Savouring tradition: Unwrapping the sweetness of Palestinian sweets in Pakistan
When Eman Al Haj Ali came to Karachi, Pakistan’s largest urban centre, in July 2022, she was unaware of her journey unfolding into a delicious saga of introducing Palestinian flavours and traditions to the South Asian city.
But while doing so, the 52-year-old matriarch also strengthened her family ties and rekindled her Palestinian roots by starting a home-based business, selling sweets native to her homeland.
The venture, Palestinian Sweets, is a labour of love by Eman who cooks up a variety of delicacies along with her two daughters — 24-year-old Laila Al Qirim and 22-year-old Isra Jaleel.
The mother-daughter trio turned their home kitchen into a culinary haven, where every dish is made with Palestine at its heart.
"There are not many Palestinians in Karachi. There is a great appreciation for and love of Middle Eastern culture, especially food. In addition, there is a huge food culture in Karachi"
Operating in the city for some time, this unique venture garnered heightened visibility among new customers when its regular clientele, notably following Israel's ongoing war on Gaza last year, shared a good word about it on social media.
Supporters speaking up against the genocide of Gazans urged people worldwide to back Palestinian businesses, casting a spotlight on Eman’s home-based business in Pakistan and drawing attention to their delectable Middle Eastern menu — which currently boasts a delicious-looking palette of five desserts including Knafeh, Layali Libnan, Katayef, Muhalabiya and Basbusa.
Tracing the Palestinian roots
Eman, the home-based entrepreneur who is a Jordanian national, was born and raised in Kuwait, but her Palestinian parents hailed from and lived in the country’s West Bank back in the day.
Her parents got married in Palestine and some of her siblings, too, were born there. But after her father moved to Kuwait for business, Palestine witnessed the second Nakba in 1967 and he lost his right to return, as he was outside his motherland at the time. Eman’s family, therefore, could not go back to Palestine as its citizens.
“We would go as visitors only and not as citizens,” Eman tells The New Arab.
Eman and her family would sometimes get to visit Palestine, as both her maternal and paternal families resided there. It was because of these relatives that she and her immediate family would get a visit visa in the past.
“Now, it has become much harder. Unless you carry a foreign citizenship such as European or American, then you can go there as a visitor,” she said.
When asked what it felt like to step foot in her homeland back in the day, Eman said: “It is a beautiful country. Subhanallah! Allah described it to be Al-Ard Al-Muqaddasah. It is a blessed country. A blessed land. It has so many resources. The people are beautiful. The hospitality, the kindness, the generosity. It is just a wonderful feeling to feel at home.”
While none of Eman’s direct relatives live in Gaza, the recent attacks by Israel on Gazans have left her, like many others who believe in humanity and peace, immensely sad.
The Pakistan connection
Eman’s journey to Pakistan is quite fascinating. Having travelled extensively since her younger days, she decided to study abroad and did her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the United States of America and later completed her master's in information technology and computer sciences from New Zealand. It was in the US, however, where she met her Pakistani husband.
For various personal and professional reasons, the 54-year-old lived in different countries including the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Malaysia, then finally landed in Pakistan where she now resides with her family — termed “blended” by her elder daughter Laila — including her husband and children.
Her elder daughter Laila is fully Palestinian, while her younger one Isra is Pakistani. They became a family after Eman married her Pakistani husband. Coming to Pakistan was a decision they made in their bid to connect with her husband’s extended family and get to know the country better.
“We thought we would come here sometime and spend time with extended family and get to know the culture more,” Eman explains.
But what led her to start Palestine Sweets is an interesting tale narrated by her stepdaughter Isra, who said it was, in fact, the Palestinian entrepreneur’s idea to start the home-based venture.
She also ensured everyone participated in the project as a way for them all to come together as a family, stay closer and spend quality time with each other — especially as they were new to Pakistan.
“She wanted to have something that could be for us. So that's where it stemmed from,” said Isra, who has recently started working for a media investment company.
She added that their family wanted to start a similar venture in Malaysia too, as her mother’s friends would encourage her to sell the sweets she would make.
