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Palestinian cooking school uses food to resist Israel’s occupation
24 January 2016

“It is quiet here at the moment, but I am afraid. I know my city; this is the calm before the storm” sighed Fatimah Kadumy, as she ordered a steaming plate of freshly baked kanafeh – a much-loved Palestinian dessert – from a humble shopfront rumored to deliver the best kanafeh in the West Bank.

Kadumy is the founder of Bait al Karama – “the House of Dignity” – a cooking school situated in the heart of the Old City of Nablus, which rests on the principle that it is just as effective to fight the Israeli occupation through sugar and spice, as Molotov’s and stones.

“I don’t want to see more blood; I don’t want to lose any more neighbors. I don’t want another intifada”, she said contemplatively, “But what we are doing is trying to show Palestinians that they can help their country through something beautiful.”

Established in 2008, Bait al Karama was designed to bring tourism into the Old City, deliver economic independence for the women who work at the center, and also to encourage healthier gastronomic lifestyles which, as Kadumy goes on to explain, can be harnessed as a form of resistance when allied with the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).

Kadumy finished her kanafeh, and joined with several volunteers, who were leading an international delegation around the labyrinth of Nablus’ souk while narrating the story of the cooking school and the political role food plays in the occupied Palestinian territory.

BDS and slow food

“Slow food is incredibly important, especially in Palestine. It focuses on healthy eating, sourcing products that are native to Palestine and which grow in the mountains, by the coast, and have natural fertilizers”, Aya Yaeesh – a volunteer who has worked with Beit al Karama for four years – was saying.

The cooking school launched under the banner of being the first slow food convivium in Palestine. 'Slow food’ is a global grassroots movement, which aims to combat fast food trends in society and preserve local foods and traditions. Slow food operates under the premise that through certain lifestyle choices comes the ability to influence cultivation, production and distribution of food, and thus affect many spheres of live, whether environmental, cultural or political.

According to Yaeesh, Beit al Karama connects with agricultural producers in the rural areas surrounding Nablus, alongside market sellers in the souk, in order to encourage Palestinians to not only eat well and follow the seasons, but to think critically about food production and the political factors that underpin it.

“First it was an idea to give visitors incentive to come here to the Old City, but when you start to go deeper and deeper into the food industry we discovered lots of things”, explained Aya, as she led the tour group down a cobbled branch of the souk. “First we need to know where these products are coming from, from Palestine, from Israel or from the Settlements?”

“We want Palestinians to know they can fight the occupation in another way. You don’t have to go and throw stones, you can stop buying Israeli products”, Kadumy chipped in. Thus, at a time when the BDS movement is picking up momentum on an international level, Bait al Karama encourages Palestinians to be aware of the importance of promoting BDS on a local level as well.

A cultural cornerstone

Kadumy proudly described the traditional recipes that Beit al Karama seeks to preserve, which were orally passed through the generations. These recipes – alongside the ingredients and methods behind Palestinian cooking which distinguishes it from that of its Arab neighbors – provide a pervasive tie with the land and Palestinian history.

[Fatimah demonstrates how Za'atar is prepared. (Photo: Megan Hanna)]

Fatimah demonstrates how Za’atar is prepared. (Photo: Megan Hanna)

“The recipes we use come from our grand grand grand grand grandmothers! And we keep them how they are, we keep everything as it was since hundreds of years ago all across historic Palestine”, Kadumy illustrated. “We have the test of the food itself; we don’t add anything new, nothing from other areas of the Arabian world or the West. We just keep it in the same pure way it has always been.”

“Tasting, learning, and breaking bread together – food is a really special thing”, agreed Christina Samara, the co-founder of Breaking Bread Journeys who had brought the tour group to Kadumy’s school.  Samara encourages visitors to come to Beit al Karama and gain an alternative perspective of the reality of the Israel-Palestine crisis.

Challenging the narrative

Both Samara and Kadumy emphasized that it is important for their work to try and counter dominant narratives in Western media, which so often reduces Palestinians to the role of arbitrary aggressors.

“Food can bring people together, and by visiting Bait al Karama tourists really get to go under the skin of the Holy Land”, Samara explained, “It is nice to see people coming together and not just talking about the politics of the region, but uniting over food”.

However, even the act of preserving and celebrating Palestinian gastronomy seems to be steeped in politics. Israeli assertions of various Middle Eastern dishes being their own has particularly rankled those of Palestinian and Lebanese descent, who claim Israel isculturally appropriating their culinary heritage.

Therefore, Beit al Karama is not only tackling the occupation through advocating BDS, but through challenging the assumption of various foods being Israeli, and by providing international visitors with a counter-narrative of who Palestinians are.

“If we want to speak about the world and how the world thinks about Arabic and Islamic countries, we need them [international visitors] to come here to our country and to see how we really are, and one way we can portray our rich heritage is by celebrating our food”, said Kadumy.

Second intifada

Founded on the rubble of the second intifada, Bait al Karama was born from the struggles of the local community in the Old City, when Nablus was virtually under siege for almost ten years between 2001 and 2010.

Whilst the IDF shelling eventually stopped and the seven checkpoints that encircle the city opened – albeit sporadically – the city has been plagued with economic instability ever since. 65 percent of the 35,000 residents of the old city live in poverty, and unemployment is estimated to be as high as 80 percent.

“The situation here was totally devastated – it was the third world war during the intifada. A lot of people were killed and houses destroyed, all the houses here connect with each other like a circuit, so if you drop a bomb on one you will destroy all the houses around the area”, Kadumy remembered.

“A lot of women lost their children, sons, husbands – everything you can imagine happened”.

With male unemployment still worryingly high, Bait al Karama allows women to gain financial security, while also providing an important meeting place and source of psychological support for those who have been living under a volatile military occupation for almost half a century.

Psychological coping mechanisms

“The center is a way to have an income but also to encourage women to come here, it’s an important social space. To be successful for the women to come here, to meet each other, to have coffee, and to discuss not only the political issues but everything”, Kadumy explained, “To have shisha, to learn from each other and to speak to one another”.

Back at the school, it is quickly evident how food provides an important source of social nourishment in Palestinian society.  “Preparing food is a group activity which is shared by multiple people”, Kadumy pointed to the bustle of the kitchen where two women were preparing ingredients amongst chatter and laughter. “This is what makes the food remain how it should be, and it makes us a strong community.”

After a long day of touring the group of international visitors around the Old City, showing them the delights of Nablus’ spice and soap factories and hammams before returning to a hearty meal of Maqluba, Kadumy sank into a chair cupping a dark cup of Arabic coffee.

“We are saying enough, we want to try something else”, she reflected, “We have rebuilt the stone, now we need to rebuild the humans, ourselves.”

“I want to remove the smell of death from my city. It’s not only me; it’s all the Palestinians who feel this way. I want to stay away from the blood; I don’t want to see anymore destroyed houses. I know what we do here at Bait al Karama is small, but it is important.”