Something very important to me while I’m traveling is to support and meet local women through any sort of event or opportunity I find. While researching for my trip, I found Noor Women’s Empowerment Group: a grassroots organization for women with disabled children and/or those who are solely in charge of their families in Aida Refugee camp. They have multiple ways for those visiting Bethlehem to support their cause such as homestays, embroidery lessons, and cooking classes — women’s empowerment and food? Um, yes please!
About the Group
Raising a disabled child is challenging in itself, and those challenges are amplified in a Palestinian refugee camp. There are no resources for disabled people, limited employment opportunities and poor living conditions among other challenges. In response, some women from Aida Camp started a mothers’ club to discuss and come up with solutions for their struggles. One struggle they talked about at the first mothers’ meeting was not being able to afford diapers for their children. Together, they found a solution by pooling their money to buy off-brand diapers from a factory in Hebron that supplies them to hospitals. They saved a significant amount of money and realized the power they had to affect change by working together.
In order to provide more and better services for themselves and the families with disabled children, the mothers’ group began offering cooking classes to tourists visiting Bethlehem. Since then, they also offer embroidery lessons, a cookbook, and homestays. These classes and experiences give the women of Aida camp a source of income, the ability to support their families and a way to empower themselves.
Growing their organization has been, and continues to be, empowering for the women in Aida camp. According to women from the group, they have more confidence in themselves; are more effective communicators; and are more creative. Additionally, they’ve acquired entrepreneurial skills; learned English; learned administrative and technology skills; and have created a source of income for women in the community. All of which is crucial in breaking the oppressions they face as women and as Palestinians.
Learning to Cook from Noor WEG
Noor WEG offers cooking classes on Saturdays and Sundays in Aida camp and the recipes change every time. For my class, we learned to make Maqluba and Basbousa for dessert. Maqluba is a traditional Palestinian chicken and rice dish with fried eggplant, cauliflower, potatoes, and carrots. “Maqluba” means upside down in Arabic, and it’s called this because it’s flipped upside down after cooking to form a dome of deliciousness. Basbousa is a coconut yogurt cake made from semolina flour — a perfect dessert when you want something sweet but not too sweet.
I remember the first time I tried maqluba…I had just started university and an Arab friend let me try a bite of her mom’s maqluba. It was only a bite, but I was in love with its savory soft rice and how it made vegetables I hated taste amazing. I was determined to make it, but my first try was a complete fail; the juices didn’t cook through so when I flipped it the kitchen floor was covered in broth. I tried a few more times, but nothing ever tasted the same as that first, magical bite. Needless to say, from the minute I signed up for this class I was excited to learn to make the dish from a pro.
When the broth had been cooked out, we were called to gather around the prep table for the main event: flipping the dish مقلوبة (Maqluba) upside-down. She held the pot with a large serving tray on top in her hands, waiting for the perfect moment where she was sure enough to flip it. Her wrists effortlessly rotated the large, heavy pot upside down. She set the serving dish with the pot now on top down on the table and slowly removed the pot. We all held our breath, hoping the Maqluba held its dome shape. The pan slide off the rice walls to reveal a beautiful dome, and we all let out a breath of relief.
I’m glad to report that my first bite of Islam’s Maqluba was as magical as my first bite of Maqluba. Except this time, I got to eat a whole plate. If you’re in the Levant, you need to find this dish…It was my favorite dish I ate. It’s nothing like what you find in Mediterranean restaurants in the States.
Oh, The basbousa was also equally amazing, but I’m not just saying that because I was in charge of making it, haha. It’s like a slightly sweet, semi tart, dense cake that was a perfect complement to our mint tea.
The Power of Women and Food
The women who organized Noor WEG inspired me deeply. They live in deep poverty with little money or economic opportunity to provide for their families and the extra needs of their disabled children. On top of that, they suffer greatly because of the regional conflict between necessary utilities being cut, violence, and limited access to outside resources (especially medical resources). They came together because of their struggles and found ways to take action to improve their lives. Now they’re entrepreneurs who’ve found ways to support themselves and create badly needed programs for disabled children through the Palestinian food culture they were raised with. The women of Noor WEG are true examples of the power women hold to change their communities when they come together.
Food, like women, is also a powerful force, but one of connectivity. On one hand, it’s a binding force for cultures. Food is history, heritage and the one thing people cling to despite erasure of that history and heritage — I see this in my own culture with Cajun food. Food somehow embodies who we are so much that wrong techniques or ingredients can enrage you. However, food not only connects people who are the same, but also bonds people who are different. I have never seen anything quite like good food that can soften someone’s heart and turn off their defenses. The cooking classes at Noor WEG are an example of that connective power. The classes bring in people from all across the world with so many different experiences and opinions together in Bethlehem to learn about life in Aida camp and Palestinian culture.
Food and women’s identities are already interlinked because of traditional gender roles. However, to see the power of food be harnessed and used by the women of Noor WEG to change circumstances and empower themselves and their children is beautiful and inspiring.
Islam and Ahmed were kind and eager to get to know us and teach us about food, cooking techniques and Palestinian culture. I learned so much from the class, got to learn a bit of the Levantine Arabic dialect from Ahmed, and had fun bonding with the other travelers in the class. However, the experience wasn’t totally joyous. After lunch, we hugged Islam goodbye and we took a tour of Aida camp which suffers greatly under the Israeli Palestinian conflict. I hope to share with you that perspective and experience in another post.
Experience it for yourself
With complete sincerity, your trip to Bethlehem would not be complete without a cooking class at Noor WEG. Seriously, the meals made in the kitchens of locals are always the best; the people are so sweet; and you’ll learn so much about the food and culture. I highly recommend anyone traveling to the West Bank to go: