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From Jerusalem Market With Love

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Photos by Todd Turner

Saliba Hanhan, the owner of Jerusalem Market, stands over a pot of homemade grape leaves.  He is sharing stories about food, place, and memories.

This month, the second Jerusalem Market opens as a sit-down restaurant in Downtown Greensboro. This comes 27 years after Saliba set up a grocery deli in a tiny Gate City Boulevard strip mall in what was supposed to be a specialty food shop.

It turned out to be so much more.

Saliba and I swap stories about food and the Middle East. He is from Palestine, born in the village of Lod, which is close to where Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport stands today.

I lived in the region for several years, and I miss the food, among other things. My most memorable meal was an impromptu roadside picnic outside of Amman, Jordan. I was visiting a Jordanian friend. The day was beautiful as we traveled to Shobak Castle, a 12th century structure perched atop of an intimidatingly high and rocky mountain.

I had opulent dinner plans that evening, so lunch was a quick snack in small mountain village: round hubbus (bread), a container of tart, homemade laban (yogurt), some fresh olives and a slab of Nablusi cheese.

The meal consisted of humble, ancient nourishments, and it was memorable because the food carried the stories of the hands that made it.

Food close to the earth always tastes better.

Saliba Hanhan knows what that means. He appreciates the taste of tangy, homemade yogurt. He understands the texture of warm bread, and how a fresh olive can fill up a mouth.

In 1989, Saliba opened Jerusalem Market in a stubborn yet determined effort to bring the world to Greensboro. He was a chemist. He didn’t know a thing about managing a small business.

“I didn’t look at anybody, because I didn’t want to get confused about it. This all came out of my head,” he explains to me over the counter at the Sedgefield location. He launched the business with the support of his wife, Deborah.

At that time, grocery stores didn’t have international aisles. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s lived on the west coast. Greensboro wasn’t a foodie town. Saliba remembers when “you couldn’t even get a can of fava beans. That was horrible.”

What started in his head would soon depend on his hands – and a legacy of Palestinian culinary traditions.

Customers were curious about these traditions. They wanted to try his food. A month into the tender life of Jerusalem Market, a place where Saliba invited people to come in and smell the aroma of the Old City, he succumbed to the demand for food close to the earth.

He started offering the dishes he grew up with in the West Bank village of Ramallah.

Homemade hummus. Hand-rolled grape leaves. Baba Ghanoush.

Fresh, humble food that satisfies the soul.   

To appreciate the food and the role of Jerusalem Market in Greensboro, one has to understand the Hanhan story.

The family descends from a line of Old City Christian merchants in Jerusalem, and eventually moved to Ramallah, a predominately Arab Christian town in the Palestinian Territories.

(This part of the world is historically diverse. Today, an estimated 50,000 Christians are in the West Bank, and comprise some of the oldest Christian communities in the world).

Diya Abdo, a Guilford College Professor, writes in 27 Views of Greensboro about a conversation she overheard at Jerusalem Market:

“How long have you been Christian?” a customer asked.

“Oh, about 2000 years,” answered Saliba.

Saliba’s ancestors used to own a business by Jaffa Gate, an area in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Today, Saliba and two of his sons, Easa and Omar, stand behind the counter of Jerusalem Market. The two brothers are bringing their father’s food to a second location  and to new customers.

After 27 years, a legacy that began in Old City Jerusalem by one of its eight gates is expanding downtown and to the heart of the Gate City, 5000 miles away from where the story started.

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In the 1960s, Saliba was a chemistry student studying in Beirut, the Paris of the Middle East at that time. He got into a graduate program in Ohio. The 1967 Arab-Israeli war broke out, and Saliba arrived in America a month earlier than originally intended.

He has never returned to the place of his birth.

“I don’t want to,” he tells me. He stands behind the counter at the Sedgefield location, laying a layer of fresh tomatoes at the bottom of a large pot. A stack of dolma, grape leaves, sits nearby. These are real grape leaves. Once rolled, they are gnarly, like an old woman’s fingers. Not fat, like the ones from a can. These grape leaves are the kind I’ve helped Arab women roll over hearty gossip and laughter. Real dolma is prepared while telling stories, like Saliba is doing now.

