The Palestinian gem in Mayfair

2014-12-28 15:00

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Hanan Ahmed and her husband, Mohammad Sultan, left troubled Palestine

in November last year.

They run a small bakery in the heart of Joburg that serves delectable pastries, flavoursome falafels and fragrant drinks, writes Anna Trapido

Johannesburg is built on the dynamism of immigrants. From Ashkenazi to Zulu, almost everyone in Egoli is no more than two generations removed from a brave soul who came from somewhere else in search of something better.

Behind most successful migrants are established locals who held out hands of friendship. We may not know when or how, but most of our ancestors grasped such support.

In recent years, a malaise of crime, corruption and xenophobia has settled on the City of Gold, but the experience of Palestinian refugees Hanan Ahmed and her husband, Mohammad Sultan, suggests that our forefathers need not be entirely ashamed of us.

City Press interviewed the couple (who arrived in Johannesburg from the al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza in November last year) at their tiny Mayfair bakery, King Arabic Sandwiches.

The moniker is a misnomer because you can find so much more than sandwiches at King Arabic. Sweet-toothed types adore the disc-shaped, date-stuffed mamool biscuits (wholewheat ones for the virtuous and deliciously light, white-flour versions for the rest of us).

Behind a glass counter are iced petits fours emblazoned with the Palestinian flag, rows of orange blossom and cream cheese-filled Katayef and Hareesah semolina cake.

Best of all is a superb rose-water-infused rice pudding that is simultaneously soothing, satisfying and sophisticated.

Savoury tastes include glorious sunflower-shaped Manakeesh za’atar flatbreads, cumin-rich falafel, meaty shawarma and Qedrah (rice, chicken, chickpea, garlic mélange).

The tabbouleh parsley salad offers a vibrant, lemon-scented kick. Everyone thinks they know hummus, but the silken chickpea and tahini spread at King Arabic Sandwiches is in a regal class of its own. The food is strictly halaal and no alcohol is served, but fragrant hibiscus juice more than makes up for the lack of liquor.

Palestinian pastries at King Arabic Sandwiches are selling like the proverbial hot cakes. Some customers take their treats away, while others linger at one of the four tiny tables set with pretty place mats.

Shelves surrounding the sit-down section are lined with bottles of Maqdoose, preserved baby brinjals (stuffed with walnuts and chillies), which Hanan explains are a Palestinian staple because “in my country we don’t know what will happen tomorrow.

There may be bombings. We may lose our gardens, so as things grow, we make preserves that we can carry with us if we have to run.”

When asked about the name of her business, Hanan says: “We originally come from Ramallah, where we had a restaurant that we lost to the Israelis. When we came here, we knew we were starting again, but we wanted to take something of our old lives with us, so we used the name we used in Ramallah.

We had to leave to help our families. Gaza is like a prison camp. There are so few opportunities and life is so dangerous.

We don’t yet have much equipment, so we knead the bread dough by hand, but we have our traditional recipes and the skills passed down through many generations. With these, we can survive and help to support many relatives still in Palestine.

They need us. South Africa is not just about us. Our journey is about them too.”

Her husband continues: “We are so appreciative of what South Africa has offered us. Your country recognises our country. Here, we are welcomed. Not just government, also ordinary people. Our landlord has been so supportive. He helped us to get permission from the council to trade.

“Also, customers are so kind. A few months ago, a South African lady came into the shop. She saw me crying. She asked why and I told her I was worried because it was close to Ramadan and I know that the bombing can be intensive during this time.

My two children were still in Gaza with relatives. I had no money to bring them to safety and I had recently heard that my five-year-old daughter’s friend had been killed by such bombing. Two days later, the lady came back with money for air tickets.”

This story elicits shy smiles from his daughters, who now nervously shadow their mother at all times. Eleven-year-old Sara tentatively tries out her newly learnt English and adds: “When I was in Gaza, all I knew about South Africa was Mandela. But now I know that Mandela was just one and there are many like him here.”

Cynics may say that this is overly optimistic, but that has been Sara’s experience to date.

Sara starts at a South African school in January. And so begins another Johannesburg story.

.?King Arabic Sandwiches: Shop 2, Hanover Street, corner 9th Avenue, Mayfair, 8.30am-9pm.

Phone 074?292?6191. King Arabic reopens after a holiday break on January 6

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