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Baking for peace

2012 Travel Writing Competition Entry 

Baking for Peace
by Shelly Lac, UK 

The old sea port of Jaffa, a short walk from the bustle of downtown Tel Aviv is a beautiful, peaceful escape from the urban jungle. Its maze of narrow streets is full of artists' studios, shops and restaurants tucked in stone passageways that are cool respite from the heat of the Mediterranean sun. However, I am not here today to escape the sweltering summer sun, or to peruse the colourful shops. Today, I am here for Abulafia. 

Abulafia is a 24-hour street-side bakery that has been located at the same corner in Jaffa since 1879. You can imagine that after more than 130 years in the business, they pretty much have the recipes down pat. In fact, bakery food does not get better than this in Israel: the bourekas and sambousek are divine, and the pitta with za’artar is outstanding.

Abulafia’s bakery is a true Israeli institution that everyone in the country knows and loves. A cab driver will need nothing more than its name to deliver you to its door. What I love most about this bakery, however, is that in many ways it is the perfect symbol of Arab-Israeli coexistence. Owned by an Israeli-Arab family and staffed by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, this is a place where people of all religions literally and metaphorically break bread together every day.

To the outside world, Israel appears an unstable, explosive country, whose people are segregated by hate and distrust. The media never tires of portraying Jews and Arabs as nothing more than waring neighbours with clashing, irreconcilable opinions and attitudes. This depiction is understandable: conflict is easier to comprehend in terms of black and white, good and bad, right and wrong, two enemies constantly at war. But rarely is any conflict so simply demarcated. As Abulafia’s Bakery in Jaffa demonstrates, it only takes a brief visit to Israel to realise that the lives of Arabs and Jews are far more intertwined than the divided image presented by the media. 

In the numerous touristy t-shirts shops of Jerusalem’s historic suk, shirts proclaiming Uzi Does It or Don't Worry America, Israel is behind you hang right alongside those emblazoned with Free Palestine and Palestine Liberation. In their desire to pander to all manner of tourist, these Arab vendors offer a perfect example of the complex conundrum of the Arab-Israeli relationship. In Jerusalem, and elsewhere, more subtle connections between Arabs and Jews also exist. During my visit to this divided and divisive city, a Jewish teenager told me how during Passover (when Jewish religious law forbids eating bread and Jewish bakeries are closed), he and other secular Jews venture to the Arab bakeries to buy their pita and laffah. Presumably, similar clandestine exchanges occur in reverse during the month of Ramadan.

Unfortunately, these nuances of the relationship between Arabs and Jews are rarely broadcast outside Israel. Few people outside Israel are aware that there are cities in Israel, such as Jaffa and Haifa, where Jews and Arabs live side by side peacefully. Cities where Jews and Arabs work together, attend university together, play sport together, receive health care in the same hospitals, and have roughly equal political representation in their city councils. 

To visit Israel then is to recognise and appreciate these previously unknown subtleties of life for Jews and Arabs and to see first-hand the many shades of grey that complicate and encapsulate the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although there are many geographic and ideological divisions yet to bridge between Jews and Arabs, these examples of coexistence and harmonious interaction offer substantial hope for the future. For coexistence implies tolerance, and tolerance is bred of understanding, and with understanding will come forgiveness and peace. The realisation that a level of understanding already exists between many Arabs and Jews casts the Middle East conflict in a vastly different, more optimistic light. 

Back at Abulafia’s, I shout my order for three bourekas across the busy front counter in faltering, heavily-accented Hebrew, and seconds later, am holding a steaming bag of freshly-baked goodness. Walking back to my hotel past the local synagogue, I hear the muezzin call the faithful to prayer from the distant mosque. Biting into the delicious layers of cheese and pastry I contemplate the significance of this humble multi-faith bakery and wonder, “Could the road to Middle East peace possibly lie somewhere between a baklava and a bagel?