I'm in the north of Paris, in an area where residential buildings are increasingly common. Along a peaceful street, there it is: Ardi, the Arabic for "my land". The long-thought-of project put together by Rania Talala is finally here.
Ardi sounds like hardi, "bold" in French, and boldness was definitively needed for this young Franco-Palestinian, born and raised in Paris, to see her project materialise. It took three years of hope and disappointments; of generosity and dazzling progress; and of stagnation in the face of difficulties.
So here it is at last, this original concept which can be turned into a restaurant, an exhibition space or a music venue, or even all three at once. A real function room. A unique concept to showcase Palestinian culture.
At the entrance, wide glass walls let natural light in and the quiet voice of Fairuz can be heard from the speakers, but it still fills the room. It was after 2pm on the day I visited, but customers were lingering on long lunch breaks. There is a real family atmosphere to this place. The wall is lined with portraits of Palestinian artists, like family and friends. Mahmoud Darwish is next to Ghassan Kanafani, alongside Karimeh Abbud and Wasif Jawhariyyeh.
Traditional Palestinian crafts and keffiyehs are scattered here and there; books are laid out to be read, all of them about Palestine and its poetry, art and geopolitics. Even to the least observant of us, the theme is obvious: Palestine in all its visual, culinary, fragrant and aural forms. Anyone can sit down, grab a book, sip tea and observe passers-by.
At one table, a woman finishes lunch with her teenage son. She drove 45 minutes to introduce him to the restaurant and plans to return with friends. "I came as a sign of support, but I'll come back because it's just delicious," she says. There is a plethora of empty plates in front of them.
Ardi opened just a few days ago and yet it already has its regulars. "This is a brand new neighbourhood," explains Rania Talala. She is wearing a dark keffiyeh and her constant smile is infectious. "After a week, local people had already eaten here. We are taking more and more bookings." In between serving a couple of customers she tells me that she is very pleasantly surprised. "I am delighted to meet such enthusiasm and kindness. I keep saying that this is not my space but everyone's. I encourage people to get to know each other."
The idea of the project took shape gradually. Or rather it imposed itself; it became obvious. Talala was a teacher at the time, and was running a website called "Les P'tits plats de Rania" ("Rania's little dishes") to showcase recipes inspired by those she calls "the women of her life"; the mothers, grandmothers and aunts, all guardians of Palestinian know-how.
Strengthened by this heritage, Talala did not hesitate in her desire to bring her culture to life and openly called out a famous TV chef, Cyril Lignac. He praised Israeli cuisine in a programme, without even specifying that the dishes he described as "Israeli" were in fact Palestinian and, more broadly, Arab.
"The hummus you tasted was not Israeli but Palestinian," she wrote in an open letter. "The same is true of all the spices and most of the dishes you tasted there. But you couldn't notice it, you who stayed where you were hosted and didn't even have the curiosity to visit the superb restaurants on the Palestinian side of Jerusalem."
It is above all thanks to her dedication to the Ciné Palestine Festival, which is held every year in Paris, first as a volunteer and then as a caterer, that the Ardi project got off to a good start. Through this, she met many Palestinian artists, from the diaspora and from Palestine itself. "I was astonished not to know them and especially that they were not more widely known. So I wanted to create a place dedicated to promoting Palestinian culture, its art of living, its history and its cuisine."
The road was long and complicated. She has had to overcome prejudice and reticence, even mistrust. "As soon as we talk about Palestine, people who don't know it have preconceived ideas. So I extended the project to the Levantine culture in general to avoid that."
The most complicated issue was to find and secure a suitable space. That's what almost made her give up. "I was starting from scratch, without any input. I had to hold on. I had unsuccessful proposals, dead ends and false hopes. The project was challenging, but I had to erase any political dimension and insist on its cultural and artistic aspects."
Then she had to take the plunge and leave teaching, which provided her with financial security, to enter the unknown world of an entrepreneur. "When I started, I was teaching French in Jordan, especially at the French Institute in Amman. When I returned to France in 2013, I taught English. I left teaching because I couldn't keep up with my catering activities and my cooking workshops. My passion for Palestine was taking up too much time." She says this with her now trademark smile.
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Her three children really encouraged her, even though "it would have been simpler for them if I had stayed as a teacher." The support of volunteers, strangers met on social media and especially her friends, her father and her family, has helped her to carry on. "They all encouraged me. I said I couldn't do it, but deep down I knew that I could."
Importantly, Ardi is part of Rania Talala's link to her parents' and grandparents' land. It's an attachment to a family and national history, intertwined intimately with the tragedy of war and the Nakba. "My father is a refugee from the Nakba and lived in the Zarqa refugee camp in Jordan. For my mother, it's different. My maternal grandfather was an intellectual from Jerusalem. He taught all over the Middle East, but often returned to Jerusalem where his family still lives. At the time of the Nakba, they were in Ramallah and decided to stay there. As a child, we would go to Amman or Zarqa to see the family."
Talala grew up with the idea of "Palestine" but, she says soberly, "I have never set foot in Palestine and this is the drama of my life." Hers has been a life in France, in a nameless exile.
"My parents never took us to Palestine, because of things that were probably kept deep down inside of them. I was told that, at the time of the Nakba, my father was very small, playing marbles. They had to flee and my father never returned to his home." Her father joined his two uncles in Paris. Trained as a tailor, he worked for the great Haute Couture houses, from Chanel to Dior and Guerlain. "He became a Parisian at heart; he loves France. He's always very well dressed and moves easily between Saint-Germain and the Champs-Élysées," she laughs.
Her family history linked to exile and the celebration of Palestine, is crystallised in Ardi. It is a place that is meant to be a bridge between the past and the future. From a large, soulless room, Rania Talala has made an open and pleasant environment: "I want to organise exhibitions, to showcase different forms of art. I also want to arrange the terrace in a Palestinian way. I insist on my desire to bring together the old and the modern. For example, I import embroidery from a cooperative in Ramallah. It employs women who are the custodians of Palestinian know-how, grandmothers and single women too, with children."
She also wants to introduce a whole generation of Palestinian artists who will find an exhibition space here. For example, the graphic designer who created Ardi's logo is Palestinian Rand Dabbour who lives in Ramallah. "I am exhibiting her work here in Paris. She has talked about Ardi in Ramallah and I have received many messages of support from Palestinians."
In keeping with tradition, Talala's cuisine is family oriented and invigorating. "I wasn't interested in food for food's sake. I also wanted to make food and eat it the way that we eat it in Palestine. I cook as I do at home, and as I learned from the women in my life and family. This same cuisine is shared in the Middle East. But my speciality is that I put the emphasis on very structured dishes." Thus she will serve Maklouba, a kind of upside-down rice stew, with layers of fragrant rice and vegetables browned beforehand, and meat. There is a whole folklore around "tipping over" the dish.
The menu offers varied, carefully prepared and tasty food. "I want it to look prestigious, but I want it to be accessible too. The cuisine is based on fresh products. I want everyone to be able to come and eat."
She is concerned about the independence of her project, so she has not reached out to any institution or organisation based in Palestine. "I want to be totally free and neutral. I refused any association with any financial partner so as not to lose my freedom. I've been working on this project for three years and I don't want it to be tainted by any other idea."
For Talala, beyond the cultural or culinary aspect of the project, Ardi is above all a means of preserving heritage. "I feel I have a mission: to help people discover Palestine. I'm getting feedback from people who tell me they finally know this country outside the prism of the conflict and the occupation. Or who didn't know it at all. If I don't do this, who will?"
Customers come in. With that smile on her face, Rania Talala is suddenly busy and it is time for me to leave.