1977. Lebanon. Hana Assafiri looks out of an aeroplane window. Twenty hours and eight thousand miles away is her new home- the place where she was born.
2016. Melbourne. Hana Assafiri’s attention is being pulled every which way. We are sitting in her cafe The Moroccan Deli-cacy and our conversation is punctuated by multiple interactions that Assafiri has with her staff, ‘Get those plates in please, it’s not pigeons food’, and ‘Can you fix that spice display please – doesn’t look right’.
She turns back to me and effortlessly picks up the thread of our conversation
‘Do you get any down time?’ I venture. She smiles. ‘Never, and especially not since I opened this place. I’m waiting for it all to click, and then maybe find someone to run it for me. It’s better to be busy.’
And Assafiri is busy. The owner of the Moroccan Soup Bar in North Fitzroy for the past 17 years has released a cookbook and opened a new cafe in the past six months. She works at the two places 6 days per week, oversees renovations for an upstairs space at the Moroccan Deli-cacy and is setting up a Foundation. She runs Conversation Salons and Speed-Date-a-Muslim events where Muslims and non-Muslims sit together to converse and break down barriers.
Assafiri believes in empowering and mentoring. She worked in the community domestic violence sector for fifteen years. Disenchanted with her work Assafiri was looking for other ways to help disenfranchised women. ‘No bloody idea what I was doing, though! When we established the Moroccan Soup Bar I had lost faith in the welfare sector. A government came in that slashed and burned everything. I thought I’m only here for fear of leaving and came back to the question, ‘What are women good at? We’re good at cooking. So I thought, let’s set something up around food and hospitality where our strengths are. Everybody said don’t do it! I was afraid anyway because that’s not our background. Equally, the concept was very different to anything conventional.’
‘It was a spoken menu, there was no business plan and there was no understanding of how it was going to unfold. It was a commitment to the empowerment of women through cooking. At the time in the pre-Internet age, you have to be very brave to do something differently, whereas now the more peculiar you are more people seek you out. People said what if it doesn’t work? And I said, well if it doesn’t work we’ll stop doing it. And thankfully, people loved it!’
The Moroccan Soup Bar is still something of an enigma in Melbourne. Based on the principle of a traditional spoken word vegetarian menu and no alcohol offered. The idea of a spoken menu allows a real interaction where the staff joins the customers at the table to explain the menu. The concept of a spoken menu is common in the third world and has been for thousands of years. Assafiri is all for reinventing the wheel and for Western cultures to adapt to this.
Harking back to her childhood she looked upon the kitchen and the intimate world of women as a safe place. She wanted to establish a place where women could feel safe and strong. ‘For me, it’s a way of life and whether you do it in a paid or unpaid doesn’t matter. It is something I’ll do until the last breath I draw. It’s not something I used to work in, it’s something that’s so central to everything I do.’
Assafiri was born in Melbourne, relocated to Morocco when she was four, and then to Lebanon her mother’s home country as she said her mother did not fit in in Morocco. She came back to Melbourne with her family when she was 12. Leaving Lebanon for Australia on the brink of her teen years was difficult. But it was inevitable due to the outbreak of the civil war.
‘What was it like to be a teenager here?’ I ask as I sip my mint tea.
She pulls a face. ‘Terrible. I couldn’t speak English. I didn’t want to come. Lebanon was home. I was teased a lot here. I ate weird food compared to the other kids. I didn’t fit in. I went through a long period in my teens and twenties where I didn’t know where I belonged or who I was. Typical migrant experience.’
In a funny way, she has come full circle. No longer a migrant, but sometimes not considered Australian. “People still ask where I am from.’ Assafiri assists and nurtures those women who like her own family have been displaced by war and violence.
The women that she employs may come from difficult family circumstances and their potential employability can be low. By giving these women an opportunity Assafiri plays a part in setting these women up for future employment. ‘Some of the women use it as a stepping stone for something else, other people have been here for years. I can’t bloody get rid of them! It’s a springboard into a version of who they can be.’
As I nibble on my shortbread I observe the comings and goings of the staff. Multi-ethnic, some in hijab, some not. All engage and interact with the customers. It feels less like a restaurant and more like lunch with friends.
I mention this to Assafiri. She beams. ‘I feel like I am part of a community.’ she says. ‘I feel like I should stake a claim, we’ve been around for 18 years at the Moroccan Soup Bar and I have seen families go from 1 to 2 to 3 to 5 and I feel like I am their surrogate aunt. I’ve seen these kids conceived and grow and born.’
Her business is word of mouth. No advertising, no bookings and always queues. Writing a cookbook has given Assafiri the chance to reflect on the last seventeen years; in particular, the passing of both her parents. The publication of ‘Moroccan Soup Bar Recipes of a spoken menu and a little bit of spice’ is now in its second edition. Her family was a close one, especially because there is not a large Moroccan community in Melbourne. ‘The process of writing the book was very nostalgic,’ she says, ‘as it made me think of how easily things can be lost in one generation.’
She regards herself as the custodian of the recipes and is not averse to sharing them- if anything she enjoys people reinterpreting the recipes. I tell Hana about a recipe book I inherited from my grandmother, an old leather bound book full of handwritten recipes and newspaper clippings She nods. ‘See, that’s so important. Recipes handed down from one generation to another or just by us watching our mothers.’
Note- This post first was published on The Urban Nest blog. All photos by the super talented Therese Bourne.
The next Conversation Salon is on Thursday 27 July 2017, 6pm-9.30pm at the Moroccan Deli-cacy at 313 Lygon Street, East Brunswick. Cost $65 including speakers and a 4-course banquet.
Bookings through Eventbrite.