Women's centre "Bait al Karama"
Nablus is cooking again!

Kanafeh, spices, oils and breads of the finest quality – Nablus has always been renowned for its excellent cuisine. The Bait al Karama initiative seeks to raise the profile of this cuisine and to underline the importance of food for any culture. Ulrike Schleicher visited Bait al Karama and its cookery school, the first organised by women in the West Bank

Abdel Fatthah-Breik runs one of the oldest spice businesses in Nablus in the West Bank. His mother used to collect herbs, seeds and spices, and knew about their uses: "Za'atar is good for the memory, sesame oil heals wounds, and if you eat Ful for breakfast – a dish made of fava beans, onions and various spices – you'll be able to work like a horse all day."

This is the kind of knowledge that is usually passed down by women from generation to generation. Nowadays, however, it is only the old women in Nablus who know such things. They tell stories about the once-proud city of Nablus with its traditional crafts and special culinary delights.

The only constant amidst the daily chaos

In the recent past, however, Nablus has not been known around the world for its culinary arts. Instead, it has the been known by the unfortunate title of "Terror Capital". It is said that around 60 per cent of all attacks on Israel during the second intifada (2000–2005) were planned here.

As a result, the city was hermetically sealed off by Israeli troops for years. Trade and the local economy collapsed, and unemployment and poverty went hand in hand with psychological trauma. "The only constant in the midst of all this chaos were the daily meals," says Fatima Kadumy, who studied economics and is the chairwoman of the women's committee of a foundation based in Nablus.

In times like these, things like food assume major importance, says Kadumy. Eating is something deeply human, and cooking is highly feminine, she maintains. It also provides a link to the culture and history of a people. The women's desire to go back to their roots was one of the things that triggered the founding of the first cookery school in the West Bank. The second was that the women wanted the world to get to know Nablus and see that there is more to it than the intifada.

Lifit in a pot (photo: Ulrike Schleicher)
Lifit (pictured here) is made of root vegetables, rice, and tahini. When preparing this and all the dishes taught on their cookery courses, the women of Bait al Karama insist on using only fresh, regional produce

A livelihood for women

Bait al Karama (which means "House of Dignity"), as the initiative is named, is located in a rear courtyard in the Old Town of Nablus. It is a social gathering place for women, the setting for adult education workshops, and also provides 45 jobs in its beauty salon, shop, cookery school and restaurant, which are at the heart of Bait al Karama.

Cookery lessons take place around a large table in the kitchen, which can be booked by tourists and visitors either for a single day or for several days. The courses are taught by both young and older women from Nablus.

Home cooking is on the menu: "Every woman has her own recipes and individual preferences," says Fatima. The guests can request certain dishes too. Everyone purchases the ingredients together at the market before starting to cook. Visits to local farmers are also part of the programme.

Men cook outdoors, women indoors

From the depths of the Muna bakery in the Old Town, a warm, delicious smell wafts onto the street. Crammed together in a tiny space, four brothers bake flatbreads in a deep wood oven in the wall from morning till evening. These flatbreads are either sprinkled with coarse salt, topped with egg, flavoured with Za'atar, or just baked plain. Those who shop here only get the freshest produce.

"Special requests are no problem," says one of the friendly bakers, Hisham. At another corner on Nasser Street, Mohammed is simmering apple turnovers in oil. Passers-by can watch as he deftly folds the dough. Not far from here is Al Aqsa, the best-known Kanafeh bakery in Nablus: over and over again throughout the day, a man carries round trays of this sweet dessert made of goat's cheese covered in a saffron-red crust of semolina and warm sugar syrup from the ovens to the stall where they often sell out in a matter of minutes.

"Kanafeh, pita and falafel are dishes that men make outside on the street," explains Beesan of Bait al Karama. "Women cook indoors." Beesan, Fatima and Neama accompany Catherine and Terry from the USA and Ingrid from Sweden through the souk, shopping for ingredients. The three are part of a group that is taking part in today's cooking course. Lifit is on the menu.

Women from the Bait al Karama initiative preparing food (photo: Ulrike Schleicher)
The Bait al Karama initiative is a social meeting place for women. Cookery courses are held in the kitchen, which can be rented for either one day or several days

Only local and seasonal ingredients

They need white, round root vegetables, rice, sesame sauce (tahini) and the ingredients for a salad: avocado, parsley, carrots, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes. "We buy whatever is on offer," says Fatima.

In addition to preserving traditional cuisine, the women of Bait al Karama insist on using only fresh, local ingredients. This gave the Italian artist and co-founder of Bait al Karama, Beatrice Catanzaro, the idea of promoting the school through Slow Food.

"An Italian delegation paid us a visit, had a look at everything and was convinced," recounts Fatima. This contact, as well as an attractive website, eventually led an Italian MEP to invite the women from Nablus to Brussels, where they cooked and presented their project.

Since 2012, 500 people have taken part in the cooking courses, says the 36-year-old Fatima. Nonetheless, the women's work has only just begun – they want to learn more about their culinary past. "We know far too little about the origin of our dishes," she says.

So far, they have asked 50 older women around Nablus to tell them how they cook certain dishes such as the rice dish makloubeh, the parsley salad tabouleh, or Az Zarb, the lamb dish that is baked in an earthen oven. After some initial astonishment, these questions sparked passionate debates among the women: for example, whether it is better to soak lentils overnight and whether tahini should be diluted with yoghurt, or if that diminishes the taste.

Fatima believes that the use of ingredients, the preparation of dishes, and their composition and presentation says a lot about the history of the Palestinians. How close is the connection to Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey and Jordan? Which dish came from where and how has it changed over time in the Nablus region?

Community involvement

A pleasant side effect of the women's work with visitors from around the world is that the people of the local community are becoming more and more involved, sharing their knowledge and personal memories.

The spice merchant Abdel Fatthah-Breik, for example, says that fennel seeds remind him of his grandmother and how she used to come home from the olive grove laden with the greenish-yellow plants. They still grow wild today all over the West Bank in-between gnarled tree trunks and on rubbish dumps and roadsides. But people rarely gather them these days. "If you were ill, she would grind the seeds with a mortar and pestle and make tea out of them," Fatthah-Breik says with a smile. This always comforted him immediately.

Ulrike Schleicher

© Qantara.de 2014

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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