To say that food brings people together would be a gross understatement. Although the adage “you are what you eat” may be frivolous at first glance, it is a crucial reminder that not only does future nurture us physically, but it builds the cultural bases in which ideas take root and identities form. Throughout the world, between peoples and amongst peoples, conversations and ideas flourish over cups of coffee and drawn-out dinner parties. In Palestine, this is no exception. Palestinian culinary and café culture exposes a softer side of Palestinian identity as it relates to Palestine itself and to the wider Arab World.
A Reuters article from 2011 entitled “Café culture blooms in West Bank’s Ramallah” places due credit for culinary finesse in a place where it is often overlooked when it claimed, “While Paris’s Left Bank is famous for its fine restaurants and bustling cafes, Palestine’s West Bank is not. But that might be about to change.” The piece follows Peter Nasir, who owns and operates a restaurant he calls Azure in Ramallah. He notes that upon opening his business, he faced little competition, but in just half a decade, the number of fine-dining eateries has skyrocketed. Despite the competition it brings for his business, he is proud of the progress made by his people, Palestinians, and moreover the larger economy, culture and atmospheric benefits brought about by the boom. More restaurants increase mass social interaction and reaffirms the liveliness of a community.
Similarly, Noon café—named after the ن added at the end of feminine plural verbs in Arabic—is a women-only café in the Nasser neighborhood, outside of Gaza City. The gender restrictions put in place by the manager, Nidaa Mhanna, are not intended to exclude men, but rather grant to women an opportunity typically reserved for men in the community: to be able to discuss ideas, relax, study, and enjoy the presence of one another in a café setting. From a non-Palestinian point of view, this main seen like an absurd or petty pleasure; however, to the founders of Noon café, their job is much more than just serving coffee. The goal of the café is to build female moral through providing them with necessities like female sanitary goods as well as a means of social empowerment and collective thought. Although its establishment was highly controversial and contradicted many widely held gender norms, the café has nonetheless served as an effective agent of forming identity as it empowers a disempowered group and brings like minds together to address all subjects, big and small.
Food is also a means to bridge divides, be they geographical, ethno-cultural, or otherwise. We all must eat—it’s something that makes us the same—thus why not do it together? All Nations Café is a meeting group that fosters dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians. Rather than a brick-and-mortar café, the group meets outside, along the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. This location geopolitically symbolizes the goal of the organization is to provide a safe place for discussion and a “creative platform” off which ideas can be shared, some of which have evolved into larger projects such as caravan tours and permaculture. Again, shared meals may seem like a petty point of focus, but they objectivity lead to cooperation on a much wider level.
Unfortunately, food does not bring about only peace; it draws divisions as well. The origins of Arab food are highly nationalistic and contested, posing challenges when labeling food as distinctly belonging to a single country when Arab countries themselves are rather new creations and recipes from around the region quite closely resemble one another. Furthermore, as places of gathering, restaurants and shops can also be targets of violence. In April 2015, for example, four Israeli boys were sentenced to mandatory community service for vandalizing and setting fire to a Palestinian café in Hebron the year before. While the lawyer of the accused claimed the boys acted only with adolescent misunderstanding, Ynetnews wrote that “The indictment claimed the motive for the attack was racism”, which reaffirms eateries as community centers that represent people and the links between them, or perhaps, the lack thereof.
From all the richness and pride of Arab coffee as a regional unifier to debates over which recipes transcend borders and which lay between them, the softer side of any identity must not be ignored. If fact, it is precisely these aspects of culture to which the average citizens identifies, perhaps even moreso than their governments and institutions, as the vast majority of any population spends far more time meandering in cafes, cooking large family meals and engaging in local traditions than they do partaking in the political realm. And furthermore, food alone is certainly not the only means of such a softer side of identity building, but rather merely one example among many means by which lifestyle choices evolve into societal norms, including but not limited to life performances, street art, expositions, fashion and educational structures. We are who we learn to be, and we strive to be what we feel we ought to be, and as the traditions that bring us comfort or draw strife converge and diverge, nuanced identities emerge outside of the political realm and from the hearts of the people.
Al-Ghoul, Asmaa. “Gaza’s women-only cafe offers more than just coffee.” Palestine Pulse. Al-Monitor. 2016. Web. 20 March 2016. <http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/10/gaza-women-cafe-noon-culture.html>.
“All Nations Cafe.” All Nations Cafe. All Nations Cafe. 2015. Web. 20 March 2016. <http://allnationscafe.org/>.
Assadi, Mohammed. “Cafe culture blooms in West Bank’s Ramallah.” Reuters. Reuters. 6 April 2011. Web. 20 March 2016. <http://www.reuters.com/article/us-palestinians-restaurant-idUSTRE7352UZ20110406>.
Magnezi, Aviel. “Jewish teens who set fire to Palestinian cafe sentenced to community service.” Ynetnews. Yedioth. 14 April 2015. Web. 20 March 2016. <http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4647006,00.html>.