Jinan Deena likes to feed people, so much so that she regularly hosts dinner parties that pack upward of 30 guests into the cozy quarters of her Adams Morgan studio apartment. Guests pass around food piled high on large plates, and quickly become acquainted with one another over the joy of a home-cooked meal. Many of Deena’s friends, transplants from around the world, count on these gatherings for a sense of home away from home.
When it comes to her dishes, Deena isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, but rather finds inspiration in the food of her childhood. Growing up, Deena’s parents owned and operated a Middle Eastern restaurant in Toledo, Ohio, where she and her siblings helped out whenever and wherever needed, both in the front of house and in the kitchen. She laughs as she recalls even her 4-year-old sister being tasked with picking the stems off strawberries for smoothies.
Deena spent her formative years visiting family in Palestine each summer, and even lived there for a year at the age of 13 while her parents cared for a sick family member. Deena recalls the occupation looming over their time there, with unpredictable border shutdowns causing her to miss entire days of school: “Obviously, that’s like your dream as a teenager, but at the same time, you’re missing out on an education.”
Deena’s father first left Palestine during the 1970s for college, where he studied hospitality management. Her mother soon followed suit and the pair married in 1981. After college, her father, like many of his fellow Arab immigrants, started off owning liquor and convenience stores. High crime rates and frequent robberies at his store motivated her father to move away from that industry and he and Deena’s mother went on to open their first restaurant, Fetoosh. Her parents described the restaurant as Middle Eastern or Lebanese—they knew that referring to it as Palestinian came with baggage that could hurt business. At first, Fetoosh was busy and popular, with its location in the city’s business district bringing in large catering events. However, after 9/11, the business took a hit, which Deena attributes to a combination of rising anti-Arab sentiments coupled with the burgeoning financial crisis. The restaurant eventually shut down. A few years later, her parents reopened Fetoosh in a different location, where it enjoyed more success. The restaurant eventually permanently closed in 2016 following her parents’ divorce.
Although Deena’s experiences at the restaurant were instrumental in her understanding of the hospitality industry, her love of food and cooking are rooted in her family’s dinners at home, where Palestinian hospitality came to life. Meals that went on for hours always started with pickled vegetables and fresh herbs and ended with hot sage tea, a traditional post-dinner ritual to aid with digestion.
She recalls the Ramadans spent with aunts and uncles who would take turns hosting the whole large family for weekend dinners in their homes. The food at these meals had a different quality than the food her parents served at their restaurant, an intangible quality directly tied to Palestinian home cooking. The Arabic word “nafas” describes the unique ability of certain individuals, usually home cooks, to breathe life into food. According to Marcelle Afram, a Palestinian/Assyrian chef and friend of Deena, Deena embodies nafas. “She is putting her soul into what she’s doing. She is showcasing the hospitality that’s in our DNA,” Afram says.
Afram’s parents immigrated to the U.S. during the 1970s. Like many immigrant families, they put the little money that they had toward opening a business, a pizza and sub joint in Takoma Park. Cultural staples like grape leaves made occasional appearances on the menu but were never the restaurant’s focus. “Why pizza?” Afram wonders now. “I guess to them it sort of just represented the American dream.” Their family eventually opened a diner in Laurel, where Arab food got more attention. Describing their food as Palestinian was still too much of a risk at the time, however, so, like Deena’s family, Afram’s parents called it Lebanese. After 9/11, fearing the judgment of customers, all traces of Arab food were removed from the diner’s menu. He recalls this moment of cultural erasure as an immensely painful experience. Afram, who now has the hindsight to understand that difficult decision, asks, “who am I to say that they should have done it any differently, though? … Every single person that came before me is a survivor of major trauma that I’ve never had to deal with.”
Alone with no money, nowhere to live, and no experience outside of the work they did at the family restaurant, Afram’s eventual foray into professional cooking came from necessity. They began as a food runner and made their way up the ranks with stints at kitchens in Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain before eventually landing an executive chef position at Navy Yard’s Bluejacket. Most recently, Afram served as the executive chef at Maydan.
