Chickpeas and peace in the Middle East

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Food is political, and where I come from, hummus is saturated in politics.

Hummus and accompaniments, photo by Na'ama CarlinThe chickpea is one of the earliest cultivated legumes, dating back over 7000 years. Some claim that hummus was first mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Ruth.

The question of hummus' origin is likely just as ancient. For many, it's a matter of identity, pride, even patriotism. Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Syria and Turkey all claim their version of hummus is the best and most authentic. Hummus elicits passion.

This is why, when at yet another party in Australia, I hear the distinctive crack of the cheap plastic lid, I shudder. Hummus in Australia is an afterthought — anaemic, synthetically flavoured, a quick addition to a party spread.

As I see my friends dip crackers into the overpriced container my mind is thousands of kilometres away, in the best hummus place in Jerusalem's Old City, as the waiter places a fresh, warm bowl of hummus on the table.

The olive oil glistening. Fragrant parsley freshly chopped. Small bowls of raw onion quarters, long green chillies, and bitter olives soon follow, with fluffy pita bread. Far from a mere dip, to me, hummus is a religious experience.

Even arriving at this place had been a kind of pilgrimage. We'd gotten lost, walking in the narrow cobblestone alleyways, past merchants sitting outside their shops smoking and calling out to tourists.

 

"To say that hummus is the key to peace may be an overstatement, but there is something profound about this obsession that crosses borders, this passion for a simple concoction of chickpeas, tahini, lemon, and garlic that transcends cultural barriers."

 

I'd wanted to stop and ask for directions, but I felt embarrassed that I can't speak Arabic properly — 20 years in this country and I can't string a sentence together in a language so close to mine. Even Google Maps didn't know where we were.

So I trusted my instincts and, turning a corner, finally, recognised the scent. It overpowered even the smell of damp stone, cigarettes, and incense. I walked through the door as if entering a holy site.

'If only we could sit down with Palestinians for a bowl of hummus, all the problems would be solved,' says my Israeli friend, as we wipe hummus down with warm pita. He isn't the first to say this. Indeed, a film was made about the virtues of hummus, which asked: 'Could a regional love of hummus be the recipe for peace in the Middle East?'

Personally, I'm not so sure. It's true that love of hummus is shared across disparate countries in the Middle East, but peace is a lot to ask of a humble legume — especially since hummus is a food countries have gone to war over.

I was in Israel for the 2010 Hummus War. It took over headlines and featured prominently in every news broadcast.

For years, Israel had held the record for largest serve of hummus ever made. By 2009, Lebanon had enough. Israel had claimed hummus as a national food for too long; holding the Guinness World Record for largest serve rubbed salt (or tahini) in the wound.

While Lebanon petitioned the European Union to register hummus as a uniquely Lebanese dish, it also set out to take the record from Israel. In October 2009, Lebanon won the title with a plate of hummus weighing 1814kg.

But the victory was short-lived — a few months later, in January 2010, 50 chefs gathered in the Hummus Capital of Israel, a Palestinian town called Abu Ghosh. Led by hummus legend Jawdat Ibrahim, they reclaimed the record for Israel with a 4087kg serve of hummus.

'Abu Ghosh is the hummus capital of the world,' Ibrahim declared.

That, too, was a fleeting glory: just months later, in May 2010, Lebanon took the record back with a serve of hummus weighing 10,452 kg.

Nonetheless it's poignant that the Israeli record had been redeemed by the efforts of Palestinian chefs. It says something of the region, of our shared habits, and speaks to our commonalities rather than our differences.

In Palestine, as in Israel, I try to taste the hummus in every town and village I visit. Here hummus is nationally revered: everyone swears they know the best hummus joint, and will debate the minutia of what makes 'their' place stand out (but I really know the best place).

To say that hummus is the key to peace may be an overstatement, but there is something profound about this obsession that crosses borders, this passion for a simple concoction of chickpeas, tahini, lemon, and garlic that transcends cultural barriers.

Maybe it's a starting point. After all, home is where the hummus is.

 

 

Na'ama CarlinNa'ama Carlin holds a PhD in Sociology. A dual Israeli-Australian citizen, she writes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ethics, identity, and violence. Follow her @derridalicious

Topic tags: Na'ama Carlin, Gaza, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, hummus

 

 

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Existing comments

Thank you for this article - I find myself hungry now! What divides us is never as appetising as what unites us, and your article reminds me of Sasha Baron Cohen's interview of Israeli Yossi Alpher and Palestinian Ghassam Khalib, as he camped up his Austrian TV fashionista Bruno: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ik4LH5ksOn8
Barry G | 26 June 2018


Nice piece Na'ama, pleasing to see an article focusing on Israel/Palestine that is not about war and conflict, but the ordinary everyday lives of Jews and Arabs living side by side as will continue to be the case for generations to come irrespective of political solutions or lack of.
Philip Mendes | 27 June 2018


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