The Andy Griffith Show plays in the background. Fictional Mayberry flicks on the screen. Saliba turns his head to watch while he places the grape leaves in the pot.

“I don’t want to go back and see things the way they are now. I want to go back and see things like they were when I left,” he tells me.

Today, a wall surrounds parts of Ramallah. The Israeli West Bank Barrier is a contested boundary separating Palestinian territories from Israel. Also, travellers must pass through a security checkpoint.

Between Jerusalem and Ramallah is the earth that fed the Hanhan family.

Some of Saliba’s earliest memories are of his mother and grandmother in the kitchen.

“My mother was the best cook there was,” he shares. He narrates the story with his hand, as if he is grabbing memories from the air.

He explains that food came down through several generations. His mother “learned it from her mother, my grandmother, who lived with us. The grandparents don’t get sent to an old folks home. We didn’t feel like she was imposing on us.”

All of that knowledge in one house solidified traditions. His grandmother even cooked some Turkish dishes, linking the family back to the time of Ottoman Rule.

Palestinian homes always smell of spice, he says, because something is always cooking.  Maybe it is cinnamon, cumin, or an Arab mixture called baharat, similar to allspice.

Saliba’s paternal uncle owned an orange grove in Jaffa, a city famous for its sweet, almost seedless oranges. The fruit, Saliba points out, was planted by Palestinians. Arab farmers in the mid-19th century developed the orange by splicing varietals from China and India to create durable, sweet produce that traveled on steamships in the 1850s all the way to Great Britain.

Saliba’s father had a truck and transported his brother’s oranges a shorter distance and in a different direction. He took the succulent cargo to the cosmopolitan city of Damascus, Syria.  There, Saliba’s father discovered new food and creative twists on traditional dishes. He tasted the famous Damascus Ice Cream, a concoction of milk, rose water, pistachio, mastic gum, and sahlab (fragrant flour made from orchids). He came home and tried out the new recipes in the kitchen, and he showed Saliba’s mother new cooking techniques that he’d picked up during his travels.

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“Men weren’t supposed to be in the kitchen, but my father enjoyed it,” Saliba confesses.

Saliba didn’t know how to cook, and he missed his food once he came to America. He called his sister and asked her to interview their mother about recipes and to write them down.

“I looked at the recipe. All the time thinking, ‘How in the heck does my mother cook all these things without even looking at anything?’” He talks about his first time cooking.

“How does she know how much spice?” he thought.

But the second time, he decided to go at it without a recipe. The Hanhan intuition kicked in, and Saliba realized he enjoyed cooking. Plus, he seemed good at it. He may have studied chemistry, but he realized that he could be a chemist in the kitchen, too.

“I was happy in the kitchen, cooking and messing around,” Saliba reveals. “Just like I was happy in the garden. I think they go together.”

Indeed, food close to the earth feels like home.

While working in a corporate job up north, Saliba often came to Greensboro to visit his sisters. One day, he decided to move south. The Triad had the kind of weather he was looking for, the kind that allowed for year-round gardening.

Saliba married Deborah, an American woman originally from Tennessee. They have three children. Today, two of those children, Easa and Omar, greet customers at the original location.

Omar started helping at the store when he was around 9 years old. He had easy jobs, like punching the cash register, using the pricing gun, and annoying customers (by his own admission). But that was an important experience for him, because it helped him realize how people connect to food.

And, as Saliba remembers food from Palestine, Jerusalem Market figures prominently in some of Omar’s earliest memories.

One involves a magical hummus pot.

Saliba used to bring a giant, silver pot of chickpeas home that had soaked all day. He would put the pot on the stove. As the legumes cook cooked, they created foam that rose to the top of the pot. Periodically, the foam had to be removed.

Omar remembers a ritual involving “the smell of cooking chickpeas and seeing that giant pot every night.”

The pot became something of a mystery.

Omar continues, “As a kid, I couldn’t quite reach the stove, but I remember seeing the giant raft of chickpea foam that had been scooped off the pot and into the bowl.”

He wondered, “Where does the pot go during this day? It is this huge pot full of stuff but it only shows up at night?”

Food was an enchanted experience that brought all corners of their worlds together.

The brothers benefited from cultural fusion: southern food on their mother’s side, Arab food from their father.

