Paul Salopek visits Bait al Karama, a women's cooking cooperative in the West Bank. The women provide aim to preserve their unique food culture.


5 - 12


Social Studies, English Language Arts, Anthropology, Geography, Storytelling

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In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of Paul Salopek's first steps on his Out of Eden Walk journey, this dispatch is now available for educational use in fifth- and eighth-grade reading levels. The original text is available as the default reading level, as well as on the Out of Eden Walk website.

This article is part of a collection called Out of Eden 10th Anniversary: Food. It is also included in the Idea Set, Exploring Food Traditions With the Out of Eden Walk.

By Paul Salopek

NABLUS, WEST BANK (7/26/2014)

“It comes originally from Lebanon, some say Syria,” explains Kadoumy, the coop founder, solemn and soft-spoken in her black hijab.

“When we talk about Palestinian cooking, we talk about the influences from the outside,” she says. “Our history is mixed into our food. It is the food of a crossroads. It contains migrations. It is about colonialism, conquest. Our sumac [a tart, lemony spice] is a Roman ingredient. Our sweets, called canafe, are Turkish, from the Ottomans. Our bulgur grain is Mediterranean, much older here than rice. Only the akub, a thorny wild artichoke, is native to our hills. Today we are losing the habit of cooking these things. Now we eat the Kentucky Fried Chicken.”

So we pitch in, my guide Bassam Almohor and I. We do our part. We have stopped walking. We lay aside the GPS. We pick up a spoon. We pick up a paring knife. We report for duty on the front lines of cultural preservation. It is no easy task. It comes at a price: Our appetites must be sacrificed. We stuff ourselves with delicious Arabic foods.

Everyone likes to eat. In peace or war, the ultimate refuge—the sanctuary of all that is humane—lies distilled within the warmth of the kitchen. Watching the women of Nablus move briskly, efficiently, purposefully about their tasks, chatting, often joking (about men, politics, life), I am reminded of all the meals that admitted me briefly into the conflicted lives of Israelis and Palestinians.

In the tiny village of Deir es-Sudan, in the West Bank: Bassam and I slogged in, exhausted, at sunset, not knowing a soul. We camped on the concrete floor of a half-built clinic. The shopkeepers next door brought us a large platter of treats—eggs, olives, French fries, yoghurt, fresh bread. They waved away our weak, startled thanks. “The innermost chamber of my home”—one benefactor said—“is yours.”

A side trip to Tel Aviv: My Israeli walking partner, Yuval Ben-Ami, threw together, in a bowl, whatever resided at that time in his refrigerator. What was it? Even he didn’t know—a concoction of cooked beans, of greens, of rice, of mystery sauces. It was like his living space, a bohemian apartment, packed with books, musical instruments, clothes, art. A typical Yuval sentence begins, “The poet Rachel Bluwstein wrote about the Galilee as if it were another planet.” His leftover stew was reflection of his restless nomad mind.

On a kibbutz north of Haifa: Dark Georgian wine drunk from a ram’s horn, courtesy of cousins David and Moshe Beery. They emigrated from Tbilisi as children. They have grown up in uncertainty. They have known war and death. Now, they are building hotels. “To live in this place, you got to pay the rent, so to speak, my friend,” says David, ruefully. “But hey—isn’t this meal beautiful?”

A house in Ramallah, in the West Bank: Bassam’s wife, Haya, served a simple, perfect meal of pickles, hummus, sausage, and vermillion tomatoes. The house vibrated with the energy of two small children. The couple lives under Israeli occupation. The daily restrictions on travel, the military raids, the roadblocks, the loss of scarce jobs to political maneuvers by the Palestinian Authority and Israel—all these humiliations are forgotten over the clean taste of olive oil. Bassam looks giddily at his son, Adam, eating. A tightness around his mouth relaxes. A certain loneliness that accompanies him everywhere, even while walking together, dissolves.

I watch Bassam now. The capable women of Nablus order him about their kitchen. He and I will part ways, soon.

We will trek north, Bassam and I, atop straw-colored ridgelines and through lemon orchards: a foot-worn landscape once traveled by Abraham, patriarch of the Middle East’s three great religions. (A development organization, Abraham Path, has surveyed such interfaith routes for foreign hikers to walk, thus aiding local communities with tourist dollars.) We will climb the dry wadis. We will part herds of goats. He will talk of the love poetry of Darwish. He will discuss, as everyone does, the mythical peace. (“It’s called a ‘process’ for a reason, Paul,” Bassam mutters. “That’s because powerful interests on all sides don’t want peace. They’re making too much money off the process.”) He will look with infinite weariness on anyone—Israeli or Palestinian—in uniform. We will part ways in Jenin, at night, outside a bakery. I will walk on.

I watch Bassam. At this instant, in the old stone house in Nablus, he stands with a spoon raised to his lips, eyes closed.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Oliver Payne
Text Levels
Web Producer
Bayan Atari, National Geographic Society
Instructional Designer
Dan Byerly, National Geographic Society
With help froms
Claudia Hernandez-Halper
Kate Gallery, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

February 5, 2024

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