Ancient Jaffa Revived for Your Breakfast

Two Jaffa cooks are recreating dishes that once were served at 19th century summer celebration at Nebi Rubin.

Dan Peretz

“But there is one month a year called the month of Elul, when the area changes and no longer looks like a desert. As though with a magic wand from the ‘1001 Nights,’ a bustling community will arise here, streets and market places, playgrounds and a commercial center, a real city with hundreds of tents and huts that stand for 30 days, the number of days of pilgrimage to the ‘Prophet Reuben.’”

Haim Berger, Davar, August 24, 1930

The embarkation point was in the center of Jaffa, near today’s Clock Square and the khan and mosque that served as the commercial and social center of previous generations. In the morning hours of a hot summer day, in the middle of the eighth month according to the Gregorian calendar, the movement, which had been meticulously planned months earlier, got underway, and women, men and children, of all ages and social classes gathered at the meeting place.

Up to the late 19th century, camels, donkeys and mules were the means of transportation; in the early 20th century automobiles and taxis joined them. In one way or another the colorful parade of city residents – which passed by Jaffa port and the Old City toward the coastal road leading to Gaza – signaled the start of the festivities of the annual pilgrimage to the tomb of Nebi Rubin.

An ancient Muslim tradition determined the burial place of Reuben, son of the biblical Jacob, in the area of Nahal Sorek, two kilometers from today’s Palmahim beach and about 15 kilometers south of Jaffa. Scholars date the custom of the mass annual pilgrimage to the holy tomb to the 12th and 13th centuries, when the Mameluke rulers wished to demonstrate a Muslim presence in the area in light of similar Christian customs of worship.

The tomb of Nebi Rubin, like that of Nebi Musa near Jericho, became the focus of an annual religious celebration, which lasted for four weeks in the summer.

The Davar reporter’s enthusiasm for the temporary tent city that arose among the dunes – the newspaper sent representatives to cover the summer gathering almost every year – had also been felt by foreign travelers during the Middle Ages and the Palestinian press toward the end of the Ottoman period (even if today the reports sound somewhat colonialist and Orientalist). Everyone who wrote about the ancient festival, held annually for hundreds of years, waxed eloquent about the way a bustling city would suddenly arise from the yellow sand dunes, thriving for a month and then disappearing as if by magic. Alongside the tents and huts built by the families of pilgrims from Jaffa, Gaza, Ramle and Lod, there were markets, cafes, restaurants and bakeries, and musical, theatrical and cinematic performances were held beneath the open sky.

At first the annual festival was of a clearly religious nature, but over the years, and particularly beginning in the early 19th century, when 
Jaffa became the district capital of the south of the country, it began to look like a lively vacation site. Men whose work kept them in the city in the mornings would return to the festival, where their families were staying, in the afternoons. The one-month break from urban life can be compared to the French vacances. Wealthy families made their way south beneath the canopies of sedan chairs, with the women dressed in their finest and holding white parasols. But at Nebi Rubin everyone slept on the ground. “Take me to Rubin or divorce me,” went a popular saying, demonstrating the importance of the annual institution in the eyes of both men and women.

A sweet and lazy flavor

In the morning of a hot summer day in the middle of the eighth calendar month. Salah Kurdi, chef of the Al-Jamila restaurant, which is located near the place from which the caravans of camels once set out for the annual journey to the seaside, is working in the kitchen on an attempt to reconstruct a dish called muala: a cluster of the internal organs of a lamb, fried with hot pepper and made into sausages.

Working alongside him in the kitchen is Maiser Seri Abu Shahada, a native of Jaffa who for the past four years has been conducting cooking workshops on local Arab cuisine. “We’ve known each other since childhood,” says Maiser, “but only when he wanted to recreate the lost flavors of Nebi Rubin – and because there aren’t many other people in Jaffa who cook the traditional dishes of their ancestors – he asked my sister to arrange a meeting and we met once again.”

The road to recreating the traditional foods included meetings and long interviews with the city elders, the few who are almost 100 years old or older, and still remember the sweet and lazy flavor of the popular festivities at Nebi Rubin. The last pilgrimage took place in 1946, two years before Israel’s War of Independence. Some claim that already in the mid-1930s, the British Mandate government felt that the festival’s religious character was becoming nationalistic and imposed severe restrictions on it. After the establishment of the State of Israel the waqf lands were confiscated and the Nebi Rubin tradition became a thing of the past.

The pilgrimage to Nebi 
Rubin is not represented by any single food, but the circumstances (cooking outdoors and in large quantities) and the seasonal cycle had a decisive influence on the types of food and drink that were placed on the table of the pilgrims and vacationers. They ate almost no fish, despite the coastal location. (“It’s the spawning season, when it was 
considered a disgrace to eat fish,” says Salah, explaining an unwritten law that did not survive into the modern age.) On the menu were mutton, even entire sheep slaughtered for the sake of religious vows; rice, burgul, frika and legumes; fresh summer fruits like watermelon, grapes, apricots and sabras. The few who still 
remember the sweet taste of the 
celebrations also recall various 
pickled vegetables and dried fruits.

Merakh rakh (meaning soft and airy), sharak or hubeiz saj (saj bread) are various names for the very thin pita breads baked on a convex iron griddle and spread into large sheets. “The Israel public has become accustomed to calling this pita ‘Druze pita’,” says Maiser, “but that’s simply the way it became fixed in Jewish awareness. All the natives of the region bake it.” The women in the family of Salah, who today lives in Ramle, continue to bake the traditional pitas on the saj. They are used in two typical dishes – mansaf and masakhan. To prepare mansaf, Maiser tears the sheet of dough by hand into rough sections (“We say ‘It was good, may its memory be blessed’”), and lines the serving tray with them; pours on a bit of the stock in which the mutton was cooked, and over it places white rice, mutton and pine nuts roasted in clarified butter. The strong basic flavors are refined with tart sheep yogurt served on the side.

To prepare masakhan you fry chicken with lots of onion and sumac – the unique tartness of the reddish local herb is just as heady as that of the yogurt – and roll it up in a thin pita. Among the dishes the two chefs have created in memory of their ancestors are sumakiya, a meat dish with hummus, mangold, tahini and sumac (in Gaza, where many Jaffa refugees fled after 1948, the dish is very common); a wonderful selection of salads inspired by the raw ingredients of the Palestinian summer pantry; and traditional juices that have been forgotten, such as dried apricot juice (a thick, heady treat prepared from sheets of dried apricot soaked in water); or licorice juice.

“Next year, Inshallah, we’ll have a real festival,” says Salah, referring not only to a special menu in the restaurant, but to a renewal of the Jaffa tradition in all its glory.

The Nebi Rubin menu will be served at Al-Jamila during September. Reservations: (03) 550-0042