Palestinians are marking Prisoners’ Day to highlight the plight of thousands being held in Israeli jails.
Ramallah, occupied West Bank – “Six shekels for a pound!” yells a sweaty man holding an aubergine, his voice drowned out by cries from other vendors at the fruit-and-vegetable market in downtown Ramallah.
It is an unseasonably hot day, and a peddler selling bubble blowers shields himself from the sun with a piece of discarded cardboard as a colourful truck pulls up.
The vehicle immediately attracts the attention of several children who make a living helping shoppers carry their purchases. “I’ll take a hot dog,” a boy says to the two men who just parked, noting that at first glance, he mistook their van for an ice-cream truck.
Onlookers and elderly men sitting at a cafe across the street appear intrigued. “What is this?” someone yells. “It’s a food truck,” shouts back owner Khaldoun Barghouti, a 43-year-old from Kobar, a village near Ramallah.
This is the first mobile kitchen in the West Bank.
The truck is the brainchild of Barghouti and 35-year-old Abdel Rahman Bibi, both former political prisoners jailed by Israel for nine and eight years respectively. In the years leading up to their release, they mulled over the various ways they could make a living.
“We didn’t want to be a burden on society,” Barghouti, a married father of six, told Al Jazeera. “We wanted people to benefit from our work, to develop as individuals, and to provide a service. We didn’t want to subsist on welfare.”
At the beginning, curiosity attracted people to our truck. Some people also wanted to support us because we are former prisoners. But now they are coming back for the food.
Their vision of what the truck would look like was inspired by prison life: They hated stationary spaces, so they chose a mobile kitchen. They were so repelled by blue and brown, the Israel Prison Service’s colours of choice, that they had the truck painted in vibrant shades of red, orange and purple.
Having enjoyed a tuna-and-corn concoction for years behind bars, they developed this as one of their many specialties, along with traditional fast-food options such as shawarma, burgers, and sausage, turkey and schnitzel sandwiches loaded with fries and pickled vegetables.
“We only started about two weeks ago,” said Barghouti, who studied IT, history and marketing both in and outside prison. “Right now we are in a trial period, where we are scouting locations, deciding on the most appropriate prices, and figuring out what our running costs are.”
The cooking partners broke ground by being the first in the occupied West Bank to obtain a permit from Palestinian authorities for a mobile kitchen. But they wanted to take it further, looking for ways to make the truck as environmentally friendly as possible.
With the help of a local green firm, the truck’s roof was affixed with two solar panels, which on a clear day can power the vehicle’s freezer, display fridges and fans.
“We did our research online and saw how food trucks around the world are operating,” Bibi told Al Jazeera. “A generator would harm patrons and release hazardous fumes that affect the environment, in addition to the noise factor. We were looking for a solution, and the best one we found was solar power.”
For a second week now, the truck has been roaming the streets of Ramallah, stopping at several locations each day. In the mornings, they often park by al-Quds University; at noon, they head to Beitunia’s industrial area, where they cater to workers out on their lunch break; and in the late afternoon, the truck sits by the market, near mounds of potatoes, courgettes and freshly picked vine leaves stacked under large, colourful umbrellas. On weekends, the truck heads to various parks, tourist areas and cultural centres.
“So far we have generated a lot of interest,” Bibi said. “Turnout is high. Customers keep coming back. There are some people trying to replicate our idea [who] have asked us for tips. Our Facebook page is filled with messages of support, or questions about the truck.”
Since launching their business, the two men heard of another food truck debuting in Gaza City.
With four families relying on the truck for their livelihood, Barghouti and Bibi will need all the customers they can get. So far, they have taken out a $37,000 loan, payable over the next five years with a low interest rate, facilitated by the Palestinian Ministry of Detainees.
“We faced some hurdles, because this is the first project of its kind in Palestine,” Barghouti said. “I couldn’t find any appliances to fit inside the truck, so everything had to be custom-made. I think the only item we purchased from a store was a set of knives.”
The Ramallah and Bireh municipalities, under whose jurisdiction the truck operates, did not know how to categorise them for permit purposes, he said. “Are we under restaurants, stalls or trucks, they would ask. Thankfully, the governorate gave us a permit to park wherever we wanted, as long as we don’t impede traffic, or park on the sidewalk or in front of a restaurant.”
The truck is so far garnering attention for various reasons: curiosity, empathy for the former prisoners, and food prices, which the two have customised to their specific clients. At the market, where even young boys have to work to help their families, prices are low, with a sausage sandwich – piled high with French fries and vegetables – selling for about $2.
“Yesterday I bought two sandwiches,” said 14-year-old Rami, who wheels patrons’ bags in a shopping cart from the market to their cars. “It’s cheap and conveniently located, and I love the fact that they use solar power. It’s the first time I’ve seen this.”
The success thus far has encouraged the two men to hire a third person to help to prepare the food. With Bibi planning to get married in less than a month, they have also decided to split the workload into two shifts.
“At the beginning, curiosity attracted people to our truck,” Barghouti said. “Some people also wanted to support us because we are former prisoners. But now they are coming back for the food.”