Travel tips for Palestine: Why you should visit

They call it "the house of dignity". From the outside, however, the Bait al Karama headquarters looks like any other building in the Old City of Nablus, this 2000-year-old Palestinian settlement of stone houses and narrow, bustling alleyways.

Around us the city hums with people buying and selling food. Just around the corner there's a queue of people lining up for fresh kanafeh, an Arabic sweet treat of baked goats cheese, semolina and sugar syrup that flies out of the pans as quickly as the bakers can churn them out. In a small shop nearby, old men sip strong black coffee spiced with cardamom, or draw deeply on shisha tobacco pipes.

There are vendors selling pretty much any Arabic treat you could imagine on the streets of Nablus, from fresh-baked bread to pickled vegetables to halva to hummus and tahini. The smells alone make the visit worthwhile. But still, that's not why we're here.

A door on one of those bustling streets leads up a winding stairwell to a small terrace, with a kitchen on one side, and a dining room above. This is Bait al Karama, the Nablus branch of the Slow Food Movement, a cooking school and social centre, a business and a lifestyle, and it's run entirely by the Palestinian women who call this area of the world home.

This is the good news story about Palestine that you never hear. This is a story of strong, passionate women who've decided to take ownership of their situation and make their lives better, to forge their own independence, both social and financial. This is the story of normal people doing something amazing. And they've done it, predominantly, through food.

Fatimah Kadumy, one of the founders of Bait al Karama, tells me this is known as "the house of dignity". It's a social gathering place, she says, in a city that provides few outlets for women, but also a business, a way to survive and even help others in the community without having to rely on handouts from NGOs, or appeals to the Israeli government to relax their hold on the West Bank.

These are the real faces of Palestine: Fatimah, friendly and erudite, who seems to know every food vendor in town; Salaam, another volunteer at the centre, who's so full of charm she has me coring eggplants and zucchinis before she's even really asked; Lana, who sits outside smoking cigarettes and laughing with other volunteers; Arya, who has the sweetest smile imaginable as she gently points out I'm absolutely hopeless at coring eggplants and zucchinis.

Today I'm "helping" the women prepare lunch. We're having a typical Palestinian feast, a spread of mahshi – those eggplants and zucchinis stuffed with spiced lamb mince and rice, and stewed with tomatoes – plus fattoush, an Arabic salad, and fatet makhdous, a stew of eggplant and bread, topped with yoghurt.

The kitchen at Bait al Karama is riot of activity, of chatter in Arabic, of laughter, of instructions and questions in English. This is the first cooking school in Palestine run entirely by women, with a team of 30 volunteers for whom these classes are as much a social event as a chance to share their cooking skills.

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In a patriarchal society such as this it's often difficult to find opportunities for women not just to mix with each other, but to interact with outsiders. Bait al Karama draws back the curtain on that hidden world. And it's a charming, friendly world.

Arya is still laughing at my attempts to core zucchinis. Salaam, meanwhile, has moved on to stuffing the vegetables with mince and rice, and is smiling her devastating smile as she shows a few of my fellow students how it should be done. Lana, meanwhile, uses her phone to take photos of the finished dishes, proving that while our cultures might be poles apart in some respects, we can at least bond over our shared desire to commit our meals to Instagram.

Nablus should be known for this: for these women, for this hospitality, and for this food. Sadly, it's always the bad news that makes headlines; but this is as real as any unrest.

After finishing off our lunch, we all file back out onto the street and head around the corner to join the queue for kanafeh. This is another cultural touchstone we share, the desire to fill our already overstuffed bellies with sweet, delicious treats. Dignity, for a few minutes at least, can wait.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

intrepidtravel.com

baitalkarama.org

GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines has daily flights to Istanbul, via Singapore, with onward connections to Tel Aviv. Phone 13 10 11; see singaporeair.com

TOURING THERE

Intrepid Travel runs nine-day "Real Food Adventures" through Israel and the Palestinian Territories, which include lunch at Bait al Karama in Nablus. Tours start from $3395 a person, including transfers, accommodation and most meals.

Ben Groundwater was a guest of Intrepid Travel

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