2016-10-26 / Mideast

How one popular Palestinian café puts women first, and men in the corner


Hostess Nagla Aburous sitting at the Jasmine Cafe in Nablus before her shift. 
JTA photo by Andrew Tobin. Hostess Nagla Aburous sitting at the Jasmine Cafe in Nablus before her shift. JTA photo by Andrew Tobin. NABLUS, West Bank—The “Mountain of Fire.”

The “terror capital” of the West Bank.

This city has earned its militant nicknames with generations of violent resistance, whether aimed at the Ottomans, the British, the Israelis or the current Palestinian Authority government.

Nablus may not seem like an ideal destination for an upscale California-style cafe. But owner John Saadeh is optimistic after opening Jasmine Cafe here in August. He is following a business plan that has worked for him before: Put women first.

Just as when he launched the Jasmine chain in Ramallah years ago, Saadeh is screening men at the entrance and going out of his way to hire women, challenging the traditional norms of Palestinian society.

“We’re bringing a little Western lifestyle to the east side of the world,” Saadeh told JTA. “We have people drinking cappuccinos and ladies mingling and men smoking shisha [water pipe] and college students coming to hang out and just socially exchange with one another.

“To make all that happen in Palestine, we need to make sure the [gender] ratio is good, so that women feel comfortable and they keep coming back.”

In 2011, Saadeh and his father opened the first Jasmine in Ramallah, the de facto capital of the West Bank. Inspired by his time in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he was born and later attended college and law school, Saadeh had long wanted to create a venue where men and women could hang out.

“Ever since high school here, I felt a little suffocated. I was like: Are you guys serious? We still live like this?” said Saadeh, explaining that every time conflict with Israel flares, social progress stalls or reverses.

“With your boys, you could hang out at the coffee shops or the pool hall. But the only places to take girls were restaurants. So I always had the idea for Jasmine in the back of my mind.”

Aside from personal and business motives, Saadeh hopes to help push his society forward—and maybe even toward peace with Israel.

“We’re living in the past right now, and that’s a problem,” he said. “If we’re going to continue living in the past, we can’t solve anything because the past for us sucks as Palestinians.

“But if we look forward to the future, and what we can become rather than what we should’ve become, it’s a positive state of mind for the society, and people don’t have that here. People are walking around like they took our land, they killed our people and stuff. It’s all this negative. You don’t feel the positive vibe.”

The cafe is now a brand name among in-the-know Palestinians. On any given day, local politicians and celebrities can be found there mingling with foreigners. Saadeh wants Jasmine to be part of a similar process in Nablus, a Palestinian commercial center in the mountains of the northern West Bank. As he is well aware, there are major obstacles: Recent attempts by Palestinian security forces to crack down on lawlessness led to clashes in the streets. The Palestinian Authority, after two security officers were shot dead by armed men in the city on June 30, launched raids it said found “large quantities of weapons and ammunition;” thousands marched in the streets in August to protest the crackdown and the death in custody of a suspected “outlaw.”

And Nablus is a deeply traditional society, where families guard their honor and their women.

“In Palestinian society in general, women don’t really have a lot of spaces that we are allowed to be in,” said Nasreen Hadad Haj-Yahya, the head of the Arab- Jewish Relations Project at the Israel Democracy Institute, who lives in Tayibe, a mostly Arab city in central Israel. “The public space unfortunately belongs to males. And we don’t have places like gardens, parks where you can go with your children.

“I feel like Nablus now is similar to what Ramallah was 10 years ago,” he said. “All you need to do is open up a little bit. Bring in little bit of money, some nonprofits here and there, and it’s right there,” said Saadeh.

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