What Making Knafeh Taught Me: Palestinian-Refugees in Jordan
By: Erin Mayer/ Arab America Contributing Writer
Arriving in Amman, Jordan, one can not help but feel utterly in awe. The stairways alone conjure up clear, wanderlust fueled (albeit painful) memories. Each stairway in Amman seems long enough that it leaves the pedestrian wondering if they just traveled across the city itself.
Then there are the charming streets, round patinated bookstands, selling antique texts.
The historical buildings and sites are ancient enough to leave onlookers stunned.
But nothing reminds me more of Amman than knafeh.
What is knafeh?
Knafeh is my version of a little piece of heaven on earth, on a plate. It’s a popular Arabic delicacy. Traditionally, it is a cheese-based dessert. It is topped with a thin layer of crispy, noodle-like pastry, a sugar-based rose water syrup, and chopped pistachios. There tend to be small differences from region to region, however, the overall coveted dairy to pastry to sugar remains roughly the same. Cooked until the cheese is gooey, the thread-like pastry adds a crunch and the sweet syrup and pistachios just drive the whole thing home.
Knafeh is not unique to Amman or even Jordan. In fact, the magic of this cheesy, sweet, and salty dessert is in its history and lineage. Adored in Lebanon, Palestine, Algeria, Egypt, and Turkey, it has a special place in the hearts of Palestinians worldwide.
Many legends claim Damascus is the birthplace of the incredible sweet. However, Nablus, Palestine claims to be the birthplace of knafeh. This is especially accurate if you ask most Palestinians.
I read once that the root of the word, “kanaf,” means to preserve or protect. I don’t know the validity of such a statement, but I enjoy the image of this cheesy, comforting dessert offering a shelter of sorts.
Knafeh is more than the ingredients it is composed of and how it tastes (note: AMAZING). It is also what it stands for and represents, particularly for Palestinian refugees worldwide, as I would soon learn.
What making knafeh taught me
After a day of exploring Amman, my husband and I headed back to our room. The owner of our apartment, Abed, had given us the impression of a gregarious, charming and enthusiastic man. As we neared our door, we could see him, sitting in a dimly lit doorway to an unassuming storefront.
The mostly bare store, filled with chatting, lively older men, beamed. Had we been in the States, I would have assumed, based on the cadence of their conversations and height of their laughter, that it was a local pub. However, instead of beers and brews, they were sipping black sage teas from small, dainty glass cups. Abed eagerly waved us over.
As we approached, the spirited debates echoed out of the small store. Surrounding our new friend were the lively men, enjoying the conversation. As we entered, the volume hushed. Shortly the tempo returned. Feeling as if we passed a test, we took in our surroundings. We soon realized we were in a kitchen.
Abed soon explained that it was an establishment with only one real product: knafeh.
The learning begins…
We had recently arrived from Palestine, seeing the alluring dish in the windowsills of bakeries in Ramallah. We finally tried the amazing dessert in East Jerusalem.
However, a full shop dedicated ONLY to the indulgent sweet? This was a business I was happy to support. (I’m sure, had I stayed a few days longer, I may have won customer of the year.)
The owner was strikingly different from Abed. He was softly spoken, mannerly, and smooth in his movements. There was a palpable warmth about him. As Abed introduced us, he welcomed us, offering us his specialty. I all too gladly accepted.
Intrigued, I watched as he began. As a person who worked in kitchens on a professional level while in college and after, this seemed a dish that appeared deceiving in its simplicity. Though composed of limited ingredients, it was clear to me that this gentleman was skilled and well versed in its preparation.
I began to ask him questions, trying to emphasize my genuine curiosity without annoying him as he stood over the hot stove range. Picking up my interest, he said, “Come on this side. I will show you how I make this.” Abed expounded, loudly, how his friend was the best knafeh maker in Amman! “What an honor,” I thought.
I listened carefully as he guided me all through layering all the delicious ingredients until the concluding, heart-stopping flipping of the finished sweet.
Knafeh-making and the acceptance that comes with it…
The neighborhood men, playfully hollered as if supporting a sports team on the television. Ultimately, mine didn’t turn out as intact as my husband’s, but I swallowed my pride, fine with the consolation of eating my feelings moments later.
With our finished works of gooey art, we sat and with the group, warmly invited to do so now as if we passed a covert test. As we ate with them, Abed translated.
The group explained how they were mostly Palestinian refugees. They were a people with the heaviness of longing for a motherland they were forced to flee from and not return.
Glowing with pride, they explained how their surnames could be traced back to illustrate their lineage. They described how Palestinians reluctantly carved a new home within the borders of Jordan.
With them came the cultural steadfast tradition of sitting all together, as a community, a family, and enjoying knafeh. In this way, its namesake had just done that, offering a piece of home and comfort to a people whose history was rooted in just the opposite.
As I sat there and listened, I realized I was experiencing more than just a sweet dessert with strangers in a faraway place. They offered me a glimpse of their traditions and culture. I savored the moment, recognizing the significance of it all.
The knafeh didn’t hurt.
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