During the peak of the pandemic, Afram was able to reflect and come to terms with the fact they had been shying away from their Palestinian and trans identities. They left their position at Maydan in January 2021 to pursue a passion project—Shababi, a Palestinian rotisserie chicken pop-up based in Alexandria. Shababi was a near instant success, receiving a RAMMY nomination for outstanding pop-up in 2021. Afram was able to use Shababi’s notoriety to raise money for both their trans and Palestinian communities. “The first year that I fully took hold of my own narrative was also the biggest year of my career,” Afram says. They have plans to open a brick-and-mortar Shababi Diner that will feature inventive takes on traditional Palestinian dishes that pay homage to Afram’s Palestinian roots as well as their family’s diner. On the decision to boldly call their food Palestinian, Afram says, “The reclamation is absolutely for my parents and what they couldn’t say. But the reclamation is also so that people never hear the end of it.”
According to Danny Dubbaneh, co-owner of the Palestinian spice company Z&Z, “in the Arab world, [the] love language is food.” The Dubbaneh family arrived in Rockville in the early 1980s. Dubbaneh’s grandparents opened their fried chicken restaurant in 1982, where he spent his childhood working alongside various family members. His grandfather believed Arab food would never sell, so he was adamant that the restaurant serve American dishes. His grandfather would occasionally feature a Palestinian item, such as spinach pies, on the menu, but they never really took off. Growing up in suburban Maryland, Dubbaneh focused his energy on assimilating with his American peers. He cringes at the embarrassment he felt eating the traditional Arab lunches his mother would pack him. “It was like, God, would bringing Lunchables once change my life?” he says. After college, he and his brother Johnny spent time traveling throughout the Middle East, an experience that allowed them to fall back in love with their roots and in 2015, they opened Z&Z. Dubbaneh beams as he describes Jenin, the city in Palestine where the company sources their za’atar, the company’s specialty: “There’s so much history literally rooted there. That really matters, you know?”
This past October, the Dubbaneh brothers opened Z&Z Manoushe Bakery in the same space as their grandfather’s chicken restaurant. Repurchasing that location has been an immensely rewarding experience for the brothers and their family, as they are now able to sell the food that their grandfather never thought he could. In the five years since the brothers started their company, the landscape of Palestinian food in the DMV and in the U.S. has shifted dramatically. Dubbaneh recalls selling their products at farmers markets in 2016, when hardly any customers had ever heard of za’atar. Today, companies like McCormick and Trader Joe’s have started to sell their own versions of the spice, but Dubbaneh recognizes the dangers that come with the globalization of cultural staples. “If we don’t claim our food and present it in the way it’s meant to be presented and preserve these connections to the origin, then it’s going to get lost within these big corporations,” he says.
Like Deena, Dubbaneh recalls his dinners at home as his biggest source of inspiration: “Our love for food and hospitality grew partly in the restaurants, but more so in our homes.” These abundant and joyful home-cooked dinners are what have inspired Deena’s latest pop-up, Bayti, which translates to “my home” in Arabic. The event, which will feature Z&Z products, is the first of a series of pop-ups and will debut at Grand Duchess in Adams Morgan on August 7. Deena selected Grand Duchess to host the event due to its cozy atmosphere—the bar was formerly a living room in a residential home dating back to the 1890s. The event will feature traditional dishes like dajaaj mashwi—juicy chicken thighs marinated in aromatic Palestinian spices—as well as laban, a strained yogurt spread made with dill and lemon juice. The meal will also feature booza, a stretchy mastic and pistachio ice cream that is popular in the Middle East and rarely found in the U.S. Deena has previously hosted successful pop-ups at Middle Eastern cocktail bar The Green Zone, where she says she spent the entire event holed up in the kitchen away from her guests. At Bayti, food will be served family-style and Deena plans to enjoy her dinner with her guests, encouraging them to “Eat! Eat!” as is customary of a Palestinian host. When asked if she has any plans to ever open a restaurant she laughs and says “Absolutely not!” Having grown up in the industry, she is well versed in the grind required to own a successful restaurant, and she is enjoying the flexibility and hospitality her pop-ups allow.
When not busy cooking for loved ones, Deena works as the national organizer at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, where she focuses on coalition building. Food is her passion, and her pop-ups are the ideal medium for bridging her activism and her love of feeding others. Deena’s foray into the pop-up world shows how unapologetically referring to her food as Palestinian is just as important as the food itself. Her parents were never able to publicly claim their heritage at their restaurants, so for Deena, this reclamation is essential. “I try to mention Palestine as much as possible when describing my events,” she says. “I want it to be loud, I want it to be obvious.”
This first round of Bayti is already sold out, but be sure to keep an eye out for the next dinner in the series—you do not want to miss out on the unique opportunity to experience Palestinian nafas firsthand.