These Jaffa Women Are Reclaiming Space for Palestinian Culture

Two new businesses that opened recently in Jaffa, despite the coronavirus odds, tell the story of the ancient-modern locale from an unusual viewpoint – that of the Arab women who established them

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Go to commentsכתוב תגובה
lweh Market.
Hilweh Market. “Because most of Jaffa’s residents became refugees,” says Abou Shehadeh, “it’s also important to exhibit Palestinian artists and designers here.”
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

When preparing their first meal at De Yaffa, a new restaurant and cultural venue in Jaffa, the staff in the kitchen argued good-naturedly about the right amount of seasonings required by the ruz bukhari (Bukharan rice), a popular dish in the seaside city, made of rice, chickpeas and carrots cooked in chicken broth. One of the women wanted to emphasize the tastes of the cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg; another thought the dish needed more of a yellowish hue by way of a bit of turmeric.

And how did a recipe for Bukharan rice – which many Israelis know as oshplau, from the Jewish immigrants from that Central Asian locale – end up in a Palestinian Arab kitchen in Jaffa’s flea market?

“This is a dish that is hardly known in the Palestinian kitchen outside Jaffa,” says Safa Kassas Younes, the founder and proprietor of the new establishment. “According to Sarifa Bukhri, a resident of the city who was born in 1943, the recipe originated with one of her ancestors who was born in the early 20th century in Bukhara and went on pilgrimage to Mecca. From Mecca he traveled to Jerusalem and from there to Jaffa, where the young Muslim – who was afterward known as ‘the Bukharan’ – married a local woman and settled. He taught others how to prepare the dish, which he customarily made on Fridays after prayers in the mosque, and it became a well-known and much-loved Jaffa dish.”

Can the spread of a traditional delicacy that originated in a different country be attributed to just one person? Whether it can or not, this folk tale underscores several facts that are worth pondering: In this country, a destination for pilgrims of various faiths, both Bukharan-Muslim and Bukharan-Jewish communities were founded in the 20th century (mainly in Jerusalem and Jaffa), and both groups brought their traditional Central Asian cuisine with them. Through their descendants, these dishes, with minor changes, became familiar to the broader population in Israel today.

Ruz Bukhari (Bukharan rice, aka oshplau).
Ruz Bukhari (Bukharan rice, aka oshplau).Credit: Dan Perez

“There are no distinctive Jaffa dishes,” Kassas Younes notes. “There are twists and local nuances of dishes that were widespread and known in the region.”

As in Nazareth and Ramallah, in Jaffa you can find msakhan (grilled chicken in olive oil, onion and sumac, served on flat bread prepared in a tabun), maqluba (a meat and rice dish), siniya (a local version of shepherd’s pie), and various stuffed vegetables; in the winter chubeza greens (mallow) are picked, and a pastry stuffed with sabanekh – wild spinach – is made.

In the coastal plain region, which is more urban and less rich in raw ingredients than the Galilee and the Judean Hills, simple dishes that do not call for expensive meat, became identified with the local cuisine. Every longtime Jaffa resident fondly remembers adash birkak, a thick stew of lentils and broad, thin noodles, whose flavor transcends its simple components – especially when prepared with other ingredients that add taste, color and texture such as fried or fresh onions, sumac and parsley.

“It is a food of the home and of the earth,” Kassas Younes says of the stew, which became a symbol of hominess in the city of her birth. “And because it is tasty, whether at room temperature or when served cold, it would be left on the kitchen table for everyone, when they came back from work or school.”

De Yaffa founder Sefa Kassas Younes
De Yaffa founder Sefa Kassas YounesCredit: Dan Perez

Traditional family recipes identified with the Jaffa-Palestinian kitchen are at the heart of the menus and the hospitality experience at De Yaffa, which has just opened its doors.

For her part, Kassas Younes herself has never been especially fond of cooking. “From my viewpoint, food is a means toward an end, which is to advance the status, the economic capabilities and the influence of Arab women,” she explains. “If I could, I would establish a cultural center to host various encounters, workshops and lectures. But I understand that food has the ability to arouse feelings of identification and belonging, and perhaps to help tell the Jaffa story from the viewpoint of Arab women.”

The walls of De Yaffa – located adjacent to the Siqsiq mosque, in a fine space replete with stone arches that served as a khan in the Ottoman period – are decorated with black-and-white photographs depicting the nostalgia-filled history of Jaffa’s famous oranges, featuring the growers, the sellers and the residents of the ancient port city.

Grandma’s delicacies

Safa Kassas Younes was born in 1975 and grew up in Jaffa. “My grandmother, after whom I am named, was the only one of 13 siblings who remained in the city in 1948,” she says, referring to the period of Israel’s War of Independence.

