​The Restaurant at the Center of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Serves Great Hummus

Ikermawi has served its delicious hummus since 1952, but with tensions flaring over the Old City's holy sites, the restaurant is losing its customers.

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Dec 31 2015, 2:01pm

Mike al-Mufreh in front of his restaurant, Ikermawi, in Jerusalem. All photos by the author

Since 1952, a small hummus restaurant called Ikermawi has stood in the most contested area of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, serving the same delicately flavored garbanzo bean spread through multiple wars, intifadas, and decades of sporadic violence. The restaurant sits directly adjacent to Damascus Gate, the entrance to the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City—a bottleneck for both Muslims and Jews seeking to access the city's holy sites that has historically been a center for bloodshed between Palestinians and Israeli Jews.

In recent months, the area has once again become a flashpoint for violence, amid growing tensions over the important religious site known to Jews as the Temple Mount, and to Muslims as Haram al Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary. Palestinians contend that the Israeli government is attempting to change the "status quo," which presently prevents Jews from praying on the site. The Israeli government has repeatedly denied such claims, but there is a growing right-wing movement that seeks to assert the rights of Jews to worship at the site.

At the center of it all—geographically speaking, at least—is Ikermawi. "You learn to never make any sudden movements," Mike al-Mufreh, the restaurant's chef and manager, told me. I asked him how many Palestinians have died near Ikermawi in the recent conflict and he struggles to count. "Seven, I think?"

In fact, there have been nine stabbing attacks within a few of minutes of the hummus joint, four of them within a couple hundred feet, resulting in ten deaths—eight Palestinians, two Jewish Israelis. The stabbings often follow a similar story line: A young Palestinian, usually male, stabs a Jewish-Israeli in name of defending the Haram al Sharif; Israeli security forces respond and the Palestinian is typically shot to death.

The restaurant is inevitably intertwined with the ongoing conflict. One of al-Mufreh's coworkers is the cousin of Muhammad Nimr, a 37-year-old Palestinian who died last month after being shot by Israeli guards near Ikermawi. Israeli police reports state that Nimr ran at the officers wielding a knife, and video footage from security cameras shows Nimr appearing to run at two Israelis with a knife in hand. (Al-Mufreh and his coworker claim that Nimr was drunk and had attempted to scare the Israeli security officers, but believe he had no knife.)

Mike al-Mufreh in Ikermawi

Besides the horror of the violence, al-Mufreh said that the recent conflict has taken a toll on business. "Every time something happens we have to close immediately," he explained. Riots have taken place right outside the restaurant, and al-Mufreh said he's had to shelter the wounded, usually those hit with rubber bullets.

On a Friday afternoon this month, business was slow atIkermawi. Most customers took their hummus to-go while a few stayed and ate. Israeli police stood across the street, watching over the area. Al-Mufreh served dishes of hummus methodically, seeming to tune out the tensions around him: a scoop of hummus, a scoop of garbanzo beans, a glob of olive oil on top. Repeat.


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The secret to good hummus, according to al-Mufreh, is using exceptionally good garbanzo beans. "There shouldn't be any blemishes on them, they must be healthy" he told me, while picking up a bean and holding it up to the light for examination. The process of making hummus is not easy: Al-Mufreh's recipe takes a total of three days. First he soaks the beans for an entire day; then he slowly cooks them; on the third day, he blends the garbanzo beans with high-quality tahina (sesame paste), lemon juice, parsley, and water.

The result is an intensely delicious combination of flavorful garbanzo beans, creamy tahina, counterbalanced with the acidity and lightness of the lemon and parsley. Al-Mufreh says his customers keep coming back because of his hummus's special, robust flavor.


Mike al-Mufreh prepares a batch of hummus

Prior to the flare up, Ikermawi had a substantial Jewish Israeli customer base. "On Saturdays the place would be filled with Israelis," said al-Mufreh. "You couldn't even walk through the restaurant." Many secular Israelis used to cross into Palestinian areas on Saturdays to eat and shop, as Jewish-owned stores typically close for the Sabbath.

A Hebrew newspaper clipping still hangs in Ikermawi's window, praising the food. The article calls back to another time when Israelis ventured into Palestinian areas of Jerusalem more frequently for food and pleasure, when people simply came for the hummus.

Empty tables outside Ikermawi

Secular Jews have left the area gradually over the past decade, leaving mostly ultra-orthodox Haredim, who keep a strict kosher diet and do not eat at non-kosher restaurants like Ikermawi. Dressed in all black with long beards, the Haredim hurriedly walked by the restaurant on their way to prayer, constantly glancing over their shoulder.

Two young Palestinian construction workers sitting outside the restaurant said that Ikermawi is "one of best." We spoke as they hunched over their bowls, shoveling hummus into their mouths, and while they seemed more intent on eating than talking to me, they were quick to state that they would not allow the Israeli government to "take the Haram al Sharif from Muslims."

As for al-Mufreh, he's never considered moving until recently. He hopes that tensions will ease, business will return, and life will reach a relative calm but he is not optimistic. "I don't think things are going to get better," he told me. "There's just a bad feeling."

Follow Eliyahu Kamisher on Twitter.

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