Sunday, October 12, 2008

Hummus war could put Lebanese in a pickle

The latest conflict simmering between Lebanon and Israel is all about food: Lebanese businessmen are accusing Israel of stealing traditional Middle Eastern dishes like hummus.

According to this Associated Press report, Fadi Abboud, president of the Lebanese Industrialists' Association, has said that his group plans to sue Israel to stop it from marketing hummus and other regional dishes as Israeli.

He said his group also seeks to claim the eggplant spread baba ghannouj and tabbouleh, a salad made of chopped parsley and tomatoes, as Lebanon's own.

Let's face it, say I. The motive underlying the Lebanese threat, an attempt to challenge Israel because it is better at marketing a food than the Lebanese are, is political:

"It is not enough they (Israelis) are stealing our land. They are also stealing our civilization and our cuisine," said Abboud.

The subtext is that hummus has been appropriated by foreign German and Polish Jews as their own. No mention of the fact that Middle Eastern Jews, 50 percent of the Jews in Israel, brought these foods with them.

As Itzhak Rachmo succintly told The Independent, the Lebanese threat is "bullshit".

As a long queue of hungry clients formed at the counter for their staple Friday lunch, he clutched his forearm and declared: "There is hummus flowing through these veins."

"I don't know what their basis is for saying this," said Mr Rachmo, a 68-year-old Jew of Syrian descent whose packed restaurant in the Mahane Yehuda market district was founded by his uncles 55 years ago. "Because they can't create planes and guns and atomic weapons, they are trying to latch on to something so stupid."

The Lebanese are in a bit of a pickle here. They cannot deligitimise Israeli hummus without also denying Palestinian hummus. Neither can they claim that these foods cannot possibly be Israeli because Israel is only 60 years old. Lebanon is only five years older.

According to The Independent :

"While the chickpea and sesame-based hummus, and falafel fried patties, are clearly no Israeli invention, the producers may have a harder time proving that the prized foods are specifically Lebanese.

At Abu Shukri, the most famous Palestinian hummus and falafel restaurant in Jerusalem's Old City – which has a long history of serving Jews as well as Arabs – the owner's son, Fadi Abu Shukri, took a more scholarly view. The foods lay, he said, with the whole of Bilad al Sham – the old Arabic term for the Levant, or Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and historic Palestine combined. "Then hummus was spread by the Turkish occupation," he added.

A further question arises: can these foods be legitimately called Arab?

If I were a Turk, I would be outraged. I might even be tempted to sue.

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