The short, deceptive Middle Eastern winter is the Jordan Valley’s most beautiful season. The dusty, yellow mountain slopes are covered with thin green down, and along the highways that cross the Jordan, on both sides of the river – in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority – green and yellow carpets of wild mustard and hubeiza (mallow) grow.
“For me, the Jordan Valley is a single geographical and historical unit, from Tiberias to Aqaba,” says Mohamed Attiyeh, a Jordanian businessman of Palestinian origin. Attiyeh is the founder of the Children of the Valley NGO and the Hubeiza Festival, which is taking place in Jordan for the third consecutive year.
“The political borders separating the two sides of the river are artificial borders, which were determined only in the second half of the 20th century, after thousands of years during which the residents of the region shared the same lifestyle and the same fate.”
Attiyeh, who was born in Jericho in 1954, sports a silvery, prophet-like beard, and weighs his words carefully. He is among the rare species of dreamers and doers who try to move mountains. “My family came originally from Morocco, and lived in Jerusalem for 600 years,” he says. “The family lived in Katamon, and when the neighborhood was captured in 1948, my forefathers were forced to move to Jericho. In 1967 we were forced to flee again, this time to Jordan.”
In the early 1980s he and his brother purchased 400 dunams adjacent to the village of Shuna Janubiyeh, opposite the city of their birth, Jericho. Vegetables and dates were traditionally grown in this area. Today, the farmlands of the Jordan valley are the main source of vegetables for the Hashemite kingdom. The shoulders of the narrow highway that crosses the valley – the Jordanian parallel to Israel’s Highway 90 – are full of improvised stands run by farmers selling their produce. The mountainous road that winds toward Amman is full of small open trucks that carry crates of carrots, fennel, cauliflower and lettuce, the products of intensive modern agriculture.
Attiyeh studied in the United States and was successful in business, and in recent years has been living on the organic farm he developed on his Jordan Valley estate. “I feel I have more to do before I leave this world,” he says with a small smile, explaining why he started the farm and the NGO, which is dedicated to preserving traditional handicrafts and promoting agricultural research and local produce. “The farm is a place for exchanging ideas, knowledge and experience, and we’re trying to bridge intergenerational and multicultural gaps. Many of the workers in the region are Egyptian laborers and Syrian refugees. The unemployment level is high and the educational level is low. We’re teaching local residents basic skills and trying to teach them how to make a living from the handicrafts and the products that characterized the region for thousands of years.
“Part of the vision is to encourage relations and the shared fate between the two sides of the Jordan River. After the signing of the peace treaty with Israel in 1994, I was one of the devout believers in economic and cultural cooperation. But the euphoria of the Oslo Accords ended after the assassination of [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin and the election of [Benjamin] Netanyahu, and since then the situation has only been deteriorating. In recent years we’ve been trying to promote cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, and Jericho in particular.”
Nourishing and free
The month-long Hubeiza Festival, held on the farm during this season (February 14 to March 21), includes a market for small farmers who sell their produce (mainly olive oil, honey and za’atar (hyssop), three basic ingredients of the local menu, but also sumac, cheeses and works of art). There are also tastings of traditional hubeiza dishes, like fresh hubeiza with yogurt and hubeiza fried in olive oil and onions. Hubeiza, whose Arabic name is derived from the word “bread,” was deliberately chosen as a symbol of the festival.
“It’s nourishing, it’s easily available and it’s free,” says Attiyeh. “Do they still eat hubeiza in Israel?” he asks Hila Ronen and Yizhar Sahar, the owners of the Rutenberg Restaurant at the site of the old bridge located near the border fence between Israel and Jordan at Naharayim. During a friendly meeting held last week at the Sufra Restaurant in Amman, those attending from the Israeli side explain that Israelis identify hubeiza with the meager nutrition available during the 1948 siege of Jerusalem and with the years of austerity that followed the 1948 war. At the end of the siege, Attiyeh’s family was forced to leave the city where it had lived, and hubeiza became part of the Palestinian consciousness in an entirely different way.
