Nomads and Knafeh: Palestine Beyond the Headlines

Nomads and Knafeh: Palestine Beyond the Headlines

This article appears in Volume 29: The Taste

many outsiders, the disputed territory of the West Bank is
nothing more than a land of conflict, a no-go zone blighted by
political unrest. So contentious is it that the late chef and
writer Anthony Bourdain explained after visiting: “I’ll be seen by
many as a terrorist sympathiser, a Zionist tool, a self-hating Jew,
an apologist for American imperialism, an Orientalist, socialist,
fascist, CIA agent, and worse.”

I’m here not as any of the above, nor as a Christian pilgrim,
nor to make judgement on the complexities of the
Israeli-Palestinian question. Rather, I’m here to explore
Palestine’s fascinating food culture first-hand. Cross the
checkpoint to enter this territory and one soon realises that its
cuisine tells a far more celebratory story than any snapshot we
might see in the news.

My base is the Hosh Al-Syrian Guesthouse in
run by the chef Fadi Kattan. As I sit and watch the sun spread like
butter across the 11th-century courtyard, Kattan serves me my first
meal, explaining: “You squash your eggs with the labneh, put it
onto the ka’ak [a type of bread] with olive oil and za’atar, and
that’s a true Palestinian breakfast.”

Kattan is a vivacious, articulate character who is renowned in
Bethlehem for his gourmet approach – everyone from diplomats to
local residents head to his fine-dining restaurant, Fawda
Restaurant & Café. I’m bowled over by its dinner menu of five
courses showcasing modern Palestinian cuisine, which includes a
freekeh and sour cherry starter and a roasted cauliflower, tahini
and lentil salad made mostly with ingredients from local suppliers.
Equally impressive is Kattan’s ethos. His grandmother founded the
Arab Women’s Union in 1947 and also launched a food project for
women. She was the one who first inspired Kattan to cook, and is
one of the reasons that he trains young Palestinians in his kitchen

From Bethlehem, Kattan and I head to Burqin, a village in the
north. We drive past roads with red signs that warn: “This road
leads to a Palestinian area – it is dangerous for Israeli
citizens.” Nonetheless, the diversity of the landscape strikes me
more than these ominous missives. Drive north and you’re surrounded
by voluptuous green undulations; east toward Jericho is all desert
and canyons; and in the Central Highlands between Nablus and
Hebron, dramatic valleys are punctuated with stone terraces for
farming. Fertile swathes of hills dotted with crops and olive
groves soon streak the panorama.

Kattan tells me: “Palestine’s cuisine comes from what the land
offers us. It’s extremely seasonal.” We draw up at Canaan Fair Trade, a cooperative that produces olive
oil, honey, tahini, couscous and za’atar, where Kattan introduces
me to its stolid founder, Nasser Abufarha. Lunch is due in an hour,
but the table is already heaving with oils and colossal circles of
flatbread made with varieties of wheat as ancient as the land

As I tear the dough and dip it into the oils, I learn more about
how the Canaan is flourishing against the odds. Before it was
founded, small-scale growers in the region faced enormous
challenges in cultivating their crops. In Palestine it’s not
uncommon for water to be cut off for many days or for checkpoints
to be abruptly closed.

While these hurdles remain, Abufarha’s fair-trade co-op, which
buys oil from 1,500 small farmers across 6,800 hectares, has
instilled some measure of food security. By bringing together
disparate farmers and using organic practices, he is now able to
sell their produce across the world – in the UK, the social
enterprise Zaytoun imports the olive oil and sells it in Planet Organic and Selfridges. As I stand among the groves, some of which
date back three millennia, with farmer Mahmoud Samara, he
poignantly explains: “I used to sell olive oil for nine shekels per
kilo; now it’s 30 to 32 shekels. I have a car, I can offer
opportunities to my two girls and boy – it’s changed my life.”

Speckled with prickly pears and geraniums, the small town of
Sebastia, just 27 miles south, was once the capital of the Kingdom
of Israel (then known as Samaria). Looming Roman columns line the
road as we approach, while its shimmering relics include a forum
with a football-pitch-sized basilica, an amphitheatre and
Hellenistic towers.

I see eerily few people here. At Holy Land Sun Restaurant there
are just two occupied tables: the rest are empty. Since the
separation wall encircling the territory was completed in the early
2000s, there has been less footfall, the jolly chef and owner Hafez
Kayad informs us. “For eight years few tourists came at all, but
now business is opening back up.” With that he brings over the
musakhan, Palestine’s national dish of roasted chicken on olive-oil
soaked flatbread with caramelised onions and pine nuts freckled on
top. I’m served two further obligatory specialities: awassi lamb –
distinctive for its saporous fat – and knafeh, a beguiling
shredded-hair pastry rolled with a mild white cheese then
caramelised and slathered in syrup.