Adash birkak, a stew of lentils and noodles remembered by every Jaffa old-timer.
Adash birkak, a stew of lentils and noodles remembered by every Jaffa old-timer.Credit: Dan Perez

“She was in her 20s and married for the second time; her father-in-law was paralyzed and could not leave the city. When the soldiers came, she hung a white kerchief in a window of the house. Three of her siblings reached the Gaza Strip – we visited them often until the first intifada – and the others ended up in Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Canada,” she continues. “I grew up with family meals at Grandma’s; she was known in the city as a gifted cook. She had infinite love and loved food boundlessly, and I was very close to her in my childhood.”

The young Kassas (Younes is her married name) attended the Collège des Frères de Jaffa, but at 16 insisted on switching to a Jewish high school in Tel Aviv, even though initially, she was the only Arab student there.

“At the time, a matriculation certificate from a Jewish high school was considered to be better,” she explains. “For most of the Jewish students, it was their first meeting with an Arab.”

At 18, in another youthful revolt, she told her parents that she was going to marry a distant relative from East Jerusalem: “My parents were horrified. I am an only child, and education was the most important value in our home, but I was as stubborn then as I am today. We were married and soon afterward I became pregnant with Ali, my first son.”

Today a mother of three, who lives in Jaffa, Kassas Younes has a master’s degree in social work.

Msakhan (grilled chicken in olive oil, onion and sumac, served on flat bread prepared in a tabun),
Msakhan (grilled chicken in olive oil, onion and sumac, served on flat bread prepared in a tabun),Credit: Dan Perez

“After getting my bachelor’s degree, I started to work as a parole officer for adults,” she relates, “but at after I got my graduate degree – during which I took many courses in women’s studies and gender studies – I began to work part time in an NGO for the advancement of women. In 2007 there weren’t many organizations dealing with the advancement of Arab women in Jaffa. When I looked for a place where women could meet and study together, I discovered that there was no such place, so I decided to establish an organization for economic and community empowerment of women.”

Thus was born the Arous Elbahr (called Women’s Bride Association in English) organization for the advancement of women, where she served as director until 2016. “I thought it would be my life work: I learned how to raise funds and manage projects, but after nearly a decade I realized that I needed a change. I guess I have an entrepreneurial personality. I’m someone who needs to start everything all over again every few years, and when an entrepreneur starts to feel that he is impeding the path of the organization he founded – it’s time to go.”

Kassas Younes went on to work for the Labor Ministry (“I despaired. When there is no government for months and no budget, it’s impossible to make decisions”), and then an old idea popped back into her head: to establish a women’s center connected to food, a sort of tribute to her grandmother’s Jaffa cuisine that would evoke her childhood memories. Late last year she started to scour the internet for a place to rent.

“And then this place came up, with a kitchen, a space for eating and a space for hospitality. But I still needed a million shekels. No one wanted to invest, so I decided to take out a personal loan. My husband said I was crazy, and I told him that if he wasn’t going to be supportive, he should at least not get in the way. I told the owner of the property that I would pay rent on the space until I could raise the rest of the money, just so that he wouldn’t rent it to someone else in the meantime; in a month and a half I raised the first sum I needed. We started to renovate in early February, and by March 1, the place was ready and we started to train the women in the kitchen.”

Siniya.
Siniya.Credit: Dan Perez

And then the coronavirus pandemic struck. “The professional chefs who were supposed to work with us, both of them elderly and with pre-existing medical conditions, couldn’t come. The women who work in the kitchen have experience in large-scale home cooking, but no experience managing a professional kitchen. But I was determined to turn the crisis into an opportunity, and we started to do deliveries of home-cooked food. The neighborhood and the community adopted us warmly, so we were able to gradually accumulate experience in the kitchen.”

Last week De Yaffa was set to open in its originally planned format: on Friday mornings as a small take-out market; on Saturdays as a kind of restaurant with tables for a minimum of four people (“It’s homemade food in big quantities, served on large plates, so it would be difficult to have tables for individuals and couples”); and during the rest of the week as a hospitality center for groups offering, with prior coordination, lectures, workshops and other encounters focusing on women’s status and Jaffa’s cultural heritage, accompanied by authentic dishes prepared by women.

“Women’s employment is still one of the major obstacles in Arab society,” Kassas Younes says. “There is hardly any employment horizon, other than in jobs that are considered inferior, such as cleaning and menial kitchen work. I have no illusions: I too am not yet offering women jobs in high-tech, but for some of them this is their first job outside the home, which is the place where women’s work is almost transparent.

