HEBRON, October 21 (JMCC) - Hebron
’s old city came to life this week as hundreds gathered for its first traditional foods festival. In a small courtyard among the city’s ancient archways, the “Gift of Olives,” a frequently-rehearsed passage from the Quran, rang out over the audience.
Over 25 stalls put on over 40 different sweet and savory dishes. Favorites included musakhan, a traditional country meal of chicken flavored with sumac and other aromatic spices served on flatbread, and the less famous fawereh: a spread of sheep or goat’s head and stuffed intestines.
In the sweets department were flavorful pots of congealed rice milk, grape juice and flour. The renowned kanafe, a heady mix of fine vermicelli-like pastry, syrup and cheese, sold fast. Nearby unfolded the drama of zalabieh. Lumps of sweetened dough launched into sizzling vats re-emerged, golden crisp fried balls dripping in oil and syrup.
The food festival’s banner hung on the razor wire that separates this part of the city from that inhabited by several hundred Israeli settlers. The purpose of the festival was to restore normal life to this once-vibrant part of town.
“Today’s event is part of our Amar al Balady campaign,” said Emad Hamden, general director of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee (HRC) sponsoring the event. “Meaning ‘Revival of my Homeland,’ the project is to boost commercial life in the old city.”
After the second Palestinian intifada
in 2001, military curfews in Hebron’s old city crippled local businesses. Shops remained closed for five months at a time, say locals. Today many shops remain shuttered from lack of business.
Hamden believes this is because the old city, which is under Israeli military control, continues to be perceived as dangerous by both Hebronites and tourists.
The festival was “a big show for locals and for those from outside,” said Hebron governor Samir Abu Znaid. “Holding the festival in the heart of the old city was important in demonstrating our culture and giving a sense of security to people who live in the area.”
The stall owners at the event mirrored different sections of Hebronite society. “We have restaurant owners, local women’s associations, farmers from outside the town, and local ladies who contributed with home-cooked food,” said Hamden.
Each neighbourhood had a women’s committee that contributed.
Local non-governmental organizations also worked to develop business opportunities offered by the festival. “We supported women in rural areas with technical advice and training programs on how to efficiently produce food, package it and market it,” said Majdi Mohtasib, Chairman of the National Council for Development.
Sudqi Motawe, chef of Hebron’s Al-Quds restaurant, stood smiling behind rows of empty terracotta pots. His fuqara, a fire-oven cooked stew of chicken and vegetables sold for 10 NIS a pot. They went with such speed that business was complete in little over an hour, he explained.
Indeed, within two hours of the opening ceremony, the feast had vanished, leaving only a wasteland of empty stalls strewn with the crumbs of satisfied customers. Estimates put the number of visitors in that time at over 1,200 people.
The turnout shocked even the organizers. “We have finished over 1,000 meals,” said Halaweh apologetically to a tour group who waited to be fed. “We had a reserve of 200, but even they have gone.” The group wouldn’t go away hungry – Halaweh ordered up an additional 50 dinners to feed them.
This was one of a series of projects put on by the HRC. “We have had an olive celebration, and a heritage day,” says Walid Halaweh. “We are also trying to lower the prices of products in the old city by lowering the area’s taxes. A scheme to pay each returning shop-owners a golden handshake of $200 is also being implemented.”
Additionally, the group is working to revitalize the architectural heritage of the Hebron old city. Since 1996, the HRC has renovated and restored over 900 homes, parks and schools in the old city. Estimates place the number of Palestinians who have returned to the old town at well over 5,000.
In November, the HRC will submit its application to UNESCO for Hebron to be listed as a World Heritage site.