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Akub’s Fadi Kattan on the food of Palestine

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Words by Christina Dean

Early on the morning of 7th October 2023, a barrage of rockets was fired into southern Israel from the Gaza Strip by Hamas, the region’s governing militant group, launching a surprise attack that would become the deadliest in Israel’s history, with more than 1110 Israelis being killed and around 240 taken hostage. Following a declaration of war by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli response has been forceful and unrelenting; the Gaza Strip has been subject to sustained bombing and ground operations since October, causing a major humanitarian disaster in the region, and there has been a marked increase in Israeli settler violence in the occupied West Bank. 

For Franco-Palestinian chef Fadi Kattan, who lives and works in Bethlehem and also co-owns modern Palestinian restaurant akub in Notting Hill with his business partner Rasha Khouri, what has been happening in his region has been nothing short of catastrophic. “I don’t have words to describe what’s been going on. In my generation of Palestinians, we’ve never seen this. We have to realise as we speak there are 27,000 Palestinians that have been killed, 1200 Israelis, there’s an estimate of another 10,000 people under the rubble in Gaza, there are 70,000 injured, there are two million people displaced, it’s a catastrophe. It’s a catastrophe beyond anything we can imagine.”

Kattan returned to London in February, the first time he had been back in the capital since before October, to host charity dinners at akub in aid of #CookForPalestine. The evenings were a success, raising much-needed funds for charities working on the ground in Gaza, but they also threw what he’s doing with akub into sharper relief. “When we were celebrating #CookForPalestine and raising funds for Gaza, it’s the first time I cried like a baby reading a poem in the middle of the restaurant because it has another meaning today. And that poem specifically has been written by a Palestinian-American poet called Suheir Hammad,” explains Kattan. “She wrote it just after we had had a conversation when I was back home about spices. It basically tells the story of a woman in a kitchen in Gaza and her kitchen roof gets bombed and it finishes with the rest of the kitchen getting bombed. It gave a meaning to what we’re doing here that’s a million times more powerful.”

With akub, opened in 2022, Kattan has carved out a little piece of Palestine in Notting Hill, which reflects both the diversity of his homeland (Palestine, which before 1948 was under British mandate and Ottoman rule, has been a place where Muslims, Jews, Christians, Samaritans and atheists co-existed) and of London (his team is made up of 17 different nationalities). 

The restaurant’s design, done by Annie Harrison, includes lots of Palestinian symbolism, from olive trees in the internal courtyard, vintage keys hanging on the walls (a nod to the homes lost due to Israeli occupation) and ceramics from Jaffa-based artisan ​​Nur Minawi.

“Every single product we’re using here, there’s two million people that are being denied access to it.”

But it’s through the food, his interpretation of a rich cuisine (thanks to Palestine’s location at the crossroads of the spice and coffee routes), that Kattan is able to really transport people to his home. “We have been sourcing Palestinian produce since the day we started here and that Palestinian produce is supporting farmers on the ground,” he says. The chocolate cake with Dead Sea salt uses salt from a producer who’s been extracting it for two generations. Sumac and za’atar feature heavily. There are dishes inspired by Gaza on the menu. 

The cruel irony that as a chef his job is to feed people, and as owner of akub he’s celebrating Palestinian food when those very people are being starved, is not lost on him. “Every single product we’re using here, there are two million people that are being denied access to it. There are two million people just because of who they are and where they were born and where they’re living are being denied this. It makes our responsibility much bigger,” states Kattan. 

Access to Gaza via the sea, air and land has been heavily restricted by the Israeli authorities since 2007 but in the last few weeks, the number of aid trucks getting through to the Strip has decreased almost to the point of stoppage because Israeli troops are firing on desperate civilians trying to get food. Matthew Hollingworth, World Food Programme Director for Palestine, posted on X on 23rd February saying: “This month, WFP delivered more than 400 tons of food to #GazaCity, where almost half a million people are a step away from famine. They’re so hungry, they’re willing to run into gunfire for food.” On 29th February, Israeli troops fired on crowds in Gaza gathering around aid trucks, killing more than 100 Palestinians. Speaking to the Guardian, Michael Fakhri, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, said: “There is no reason to intentionally block the passage of humanitarian aid or intentionally obliterate small-scale fishing vessels, greenhouses and orchards in Gaza – other than to deny people access to food”, and that “intentionally depriving people of food is clearly a war crime.” 

The inaction of the international community in the face of what’s happening in Gaza is something that Kattan simply cannot fathom. “When we look at the disaster in Gaza, it’s not about being pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli or pro-whatever. I’m honestly tired of people thinking they’re at a football match and they have to be supporters of a team,” he says. “It’s not a team, it’s real human beings that are being massacred, it’s real people who are being killed left right and centre.”

“It’s mind boggling that people can be so dehumanised as we’ve been as Palestinians”

Following the Second World War, legal frameworks such as the Genocide Convention, were drawn up and adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations as an international commitment to ‘never again’ following the horrors of the Holocaust. For Kattan, there cannot be a selective implementation of international law because “never again is never again for everybody, and it’s really never again for humanity. It’s not never again for this or that group.”

It’s easy to see a double standard in the West’s response to Gaza in comparison to the conflict in Ukraine. Condemnation of Russia’s actions following the invasion was swift and sanctions imposed on Moscow were tough, while the US repeatedly vetoed UN resolutions on ceasefires in Gaza and the UK abstained. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mona Chalabi raised a potential bias in the BBC’s coverage of the Israel-Gaza conflict at the end of 2023, showing that the words ‘killed’, ‘murdered’ and ‘massacred’ were used more in conjunction with Israelis, while the word ‘died’ for was most commonly used for Palestinians. “It’s mind-boggling that people can be so dehumanised as we’ve been as Palestinians,” states Kattan. 

Though the current situation is dire, Kattan doesn’t want the narrative of humanitarian disaster to be the only one attached to Palestine. “People think Palestine is a monolithic image of destruction, and I think, wait, the lady I buy my herbs from in the Bethlehem market is all about positivity, about sustainability, she’s been farming the land – her and her family – for generations, she has been in the market for 45 years,” he says. “She has the greatest smile in the world, she has a fake tooth that’s covered in gold. That is the Palestine I want people to find out.” 

Getting people to that point requires education and it requires assistance because “places like Palestine that are suffering continuously from a political situation, from an economic situation, have to be supported all the time.” Kattan personally recommends charities like Medical Aid for Palestinians, Anera, Palestine Red Crescent Society and Amos Trust, but he stresses that support needs to be directed toward projects that are sustainable, that “will lead to a moment in time where the 8 o’clock, 7 o’clock or 10 o’clock news will not be talking about a disaster in Palestine but will rather be talking about, ‘Fadi Kattan opened another restaurant in Bethlehem’ or ‘Malak Mattar, a visual artist from Gaza, has gone back home and she’s exhibiting in the newly rebuilt Shawa centre that had been demolished by the Israeli army’. That is what I think Palestinians deserve.”

27 Uxbridge St, London W8 7TQ
akub-restaurant.com


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