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“It was a cool mash up,” Omar explains, and both cuisines have several things in common. “Middle Eastern cuisine is almost more functionary. They made a lot of things out of necessity, and they figured out a way to make things good just by using simple ingredients, like chickpeas. That is cool.  But southern food is like that, as well. A lot of it is cured or smoked, or preserves like jams and jellies.”

Cooking was a way to bridge culture and experience. The realization had an impact on Omar. He explains that “is when I figured out that cooking has a lot of commonality.”

Like Omar, Easa worked at the store from a young age.  He knew his father had a beloved business–the kind of place where customers were called by their first names and routinely dropped in to share a story. But Easa didn’t fully sense how much the community loved Jerusalem Market until he was on a high school trip to Paris.

While boarding the plane in France to return to the United States, someone called his name.

He remembers it being such a surreal experience.

“Surely no one is calling my name,” he thought. How could they? He was an ocean away from home.

He turned to see two regular customers, Ken and Jane, who were returning from Paris, too.

“That was like, very cool,” Easa continues. “They could have ignored me. But they made a point to introduce themselves. And when my father’s mother died, they made it a point to come to the funeral. Our customers are more than customers. They are family.”

That was a moment of clarity. He got it. He realized that Jerusalem Market held special magic. This kind of alchemy, Saliba says, is his biggest achievement: the relationship they’ve built with customers.

Easa says some customers move away from Greensboro, but they make sure to drop by if they visit. For others, they bring out-of-town guests by the store. It is one of those places customers like to show off.

It isn’t hard to understand how that dynamic developed. Saliba likes to hear stories, and he knows how important food is to tradition and identity.

Bosnian refugees began resettling in the Triad during the 1990s due to the Bosnian War that took place from 1992-1995. They would walk in, and Saliba talked to them about the foods they missed. He made it a point to stock his shelves with requested items. As an immigrant, he knew how deep the longing ran for a taste of home. For a while, Jerusalem Market was the only place to find Bosnian products.

“Now Wal-Mart is carrying these items,” Saliba shrugs as he puts the final layer of grape leaves in the pot.

The two brothers grew up and went off to other things. Their father told them to make own their way. He never expected them to join him in his created Jerusalem, but he is proud to have them by his side.

Easa first studied computers, then shifted to small business entrepreneurship.  As he got older, he began to appreciate the intimacy of the family business and the legacy his father had built. He graduated from UNCG and made the decision to work at Jerusalem Market full time.

Besides, Easa realized that he hated the “plug and chug” of office life. Jerusalem Market was the family thing, and Easa wanted to do “what I can to make it work.” The more he learned about the business, the more he liked it, from cooking to daily management.

Omar, however, inherited a deep fascination for food. He is the next generation of Hanhan men who, as his father puts it, “mess around in the kitchen.” Omar studied culinary arts at GTCC, and he was part of the Proximity Hotel’s opening team.

His mother told him to aim higher, to pursue his dreams. Omar sent his resume off and landed a job with Marea, a Michelin two-star rated New York City restaurant owned by famed chef Michael White.  Omar spent two years in New York, and then moved to Asia for a few years to work at Al Molo, which is part of Chef White’s global Altamarea restaurant group.

Omar’s international experience helped him realize that his father’s food at Jerusalem Market was as good as the food he’d tasted around the world.

And, his conscience started to bother him.  He knew his father worked hard and would never retire. That, and Jerusalem Market is built on an Old City model. “You know how it is over there–a family business is about family,” he tells me. “So I wanted to come back and help my dad.”

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Omar is head chef at the new restaurant. Jerusalem Market downtown will offer counter service with a full kitchen, and this means a larger and more creative menu than the grocery deli location.  Omar is excited about having his own kitchen. His father jokes that once the kitchen is ready, he may never see Omar again.

“What is the first thing you plan to cook?” I ask.

“A rice and lentil dish,” he responds. Mujdarra is a savory, vegetarian meal with spices and garlic.  When I’ve had it in Palestinian homes, it comes topped with sour yogurt and a crisp side salad.

