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Ghaleb Zahdeh

Lina Café

Ghaleb Zahdeh

Ghaleb is a prince of Palestinian hummus who has been in the business for about 35 years. He gave one of the best interviews for the film giving some real insights into both the history of hummus, the way he makes it and what it means to him. Ghaleb is a very quietly charming man. And I have the impression that his hand crafted hummus has influenced his outlook on life.

Ghaleb started young, when he was 8 or 9 he would come to his father's shop to play. Eventually he took over the business and has been in the Old City premises for 35 years. Situated in the Christian Arab quarter, Lina's hummus is one of the best, lightly spiced with a jalapeno pepper.

the Interview

Old City (Jerusalem) - September 2011

How long has your family been working in the hummus business?

I think that my father was the one who started working in this business. Between me and him, we've been doing that for over 65 years.

Now tell me, where are you from?

We are from Hebron.We are one of the families in Hebron, the Zahdeh family. Our family is based in Hebron and in several areas of the West Bank. Some of us live in Jordan as well. And some of us live in Syria and in Egypt.

Now, you told us last time that your family members are refugees, and that you used to live in western Jerusalem.

No, actually my father used to live in An-Nabi Dawoud Quarter here in Jerusalem. But we are originally from Hebron. Before 1948, they used to live in a neighbourhood called An-Nabi Dawoud. Then they had to leave it, and that's how they became refugees.

Enjoying hummus at Lina Enjoying hummus at Lina

So when your family left An-Nabi Dawoud in 1948, was your father working in the hummus business back then as well?

I don't know. He used to work in the food business, but I'm not really sure if it was the hummus business or something else. But he's been working in this business for a long time.

When you left An-Nabi Dawoud, where did you go?

We lived in the old city for a while, then we left after 1960 and we moved to areas near Jerusalem.

When they made you leave An-Nabi Dawoud in 1948, how did it affect your life?

I have no recollection of that time.

Were you scattered and you left your homes behind?

I recall the period after that, 1967.

Tell us.

But before that, I wasn't even born. But I'm aware of the period after that. We got scattered and we started wandering around the mountains. Some of us came back, some of us went to Jordan... It was a difficult period. I was six back then... in 1967.

How old is this restaurant and how did it start?

We've been here for a long time now. We've been using this name for almost 30 years. Before that, we used to work with other people. And before that, my father worked with Abu Shukri. My father did, not me. He worked with him for a long time, over 30 years.

So it seems that this restaurant is a family business that was passed from your father, then to you and your children. So do you think that your children will come and work with you, too?

Some of them do work with me, and some don't. Right. If they like this kind of work, they can come and work with me. When someone likes this kind of work, they will do it. I like it, so I'm doing it. Initially my goal was to help my father. Then I started enjoying it and it became my profession. That's life.

Lina's hummus

What do you enjoy about making hummus? What makes you want to make hummus?

It's my job. Everyone has to enjoy their job. Regardless of the nature of the job. I get to deal with people. And it makes me happy to see the customers satisfied with their meals. This is the most important thing to me. And this is how I make a living. It allows me to live with dignity and lead an honest life. That's what matters.

And it's also a popular dish.

Of course. It's a popular and simple dish. And so far, there has been no room for cheating, because the ingredients are well known and very simple. It's a dish everyone can have. It's not complicated.

Why do you think that Lina's Hummus is that popular and people like it that much?

Maybe it's because we make sure to do it right. We make hummus for people as if we were doing it for ourselves, regardless of who the customer might be. Maybe that's why. We've been in this business for a long time. And we don't distract ourselves with any other job. We only have one job, which is making hummus, that's all. Maybe that's the reason why.But there are a lot of other restaurants that make good hummus too, like Abu Shukri's and others. A lot of other restaurants that make good hummus.

What is it that makes a good hummus dish? What makes a person say, "This is a delicious hummus dish?"Is it the ingredients, or the way you make it? Is it the spirit of the person making the dish?

I think it's all these things combined. First of all, I make it on a daily basis, so it's always fresh. This is really important. And it doesn't contain any preservatives. This helps it to maintain its natural taste. And it's also more healthy. I mean this hummus here will go off in two days without preservativs. This is one of the reasons. Also each person has their own touch, and it varies from one person to the other. You can give the same ingredients with the same amounts to different people, and each one of them will make a dish that tastes different. This is natural.

What does the word "Nafas" mean, Ghaleb?

Some people are giving. They give their all and when they do something, they do it as if it's for themselves. And some people work without any dedication. They don't like what they're doing. I guess people are different. And not just in this business, in any job or business.

In your opinion, Ghaleb, what's the origin of hummus? How did it start?

I don't know. All I know is that it's my profession and it's the profession of most my countrymen. You'll find it in most of the areas in Palestine, and they do it better than anyone else. I've been abroad, and I saw how they do it. It's more special here. As for its history, I have no idea really. I don't know. This is all I know.

Is it a Palestinian dish, an Israeli dish, a Lebanese dish? What is it?

As far as I can see, the ones who really do it well and give it a special taste are the Palestinians. God knows better anyway. Anyone else can learn how to do it and do it well. It's not a secret. It's very simple. Anyone can do it. As for its origins, I don't know.

What do you think about the Israeli claim that making hummus was mentioned in the Torah, and that it's a dish that they invented?

I don't know. I'm not really familiar with these things. But what I know is that we're the ones who've been making hummus for ages. But I have no idea what it was thousands of years ago. Besides, look, industry, agriculture, commerce, sciences, mathematics, and astronomy... Different peoples contributed in all these things. Nothing was ever exclusive to one people or the other. One nation invents one thing, and then other nations take it over and add to it. This is life, it's that simple. This concept applies to many things, not mention a dish. So this is nonsense to me. Please translate what I just said. It's really important to me that he gets it, because this is the truth. I mean, a certain nation might make a breakthrough in a certain science, and then another nation takes it and adds to it. It's as simple as that. So it's not a concept that's exclusive to a certain nation. This applies to the food industry, to industry, to agriculture... It's not about a certain people or nation.

