Shababi: Palestinian-American chef Marcelle G Afram's culinary tribute to his homeland

Shababi_Afram
6 min read
14 June, 2024

Palestinian-American chef and third-generation exile Marcelle G. Afram's pop-up catering business Shababi has been making waves in Washington D.C. 

Through Shababi, which translates to "my youth" in the Palestinian dialect, Marcelle hopes to showcase the Arab-American hospitality with which he was raised.

Marcelle sat down with The New Arab to discuss his role in the culinary industry, its connection to his identity, and how both have developed since October 7.

"It was the embodiment of Palestine's spirit, expressed in many iterations"

Raised by his parents and grandparents with a love and curiosity for Palestinian culture, Marcelle developed a strong sense of connection with it from a very young age.

According to the chef, this passion for Palestine goes beyond food.

"It was the embodiment of Palestine's spirit, expressed in many iterations," says Marcelle. "Food held an important place as one of them."

The 39-year-old chef's journey into discovering Palestinian culture began with his paternal grandfather, who was present in his life from childhood through his teenage years. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Shababi (@shababidc)

“At the age of four, he already started teaching me Arabic and Aramaic, since I come from a Syriac-Orthodox Christian family.

“He always made sure that I spoke the languages of home, precisely Bethlehem. He also showed me some things he kept from home, like the keys to his house, from which he was exiled, and some trinkets," Marcelle adds. 

“I felt connected to home through these objects and the stories my grandfather told me about them.” 

Marcelle shared a memory with his grandfather, connected to Palestinian culture. They would go together to the Catholic university campus in Washington, and pick figs from the fig trees there.

"When the campus police told us that it was prohibited, my grandfather gave them a lecture about the symbolism of picking figs and how it reminded him of his homeland," says the chef, who was denied entry to Palestine when his grandfather tried to take him.

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Marcelle’s grandfather also taught him Palestinian values by taking homeless people for meals and giving them money.

“I learned from him that true wealth isn’t monetary but resides in the heart,” Marcelle reveals. “As I grew older, I realised that the society I was living in was very different from the one my grandfather told me about.”

After his grandfather’s death, Marcelle felt that he lost the connection he had with Palestine but later rediscovered it through Palestinian food in his early adulthood.

For Marcelle, the main goal of Shababi, which he considers his diaspora story rooted in Palestinian cuisine, hasn’t changed, even after October 7.

“The intention behind what I've been doing in terms of uplifting ourselves as a Palestinian-forward concept hasn’t changed,” Marcelle adds.

“As a transgender Palestinian, I didn't politicise myself. But the world politicised me”

However, the Palestinian concept linked to his business allowed him to connect with fellow Palestinian colleagues and build a community.

“We came together spontaneously in a way that was very indicative of Palestinian resilience after October 7,” Marcelle says. “I co-founded Hospitality for Humanity alongside chefs Reem Assil and Omar Anani, connecting the restaurant and hospitality industry with the resistance movement.”

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Marcelle faced numerous political discussions with his customers in his business due to being a transgender Palestinian.

“Being based in Washington, D.C., I was aware that people were politically hyper-aware,” he says.

“As a transgender Palestinian, I didn't politicise myself. But the world politicised me.”

The chef spoke about the invisibility he feels as both a Palestinian and a transgender person. “Many people consider me invisible because I’m transgender or Palestinian, or both,” Marcelle says.

“On the other hand, many people noticed me because of these reasons, especially since October 7.”

“We’re used to that. It's not new that people would be against you, only because you’re Palestinian”

Marcelle also mentioned the negative reviews left by customers and how they increased after October 7.

“We’ve been expecting this and prepared ourselves to handle it accordingly,” he says. “We’re used to that. It's not new that people would be against you, only because you’re Palestinian.”

In the political discussions Marcelle had with customers, he felt cautious of people who contradicted the history he was so certain of due to his family's anecdotes and the history written by Palestinians.

“I encountered people who would tell me stereotypes and lies they heard from Western propaganda, and my duty as a Palestinian is to correct these misconceptions and tell them the real version,” explains Marcelle.

For the chef, Israeli soldiers targeting the agricultural sector in Palestine by destroying olive trees and killing farmers are due to Israel's insecurities.

“Our olive trees prove our existence. If one wants to erase the existence of an entity, one would start with the oldest thing that's still standing.

“Also, Palestine has a deep history compared to Israel, which makes Israel feel insecure because no one can deny history,” adds Marcelle.

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Beyond its destruction, Marcelle explained that Israel also seeks to reinforce Palestinians’ dependence on it and profit from it.

“It's the destruction of resources that brings autonomy to Palestinians,” he says. “Israel can make financial gains from the Palestinians’ crisis since they're stripping people of their autonomy.”

As both Palestinian and American, Marcelle has faced internal conflicts due to holding the citizenship of a state that actively participates in funding the war against his homeland.

“In my childhood, I started to understand the war in Palestine. At a very young age, I asked myself a question that never left my mind: how and why did I end up here when it’s not my homeland?” says Marcelle.

"While growing up, I’ve always felt that I wasn’t enough; I wasn’t a full Palestinian since I’m away from home, and neither was I a full American citizen”

Marcelle explained the trauma of forced migration and the feeling of not being enough that comes with it.

“Leaving one’s lands of origin in such circumstances is a trauma that’ll never go away,” he says. “While growing up, I’ve always felt that I wasn’t enough; I wasn’t a full Palestinian since I’m away from home, and neither was I a full American citizen.”

Marcelle addressed the issue of being part of the economic system of a government that’s funding a war against Palestine.

“To be a citizen of a place where, no matter how much one tries to stay outside the economy, they end up being a part of it to survive is infuriating and disheartening,” explains Marcelle. “This economic system, to which I’m paying taxes, is directly funding the genocide of my people and homeland.”

During LGBTQ month, Marcelle highlighted the hypocrisy of the Western world, particularly the US, portraying itself as a champion of LGBTQ rights while simultaneously supporting the ongoing genocide in Palestine, which has also victimised LGBTQ individuals.

"It's cynical to advocate for personal freedoms in a region where survival and escaping death are the most immediate concerns. Regardless of one's identity, apart from being Palestinian, there's always exposure to a pervasive oppressive system," he asserts.

On that note, Marcelle views LGBTQ freedom campaigns led by Western nations as distractions.

"You turned a blind eye when we faced violence, and now you advocate for the freedom of queer Palestinians," Marcelle explains. "The Western world employs it as a propaganda tool through its pinkwashing tactics."

Marcelle firmly believes that the liberation of Palestinian LGBTQ individuals is intricately tied to the liberation of Palestine itself.

"There can be no true liberation for queer people until there is exclusive autonomy over Palestinian land," he stresses.

Tharwa Boulifi is a Tunisian freelancer who writes about feminism, human rights, and social justice. Her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Newsweek, the New African, and African Arguments

Follow her on X: @TharwaBoulifi