But Laila — a business development and e-commerce professional — said, “It never made sense there.”
“My stepdad was really, really encouraging of us, but especially Mama. He pushed her to start something of her own. She has always worked all her life; always had some project or the other to do. So it was a natural next step,” she added.
Eman, too, agreed and said she never thought about the obstacles when starting the dessert business. “I always tried to be positive. It was good for us to start with the neighbourhood. Both my daughters, who are business graduates, were a great help in this process, which made it doable.”
How Eman’s love for cooking translated into Palestine Sweets
Eman said she has cooked all her life. She passionately spoke about enjoying the process of cooking and learning new recipes, experimenting with them and adding her flavours to tweak them.
“I've always enjoyed cooking for my family and my friends, especially when the feedback is so wonderful and people enjoy it so much.”
Eman has learnt most of her cooking, especially the Palestinian dishes, from her mother.
The first Palestinian recipe that she learnt to cook was Dawali, the Palestinian stuffed grape leaves, which Eman said was one of the most difficult items to make.
“We have our very popular grape leaves. It's not easy [to make] but we love it so much. It's very popular and something we all have to learn, as it is common to teach the recipe to your daughters at home. It's a process and a family gathering.”
Eman added that the process of rolling the grape leaves takes time, so it turns into a family activity. “It's so much fun to sit and chat while you're making the recipe. I started cooking with something difficult because I loved it,” she added.
Just like she learnt it from her mother, she is also teaching her daughters to cook as well, who help with the desserts for Palestine Sweets.
Laila, Isra said, was already good at cooking, but she had to learn.
“I've learned so many different things and I can make all the desserts on the menu. I'm learning different techniques as well so it's not just applying to these desserts, but you know for future plans as well,” she said.
How Palestine Sweets shot to fame?
While building a business takes a few key components, Laila emphasised it was their niche that made things easy for them.
“We are Palestinian. There are not many Palestinians in Karachi, but there is a great appreciation and love for Middle Eastern culture, especially food. In addition, there is a huge food culture in Karachi. So, the intersection of all three led to the creation of our business. We already had a very strong customer base, we just needed to reach them.”
Karachi has long been touted as Pakistan’s food capital where there is also an interest in Middle Eastern desserts and food as well. Laila added that for Palestine Sweets, it was never a matter of generating customers, but reaching those who already existed.
"I would like to say thank you to Karachi for giving Palestine Sweets a home. It is definitely a Pakistani business. It would not work anywhere else in the world the way it has worked here. And we are proud to be part of the Karachi food scene"
What helped their family set up the food business was their ability to bring the Palestinian authentic taste, which they market in a way that is more understandable to the local consumers in the city.
Laila said they also have a strong story to tell, which has helped them reach customers through “different vloggers, Instagrammers and journalists who wanted to share our story.”
“And then, SubhanAllah, with the events happening in Palestine, we are seeing a heightened increase in everything Palestinian specifically. And although the circumstances are very sad, the support has been very uplifting. Through that support, we've managed to touch a lot of customers' hearts as well,” she said.
This little business is building and growing, which could be overwhelming to an extent for its home-based set-up. But the mother-daughter trio said they are “grateful for everything”, as many people who aren’t able to buy anything also send them messages of support and solidarity.
Introducing authentic Palestinian food
Laila highlighted that they don’t just sell the items on their menu, but also educate customers — both existing and potential — on what the desserts are. For instance, a lot of their customers ask them why the Knafeh is not with cheese.
“We have to explain to them the local, authentic history of cream Knafeh, which is different to cheese Knafeh, but it's still all originated from the same area. Then they ask us why we don’t make cheese Knafeh. Then we explain it’s because there's no Nablusi cheese in Karachi,” she added.
Laila maintained that a big part of the business is also educating customers about what Palestinian desserts are and how to eat them. “There's a big learning curve in that respect.”
Eman elaborated on her daughter’s comment detailing the origins of some of their best-sellers on the menu. Knafeh, she said, is an authentic Palestinian.
