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: cutting up zucchinis, rolling dough, stirring pots of boiling yogurt. We are with the women of Bait al Karama. They are teaching us about the flavors of remembrance—about its frailty, its persistence, and its loss.

What is Bait al Karama?

It is a cooperative. 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 witnessed the Second Intifada, an uprising of Palestinian people in the early 2000s. Outside Arab-Israeli conflict, it is known for its olive-oil soap, its baked sweets, and its still-vibrant medieval souk, or market. The women teach cooking classes. They are writing a local cookbook. They are reviving 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 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, my guide Bassam Almohor and I pitch in. We do our part. We have stopped walking. We set 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 within the warmth of the kitchen. I watch the women of Nablus move briskly, efficiently, purposefully about their tasks, chatting, often joking (about men, politics, and life). I am reminded of all the meals that admitted me briefly into the conflicted lives of Israelis and Palestinians.

Bassam and I slogged into 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 treats—eggs, olives, French fries, yogurt, fresh bread. They waved away our weak, startled thanks. “The innermost chamber of my home,” one of them said, “is yours.”

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 concoction of cooked beans, greens, rice, and mystery sauces. It was like his living space: an apartment packed with books, musical instruments, clothes, and art. A typical Yuval sentence begins, “The poet Rachel Bluwstein wrote about the Galilee as if it were another planet.” His leftover stew was a reflection of his restless mind.

On a kibbutz, or gathering, north of Haifa, Isreal, I drank dark Georgian wine 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?”

In 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 was filled with the energy of two small children. The couple lives under Israeli occupation. There are daily restrictions on travel, military raids, roadblocks, the loss of scarce jobs due to actions by the Palestinian Authority and Israel. These humiliations are somehow soothed with the clean taste of olive oil. Bassam looks happily at his son, Adam, eating. A tightness around his mouth relaxes. A certain loneliness that follows him everywhere, even while we walk together, disappears.

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

Bassam and I will trek north along straw-colored ridgelines and through lemon orchards. This landscape was once traveled by Abraham, the first leader of the Middle East’s three great religions. (An organization called Abraham Path has surveyed interfaith routes like this one, encouraging foreign hikers to walk them, thus bringing tourist dollars to local communities.) We will climb the dry valleys. We will part herds of goats. He will talk of the love poetry of Mahmoud 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 great 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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