Stories of war, food and art intersect at Jericho
Photo: Raouf Omar, owner of Jericho café, with some of his artwork
Photo: Sadeen Mohsen
By Sadeen Mohsen
Jericho café at 840 Bank Street is a hidden gem full of passion and identity. At its centre is its quirky owner, Raouf Omar.
Omar tells me his mother named him Raouf, which means passionate or affectionate, traits that are evident in every aspect of his restaurant and his artwork spread around the space.
He was born in the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank. His family settled there in 1948.
Conditions in the camp were less than ideal, especially during the winter. Omar spoke of up to six families crammed into rooms and a lack of access to clean water.
“The camp is [full of] misery, left and right,” he said. “It wasn’t pleasant to remember but sometimes it is nice to remember because it’s your childhood.”
Another aspect of his childhood Omar remembers is being exposed to violence, constant abuse and harassment, living under Israeli occupation.
“[Palestinians] cannot continue to live in refugee camps forever. They are unable to return to their own land,” Omar said. “The bare minimum is a [Palestinian] state beside the Israeli state.”
For Omar, the current situation in Gaza, where he has lost family members, has been devastating.
“I can’t sleep sometimes,” Omar said. “It’s past disturbing because you don’t know when it’s going to stop.” But Omar continues to believe in the strength and perseverance of Palestinians by reflecting on his experiences.
Omar describes his journey to Canada as a long, complicated movie. The restauranteur was studying in Beirut, Lebanon when he found himself in another war.
After joining his wife in Canada in 1982, Omar couldn’t use his degree and started to apply for jobs to be able to support his family back in the West Bank. He remembers getting an application from Home Hardware and coming to Jericho, known back then as Glebe Café, to fill it out.
The Arab community was small at the time, and the owner sat with Omar over tea before offering him a job.
“I did for five years and then I bought it,” he said with a grin. Omar quickly changed the focus of the café to make it a Middle Eastern restaurant to represent what he loves – the ancient West Bank city of Jericho which is run by the Palestinian Authority.
“I used to go to Jericho as a kid [to visit] family who lived in a refugee camp,” he said. “It was beautiful, it was my first time seeing a city like that. It represents Palestine, that’s why I picked that name. I owe that city.”
Despite the ongoing tension following the situation in Gaza, his restaurant continues to thrive. Omar says that his community has continued to show up and support him. It’s been 30 years and there has yet to be “a dull moment.”
“When you enjoy what you’re doing, day after day. . .week after week, and you don’t feel the time because there’s joy in it,” he said. “When people leave their living room to come into [my restaurant], it means something to me.”
Omar expressed the importance of keeping a clean space, making great food and creating relationships with his visitors; do that and the business will soon have a life of its own. Omar says his customers, whom he calls visitors, are driven by two things in the restaurant – the quality of the food and the beauty of the art.
“I always want my people to leave here with a good impression,” he said. “They have to leave with a good feeling.”
To the business owner, making art is a spiritual and emotional experience. He said you need stories to make stories, and he needs “to live in the moment of it” to create it.
The longer a person sits in Jericho, the more the art becomes a sprawling, living thing. There is art painted on the tables and hanging from the walls. There are old artifacts scattered around and a lamppost inside with potted plants above it, hanging upside down from the ceiling. Omar favours images of the past and around the world, often focusing in on trees, doors and windows.
“It’s nature and I love nature,” he said. “The doors and windows always have to be open because the doors of the house are like (the doors of) your heart.”
Sadeen Mohsen is a journalism student at Carleton University.