Monday, 10 December 2012

An Evening for Gaza

Serving Ma'louba
We finally hosted our first event last Saturday after launching online eight months ago!

Following Israel's latest attack on Gaza last month, we felt there was no better time to host our first event, with all money raised going to Medical Aid for Palestinians - who are doing a great job of helping the people in Gaza following the attack.

We had a challenge on our hands, having only two weeks to find a venue, get the food bought and cooked, guests invited and entertainment lined up. Luckily, we have very supportive family and friends, who all helped make the evening a great success.

Jo O'Neill from MAP addresses the guests
The food was provided by hardworking family members, who made enough mezze, ma'louba, bizzella and basboosa to feed 40 hungry guests!

A group of volunteers were brilliant at setting up the venue, serving food and drinks, and tackling the mountain of washing up at the end of the evening.

Jo O'Neill from MAP was kind enough to come and speak to the guests about the charity, and the vital work they do in Gaza and beyond.

Al Zaytouna dabke group did a wonderful job of entertaining the crowds, and even got people on their feet dancing!

Zaytoun CIC set up a stall selling artisan Palestinian produce, and kindly donated a percentage of their profits to MAP on the night.

Al Zaytouna performed some brilliant dabke on the evening
Special thanks also go out to Dave and Pat Tomlinson of Saint Luke's Church who gave us the use of their space for no fee.

So far we have raised over £1500 for MAP and we couldn't be more thrilled. We couldn't have done it without the collective hard work of family and friends, and of all the guests who came along, donated generously and supported our first event so warmly. Thank you so much.

For those of you who weren't able to attend, here are some more pictures of the evening below.

Zaytoun's stall selling Palestinian produce
Saint Luke's Church
Kanafe - traditional sweet from Nablus

See you at our next event!


Saturday, 24 November 2012

Shadia Mansour and the Musical Intifada

Shadia Mansour - the 'First Lady of Arabic Hip Hop'
Have you heard of Shadia Mansour? If you haven't, then you need to!

Mansour, a British Palestinian rapper, is one of the shining examples of a new generation of politically conscious hip hop artists, whose lyrics focus on the Middle East, and Palestine in particular.

Along with other artists such as Lowkey, Akala and Logic, Mansour is part of a musical uprising, or resistance, speaking out against the Israeli occupation and firmly putting Palestine on the map by reasserting its existence.

Mansour was born in London and comes from a family of musicians and activists - the late Juliano Mer-Khamis was her cousin - and grew up singing classical Arab protest songs.

When she hit her teens, Mansour turned to hip hop, collaborating with other like-minded artists and performing in the traditional Palestinian thawb (traditional ankle-length dress, with embroidery on the front).

Mansour often performs in the Palestinian Thawb
Her first single, Al Kuffiyeh Arabeyyeh, with rapper M-1 of Dead Prez, was a defiant, passionate response to learning that an American company had brought out a blue and white version of the iconic Palestinian garment, with stars of David on it:

Now these dogs are starting to wear it as a trend
No matter how they design it, no matter how they change its color
The keffiyeh is Arab, and it will stay Arab
The scarf, they want it
Our intellect, they want it
Our dignity, they want it
Everything that’s ours, they want it
We won’t be silent, we won’t allow it
It suits them to steal something that ain’t theirs and claim that it is

Mansour is a star on the ascent; having toured the US, UK and the Palestinian Territories with other artists such as Lowkey (British Iraqi MC and Activist), and being signed to Chuck D of Public Enemy's online label Slam Jamz.

She believes herself to be a 'messenger', speaking out against oppression and occupation. Cafe Palestine  thinks Mansour is a fantastic example of a talented Palestinian playing a vital role in the cultural resistance for Palestine.

Below are a couple of her tracks - Al Kuffiyeh Arabeyyeh with M-1 and Long Live Palestine 2, by Lowkey ft D.A.M. (Palestinian hip hop collective), The Narcicyst (Canadian Iraqi rapper) and Shadia Mansour.


Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Unto the Breach - a new show by Al Zaytouna Dance Theatre

Revolution scene from the show's preview - Laban, June 2012

Al Zaytouna Dance Theatre, a London-based Palestinian dabke dance theatre company, are currently putting the final touches to their new show, Unto the Breach.

The show, which makes its debut at the arts depot theatre in North Finchley on the 9th and 10th November, is an adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry V.

Set in modern-day Palestine and inspired by the recent Arab Spring, the show uses the Shakespearian play as a foundation to convey the universal themes of courage, determination and loyalty - enabling a wider Western audience to relate to the Palestinian struggle via a vehicle they are familiar with.

Working on a dramatic scene in rehearsals

The show had its preview in June at Laban dance studios, to a select audience of critics. The full show in November has been built on the feedback given at the preview, and is supported by a BBC Performing Arts Grant.

Unto the Breach offers the audience contemporary and Palestinian folk dance, poetry, theatre and digital media, as well as traditional Palestinian music and original compositions by David Randall (guitarist from Faithless).

Actress Clare Quinn plays the Shakespearian Chorus, with a script which builds on the original text by using language to paint a picture of modern-day Palestine, rather than 15th century France.

Hadjer Nacer, one of the director's and a performer in the show, gave us an exclusive interview about the group and the latest show (below).

Tickets for Unto the Breach are £16 in advance (£14 for concessions) or £19 on the door, and can be bought by calling the artsdepot box office on 020 8369 5454, or on the theatre's online site.

Join the Facebook event for the show here.

Leila x

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Amnesty International - Commemorating Al-Nakba

In May I went to an event at Amnesty International to commemorate the Nakba and celebrate Palestinian culture.

There was a dabke performance by Zajel, a young group from London, music from Phil Monsour and Raast, a talk from Atif from Zaytoun and poetry from Rafeef Ziadah.

Below are a selection of videos from the evening.

Leila x

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Richard II - Palestinian Shakespeare comes to the Globe

Ashtar Theatre receive a rapturous applause 

On Saturday night Ashtar Theatre, a Palestinian theatre group formed in Jerusalem in 1991 but now based in Ramallah, performed Shakespeare's Richard II at Shakespeare's Globe as part of the 'Globe to Globe' festival, with all 37 Shakespeare plays performed in 37 languages.

Ashtar Theatre was established by two Palestinian actors - Edward Muallem and Iman Aoun - and is a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting commitment to change, training, performing and bringing shows to marginalised audiences, who may not be able to come to their theatre in Ramallah. Ashtar are perhaps best known for their production The Gaza Monologues, which told the real stories of children from Gaza following the Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip in December 2008.

Against a backdrop of political discourse surrounding the Globe's decision to allow the Israeli theatre company Habima to participate in the festival, despite its record of involvement with illegally-built Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, the significance of a Palestinian theatre company being invited to perform was sadly somewhat overlooked.

Nevertheless, Ashtar's performance was highly commendable. Although performed in Arabic, two digital screens mounted each side of the stage summarised briefly in English the events in each scene. The acting was highly polished, with characters using the entire theatre space, not just the stage, to run amongst the audience, interacting with individuals and delivering lines from the steps leading down into the standing area of the 'globe'. The competency of the cast was tested when a helicopter flew over the top of the globe, drowning out the voices onstage, but this was deftly included into the scene, much to the laughter and applause of the audience!

For non-arabic speakers, the delivery of lines, facial expressions and music effectively created the mood in each scene and enabled the audience to grasp easily what action was taking place. Heavy emotion was contrasted well with light-hearted touches of humour, particularly emanating from the laughable, vain King when he interacted with the audience of 'peasants' watching from the 'cattle area'.

One particularly moving scene between Richard II (played by Sami Metwasi) and his Queen (Bayan Shbib) effectively portrayed their anguish, despair and love for one another in a way which did not require an understanding of the words spoken to feel the emotions of the fateful pair. The King's demise at the end of the play was handled in a way which almost made you pity the narcissistic, petty Richard.

My beautiful souvenir from the play!
There was a palpable sense of pride throughout the audience during the bow at the end of the play. Palestinian flags were waved, roses were thrown and the cast returned to bow several times due to such high demand! I ended up with a beautiful white rose when it was thrown back into the audience (along with many other flowers from the gracious cast).


2012 London Palestine Film Festival - Review

I attended the final evening of the 2012 London Palestine Film Festival on Thursday, where a series of short films by young women filmmakers from Palestine were being screened.

The films were presented by a Palestinian NGO, Shashat (meaning 'screens' in arabic), under the title 'The Spring of Young Palestinian Women Filmmakers'. This was followed by a panel discussion, chaired by the director of Shashat, Dr Alia Arasoughly. Shashat is an organisation dedicated to the development of Palestinian women filmmakers in the face of adversity.

The president of Shashat (whose name I unfortunately missed) opened the screening, proclaiming 'Israelis have been trying to eradicate the traces of our cultural heritage', setting the tone for an evening of cultural defiance and resistance.

However, the panel made it clear after the screening that pressures on those vehicles for Palestinian culture can also come from internal sources. Governmental censorship and the self-censorship of the media and the public also pose challenges for filmmakers in Palestine. The media was described as 'opportunistic' by Dr Arasoughly, who are quick to condemn 'controversial' films with themes such as female menstruation, incest and pre-marital relationships, until they see the popularity of the films with the masses, when their stance reverses, legitimising the work of organisations such as Shashat.

Often, films are banned in Gaza or the West Bank due to public outcry, and director / producer Laila Abbas (protegee of Shashat and currently on an MA scholarship in the UK, studying film producing) argued, that 'mirroring real life in film doesn't happen like it should.' Film titles banned in parts of Palestine include 'Just Forbidden' (screened at the festival) and 'Golden Pomegranate Seeds'.

