Palestinian baker shares her mum's kunafa to 'put smiles on faces' and smash stereotypes

Fatmah Muhammad, who runs Knafeh Queens in Los Angeles, brings her recipe for compassion and connection to Dubai for a limited time only

Fatmah Muhammad is sharing her bakes at Forever Rose Cafe in Dubai. Leslie Pableo for The National
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For Fatmah Muhammad, kunafa is more than just a dessert. “It's a beautiful tool that can bring people together,” she tells The National, as she adjusts her pink-dyed keffiyeh for the camera.

The Palestinian baker flew from Los Angeles to bring her famed kunafa to Dubai. Sold under the name Knafeh Queens, the dessert is available for a limited time at Forever Rose Cafe along Al Wasl Road, with proceeds going to The Giving Family, which helps people in Gaza.

Muhammad says: “Every minute, every second and every opportunity I get, I show up with my 100 per cent Palestinian authentic self. I'm not scared.”

Muhammad believes food is a great equaliser, which pushed her to set up a baking business in 2018. Since then, alongside her eldest daughter Rheyanah Williams, she bakes kunafa with the intention of “letting people in and showing them who we are”, be it in the US or elsewhere.

“People who look like me already know our narrative,” she says. “So it's important for me to share that narrative with people who don't look like us.”

The Palestinian baker, who was born in the US, uses her mother's kunafa recipe, which she says is dear to her heart. “People ask me what's so special about my kunafa and I always choke up talking about it,” she says.

“Growing up, I remember how my mum's kunafa would bring so much happiness in the room and joy on people's faces. I remember it as something beautiful, which brought warmth to others, and so I wanted to continue with that tradition.”

Thankfully, “mama approves”, she adds with a smile. “I can't tell you how blessed I am to have my mother as my role model. I am who I am because of her. She always taught me to lead with kindness, joy and respect.”

While Islamophobic stereotypes have existed long before the Israel-Gaza war, Muhammad believes her passion to spread cultural awareness has become more fervent in the past few months.

“It's really hard and emotional to see what's happening to our brothers and sisters in Gaza,” she says. “We have all these privileges ... fresh food and warm homes. How can we not do something?”

Donations aside, which Muhammad says "is really the least I can do”, she also shows off her heritage unapologetically, whether it's wearing a traditional Palestinian robe during television interviews, sporting keffiyehs in public or sharing her culture through food.

“I'm not scared of being authentic,” she says. Hiding, she adds, forms part of the reason why Palestinians are "often shown in a light that we are almost subhuman". She adds: "We have allowed the media for so long to portray us this way. But no human is better than the other.”

Muhammad's journey has been fruitful so far. She says people send her messages thanking her for being an inspiration. “One follower told me: 'You've opened my eyes. I used to think [a certain] way about Palestinians and you have shown me nothing but resilience, faith and love.'"

What started as a family recipe has now become Muhammad's greatest weapon to continue shedding light on her culture. “I hope one day that everyone gets to experience a free Palestine, and for more people to see the beauty of what the people there have to offer,” she says.

“I'm blessed to be the child of Palestinians, and to have a platform through Knafeh Queens to show the world what it looks like to be Palestinian.”

While in Dubai, Muhammad is also exploring avenues to export her beloved kunafa to the city's supermarkets and cafes, and she hopes to share her mother's recipe with the whole of the Middle East soon.

Updated: March 08, 2024, 2:24 PM