Owners of Palestinian restaurants abroad say they have a duty to show the rich culture of their people through the maps, posters, photographs and handmade crafts decorating the interiors of their dining areas.
It is a voluntary process to raise awareness in the face of Israeli attempts to forge history by, in part, appropriating Palestinian cuisine. Fierce cultural wars often break out when Palestinian meals are mislabelled as Israeli.
Palestinian culture and life revolve around food in every aspect, whether it is an ordinary day or a special occasion. Food and national identity are tied together.
Lovers of Palestinian cuisine know where to find their favourite Palestinian dishes.
The Maramia cafe — “maramia” is an Arabic word that means “sage” — is one of the few places that offer the taste of Palestine in Britain. It offers authentic dishes such as musakhan, maqluba, mansaf, hummus, falafel, shakshuka and the kunafa dessert.
Cooking styles vary by region and each type and the ingredients used are generally based on the climate and location in historic Palestine.
Dining in restaurants such as Shakshuka in central London, makes one think of home, especially seeing posters of icons of the Palestinian struggle such as 16-year-old Ahed Tamimi and Yasser Arafat as well as Muslim and Christian holy places and traditional homemade handicrafts and embroideries. Shakshuka is also the name of a Palestinian dish consisting of eggs poached in a sauce of spiced tomatoes, green peppers and chopped onions.
These restaurants serve as a hub to Palestinian communities, through which people tell their stories, keep history alive and bring people closer to their homeland while listening to Palestinian music and even learn Arabic in the Palestinian dialect.
While the recipes vary, one thing is clear, you cannot call hummus, falafel or shakshuka Israeli dishes even if the world’s top celebrity chefs tried to convince you that they are Israeli.
Israel was established in 1948. A large percentage of the Israeli society consists of Arab Jews who migrated after the formation of the nascent state of Israel 70 years ago. They took with them “Arabic” authentic meals from countries such as Iraq, Morocco and Yemen.
The argument revolves on naming the dishes as Israeli. Even calling them “Middle Eastern” or “Levantine” dishes would calm the debate a bit.
Palestinians often refer to attempts to appropriate their culture and cuisine as “Israeli Forging Strategy,” aimed at stripping them of their identity through the theft of their cuisine as if occupying their land were not enough.
Inviting celebrity chefs to cook meals and branding them as Israeli will not convince the world that falafel is Israel’s national snack.
Palestinians are proud of their food and they are provoked if they see food stalls in markets in Europe or in the United States selling falafel sandwiches branding it as an Israeli national dish.
Planting olive groves and citrus orchards and figs are part of the Palestinian culture because olives and pickles are a must on the Palestinian food table.
There is no better taste for Palestinians and others from the Levantine countries of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon than to have a breakfast that contains za’atar-dried thyme dipped in olive oil with a cup of tea with fresh mint or dried sage. If people want to go heavy, they can have fowl, hummus and falafel.
It is true that food is about memory and culture but claiming ownership over certain dishes that is not part of your cuisine does not give any one a right to label it as his national meal.
Cultural appropriation is a denial to the existence and heritage of the owners of the land — the Palestinians in their millions inside the occupied Palestinian territories, in refugee camps in some Arab countries or in the diaspora worldwide.
Yousef Alhelou is a Palestinian journalist living in London. He attended Oxford University on a Reuters fellowship in journalism and is pursuing a master’s degree in international relations.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.