Meet The Palestinian Restaurateurs Creating Community Through Cuisine

12 min read

When a Dubai restaurant owner recently shared offensive political propaganda on social media, the backlash — and calls for boycott — were swift. With rising demands to support homegrown businesses that ally with marginalised voices, MOJEH meets the Palestinian women who use their culinary spaces to cultivate community through traditional dishes and interactive workshops, encouraging creative therapy while educating customers about their heritage

Luma Makhlouf

Co-founder of Maiz, Good Burger and Luma’s Cakes

Luma wears shirt and trousers, Dima Ayad; Allah pendant and Palestine coin pendant, Amo Lune. Shot at Maiz, Dubai Hills, Dubai.

In the aftermath of the October invasion of Gaza, Palestinian restaurant owner Luma Makhlouf avoided sleeping in bed with her husband and daughter. “I didn’t think I deserved it,” she tells MOJEH, speaking of the survivor’s guilt she was wracked with. Now, after learning about trauma release, Luma understands that her refusal to sleep in her own bed was a deeply personal form of protest.

Activism for Palestine is innately ingrained in Luma, who is the visionary behind Maiz, Luma’s Cakes and Good Burger. “I’ve been protesting in the streets of Chicago since I was three years old with my mom, who would take us by bus,” recalls Luma, who was born in Amman, Jordan and emigrated to the United States as a baby. “My mom has also never set foot in Palestine, and her mom is still alive — she’s 94 years old in Amman, still dreaming of a free Falastin.”

Luma grew up within a diverse community that held strongly to their Arab roots, and she believes this is a consequence of being uprooted from the Middle East to the West. “Our families held on to our heritage just a little tighter, and that’s what makes me who I am,” she explains. After relocating to Dubai, Luma worked in the tech startup industry before enrolling herself in culinary school, encouraged by her now-husband, Haider. They founded Maiz together, starting it off as a food truck centred on tacos — a culinary favourite of Luma, who has Mexican cousins in the US.

“I was sometimes the garbage girl, sometimes the chef, and sometimes the cashier,” says Luma, who now has branches in JLT and Dubai Hills. She believes that her focus on tacos was a gamble at a time when the food industry was obsessing over truffle, but her dishes are infused with a Palestinian flair. Her Ghazawi chips and salsa recipe incorporates dill and a quintessentially Gazan spicy kick, while her Musakhan tacos are infused with olive oil from Jenin, and the profits from these menu items will always be donated to Palestine. Her latest launch is a watermelon-flavoured paleta, or ice pop, made from 100 per cent fruit and packaged with an illustration of Frida Kahlo, mirroring the one that hangs on the wall at Maiz in Dubai Hills.

“With the genocide happening I started breaking my own boundaries, and including Palestine in everything I do — I never thought I was allowed to do that as a business owner running a Mexican brand,” says Luma, attributing these mental blocks to the impact of the occupation. “To be wholly Palestinian, that is my biggest form of resistance, and it should be in my business as well.”

Luma was the first to host ‘Paint Palestine’ workshops, offering a therapeutic and creative way for guests to connect with symbols of her home country at Maiz. And shortly after the 2023 war on Gaza started, Luma held collective prayer and healing circles at the Dubai Hills eatery, led by trauma release practitioner, Rana Askoul. “When I first met with her, within 20 minutes she shifted my whole perspective about the ways I should be grieving and mourning as a Palestinian woman — it opened the oppression in my mind,” explains Luma. This shift in mindset inspired her to design a T-shirt with a colourful illustration of a food truck on a beach, bordered by the text, “Let’s get some tacos in Yafa.” Envisioning her business in this historic Palestinian town is something she never dared dream of before. “I allowed myself to see a free Palestine, all because of trauma release — I didn’t know that was possible for me,” says Luma, who has spent the past few months falling asleep to Al Jazeera and waking up to increasing death tolls.

Being aware of the atrocities occurring in regions that are closely connected to the customers she serves, she says, is an obvious requirement of any restaurant owner. “If I want to position myself as a community brand and this my DNA, it is 100 per cent my duty and obligation to know what’s going on and respect my customers. It would be ignorant and insensitive to do anything that doesn’t respect the culture or the religious views of the country I’m in,” says Luma in reference to the outrage recently sparked when one Dubai restaurateur shared a pro-Israel video on social media.

