Food as Sanctuary, Identity and Conflict in the Arab-Israeli States

Arabic Dishes And Meze
Middle eastern or arabic dishes and assorted meze. Meat kebab, falafel, baba ghanoush, muhammara, hummus, sambusak, rice, tahini, kibbeh, pita. Halal food. Lebanese cuisine

 

Growing up with an Egyptian Muslim father and a Jewish New Yorker as my mother, diversity and compromise has been one of the most crucial facets of my life that has molded me into who I am today. I felt that ignoring this story would pull away from the depth that my own wisdom and continual curiosity could lend to today’s issues. As the Middle East is a hotbed of discussions in the recent years with the major refugee crisis happening throughout Syria and other countries alike as well as the major terrorist attacks and travel bans.

I have always been questioning my entire life the choices my parents had made in cultivating who I am today. Their choice to raise us with the Jewish religion. Their choice to refrain from teaching us Arabic. Their choice to raise us surrounded by Middle Eastern traditions (Egyptian, Moroccan, Lebanese, Persian). Their choice to engage us with Middle Eastern family friends. Their choice to send us to Jewish preschools, Hebrew schools and summer camps. Their chose to use continual and extensive travel as our teacher. And all of this was intentional.

Meanwhile in my family itself, my father’s only brother who lives just twenty minutes from my family’s home in Washington, D.C., spent 18 years separating his family from our family due to one thing: religion. His wife was Turkish Christian and did not like the fact that we were Jewish or at least held that identity.

As a child you could imagine, I didn’t really know where I belonged. My friends were Middle Eastern in my family circle, I heard the Arabic language but didn’t know how to speak a lick of Arabic meanwhile my neighborhood and friends from school were Jewish and very white. Neither place did I belong, but somewhat felt resonate in what my parents had taught us: its the values we carry inside of us, the humanness inside of us that connects us. Not the religion. Nothing except the mindset that the person in front of us shares the same human life despite its form.

My father had told me he sacrificed everything for his dream at 20 years old graduating from college in Cairo, he booked a one way ticket to New York City as a Engineer and risked everything to become an American and that is how he wanted to raise us. As Americans with no limitations of who we could become or be “brain-washed” into believing many extremists mindsets that he did not stand for. He stood for high education and morality more so than religion although he used to be very religious.

Our relatives in Egypt to this day are extremely secular.

As I grew up I began embracing both aspects of who I am and finding the middle ground. Food though has always been one thing that has intrigued me the most. Food is this place where everything meets: Identity, Culture, Sanctuary and yes also many conflicts.

Middle Eastern food is inherent in who I am. Although I do not speak the Arabic language, there is a very resonate quality and meeting place for me when it comes in to Middle Eastern food. And Middle Eastern food itself is yet a very diverse, mixed and ritualistic identity of the land. It’s a mix of so many diverse cultures and spices that each holds very sacred. They could be making the same dish, a very classic dish: Hummus and yet it could be completely different based on the country its in, in the Middle East. If its Egypt, it would be more Tahini based. If its Morocco, its the fuller formed chickpea. If its Lebanese, its more olive oil. There are very subtle differences, yet these differences mean the world to these culture’s identity.

I began originally delving into the idea of smell as a probe and felt that would not really drive home where I am looking to go with this.

Just a couple weekends ago I was with my Israeli friend who was born and raised in Israel but comes from a mother who was originally born and raised in Lebanon and father from Morocco. What I found most surprising is how shocked they were to realize that we literally eat the same foods maybe cooked with slight variations.

For one of my other courses, we watched a short video on Food and Politics in Jerusalem and how there really isn’t an Israeli cuisine as its an merge of twists on traditional Middle Eastern dishes that have been deeply rooted for centuries.

I became realizing has been in my own life and currently in the Middle East, this peaceful meeting place of our shared humanity.

I am interested in unpacking:

  • How can food become the middle ground beyond conflict in Arab-Israeli states
  • Shared humanity beyond borders
  • What do people hold onto with food and identity despite border crossing
  • How food identities travel with us across borders (Eastern European, Middle Eastern)
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