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The Palestinian Chefs Building a Bridge to Their Culture Through Food

Lamees Dahbour. (Photo © Jim Sulllivan)

When Lamees Dahbour arrange her weekly tent at Off The Grid, the San Francisco-based meals truck truthful, this yr, she didn’t simply unpack trays of aromatic falafel, crisp ejja (vegetable fritters), and creamy mutabal (eggplant dip). She additionally unfurled a purple, black, white, and inexperienced Palestinian flag and displayed it proudly. The flag was a conversation-starter: Mama Lamees, as she is affectionately recognized, says that folks typically got here up and requested about it, though some confused Palestine with Pakistan. It was additionally a method to proudly share her id, at a time when many People know little about Palestinian tradition.

“We want to spread the word and the taste of some dishes, [and make it clear] that there is a culture called Palestinian, and there is a food belonging to that country,” says Dahbour.

Dahbour is featured in an upcoming episode of KCET’s documentary collection “The Migrant Kitchen,” alongside rising star and fellow Palestinian chef, Reem Assil. The episode, which airs tonight, highlights the cooks’ work and sheds a uncommon mild on Palestinians and the Arab world via meals. At a time when anti-Arab sentiment is entrance and middle in lots of elements of the U.S., Assil and Dahbour serve up a message of understanding and acceptance.

Lamees Dahbour. (Photograph © Jim Sulllivan)

“Palestinians have been cooking forever, but we kind of hide behind our food,” says Assil. “We’ll call it ‘Mediterranean,’ we don’t call it what it is, because we’re afraid.”

The antidote, for each these cooks, is visibility. At Reem’s California, Assil’s Oakland-based bakery, she made the deliberate choice to name the menu “Arab street food.” For her, it’s a sort of reclamation.

“We should be proud to be Arab,” she says. “We’re a beautiful people, we’re not terrorists, we’re not all these backwards images that the media puts out about us.”

Inside Reem’s, voices singing in Arabic play over the audio system, a mural of a Palestinian activist graces the wall, and profiles of Center Japanese artists, musicians, and thinkers are printed on every of the numbered order playing cards—like baseball playing cards for the culturally literate. And at Dyafa, the critically acclaimed Oakland restaurant Assil opened in April with Bay Space chef and restauranteur Daniel Patterson’s restaurant group, she’s bringing Syrian-Palestinian delicacies—typically relegated to cheap-eats institutions—to a fine-dining setting.

An Unlikely Journey to Proudly owning a Food Enterprise

Although Dahbour is of Palestinian heritage, she was born in Kuwait. Her father left Palestine to escape political turmoil, enterprise an arduous desert crossing throughout which lots of his associates died. In Kuwait, Dahbour grew up as the center baby in a giant household. Round age 11 or 12, her mom was hospitalized for a time and Dahbour discovered herself in control of the kitchen. She beloved it. “[It] gave me a chance to be kind of the head of the household!” she laughs.

Lamees Dahbour at work in the kitchen. (Photo © Jim Sulllivan)

Lamees Dahbour at work within the kitchen. (Photograph © Jim Sulllivan)

At that time, working a meals enterprise by no means crossed her thoughts. As an alternative, she pursued larger schooling, ultimately working in enterprise administration for the United Nations, a job that took her everywhere in the Center East. In 2006, she determined to transfer to the U.S. together with her husband and young children to comply with her prolonged household. Dahbour is frank about surviving home violence from her former husband, and she or he’s measured when she talks about her divorce and dwelling as a single mom with three youngsters in elementary faculty.

“It was really tough financially to do and run everything in the family,” she says. “I spent almost six years in court, in family court, in criminal courts, just to get my family situation stable.” Across the time when her youngsters have been graduating from elementary and center faculty, that point of yr when many households deliver academics and principals presents, Dahbour made some calculations: She couldn’t afford to purchase presents for all her youngsters’s academics, however she might prepare dinner up a Palestinian feast, and supply “traditional dishes that are not in the market.”

The response to her meals was overwhelmingly constructive, and visitors requested her, “Why aren’t you opening a restaurant?” The supervisor of her housing complicated, who all the time adopted the unimaginable smells popping out of her house and ultimately joined the household for meals, agreed—and it was this supervisor who launched Dahbour to La Cocina.

La Cocina is a nonprofit incubator kitchen in San Francisco that helps working class meals entrepreneurs, with a main concentrate on immigrants and ladies of shade. Now of their thirteenth yr, La Cocina offers enterprise assets and consulting for 35 to 40 entrepreneurs a yr from their area within the metropolis’s Mission District.

