‘An erasure of culture’: how Israel appropriates Arab and Persian Jewish cuisine

Tuesday 18 June 201905:16 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية

From Iraq: “Kitchari”

Kitchari – also known in Arabic as Khidji – is originally a South Asian dish made of rice, lentils and spices, similar to the Egyptian street dish known as Kushari

Ingredients:

Rice, lentils, onions, garlic, oil, tomato sauce, salt, pepper, cumin, tumeric, water, sour milk (yoghurt), vegetable salad

Preparation:

Wash the rice and lentils well with a lot of water. Heat the oil in a pot, adding onion and leaving it to cook for a few minutes. Add the tomato sauce, spices and water and leave to boil.

Next, add the rice and lentils and bring to the boil again, covering the pot and leaving it to simmer on a lower heat for twenty minutes.

Before serving, heat the oil in a frying-pan, adding garlic and cumin and cook for one minute. Add the mixture onto the rice and blend everything; serve with yoghurt and salad.

From Tunisia: “Merdouma”

Ingredients:

Tomato, sun-dried tomato, olive oil, green pepper, garlic, black spices, salt, sugar

Preparation:

Cook the tomato slowly, covering it with olive oil. You can add various types of tomato (of different colours, shapes and kinds), such as dried tomato – all of them cut into small pieces.

Add chopped green pepper to the tomato, cloves of garlic (some chopped and some whole), blending everything before adding black spices, salt, sugar and olive oil.

Place everything in a tajine (saucepan) and leave to cook on a low flame or in an oven overnight, before finally adding caraway seeds.

From Iran: “Gondi”

Ingredients:

Chickpeas, rice, dried lemon (Persian lime), salt, pepper, turmeric, cardamom, crushed chickpeas (hummus powder), chicken and onion.

Preparation:

For the soup, boil the chickpeas after leaving them in water overnight, adding dried lemon (Persian lime), salt, pepper, turmeric and a little rice.

To prepare the Gondi meat balls: a third of grated onions, a third of turkey breast (or battered chicken), a third of crushed chickpeas (hummus powder). It is preferable for the mixture not to stick to your hand; if it does add more grated onion; if the mixture is somewhat runny (liquid), add more crushed hummus.

Next, add salt, pepper, cardamom and turmeric to the blend. Wet your hands and prepare the meatballs in small ping-pong sized balls and place it into the soup. Leave the blend on the fire for half an hour and serve.

An introduction

I yearned in my first moments after moving to Berlin for Shawarma, and so my friends took me to the “best” shawarma place in the city. I put “best” in quotation marks because it’s a relative matter. After all, every shawarma place in Germany’s capital was to my eyes an attempt to produce a good imitation of the original.

I had tasted the shawarma of Haifa – and I specify Haifa in particular, not Palestine as a whole.

Anyway, when I started regularly visiting the Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese shawarma shops in Berlin, I discovered that the Levantine version included tomato as well as garlic sauce. For me personally, as a Palestinian born in Acre, I never knew that shawarma was sometimes eaten with garlic sauce, because those of us from inland Palestine had it with a sauce called ‘Amba’.

Amba or Anba is a liquid ingredient extracted from mangoes, and has a sweet, sour and spicy taste. It is commonly used in Iraqi cuisine and is also widespread in India and the Gulf Arab states. It would eventually make its way to the shawarma shops of Haifa, Jaffa and elsewhere in Palestine with the Iraqi Jews who arrived after the establishment of the State of Israel – leading to the disappearance of garlic sauce from shawarma and its replacement with Amba (note: I speak here specifically of the shawarma inside 1948 Palestine).

As with Amba, many dishes and various scents arrived with the Arab Jews to Palestine, providing windows to the cuisines of Baghdad, Jarba, Rabat, Sana’a and even Tehran – places that I generally cannot visit as a holder of an Israeli passport, as with 1.3 million Palestinians in Israel.

The issue here, however, is that as with many other Arab and Eastern dishes, Israel has claimed Amba as its own. Indeed, it is not only Palestinians who have been subjected to this colonial appropriation of food (though the political dimensions here make it undoubtedly more dangerous) – for the cuisines of Arab Jews who arrived in Palestine after 1948 from across the Arab world have also been prey to the same process.

