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    A Modern Innkeeper in Bethlehem

    An interview with Fadi Kattan about Palestinian hospitality, then and now

    By Kelley Nikondeha

    December 23, 2019

    Available languages: Español


    I found my way through the narrow alley carved out between limestone buildings and entered Hosh al Syrian, a small guesthouse owned and operated by Fadi Kattan. He was introduced to me as Chef, since he also runs the kitchen and the in-house Fawda Restaurant, featuring Palestinian cuisine with a modern twist. Most days he can be found crisscrossing Star Street with armloads of fresh produce and bags dangling from his arms filled with more delights or talking food and philosophy with guests. During my visits at the Hosh he never seemed too rushed to offer a generous smile or make me feel welcome. As Christmas approaches and thoughts turn toward Bethlehem, I reached out to Chef to ask him about the realities of innkeeping just a few steps away from Manger Square and the iconic Church of the Nativity.

    Kelley Nikondeha: Chef, the innkeepers of Bethlehem appear to be logistically challenged at best, or inhospitable, at worst, when it comes to their response to Mary and Joseph in the Christmas story. This doesn’t bode well for how people think of Bethlehemite innkeepers – but is contrary to my experience at your guesthouse! How do you understand this traditional story?

    Fadi Kattan: This story in the New Testament has always intrigued me. It’s contrary to what I know of Palestinians – we are so open to guests and foreigners. I’ve often wondered if this story was inscribed in an older tradition concerned with purity and impurity – women often suffered in such stories. But I can assure you that we would never turn away a pregnant woman or any woman in distress.

    Hosh, our inn, is in a building from the 1700s. When pilgrims come and stay they experience true Palestinian hospitality that is such a contradiction to the bad review of two thousand years ago! Bethlehem’s innkeepers operate with the shared values learned from our Christian and Islamic faiths, from our Arabic traditions of welcome to all guests, foreigners, and travelers.

    Growing up in a Bethlehemite family all your Christmases are rooted in this place. Can you share some traditions that shaped your celebration over the years?

    The Christmas traditions that mean the most to me come from my own family. I learned how to cook in my grandmother’s kitchen. Each Christmas she would make “Christmas Cake,” her own variation on the fruitcake, flavored with dibes (grape molasses) and filled with walnuts and dried figs, cherries, and apricots. The cake is made well in advance, baked, then wrapped and refrigerated for weeks to fully mature in time for the Christmas Day lunch. My grandmother passed away a few years ago but I preserved the recipe. I make it every year at the Hosh in her memory, and I hope she’s proud.

    Another tradition that I cherish is rooted in my grandmother’s home. Her house was on the main road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, where every Christmas Eve the Catholic patriarch of Jerusalem comes from the Old City and travels toward Bethlehem to celebrate late-night Mass in the Church of the Nativity. My family would share a light lunch, then gather outside the house waiting for the procession of the patriarch. Since they had a close relationship with the patriarch and the church, he would always stop his convoy at the house. He would come and greet them, wishing us all a Merry Christmas.

    As an innkeeper, how do you prepare for Christmas at the Hosh?

    We start decorating on December 1, just like I did with my own mother and grandmother. My mother and I begin conversations about menus and recipes; my dad sings carols around the Hosh. We string lights in the courtyard, and put a Christmas tree in the dining room and small ones in each guest room, along with Christmas chocolates. And on December 20 we start serving the Christmas cake to all our guests. We serve a very special five-course meal on Christmas Eve, made with much love and joy. We are so close to the Church of the Nativity where Christmas began and this shapes our celebration.

    For one night, all the churches across the world turn toward Bethlehem. People remember and pray. Sadly, a lot of people forget that many Palestinians are Christians and that Palestinians still celebrate Christmas every year in Bethlehem despite the realities of occupation, despite the Separation Wall that surrounds our city. Sometimes the world forgets that Christmas started here – and we are still here.

    Does the Patriarch still make the journey, given the Separation Wall around Bethlehem?

    Yes, he still comes each year but it is more complicated. His convoy used to be festive and accompanied by many pilgrims on foot from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, but now the first part of the trek is rather grim, an accurate reflection of the times. However, once he’s past the wall the atmosphere on Star Street leading to the Church of the Nativity is festive and the celebration of Christmas continues.

    How are you affected by this divide?

    For an innkeeper, hospitality is all about inclusion. This message began in Bethlehem and was sent out into the world, one of love for the other. At the Hosh we are a family. My team includes Christians and Muslims. We work and celebrate together. We want our guests to feel like they are part of this family when they sit at our table. One challenge for me as an innkeeper (and someone from a large and blessed family) is the guest that sits alone at Christmas Eve dinner or Christmas Day lunch. We will go not just the extra mile, but an extra three miles to make them happy, because Christmas is also about family. After all, the Holy Family made their debut on Christmas Eve, putting family at the heart of our hospitality during this season.

    Chef Fadi Kattan cooking in his kitchen

    Chef Fadi Kattan (center) cooking in his kitchen. (Photo courtesy Elias Halabi)

    Contributed By KelleyNikondeha Kelley Nikondeha

    Kelley Nikondeha is the author of The First Advent in Palestine: Reversals, Resistance, and the Ongoing Complexity of Hope (Broadleaf Books, 2022), and more.

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