Shifting Ahead, Regardless of Controversy

Assil can also be a La Cocina alum and her path to working in meals was simply as nonlinear as Dahbour’s. Earlier than baking had even crossed her thoughts, Assil was a group organizer and activist. Her trajectory towards meals started after 9/11, when a crescendo of anti-Arab sentiment fed into her sense of hysteria and a lack of belonging. She acquired sick, left school in 2003, and got here to stick with household in California. Right here, she says, she nursed herself again to well being via meals, anti-war activism, and “finding my voice as an Arab woman.”

There was one dish that Assil discovered particularly fascinating: man’oushe, a chewy flatbread with crisp edges. It was man’oushe that she made together with her household, and man’oushe that she noticed repeatedly in native bakeries whereas on what she calls “a soul-searching trip to Lebanon and Syria.”

Reem Assil making man'oushe at Reem's California. (Photo © Jim Sullivan.)

Reem Assil making man’oushe at Reem’s California. (Photograph © Jim Sullivan.)

“For those of us from the Middle East, [man’oushe] is a household name, it’s something we grew up eating,” says Ramzi Salti, a Lecturer in Arabic at Stanford College. Salti, who can also be featured in “The Migrant Kitchen,” is writer of Arabology, a weblog that highlights tradition from the Arab world. Watching the expansion in reputation of man’oushe right here within the States has been one thing of a nice shock, Salti says. “You live long enough, you see everything!” he laughs. As well as to being scrumptious, he provides, the flatbread is “supposed to have very healing qualities.”


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For Assil, this therapeutic wasn’t simply bodily, she additionally discovered it profound to discover the position bread performs in Arab cultures. “Bread is the lifeline, the oral history of my people,” she says. “It’s something that is accessible to both the rich and the poor and across cultures; everybody resonates with bread.”

In even probably the most distant mountain villages within the Center East, Assil says, you’ll discover a publish workplace and a bakery. These bakeries are cornerstones of their communities, and seeing this impressed Assil to develop the idea for Reem’s at La Cocina in 2015. When a spot opened up on the busy Fruitvale Station transit hub in East Oakland the next yr, it made good sense. Right here, at a sunny nook spot slightly below the practice platform, she serves up man’oushe coated in flavorful za’atar, shakshuka, lamb baked in turnovers, chewy sesame-coated bread referred to as khobz sim sim, and rows of candy pastries.

Reem Assil holding her baby at Reem's California. (Photo © Jim Sullivan.)

Reem Assil holding her child at Reem’s California. (Photograph © Jim Sullivan.)

The restaurant has not been free from controversy, nevertheless. The giant, colourful mural that decorates one wall of Reem’s Bakery—of a lady named Rasmea Odeh who, in 1970, at 21, was convicted by Israeli courts of collaborating in a bombing that killed two Israeli college students—turned a hot-button difficulty inside weeks of the store opening. Whereas Assil sees Odeh as a civic chief and a image of resilience, an op-ed in The Jewish Information of Northern California denounced the bakery for lionizing a “terrorist.” Hate mail and damaging Yelp critiques adopted, however Assil’s group rallied round her and the bakery. In the present day, the protesters have moved on, and the mural stays.

Each Assil and Dahbour stress the allyship they’ve seen from Jewish clients and associates. When her bakery was focused, Assil says, “the first people to come to my side were my white and Jewish allies.”

On a comparable notice, Dahbour remembers how stunned she was when Israeli clients got here to speak together with her at her meals tent, telling her the place they have been from and asking if they might reserve seats at her restaurant (there’s no brick-and mortar restaurant but, nevertheless). The lawyer who volunteered to assist register Dahbour’s enterprise is Jewish and certainly one of her closest buddies; since he and his household hold kosher, she cooks vegetarian dishes for the meals they share so their households can eat collectively.

For each cooks, the lesson has been to mannequin openness and civility, even when confronted with opposition. “I feel like … food puts some peace between people,” says Dahbour, thoughtfully. “Food brings everyone to one table peacefully. I don’t think you’re going to cook for someone you hate.”

“One of the ways to counteract extremism or xenophobia is to show another side to the culture, or to the people, and what better way is there to do that than through food and cuisine?” asks Salti. His phrases are measured and cautiously optimistic. “Showing that side of the culture will perhaps lead to a better understanding of the region itself and show a better, more harmonious tomorrow.”

This text was produced in partnership with KCET’s “The Migrant Kitchen.” Now in its third season, “The Migrant Kitchen” will air an episode profiling Dahbour and Assil on December 5. The trailer for the episode is embedded under.

All photographs by Jim Sullivan.

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