The subject of food always takes me to the question of identity –a question I was born into, as with the other million or so sons and daughters of my nation living under the auspices of a colonial entity that has worked hard since its formation on erasing their identity and its landmarks.

This targeted effort has not only encompassed the identity of Palestinians, but also the Arab Jews who had to leave their Arab identities behind in their former homes of Baghdad, Cairo and Marrakech by political decrees of a colonial entity which sought to transform them into new creatures required to absorb a preconceived Israeli identity.

That diktat belonged to the European founders of the Zionist movement, who dealt with Arab and Eastern identity – with all its rich variations and details – as though it were nothing; something that didn’t quite reach the required level of civilisation.

The implications of this policy on Arab and Eastern cuisines leads us to a few questions: how did the Zionist diktat manifest itself vis a vis the cuisines of Arab and Iranian Jews when they arrived in Israel? How has Israel worked to erase their identities (with food a crucial part of that identity), and why – after so many years – have these cuisines been appropriated by it?

“Stealing the food of the weak party”

Rafram Haddad often uploads pictures of various meals and dishes to his Instagram account, some of which he cooked himself and others which he photographed from a cross-section of Tunisian restaurants. A writer and artist, Haddad undoubtedly had a rich cultural upbringing: he was born in Tunisia, grew up in Jerusalem, lived in Europe, before finally returning four years ago to his hometown of Tunis.

“I am from here, and I am more comfortable here,” he told Raseef22 in an interview.

Haddad said the politicization of food and its appropriation amounted to an act of cultural erasure.

“When some party ascribes a certain food to itself, the other party is consequently the weaker one,” he says. “The theft constitutes an erasure of another culture; when you say that the shakshuka [a dish of poached eggs in tomato, garlic and chilli sauce] is Israeli, you are erasing Tunisia, and not just the Jews of Tunisia.”

While there has been increased coverage in recent years on the dangers of Israel’s appropriation of Palestinian food, Haddad notes that little such coverage exists with regards to Arab Jewish cuisine.

“There are political questions today surrounding Palestinian cuisine, but there are none on the cuisine of Arab Jews that is similar to their Palestinian and Eastern counterparts,” he says.

Haddad adds: “The Arab world is not present in the Israeli context except as a history and memory. When Jews visit Tunisia, they visit their roots, while their visits to Europe are for leisure. Their roots are behind them, non-contemporary. Everything died the moment the Jews arrived in Israel. And everything that is dead can be appropriated, such as the shakshuka. We are speaking of Jews who lived in Tunisia for thousands of years.”

The policy of appropriation has not always been Israel’s modus operandi. Instead, for years Israel worked on erasing Arab and Eastern Jewish identity altogether, as well as their expressions in public spaces, but today it chooses instead to convert Arab and Eastern cuisine into its own ‘brand’.

What was the reason for this policy change? Haddad said it began as an attempt to garner tourism and promote Israel.

“[Palestinian olive] Oil became a fashion all over the world, and people understood that there is no need to travel to Italy to taste Mediterranean foods, for everything is present here,” he says. “From here, and through Hasbara – or ‘moral guidance’– Israel sent cooks to the modern world to speak of Israeli food, which is a blend of Palestinian and the Eastern cuisine of the Arab Jews.”

Haddad says that some of those early marketers were Arab Jews, but in that context were representing Israel.

“When a dish that comes from the Arab world is declared part of Israeli cuisine, herein lies the problem,” he says. “Because it belongs to another kitchen, the memory of another person and other aroma, the problem is in the erasure of someone’s memory who is treated as if [they are] of an inferior degree.”

“If you want to take someone’s food and claim it is yours, the least you could do is treat them as a human being,” he adds.

“Iran is the homeland, not Israel”

Relative to my experience with the various cuisines of the different Arab states, I did not have the opportunity to become accustomed with the Persian kitchen while I was in Palestine. I was nonetheless introduced to some of it through my Iranian friends in Berlin; navigating its aromas, spices, music and songs. My desire to visit the land of the Persian Sufi mystics of old quickly reached new heights.

