Palestine

House of Dignity

Writer

Paul Mcloughlin

Photographer

Tanya Habjouqa

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So, Bait al Karama, translating as House of Dignity, stands as a reminder of Nablus’ rich cultural legacies and is a beacon of hope in the community. It is a cultural centre, a cookery school and is soon to house a restaurant. Situated in the centre of the Old Town of Nablus, it gives a voice and increased confidence to local women. ‘We understood the need to open a gathering place for women where they could meet, have coffee and talk. We started to think of other activities that could generate income on a local level in order to not depend on foreign donations but rather look at local sustainability,’ says Fatima Kadumy, one of the founders.

Now the organisation works to train women in turning their home cooking skills into profitable business and equally as importantly, promotes the institution of Nablus cuisine to an international audience through cookery classes under the tutelage of local women. This enables a platform that is more than just showing off local cuisine, it is also a chance to generate income for their families, by teaching or selling their dishes abroad. So far this model has brought in women’s groups, academics, food researchers and inquisitive tourists to learn about Nablus’ cuisine by cooking renowned Palestinian dishes.

Fellow founder Beatrice Catanzaro, explains they chose food as a vehicle as it encompassed all aspects of life. ‘[Food is] in the economy, social life, culture, and education,’ she says. ‘The initial idea of Bait al Karama was a cooking school, a place where women could transfer to a foreign public, their skills and culinary heritage and share it on a practical level by cooking together and sharing moments of conviviality.’ But they also hoped it would help local women achieve economic independence. ‘Our intention was to enhance the self-esteem of the local women by inducing awareness that their cooking skills are culturally and economically relevant.’

Bait al Karama was founded 2004, after Kadumy and Catanzaro teamed up with London-based cultural manager Cristiana Bottigella. They took over a dilapidated century-old brick villa and injected it with optimism, chatter and the heavenly aromas of kanafeh – the sweet pastry dessert dish that originated in Nablus and was exported by the Ottoman rulers of Palestine all across their empire.

‘The building is in a back yard that makes it very private and therefore ideal for a women’s centre,’ says Catanzaro. ‘In 1927 it was partly destroyed by an earthquake and the building collapsed again during air strikes in 2000.’ Reconstruction of the building began again in 2004, using a combination of international donations and local expertise coming from Nablus’ bounty of architects, craftsmen and, of course, the local women.

‘As we started to rehabilitate the building for Bait al Karama we worked only with the local community and artisans. Our intention was to benefit everyone. Although our target group is women, we want the whole community in general to benefit from the economic benefits that we can generate: from the floor tiles, to the tables and chairs, to the decorations,’ Catanzaro stresses.

This community effort also spills out onto the streets and into the stalls of the city’s traditional souq where fresh produce are purchased for evening meals at Bait al Karama. It is all in line with Catanzaro and Bottigella’s passion for slow cooking, where meals are prepared using ingredients procured locally. They say slow cooking would allow for the preservation of Palestinian dishes and act in protecting the country’s heritage through the central facet of cuisine. ‘Our perspective on food is very wide, ranging from its social to its anthropological angles, but it is the economical possibilities and cultural values [that are most promising].’

This will be promoted through a rooftop restaurant due to open later this year which will offer dishes ‘grandmother used to make’ and will follow the organisation’s mission of making Nablus a hub for tourism in Palestine. The eatery will also adhere to traditional Palestinian styles of architecture with a vertical extension at its centre. ‘It would be a complete novelty for the Old City and a great challenge for us, as we will have to learn a new set of tools to manage and run a restaurant. But there is no better way to learn then by doing it yourself,’ says Catanzaro.

Also in the pipeline is a shop displaying handcrafts from the community, as well as a café and beauty salon, including henna designs and local threading hair removal techniques. It will be an important part of empowering women in a community-relevant way the group maintain. ‘On the one hand it represents a local income generating activity, and on the other it will give a real social dimension to the centre. In the Arab World, beauty salons are among the most accessible social environments for women and we want to make our women to feel at their place and practicing their right to have their own place [to socialise],’ Catanzaro points out.