Restaurant Review: Experiencing culinary magic in Sderot

Guest contribution by Linah Alsaafin

Author’s note: A friend of mine in an act of sadism passed a link to me of Israeli food review of a restaurant in Birzeit on the delightful 972mag site. I couldn’t get over the tone of the article, the disgusting colonial voice, so I went ahead and wrote my own mock version of reviewing a fake restaurant in Sderot.

Legend has it, based on my conversations with two and a half Palestinians pretending to be Israelis who have visited the place, that the finest restaurant in Israel is located in the illegal Jewish only settlement of Sderot, in the southern district of Israel. My friend Ali and I, hoping of driving through the busy port city of Askalan, decided to hire a yellow licensed Israeli car and dressed as first world inhabitants, took the chance of going through Hizma checkpoint without our IDs being checked by Israeli soldiers. Fate smiled on us that day, and we breezed through without being stopped, leaving Ramallah’s claustrophobic streets behind and enjoying the spacious five lane roads as the Apartheid Wall, decorated in pastel colored tiles on this side, became a distant memory.

The restaurant of Wonderkop86 is located in the heart of Sderot’s town center, a stone throw’s (excuse the pun) away from the Rocket Graveyard Museum that houses the Qassam rockets fired upon the settlement by the Islamists in the neighboring terrorist hub that is Gaza (less than a mile away). The center boasts a mural that used to have a poster of US President Barak Obama holding up an “I love Sderot” t-shirt in the middle after his visit in 2008, but which now hosts a fantastic photo-shopped picture of a woman, altered to look more like a white Jew, crouching in a bomb shelter.

Nothing in Askalan’s modern bustle foretells a place such as this, and none of the city’s restaurants compete for atmosphere. We took a seat and were immediately welcomed by manager Shira Weisman and served peanuts, a favorite Israeli drinking snack and appetizer.

Wonderkop86 is derived from the word “wonder” which means “to marvel” and the number “86” refers to the slang word of  “to get rid of”—in this context,  of the 720 indigenous Palestinian population of Sderot’s previous inhabitants in 1948 in what was previously called Najd. The restaurant is owned by a family that has “marveled” at this ethnic cleansing for decades. There’s no typical Occidental city feel to the place, no search for contrived “charme champêtre.” The ostentatious sleek glass and chrome furniture is both pretentious and contemporary. The wall is decorated by an artificial Van Gogh painting, altered with the inclusion of Sderot’s green motif, symbolizing the myth of “making the desert bloom,” a Zionist ideology, despite the fact that Najd was surrounded by fields of grain and fruit trees, with irrigation available from its water wells.

Falafel is also on the plate. Manager Weisman, unaware of our nationalities, explained that Israeli falafel and cuisine in general is very bland and traditionally original. She suggested we try Wonderkop86’s newest offering: a square pizza topped in tahini decorated with dollops of sumac spices and a cluster of chickpeas, all served in Ikea’s Pyrex bowls.

However, if one dish served to us was truly exceptional, it was the stuffed olive hamburger soaked in Heinz mustard, with olive shavings sprinkled on top. While the mustard was too thick (it had a sharp, tangy flavor), the olive hamburger was a jolting delight and a welcome explosion to my diet of fickle and unaccounted for chickens. Olive trees, known for the Palestinian connection to the land and a symbol of steadfastness, are in danger of becoming extinct; over the past decade half a million olive trees were uprooted by Israeli civil and military forces. Manager Weisman happily informed us that these particular olives came from “some Arab’s grove” that was bulldozed to make room for an extension of some Jewish only bypass road. However, it wasn’t the exoticism of the dish that appealed to me. Rather, the flavor just simply gelled with my taste buds.

In my numerous expeditions into what is called Israel, mostly during my transfer from one detention center to another after my arrests in the Nabi Saleh, Qaryout, and Ni’lin’s weekly protests against the occupation, I have never encountered such a fresh approach to reverse Occidental food. Chefs under occupation, like Mahmoud Abbas of Al Muqata’a restaurant, have attempted to bring in modern cuisine to fancy settings complete with built in waterfalls, but backed down after a while since customers were in the unbreakable habit of ordering camel humps and cliché hummus plates.

Ali and I went into what is called Israel, unusually not under arrest this time, seeking to widen our understandings of colonialist realities. We found ourselves in a Jewish only settlement, drinking cup after cup of local maramiyeh tea, realizing once more that these realities are more complex than any cliché. The memory of the original olive hamburger remained with us as we crossed the Qalandiya checkpoint under powerful military lights back into Bantustan Ramallah. It was subtle compensation for this bitter world, and a delight that leaves no room for dessert.

