The “Mountain of Fire.” The “terror capital” of the West Bank. Nablus has earned its militant nicknames with generations of violent resistance, whether aimed at the Ottomans, the British, the Israelis or the current Palestinian Authority government.
Located 30 miles north of Jerusalem and inhabited by some 125,000 people, Nablus might not seem like an ideal destination for an upscale California-style café. But owner John Saadeh is optimistic after opening the Jasmine Café here in August.
He is following a business plan that has worked for him before: Put women first.
In 2011, Saadeh and his father opened the first Jasmine in Ramallah, the de facto capital of the West Bank. Inspired by his time in the Bay Area, where he was born and later attended college and law school, Saadeh had long wanted to create a venue where men and women could hang out.
“With your [male friends], you could hang out at the coffee shops or the pool hall,” said Saadeh. “But the only places to take girls were restaurants. So I always had the idea for Jasmine in the back of my mind.”
Saadeh graduated from San Francisco State University in 2008 with a degree in international business and from Golden Gate University School of Law with a joint JD/MBA degree in 2011, according to his LinkedIn page.
“We’re bringing a little Western lifestyle to the east side of the world,” he said. “We have people drinking cappuccinos and ladies mingling and men smoking shisha [water pipe] and college students coming to hang out and just socially exchange with one another.
“To make all that happen in Palestine, we need to make sure the [gender] ratio is good, so that women feel comfortable and they keep coming back.”
To ensure that is the case, Saadeh screens men at the entrance to Jasmine and goes out of his way to hire women, challenging the traditional norms of Palestinian society.
Aside from personal and business motives, Saadeh hopes to help push his society forward — and maybe even toward peace with Israel.
“We’re living in the past right now, and that’s a problem,” he said. “If we’re going to continue living in the past, we can’t solve anything because the past for us sucks as Palestinians.
“But if we look forward to the future, and what we can become rather than what we should’ve become, it’s a positive state of mind for the society, and people don’t have that here. People are walking around like they took our land, they killed our people and stuff. It’s all this negative. You don’t feel the positive vibe.”
In Ramallah, Jasmine Café is now a brand name among in-the-know Palestinians. On any given day, local politicians and celebrities can be found there mingling with foreigners.
Saadeh wants Jasmine to be part of a similar process in Nablus, a Palestinian commercial center in the mountains of the northern West Bank.
As he is well aware, there are major obstacles, such as clashes in the streets and protest marches.
Plus, Nablus is a deeply traditional society, where families guard their honor and their women.
“In Palestinian society in general, women don’t really have a lot of spaces that we are allowed to be in,” said Nasreen Hadad Haj-Yahya, the head of the Arab-Jewish Relations Project at the Israel Democracy Institute, who lives in Taybe, a mostly Arab city in central Israel. “The public space unfortunately belongs to males. And we don’t have places like gardens, parks where you can go with your children.”
As for the clashes, Saadeh saw them as a sign that the PA is imposing the rule of law. Once it does, he expects economic and social progress to follow.
“I feel like Nablus now is similar to what Ramallah was 10 years ago,” he said. “All you need to do is open up a little bit. Bring in a little bit of money, some nonprofits here and there, and it’s right there.”
Jasmine is located in the hilltop Rafidia neighborhood, where it occupies an entire two-story building made of glass, local stone, wood and metal. Its yellow-and-brown leaf logo is plastered on everything from the signage to the menu, which offers American favorites like hamburgers, salads and iced tea. There is no alcohol, which is prohibited by Islamic law, though the Ramallah location offers it off menu.
Down the street is An-Najah National University, the biggest in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, where men and women attend school together in a relatively liberal environment (although Jewish critics insists it harbors pro-Hamas faculty and student leaders).
Saadeh said it takes effort on his part to keep Jasmine from looking like a traditional coffee shop, where men while away the hours over shisha and Turkish coffee. That means running the door like at a nightclub. The basic policy: Women are welcome; men are subject to screening.
“If we know you, fine. If not, we are screening for how you look, the way you dress, the way you present yourself,” Saadeh declared. “We have a lot of female customers, and there are men who want to come in and hit on them or just stare. I don’t want that business. That business ruins my initial business, which is having people be comfortable when they come here.”
The best seats, on Jasmine’s patio and near the windows, are reserved for women or families and mixed groups. Men who manage to get in without women are usually tucked into a corner, where they can be monitored.
Saadeh also is choosy about the people he hires. Palestinian restaurants are traditionally staffed by older men, but most of Saadeh’s 35 or so employees are university students, and about one-third are women.
That ratio has not been easy to achieve, he said, as Palestinian society frowns on women working service jobs, especially when the hours stretch into the evening.
Before one hostess, Nagla Aburous, a 19-year-old art student at An-Najah University, interviewed for the job, her father interviewed the management.
“At first, my father refused. He said, ‘you aren’t like the girls who work.’ I had to challenge him,” Aburous said in an interview. “But after he spoke to John, he agreed, and now he’s proud of me. He sees that I come home every night exhausted, but I’m happy.”