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.

By Paul Salopek

NABLUS, WEST BANK (7/26/2014)

We’re cooking. We’re cutting up zucchini, rolling dough, and stirring pots of boiling yogurt. We are with the women of Bait al Karama. They are teaching us about the flavors of remembrance.

What is Bait al Karama?

It is a cooperative, a place owned and run by the people who work there. Its name means the “House of Dignity.” Dozens of women gather each month in a stone house in Nablus. Nablus is a trading center founded by the Roman emperor Vespasian around 72 CE. It is an ancient town that had an uprising of Palestinian people in the early 2000s. Other than Arab-Israeli conflict, it is known for its olive-oil soap, baked sweets, and vibrant old market. The women teach cooking classes. They are writing a local cookbook. They are bringing back their traditional Nablusi recipes, with all the original ingredients. This afternoon, three members, Ohood Bedawi, Beesan Ramadan, and Fatima Kadoumy, are busy making shish barak, a meat dumpling stew.

“It comes originally from Lebanon, some say Syria,” explains Kadoumy, the founder of Bait al Karama. She is serious and soft-spoken. She wears a 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 about … 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, my guide Bassam Almohor and I help. We do our part. We have stopped walking. We set aside the GPS. We pick up a spoon. We pick up a kitchen knife. We take part in their cultural preservation. It is no easy task. It comes at a price: We will have to give up our hunger. We stuff ourselves with delicious Arabic foods.

Everyone likes to eat. In peace or war, the ultimate refuge lies within the warmth of the kitchen. I watch the women of Nablus move briskly and purposefully as they complete their tasks. They chat, often joking about men, politics, and life. I am reminded of all the meals that briefly allowed me into the uncertain lives of Israelis and Palestinians.

Bassam and I arrived in the tiny village of Deir es-Sudan in the West Bank at sunset. We were exhausted and didn’t know a soul. We camped on the concrete floor of a half-built clinic. The shopkeepers next door brought us a large platter of eggs, olives, French fries, yogurt, and fresh bread. They waved away our weak and startled thanks. One of them said that his home is our home.

On a side trip to Tel Aviv, my Israeli walking partner, Yuval Ben-Ami, threw whatever he had in his refrigerator together in a bowl. What was it? Even he didn’t know. It was a mix of cooked beans, greens, rice, and mystery sauces. It was just like his living space, which was an apartment packed with books, musical instruments, clothes, and art. A typical Yuval sentence begins, “The poet Rachel Bluwstein wrote about the Galilee [a region of the Middle East] as if it were another planet.” His leftover stew was a reflection of his restless mind.

On a kibbutz, or gathering, north of Haifa, Israel, I drank dark Georgian wine from a ram’s horn. Cousins David and Moshe Beery had given it to me. They came to Haifa 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. “But hey—isn’t this meal beautiful?”

In a house in Ramallah, in the West Bank, Bassam’s wife, Haya, served a simple, perfect meal of pickles, hummus, sausage, and red tomatoes. The house was filled with the energy of two small children. The couple lives under Israeli military rule. There are daily restrictions on travel, military raids, roadblocks, and the loss of jobs due to actions by the Palestinian Authority and Israel. These difficulties are somehow soothed with the taste of olive oil. Bassam looks happily at his son, Adam, eating. A tightness around his mouth relaxes. The loneliness that follows him everywhere, even while we walk together, disappears.

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

Bassam and I will travel north along straw-colored ridges and through lemon orchards. This landscape was once traveled by Abraham, who was the first leader of the Middle East’s three most common religions. (An organization called Abraham Path has created routes like this one to encourage foreign hikers to walk them. This activity brings money to the local communities.) We will climb the dry valleys. We will part herds of goats. He will talk about the love poetry of Mahmoud Darwish. He will discuss, as everyone does, the idea of 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 tiredness and sorrow at 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 moment, in the old stone house in Nablus, he stands with a spoon raised to his lips and his 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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