Home-cooking lures Palestinian expat home
The opportunity to own a restaurant in his homeland brought Mazen Saadeh back to the West Bank, where he is serving food that comes straight from his backyard.
Beit Jala, West Bank — With everything from chickens and rabbits to cashews and apricots out back, Mazen Saadeh is part restaurateur, part survivalist.
“I think the world is going very fast to hell and I want to be safe and find something to eat when the shelves will be empty,” says Mr. Saadeh, a Palestinian novelist and filmmaker who lived in Vienna, Paris, and Iowa before returning home to the West Bank several years ago. “If any war happens between the US and any countries, or Israel and Iran, it means the price of bread [will be] minimum $100.”
Then he adds that he doesn’t like bread.
That’s a pity, because the crusty loaves that come out of his outdoor oven and are served up on the porch of his renovated 1944 farmhouse are as delicious as the sunset colors that spread out over the valley below.
Inside, blinking red Christmas lights adorn the main dining space, which is further furnished with a guitar, poster of Hugo Chávez, accordion, chess set, and an African drum.
He hadn’t been planning on coming back here; he and his wife, Julia, had found an old house in Portland, Ore., and were planning on converting it into a weekend restaurant. But at the last minute he felt the pull of his native land. He told her, “No, khalas [enough], let’s go back to Palestine.”
The mayor of Bir Zeit, a university town near Ramallah, offered him a restaurant property he couldn’t refuse. But Julia apparently didn’t feel the same draw.
“So now she is making wine in Portland and I am making wine in the West Bank,” he says matter-of-factly, fiddling with his Apple computer.
Business was so great in Bir Zeit that he decided to open a second restaurant here in Beit Jala. But the drive between the two properties, which would take 45 minutes or less if he were allowed to drive on Israeli roads, consumes two hours each way and it became untenable to manage both properties. So he shut down the Bir Zeit restaurant, his “favorite baby,” and is now putting everything into this property, where he has established a Palestinian-style locavore restaurant. He has seven employees, all university students – “now there are seven families [making a] living,” he says – and a handful of volunteers that come from as far away as Hungary.
As the last rays of sunlight grace the tops of his fruit and olive trees, he heads outside and pads down the rocky path, bending over his peas and tomatoes, and wagging a finger at the small swimming pool that he is renovating for carp – right next to a larger one that local elders remember using as kids.
Evening prayers echo across the valley, mingling with the sound of silverware tinkling in the outdoor kitchen as the minutiae of daily life makes itself heard amid the strains of religion and politics in this storied land.