Bringing the community spirit she cultivates at Maiz back home, Luma has started hosting informal sessions at her house with Palestinian women who she has met online. “They aren’t crying fests — because we’re already doing that 90 per cent of the time,” she says, calling the women her “support system”, and the gatherings, her “therapy”. “Some of us still haven’t met in person — but we will be connected for life,” says Luma. “Nobody tells you about the friends you’re going to make when you’re trying to save Palestine. And part of me has to see that as a silver lining.”

Hadil Alkhatib

Founder of The Roost Rotisserie, The Broth Lab and Catcha Matcha

Hadil wears dress, Dima Ayad; Cyprus Tree Gaza pendant and ring, Amo Lune. Shot at The Roost Rotisserie, Dubai.

A ceramic chicken, fondly called Frederick, sits on the centre of a wooden table at The Roost Rotisserie on Al Wasl Road in Dubai. Chalk illustrations of chickens in various shapes, sizes and poses adorn one entire wall of the restaurant, but there’s one thing that sets Frederick apart from the rest of the flock — the black and white keffiyeh scarf tied around his neck. It’s an ode to the culture of the restaurant’s owner and founder, Hadil AlKhatib, who was born and raised in the UAE but is originally from Jerusalem. “Look around you — we all breathe in Falastin,” says Hadil, as a patriotic Palestinian song emanates from the speakers. “Ever since The Roost opened its doors in 2017, I have always incorporated my ethnicity in everything we do.”

Hadil’s forte lies in incorporating ancestral superfoods into healthy recipes. Earlier this year, she appeared on Shark Tank Dubai, where she secured a Dhs3 million investment for her brainchild, The Broth Lab. She’s also the woman behind Catcha Matcha, and was Mastercard’s Women SME Leader award winner in 2022.

Hadil worked in the energy sector as a head of talent and human resources for 13 years, before turning to food entrepreneurship. “Motherhood, in all its glory, beauty and struggles, led me to a shift in life,” she tells MOJEH. After having her first child 10 years ago, Hadil struggled with her health — but doctors were unable to pinpoint a medical cause, and said that her symptoms were all in her head. “That left me confused, fatigued and obviously depressed for many years,” she recalls. Deciding to take a holistic approach, she began seeking alternative healers, and then enrolled in New York’s Institute of Integrated Nutrition. After graduating, she studied gut health more intensively, and found that bone broth was a recommended remedy for healing the gut lining, addressing deficiencies and nourishing the body. “I replaced my morning coffee with bone broth, cooked all my meals with it and added an additional mug before bed and in my morning smoothie, and it was transformational,” says Hadil. “I also started looking into where my chicken was sourced and whether my meats were certified hormone-free, antibiotic-free and locally sourced.”

Hadil hopes to help prevent others — especially fellow mothers — from going through the dark times she endured with her own gut health. “I want to empower them to be healthy and help guide them through ancestral superfood medicinal knowledge so they can raise and look after a generation that strives for the same,” she says.

Hadil believes good food is like medicine, and emphasises that it is also a symbol of hospitality, community and tradition, especially in the UAE. “Restaurant spaces serve as meeting points where people from diverse backgrounds can share meals and connect over shared culinary experiences. These spaces often transcend social and cultural barriers, fostering understanding and unity among people with different perspectives and backgrounds,” she says. Food and beverage business owners, says Hadil, play crucial roles as community leaders in providing employment opportunities, supporting local suppliers and farmers, and contributing to the local economy. “They can also influence food trends, promote sustainability practices and even advocate for social causes, making them influential figures beyond just their business operations,” she adds.

Elements of Palestine are woven into many of Hadil’s offerings. Her matcha gift sets feature chawans, or traditional Japanese matcha bowls, that are hand-painted with keffiyeh patterns — a print that also appears on her broth mugs. She also enjoys collaborating with fellow Palestinian women in the UAE. When launching The Broth Lab in 2020, Hadil worked with Chef Dima Sharif and Abir Barakat of Jeel Design to create gift boxes containing aprons adorned with Palestinian embroidery and packaged with Palestinian broth-infused recipes, to celebrate the nostalgia of heritage cooking. She has also joined forces with Haya Bishouty of Haya’s Kitchen to create a DIY version of her broth-infused chicken freekeh soup, incorporating chicken and broth from The Roost to bring a traditional Palestinian recipe to the tables of Dubai residents. Hosting creative workshops over hearty meals is another dimension of her entrepreneurial vision — Hadil has held keffiyeh painting and tatreez therapy workshops at The Roost, elevating the cultural awareness for her heritage in a way that she says is instinctual to her aspirations as a restaurant owner: “We are the community we wish to create; it starts here.”

