Palestine produces some of the finest olive oils in the world, not to mention shatawi, a popular sweet–whipped cream on a small biscuit covered by a dark chocolate shell.
Food production is the backbone of the Palestinian economy. And this tasty concoction has become a persuasive ambassador for Palestinian foods that are becoming available in regional markets. Because of the simplicity of the ingredients, low-cost, and taste, the sweet makers, despite the conflict, are finding ways to export it.
It guarantees them a market, and the extra profit they get from it means they can reinvest and improve the quality of the sweets.
It represents a massive triumph for beleaguered confectioners.
“For the first time, we could export it outside Palestine, and the first shipment was to Bahrain. Now, we are making arrangements to export two shipments to the UAE and Saudi Arabia,” says Walid Al Wadieh, general manager of Sarayo Al Wadiah Factory.
Shatawi sweets, also called kosha and aswad tarboush, often flavored with vanilla, cocoa, and strawberries, have been one of the popular winter desserts in Palestine for decades.
RESURRECTING THE ECONOMY
Destroyed by war, some local factories have risen to produce these sweets again and continue to operate, although with limited capacity.
Production of shatawi sweets in the Gaza Strip began about 40 years ago, according to Alaa Mushtaha, co-owner of the Al Arousa Factory, the first factory to produce these sweets.
“Denmark is the original winter country where al shatawi’s production began about 200 years ago,” he says.
Now, shatawi sweets from Gaza are finding mass distribution and production. Four factories in the Gaza Strip manufacture these sweets and five more in the West Bank.
At the onset of winter, workers gather on the candy production line. The technique is ancient and highly skilled.
“The winter season begins in early October and ends at the end of February, and shatawi energizes the body during this time,” says Mushtaha. “We produce around 100,000 shatawi sweets daily.”
Other factories produce the same amount but vary in ingredients -– some use fruits, and others fill it with nuts, but chocolate remains the standard coating.
Al Arousa Factory produces ice cream in the summer, but with the gradual drop in temperature, the production moves to the winter treat. “The demand for shatawi is very high during the winter,” says Mushtaha. “It’s the livelihood season we await yearly to increase production and profit percentage.”
The factory used to sell winter sweets to the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the remote areas in Palestinian before Israel imposed its blockade on the strip. “Due to the crisis, it was barely distributed to the Gaza areas. We had to suspend some production lines,” says Mushtaha. “The restrictions led to our economic decline.”
Last year, even Gaza’s Pepsi bottling company was forced to halt operations due to import restrictions. Shutdowns also occurred in other Gaza factories. According to UN data, manufacturing is around 10% of Gaza’s service sector-dominated economy.
Due to tightened measures on raw material imports, Mushtaha says, prices of raw materials were hiked, which affected its profit. “Add to it the poor purchasing power in Gaza due to the difficult economic conditions.”
“Despite the high prices of raw materials, we maintained the quality of the sweet and sold it at the same price, taking into account the general conditions,” he adds.
Palestine typically features in the headlines in the context of upheaval and violence, but Gaza remains a productive region.
Another in the list of many confectioners is the Al Awda Biscuits and Ice Cream Factory, which began operating in the Gaza Strip in 1977. It established a new factory in the West Bank, partly due to the severity of the siege on Gaza and the challenges of procuring raw materials and spare parts for production lines. Moreover, the war in 2014 destroyed 60% of the factory in Gaza.
“After 2006, the factory was cut off from exporting products to the West Bank, which was 65% of our market,” says Muhammad Al Talbani, the factory owner.
A campaign called “our national product is first”’ to support the national product brought the factory back into action, with production lines restored, and now supports the livelihoods of 60 Palestinian families.
“Despite the repeated strikes in Gaza, we are steadfast,” he says. “We have 60 workers on the candy production line in winter producing approximately 100,000 shatawi sweets per day.”
“We procure fresh products daily from the factory. There is a great love for this sweet among all. We start selling it in October, which continues throughout the winter,” says Ahmed Salem, a shop owner. “Some locals buy them as gifts to send to their families and friends outside Palestine.”
These confectioners take entrepreneurial pride in shatawi and are delighted to think that consumers outside their country can taste the fruit of their endeavors.
Whatever the shape and flavor, thanks to its popularity, there’ll be more shatawi fans emerging as it expands its chocolatey goodness to other markets. Between frequent airstrikes and trade constraints, the al shatawi industry is a ray of hope for Gaza’s economy.
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