Razan Zoabi stands at the entrance of Al-Kahla, an attractive espresso bar she opened recently in her home town of Nazareth, watching work in progress on Al-Bishara Street. The noise of the bulldozers is deafening, but it’s easy to detect her tiny smile of victory over community leaders in the Old City. In planning a sidewalk in the narrow alleyway that winds from the top of the hill to the Church of the Annunciation and the market, they had intended to pave it with red bricks.
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Zoabi, an architect who specializes in the preservation and renovation of old buildings, together with Dhaher Zaydani, owner of the nearby Al-Reda restaurant, succeeded in fighting the decision and reversing it. The new sidewalk is now being paved with bricks made from Jamma’in stone, named after the village where it is quarried, near Ramallah, and better suited to the regional construction style.
On the other side of the street from Zoabi’s espresso bar is one of those impressive structures built almost 300 years ago and now deserted. The neglect did not erase the lovely features of the residential building, which dates back to the golden age of the Galilean city and now belongs to Razan’s relatives in the Zoabi clan. Conflicts over inheritance and ownership, among other things, are delaying the preservation and renovation of such structures. Many of them were abandoned by their original owners in 1948 and inhabited by families of refugees from the area. Today, pigeons build their nests in the rooms, floors that were once covered in marble are defaced with filth and bird droppings, and tiles from the original roof are missing.
The Al-Kahla espresso bar is located in one of the Dhaher houses, magnificent homes built by a descendant of Dhaher al-Omar – an 18th-century local ruler who captured the area from the Ottomans for a short period – for his three sons. One of those family residences was repurchased by Dhaher Zaydani, a 20th-century descendant. Over a decade ago, he opened Al-Reda, a bar-restaurant that has become a cultural center for local residents. “Of all the renovations done in Nazareth in similar houses,” boasts Zoabi, “the preservation and renovation work by Dhaher are the most faithful to the original.”
Al-Reda is located on the first floor at the front of the building, while Al-Kahla was recently opened at the back, in an addition built in the early 20th century. “Dhaher says generously that the interior decoration is mine, but we were full partners in the work,” says Zoabi.
Peace and tranquillity
Zoabi, who was born in 1982, studied engineering and interior decoration in Haifa and Amman and has worked in architecture firms in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. She specialized in the preservation and renovation of large Ottoman-era Palestinian homes at the Riwaq Center for Architectural Conservation in Ramallah. She decided to name the tiny café Al-Kahla (the word derives from kohl, a blue-black dye used as an eye liner since antiquity).
“Kahla is the name of a beautiful horse that lived in the Al-Reda building, the Dhaher family home. According to family legend, when the horse heard about the owners’ intention of leaving the house and the town it was so sad that it took its own life. In addition, kahla is also the name of the mortar that holds the building stones together. As in the case of Al-Reda, the place that Dhaher opened, I also want to restore life to the alleyways of the Old City.” The gallery floor of the café serves as Razan’s office, and on the lower floor – along with coffee and alcoholic drinks – they also sell books about local Arab architecture (most of them published by the Riwaq Center).
Even as gravel is being crushed out in the street and the Israeli reality infiltrates every aspect of life – even more so for owners of eateries in an Arab city – Al-Kahla provides a calm refuge from the outside world. Music plays in the background (classical, Western or Arabic). The interior decor is minimalist; Zoabi comments that “The big old houses may look gray today, but they were originally painted in shades of yellow-green-blue. People wanted to introduce color and joy to life.” There is excellent coffee served in a porcelain cup or a finjan, a small metal coffee pot from the Maghreb. With it, Zoabi serves nut cookies or fresh apple pastries, or a glass of arak, with sesame-sprinkled bread sticks. (We would have recommended a special edition of Haddad arak, made to mark the 60th anniversary of the Jordanian producer, had the bottle not been almost completely emptied.)
The menu, like the decor, is minimalist and restrained (two to three home-made pastries and no more), but it’s a model of good taste.
Al-Kahla, Al-Bishara Street (behind the Al-Reda restaurant and near the Church of the Annunciation), Nazareth. Open Monday-Saturday, 9 A.M. to 5 P.M.
The awama street show
Preparing awama attracts curious passersby every day. “It’s good for business,” says one of the neighboring entrepreneurs, sharing a secret as he refers to the awama stand set up by Anan Hawidi outside the family pastry shop on Paul VI Street. Anan learned the trade from his father, who opened the shop on the main street in 1961, and he in turn learned from his father (Anan’s grandfather would ride through the steep streets of Nazareth with a wagon containing sambusa, semolina cake and maamoul cookies.)
In the family pastry shop, they continue to prepare all the traditional sweets and cakes, including different kinds of baklava and kanafeh, but the piece de resistance is awama – balls of fried yeast dough topped with a sugar and rose water syrup. Awama, similar to zalabieh, belongs to an ancient Middle Eastern family of sweet fried pastries. Recipes for zalabieh and awama (from the word “float” in Arabic, named for the ability of the small balls to float in the boiling oil) appeared in Arab cookbooks already in the 10th century.
“I prepared awama for the first time at the age of 13; then and for many years afterward we used to prepare the balls by hand,” says Anan, skillfully demonstrating how to prepare small clouds of dough and snip them off with a thumb and forefinger.
Two years ago Anan brought the awama machine from a food fair in Istanbul, the machine that is placed every day in front of the shop, facing the street. The preparation of awama has become a daily attraction in the winter months. The risen dough is poured into a container (“It took me a long time to achieve the right formula that suits the local climate”), and a huge metal opening, guided by Anan’s sure hand, gaily discharges perfect balls of dough into the boiling oil. The crisp, airy balls undergo a second frying to make the color and texture uniform; they are then transferred to a bath of sugar syrup perfumed with rose water. The result, which should be eaten hot, right after frying and immersion in the syrup, is a wonderful delicacy that sweetly melts in your mouth.
Hawidi’s Sweets, Paul VI Street (next to Hamashbir Lazarchan and Hummus Abu Ghanem), Nazareth (04) 655-4885.