It's Not Just the Love of Barbecue That Unites Jews and Arabs at This Israeli Market

There's no talking politics at the Kafr Qasem market

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Scenes at the Kfar Qasem Saturday market.
Scenes at the Kfar Qasem Saturday market. Credit: Dan Perez
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

On the morning of Saturday, December 14, 2019, Johar Abu Jaber from the city of Kafr Qasem, east of Tel Aviv, was shot to death next to a local bakery. When I visited two hours after news reports of the murder, the event seemed to have had no effect on the huge crowds of shoppers who come every Saturday to the market in the city’s western industrial zone. The killing was, however, a hot topic in the regular weekly “parliaments,” informal discussion groups that include both Arabs and Jews. They meet in the same location every week, and most of them speak both languages.

“I estimate that 50 percent of the visitors to the market are Arabs and 50 percent are Jews,” says the anthropologist and former journalist Azri Amram, who has been researching the market in recent tears. “Many of those who frequent the place consider it a joint cultural space ostensibly free of politics. I say ‘ostensibly,’ because we know there is no place that is truly nonpolitical. But in most public spaces in Israel the hard boundaries between Jews and Palestinians are emphasized, whereas in the Kafr Qasem market they are blurred. The generally accepted approach in such ‘parliaments,’ for example, is that in the market you don’t talk about politics. You can express shared bitterness against the establishment, or treat the local authorities as a joint enemy, but there’s no talk of party politics.”

In the past four years, Amram has spent every second Saturday at the Kafr Qasem market. The market, an exception in Israel – where a clear line is drawn between Arabs and Jews – is one of the subjects of his doctoral thesis in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva.

Credit: Dan Perez

“As part of my research, I rented an apartment in the city for half a year, so I could get a better understanding of the voices, the aromas and the flavors. I am studying public spaces in Kafr Qasem where food has a central role, such as the market, restaurants, cafés and culinary tours that have been held during Ramadan for the past few years. Through food we can try to understand who we are, what we believe in and how we choose to live our lives. Because it’s a seemingly innocent area, people are more relaxed and open to cooperation.”

Searching for localism

The popular market, which draws tens of thousands of visitors every Saturday, opened in 1999 as the private initiative of a local businessman and landowner, Bilal Badir. “The market survived the events of October 2000 [when police shot dead 13 Israeli Arab protesters [in northern Israel] and the hard years of the intifadas in which most Jews avoided entering Arab locales,” Amram says.

Credit: Dan Perez

“In the 20th century, supermarkets and shopping centers supplanted markets. But in the past few decades, as part of a return to roots and a search for localism, there has been a renewed blossoming of markets and an attempt to create, artificially, markets of agricultural produce. Part of the drawing power of the Kafr Qasem market is that its merchandise is inexpensive, but the economic aspect by itself can’t entirely account for what is happening.”

What strikes a first-time visitor most forcefully is a feeling of chaos. As in many Arab cities and towns that expanded without a master plan, the neglected roads leading to the market lack infrastructure and are too narrow to accommodate the traffic. Improvised booths operate on the fringes of the market and in the parking areas. The clusters of busy stalls inside the market, which is fenced and secured by local guards, are simple in appearance. Most of the merchandise – unlike in farmers’ markets, which offer expensive artisanal produce – is sourced from intensive agriculture and industrial assembly lines.

“I think that’s part of the charm,” says Amram. “There’s something about the Kafr Qasem market that makes it possible for diverse segments of the population to feel comfortable there, and that is related to an absence of supervision, to a certain degree, and a nonjudgmental approach. Not that there is no regulatory oversight by the authorities: Because the market was once in the headlines for various reasons – selling animals, for example – there is now even more supervision than in other places.

Credit: Dan Perez

“But in this market,” he continues, “which expanded naturally and without a plan, clear characteristics remain of informality and disorder that are perceived as authentic. A healthy dose of non-supervision and non-regimentation is necessary for a society to be able to function, and visitors to the market – sellers and buyers alike – don’t see the disorder as a problem. On the contrary: they see the informality and the establishment looking the other way as positive elements that afford them a greater sense of liberation. The same is true of other markets and places in Israel, of course, but precisely the location of the Palestinian markets in Israel, on the margins of the society, allows this to happen more blatantly.”

Part of the market’s success, he maintains, lies in its ability to meet the cultural needs of some excluded groups. “Israeli Palestinians feel more comfortable there than in other public places in the country. Jews whose origins lie in Arab states, particularly the older generation, acknowledge that in the market they can express their ‘Arabness,’ which was suppressed by Ashkenazi dominance. The fact that people find a common denominator, instead of focusing on the differences, also allows other groups – including West Bank Palestinians, Turkish construction workers who live in the city and Chinese construction workers from nearby cities – to feel at ease here.”

Scenes at the Kfar Qasem Saturday market. Credit: Dan Perez

Hummus, chocolate and pizza

Kitchenware, clothes and house pets are sold side by side here, but the most interesting section offers street food. “Druze pita, labaneh, olive oil, zaatar, chocolate and hummus,” a big sign on one of the stalls says. The more versatile stalls offer a combination of local and global dishes. One of the most popular stalls is Mamma’s Pizza, aka Mona’s Taboun (a conical clay wood-burning bread oven), where Mona and her sisters make flat dough pastries. Lined up on the work space are fresh zaatar leaves, labaneh, olive oil, ketchup, harissa, yellow cheese, pitted olives, Hashahar chocolate spread and Nutella hazelnut cocoa spread.

“Zaatar is perhaps the raw material most closely identified with Kafr Qasem,” Amram notes. “The food in this region is less diverse than in Galilee. Originally most of the stalls here sold dough pastries with zaatar, but in this stall we can see how the pastry changes over time and comes to be produced according to the demands of the Jewish and Arab public.”

The Kfar Qasem market. Credit: Dan Perez

Another dish that has come to be associated with the village that became a city is musakhan (roast chicken served on a pita rich with olive oil, onions and sumac). “It’s become a dish identified with the anniversary of the Kafr Qasem massacre,” Amram says, referring to the 1956 incident at the start of the Sinai War, when Israeli troops killed 49 residents of the village for breaking a curfew they didn’t know about. “There is hardly a family who didn’t lose a son or a daughter in the massacre, it’s still a present and talked-about trauma. After the annual procession commemorating the massacre, people return home and eat musakhan. In Palestinian cuisine it’s a dish that’s identified with the olive harvest season and the production of new olive oil. The historic date is October 29, but people told me that musakhan has become a food eaten during mourning periods, because its preparation involves slicing large numbers of onions, which encourages tears and weeping.”

A smoking spectacle

American barbecue culture is flourishing in Kafr Qasem. Every Saturday during the past year the area next to the Upper Galilee Butcher Shop has become an impressive barbecue site, probably unequaled anywhere in Israel in terms of scale, amounts of meat and sheer theatrical spectacle. Next to the butcher shop, more than 20 tall metal smoking stands operate every Saturday – an powerful display of heavy steel doors, columns of smoke and the aroma of fat – along with various types of grills and ovens and dozens of clay jugs in which meat, fish and vegetables are roasted.

The Kfar Qasem market. Credit: Dan Perez

Unlike in the American South, there is no pork roasted in Kafr Qasem. Instead, the huge smoking trays are filled with slices of beef, lamb, chickens and ducks, and occasionally there are trays laden with shrimp and other seafood. In place of American coleslaw and potato salad, there is hummus, tahini, cabbage salad, pickles with amba and bitter crushed olives.

For a fixed price per person, the team piles on a wooden tray lamb chops or short ribs glazed with sweet-and-sour barbecue sauce; clusters of smoked sausages; and other meats sliced on large butcher blocks as soon as they emerge from the smokers.

All the smokers are dressed in black and wear round brimmed hats and smoke masks, their attire derived from American hip hop. The clients – Arabs and Jews alike, most of them groups of men united by a lust for meat – sit together at long tables. Between 300 and 400 diners show up every Saturday, the proprietors estimate.