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Al Jazeera does Jerusalem cuisine

by michael August 01 2008
Food

That's right: the English language incarnation of the most controversial Middle Eastern news network this side of Al Manar has produced a lengthy report on street food in Israel's capital, and how every meal in Jerusalem seems, in some way, weighted with issues of identity. And you know what? They did a great job.



Click here for part two of the video.

The decision to visit From Gaza to Berlin, one of Jerusalem's least beloved hummus joints, is unfortunate (Jerusalemite would have taken them to Ta'ami, or at least Pinati), but they make up for it by stopping at a longtime Jerusalemite favorite, Mordoch, the undisputed culinary temple to all things Kurdish (best kubbeh soup ever). This writer used to buy all sorts of stuff from the Ethiopian market in Machane Yehuda the crew visits - the unroasted Ethiopian coffee beans are highly recommended. And certainly anybody in Jerusalem at all interested in what regional haute cuisine tastes like owes himself a visit to Eucalyptus.

But while Al Jazeera gives a generally excellent overview of the bounty of top-notch food in the city, the furious indignation of Al-Quds University's Dr. Ali Qleibo concerning Israelis' love of hummus leaves a sour taste - and demonstrates a willingness to set animosity over impartiality and historical grounding unbecoming of an academic, and surprising in a gourmand. How can anyone full of warm chickpea goodness find room to complain?

Given their basketful of legitimate and more pressing grievances, the depth of the Palestinian obsession with Israelis' purported appropriation of their national cuisine hinted at in the report is odd - especially since most of the cuisine in question is not originally Palestinian, or even Arab. Hummus is a pan-Mediterranean dish whose origins predate recorded history, cropping up in some form wherever chickpeas thrive (after all, the idea of mashing and seasoning chickpeas is not particularly complex). Shawarma is Turkish, adopted by Arabs during the long years of Ottoman control over the Arab world. Fuul is pre-Arab Egyptian, and the traditional method for its preparation (burying in a clay pot over hot coals) is described in the Talmud Yerushalmi, composed before the arrival of any great number of Arabic-speaking Semites in the Levant. Falafel is also pre-Arab Egyptian, called ta'amiya (and made from favas rather than chickpeas) in northern Africa and present in various forms from Sudan to Yemen to Lebanon.

That isn't to say these dishes are not essential components of modern Palestinian cuisine, but rather that food in the Middle East and Levant, long the crossroads of civilization, has always been defined by combination, adaptation, appropriation and migration, and rare is the dish that can be wholly claimed by any one regional ethnic group. Dishes that can be, dishes that are Palestinian in origin - musakhan, maqluba, knafeh - have never been claimed by Israeli Jews, and aside from the signature maqluba at Moshe Basson's Eucalyptus, one would be hard pressed to find them served in non-Arab-owned restaurants in the country. The refrain of Dan Almagor's famous Israeli folk song, after all, is "and we have falafel," not "and we have kibbeh nayyeh."

Jewish cuisine, of course, is defined essentially by its tendency to adopt and Judaize the native dishes of whichever far-flung corner of the Diaspora the Jews have found themselves in. It is this impulse that gave the Jewish state a falafel kiosk and a shawarma spit on every corner - not, as the Palestinians seem to believe, a desire to squelch Arab culture or political aspirations. And as even Al Jazeera can divine, many of the supposedly Arab foods beloved by Israeli Jews were brought here by Jews from Arab lands - Jews who, in many cases, had lived in those lands long before they even were linguistically and culturally Arab. The Jews of Yemen brought falafel and jachnun. The Jews of Iraq brought kubbeh and amba. The Jews of Syria brought hummus and kibbeh. The Jews of Tunisia brought shakshuka and harissa. The Jews of Egypt brought fuul. Perhaps none of them are originally Jewish foods, but at the very least, Israel comes by them naturally. If we share culinary predilections with our Arab neighbors - and we certainly do - it is not because we are thieves, it is because the same Middle Eastern sun beats down on our heads, because the same sea laps at our shores, because the same plants grow in our gardens and the same fruits burst forth from our trees.

Ultimately, even if cuisine is a fundamental expression of identity and cultural affiliation, it can belong to no one. As with jazz or fashion or any other creative discipline, those who clamor indignantly for perceived rights of sole ownership and control, denying out of chauvinism the free exchange of ideas that a vital art demands, are shouting into the wind. Culinary appropriation in particular is more a compliment than anything else - if the Arab world were suddenly to acquire an affection for bagels and maztah balls, Jews would probably be more amused than upset, and somehow the Italians haven't pitched a fit over the existence of the Green Door Pizza Bakery (although if they tried the pizza, they might).

And honestly, if all of us, from Rehovot to Ramallah, from Tel Aviv to Tikrit, from Jerusalem to Jeddah, can agree that hummus is pretty much the best thing ever, perhaps one day we can agree to stop waving guns at each other - or at the very least, we'll start shooting each other over chickpea-to-tehina-to-lemon ratios instead of land and religion, which seems, somehow, a much nobler conflict.

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