In my quest to find an interviewee to discuss the subject, my search eventually led me to Orly Noy, a journalist and translator of Persian literature to Hebrew, as well as a political activist. Noy was born in Tehran in 1970 and arrived with her family in Israel in 1979. She has been living in Jerusalem since then and is married with two daughters.

“Persian cuisine is different from what is described as Israeli food,” Noy said. “Israeli cuisine is uninteresting and does not attract investments. Israeli pasta is pasta with ketchup. I don’t know what Israeli cuisine is - everything we labelled Israeli we stole from someone else. Persian cuisine is a cuisine with a cultural and historical inheritance, and eating it has a certain beauty of its own.”

Yet the significance of the food goes further than just its taste. In Persian cuisine, Noy sees a return to her Iranian identity.

“Persian food was present on Friday evenings, and in the various rituals of our lives, with the family gathered around it,” Noy recalls. “Moreover, my daughters are vegetarian, and so I had to change some ingredients to suit them. When they enter the house and smell the scent of the food coming out of the kitchen, this scent becomes like an imprint in their memories which will stay with them throughout their lives, and this scent is similar to the scent of my childhood in Tehran, and will be the scent of their childhood as well.”

She adds: “Iran is always the homeland, not Israel.”

Noy buys most of her Iranian spices from shops in Jerusalem – with the exception of saffron, which she gets from Turkey or Europe (i.e. from shops that import saffron directly from Iran.)

Amongst the dishes that Noy regularly prepares is the Gondi, of which she still reminisces.

“Years ago I invited my Iranian friends to have Gondi, and they didn’t know the dish at the time, and so I surmised that it was a dish specific to Jews,” she says. “This was an exciting discovery, because the Jewish-Iranian community is very Iranian; I didn’t know that a Jewish-Iranian cuisine existed and was furthermore present in certain ceremonies such as holidays and funerals outside of which it is part of the general Iranian cuisine.”

“When they arrived in Israel, they had to forget their culture”

Claudia Roden, a British writer and cultural anthropologist specialising in food, came up in my conversation with Rafram Haddad. Roden is well-known for her books on Mediterranean cuisine, having published the first one in 1968. Roden was born in 1936 in Cairo to a Syrian Jewish family. She was brought up in the district of Zamalek, and in 1953 travelled to Paris and then London for her studies, with her family eventually seeking asylum from Egypt in Britain.

In an interview with Raseef22, Roden recalls her exile abroad: “During my studies I used to live with my siblings and other students, we used to cook but the food was bad. When my family arrived along with everyone else [seeking asylum], I understood after many years that we had all reassembled [for good away from Egypt]. My family and friends who became refugees missed Egypt, our lives there and the people we left behind; food therefore became a yearning for the past.”

The writer describes how their exile would change even their cooking behaviour, which would entail extra measures to ensure the preservation of that which they once took for granted.

“With time, I discovered that people were sharing ingredients with each other,” she says. “Before when they were in Egypt, this didn’t happen because of jealousy. Mothers only used to teach their daughters and daughters-in-law, but suddenly sharing recipes became a new practice to remind ourselves of who we were.”

Egypt’s Jews often lived in collective Jewish neighbourhoods, whether in Cairo or Alexandria. Many more families arrived in the country in the late nineteenth century, following the opening of the Suez Canal and the new central place that Egypt occupied in the world economy by virtue of its new strategic trade route.

Amongst these were Syrian and Turkish Jews – including three of Roden’s own grandparents, who left Syria for Egypt.

“My father was created in Syria but born in Egypt,” she says. “Many arrived from Syria to live in Cairo where they resided in the newly-built area of Al-Sakakini, and continued their lives as Syrian Jews.”

When Roden first began collecting recipes, she initially wanted her work to focus on Egyptian cuisine. So she got in touch with her Muslim friends in Egypt, only to discover that the only book on Egyptian cuisine was an Arabic one which had been translated for the British Army, containing ingredients for items such as macaroni and cheese, cauliflower and cheese, and so on.

