Mobilities of Cooking

Olivia Raney Mason is a second year PhD student in Human Geography. Her research focuses on intersections between tourism and the everyday in Palestine. In this post she explores Palestinian tourist practices which promote a relationship with the everyday through cookery classes.

Read more of her research on her blog:


I’m a month into my fieldwork in Palestine exploring the tourism industry here. The aims of my research are to investigate tourism practices which are entangled with everyday life in Palestine and consequently represent and give Palestinians a voice.

Tourism in Palestine sits in a perilous position between competing representations and voices. The Israeli conflict and particularly the building of the separation wall have resulted in the frequent portrayal and understanding of Palestine as an ‘other’ place. The physical difficulties the wall poses for movement – particularly for Palestinians, but also for tourists – ensures that Palestinians rarely have opportunities to represent themselves. Tourist practices frequently exacerbate this problem, with most tours portraying (and most tourists desiring to see) the political aspects of Palestine, which are inevitably related to conflict. While many have suggested political tourism is a positive attribute for Palestine, providing an incentive for tourists to travel and an opportunity for education about the situation,[1] the focus on conflict in these tours is problematic.

The ability of Palestine to be seen as a lived place and not just a place of conflict is compromised and largely lost in these tours. Tours frequently move through the Palestinian cities of Hebron, Bethlehem, and Ramallah – but tourists stop to gaze at separation walls, refugee camps and settlements. They hear stories of occupation, control, and violence. After a month spent here attending countless numbers of these tours, tourists are left shocked and moved and feel empathy towards the Palestinian cause, but it seems to me that is where it ends. The creation of spectacle around conflict instead of a portrayal of everyday life makes it easy for tourists to detach themselves from individual voices and Palestinian struggles.

However, there is a growing trend of tourist practices which move away from the political and are entangled in the everyday of Palestine. Examples of these are sport tourism (hiking, biking, climbing), home stays, olive picking, and cooking. These practices are where I am focusing my research. I want to look theoretically at the way these tourist practices enter the everyday to explore different understandings of Palestine. I suggest there are a wide range of mobilities, intimacies, and temporalities which compose everyday life in Palestine which can be seen through these tourist practices.

To illustrate this, I want to use one of my fieldwork experiences so far of attending a Palestinian cooking class. This cooking class, aimed at tourists, takes place in the home of a family in one of Bethlehem’s refugee camps, Aida Camp. This initiative is started by a group of women in the camp, called Noor Women’s Empowerment Group[2], to fund projects to help their disabled children -amongst the many issues facing families in these camps, disability in particular is often relegated to the side line. The aim of these classes is to share knowledge, raise money, and in doing so make a better future for disabled children in refugee camps.


These classes involve a private space, against the backdrop of the scars of occupation surrounding the camp. Israel’s separation barrier cuts through the camp while the camp itself was built to rehouse thousands of Palestinians displaced after the creation of the Israeli State. Knowledge of these spaces for many is gained through media portrayals and very infrequently is everyday life or indeed voices from people living in these camps captured. To exacerbate this problem few people living in Aida Camp have the opportunity to travel outside its boundaries. Yet through these classes, Palestinians are given voices by our entering of their private space.

For all of those on the course conjuring an image of a refugee camp is seldom one in which we imagine a family sitting around a table drinking tea. Particularly in feminist political geography, academics such as Anna Secor[3] have suggested that by entering private spaces we begin to see places such as the refugee camp as a localised, not globalised phenomena. The private goes public. Through cooking classes, the lives these women have in private spaces are able to be made public. These women, by our entering of the home, begin to enact political life in informal inhabited spaces of the city. And this is important because in these localised, inhabited spaces politics is understood differently; it becomes entangled with emotion and intimacy.

In the classes tourists are looked after, given tea and sat down to watch a mother and daughter prepare the filling for the stuffed vine leaves (warak dawalli) they would be making. Tourists are laughed at as they clumsily wrap the grape leaves, and everyone laughs together. Participants are part of the everyday processes of cooking, of making a mess, making mistakes. For a brief moment the class could be in any kitchen and in that moment life in the camp was filled with laughter, sharing, and closeness. The cooking class gave a present to Palestinian life.

And this present is important because this present gives life. Life is lived in the present. For tourists in this class Palestinians have lived lives as they watch the women cook and laugh. Particularly in the setting of the refugee camp this is important because refugee camps place their inhabitants in a state of limbo – futureless but also constantly reminded of the past that led them there.

But this present is not always necessarily a wanted present. Half way through the cooking class the power went. In this moment the class became firmly fixed in one location – Palestine. Even when moments are not political – in Palestine the political situation seeps in. We are constantly made aware of where we are and the politics surrounding us. We were not having a political conversation but politics drips in.

Lauren Berlant[4] writes that when we are in the present there is the creation of an impasse, a break. Through this break and this time to stop and think, it brings agency to different things – cooking and the processes of doing suddenly become important. We begin to see Palestine through Arabic coffee, Warak Dawalli, and cooking. This break also signifies that things seen historically do not stop, a break in the present exemplifies the crisis of ordinariness – it is just a break in the traumatic present.

Linking this to the power cut, although in the class participants were doing and laughing and living, the reminder of the specific location of the class signifies this rapid collision between attempting to build a future and the constant reminders of the past and the conflict. For tourists cooking in this kitchen a power cut signifies nothing more than a brief pause in proceedings. For Palestinians it signifies that hard as they try to move on from the present, the past and present come shuttling back. While a future is being attempted to be made, it is continually trying to be halted and stopped.

As we leave, one of the women in the project asked me:

‘Do you think you will remember how to make this back home?’

Alongside temporality, this question signifies a relationship between representation and mobility in these classes – the power to create a mobility within an immobility. Few of the women in this group have access to cars, few have permits to travel outside Palestine, and interactions outside the camp are limited. Through the material and immaterial mobilities this class offered, the Palestinian women had the chance to re-represent themselves. The Oxford English Dictionary says that to represent is to describe or depict something and in representation studies this often comes from systems of representation related to language and classification[5]. However, in these cooking classes representation is about doing and what tastes, smells, sounds, sights, and feels come to represent. Not much English was spoken between Palestinians and tourists in these classes yet we learnt from doing. When we consider how we represent, here actions gave life and the present to Palestinians. Through these classes, money is raised, knowledge is shared and cooking and their voices travel. We can buy cookery books and make these dishes – we can allow people back home to taste this food.


In sum through these cooking classes, the temporalities, intimacies, and mobilities which compose everyday life can be seen. Through these we understand everyday life as far more than just conflict. We see conflict through the everyday not the everyday through conflict and this is important for changing how we see Palestine. Conflict became only a small part of everyday life in a wider sphere of making, eating, laugher, and warak dawalli.


[1] Rami, K. I. (2010) Alternative tourism: new forms of tourism in Bethlehem for the Palestinian tourism industry. Current Issues in Tourism: 13 (1): 21-36.


[3] Secor, A.J. (2001) Toward a feminist counter-geopolitics: Gender, space and Islamist politics in Istanbul. Space and Polity 5 (3): 199-219.

[4] Berlant, L. (2008) Thinking about feeling historical. Emotion, Space and Society 1: 4–9.

[5] Hall, S. “The work of representation”? — From Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices.