Muna Fatali places a frying pan over a gas flame and adds a few drops of zibde (butterfat), which she made herself by churning the fatty part of the milk. The moment the butterfat starts to sizzle in the hot pan, a delightful aroma pervades the room. Fatali adds beaten eggs and proceeds to fry them gently and uniformly over a low flame for quite some time, until they are soft. Above the scrambled eggs she scatters crumbs of shanklish, a dried cheese, with a pungent flavor, that’s covered with dried za’atar (wild hyssop) leaves.
This egg dish – served piping hot from the pan with wafer-thin, whole-wheat saj pita and salad – will probably feature prominently in my dreams along with the soft-boiled eggs with slivers of truffles that I ate in my 20s at Maison de la Truffe (a Parisian deli-restaurant that specializes in such delicacies). Of course, this local shanklish, whose flavor and consistency are more pronounced and less refined, does not in the least recall the taste of the pricey fungi. But something in the perfectly balanced preparation of the eggs, the aroma of the butterfat and the richness of the flavors that were added and the process of preserving the cheese – and above all, in the way in which this simple dish, just scrambled eggs, could become an unforgettable experience – all that stirred from the depths of memory that famous French creation with eggs and its earthy bouquet. Even if the setting in which the two dishes were served was radically different.
Five years ago, in the village of Ghajar, straddling the border between Lebanon and Israel, Fatali and her family started to raise sheep and goats and to manufacture typical local cheeses from their milk. The home hospitality she offers guests is based on a selection of the varieties she makes: fine labaneh; simple jibneh (semi-hard white) cheeses, some seasoned with nigella seeds or with sesame; and something that recalls the Cypriot halloumi, which she calls Safaa cheese and serves fried and drenched in saltwater (“I learned how to make it in Peki’in" – a Druze town in the Galilee – "from Safaa Farhi, who taught me cheese-making,” Fatali explains, in Arabic).
But the pièce de résistance is the shanklish that is a hallmark of her native village: large, puffed balls with a peach-like hue – which derives from their being seasoned with dried pepper – that nestle beneath a marvelous carpet of dry, aromatic za’atar. In the past, before the advent of modern means of refrigeration, this traditional cheese was made in an effort to utilize and preserve milk beyond its short season of availability. The thinner part of the milk, after it is separated, is made into yogurt and drained of liquid. After two or three days, salt and seasoning blends are added to the curd (in the Middle East the method of seasoning was different historically, from region to region and village to village), which is then shaped into balls or cones before being coated with za’atar or other herbs.
I have tasted shanklish – a type of cheese that is gradually disappearing, for understandable reasons, in the modern era – in different places in Israel, in West Bank areas within the Palestinian Authority and in Jordan. But the flavor of the shanklish identified with Ghajar, whose residents are all Alawite Syrians, reminded me more than anything of the shanklish I ate in Hatay, a region that was formerly under Syrian sovereignty and is today under Turkish rule. We traveled a few years ago to Hatay, which is also inhabited by Alawites who seek to preserve their Syrian-Arab identity, to learn about the Syrian kitchen (the dream of visiting Damascus as a tourist hasn’t yet completely faded, though it is growing more distant). But one can also learn about that cuisine in Ghajar, all of whose residents carry Israeli ID cards. Except that for the past 20 years, it has been virtually impossible to enter the village.
The prophet and the caliph
Even in the chaotic world of the Middle East – rife with wars, fraught with border strife, tangled with multiple identities – the bizarre story of Ghajar stands out.
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“We are Syrians, some of whom live on Lebanese soil and some under Israeli occupation,” one villager told us in a matter-of-fact way, when we visited a few weeks ago. The local inhabitants, who number some 2,800, are, as mentioned, of the Alawite faith (and constitute the only such community in Israel), belonging to a Shi’ite minority who consider the seventh-century caliph Ali a divine embodiment, and whose tenets remain secret to this day. Their deviation from mainstream Islam led to their persecution during different eras, but the complex history of the Alawites in the Middle East – for example, they include the Assad family and the top ranks of the Syrian government, a fact that in recent decades has translated into political power but also generated hostility against them – is only a small part of Ghajar’s problems. It has become an enclave which, willy-nilly, has come to embody the problematic nature of the controversial borders that were demarcated in the 20th century in the Levant, which was formerly a shared geographical-cultural region.
“The first historical source that notes the village’s existence is 800 years old,” says Hashem Fatali, the village’s tourism coordinator. After World War I, the locale became part of the French Mandate; in the mid-20th century, along with about 10 other Alawite villages, it was subsumed within the Quneitra District of Syria. But as early as the 1950s, because of the distinctive geographical location that on one side borders the steep canyon of the Hasbani River, local residents began to build their houses to the north – their only outlet for expansion – in the direction of an area which, under international agreements, was part of Lebanon (the territorial border between that country and Syria was not marked at the time by a fence or any other physical means).
In the 1967 Six-Day War, the Israeli army advanced toward Mount Hermon and conquered the territory known as the Israeli Golan Heights, still an area of contention today. Ghajar, isolated, lacking any access via a paved road, was perhaps forgotten because it lay to the east of the army’s route of advance; or perhaps it was ignored because on some maps it was designated a Lebanese village. According to a popular version of events, a few days after the war's end, the village elders submitted a writ of surrender to the Israeli army. Whether or not that’s the case, the Alawite locale became part of the military government that Israel imposed on the area. In 1981, in the wake of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, all the residents, including those who live on the village’s Lebanese side, received Israeli ID cards.
There was no effort, even after the arrival of Palestinian refugees in the area in the 1970s, to build a fence between the two parts of Ghajar – the Syrian side that had become Israeli, and the Lebanese side. This was in part, because of the villagers’ opposition to the separation of families by a physical barrier. Following Israel’s incursion into Lebanon in 1982, in a paradoxical development characteristic of the area, the village enjoyed two decades of relative quite and prosperity. The 1997 Mapa guide to culinary outings, an Israeli best seller, lists two popular restaurants run by two families in the beautiful village, which became a sought-after tourist destination.
Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, in 2000, once more exposed the village’s situation in all its complexity. In the wake of attempts by the militant Hezbollah movement to claim ownership over its Lebanese section (the most famous of which occurred in 2005, a year before the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War, and included the abduction of Israeli soldiers), access to the village was blocked to everyone except for local residents. At the end of the war, Israel sought to move the border fence to the south of the village – in effect, to shift the enclave that was stuck in its throat to Lebanon – but the residents, who are by definition and according to their sense of affiliation, Alawite Syrians, appealed to the international community and torpedoed the plan.
Ahmed Fatali, the present council head, who spearheaded the struggle against the effort to transfer the village to Lebanon, eventually had a fence erected around the village’s northern section; it helps somewhat to maintain the quiet, though problems of border arms and drug smuggling remain. Thus, apart from the residents themselves, virtually no one enters or leaves Ghajar; on its southern side is an Israel Defense Forces guard post where everyone passing by is carefully checked.
The absurd situation of this village, which finds itself mired in the region’s border conflicts, limits the services the state and other entities can provide its residents (most of the Israeli companies that supply basic infrastructure cannot physically enter the village because of its problematic location and lack of demarcated borders), and also makes it difficult for other people to move there. (The Alawites do not accept into their closed community people who have undergone religious conversion, a situation that hinders marriage relations with Alawite families from Hatay, for example, as attempted in the past.) Above all, this situation restricts the possibilities of earning a livelihood. Traditional agriculture has long since been abandoned in the modern era and in light of the difficulties of cultivating crops in a border-conflicted frontier area, most of the inhabitants are compelled to leave, often for the northern Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona, to earn their daily bread.
A few months ago, the villagers started, carefully and while still adhering to the rigid rules that their singular circumstances dictate, to try to open up to the outside world and create sources of livelihood based on tourism and home hospitality for small groups.
“It actually started from a local Facebook page in Arabic inviting people to post photos of the place where they live,” Hashem Fatali says. “I posted a few pictures of the village – of the statues in the squares devoted to the prophet Elijah and the caliph Ali, of the Hasbani observation point and of the public garden – and suddenly there was a lot of interest. We started to conduct guided tours for small groups. A local guide accompanies the groups and also arranges the requisite authorizations from the Border Police and the IDF.”
“There is no doubt that this village could be a tourist gem,” says Guy Malal, a tourism consultant who’s been working with local residents in the past few months. “But its geopolitical complexity, which in fact has actually helped to preserve traditions that have almost disappeared elsewhere, makes things difficult. We are trying to examine how, despite everything, it would be possible to create an encounter between tourists and villagers, and to allow guests to become acquainted with the religion, the distinctive customs and the intriguing cuisine of Ghajar.”
Our tour of the Israeli part of this gorgeous village, with its houses of blue, orange and pink and their splendidly blossoming gardens, is conducted by a local guide. One of the most fascinating stops is the Peace Garden, which was designed in 2013 by local artists to give the residents, who since the year 2000 can’t always enter or leave the village as they wish, some respite from the day’s difficulties.
A prominent element in the garden, which is a captivating fusion of genuine nature and kitsch, is actually a huge public bomb shelter – there is no real escape in Ghajar from the Middle East’s tendency to flare up and burn within minutes. The cube-like structure is covered from top to bottom with ornamental wallpaper that recalls inlaid Damascene woodwork. Dozens of beautiful Damask rosebushes are blooming now along the garden’s trails, and the sculptures – of holy figures and heroes of all the religions in the Middle East – scattered between the fountains and the lawns recall how these Alawites have succeeded in joyfully acknowledging the cultures and faiths in the region.
The village’s few restaurants lie on the Lebanese side, but a guided tour makes it possible to sample the dishes served in them via home hospitality in one of the old houses on the Israeli side, which are built from basalt and have lovely windows framed with wooden sills and steel blinds. The encounter with the characteristic cuisine of the village – still isolated and cut off from its environs even in this modern global era – tellingly reveals how in earlier eras separate and distinct flavors developed in small, neighboring rural communities that shared the same raw ingredients.
The fried kubbeh in Ghajar, for example, is seemingly not different from the fried, grilled or cooked-in-yogurt variety we have come to know from the kitchens of other communities in the Greater Syria region. But it has a clearly singular flavor that is the result of its particular seasoning – partially due to the different types of herbs that thrive in the terrain and climatic conditions of this small area, and also due also to customs, techniques and methods of cooking that took root and became the preserve of people belonging to certain ethnic, religious and national communities.
“Our kitchen is still based largely on wheat and its products, mainly bulgur,” says Khader Alahmad, the proprietor of the Blue Lion restaurant, trying to typify Ghajar cuisine. “During the wheat harvest, there is no family in the village that doesn’t buy a huge amount of grains of wheat in order to make bulgur for the whole year.”
Bulgur and other wheat grains that are processed, cracked or ground in other ways constitute the basis for several dishes characteristic of the village that are not easily found elsewhere. Among them are mitabla, wheat and corn grains cooked with the watery part of milk after it has undergone separation; and bisara, a stew of bulgur, chickpeas and fried onions that is thickened with flour and served with a sauce of garlic and lemon.
Fatma Alahmad, Khader’s wife, is in charge of preparing different types of kubbeh, including a wonderful potato one, as well as the marvelous stuffed vegetables that are served in the restaurant or in home hospitality. Ismahan Fatali, her sister, is in charge of the sweets, and here, too, you can find delicacies and names that have wandered from one community another with minor changes. Cases in point are zalba (like the zulabia we know from the kitchens of Muslim and Jewish communities in Arab countries), a fine delicacy made from yeast dough deep-fried in oil and served saturated with sugar water; and the Ghajar pretzel, which is made from similar dough and is seasoned with saffron, which lends it a characteristic yellow color, and anise, before being baked in the oven. The lazaiya, from the Arabic word for "glued," is a wonderful example of one of the most ancient desserts in the Middle East – very thin pancakes, originally prepared on a saj (grill) and today in a pan, fried in butterfat and stuck on top of each other to form a marvelous tower topped with honey or sugar, and seasoned with anise.
Home hospitality with Muna Fatali: Muna or Hamid, 058-7502060 (by prior arrangement, but no need for security coordination in advance). For a guided group tour of Ghajar: Hashem Fatali, 050-3901261 (because the tours must be arranged with the security forces, advance coordination is required, subject to the situation on the ground).