“My feeling is that this is a place where they can develop, even if for some of them it will only be a place where they pass through. Over the past few months, I have seen that work in a place that presents them and their heritage proudly can perhaps generate a change in the long term. Even if in the meantime it’s the kind of traditional work they grew up with at home.”

Rising confidence

“Not your habibti [babe],” reads the text on a T-shirt of the Palestinian label BabyFist. “This is a fashion brand established by young women – social activists and feminists – which began as an initiative to counter sexual harassment on the streets of Ramallah,” says Adrieh Abou Shehadeh, proprietor of the attractive Hilweh Market “cultural gifts store” on Jaffa’s Yefet Street. “I love their items, not only because I think they’re beautiful, or because they integrate traditional craftsmanship with modern design, but because part of their profits go toward funding workshops that counsel girls in villages of the Palestinian Authority about menstruation.”

Hilweh Market’s Adrieh Abou Shehadeh.
Hilweh Market’s Adrieh Abou Shehadeh.Credit: Dan Perez

The clothes bearing the Palestinian label – part of an impressive collection of textiles and fashion items, as well as domestic and kitchen utensils that are meticulously arrayed on Hilweh Market’s shelves – faithfully represent Abou Shehadeh’s approach: “The first criterion is beauty. But someone who buys a beautiful item that is created using sustainable methods, or whose purchase assists the community, derives pleasure from that thought as well. Such knowledge generates more beauty.”

Born in 1987, Abou Shehadeh grew up in Jaffa, not far from its landmark clock tower, and attended the city’s Scottish School. At 16 she won a scholarship for an international study program, enabling her to attend school for two years in Hong Kong and then pursue undergraduate and master’s degrees in the social sciences in the United States. Returning to Israel, she conducted research for several socially oriented organizations, and succeeded Safa Kassas Younes as director of the Arous Elbahr organization in Jaffa.

The idea of creating a store that would showcase the work of Arab artists and designers from Israel and neighboring countries cropped up last October and became a reality by the end of December (and was soon confronted by the lockdown imposed in the wake of the pandemic, which threatened to shut down just these sorts of independent initiatives). The first items on sale came from the private collection of Abou Shehadeh, a devotee of design and aesthetics.

Ceramic bowls.
Credit: Dan Perez

“I wanted to create a space of Palestinian culture,” she says. “When I grew up in Jaffa where were a lot of places like that in the domestic and private realm, but hardly any in the public space. People didn’t feel confident enough to lay claim to the Palestinian identity in public.

“I come from a home of highly developed political awareness, but in my parents’ generation in Jaffa – in contrast to Nazareth and Haifa, perhaps – the word ‘Palestinian’ was not spoken aloud if you wanted to ensure your children’s future. For my generation, it is already an inseparable part of our identity, and in fact the first target audience I thought of was young people who live in the city.

“I wanted to establish a place that would support local initiatives in the heart of Jaffa, in a touristy area but where local people still live, and that would combine love of handicrafts created on a small scale by traditional, slow methods, with social and environmental goals. I hope that times have changed enough since my parents’ generation for other people not to feel threatened, and that a space devoted to Palestinian culture will be able to exist in a space where there is a Jewish majority.”

It’s hard to exaggerate the beauty of the utensils and housewares one finds in the new Jaffa shop. On offer are wine glasses and other glass items designed by Dima Srouji, an architect and designer from the West Bank. She creates modern-looking items in cooperation with workshops of glassblowing artists in the village of Jaba, outside Jerusalem (the original traditional items are also on sale; their juxtaposition with newer creations allows one to appreciate their beauty anew); ceramics from the potter’s wheels of artists in Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Jaffa itself (including impressive items by Nur Minawi, a third-generation ceramicist in the city); straw baskets from Egypt; olive wood bowls fashioned jointly by a Jordanian artist and a Syrian woodworker; lovely hand-embroidered napkins; and a host of other items from across the Arab world.

There are also large, costly items for sale, such as carpets and an immense tray forged by an aged coppersmith from the market of Gaziantep in Turkey (“He worked on it for four months and said that his poor vision would no longer allow him to create a masterwork of small details like this”). But most of the items are priced to suit almost any pocket, according to Abou Shehadeh.

“Because most of the residents of the original Jaffa became refugees [during the 1948 war],” she says, “it is also important for Palestinian artists and designers to exhibit here. It’s not always easy to find the items and import them in small quantities and at reasonable prices, but because it’s important to these people, it becomes possible. I am also trying to persuade the workshops I work with, including a charming workshop of women in a small village of only 300 people, north of Nablus, to create as many utensils as possible for us.”

De Yaffa, 31 Beit Eshel Street; tel. 03-755-0855, deyaffa.com; Hilweh Market, 32 Yefet Street; tel. 054-331-0558

Comments