Manila: Mahmoud and Nadia Habib opened their cafe in early 2023 to bring a piece of Palestine to the Philippines. Little did they know that the place would soon turn into a center of Gaza heritage and a hub of solidarity in Manila.
Located on Mabini Street, Cafe Habib is light, warm and informal with its white tables, grey sofas and ochre walls showing maps, photos and symbols of Palestinian heritage.
From the beginning, the husband — who is a native of Gaza — and the Filipino-Iraqi wife wanted their restaurant’s ambiance to make Filipinos feel as if they had stepped into a place in Palestine.
“We came up with the concept to create a special place where when customers come in, they will not think they are in the Philippines anymore. We wanted to spotlight Arab culture,” Mahmoud told Arab News.
For Nadia, it is also an attempt to “bring a piece of Palestine to the Philippines” to share its rich heritage, traditions, and flavors.
“The Palestinian-themed cafe became our platform to introduce the Filipino people to the beauty and depth of Palestinian culture. We believed that by immersing them in a unique and authentic experience, we could foster understanding and appreciation,” she said.
Their menu features authentic dishes such as falafel, shawarma, and the iconic Palestinian knafeh — crispy filo dough with cheese soaked in syrup and topped with pistachios — all based on recipes that have been in the Habib family for generations.
“These recipes all come from my mother,” Mahmoud said, adding that Nadia also learned to make them during their trips to his home in Gaza.
The last time they visited was in September, just two weeks before Israel launched its latest deadly onslaught that has since killed at least 30,000 people, wounded tens of thousands more, and displaced about 1.5 million.
They saw the destruction and hid from daily bombardment, only managing to return to Manila when Philippine authorities evacuated some of the Filipino-Palestinians from the besieged enclave in November.
Nadia was born and raised in the Philippines, while Mahmoud has been living in the country since 2013, when he arrived to study architecture at the National University.
Upon their return to Manila, they have been trying to reunite with Mahmoud’s family, but until now, it has been to no avail.
“I tried to bring them, but it is very hard,” he said.
It is their cafe, a reminder of Palestine, that keeps the couple strong and gives them space to spread awareness among Filipinos on what is happening in Gaza.
“Speaking up about Palestine is a crucial aspect of our mission, as it lies at the core of why we established this cafe. If customers initiate a conversation about … Palestine, we wholeheartedly engage in the discussion,” Nadia said.
They also helped facilitate the efforts of Filipino peace activists who organized a Gaza solidarity march in November.
“They gave me more power. This shows that our voice goes out to the world, and everyone really has a huge heart,” Mahmoud said.
“I am proud of (this cafe). I am really happy because I’m showing people what Palestine is, who the Palestinian people are.”