George Salameh and his family are the owners of Afteem a legendary hummus cafe that has been on the fringe of Manger Square in Bethlehem since 1948.
George's family were originally from the Palestinian port town of Jaffa, now part of greater Tel Aviv. They fled as refugees in 1948 to Bethlehem. Jordan annexed the city in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. It was occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and since 1995, Bethlehem has been governed by the Palestinian National.
George's parents initially ran a small bakery but moved eventually into hummus and falafel. Afteem was until the building of the wall surrounding Bethlehem, and travel restrictions, a popular destination for Israeli hummus lovers. The wall has greatly impacted Palestinians business in Bethlehem.
Bethlehem - September 2011
Tell us about your family's life. Where did they live? How did they come to Bethlehem?
My father was born in Jaffa. But I was born in Bethlehem. My father... In the year of the Palestinian exodus, 1948, they left Jaffa and moved to Bethlehem. They kept looking for a house, but couldn't find any. They put up a tent here and stayed in it until they found a house. Then they opened a small falafel kiosk. God granted them a shop in the square here and they started.
Your family, your father and grandfather, did they make hummus in Jaffa?
No, they had a bakery. A bakery where they made bread. But when they moved...They knew this trade from before. They knew it, but their main business was bread. They knew it well, mastered it. And when they came, they started doing it here.
Why did they leave in 1948? What happened to them?
The Nakba [Catastrophe]. The year of exodus. Everyone was displaced. More than three quarters of the refugees fled the country and everyone... they got scared from the situation they were in, the tragedy. Each one went in a direction.
Nakba is part of your family's history. When you think of your family history, how much importance do you give the Nakba? Tell us the effect of Nakba on your family.
Everyone was affected by it. This is well known. The people were displaced from their country and each went their separate ways. As you know, displacement makes life miserable. You know? It's rough and torturous. This is it.
How was your life, Abu-Khadar, in Jaffa before Nakba? Tell us about your life there?
As for myself, I don't know. But as for my father, life was beautiful and everyone was living comfortably. They were united. They were a small group and they all knew each other with a lot of love between them and even more peace of mind. Not like now where life is full of problems, tragedies and misery. It was a small group with love in between them. Not like today where people are separated. Because our family has grown bigger.
From what your father or grandfather told you, Abu-Khadar, how was your life? There were Arabs and there were Jews. Was there struggle between Jews and Arabs?
What I know is that they were living together normally with no problems. None of that. But I don't know what happened between them afterwards. Because I was born in the 60's and I don't know about these times.
A pot of fresh hummus at Afteem in Bethlehem
Why do you like making hummus? What would make you want this trade?
This is my trade. I inherited it from my father, and his father before him. This is my children's trade. We inherited it from our fathers and grandfathers. They told us this was our livelihood. If you accept to make the falafel you'll live. This is your livelihood. We know no other trade but hummus, beans and falafel.
We have conducted interviews in Jordan and here in Palestine. We found that many hummus makers are Palestinian refugees. Why do you think this is so?
Because all of them are coastal people. And as you know, their favourite traditional food is hummus, beans, salads, tabbouli and all this sort of stuff. From Lebanon to Syria and Palestine, Haifa, Jaffa and all these coastal areas...and Lebanon as well. They all master this trade. It is also a trade of passion and a filling and main dish for the Palestinian people, for the poor and the rich.
Is it important for you to pass this profession to your children? For the family?
Absolutely. If we leave it, it would perish. We have a reputation. Everyone knows. Wherever you ask where Afteem is, people would tell you they make hummus, falafel and the favourite traditional foods.
Israel claims that hummus is an Israeli invention. What do you think about that?
George: This is a Palestinian Traditional dish. End of story!
What do you think about the Israeli claims that hummus is their dish?
Everyone claims as they like. They claim it or we claim it... Everyone thinks they are better than the other. This is normal, it happens everywhere in the world. It's like monopoly. Everyone can claim what they want.
Some Israelis claim hummus was mentioned in the Bible and the Torah as their food?
We have not seen it. We haven't seen it in the Bible or the Torah. I know nothing about it being mentioned in their books.
What do you think about the Lebanese claiming it is a Lebanese dish?
They are all on the coast as well. These coasts are but one line. Them, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, all of them know this dish. It is not a strange thing.
What makes a hummus dish delicious? Is it the person that makes it? Is it the ingredients that goes in it? What?
It's the mood. The most important thing is the mood. If one is, for instance, frying an egg at home, while not in the mood for frying an egg, and adds salt, herbs and oil, without the right mood it won't be tasty.
Making fresh hummus at Afteem in Bethlehem
The way you make hummus, from your father to you, is it a special way for the Afteem family?
We have inherited it from our fathers and grandfathers. We make it today the same way our fathers taught us.
Who are your customers, Abu-Khadar?
They are the locals, and some tourists. Some people come from Jerusalem and sometimes Israeli Arabs. Depending on the situation in the country. Most of them are the ones coming to visit the cradle [manger].
In the past, did the Jews use to come?
They used to come. But now, as you know, because of the blocking of the roads, they no longer come.
How did the wall surrounding Bethlehem impact your work?
It impacted everyone. It has created a prison-like barrier between us and them. And when there is a barrier between us and them, it is only natural that it'd impact us.
How did your father teach you how to make hummus? Did he use to stand you next to him as you do with your son?
At first, I used to watch what he did and copy him. If for instance there was something I didn't understand, I would ask him what to do. And he would explain to me. My father taught me. My father taught me the trade. As I told you, I inherited it from my father and from his father before him.
Why do the Israelis claim that hummus is theirs? Is it like claiming that the land is theirs?
The occupation does everything. Because we are under occupation, they claim everything as theirs. The land is theirs, the hummus is theirs, God-knows-what is theirs.
Thank you, Abu-Khadar. God bless you.