Does it bother you when you hear the Lebanese say that hummus is their dish?

Why would it? The Lebanese, the Palestinians and the Jordanians are the same. It was one country. Then it was divided by colonialism, that's all. But originally, it was one country. I don't see any difference between them. And that's the truth. It's one nation. They divided it into Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine... And everyone knows that. They're all one and the same. They're one nation. This is the truth. They're one nation.

How did you learn from your father? You stood next to him. Tell us.

I was a young boy, 8 or 9 years old. I used to come here to eat and play, not to work. Then as I grew older, I started watching and learning how it's made. And then I started learning gradually. Until one day my father went to the pilgrimage. That's when I was put to the real test. I was on my own for a while, and it was a difficult test for me. You feel that there are still things that you don't know. You think you know them, then all of a sudden you realise that you don't. You have to put yourself to the test. This is when I learned the most. It was in the 80's.

How did your father learn how to make hummus?

I think his father used to work in the food business, but not the hummus business in particular. Like I said, in the old days, all these peoples were one nation. I mean if someone lived in Jordan they'd come over here, same for the ones in Syria and Lebanon. It was an intertwined nation. So people weren't necessarily from one place or the other. It's one country, and it's as simple as that.

Who comes to eat here? Who is your clientele, Ghaleb?

City locals, of course. Like that young man over there, he's one of the locals. A while ago, you saw a policeman here. Sometimes foreigners come in here, too. Anyone who likes this dish comes over here to have it. It's as simple as that. And we give everyone the same treatment.We get all kinds of people. Maybe these days, most of the people who come in here are Israelis, because it's difficult for other people to come here, like the people of the West Bank. But we get all kinds of people. Arabs, Jews, foreigners, tourists... People from all walks of life.

plate of hummus

Do you get people from Israel, like Israeli soldiers as well?

You saw them just a while ago.

Do they come and sit here?

Some of them would be out of working hours and they sit and eat here. Just like everyone else. Some of them do come and eat here.

Is there a difference between the way Israelis eat their hummus and the way Palestinians eat theirs?

No, they all eat it the same. But it's a matter of personal taste. Some people like it with beans, some don't. This is normal. But they're the same. They are human beings like us. How do you expect they would eat?

Tell him that I don't really measure the amounts. It depends on God's will. I don't know. Each day is different. It depends on God's will. The amounts are different each day. For example, I make bigger amounts on Saturdays. But I don't measure the amounts. I just know my business, without measurements. I mean I don't have any measuring tools or anything like that. I work the simple way. I just do whatever needs to be done.

Do you have a secret recipe that was passed from your father to you, then to your son?

No. Whoever comes, I show them what I do with all honesty. I don't care who they might be. Whether they're Arabs or Jews... Anyone who comes to me and wants to learn, I show them. As simple as that. But you need time to learn it. You can't learn it instantly. It needs time and following up. For instance, you need time to learn how to cook the chickpeas. It's not just words. And like I said, I didn't realise that there's a lot of things I don't know until my father went away. Although I'd been working with him for a long time. I realised that I don't know a lot of things, although I was working with him. It's not a recipe that I can write down to you so that you can learn it. You need time and you need to live it.

The mortar and pestle is the traditional method of mashing hummus

When he came this morning, he saw your brother making hummus. He noticed that he kept adding things together without measurements. He just does it the way he feels. How can you be sure that your feeling is right and that the dish will come out tasty?

This is due to long experience. I just can tell what the dish needs. Sometimes we would be fasting in Ramadan for instance, and I can tell what it needs by its colour. I don't even have to taste it. This is due to my long experience. When you do something every day, at some point, you can do it with your eyes closed. Practice makes perfect... I don't know.

mortar and pestle

What do you think about hummus that's sold in plastic containers in supermarkets?

It contains preservatives for sure. And I think it's harmful. God knows better of course. But I mean that the beneficial qualities are lost. Like fresh milk for example. You can keep it 3 or 4 days in the fridge, and then it goes sour. But the milk they put in cartons that contains preservatives, you can keep it outside the fridge for a month. But it has lost its qualities. It's not milk anymore. It's that simple. The same applies to hummus. I think this applies to everything.

What do you think about this whole idea of this traditional tasty fresh food being available all of a sudden in supermarkets in plastic containers? What do you think about that?

There's nothing wrong with that, but whenever there's a fresh material available, the fresh material is always better. Those products are not natural. I mean if you can treat an illness with food, don't treat it with medications. Why use medications if you can treat an ill person with food? They can be cured if they eat certain kinds of food. It's the same. I don't like to eat food that contains chemical preservatives because it loses the beneficial qualities. It's not milk anymore. It just looks like milk. Why would I use it when there's fresh milk?

Now, the last and most important question. You know that people were forced out of their cities in 1948, and when they came to Jerusalem and were displaced. And your father struggled to find a job...

He came from another area in Jerusalem, so it wasn't that far. Nabi Dawoud is very close.My father lived in the same city, so he never suffered as much as other people. Like the ones who came from Jaffa or Haifa and faraway places. Those people kept moving from one place to another. He didn't have to go through all that. My father stayed in the same city. Maybe other people had to face this problem. I mean An-Nabi Dawoud is really near, it's just half a kilometre away, so it's the same area.

But other people suffered a lot. I mean this is something that can't be forgotten. A whole population was erased.

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