The Women Behind Israel's Budding Bedouin Food Scene

Leisure culture is a new concept in Bedouin society – only recently have cafés and restaurants opened in the Negev city of Rahat. Local women want to acquaint the Jewish public with the city that Prime Minister Bennett didn’t dare enter

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Knafeh Arabiya.
Knafeh Arabiya.Credit: Dan Perez
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

A few months ago, Hiba Huzeil, from the Bedouin city of Rahat in the Negev, went on a short vacation to Switzerland with her husband. “We came back from all the greenery there,” says a smiling Huzeil, who breaks frequently into laughter even when her remarks are disillusioned and sad. “And when we got to Kama Junction, with all that yellow around, I started to see black and to have a headache.”

Huzeil works as a therapeutic stylist at Soroka Medical Center, in Be’er Sheva (“I help women who have cancer cope with the physical changes after treatments; I was the first in Arab society to learn the profession”). In her hometown, she is also the director of the unit for volunteering and women’s leadership at the city’s community center, and conducts tours of Rahat to acquaint the public with the Bedouin city. Like many members of her generation, she too has a complex relationship with the place where she was born and lives. It’s hard to accept the difficulties of life in this impoverished city, where jobs are scarce, but it’s also not easy to leave one’s childhood haunts – nor is it clear where a young Bedouin couple would be able to forge a different future for itself in Israel.

Najah Abu Lateef, the mother of nine children, is one of the women in the leadership group that Huzeil leads. Seven years ago, she began to transform her work in the kitchen – an inhibiting factor to women’s liberation throughout history – into a livelihood. At first she sold cookies and other homemade dishes in the city’s open-air market; today she is the owner of a small business of home hospitality and cooking workshops called Tamar Vahel (“date and cardamom”).

Hiba Huzeil.

“I didn’t finish my schooling until after I got married,” she relates. “I was born in one of the ‘unrecognized’ villages near Rahat. School was far away, it took us an hour to get there by donkey, and when there were clouds in the sky, you just didn’t go. In the early 1970s, we moved to Rahat, but we still walked back and forth to school.”

Abu Lateef is one of the few people in Rahat who make knafeh Arabiya, a confection identified with Gaza cuisine (though even in the Gaza Strip people usually buy it in bakeries rather than make it at home). “Knafeh” refers originally to different types of pan-cooked flat cakes. The best known knafeh is made from thin kadaif noodles and jibi – sheep milk cheese; whereas knafeh Arabiya lacks the salty cheese and is made instead of a mixture of bulgur, semolina and walnuts. The fusion of bulgur and semolina, when combined with butter or oil, creates a crystalline texture that melts in the mouth, and this sweet delicacy is scented with cinnamon and inlaid with nuts and raisins.

Abu Lateef acquired the Gaza kitchen tradition from her family. “My paternal grandfather lived in Gaza until 1948,” she says. “He was a merchant who brought goods to the [Negev] Bedouin and then returned to Gaza. Following the war, he settled in Israel, and bought land near Shoval [a kibbutz in the northern Negev, near present-day Rahat]. My husband’s family also has land in Lehavim [an upscale town north of Be’er Sheva], and every year we sow wheat that the family continues to cultivate and consume.”

Making maftoul at Tamar Vahel.

Many of the traditional dishes that Abu Lateef makes for groups she hosts are based on wheat and its various products. They also provide a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of the Bedouin kitchen over the past two centuries, from long before Israel came into existence, as a result of the encounter with sedentary populations and the transition to a way of life that was part nomadic and part agricultural. With an experienced hand, she continues to prepare maftoul, or Palestinian couscous, out of bulgur and flour, from the wheat grown by the family, and serves it steamed with a dagga (a mixture of ground seasonings and herbs typical of Gaza cuisine) made with green pepper, garlic and lemon; the traditional duga, aka duqqa, a condiment, is made of ground roasted wheat combined with sesame, sumac, and coriander and dill seeds.

“There is no za’atar (wild hyssop) in the desert, so the duga takes the place of the za’atar mixture and it’s eaten with olive oil and labaneh,” she explains to guests. The traditional dishes and the cooking techniques have undergone additional metamorphoses across time, and amid the interaction with Israeli society (many of the foods were originally made, for example, with clarified butter, which is today supplanted by vegetable oils).