Roden felt there was a clear gap in the market, and believed it vital for there to be a book of recipes on the cuisines of actual common Egyptians. The idea for her first book wasn’t clearly determined at the start – all she wanted to do was collect the recipes of the people from the various countries, to preserve their memories and histories.

“When the Jews left the Arab World in parallel with the founding of the State of Israel, many of them were poor, while others were able to live in other areas despite having lost their wealth and possessions,” Roden says. “When they arrived in Israel they had to forget their culture, and it was desired of them to become Israelis with new values and a new culture. And so for many decades no Iraqi opened an Iraqi restaurant, and when my first book was published 52 years ago and sold in Israel in English, I was told that no one would buy it because no one wants to buy information about Mediterranean cuisine, because they saw in it a hostile culture.”

Roden says cuisine highlighted the clear class fissures in Israeli society.

“The Jews who came from the Arab states, such as the Egyptian Jews, came from poor neighbourhoods,” she says. “They put their tents in the desert, they were the working-class and life was difficult. They had no space to cook, and so it was difficult for them to prepare their dishes.”

She adds: “When the young cooks in the army began learning how to cook, they didn’t know their own dishes very well but I think in the 1980s when the young cooks started travelling to Morocco, Turkey and Tunisia, they understood what their grandparents tried to cook when they arrived in Israel… memories tell you who you are, what your roots are and what your identity is.”

The same process, Roden warns, is happening with refugees today, particularly Syrians.

“Food is the only thing that they could create in a new environment, and they could share it with the people around them because they can’t speak Arabic within their milieu, and food is their home,” she says. “In Israel, the Arab Jews were poor and their lives in their tents were difficult to begin with, their culture was not a subject of appreciation in Israel, but they continued to cook their dishes at home. There was an entire policy to prevent people from importing their cultures.”

Expounding on this policy with an anecdote, Roden notes that during a period of its 70-year existence, Israeli schools used to ask students to bring food dishes from their homes, but the children were for a long time too shy to oblige. When they finally did, they would bring steak and chips – believing it to be a more neutral food compared to the likes of couscous.

“With time things changed, when people started to feel that the food was good and should be appreciated,” Roden says. “This took place in parallel to the food which was brought by the Russians and Ukrainians from their countries. At the beginning it was forgotten, because food reminds people of the past, and the public rhetoric was that today we are no longer Poles or Russians, and we should put everything behind us and change our names. That is to say, it was not only the Eastern culture that was erased.”

On the appropriation of Palestinian foods by Israel, Roden says: “I wish that Palestinian hummus is sold around the world, and that Palestinian instead of Israeli [olive] oil is sold, but I am certain of the necessity to develop the production of Palestinian [olive] oil.”

She continues: “On the personal level, food to me is our assembly around the dining table and the communication of people through it; food brings people closer to one another. In my case, I dealt with the Islamic world and found people who knew me; I am full of hope that food solves the bigger problems, and personally, I want Palestinians to attain their rights more than anything else. Many Jews want that, though when it will happen, we don’t know.”

The identity of food, in spite of everything

Returning to the shawarma and Amba, I know full well that I am unlikely to politically agree with those who brought it with them to Palestine. The issue of the suppression followed by appropriation of Arab Jewish and Eastern cuisine is an Israeli mechanism, and constitutes part of the erasure of the identity of Arab-originating Jews.

Yet on the other hand, it was not resisted at the time, while today there are individuals and groups who work towards recovering their identity and naming it according to their origins – with the compass of that identity in many instances being of a non-Zionist orientation.

We return ultimately to the question of identity which has long preoccupied me. Indeed, it is important to note that Amba, couscous and shakshuka all belong to my civilisation and identity. It is important to note that when I refer to my ‘civilisation and identity’, I do not only mean the Arab one – with shakshuka for example actually belonging to the Amazigh (Berber) cuisine of North Africa – rather, I refer to that civilisation and identity which has been suppressed and oppressed by colonialism. In the end, and in spite of everything, Amba will never “forget Baghdad”*.

*Referring to the documentary film "Forget Baghdad" by the Iraqi director Samir Jamal al-Din. The film depicts the lives of Iraqi Jews living in Israel and the racism they have been subjected to since their migration.

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