A man prepares the traditional kunafa, a dessert made with goat cheese Image Credit: Supplied image

The Palestinian city of Nablus, about 60 kilometres north of Occupied Jerusalem, is renowned for its kunafa, a dessert made with goat cheese, and its community of Samaritans who live on top of the mountain. The old city in particular witnessed one of the major flashpoints during the Second Intifada and faced endless periods of curfews. Until 2008 seven Israeli checkpoints blocked the main gateway in and out of the city, making it almost impossible for the movement of goods and people. Today, the old city’s economic status is comparable to that of a refugee camp, with 80 per cent unemployment and many buildings still damaged.

It is in this historic old city that a little-known initiative, Bait Al Karama (House of Dignity), was undertaken by women after the Second Intifada and today, it has grown into a remarkable institution.

Women form the backbone of Palestinian society, striving to ensure the survival of families and children amid a brutal military occupation. Fatima Kadumy, the head of Bait Al Karama, explains the history and rationale behind the initiative. “It began as the first women’s centre in Nablus in 2004. We were a volunteer group during the Second Intifada, actively involved in helping people to rebuild their homes and lives after the destruction that the Israeli army wreaked during the invasion of the historic old city. When things quietened down, we realised that we needed a women’s centre. A destroyed building seemed to be the perfect place for it. It was more than 100 years old and thanks to various international NGOs such as Save the Children, we obtained funds to rebuild the structure, making sure that we did not change much.”

The building where Bait Al Karama is located dates back to the Ottoman era, with typical architecture of the Old City, which is also called “little Damascus”.

Kadumy is passionate when she talks about the project, but her humility shines through as she promptly credits her Italian friend Beatrice Catanzaro with the idea of Bait Al Karama. “She came to Nablus during the Intifada, and one day while having coffee with the family, the idea of a cooking class came about. She stayed with us and we got along very well,” Kadumy says.

“Initially, the purpose of cooking was to help people in the old city surrounded by the Israeli army, but the idea then developed into something more, and Bait Al Karama became a place where foreigners could come along to assist the residents,” she adds.

“The idea grew into a social enterprise combining income-generating activities with social, educational and cultural programmes around the theme of food that would, on the one hand, engage the local community directly and on the other, become a means to reach out to a broader audience to showcase Palestine’s culture, trying to shift focus from the stereotype created by political lenses to the complexity and richness of its cultural identity,” Catanzaro says.

However, things assumed a completely different dimension in 2012 when Bait Al Karama tied up with Slow Food International, a global grassroots organisation with supporters in 150 countries.

Since then Slow Food Nablus has represented Palestine in the last two food fairs in Turin, Italy.

“This Italian organisation not only helped, but also made sure that when foreigners visited Israel, they would also come to Nablus. They tasted our food and most importantly, heard our side of the story. We have realised that food is also a vehicle for culture. In our cooking classes, we share indigenous knowledge with our guests. Food and our culinary culture is a way to resist the occupation and it anchors us to our identity,” Kadumy says.

“From our humble beginnings with just three women who believed in the idea of food, we have grown to about 70 with five working full-time. Now, we even have a chef. Also, women in the old city have learnt how to use food for income,” she says. “Talking about food is talking about ourselves, about our history and who we are.”

Food as a means of resistance starts right from the purchase ingredients. “We determine where the products come from — Israel, its illegal settlements [colonies] in Palestine or Palestine. Only then do we purchase of products that support our farmers. We boycott Israeli products,” Kadumy says.

“Research about our food and its history has led us to compile a book about Nablus’s cuisine and we are presently working on both English and Arabic versions of it. The last we heard, even Germans want it translated into their language.”

Working with Bait Al Karama and the food of Palestine, especially that of Nablus, has also broadened the horizons of Kadumy and her colleagues. They travelled to Turin and presented Bait Al Karama to the EU Parliament in Brussels in 2013, where they showcased Palestinian food and spoke about it. “We allowed Israelis to speak for far too long. Now we also have Palestinians at these exhibitions and our voice is heard, too,” Kadumy says.

“Here, Bait Al Karama also provides tours of the old city to foreigners. After breakfast, we take them to the old city markets where we purchase our ingredients. We then return and cook lunch, teaching them Palestinian dishes such as stuffed grape leaves. After lunch, we do a tour that focuses on the history of the old city,” Kadumy says. “The culinary tour is also meant to involve the local community in our activities and to raise awareness about the importance of our culinary heritage and the importance of consuming locally produced goods.”

Political issues become topics of discussion on the lunch table. “This way, foreigners get to see the Palestinian side of the story and our culture up close,” which is certainly a novel approach. Kadumy is all animated as she talks about the cause. “This cooking experience helps to promote our cause and we have had more than 1,000 visitors from the US, China, Australia, Germany and other places.”

“The family of Bait Al Karama is growing. A large number of young volunteers is supporting us in many social activities that go beyond cooking classes, tours and lunches. For instance, during Ramadan, when the centre is closed to the public, we distribute bread and food to the most disadvantaged families in Nablus. We also focus on children, organising activities in schools and in public areas in the city, introducing them to green education and healthy food consumption,” Catanzaro says.

As with the larger conflict, the dispute in the Holy Land extends to food, with Israelis claiming hummus and falafel is their food and Palestinians strongly fighting to reclaim their legacy — just as they do for their very existence.

Rafique Gangat, author of “Ye Shall Bowl on Grass”, is based in Occupied Jerusalem.