“It is called Knafeh Nablusi because it comes from the city of Nablus, which is in Palestine. Qatayef is another dessert that we offer on the menu and it is Palestinian, but it exists in other Arab countries as well, for example in Egypt and Lebanon, but it is also authentic Palestinian as well.”
She added that these dishes are native to Bilad al-Sham, the region that once comprised Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and other countries.
One of the desserts on their menu, Basbousa is also called Harissa by Palestinians. “It is also authentic Palestinian, but also exists in Egypt. The taste, however, will be different.”
Laila said a lot of cultural sharing occurred in the Middle East, evident even in their dessert, which also exists in Turkey and Greece. Baklava, too, she added, was Palestinian and not Turkish, as people normally believe.
“The Ottoman Empire and the spread of the Muslim ummah led to the sharing of all of these desserts and cultures,” she shared when speaking with The New Arab.
Among Palestine Sweets' customers, Knafeh is a hit.
“We also get a lot of orders for Basbusa and even Qatayef. All of our desserts are very popular Layali Libnan has been gaining more popularity. But nothing has beat our Knafeh. Everybody's generally starting with that and it's our bestseller,” said Isra.
Educating people about Palestinian history
For someone who is a Palestinian, Eman and her daughter Laila also assume the responsibility of imparting education on Palestine.
Since Israel's ongoing brutal war on Gaza, which has killed over 24,000 people and wounded over 60,000, the mother-daughter duo has been invited to speak about the history and struggles of the Palestinians.
Eman said she considers this as a blessing during such time. “It's a responsibility on our shoulders as Palestinians to let people know the true story behind what's happening. It did not start on October 7, it started even before 1948, so it had been going on for more than 75 years. Many people are not aware of the facts and all the details and the history.”
It is important, she added, to bring this awareness as much as possible to the youngsters, adults and everyone.
Laila, too, chimed in saying that while there is a lot of support, there just isn’t enough education. People at a base level are aware of what is right and wrong, but then when you dive deeper as to why, that's where a lot of people falter, she added.
“I would say we have a bit of an immense mission when it comes to educating people because it's pressure on us. We're not historians. This is purely our own history that we educate ourselves on and then hope to share that information along,” said Laila.
The Palestinian issue, she added, has renewed and refreshed the conversation of what it means to be an effective member of society, which also translates into the work at Palestine Sweets.
“Even us, how can we improve Pakistan? Setting up a business, hiring local people, buying local only. We don't buy any products that are not Pakistani. We've managed to find Pakistani alternatives to everything we need.
"We push a local first message, even though we're not locals ourselves. That's also something that the boycott issues especially have brought up,” she said, highlighting the boycott movement in support that has accelerated around the world in support of Palestine.
Growing Palestine Sweets
For Eman, Laila and Isra cooking up desserts at Palestine Sweets has been a wonderful experience.
“We're all enjoying it. And Inshallah, you know, our plans for Palestine Sweets are bigger,” said the matriarch.
Laila said the family is currently looking to expand the menu itself.
“We've had a lot of customers asking about our savouries. And Mama has some yummy recipes. We are experimenting and finalising that,” she revealed, teasing at some yummy Middle Eastern additions to their menu.
Eman said a lot of Pakistanis have asked them about savoury items such as Maqluba, Sakhan and Mansaf, among others dishes. “I plan on introducing Maqluba first. Let's see how it goes.”
The women are delighted to have received a warm response for their business and are grateful for the support they have garnered so far.
“I would like to say thank you to Karachi for giving Palestine Sweets a home. It is definitely a Pakistani business. It would not work anywhere else in the world the way it has worked here. And we are proud to be part of the Karachi food scene,” said Laila, emphasising how proud her family has been to give even just a little bit of the Palestinian culture to Pakistan.
Eman seconded her daughter’s words and thanked her customers and followers for the “wonderful reception."
"I would thank them for the opportunity that we managed to start this business here.”
Rabia Mushtaq is a journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes on a variety of beats including culture, gender and social justice, technology, and mental health
Follow her on Twitter: @rabiamush