Linah Alsaafin

Linah Alsaafin is a writer and editor based in Ramallah.

There are 5 comments

  1. Yuval Ben-Ami

    Being the muse, I’d like to give some background on the original piece. I was at Hosh Al-Alleeya for the first time at the end of a work day. I’m a journalist and political columnist writing against the occupation. I come to the West Bank to learn about the realities and inform of them, more so than in order to eat, but hunger happens. It was a Thursday, and we were the only party present. The food was truly exceptional and I thought I could perhaps help the place get tourist traffic. There was no way to ignore in writing the fact we were Israelis, so I made a reference to it, though the piece is not intended for Israelis at all (Few Israelis read English language blogs, and very few are even aware that the +972 site exists). I may well have failed. it’s very hard to overcome a perspective that sounds colonialist when one is a privileged occupier, and I apologize to Linah and to others whom the piece may have upset. In turn I would like to note that if all I did in life was to write reviews of Palestinian restaurants from an Israeli perspective, that would have been horribly offensive, but I’m active in many ways, especially by writing in Hebrew for Israeli readers, in an effort to change paradigms and bring closer the day in which the current crimes are a thing of the past. An Israeli is always a problematic player in the struggle against the occupation, but I feel that I must be involved, because the atrocities are committed in my name and that is intolerable. Please, when you see us try to support and mess up due to our blind spots, do not discourage us, but rather engage us in dialogue and give us guidance. We have a serious amount of learning to do. Finally, I’d like add that I found Linah’s piece funny and on point, and to express the hope that when a new, just order is established, everyone will be able to go and enjoy the food of Sderot. Unfortunately it is a very disappointing town from a culinary perspective, and indeed a difficult one from a political perspective.

    1. idit

      Yuval, it’s not Linah’s job or any other Palestinian’s to educate you, to hold your hand through the difficult journey of decolonizing your mind. Your piece reeked of orientalism, as in fact most travel journalism does – it’s not actually special to the way that Israelis talk about Palestinian culture and food; westerners dining in quaint, “authentic” restaurants in India or Peru take the same paternalistic, colonial tone. This isn’t really about your position as an Israeli vis-a-vis Palestinians, but rather as white male (of presumably European descent) moving among any colonized group. You may have been trying to “humanize” or “show respect” to Palestinians, but the implication that humanization or respect must be conferred by the colonizer, rather than being self-evident, is precisely the problem here. If you want to express solidarity, support Palestinian voices; don’t push your own in front of theirs, or pass judgment.

  2. Linah

    I believe Yuval still hasn’t grasped the point yet. When a new just order is established, Sderot wouldn’t be on the map as it is an illegal Jewish only settlement. I wouldn’t mind dining in Najd though. Also, asking Palestinians to support Israeli activists is about the worst thing you can say to them.: “We’re trying our best WHY CAN’T YOU SEE THAT!!” It’s offensive. Just an eye-opener.

  3. Rob Abrams

    I fail to see how Yuval has written in any way but anyone of any nationality going to a place of another group of people and eating different foods. If I were to use the same narrow-minded logic in some of these comments, I would deem an English person writing honestly about French food as inherently having some superiority complex over the French, or I would perhaps assess that a Chinese person can’t not be offensive to Indians. If this is the case, than travel guides are the bastion of the modern, literary equivalent of fascism. Damn, that even means that all the restaurant reviews in my local newspaper are all full of miniature imperialists colonizing and talking down to their own people. The only problem here is that it has been observed that Yuval is an Israeli Jew, and that as an Israeli Jew, he can’t say anything right. Going on what I’ve observed from a distance, whether you like it or not, Israeli Jews in uncertain numbers are going to be forever among those looking to address the historical injustices wrought on Palestinians. Just like everyone else, they didn’t pick their own place of birth. This isn’t a plea to confer to Yuval any special treatment that you wouldn’t give anyone else, it’s a simple request to engage him rationally. If you can’t do this, if he’s really just another ‘one of them’, tell me why he shouldn’t just live up to your current dismissal of him and vote Likud, live in a settlement, walk around with an uzi in Hebron etc. etc. etc. That would be great, wouldn’t it? One more enemy, just what the world needs.

  4. Wallace

    May I please inquire as to where the image (linked to at the end of the second paragraph above) of the ‘whitened’ Jewish girl crouching in the tunnel came from?

    Is there really such a mural in Sderot? Is the mural in question still there? I’ve tried to find another picture of it but I’ve been unsuccessful.

    I’m trying to settle an argument in which a friend is being labelled ‘antisemitic’ and accused of forging the image in question.

    Thanks in advance for your reply!

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