By Annisa Essack
Despite the fact that he suffers from leukaemia and lives in the blockaded Gaza Strip, 12-year-old, Mahmoud Abu Nada says that he wants to be the best chef in the world.
He may be unknown to the world but Mahmoud has become the first child-chef in Palestine and works regularly in one of Gaza’s most well-known restaurants.
Mahmoud was diagnosed with blood cancer at the age of 8, and physicians determined he needed a bone marrow transplant. Although the first paediatric cancer department in the Gaza Strip was opened to treat blood cancers and related diseases - which account for roughly 80 per cent of malignancies among local children - bone marrow transplants and radiation still are available only outside. Mahmoud’s parents applied for a medical exit permit after Italian experts offered to perform the procedure free of charge. Israel rejected it without any explanation.
The Al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights estimates that there are more than 9,000 persons with cancer in Gaza, including 600 children. Of the affected children, more than 40 per cent would receive better care outside of Gaza. The World Health Organization says 61 per cent of permit applications for medical treatment were approved timeously last year, 31 per cent were answered too late or not at all, and the rest were rejected.
Mahmoud relies on regular pain killers, blood transfusions and chemotherapy treatments every two weeks. His parents are unable to afford care in Egypt, and the treatment there is often substandard. A low immune system means his body cannot fight off infections which means he must stay home from school, as he is exposed to infections and disease by other pupils.
“I was overwhelmed with sadness when I had to leave school,” Mahmoud says. But the tenacious lad didn’t give up and with the help of his mother, decided to be home-schooled.
He has loved watching his mother cook since he was old enough to walk, and when he began spending so much time at home, he discovered cooking programs online.
This brought about a solution to the boredom and he devoured these programs for hours. He began to practice his new found skills in the kitchen and often imitated his mother making sandwiches and fresh juices but with his own variations. His first creation was a spin on the traditional sandwich for his 17-year-old sister, Yasmeen. He rolled traditional taboon bread with his own tomato sauce mixed with egg, peppers, olives, mushrooms and a blend of spices.
His siblings often call upon him to make noodles and shakshuka because they like the way he prepares them. Shakshuka is a Palestinian dish of eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, chilli peppers and garlic.
His initial attempts at cooking at such a young age made his father afraid that he would burn himself. But he soon changed his mind and began encouraging the budding chef to keep up with his talent.
Soon, Mahmoud was sharing the fruit of his skills with other children at Gaza’s Basmit Amal Association for Cancer Care, where he made breakfast sandwiches for his fellow participants. In one of the association's activities, held in the Gazan restaurant Oregano.
Mahmoud wore a chef uniform and made various sandwiches for 60 children with the help of the chef, who was amazed by him.
Once the initiative finished, Mahmoud asked the chef to allow him to work with him in the restaurants' kitchen. Although Palestinian law forbids child labour, the chef accepted him as a trainee after he passed a test, including the recognition of spices purely by smell and the mastery of the kitchen tools.
He began working in the restaurant learning skills such as how to cut meat and store vegetables to keep them fresh.
ِAlaa Abu Zuhri, Oregano’s owner, says, Mahmoud is intelligent and quickly took advantage of his restaurant colleagues’ experience, enabling him to prepare orders and serve them to customers.
Mahmoud’s father was initially afraid to allow his son to work, fearing his health would deteriorate as he requires lots of rest. However, Khader Abu Nada was forced to reverse his decision when he realised that cooking was helping Mahmoud to overcome his pain and improving his psychological outlook.
Recently, Mahmoud began working at another restaurant called Tilandi, where he added his own dish to the menu: egg shawarma, a first in Gaza. He also created a new spice blend for chicken. But the budding culinary kid has other hobbies. He likes to paint and practice karate and has participated in several competitions in Gaza—winning medals in all of them in his age category.
But it is with the cooking skills that he hopes to go international and become an internationally recognised chef. Mahmoud’s dream is to open his own restaurant which he will call “The Little Chef.”