A sweet spot in Gaza

Khaled Al-Ostath | 18-05-2017

 

I was walking down the street one day, going home from university, when I noticed a tiny café huddled despondent among the huge buildings of Gaza City. “Honey Bee” read the sign above the door. The name was repeated on a large blue-and-yellow mural that was the café’s storefront. All the outdoor tables were wet and empty.

Once inside, I realized the café was nearly full. A young man with a skeletal look was sitting by the window with a beautiful young lady; they were holding hands and watching the rain. Some businessmen sat at another table and a few students were gathered on stools by the counter. The place was filled with tobacco smoke, the sound of conversation and speakers playing eclectic music—Bob Marley’s “Is This Love,” Engelbert Humperdinck’s “How I Love You” and weird electronic music. 

The place was really hip looking. Red accents were everywhere—red chairs, tables, ceiling ornaments and napkins. The walls were plastered with pages from Turkish and American newspapers, a mural depicting the Simpsons (“The Last Supper”) and a big sheet of black-and-white cartoon drawings. Another mural of a tree adorned the ceiling. But what really drew my eyes was the glass case holding an assortment of mouth-watering desserts.

I sat at an empty table, ordered some coffee and stared into its depths, deep in thought. “This is a good time to be alone, like being on a date with myself, and take a virtual trip to America by having a cinnamon roll,” I thought. To me, that plump pastry, sitting in the glass case, symbolizes the place I visit in my dreams.

The waiter came by and pointed to my still-full cup of coffee. “Here’s the menu. I wonder if you don’t like the coffee you ordered. I can change it for you, sir.” 

“It’s all great,” I reassured him.

I looked at the menu. What to choose? The American (brownie, chocolate-drizzled waffle, cookie, layer cake), French (blancmange, pain perdu) or Italian (panna cotta)? Or how about Middle Eastern (knafah or pumpkin with honey)? 

I heard a thick male voice, speaking in French, at the table behind me. As he stood up and passed me, he repeated himself: “Une vie sans bonbons ne vaut pas la peine d'être vécue.”

“Sorry, I don’t speak French. But I’m good in English,” I said.

“A life without sweets is not much worth living,” he said, in English this time.

The couple in love was laughing. I could see through the open door that the rain outside was coming down harder. The Frenchman was typing something into his phone as a cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth.

“You must be a reader,” I said, offering him a chair at my table. 

“Why I should be?” 

“Because that was a quote from a book, not your own words.”

“What is the name of the book? Since you think they are not my own words.”

“’Coinman: An Untold Conspiracy,’ by an Indian writer named Pawan Mishra.”

“Wow! This is unbelievable. God!” 

We conversed in English about books and writing. I learned the man had lived in France as a child; he had a thick French accent with an English accent, all at once. His loud voice and excitement made the owner come by our table, to see whether everything was okay. We assured him it was, and I ordered my cinnamon roll.

Amr decorating a cake

The Frenchman left and then the café’s owner brought my dessert.

“This is awesome,” I said to him.

“Does it taste good?” he asked, but he was confident of my answer.

“Indeed, it does,” I replied.

“Eating here won’t cost you an arm and a leg, at least compared with other cafes,” he said, proudly.

I asked him to sit down with me and tell me the story of Honey Bee.

Amr Sobh is the owner of this small café. He studied tourism and hospitality in Egypt and worked as a pastry chef in that country for a long time. When he came back to Gaza, he decided to put his learning and experience to use by creating a cultural-musical- masterpiece café. In 2016, Amr’s dream came true.

“I was not able to think of a name in the beginning,” he said. “But when I asked some friends, they suggested many stunning names, among them Honey Bee.”

My heart quickly traveled to the United States, a place I dream to visit. “I bet there is more than one Honey Bee café over there,” I thought to myself.  

Amr was still talking. “The main reason for the western desserts is because no one can make them here like I do. Some cafés pretend they can make all the western desserts,but that’s not true. I know how, based on my great experience baking for foreigners in Egyptian hotels.”

He added, “Being honest is the very core of the work.”

Although Honey Bee is thriving, Amr has bigger goals. He wants to enlarge the café so he can welcome more guests. But he’s in a struggle with the municipality in Gaza to add more outdoor tables. And he would like to make the inside larger, too.

Amr stood up. “Good food, fresh water, an occasional sweet and someone to care for,” he said. “That's what everyone should have. A simplistic and unrealistic view I know, but it soothes me to think about it.”   

“You have read Maria V. Snyder’s,Magic Study,’” I replied, standing up to leave myself.

“No, I didn’t get that out of any book. It was written on a menu in Egypt.”

Before I left, Amr asked me to write a secret message on a doily. That’s when I noticed the pile of message-laden doilies on a plate on the counter. “Life is too short; eat desserts first,” I wrote.

Ahead of me, the couple was leaving the café, still holding hands. It was thundering and the rain was torrential. As I departed, I waved to Amr with a promise to come back again. 

I opened my umbrella, headphone in my ears, walking in peace. “That was a really great experience,” I told myself.  “This time Honey Bee in Gaza, next time Honey Bee in the United States.Why not?”

 

Posted: April 27, 2017

Mentor: Catherine Baker


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