In a corner of former East Berlin, where shabby, red brick buildings meet cobblestone streets, lies a new Promised Land.
Kanaan — a casual, vegetarian Middle Eastern restaurant named for the biblical lands before they were conquered by the Israelites — is the result of a unique partnership between its 30-something owners, Oz Ben David, an Israeli Jew from Beersheva, and Jalil Dabit, an Arab Christian from Ramle. Before the men ever met, they had separately nursed the same idea: to draw upon their heritage to create a delicious, modern cuisine. And, of course, to earn their living by it.
Kanaan, which opened a year ago, is where the Arab cuisine of Dabit’s grandfather meets the recipes of Ben David’s Moroccan and Romanian grandmothers. In some ways it’s an only-in-Berlin phenomenon, thanks in part to the city’s relatively open attitude toward foreigners. Berlin boasts a small but lively Israeli population (estimated at some 10,000) and a significant number of Arabs of Palestinian origin, which some estimate at about 35,000.
These facts, along with Berlin’s famously low cost of living, made it an ideal spot for two non-Germans to test the waters of an unusual restaurant concept.
On a typically cloudy August evening in the uber-hip district of Prenzlauer Berg, children are playing in Kanaan’s outdoor garden while adults sit under large café umbrellas, dipping soft, fresh pita into silky smooth hummus and munching on roasted cauliflower glazed with a date honey sauce. The restaurant, tucked in a corner overlooking the commuter railway tracks, is a bit of an oasis: lush vines have grown around the outdoor dining area, and small flowers trail from a makeshift arbor.
“It’s so crazy how we met,” said Dabit, 34, who shuttles back and forth from Ramle to run Samir, the famed restaurant of his late grandfather and father. Two years ago Dabit’s Israeli girlfriend, who was studying at the University of Potsdam, urged him to settle down in Berlin.
Separately, Ben David, 36, a marketing expert, was itching to try gastronomy. Then he watched Oren Rosenfeld’s 2015 film “Hummus! The Movie,” which featured Dabit and his family’s Ramle restaurant. In the film, Dabit muses about opening a place of his own in Berlin.
When mutual friends suggested they meet, Ben David hesitated; he said his father was worried about him working with an Israeli Arab. Dabit’s father had his own doubts about his son setting up shop in Germany, as he didn’t want to lose him as a business partner.
But Dabit finally appeared in Ben David’s office and shared his plan to open an eatery featuring his family’s best recipes from the Ramle restaurant. Ben David liked the idea.
But it wasn’t easy, Ben David said: “We did not have money, we had no place, no EU passports, and there was a lot of competition for space.”
Last summer, after stalking various short-order joints around town, they approached the owner of a restaurant, a German of Lebanese background, who also owned the shack across the street that was operating as a pizzeria. They scheduled a trial run and organized an event, the “Hummus, Fashion and Peace Connection,” a tasting/dance party, to show off their talents.
The event drew many hundreds of guests over two days, Dabit and Ben David said, and Kanaan eventually opened as a full-fledged restaurant — and both fathers came around.
Dabit promised to bring his father to Berlin to see the place, but the older man died before that could happen. Ben David’s parents had a harder time with his decision to live in Berlin.
“They would prefer me being close to them,” he said. “But they are happy to see me successful and making my dreams come true. And they come to visit me a lot.”
Among Kanaan’s employees are recent refugees from Eritrea and Syria, who are permitted to earn money while studying the German language. More than a million refugees, mostly from Muslim and African countries, have poured into Germany over the past year.
“We have had an English and Russian teacher from Syria; we have had many young people age 18, 19, with no profession,” Ben David said. “We teach them how to cook.”
In the kitchen on this night, standing at a pot filled with chickpeas, is Tamir, a 34-year-old Druze refugee who ran a clothing store in Syria. His wife, expecting their first child, is an agricultural engineer. They feared for their lives in Syria, Tamir said.
“Germany is afraid of refugees, but demographic change is something that every society has to face,” said Dabit, whose family restaurant has employed Arabs, Christians and even Jewish immigrants from the United States. “Are we going to miss the opportunity and see a crisis, or use the opportunity to make us stronger?”
Ben David and Dabit are seeking out other opportunities, too. They are planning a “Spice Dreams” program — a spice packaging enterprise that would train refugees and teens from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds to help them “learn about business and have goals,” he said.
Ultimately they want to become a household name — through Kanaan for now, but eventually through cookbooks, television and a showroom for their food products. They recently opened a smaller venue in the Kreuzberg section of Berlin, an area that has become home to much of the city’s new Israeli population.
“In five years we are planning to be the biggest food company producing Middle Eastern food in Germany,” Ben David said.