Shirin Faraj and Ahlam Seif prepare your breakfast to order and serve it in old-fashioned white enamel dishes: a finely chopped vegetable salad with mint leaves; labaneh balls in green olive oil, with an incredible flavor and buttery texture; jibni, the local semi-hard cheese; Syrian olives; three types of freshly baked manakish – with za’atar (hyssop), crushed peppers, and cheese; and pitas baked on a saj (a convex iron griddle) that are as thin as a sheet of paper and folded into triangles.
The large taboun at the back of the kitchen is where most of the dishes on the menu at the sisters’ new restaurant in Yanuh are produced. But Shirin and Ahlam buy the traditional saj pitas – which in Israel are mistakenly called “Druze pitas” when they are in fact typical of the entire cultural and geographic region – from other women in the village. They do this to help them financially. “Not all women can work outside the home,” says Shirin, “but even those who can’t can still earn a livelihood, and there is mutual support among the women. We all help one another.”
Ahlam, who keeps her hair and part of her face modestly hidden with a naqab, a white muslin headscarf, is fashioning whole-wheat yeast dough into elongated boat shapes to make pide. These warm pastries are inspired by the famous Turkish version, and the sisters make them with a variety of fillings. Local flavors are evident in the seasonings of the meat pide and the pide with labaneh and red pepper paste. The lahma ba’ajin – a flatbread topped with ground meat and dotted with hot peppers – is another common dish, found in several different versions in the Turkish-Syrian region. There is also arayis (pita pockets filled with ground beef and seared in the taboun or on the charcoal grill); and a selection of other baked goods based on the flatbreads of the Middle East and Mediterranean. After a long stint in front of the flames of the taboun, Ahlam steps outside for little break. “It’s hot by the oven,” she says. “People don’t understand why I sometimes look very stern and serious. It’s hard, but I really love baking.”
Dad does the driving
Shirin Faraj, born in 1979, is married and a mother of two. Ahlam (“My name means ‘dreams’) Seif, her younger sister, was born in 1983. “We always loved food, from the time we were little,” laughs Shirin, the more talkative of the two. Both are touchingly candid and serious. “We go to everything that involves food. To try, to taste, to learn. One night I saw online that there were cooking classes being offered by Chef Maher Araida at the culinary school in Yarka. I called Ahlam at midnight. She said I was crazy, but we signed up the next day.”
The four-month course led the sisters to think about opening their own place, no small matter for pious Druze women. “Our father, who was the secretary of the local council for 22 years, is not a religious man,” says Shirin. “But I became religious at age 26 and Ahlam at age 22. Chef Araida really encouraged us, but he also told us that with the current state of the restaurant business in Israel, it would be very hard. It’s not easy to survive in this field, and in fact we were unable to get a loan to start the business. Ultimately, our father helped us get started with money he received from his pension.”
In addition to the usual challenges of starting a restaurant, the sisters also faced the daunting challenge of doing so as women in Druze society, in which modesty is paramount and women have only limited contact with men who are outside their family circle.
“We were worried that because we are religious, we’d have a problem with our society, especially with the religious folks. We worried that people – especially men – wouldn’t come to a place that belongs to two women,” says Shirin. “But our father and brothers and my husband and his family were all very encouraging. They told us – ‘You have a gift for this. Tasty food is an important thing and you can succeed.’”
Their fears about opening an independent business also had to do with practical matters, such as the lack of a driver’s license. “Devout Druze women in the village aren’t permitted to learn how to drive,” says Shirin. “Our father said, ‘I’ll be your driver. It’s important for everyone to see that Druze women can work.’
“Druze women in the area have nowhere to work. Once we worked in textile factories – the Delta factory in Hurfeish or Gibor in Ma’alot. Women from my generation were told that it’s forbidden to leave the village to study. Today the situation is better. I have a profession; I’m an assistant preschool teacher, but I left that to try to realize a dream and support myself. I respect all work, but it pains me to see Druze women going to work as cleaners for just 2,000-2,500 shekels a month because that’s their only option.”
The sisters’ restaurant, Lahm Wa’ajin Baladi (Baladi Meat and Bread), opened two months ago. “We closed our ears to any negative comments and we went for it. We were pleasantly surprised. The whole village is supporting and welcoming us. Everyone comes – young people, old people, religious, nonreligious.”
On the afternoon we visited, the women were working nonstop to prepare food for their customers. The menu focuses mainly on traditional local foods (“In the end, we all want to go back to mom’s cooking,” says Shirin), but there are also more modern items with a cream or pesto base. “People here have just started to eat and love pesto,” she says.
Some customers sit at the few tables inside the simply designed restaurant space. Others choose to take their delicious fresh baked goods home or to work. Raleb Seif, the sisters’ father, comes in to say hello. A family acquaintance from neighboring Sakhnin sits down for a cup of coffee; conversation turns to the new nation-state law. “I’m not going to the demonstration. What’s the point?” the friend says bitterly. “A year from now I bet they’ll declare that the Jews are citizens and we Druze and Arabs are only residents. Our MKs should resign already.” Seif, a reserved and impressive gentleman, shakes his head in disagreement. “That’s just what they want. If we don’t protest, we’ll play into their hands. We have to fight it.”
Lahm Wa’ajin Baladi, at the entrance to Yanuh-Jat from the direction of Kfar Vradim (next to the post office); 04-855135