Knafeh Queens: building bridges, opening minds

She has a warm expressive manner and lively dark eyes, framed by a colorful hijab. She has been trying to counter hatred and fear of muslims, one person at a time, with knafeh, the queen of desserts. 

Fatmah Muhammed started Knafeh Queens, a business offering unique middle eastern sweets with the purpose of building bridges to open minds.   A daughter of immigrants who left Palestine to settle first in Puerto Rico, then in Lexington and finally, Independence Missouri. She and her family now  live in Rancho Cucamonga.

 

She has been baking sweets (knafeh) since childhood, at first for her family and friends.   She is known for her knafeh, a popular Middle Eastern dessert with an outer crust of filo dough and butter, that oozes with cheeses and is topped with a simple syrup.  And all her adult life, friends have been urging her to go into business with her treats. But she refrained until the events of the world intruded into her family’s experiences.

Muslim citizens of late have had much to bear because of the war that started on September 11 2001.  In fact, that year, Fatmah was a young college student, back at home when the attack on the Twin Towers shook the country and rattled nerves.  It led to a period when anti-muslim feelings festered among many Americans. (see https://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/09/muslims and   https://www.npr.org/2019/03/19/704893569/coping-with-the-persistent-trauma-of-anti-muslim-rhetoric-and-violence.)

Years later, Fatmah had married and was raising her four children, when a shooting in nearby San Bernardino was attributed to a muslim couple, described as an act of terrorism.  A gregarious and friendly individual, Fatmah was accustomed to the small town feeling you get when the clerks at the supermarket would pause for a friendly chat whenever she bought groceries.  But shortly after the San Bernardino shootings, she found that they would not meet her eyes or look her in the face. What had happened, she wondered, to bring back this negativity. She no longer felt comfortable walking back to her car by herself.

Then two years later, a newly inaugurated Trump Adminstration  instituted a “Muslim ban,” ostensibly banning immigration by “terrorists” from Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya and Yemen.  It created an uproar of public criticism and protest, but it also frightened Fatmah’s children, who asked, “Will we have to leave too?”  

Fatmah decided something had to be done to counter these fears.  But what? Her nature and upbringing urged peaceful understanding to counteract hate, never angry words and protests.  She had learned from childhood that Islam stood for peace and that a harsh reaction was never called for.  

“I had learned to be calm and collected at difficult moments,”  she reflected.  But now, she had to see to the well being of her children.

“We have to build a bridge,” she thought, “but how?’  And then, “But what better way to bring people together than with food!”

She started with favorite recipes, learning from three generations of cooks:  grandmother, mother and sisters. Her friends found her food delicious, unique,  with different flavors and textures. Her eldest daughter Rheyanah had been urging her to think of selling their knafeh.

So she started with sweets and entered her first baking contest in Claremont, California.   And she won. (She also won in baking contests at the Orange County and Los Angeles County Fairs.)  But more important, she began to see how food would begin building the bridges she knew were necessary to counter the fears she saw in her children.  

She was not just the only Muslim in the contest, she was one of the few minority entrants. Early in the day, she was approached by a man who asked her if she had just been dropped off.  At first puzzled, she realized he thought muslim women were not allowed to drive. Fatmah is second generation Palestinian who was sorely tempted to answer, “No I just dropped HIM off.”  But she refrained, keeping the quip to herself. It was her first winning contest that day and as she stood with her children and her cheering husband, that same man waved. Later, he complimented her on her winning entry and stayed to chat.  At the end of their conversation, she thought, it was well worth entering the contest to be able to share what a Muslim woman is really like.

She has had other conversations, one with a person she encountered inside a Target store.  He told her she should learn to speak English. Jokingly, she said, “I studied English at Harvard.”  (Fatmah, like her children, speaks perfectly unaccented English.) Using good humor, she quietly took the opportunity to teach through example that Muslim women are very well educated and well spoken. 

And it has grown from there.  She credits her business acumen to her father, a traveling salesman.  On weekends, he would often take Fatmah with him on his trips, giving her a first hand look at skills she absorbed;  customer service, marketing, finance. And in turn, her children are also learning financial planning, marketing and how to treat customers well,  all while they are having fun making delicious treats. Above all, they are learning that offering the best of their culture in the form of sweet treats, they open the door to curiosity and interest.  Once that door is open, conversation and mutual learning is possible.

They have catered large and small events, at Nickelodeon and UCLA and at a “Modest Fashion Show” sponsored by Macy’s at Victoria Gardens, where the children met the mayor of Rancho Cucamonga and the area Congressman.  They have received an award in the culinary arts area from Art for Peace. Fatmah is satisfied that her children are beginning to feel empowered in their own community.  

“Now they know the answer to their questions,”  Fatmah says, “they belong here just as anyone else.  This is their country.” 

Knafeh Queens can be found on Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/knafehqueens/

Or on Instagram:  https://www.instagram.com/knafehqueens/?hl=en

Or Fatmah can be reached at knafehqueens@gmail.com, or at 951-468-8230.

Their webpage will be launched shortly.

 

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