Twice a week, Abu Lateef assists her sister Samiya, whose family opened a local restaurant called Aklati. Most days of the week, the restaurant serves shawarma and grilled meat, but on Mondays and Thursdays it also offers traditional dishes on a take-out basis – including maftoul, mansaf, grape leaves and other stuffed delicacies – which are prepared by local women. These include the Abu Lateef sisters, who are highly skilled in the lore of the Gaza kitchen.

Iraqi kebab.

The Ryan Alsham Restaurant opened nine months ago at a huge investment in a two-story building, and can seat dozens of diners. In addition to grilled meat in the well-known local style, the large and eclectic menu includes fish and shellfish as well as marvelous Iraqi kebab, thanks to a family that works in the restaurant and has preserved its own ancient culinary traditions. An option of ordering in advance enables clients to enjoy additional dishes of the Iraqi-Iranian kitchen (without the mediation of the Jewish-Iraqi kitchen or the Jewish-Persian kitchen that we have become familiar with, and which itself also changed radically in the course of Jews’ migration to Israel). Examples include meftah, intestines stuffed with rice and dried fruit in typical sweet-and-sour flavors, stuffed neck of lamb, and a festive pot of rice with saffron served with bits of tahdig – the burnt bottom part, crisp and extraordinarily tasty – scattered on top.

“Restaurants are a relatively new institution in Bedouin society,” says Elham Elkamalat, another prominent social activist who guides riveting tours of the city (including from the perspective of the “Afro-Bedouin,” in her lingo, a minority within Bedouin society). “Until not long ago, it was considered disgraceful for a woman to buy food in a restaurant and not cook at home. Leisure culture is a fairly new idea in this society, especially among the women. Most of the cafés in the city remain male preserves. In 2018, an unmarried woman opened a women’s café, but unfortunately, it shut down after a year.

“Some restaurants,” Elkamalat continues, “have booths with curtains, where women can sit and have a good time with girlfriends. Ryan Alsham is the first restaurant to have a team of young waiters and waitresses. And that has problems, too. Some men come with their wife and daughters and don’t want a [male] waiter serving them, while others don’t want a waitress to serve them. The proprietors use the mixed team mainly when there are out-of-town guests.”

Elham Elkamalat.

It’s hard to know how long a venue like Ryan Alsham will be able to last in Rahat, one of the poorest cities in Israel. The conservative Bedouin population views askance unusual dishes, such as those from the Iraqi kitchen; they prefer the familiar and known. Members of the Jewish public, who might enjoy the special dishes (and not so much the less impressive Middle Eastern salads, for example), rarely visit. Even Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who was in the area earlier this month, made do with “observing” Rahat from afar.

“This is not the first attempt to open a gourmet restaurant in Rahat – something different from the usual schnitzel and skewer places here,” says Prof. Nir Avieli, from the department of sociology and anthropology at Ben-Gurion University, in Be’er Sheva. “Regrettably, to date, those places have failed, because they apparently require the affluent Jewish crowd.” Avieli, whose studies examine human societies through the prism of food and eating patterns, lives in neighboring Moshav Klahim.

“Jews rarely enter Rahat, and if there is tension or if riots break out in Arab or mixed cities, they stop coming completely,” he notes. “This is the second-largest city in the Negev, after Be’er Sheva. A significant building boom is underway, but no thought is being given as to the city’s economic subsistence. No one considered that angle when the city was established in the 1970s with the intention of having its Bedouin residents serving as a workforce for Jewish society. That succeeded – they are our workers – but when you orient people downward, in the end you get what is happening today.

“It’s almost absurd to say this out loud, but 99 percent of the Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, which includes the Bedouin population, are peaceful citizens who want to live quietly,” Avieli concludes. “It’s the task of the government to eradicate crime and to see to it that the situation changes.”

Guided tours of Rahat: Hiba Huzeil, phone 052-3916070

Elham Elkamalat: 052-4838983

Tamar Vahel (home accommodation, Najah Abu Lateef) 054-2510150

Ryan Alsham Restaurant: 08-6377078

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