is theirs is now yours.

Layered, stuffed vegetables ready to be baked for the Kurdish dish yaprak.

The sort of hospitality Fatma showed me made me feel valued and cared for, even though I could not speak her language and made my fair share of cultural mistakes.

Her neighbors later shared that Fatma is an incredibly inclusive and generous person. She brings food to the Assyrian Christians down the road, to the Shia Arabs next door, the Sunni Kurds all around her, and the culturally-clueless Americans across the street.

The final layer of stuffed vegetables are added to the pot before baking.

Several people in the neighborhood call Fatma 'hazar piawi geruk' or “1000 men of the neighborhood” to praise her, saying she alone is worth a thousand men. The way she cares for her community binds it together despite its differences.

The last touches are put on yaprak before baking.

Most peacemaking does not occur in grandiose gestures but in thousands of small acts in the day-to-day.

Fatma pursues peace by engaging and loving her entire community. My friends and family pursued peace by helping fund my trip here, despite their fears about my safety. Reading articles about cultures or causes you don’t understand (like you're doing now!) is pursuing peace. Caring about Iraq when there are so many reasons not to is pursuing peace. Using food to bring people together like Fatma is pursuing peace.

Sitting back, sipping tea with a very full stomach, I’m grateful for the lesson Fatma teaches with her life: peacemaking starts with hospitality.

Preemptive Love Coalition summer interns take time to pose for a photo with their Kurdish hostess.

About Alicia Hughes

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Peacemaking Starts with Hospitality
Peacemaking Starts with Hospitality
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