Haya Bishouty

Founder of Haya’s Kitchen

Haya wears dress, Atelier COS; Moon of Bethlehem ring, Amo Lune. Shot at The Flip Side, Dubai.

A teta, or grandmother, has some trademark behavioural traits in Arab cultures. She is extremely welcoming, ready to feed anyone at any time, and always encourages her guests to help themselves to seconds. “I’ve always said that I have an old soul, and when my guests started calling me teta, it brought me to tears. It’s the ultimate compliment for me,” says Haya Bishouty.

After working in the PR industry for more than seven years, Haya threw in the proverbial corporate towel in 2020 to pursue a path that was more purposeful. During the pandemic, she launched Haya’s Kitchen — an interactive supper club experience centred on authentic Palestinian dishes with a side of storytelling. “As a Palestinian who’s never been to Palestine, I’ve always felt a disconnect with my heritage and roots,” Haya tells MOJEH. Her grandparents fled from Palestine in 1948 to Jordan, which has been her family’s base ever since.

Haya fondly remembers summers at her grandparents’ houses, congregating around the sufra — the Arabic word for dining table — for communal meals. “There were tons of people, lots of laughter, the best food and the most precious memories,” she recalls. “I wanted to recreate that feeling that I grew up with, encourage people to slow down in the fast-paced world we live in, and share a meal with friends and strangers. The concept of sharing a meal with someone is very personal and I love that I get to create that for everyone.” Many of Haya’s supper-club sufras take place at the Flip Side, an independent record shop in Al Quoz owned by her husband, Shadi Megellaa — who had been curating the music from his own personal record collection when she was hosting at home. She has created bespoke experiences for private, corporate and team-building meals, and has collaborated with Alserkal Art Foundation and Cinema Akil, among others.

As she serves dishes to guests, Haya tells the stories behind each recipe, its seasonality and land of origin. “It’s not about passively eating the food; it’s about encouraging my guests to eat with intention, and to leave my experiences with a better understanding of Palestine,” she says. While much of her knowledge about the dishes she cooks is inherited, along the journey Haya has gained new insight through researching new recipes. “Palestine has an incredible landscape with a variety of terrain from mountainous, coastal and rural cities, and each region and city in Palestine has its own unique dishes,” she explains. Rummaniyeh, for instance, which is rooted in Gaza, is an eggplant and lentil stew that Haya enjoys introducing her guests to. “It’s a delicious vegan dish that’s typically made during Lent when Christian Palestinians are fasting,” she explains. Another, koosa and warak, which is her all-time favourite, is a celebratory dish traditionally made during the summertime vine leaf harvest season. “It’s a true labour of love and it takes me back to the times of rolling warak (vine leaves) with my teta and my mom,” says Haya, who also launched a warak rolling workshop to help keep the ancestral tradition alive.

During the ongoing war, Israeli air strikes have been targeting cultural heritage centres, art galleries, libraries and universities along with civilians in Gaza, and much of what motivates Haya is the desire to save Palestinian culinary customs and rituals from oblivion. Through the meals she creates and the stories she accompanies them with, Haya hopes to help with the preservation of her people’s histories. “Palestinians are scattered all around the world and our identity and heritage is fading away,” she says. “Many stories have already been lost from my grandparents’ generations that I regret not documenting.” Yet Haya has observed Palestinians in the diaspora proudly wearing their nationality on their sleeve, and actively taking steps to immerse themselves in their culture — be it through poetry, embroidery, fashion or food.

These days, her sufra dinners bring together community members who have a shared passion for expressing their solidarity while supporting Palestinian businesses amid distressing global politics. “I’ve seen beautiful friendships form and inspiring conversations develop at the sufra,” says Haya. “It warms my heart every single time.”

Read Next: These Palestinian Authors Share Stories Of Life After The 1948 Nakba

  • Words and styling by Hafsa Lodi
  • Photography by Vincent Kenzo