A group of teenage girls in school uniforms giggle as they share crepes topped with candy and chocolate sauce and oozing hazelnut Nutella. It’s a Saturday afternoon and the girls are at the new Nutella shop in Jerusalem’s Shuafat Palestinian refugee camp.
The scene is rare in this densely populated and impoverished urban camp. The potholed street outside the café is tense and crowded, as a group of little Palestinian schoolboys fight alongside zigzagging traffic.
But inside the shop, it’s bright and quiet. The décor is an ode to Nutella, with a localized twist. The walls are adorned with large photos of the café’s special hazelnut crepes and waffles, while a chocolate fountain bubbles by the counter, alongside a passage from the Quran. There’s also a picture of a headless woman in an “I love Nutella” tank top carrying an Arabic sign reading “If Nutella was a man, I’d marry it.”
Shuafat’s Nutella shop in Jerusalem is the latest in a series of similarly named cafés that have also popped up in the Israeli-occupied West Bank over the last two years. With unemployment and poverty widespread and a political malaise afflicting everyday life, these cafés provide female and family friendly spaces where people can enjoy and access a globalized craze that’s seemingly normal — unlike much else around them.
The schoolgirl Sarah, 15, requested I only use her first name for privacy reasons. She and her friends tell me there are hardly any other safe and clean — and sweet — public places like this in Shuafat where they can enjoy themselves with the pocket money their mothers or brothers give them.
The Shuafat camp, set up for displaced Palestinians in the 1960s, is part of the Jerusalem municipality, but it’s cut off from the rest of the city by Israel’s separation barrier. The camp is on the West Bank side of the barrier, where there are often clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian residents.
It’s also not a place that outsiders or franchises venture into. Unemployment is sky high and drugs are rampant. The city’s trash collection is absent, water and electricity are haphazard and family feuds, distrust of humanitarian organizations, and suspicions of Israelis run deep. Several Palestinians who attacked Israeli soldiers with knives in recent months came from Shuafat, and Israeli Security Forces carry out raids and make arrests in the camp.
When I try to probe Sarah and her friends about their take on the contrast between the sweetness of the Nutella shop and the many problems of the Shuafat camp, the girls laugh and ask me for a selfie and Facebook friend requests instead.
“It’s aadi [normal] for us,” Sarah says. “We are used to life here.”
Nutella as a condiment (including for breakfast) has long been popular in the region. But this creamy hazelnut spread also has tough competition: The city of Nablus, for example, is renowned for its sweets, from the smoothly sweet crunch of nut-filled Baklava, to the seriously cheesy and syrupy kanafeh dessert pastries.
Part of these cafés’ appeal is that they mix the familiar with the new, from intricately candy-topped Nutella stuffed crepes, to Nutella smothered waffles, Nutella filled atayef pancakes (a Palestinian Ramadan specialty), and even chunks of Nutella chocolate.
Ismail Ayham, 23, opened the Shuafat Nutella cafés on the second floor of the area’s nicest mall, where the escalator starts and stops near schools run by the United Nations.
He is from the city of Shuafat (nearby, but different from the camp) in Jerusalem. Sometimes, it can take him an hour to cross the Israeli military checkpoint. He employs two 19-year-olds, both named Ahmed, to run the show. They’re from other West Bank cities but have permits to work here. And the salary is better, says Ahmed Awaad, who has hip square glasses and is also a budding beat boxer.
Ayham estimates he invested around about $31,000 to build the café from scratch. He tries to keep the prices low, around $3-$4 per crepe, though it’s still prohibitively high for many. In the first six months business has been good and he says he’s not worried, despite all the instability around him.
Over at the Nutella Shop in nearby Ramallah, the West Bank’s de facto administrative capital, there are no empty tables on this Saturday afternoon. The café off Rukab Street teams with veiled young women and families, as two women and a man argue over the bill, each insisting they should pay. The shop is similarly Nutella-decked out, though with more English alongside the Arabic. “2016: Keep Calm and Eat Nutella,” one sign implores.
Fouad Bazzar, 28, tells me that his is the original Palestinian Nutella shop. He opened it in 2014 after finishing business school. His father owns the building, which keeps costs down.
Ramallah is the most expensive and socially liberal Palestinian city. Unlike in Shuafat, there are many cafés, restaurants and bars here serving the relatively diverse community. Still, the Nutella force is strong. Two years in, Bazzar says his biggest worry is how to keep innovating on his Nutella creations so his customers don’t lose interest.
However, he’s not worried about the Nutella cafés that have followed his lead. “There’s no competition,” he says. Each shop has its own style and serves a different area, he explains.
Besides, he’s not in the Nutella business for a big profit, he insists. He just likes serving people something sweet.