Gaza City’s traditional bakery flourishes amid electricity crisis
Columns of black and white smoke entwine in the air forming abstract lines that soon fade into a cloudy sky. The aroma of freshly baked bread in Gaza City’s last-standing traditional bakery wafts in and makes your stomach growl.
Gazans from all walks of life are seen bustling in and out of the bakery at all hours of the day, in cars, on bicycles or foot with trays of homemade dough ready for baking.
Warm air fills the place as 28-year-old Yousef Al Shayah opens the oven door to inspect the golden loaves. The flames roar in his face as he pulls out a handful of hot loaves with an iron paddle and tosses them on a tiled side table, surrounded by eager customers.
A traditional oven is made out of clay and stone fire, with a dome-shaped ceiling, and is operated using fire generated by brick wood or engine oil instead of electricity or gas.
In 2005, the bakery opened for the sole purpose of catering to customers who sought a more authentic way of cooking.
“People who wished to cook the traditional way came to my bakery with trays of meat, pastry, and cake. Some came in with nuts and coffee beans for roasting,” Naim Shurrab, the bakery’s 40-year-old owner, tells Newsweek Middle East.
That was in 2005, a year before Gaza plunged into darkness when the 2006 Israeli aggression destroyed the Gaza Strip’s sole electricity plant.
With a decade-long Israeli siege on the territory, the gas and electricity crisis has continued with no end in sight. Israel is the sole gas provider to the Strip.
Since then, Shurrab’s clientele have increased and his business has flourished. Before the electricity crisis, Shurrab says he used to receive four customers a day at most.
“But now, I get at least 20 a day… Sometimes people book a slot via mobile,” he adds. Gazans come running to Shurrab when modern-day bakeries cannot produce anymore bread due to power cuts or when they can no longer bake their own pitas using cookers when a canister runs out of gas.
Shurrab adds that Palestinian mothers—who are usually the ones to do the baking and cooking—still send their children from different suburbs, even from outside the city “to bake their food, or finish cooking a traditional dish such as beans, okra or chicken,” when their cooking is interrupted.
During Israel’s later aggressions on Gaza, (in 2008, 2011 and 2014), people would queue for hours in front of his bakery waiting for bread, putting additional pressure on the baker to produce enough pitas.
“People had neither electricity nor gas, they used to fight for their turn while queuing. Some of them were even wounded in a nearby Israeli bombing,” he recalls.
Shurrab uses blocks of wood, collected from local carpentries, or buys used engine oil, to operate his clay oven.
Sacks of wood pile from the floor to the ceiling, darkened by black smoke and dust. As the faces of customers change throughout the day, Shurrab complains that the price of used engine oil has increased.
“The prices more than doubled. Each gallon [of used engine oil] was for 15 Israeli shekels, but now it’s for 40 NIS, ($11).”
As Shurrab describes the process of baking, 17-year-old Ahmad Foura arrives with four pieces of dough—one of which was half-baked—saying that his mother expected his return soon with the baked rolls.
Foura explains that his mother was in the middle of baking when all of a sudden the electricity went off.
“The power cut was supposed to be at 2p.m., but it happened at 12:30 p.m,” leaving an unfinished batch and a panicking mother who sent Foura straight to the baker.
“I am lucky there is no electricity or gas. As long as there is a crisis, I have work,” Shurrab says smiling.
Ever since the 2006 Israeli aggression, Gazans have endured constant blackouts and strict power rationings, with the luckiest areas enjoying between four to six hours of electricity a day. Women usually organize their daily chores based on the power-rationing schedule. However, electricity feeds can be irregular at times thus disrupting ironing, cooking and washing.
Shayah has been the main baker operating the traditional oven for 10 years. He took over the task from his father, and by doing so escaped the strains of unemployment that would have given him no chance for a decent life.
Unemployment in Gaza is the highest in the world at 43 percent, the World Bank said in a report published in May 2015.
“Even more alarming is the situation of youth unemployment which soared to more than 60 percent by the end of 2014,” according to the World Bank’s report.
“There isn’t much to do in Gaza City and it is hard to find a job. Baking is hard. It is like swimming: every single muscle and sense moves,” Shayah says, as he stretches a round piece of dough on a wooden plank and pushes it inside the oven.
“Wood smoke gives our freshly baked bread a distinguished taste. It is tastier and healthier than the ones baked the modern way… and people prefer it,” he says.
Perhaps one man’s misfortune is another man’s blessing in disguise, after all.