'Just Forbidden' - Fadya Salah Aldeen
There are currently no film schools in Palestine and only one or two cinemas. Very few young women study filmmaking at universities such as Hebron, Al-Quds and An-Najah, and those who do are competing with 'pushy' men who clamour for equipment where the ratio is often 1 camera for every 20 students. They often fall into the role of 'production assistant' gaining little experience behind the camera itself.

Sometimes the challenge comes from the families of the girls, who don't approve of the profession, the travelling involved, or for other reasons. Shashat plays a brilliant role in nurturing these girls and helping them to overcome these challenges, running annual summer programmes for them to develop their filmmaking techniques, and screening their work within Palestine and abroad. Laila Abbas said that Shashat gave her 'the confidence to run projects' in 'one of the most difficult, stressful jobs' around.

Films screened on the night

'If U Say Yes or if U Say No', 'Jerusalem on the Messenger', 'Girls and the Sea', 'Just Forbidden', 'Kamkamah' and 'The Sister and her Brother' were all screened.

The evening began with 'Jerusalem on the Messenger', a comedy about a man talking on MSN messenger with 'Salma' (who we don't see). With little dialogue, in order to impress Salma, the man has told the lie that he lives in Jerusalem - a lie which spins out of control, resulting in the photoshopping of some pictures. For its comedic element, the film was considered somewhat controversial in Palestine, with people feeling it almost 'sacrilegious' to use Palestine as a 'pulling tool'.

'The Sister and her Brother' - O. Hamouri & M. Krotkiewski
'The Sister and her Brother' - which I am sure used the beautiful song Sukkar Ya Banat (literally - the caramel used for waxing) on its soundtrack, from the film 'Caramel' - poignantly pieced together with warmth and humour 'home movie' style footage of a girl and her brother talking about love and relationships, throwing light on the double standards in the expectations of girls and boys having relationships in Palestine. The whole family gets embroiled in the debate, and film culminates in a confession made by the sister to her brother.

'Girls and the Sea' and 'If U Say Yes or if U Say No' both dealt with the theme of female defiance, whether the forces of prevention came in the guise of an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint or an angry father. This defiance is tenacious and humorous in both cases, reflecting the defiant nature of Palestinians as a people.

'Kamkamah' - Areej Abu Eid & Eslam Alayan
'Just Forbidden' was a coming-of-age tale about a girl's first period and the social, mental and physical changes which accompany it, whilst 'Kamkamah' (the veiling) was a thoughtful portrayal of war-torn Gaza, suffering from political, economic and humanitarian cruelty, filmed by two girls living in Rafeh on the border, where the tunnels between Egypt and Gaza lie.

For more information on the 2012 London Palestine Film Festival or any of the films featured, visit the Palestine Film Foundation website.


Sunday, 29 April 2012

Weekend breakfast: Izha and Za'atar

Ever since I was a little girl, lazy Saturday and Sunday mornings have always included a morning spread of Izha and Za'atar with pitta bread.

Izha is a thick black paste (it looks a bit like molten tar or oil) of nigella seeds roasted and ground with sesame seed puree, or something else which makes it more liquid. There are very few places I know of in the world where you can buy it - Palestine or Jordan. Even many locals don't know about it, and I have often had confused looks when I ask friends to bring me back a jar when they go back home to friend once brought me back a big bag of nigella seeds!

Izha needs to be prepared before serving, as straight from the jar it can taste very bitter. Although that doesn't stop my dad from eating a teaspoon of raw izha every day. Apparently there are many health benefits to izha, including strengthening the immune system.

The best way to prepare izha is:

  • Pour a small amount into a bowl (1 - 3 tablespoons depending on the number of people). Add a small amount of boiling water to the mixture and stir in, until the izha absorbs all the water and thickens to look like grey cement. 

  • Add more water little by little to the mixture, all the while stirring until it reaches the consistency of thick custard. The biggest mistake is to add too much water which makes the izha too runny to eat as a dip. If this happens, you will need to add a little more izha to the mixture to thicken it up - it's a judging game and takes practice if you don't get it right the first time.

  • To sweeten, add a teaspoon or two of clear honey. This also makes the izha beautifully glossy and black. Sugar is fine as an alternative if you don't have honey to hand, but make sure this is added before the hot water, as it won't dissolve after and will make the izha grainy.

Za'atar is a blend of dried herbs (including thyme), toasted sesame seeds and salt. It can be eaten by dipping bread in olive oil and then the herb mixture, or mixed with olive oil and spread on dough for baking in the oven ( a form of mana'eesh). It can also be used to season meat, hommus or yoghurt.

