By Ahmed Tharwat
In my last flight to Paris, I was fortunate to be sitting next to a young man who seemed cautious; with an excessive head turning motion. He seemed like he was waiting for something to come or to happen. We avoided each other for a few thousand miles, until I started playing an Arabic movie on my laptop – something that is considered dangerous behaviour nowadays, especially on airplanes. I was told not to bring anything hard or ethnic on the plane. I stopped ordering the special “halal meal” with no pork for Muslims.
The young man introduced himself, saying: “I’m from Israel and we love to listen to Arabic music there.” We both started talking and we agreed on many things. For the most part we kept politics out. You could say we weren’t in our usual combative, argumentative mood. Yes, the Jews had a rotten deal in history and they deserved a break. The Palestinians happened to be the victims of that break, and most Arabs would agree that the Israelis are there and they need to live together with the Palestinians in peace, side by side as long, as they don’t take or bomb the Arab side.
We talked about families, living in the US, and football, and we started talking about food. “My favourite food is the Jewish falafel,” he said. This is the first time that I heard of food having a faith. As an Arab who grew up in Egypt, I have been eating falafel all my life, believing that falafel is just a Mediterraneanfood. But throughout history, the Zionist founding fathers knew it early on; that to acquire the land of Palestine, you need also to appropriate its culture, by claiming its food, music, and arts. All I’m saying is that falafel is a regional food: Mediterranean food, made by the people who live there. Like pizza is an Italian food not a Catholic food, ouzo is a Greek drink and not an Orthodox drink. So if you were an Arab Jew or a Jew who happens to live in the Mediterranean area along with Arabs and you make or eat falafel, it is still a Mediterranean food, an ethnic food, not a religious food.
The problem I have nowadays with some fundamentalist Jews is that they vehemently think that everything a Jew does, hears, or says is inherently Jewish. So if a few Jews had lived in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, now it is the Promised Land for millions of Jews around the world, mostly European Jews. Muslims around the world don’t claim Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, as their Promised Land. We all know now what happened when some Muslims claim an Islamic state: the whole world is bombing them, even Muslims themselves.
Now, my defensive reflex mechanism is gearing up. Here’s the deal my Israeli friend; I don’t care if you claim Palestinian land, water, or even olive trees: but you can’t claim my beloved falafel. Welcome to the falafel war. Everyone in the Middle East claims an authentic purity in their falafel. Now the Israelis got into the falafel fray, and as Min Liao’s stated in his piece, the Middle East Crisis: “Jews say that ancient Jews ate falafel in Egypt and Syria; and tourist brochures proclaim falafel to be ‘Israel’s national snack’. Arabs feel as if an important cultural recipe has been stolen and bastardised, and insist on falafel’s romantic Arab ‘roots’.”
Even now, McDonalds is making falafel its own and is offering McFalafel in Egypt. Egyptians however will add a twist to falafel, they call it “taamiah” and make it with fava beans (“foul” in Arabic); and not from chickpeas as other Arabs do. Food reflects the cultural and the values of the people making it and eating it.
Falafel is a cultural food, eaten mostly at breakfast. An Egyptian breakfast is typically a combination of falafel, or fava beans, feta cheese, and some kind of green, tomatoes, fresh onions, or cucumber. Unlike American breakfast, an Egyptian breakfast is a peaceful meal, where you don’t have to kill for bacon, or crack eggs to get your omelette.
“My fellow Jews, let my falafel go”.
Ahmed Tharwat is host and producer of the Arab American TV show Bel Ahdan. He blog at Notes from America www.ahmediatv.com and his articles appeared in national and international publications. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube: ahmediatv