At the Nasser al-Din and Bros. Supermarket just outside of the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City, Arab Israelis are getting their matza fix.
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Despite a fraught history with their Jewish neighbors, some of the country’s 1.7 million Arabs enjoy the unleavened bread as part of a proud and deeply entrenched multicultural tradition, says supermarket owner Nidal Nasser al-Din.
“Particularly in Jerusalem, we have an open city and we hope it will always be that way – with influences from Arabs, Israelis, even tourists who come from all over the world,” he says.
“And, anyway, it’s just food, it’s not political,” he adds, laughing.
Unlike the Jewish-owned supermarkets in Israel, which stock the product only before and during the week-long holiday of Passover, Nasser al-Din typically sells approximately 30 boxes every week, year-round, mainly to Arab customers. As of Thursday afternoon, he was almost completely out of supply.
For the family business, Nasser al-Din explains, matza has contributed to the brand’s “unique,” international character.
In 1936, Nidal's grandfather moved from Hebron to Jerusalem and in 1954 he opened up shop in the first building constructed outside of the Old City walls. Following the 1967 Six-Day War, he began selling matza and gradually added cheeses and candies from Russia, Turkey and the Gulf countries, among others.
Many Arab Israelis, especially the elderly, believe that matza’s dry texture and mild taste has medicinal properties beneficial to digestion, says Nidal’s son, Ali Nasser al-Din.
But some young people also eat it as a sweet snack, preferably slathered with chocolate spread and alongside tea.
Though Ali holds an engineering degree from a Jordanian university, he is currently studying Hebrew at an ulpan downtown to increase his chances of getting a job. And while he realizes that many of his neighbors might disagree, Ali says that selling Jewish food and interacting with Jewish business partners “is the only way to keep up hope.”
For Morad Abdal Rahman, a 22-year-old psychology student, matza is nostalgic of family get-togethers.
“These days, my father brings home lots of packages of matza, enough for our family of six,” he says. “We eat a lot throughout the holiday, but we even continue to eat it for months afterward.”
Matza is known in the Arab areas of northern Israel as massah, or in Jerusalem as ftir – after the name for a round, originally Egyptian, pineapple-filled pastry of similar consistency.
Numerous supermarkets in East Jerusalem and Arab areas of Israel stock matza around the holiday to meet both Arab and Jewish customers’ demands.
“The older people know it from working in Israel, though it’s remained popular today,” says Wael Jafar, manager of the Jafar Supermarket in the Beit Hanina neighborhood of East Jerusalem, which expects to sell around 20 boxes over the next week.
For Jews, matza is eaten during Passover to recall the exodus from Egypt, specifically how the Israelites are said to have fled Egypt in such haste that they could not wait for their bread dough to rise.
Jewish Israelis like Tali Ben Itzhak say they can stomach it in the form of matza brie [mixed with eggs and fried] or cakes, but generally do so out of obligation or a sense of tradition.
“It’s edible, I guess, but it tastes like cardboard and it’s fattening,” says Ben Itzhak, who’s amused and perplexed to hear that there are Arabs who eat matza voluntarily.
But Maha, an Arab resident of Jerusalem who requested that her last name not be used, asserts that “Jews only hate it because they are forced to eat it.”
Like many Arab matza enthusiasts, she sees nothing strange in the appetite for the dry, bland bread. She says the desire stems from the fact that it is “new and different,” and that it is merely one facet of a compounded identity many feel as both Israeli citizens and Palestinian nationals.
She buys a package at the request of her niece, who saw a television commercial for matza and wanted to partake in the holiday festivities.
“In the past, my niece’s father worked in Israel, and when there was a feast, he used to bring this home,” she says.
“The appeal is natural,” interjects Nidal, the supermarket owner. “Jews come here to buy kadaif [an Arab pastry] and other specialty home-made Arab breads.”
Secular Jews also visit here and other supermarkets in East Jerusalem and Arab neighborhoods to buy regular bread during the holiday, since most businesses in Jewish neighborhoods are kept kosher for Passover, meaning bread-free.
Yet culinary exchanges have always existed between Arabs and Israelis, says Shereen Johar, a matza connoisseur originally from Abu Ghosh, an Arab village known as a symbol for coexistence and host to hummus restaurants regularly packed with Jewish visitors.
She says that because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not religious, she as a Muslim feels no conflict in partaking in the Passover tradition and in commemorating the adversity faced by Jews.
“Whether we’ve agreed to it or not,” says Johar, “the Arabs and the Israelis have a shared culture.”