Za'atar has become quite trendy recently, and is now commonly sold at places like Waitrose. I would NOT recommend buying it from supermarkets as they sell you a measly amount at a rip-off price. Go to a Middle Eastern shop like Green Valley off Edgware Road instead.

I love Izha and Za'atar. We even named my two late cats growing up after these two amazing dips!


Maroush - King of Edgware Road

After a late evening in the office on Friday, I went to have dinner on Edgware Road. When all you are craving is really good hommus and a warm meal, you can't go wrong with Maroush. Stand on the street a little way down from the Marble Arch end of Edgware Road, and you can see Maroush Express, Ranoush Juice and Maroush Gardens on each corner - all part of the same chain!

We had Hommus Beiruty to start with (made with chickpeas, tahini, hot pepper, parsley and lemon juice), as well as cucumbers, big fresh tomatoes, peppers and olives.

For the main course, there was Bamia with rice (a vegetarian dish with okra and tomatoes) and Malfouf (cabbages stuffed with mince).

My friend Sylvia requested we feature more vegetarian recipes, so I found a delicious looking Bamia recipe here.

We washed down dinner with fruit cocktail (Maroush makes this with yummy fresh fruits) and fresh lemonade with mint and rosewater.

Marouf Abuzaki opened his first Maroush restaurant on Edgware Road in 1981. The chef, and his wife Houda came to England during the civil war in Lebanon. They now have an impressive portfolio of restaurants, delis and cafes across London - on Vere Street and Edgware Road not only can you get a good meal inside you, but often they have live music and belly dancing too!


Thursday, 26 April 2012

Gazan Prawns with Oven-Baked Kale

Yesterday evening I went to my friends Heather and Ahmed's place for dinner in north London. They had prepared a traditional, slightly spicy dish from Gaza, with prawns and sesame seeds. This was served with rice and oven-baked kale, drizzled in Fairtrade, Palestinian organic extra-virgin olive oil from the highly-recommended company Zaytoun.

Zaytoun are a community interest company (founded by my friend Heather and her partners Cathi, Atif and Saleh), who bring artisan Palestinian produce to the UK market. Their products, which include olive oil, medjoul dates and olive soap, can be found at stores such as Wholefoods, Planet Organic and from many online retailers.

I look forward to working more in the future with this fantastic company, and using their ethically sourced products at upcoming Cafe Palestine events.


Sunday, 15 April 2012

Daoud Basha

Today my lovely friends from Syria cooked a Damascan dish - Daoud Basha - for me. Named after the Ottoman 'David Pasha', the dish involves minced meat (beef or lamb), tomatoes, cinnamon, onion, garlic...think meatballs with a Middle Eastern twist.

I found a few recipes on the internet for this, but this one from Ya Salam cooking looks pretty good.

Let me know what you think, or if you have any better versions of this recipe to share!


Saturday, 14 April 2012

Why are we here?

Hello and welcome to the Cafe Palestine UK blog!

Firstly, thank you for taking the time to read this post. You are probably reading this because your curiosity has brought you here from Twitter or Facebook. So what is Cafe Palestine all about?

I have to give credit a brilliant woman in Germany, Gabi, who inspired me when I went over to perform with my dabke group, Al Zaytouna Dance Theatre, in Germany and Switzerland last November.

Gabi is part of a forum called Cafe Palestine, with bases in Zurich, Freiburg and Stuttgart. The idea is that people come together at a venue (often donated by the owner at no charge) on a regular basis to try traditional Palestinian cuisine and learn more about the history, culture and politics of Palestine.

It dawned on me that despite all the different events held in London in support of the Palestinian cause (which I commend), there didn't seem to be anything that was available to the average Joe on the street who may not know much about the region. Indeed, the current 'scene' is awash with people who have in-depth knowledge on Palestine's history and political situation past and present. This can be intimidating to someone who is a 'beginner'.

I have many friends who often ask me questions like 'I'm ashamed to admit I don't know much about the conflict - can you tell me more?' or 'what is Palestinian cuisine like?'  - So I wanted to adapt the idea of Cafe Palestine and bring to the UK an open, welcoming forum for people to come together and learn more.

Palestine has much to offer - I am very proud of my cultural heritage -  however music, poetry, art, cuisine, dance and film too often get overlooked in favour of media reporting on conflict in the region. Awareness and understanding of the conflict is extremely important, but it is also important that Palestine be celebrated as well.

That's where Cafe Palestine UK comes in. People from all backgrounds will be welcome to come, have authentically cooked Palestinian food and drink at a fair price, and be treated to anything from a musical performance, to a film screening or lecture on Palestine.

Questions will very much be encouraged - there is no such thing as a stupid question! Any money raised will be given to Palestinian charities and most importantly I want people to have a fun and engaging evening.

Keep an eye on here for more details about our first upcoming event. In the meantime, if you have any feedback or suggestions, please comment below.