Thursday, October 7, 2010

Hummus and the Parallel Universe

I love hummus. I eat hummus practically every day. It is my mama-loschen food. My father hated his mother's Polish-German cooking so he would sneak out to the Arab falafel vendors in Jerusalem and eat his fill so as not to suffer at his mother's table. This would be in the late 1930's. My mother was a Russian refugee who made it to Israel in 1949 and one of the promises she made my father when they married was that she would cook only 'Israeli' food. Luckily, her mama-loschen food was the Turkish inspired vegetable-heavy cuisine of Bessarabia. The delicious mixture of all those influences at my mother's table can still make me swoon.

So, some time in the late 1990's I picked up an Edward Said book at a bookstore in NYand started skimming through it. My hands burned and my face turned red when on one page the following idea jumped out at me: Israel has no right to claim hummus as an Israeli food -- it is a form of cultural theft. Wow, that killed me and it killed my already grudging respect for Said. Wow, would Said make the same claim about Italian-Jewish, Russian-Jewish, German-Jewish, Spanish-Jewish, Polish-Jewish, Syrian-Jewish cuisines too? Were all those examples of cultural theft?

I remembered this recently and started searching online for that particular quote. I couldn't find it but instead found myself hurtling through the wormhole which is the Palestinian rejection of the idea that anything Israeli can be authentic. For now I'll stick to food. It's been a tough week and I need to keep things light and tasty.

Here are a couple of examples of what our Palestinian peace process interlocutors have said about this:

From a 1999 article in the Seattle Times: "The Israelis say falafel was inherited from the Arabs and made their own. Palestinians claim the popular street snack as part of their heritage and chief Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed-Rabbo goes as far as accusing Israel of trying to use the humble falafel to steal Palestinian culture. "If they say falafel is theirs, they are thieves and liars," he said. Veteran negotiator Hanan Ashwari tells how buying falafel became a ritual for the Palestinian team before they set off for peace talks with the Israelis starting in Madrid in 1991. "We are very proud and possessive of our foods and this is why we feel resentful when it is presented as Israeli food. It is cultural robbery," she says in her book, "This Side of Peace." 

As if the Turks and the Greeks and the Cypriots and the Syrians and the Egyptians and the Lebanese and now even the Kansans don't have their own variations of hummus and falafel. Only Jews are branded thieves.

OK, I wanted to stick to food, but researching how Palestinians feel about the Israeli 'appropriation' of their food led me to this article by Michelle J. Kinnucan, whom I'd never heard of but who seems to be a cultural-theorist-in-residence of the solidarity movement. [In 2009 she wrote an urgent appeal for the boycott of the Bathsheva Dance Company wherein she quotes Omar Barghouti (the Tel-Aviv University student leading the academic boycott of Israel) and describes him as a freelance choreographer, among other things. Hello? Did we know this about Omar Barghouti?] In this article she vaults through many aspects of Israeli or Jewish thievery and inauthenticity:

For example, Hebrew is a semi-engineered Semito-European hybrid language with many words that were simply invented but others were adapted or lifted from Arabic. Similarly, the word sabra is appropriated by Israelis to connote the new tough Jew, but is actually a symbol of the destroyed villages of Palestine. 

This is followed by the now familiar criticism of Israeli food-theft with a little diversion about boycotting the Sabra brand of foods. "...see the web site of Sabra Hummus (yes, that "sabra") where hummus is referred to as a "Mediterranean" food. (An Israeli company, the Strauss Group, owns a 50% stake in the company that makes Sabra Hummus and, therefore, Sabra Hummus is being boycotted by people of conscience.)"

Kinnukan finally asserts that the ultimate appropriation of Palestinianism is the preponderance of Jewish activists in the solidarity movement. Yes. Hold on to your seats because the logico-spatio trajectory from now on is going to be very, very precipitous:

"Today, the Palestinian voice or 'cause' is frequently mediated through or represented by Jews like Invincible, Ora Wise, Anna Baltzer, Norman Finkelstein, Jeff Halper, Noam Chomsky, Joel Kovel, Michael Lerner, Gila Svirsky, Phyllis Bennis, Susan Nathan, Marc Ellis, Hannah Mermelstein, Daniel Barenboim, Uri Avnery, Mitchell Plitnick, David Wesley,etc. (on mainstream representations of Arabs/Muslims by the predominantly Jewish Hollywood, even by Jewish actors, see"Planet of the Arabs") 
The problem is twofold: First, these folks don't typically content themselves with bringing their message to primarily Jewish audiences; rather, they crowd out Palestinian and other non-Jewish voices–they disproportionately occupy the finite social space devoted to 'Israel-Palestine.' And, thus, they enable–inadvertently or not–others who are uncomfortable having Arabs represent themselves. One result is a self-fulfilling prophecy I've personally heard too often: "People won't come to hear Arabs.""
So! Get it? Jews take and take and take and ultimately they steal the voices of the very people they oppress! 

Meanwhile, the Lebanese are also trying to claim Hummus as their own. "If we don't tell Israel that enough is enough, and we don't remind the world that it's not true that hummus is an Israeli traditional dish, they [Israelis] will keep on marketing it as their own," says Fadi Abboud the head of Lebanon's Association of Lebanese Industrialists when he announced plans to sue Israel to stop it from marketing hummus and other regional dishes as Israeli.




    Israeli falafel is different from the Arab falafel. It is smaller, rounder, lighter, fluffier. And it is served differently, in a pocket pita. More intelligently, in my humble opinion.

    Israeli Hummus is also lighter in texture, and spiced differently.

    BTW, I never had much respect for Edward said though I have tried to speak respectfully of his literary theories (such as "Orientalism"). My main beef with him is the fact that in his eagerness to colour the Western Canon racist etc he managed to rape Jane Austen's novels to suit his doctrines.

    More recently I encountered his name in Christopher Hitchens' memoir and was gratified to learn that the Hitch sobered up from his many years of infatuation with Edward Said. He finally reveals his opinion about Said and his legacy in no uncertain terms. Calls him vulgar and describes his "thuggish" responses whenever confronted with opinions he did not like or share.

    Just as I suspected.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I think Said is responsible for one of the biggest mind f--ks of the 20th C. As for falafel, I've had so many different types from so many parts of the Mediterranean and Africa that for anyone to claim ownership is preposterous.

  3. "Israeli Falafel" is actually Palestinian Falafel. That's where most of the controversy stems from. The Palestinians are indigenous to the land as is the food that is still served and prepared there. Just because the Israelis took power of the land in 1948 doesn't give them the right to claim the food as their own. Go to any Palestinian village void of Israeli rule and you will see how they prepare the falafel.


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