As a family, we have a collective memory of one location in Israel. No, it is not HaKotel or any other holy site. It is not our childhood home that is still on the same street, once a quiet street now filled with cars. We all remember, and long for, a tiny place in Netanya, my hometown, called Haful Shel Uzi.
Ful or in its official name Ful Medames is an Egyptian dish made out of beans. It is often served with hummus, hard-boiled egg, lemon juice, olive oil, and cumin. Being half Egyptian, I grew up eating ful. By all accounts, Haful Shel Uzi is the classic ‘hole in the wall’. It is situated near the bank district in Netanya (which sounds fancy but in reality it is just an intersection where three major banks are located). In the past decade or so, HaFul Shel Uzi has gained popularity and Israelis from all around the country travel to taste it.
Growing up, I remember my lunches at Uzi’s with my mom and brother. As we arrive by car, the first thing I recall is the hustle and bustle of the street. It takes us a long time to find a parking spot. People are honking and yelling. The sidewalks are crowded with all types of people. There is always a group of middle-aged men sitting around the few small plastic tables outside Uzi’s place. They seem to be old friends who meet up on a daily basis. As we step outside the car, my nostrils fill with the smell of cigarettes (it is Israel in the 80s after all). We zig-zag our way on the gray dirty sidewalk making sure not to step on anything wet or sticky. We walk straight to Uzi’s place.
Uzi, by all accounts, is a ‘character’. He is chatty, cheerful and seemed to have figured out the recipe for a happy life and the best hummus. His shirt and pants are always dirty and I’ve only seen him standing behind the counter as he grinds the hummus by hand with a wooden stick in a wooden bowl. In front of him, there is a massive pot of ful. There are only two items on the menu: ‘Mana shel hummus’ or ‘mana shel ful’. Both items are identical with the exception that one comes with beans. “Shalosh manot shel ful bevakasha,” my mom says. The three of us can barely stand inside the store together so my brother and I attempt to save time by going to grab a table, easier said than done as the few tables outside are always full. We get lucky and just as my mom comes with the ful and ‘pitot’, a group of people leaves. We all eat happily, savouring every bite.
Part of the experience is taking in the sounds of the busy street, the smell of cars mixed with cigarettes and of course, watching the people. This eclectic group of people going about their daily routine in a place they call home. I was around ten years old in this story, just over thirty years ago. I haven’t lived in Israel for the last 28 years and it amazes me how certain experiences remain so vivid in our minds they easily can transport us through space and time. Not much has changed in the last three decades in that intersection between the three banks. Uzi is still at the center of it all — a king of this tiny piece of land.
Whenever I go to Israel I make sure to visit Uzi and to bring touring family and friends along. Perhaps, my motives are nostalgic but as an educator, I believe visiting places like Haful Shel Uzi provide an entry point for tourists to experience the real Israel. It allows for an opportunity to observe a day in the life of an ordinary shop owner, his friends, and his customers. It allows for an opportunity to feel part of peoplehood. It allows for an opportunity to start a conversation around Egyptian Jewish traditions and perhaps the immigration of Egyptian Jews to Israel, a topic that is often overlooked. It allows for an opportunity to experience first-hand a taste of the ordinary and perhaps realize how extraordinary it really is.
And finally, visiting places such as Haful Shel Uzi, allows tourists to add a new experience to their vast collection of experiences thus strengthening their personal relationship with the people and the land of Israel.