Mazen Saadeh has lived a varied life. He’s been a lawyer, filmmaker, journalist, playwriter and now a farmer and restauranteur.
In May 2018 we met with Mazen at the restaurant he then ran. Hosh Jasmin, located just outside Beit Jala, a suburb of Bethlehem, was an organic farm and restaurant with fantastic views over the beautiful valley of Wadi al-Makhrour. Diners relax on cushioned platforms under canopies, sipping cool drinks, or enjoy hiking trips through the UNESCO heritage site in the valley. Butterflies and birds fly amongst the wild flowers.
While this setting may seem idyllic, living under military occupation is far from that.
Mazen decided to establish his own farm in 2012 after finding it difficult to get organic produce for his previous restaurant and art gallery near the city of Ramallah. He came across this eight-acre site for rent and started with lots of energy, growing thirteen different vegetables (including aubergine and tomatoes, staples in Palestinian dishes) and twenty species of trees (such as apricot, fig, apple, almond and, of course, olives). Hosh Jasmin focused on traditional Palestinian dishes, many of which are vegan, including mujadara, vegetable maqluba, muta’bal and kalayat bandora.
Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, which has now lasted more than half a century, affects every part of daily life for Palestinians. The region is divided into three zones: Area A is under complete control of the Palestinian Authority; Area B is under Palestinian administrative control but Israeli security control; Area C – which makes up 61% of the West Bank, including Hosh Jasmin – is under full Israeli control. Planning restrictions are so severe that the restaurant cannot extend any part of the existing building (even the area for washing dishes, Mazen told us). The illegal Israeli settlement of Har Gilo, just a few hundreds metres away, however, doesn’t face such limitations and continues to expand under full support of the Israeli government. The wonderful valley view from the outdoor eating areas is broken by the snaking concrete Israeli Wall in the distance.
One major role of the occupation has been Israel’s control of Palestine’s natural resources, along with the theft of land and water by settlers. Hosh Jasmin doesn’t have its own natural spring so has to buy water from the Israeli authorities, at a price eight times that which the settlers pay. This resulted in Mazen being unable to afford all the water needed for the farm and he had to stop planting vegetables in summer.
To ensure Hosh Jasmin was able to continue with its initial principles and not give in to buying vegetables produced cheaply in Israel or the illegal settlements, it started to co-operate with other local projects. Nearby villages with their own water springs, such as Wadi Fukin, started supplying directly to the restaurant.
Meals that were more difficult to prepare in the restaurant’s tiny kitchen, such as stuffed grape leaves, maftoul (couscous) and shushbarak (dumplings) were supplied by families in the nearby refugee camps of Aida and Deheishe. “This is our way of helping some poor families in Palestine”, says Mazen.
“Israel didn’t just occupy our land. They also tried to take a lot of things from our history and our culture, like hummus, falafel and maftoul. So our duty now is to also get back our traditional food.”
Growing organic food and serving only traditional dishes is seen as part of the resistance to the occupation. Drawing heavily on his cigarette, Mazen explained: “Israel didn’t just occupy our land. They also tried to take a lot of things from our history and our culture, like hummus, falafel and maftoul. So our duty now is to also get back our traditional food, because if you go to any restaurant here you couldn’t find grape leaves or maqluba. Our aim is to serve good food.”
Our conversation took place during the 70th anniversary of the Nakba – the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians resulting from the formation of the state of Israel. The day after we met Mazen, Israeli soldiers shot dead 60 protestors in Gaza. Under these circumstances it’s difficult asking Palestinians what their future hopes are. For Mazen, living under occupation means that despite having a “wide vision” for Hosh Jasmin, options are limited.
“Because of that we don’t have huge projects, but we have dreams, yes we have dreams, we have hope, I am optimistic. I believe one day things will be better and we will live in peace, not under occupation. I don’t believe in two states, I believe in one democratic state. And in the end we will live together here. This is our land and we will do a lot, but in the next stage. And I hope – this is my hope, my real hope – it will be soon, not in a long time. Very soon.”
Since this meeting with Mazen he has moved to a new restaurant close by (The Jungle). Hosh Jasmin has been renamed Shams al Aseel and with its wide range of vegan Palestinian dishes is well worth a visit.
Listen to a podcast with Mazen Saadeh: