Osama Qashoo

Posted on 20 November 2020

Osama Qashoo is a human rights activist, film maker, Co-Founder of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and Founder of Hiba restaurants.

Elliot Moss

Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya.  What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut due to rights issues.

Welcome to Jazz Shapers, it’s me, Elliot Moss.  It’s where the shapers of business join the shapers of Jazz, Soul and Blues.  I am very pleased to say my guest today is Osama Qashoo, filmmaker, human rights activist and Founder of Hiba restaurants, the family owned Lebanese and Palestinian restaurant group; I confess I am an absolute fan of those restaurants.  Born in Palestine, Osama’s filmmaking interests began when he found a broken camera and pretended to film checkpoints and street demonstrations, noticing that Israeli soldiers reacted differently.  He learned to make reports and documentary films and worked for various Palestinian radio and television companies and as a photographer for Reuters.  In 2001 he Co-founded the International Solidarity Movement, a non-violent Palestinian-led activist network but after organising protests opposing the West Bank wall, Osama was forced to leave.  He came to the UK in 2003, studying his Masters and making a documentary, ‘My Dear Olive Tree’ about the destruction of his village’s olive groves.  In 2012 without any knowledge of the restaurant industry, he launched his family of Hiba – meaning ‘a lovely surprise’ – restaurants in London.  The three venues, with grandmother, Huja as the main chef, now employ around fifty staff from all over the Arab world, as he says, and support refugee charities in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.  And between March and May this year, Osama launched a crowdfunding campaign for the NHS providing thousands of meals to frontline staff.  “We’re from Palestine”, he said, “where the situation of lockdown and curfew is very familiar.  My team and I are really happy that we are doing something worthwhile during this surreal period.” 

Hello.  I declare an interest, I am… your falafel is the best falafel I have ever had, I reckon. 

Osama Qashoo

Thank you very much. 

Elliot Moss

Even from my Middle Eastern experiences. 

Osama Qashoo

I think, you know, I always claim that it’s the best falafel in Europe and I challenge people to bring something…

Elliot Moss

…better.  And the thing is, it’s green.

Osama Qashoo

Yes.

Elliot Moss

And that is because?

Osama Qashoo

Because of a lot of green stuff inside from parsley to chilli to coriander and the most amazing touch of our Huja is, I don’t know, there’s a secret from Jerusalem that we use and it’s not a secret, it’s just, we use exactly what they used to do for thousands of years, you know, and it’s really, really important, the story of falafel, you know with Ottoman soldiers used to come and take all of the crops from the farmers, the farmers would break and destroy some of the crops so the Ottomans wouldn’t show interest in it so, the Ottomans would take the prime crops and then the broken stuff was left behind for the farmers and the farmers had to kind of create something out of it which basically houmous and falafel.  

Elliot Moss

Ah ha.  That makes sense.  But also, the thing about the falafel is, you’ve got the authentic one and I want to talk about authenticity with you, I think it’s a thing for you, or for us rather as we talk to you.  The normal falafel, or often falafel is yellow and it’s got this yucky colour but this is because it’s not made with the proper ingredients. 

Osama Qashoo

It’s a cheaper version of falafel and I think, I don’t… look, I’m not an expert on falafel but we know that…

Elliot Moss

Apart from having a Lebanese Palestinian restaurant that sells the best falafel in Europe.  You’re not an expert on falafel.  If you’re not an expert, Osama, who is the expert?

Osama Qashoo

The granny, and she knows it all, I think.  She doesn’t cook or make anything which we, which she doesn’t feel it’s right and we don’t use fava beans, we use just the Mexican twelve colour chickpeas which is the most expensive and it’s very, very important that it’s soaked overnight and then the water is changed three times.  I think these little details are very important and I think she said like you need to handle with care, you know, falafel or houmous are particularly like a relationship, you need to handle with care, you know, when we crush it, you have to crush it with ice not cold water, you don’t need to put it in the freezer, you put in a fridge.  There’s so many terms and conditions which I cannot keep up with so every time I go to the kitchen and they do it and then I try to make one comment, I’ll be chased out of the kitchen and I think that is the best way. 

Elliot Moss

Well funnily enough so we met when I came to one of the restaurants in Holborn, very close to Mishcon de Reya and I was with one of my children and we met and we had an extraordinary conversation and we started talking about stuff.  Your life before your business and your journey and I think you are a traveller in many ways, I feel from an emotional and educational perspective for sure and probably others as well.  Tell me a little bit about how you arrived in this country and how you then, briefly, got yourself from where you were with film into the world of food. 

Osama Qashoo

Gosh, that’s a very complicated story. 

Elliot Moss

And we’re going to do it in bits so we’re going to do the first part just to whet the appetite, excuse the pun.  Good luck.  Go for it.  I’m going to give you the first bit and then we’ve got some more wonderful music. 

Osama Qashoo

Well, I was living in Palestine being cool with sunglasses that I wear during the night more than the day.  I was a radio DJ just playing some really funny, lovely music and, you know, this is way before the Facebook, I am talking like you know 1999/2000 so I have highjacked the signals of the main radio station in a small village, in a small town in Palestine which is very close to… it’s between the green line which divided Palestine from Israel by the Palestinian city where I am from, Qalqilya, and I started actually by tabbing into the settlers’ waves so the settlers used, you know, the radio station to do their prayers and announcements, schools and everything, so I used, I developed this thing, I was very, very good at school so we developed a thing to highjack their FM signal and we broadcast on it beautiful, lovely messages between lovers.  So, I would have a secret post box in a photographer’s studio in the city centre and the girls and the boys after school would drop their love messages to them, like the lover of a sunset to the moon, you know, the moon to the… my lovely cat, I don’t know this crazy nickname but they know each other and then I gather these messages and go back at night, after midnight, and go with these kind of like Whisper of Love, my radio show called and on Whisper of Love we just delivered messages between lovers and it’s amazing, I loved it, that was my life, my life was all about radio, you know, my life was all about finding some really cheeky music and remember, I had to go to bribe people for a cassette, you know the small cassettes.  The internet was slowly, slowly creeping in, I had a friend of mine who managed also to highjack the internet signal from Kefar Sava which is a very close Israeli city to us.  We’re not allowed to have, you know, high technology because of Israeli occupation but we’ve got lots of beautiful brains and they managed to highjack the internet signal.  I remember in that time the only two cities who had like internet lease lines, maybe a city in Canada and us because this guy would just take free internet and he did his own internal network so we used to have like internet by line, you are talking about 1999 or 2000.  Now the crazy stuff that I was known to some but I was unknown to others.  I don’t really go publicly with my name on the radio station because it’s not very fancy what I do and it doesn’t really… it wasn’t very popular amongst the older generation because it’s not considered to be, you know…

Elliot Moss

Appropriate. 

Osama Qashoo

Appropriate.

Elliot Moss

So lets’ stop there.  It’s not considered inappropriate, Osama is on the radio, he’s broadcasting and it’s these interesting love messages.  Part One. 

Osama Qashoo is my Business Shaper, Founder of Hiba restaurants, the family-owned Lebanese and Palestinian restaurant group with the wonderful Huja, or grandmother as she is known and she is the head chef.  And as I said, they gave thousands of free meals in the first lockdown this year to frontline NHS staff which tells you something very particular about Osama’s attitude to society.  So I want to know where that attitude came from and you’ve taken us back, Osama to the late nineties, we’re in Palestine in a radio station, you’ve highjacked the airways, you’ve got lovers passing messages and then what?

Osama Qashoo

Then what, the second intifada started, I was just a cool guy who wanted to be famous with my DJ friend and that was my mission.  I would do anything for that.  I even went to study medicine for my grandmother so they can leave me alone but they didn’t know what I was doing, that was my little secret.  I was doing it without a name so I wasn’t even famous with my name but I was famous with my actions and suddenly the intifada happened.  We didn’t know what it was, what was that but what I know, it was a nice opportunity because every single radio station and local TV station got shut by Israel and we are the only spared ones because nobody know that we existed.  So for me it was an opportunity to fame.  It’s the time that we could broadcast not just one hour after midnight, or two hours after midnight, now we can be 24-hours.

Elliot Moss

And this stage you are like nineteen, eighteen?

Osama Qashoo

I think I was, yeah, I was nineteen and a half maybe, just nineteen, yeah, nineteen.  So we went live and we were broadcasting nothing but beautiful music and dance DJs and everything else while the whole, like the whole hell break loose outside of the, you know, in the streets and the Israeli tanks are invading and we just basically just having fun and my lovely followers they are also having fun with me and then suddenly we received this, we started receiving phone calls and we received this phone call from this like crazy woman who is crying her lungs out and she’s like “I’m in labour, I don’t know what to do.  Can you help me?”  I was like, okay, like I am getting some phone calls from people who want to kind of listen to this music or get this love song to this lover and suddenly this woman want me to tell her how to give birth and I was like, excuse me?  Then my DJ friend realised that, “Look, the hospital, nobody can access the hospital and the ambulance can’t move” and this woman found our phone number and she called us for help.  Then that thing’s hit me and we tried to give her some instruction for how to give birth.  We couldn’t and luckily a doctor was listening and he called in and he was giving her live on air instruction on how to give birth and she delivered the baby and we hear the baby and we were crying and we were shocked and that was the last song I played on the radio because that incident encouraged so many people to call us for help.  A woman who lost her babies, she doesn’t know where they are, they were like red jackets and whatever and then another guy called and said like “All the vermin in the street and now they are in our house , nobody is safe.”

Elliot Moss

So you suddenly became a community centrally…

Osama Qashoo

Become an emergency.  It was completely crazy and that was my I think launch into 100% politics because I thought that this is, I don’t know what, I mean was suddenly want to be famous and lovely and everything else and…

Elliot Moss

And you switched. 

Osama Qashoo

And then pshoow.  It was happening.

Elliot Moss

So stay with me, so fame becomes politics and we are going to move from politics into what happens next.  That’s Part Three with me here on a very unusual Jazz Shapers and a very fabulous guest, Osama Qashoo.  Stay with me for much more from him but right now, let’s hear a taster from the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions which can be found on all of the major podcast platforms.  Mishcon de Reya’s Tom Grogan and Alastair Moore discuss artificial intelligence and machine learning, their possible application, and key things for organisations to consider when seeking to implement them. 

You can enjoy all or former Jazz Shapers and hear this very programme again by popping Jazz Shapers into your podcast platform of choice or if you have a smart speaker you can ask it play Jazz Shapers but back to today’s guest, it’s Osama Qashoo, filmmaker, human rights activist, Founder of Hiba restaurants, great storyteller and all sorts of other things.  You’ve talked very poignantly about that move from desiring fame to realising that hold on a minute, there’s a world here that’s called politics even if you didn’t call it politics then, it was like people need help and there’s a political awakening, there is an awakening, Osama, of what your life might become.  So from the radio programme you then, as I understand it, you Founded the International Solidarity Movement, that was in 2001. 

Osama Qashoo

Yep. 

Elliot Moss

It’s quite hard to Found something whether it’s a business or whether is a political party.  How?  Why you?  Why did you do it then?  What compelled you and how did you manage to pull it off?

Osama Qashoo

That era was very important.  Movement was the most important stuff and we were not allowed to move.  We move only if there is a foreigner with blonde hair, blue eyes, or a journalist with a camera and that was, for me, a crazy move because I want to move, I can’t stay still and I needed to be friends with these either, you know, blonde and blue eyes and/or journalists so basically my world become very biased towards journalists and blonde girls because I just want to kind of have my freedom and my freedom was very important, I want to move, move, move, move.  So I’ve nicknamed myself Lorenzo, I was that Italian journalist, I speak a little bit Italian and a little bit English and found a broken camera in one of the landfills and I pretended to be a journalist and I made my own fake ID, I’ve created a charity called the PCI, Peace Child International, that never existed and I was just travelling to the checkpoint,  “Who are you?”  “Sorry, I am from Italy, my name is Lorenzo.”  Sometime a journalist, sometime a human right PCI and then slowly, slowly these lies become reality and these student on exchange programmes from England, from America, from even some Jewish guys who came to Israel using their birth right and they are interested in exploring the territories and suddenly I make friends with them, I didn’t know that, I never hear of birth right so they become my friends so slowly, slowly I have like a good amount of friends that I thought maybe I should manipulate them and do you have an interest so we go to that checkpoint so my journey suddenly become to visit checkpoints so I can open the checkpoints because whenever we are there the Palestinians can go to hospitals, can go to whatever so that becomes suddenly my life, travelling every day between checkpoints as a fake Lorenzo, Italian journalist or as just a friend, a translator for these guys and sometime I just had one or two people who don’t speak English at all like I’ve got one time I remember I have like somebody from Italy who doesn’t speak English from the Basque country and from Catalonia and I had to create a language which was basically based on nothing, I go blah blah blah and they were just… but the language start coming again so I called it the Cata language which is basically unite all of these crazy people together and I didn’t know it will be called later on that I assembled them because also other people were doing the same thing in Bethlehem, in Jerusalem or Romana and we got together and the idea then was how can we get people on a cheap trip to Palestine and they become our friends, that’s it. 

Elliot Moss

Okay.  Now many apologies for having to shorten this but your experiences and the incredible life you have lived so far are simply not going to fit into this one hour so excuse me, I’m going to move us forward to you leaving Palestine, and it was to be clear the violence that forced you to leave and you came to London and effectively you had to start again, a new life and we are going to be talking about that new life and how your three restaurants came into being in just a few minutes. 

Osama Qashoo is my Business Shaper and I feel like I am on a journey with you and it’s a shorter journey because we could do this for absolutely hours.  You come to London via all those countries, you are here, you end up as I understand it in film school, you had been homeless, someone basically one of the teachers essentially found some money in a scholarship fund to enable you to go, is this right, to enable you to attend this incredible National Film and Television School, is that correct?

Osama Qashoo

Yeah, that was later.  I, basically I landed in London, I started to live by exile, I didn’t know what exile before, really terrible, I terribly missed my place, my friends, my surroundings, my everything.  It was very hard and particularly because I, you know it’s not easy for me to ask for help, I’ve got lots of contacts but they would help me for two days, three days, four days, five days but I couldn’t really ask for a lot of help because my dignity was on the line.  I wanted to study, I know one thing that I promised my grandmother that I wanted to go to school.  I tried, I applied to all the Universities but unfortunately by that time I had no document, I have no paper, I have no status, I have no money, I have nothing so I was literally, literally in the street and I thought why not go for something outside London and I met this wonderful English family who, you know, they are my family here, Peter and Holly, they just said to me maybe you could go to the Film School, the National Film and Television School and they know a contact there, Dick Fontaine.  They contacted him, I went and I didn’t know it’s a very hard school to get to and I went there and I thought I would never get a chance after hearing all these crazy stories about the school and they accepted me and I was shocked, I was living in Marylebone Station. 

Elliot Moss

So eventually when did you from this moment Osama when you talked about not having a home, at what point in this country did you actually have your own roof with electricity and all the things you hadn’t even had, you hadn’t had for years, was it years?  Was it months? 

Osama Qashoo

In London?

Elliot Moss

Yeah. 

Osama Qashoo

Well, I mastered the idea of squatting.  I’ve made good friends with a lot of people who would give me their sofas and even my, the Head of my Department who I used to go and cook for him and talk and then fell asleep on his sofa and then I started living in the kitchen of the school, you know the school kitchen.  That is basically, that is the journey before I went and I applied for asylum and you know I got some help from the NASS, wonderful NASS support, the you know the Asylum Support Service, I mean people do underestimate how important when you are lost and have nothing, these little helps. 

Elliot Moss

This is extraordinary though, this life of yours and now, you know, when we meet here, you’ve got your three restaurants, there’s fifty people working for you, you provided thousands of meals across lockdown.  It’s like, how do you manage to transition to being part of a structure when you were completely outside of it again and again.  How have you managed to square away all these… I mean, we’ve talked probably 1% of the stories, 1% of the life experiences you have had.  How have you managed to now do what you do?

Osama Qashoo

Look Elliot, I think the problem that we have, I have realised when you live in a very institutionalised places which is very clean, very organised, very structured with a clear system, it’s a nightmare and it’s a blessing.  If you don’t understand what you are doing it’s a nightmare and if you understand what does that enable and allow you to do, it’s a blessing and I think coming from this refugee camp background with my journey, I found London which I call proudly my home town now, it gave me the opportunity and the chance to explore other things that I was very hungry to do.  I’m very hungry to explore, I’ve got this freedom, I’m very, very, very loyal to London and I will defend it.  There is something in London which is unique and special and I wanted to use it and I wanted to enable myself through this infrastructure but I just don’t want to apply the system that exists because I saw this system is therefore, is a safety net but if you would stay within that institutionalised system, you can’t do anything.  And why?  Because I know that there is something in the city that I can do and I know it’s in the film industry or in the falafel industry or in any other industry.  You just need to be brave and do it in a very unconventional way.  You cannot take no for an answer and you should not allow anybody to tell you how you can evolve out of your shell because nobody know your shell and nobody know you apart from you and I just employed everything I’ve learned in Palestine in London.  Hence in the first lockdown I have decided in February that we are not a business, we are going to function in central London as a relief committee.  The only way to survive and to live through this, is to be a relief committee because what is happening is not business orientated, it is a disaster zone, war plan, so you need to be in a war mentality to be able to understand what is going to happen and, you know, we are still standing, we have difficulties but we are standing, we are helping people, we, my boys are there you know, none of them sat at home and it’s amazing and it’s crazy and at the same time it’s very promising that, you know, I can see things that comes out of this, you know, hardships, you know there’s a lot of opportunities, you just need to kind of like unlock these curtains and you will see the sunshine coming.

Elliot Moss

Hold that thought.  It’s an excellent thought.  Osama Qashoo, my Business Shaper, Founder of Hiba restaurants talking about turning his restaurant business into a relief committee during lockdown earlier this year, giving thousands of free and crowdfunded meals to London’s Doctors and Nurses, to NHS staff on the frontline of this pandemic.  We’ll have our final chat with Osama plus play a track from George Benson, that’s coming up in just a moment, I’m sure like me you are not going to go anywhere. 

Osama Qashoo is my Business Shaper just for a few more minutes, pretty unusual one too.  I haven’t had someone who has come, had to seek asylum, been homeless, enrolled in a film school, had proper stories of converting the power of fame into politics, I mean seriously, extraordinary and, as you said, unconventional.  You had a lovely thought before about the curtains being opened to opportunities through this crisis.  It strikes me, Osama, there’s only one way you’ve been able to live your life which is that it’s been through your actions, it’s been through doing stuff because if you didn’t do stuff you and I wouldn’t be in this room now together with nice light and electricity, recording a programme and so on and so forth, it wouldn’t be there.  What in you has made you such an action orientated guy versus millions of us that sit and think about stuff and don’t do things?

Osama Qashoo

You said it.  Mental and physical are very, very connected and you need to move your mental ideas and your ideas in general into a physical action so they can, they can produce babies, you know?  And conflict is an amazing gift that make things happen and that is basically my take.  I go and I teach people and the minute they say like “I’ve got nothing, I’m completely, you know, useless” and I say “that’s fantastic, that is exactly your wealth and you need to dig in deeper into these things and understand it, having nothing is an amazing opportunity because you can do anything and everything because if you have something you will always work to protect that something because you are fearful of losing that something” and you have to dig in deeper into why everyone is different, why is your signature matter in this business line or that business line and how can you basically, as I said before, just if we build out of the institution and become completely a shining star.  I’m not saying that I’m a shining star but what I am saying is conflict is an amazing gift sometime because it makes you creative, it makes you innovative, it makes a lot of things that you think are unachievable, achievable and you have to create something that doesn’t exist from the area that you didn’t know that it did exist before and that is where your strength lies and I think you just need to get in touch with your strength and I always use the model of a skeleton, you’ve got the skeleton, the muscles is not a problem there are so many gems, there are so many great people that you can talk to, just talk to people, they are your keys, they are your strength. 

Elliot Moss

If I spoke to you in five years, if I spoke to you in ten years, is Osama the same guy who is going to be saying the same provocative things, saying be unconventional.  Is that, if there was a life philosophy, is that it or does it change?

Osama Qashoo

I think that never change, that will never change and if that changed that means that I am not creative and I need some help so please help me, get me out of that mentality because we all, I mean, the nature of our human beings’ behaviour is all about discovery and you know I think we all want happiness but success doesn’t mean happiness all the time.  Does it make sense?  And I don’t think your success is measured by how much money you make or how much, you know, your success is measured by how happy you are and how creative you are.  You know, I’m not going to get to this philosophical ideas of why you are doing what you do, if I ask you the same questions, “why, I mean you don’t need money, why are you doing this programme, why are you doing this show, why are you doing what you do? and if you dig deeper there is a bigger force that basically moves you and I do believe that when you localise your global and you localise your local in a very, very, very weird way then you become who you are as an infinity, you are not just as a baddy who would just basically die one day and decay and become a memory, no, your energy, your onterlogical part, your whole existence is unlimited, the whole idea that you need to share who you are with so many people with so many ideas and so many arenas and you need to be completely global in a very local way and your strength is technically taken from your inner circle, from who you are relating to, family-wise, friends-wise and I don’t know with this age of technology and IT we need to evolve, we need to adapt the way we talk, we need to adapt the way we eat, we need to adapt the way think, we need to adapt the way we do business but at the same time we need to be very humble because we all need to go to the toilet at the end of the day. 

Elliot Moss

And what a way to end.  Who would have though that’s where it was going to go?  Listen, it’s been extraordinary talking to you.  I’ve loved it.  I have only got time for one more question is what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Osama Qashoo

Hmm, my song choice is for my wonderful friends at 47 Souls.  47 Souls is a beautiful band and I have held them, you know, the song, More Light, we need more light so when you open the curtain you see that light and we need even more light behind that curtain so you can discover how beautiful, how wonderful you are and what can you do, you are unstoppable and you are wonderful.  Just a little bit more light and you are on it baby! 

Elliot Moss

That was 47 Soul with More Light, the song choice of my Business Shaper, Osama Qashoo.  He talked about opening the curtains and seeing the opportunities, about the importance of freedom and about the importance of continual discovery and reinvention.  Fantastic stuff.  That’s it from Jazz Shapers, have a lovely weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers.  You’ll find hundreds of more guests available for you to listen to in our archive.  To find out more just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to Mishcon.com/jazzshapers.

Born in Palestine, Osama’s filmmaking interests began when he found a broken camera and pretended to film checkpoints and street demonstrations, noticing that Israeli soldiers reacted differently. He learned to make reports and documentary films and worked for various Palestinian radio and television companies and as a photographer for Reuters.

In 2001 he Co-Founded the ISM, a non-violent Palestinian-led activist network, but after organising protests opposing the West Bank wall, Osama was forced to leave and came back to the UK in 2003. In 2012, without any knowledge of the restaurant industry, he launched his family of Hiba – meaning ‘a lovely surprise’ – restaurants in London. 

Between March - May 2020, Osama also launched a crowdfunding campaign for the NHS providing thousands of meals to frontline staff. 

Highlights

My life was all about radio.

I was doing it without a name, so I wasn’t even famous by my name, I was famous by my actions.

I was just a cool guy who wanted to be famous with my DJ friend. That was my mission.

Movement was the most important thing and we were not allowed to move.

I just wanted to have my freedom.

I couldn’t ask for a lot of help because my dignity was on the line.

I applied to all of the Universities but unfortunately at that time I had no documents, papers, status, money - I had nothing.

It gave me the opportunity and the chance to explore other things that I was very hungry to do.

You cannot take 'no' for an answer.

You should not allow anybody to tell you how you can evolve.

You have to dig in deeper into why everyone is different.

Conflict is an amazing gift sometimes because it makes you creative and innovative, and makes a lot of things that you think are unachievable, achievable.

We all want happiness, but success doesn’t always mean happiness.

We need to adapt the way we do business but at the same time we need to be very humble. 

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