The Vanishing of a Legendary Palestinian Pastry

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Mutabbaq.Credit: Dan Perez
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

For the past few months, visitors to Zalatimo’s pastry shop in the Old City of Jerusalem have found its blue iron door shuttered. Letters and bills have accumulated between the rings of the heavy lock, mute testimony to the time that has passed since the door was last open. Anyone craving mutabbaq, the only item produced by this confectionery, which made the family’s reputation, can only turn away sadly. Zalatimo’s neighbors offer various explanations for the closure, but all agree on one thing: Hani Zalatimo, the last member of the family to operate the original shop opened by Mohammad Zalatimo in the 19th century, doesn’t intend to resume baking there again. The fate of the Zalatimo family’s confectionery, which operated continuously for more than 150 years, remains unclear.

This is not a matter to be taken lightly. Visitors to the East Jerusalem souk were familiar with the place as a modest-looking hole in the wall, and the morose masters of mutabbaq were not always cordial. But the charm of observing the skill with which dough was rolled and thinned to paper-like transparency, and the graceful choreography of tossing it into the air and opening it on the work surface gained devoted admirers.

Mohammad Zalatimo’s descendants carried the family legacy far beyond the walls of the Old City. His children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren opened confectioneries, with varying degrees of success, in other Jerusalem neighborhoods, in the area of what is now the Palestinian Authority, in Jordan and the Gulf emirates. Sweets bearing the Zalatimo name, packed in elegant tins or wooden boxes, are sold today from Jordan and the Persian Gulf to the Arab world, the United States, Asia and Europe. In addition to mutabbaq – one of an extended family of Middle Eastern sweets based on yufka pastry – Mohammad’s heirs also produce baklava, semolina cookies and other delicacies.

Guardians of the tomb

The story begins in 1860, when Mohammad Zalatimo returned to Jerusalem after serving in the Ottoman army. His descendants don’t know exactly where he was posted and what befell him in the years he spent far from his native city. But upon his return, the ex-soldier opened a small stall where he prepared and sold passersby a luscious pastry made of wafer-thin yufka with clarified butter, filled with cheese or nuts, its edges folded to create a small pocket, then baked to crispness. Mutabbaq – the name derives from the act of laying yufka sheets one on top of the other – is the pastry’s Arabic name. In southeast Turkey it’s known as katmer, a word that also refers to the creation of layers of yufka.

The Arabs and the Turks are at odds over which of them passed on to the other the complex craft of creating multilayered sweets. Food researchers maintain that the art can be traced to nomadic tribes of Central Asia, while the Arabs are responsible for the custom of dipping pastries in sugar syrup. Be that as it may, both mutabbaq and baklava used to be eaten hot in the time of the Ottoman Empire.

Mutabbaq fresh from the oven.Credit: Dan Perez

Mohammad Zalatimo prospered and became a master of the skills he had acquired in his travels. The original mutabbaq stall was opened inside the Old City, adjacent to the Coptic monastery. There was no place to sit; passersby ate their pastry in a nearby coffee shop. Within a short time, he moved the successful business to the space where it operated until earlier this year: hard by the ninth station of the Via Dolorosa. The tiny confectionery, which continued to make just mutabbaq, had a wood-burning stove and seating for about 10.

“Zalatimo enjoyed good fortune,” says Yisca Harani, a researcher of Christianity and pilgrimage and an expert on the history of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. “In the adjoining space, behind a door that was usually closed, a large hall, twice the size, was discovered, which looked like a storeroom but turned out to be a foyer, the atrium of the most important church in Christendom.”

According to local belief, it was Salah a-Din who blocked the original entrance to Constantine’s basilica, which dates from the fourth century. The Zalatimo family used to allow tourists, for a few coins, to enter and view the archaeological remains.

Mohammad Zalatimo married Jamila, who bore him a son, Ibrahim. When she died, he remarried and fathered three more children: Ahmad, Moussa and Rushdi. Ibrahim, the eldest, was the first to work alongside his father and learn the trade of juggling yufka. “But all the Zalatimo men learn how to prepare mutabbaq from the day they can stand on their feet,” the young Mohammad Zalatimo, who opened a confectionery bearing the family name in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat in 2015, once told me.

“Anyone who has been to Jerusalem and did not eat mutabbaq, it was as though he was not in Jerusalem,” Ala Zalatimo, proprietress of another confectionery in the city’s Beit Hanina neighborhood, would say, reiterating a saying that was popular among visitors to the holy city.

As a result of the political and diplomatic vicissitudes of the 20th century, the family found itself fragmented – different branches living in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. The family’s descendants opened Zalatimo pastry shops wherever they were, the most successful branch being in Jordan. Rushdi’s descendants today operate under the names “The Original Zalatimo Sweets” and “Zalatimo Brothers for Sweets.” But the original confectionery continued to operate continuously under the Ottoman, English, Jordanian and Israeli regimes. Hani Zalatimo continued, like his forebears, to prepare the yufka dough the day before the baking; to soak the cheese, which is from Nablus, in water to extract the salinity, and then to dry and crumble it; and then, immediately upon receiving an order, to juggle the yufka sheets that will be turned into the warm, brown, sugar-strewn pastries.

Mohammad Zalatimo folds, flips and fills the paper-thin sheets of mutabbaq pastry in the family shop in Shuafat.Credit: Dan Perez

I wasn’t able to discover fully the reasons for the closing of the Old City venue, or to track down Hani Zalatimo. Some say that Hani got fed up and went to work as a salaried employee in a new place the Zalatimo family has opened in Ramallah; others cited personal-family reasons for the closure; and still others spoke about the difficult situation in the Old City. Hani himself, in interviews given to Arab media outlets in recent years, spoke about the falloff in the number of tourists due to the security situation.

“In the past decade, since the construction of the separation fence, the Old City markets have been in constant decline and the tourist industry has been suffering from instability,” says Eran Tzidkiyahu, a researcher in the Forum for Regional Thinking and a guide of geopolitical tours in East Jerusalem. “But it’s hard to know exactly what happened. Who better than I know that market people are peculiar types whose sons don’t always want to follow in their path,” Tzidkiyahu says with a smile – he comes from a large family of merchants who have been active in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market since the 1920s.

Representatives of the al-Khalidi family trust – one of the most famous Muslim families in East Jerusalem and the owners of the property where the confectionery has been located since the mid-19th century – claim that the shutdown is not final and that others from the family will take Hani’s place. In the meantime, anyone who yearns for the taste of mutabbaq will have to leave the Old City behind and make their way to the Zalatimo family’s confectioneries in Beit Hanina or Shuafat.

Zalatimo Sweets, Beit Hanina (a-Dahiya Square), phone: 02-5833867

Zalatimo Sweets, Shuafat, 054-6491677

Making baajoun bread at the Jabber Bakery in the Christian Quarter.Credit: Dan Perez

By bread alone

The Jabber Bakery, located in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, specializes in preparing a different (and salted) thin dough, which is widespread, under different names and variations, across the Middle East. Baajoun bread, lahmajoun or safiha – whatever the name or the source (here, too, Turks and Arabs quarrel over primacy) – the baajoun bread made by the Jabber Bakery is the best I’ve tasted anywhere in the Land of Israel. The family bakery, which has been operating for almost 60 years (with the exception of two years when it was closed in the wake of a fire), makes baajoun bread with bandura (tomato) or with tahini (which lends the thin pastry a marvelous slightly sour taste). Both of them merit a special trip to Jerusalem.

Jabber Bakery, Christian Quarter, 02-6282667

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