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 is a writer and editor based in Ramallah.