Omar is excited to bring new items to customers, particularly vegetarian and vegan options offered along with kebabs. Heart healthy recipes and vegetables are inherent to Middle Eastern food. He points out “this is something so many people strive to get out of cuisine, but the fact that it is already there. You can’t really escape that in Arab food. I think that is so cool.  I have a lot of respect for it.”

Saliba chose the name Jerusalem Market in honor of the Old City.  It was a place where spices and different faiths mingled.

He knew there would be some initial confusion in Greensboro about the name. He understood that some people would assume him to be Jewish, for example. Or Muslim. Today, Saliba notes his customers are diverse: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and beyond.

A letter from a local rabbi is taped to the counter, thanking Saliba for his years of service to the Greensboro community.

Saliba was ahead of his time in 1989 when he opened Jerusalem Market. Middle Eastern cuisine wasn’t on the radar. Foodies could only find Arab restaurants in major urban areas, like Los Angeles and New York. Middle Eastern food joints might exist close to large college campuses, where patchouli-wearing vegetarians of the 1980s were more adventurous eaters than the average American at that time.

The first Gulf War in 1990 changed the American palate. The conflict in Iraq, Desert Storm, was the first war broadcast live and 24-hour cycle on CNN. Suddenly, Americans had an intimacy with that part of the world unparalleled in previous conflicts.

People were curious about the region, and food offered an immediate and safe form of cultural exploration.

(An interesting reverse trend: U.S. fast food chains, like Kentucky Fried Chicken and Hardees, are gaining popularity in the Arab world, particularly in the Gulf region. However, the popularity of Arab food is growing globally at a phenomenal rate. Lebanon’s fast-food version of Arab food, Semson, just opened in New York City.)

Omar believes the future of food is casual dining, a well-thought observation after working in celebrated restaurants. The Hanhans had toyed with the idea of expanding Jerusalem Market, but they couldn’t find the right place. The move felt right when they discovered a location in the 300 block of Elm Street, in the storefront between Scuppernong Books and 1618 Downtown.

The closure of Zaytoon, which had been popular with the downtown lunch crowd, created an opportunity, too. Unlike Zaytoon, Jerusalem Market plans to be open for lunch, dinner, and weekends.  Beer and wine will be available, as well.

With food, particularly the Palestinian kind, politics can rise to the surface. There are those who argue that Israel has appropriated Palestinian cuisine as their own, thus erasing Palestinian heritage. Omar doesn’t seem concerned about the politicization of food.

“It doesn’t matter if someone calls it Israeli or Palestinian. It is very hard to trace it to one specific region.” He explains that some food throughout that part of the world is similar, perhaps a holdover from the Ottoman Empire. Yet, many dishes are specific to different countries. The Gulf region showcases Indian-inspired baked fish, for example, while Egypt has certain dishes that are uniquely Egyptian.

Food, for the Hanhan family, is where people come together.

Easa shares his father’s philosophy. “That is one of the things about Jerusalem and why we picked the name. There were Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the Old City. They all lived together and coexisted peacefully. The mix made it great. That’s what America is, a kind of melting pot.”

Easa is at the front register. He hands me a small container of baklava. It takes me back to a different time in my life. I recall a cup of clove spiced tea I drank while sitting beside the Nile in Sudan. The tea came with the Sudanese version of baklava, a peanut filled pastry called basta, for dessert.

Food brings memories to the surface.

It also makes new ones.

Easa is engaging in small talk with two regular customers, one we will call Dan. The banter between them makes it obvious that they have been customers for years.

I ask Easa what his hopes are for the new location. He tells me about making sure the ingredients are fresh, that the love and commitment to quality remains, that the food will taste close to the earth.

“We also have to maintain the personal connection to people,” he comments, when I ask him if he is excited about reaching a new crowd.

“It will be the old crowd, too!” Dan interjects, turning his head to make sure I hear him as he heads out the door.

Dan looks at me and says, “Greensboro will now have two Jerusalems to visit.”

Jerusalem Market is scheduled to open later this month and is located at 310 South Elm Street in downtown Greensboro. The original location is at 5002 Gate City Boulevard. Visit their Facebook page for updates, JerusalemMarketGSO.

Deonna Kelli Sayed is a Greensboro-based writer. Visit dksayed.com to learn more, and follow her on Twitter @deonnakelli

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