Later, the talk centers on the renewed Israeli and global interest in local food products in general and in gathering wild plants in particular, and about the image of hubeiza, which has yet to be rehabilitated. “In Jordan it’s exactly the same,” sighs Attiyeh. “People tell me, ‘We ate hubeiza until we were sick of it, why should we eat any more?’ Only this week did I learn that the Latin world for hubeiza is ‘malva neglecta.’ The Romans already treated it as an outcast.”
Modern entity, ancient space
In the past year, Ronen and Sahar have often crossed the border into Jordan to learn about the lifestyles and foods of Jordan Valley residents on the other side of the river. This should be a simple task – the distance is no more than a few kilometers and there’s a peace treaty between the two countries – but in fact this is one of the most complex border crossings in the world. The Jordan River terminal is a strange twilight zone, where the few who cross, Jordanians or Israelis, encounter suspicion on both sides. Although it’s only a matter of a few meters, the crossing itself sometimes takes as long as three to four hours.
“My interest in the other side of the Jordan began when I read a book about a journey in the Jordan Valley during the Ottoman period,” says Ronen, “and the unity of the Jordan Valley, which Mohamed also talks about, became real to me. The border between the countries was created at the end of the British Mandate period; in the past, life was conducted the same way on both sides of the Jordan.”
In addition to reading history books, she also observed a Jordanian family harvesting wheat on the other side of the border. She also tried for a long time to base the menu of the restaurant – located in a building that was once an enclosure for quarantining animals at a Valley Train crossing – on local ingredients.
“I spent hours searching through blogs, websites and books in an attempt to contact people from the other side,” says Ronen. “I looked for creative chefs and small growers, who in a process similar to what is happening in Israel, have gone back to creating and cooking traditional dishes with traditional ingredients. Our first trips to Jordan were completely experimental; we traveled to villages and to places we see every day across the border, and tried to find interesting ingredients and people who share our culinary curiosity. We discovered that the Jordanians still lag behind us in terms of a culinary revolution, but that the border really is artificial and that it’s important to us to relate to the shared space.”
The couple met Mohamed – who became a friend, as did other Jordanians – in the context of a tour by international groups that made an effort about two years ago to create joint activities for tourists on both sides of the border. Sufra, the Amman restaurant where the meeting with Mohamed Attiyeh took place last week, opened in 2011, and is one of the first in that country to openly boast of “Jordanian cuisine.”
But is there such a thing as Jordanian cuisine? Like Israel, a modern entity in an ancient geographical area rich in history, the borders of the Hashemite kingdom continued to be shaped in the 20th century. Apparently, 70 years of a new national entity are not necessarily sufficient for establishing a characteristic and separate cuisine.
The excellent and extensive menu at Sufra includes, under the Jordanian mantle, familiar dishes such as hummus, fatteh (a pita casserole) fattoush (a salad of bread and vegetables), felafel, mansaf (a rice and mutton stew) and maftoul (couscous with chicken and onions). These are dishes that in one version or another are familiar throughout the Levant. “There’s no such thing as Jordanian cuisine,” laughs Mohamed. The question of the existence of a Jordanian cuisine, similar to the identity issues surrounding Israeli cuisine, is less important than the branding. The tag “Israeli cuisine” is at the moment a guarantee of success in the global restaurant world. This is less true of the label “Arab cuisine.”
Whether we’re talking about Jordanian, Israeli, Palestinian or Levantine cuisine, Ronen and Sahar draw inspiration from their frequent visits to Jordan and from the search for the characteristics common to the Jordan Valley. New dishes that have become part of the winter menu, like mansaf made with smoked lamb, stuffed spleen or a dessert of goat cheese with honey and za’atar, were inspired by similar dishes in restaurants like Sufra. They are the result of the search for ingredients produced by residents of the Jordan Valley on the other side of the river.
Importing the products, almost like crossing the border as an independent tourist, is almost impossible. “The dreams of a restaurant situated on the Jordan-Israeli border and serving dishes using ingredients from Israel, Jordan and the PA, are impossible due to the regulations,” says Ronen. “If only I could import ingredients from the village that I see across the fence or from collectives of women from Jordan or Jericho.”