To walk off the feast we head downhill to John the Baptist’s
tomb. It’s jarring to consider that anywhere else in the world,
this place would have been transformed into a tourist haven with a
museum attracting thousands. As it is, we have it almost to

We set off to visit Palestine’s only winery in the remote, high
village of Taybeh. It’s 9pm as we ascend among a few knobbly vines
silhouetted against the moon. The Khoury family greets us at the
entrance of the Taybeh Golden Hotel before showing us their
state-of-the-art winery next door. They’ve set a table by the tanks
for an intimate dinner of five courses paired with Taybeh

First up is a peach-nuanced sauvignon blanc from 2018, served
with labneh and a green soup. Numerous pairings follow, but it’s
the dark chocolate and Dead Sea salt with a late- harvest 2015
cabernet sauvignon that triumphs for me. Before leaving I meet
Madees Khoury, Palestine’s only female brewer, who runs Taybeh’s
microbrewery and organises an annual beer festival. This October
the festival will draw some 4,000 visitors to this small village –
Palestinians, expats and Israelis alike come for the drinks, Dabke
folk dancers and theatrical performances.

Jericho is one of the world’s oldest continuous settlements,
dating back to approximately 9000 BCE. Jesus is said to have been
tempted for 40 days and 40 nights by the devil here, so there are
archaeological and biblical sites aplenty. Yet I’m on a mission to
uncover something more humble: the medjool date.

We zip past Bedouin nomads, whose sheep nibble on herbs growing
in cracks between rocks, to meet Fuad Najjab, who manages the best
date place in the region, Nakheel Palestine. As we chow down,
Najjab explains that there are few places in the world where “the
king of dates” grows. He adds: “we have 10 women managing the
production side, and by 2020 we aim for some of our harvest to be
organic.” The rush of caramel and honey is intense and intoxicating
as we sample the fruits of Nakheel’s labour in the hushed palm
orchards, a soothing oasis from which you can see the ruins of

The nearby West Bank Salt Company, run by the charismatic Othman
Hallak and his son Husam, produces Dead Sea salt over 10 hectares.
We drive along a track past a derelict casino and abandoned hotel
before a hut comes into view in front of a dazzling white
crystallisation pool, behind which lies barbed wire and a dusty
expanse that leads to the Dead Sea. Othman, now 83, and Husam greet
us, the latter explaining: “This used to be the place people would
come to gamble and swim in the lido and the sea. In 1967 it all
stopped and no one came back. These flats are a physical
manifestation of what is happening to us.”

Each year the Hallaks, both engineers, extend their pipe by 24m
to access the retreating Dead Sea. “There’s a drastic shortage of
water and something needs to be done now. We predict in 150 years,
there won’t be a Dead Sea,” says Husam, who laments that 30 per
cent of the sea has disappeared since they’ve been here. Othman
clutches one of the company’s 10 varieties of salt. Unlike mass
producers, West Bank don’t use bleach or anti-caking agent: this is
the real deal. Explaining why he’ll never leave, Othman remarks
with a twinkle in his rheumy eyes: “I am very proud. Salt is our
life. It’s our livelihood. It’s what we do best. It’s fighting for
what we believe in. That’s what salt means to me.” Indeed, in the
1970s he was offered a blank cheque to leave, but he refused.

As I complete my last meal at Hosh Al-Syrian it’s clear that, of
course, the West Bank isn’t without its complications. The imposing
eight-metre-high concrete wall (for perspective, the Berlin Wall
was 3.6m tall) that keeps its inhabitants impounded unless they
have a permit to move beyond curdles the blood. There are too many
concerning instances to mention regarding checkpoints, including
one in which I’m corralled through a corridor and told to wait by a
wall while the man in charge paces back and forth with his gun, or
the time when an old lady gets her walking stick stuck in the
biometric machines and a young soldier refuses to help. I say my
farewells and depart for Tel Aviv airport in good time to get
through the checkpoints on the way back.

Nevertheless, I get a taste of much more than conflict as I
travel around Palestine. Political plight may have eclipsed the
positive aspects of the state’s culture in the media, but on the
ground food is forming the meat of the scramble for identity. What
Palestinians produce and eat serves both as a lifeline that
connects its people to the land, and as a symbol of hope for a
future defined by more than headlines.

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