The ever-evolving culture of food, art and history takes centre stage at the Palestine Writes Literature Festival
Food can be an important ambassador for a country or culture. However, Palestinian food, like many other things Palestinian, can be political and controversial.
Over the years, Palestinian cuisine has faced multiple challenges, including questions over what to call it, how to preserve its traditions, and how to keep it alive.
"For me, being Palestinian, my food is a political identity. I'm very intentional about calling my food Palestinian because we're at a point in history in which there's an intentional erasure, a severing of people from their food ways, that I have to call it Palestinian"
On Saturday afternoon, at a panel discussion at the Palestine Writes Literature Festival in Philadelphia, food author Laila El-Haddad and chefs Reem Assil and Fadi Kattan discussed these challenges and their experiences of working to spread Palestinian culinary culture through storytelling and developing their own twists on their homeland's food.
Compared with other cuisines, Palestinian food writing is relatively new, something that in the past would often be referred to as Middle Eastern or Mediterranean.
These days, with new generations determined to put their ancestral food on the map, Palestinian food is seeing something of a moment.
"For me, being Palestinian, my food is a political identity. I'm very intentional about calling my food Palestinian because we're at a point in history in which there's an intentional erasure, a severing of people from their food ways, that I have to call it Palestinian," said Assil, whose restaurant and bakery Reem's California in San Francisco is one of few to identify itself as Arab.
"I wanted to say that I would open an Arab bakery," she said, adding that her mother suggested calling it Middle Eastern. "I knew that in order to really express the food of my people, it's the whole package."
She challenges the concept of food bringing people together, which might not always be sufficient to bridge deep political divides.
"Food doesn't solve the problem. That's just a start. I want to bring people to the table. I want us to be human. I do want to express my humanity through what I believe," she said.
"Food does bring people together. But if you just stop there, then we're doing ourselves a disservice," said Assil. "My food is discomfort food sometimes. It's not just comfort food. Food can be the beginning of uncomfortable conversations. Food brings down walls and the senses. Hopefully, you will walk into my bakery with your conscious changed just a little bit."
"We were victims of globalisation... We believed people didn't want Palestinian food. And that's when food appropriation started hitting hard"
Fadi Kattan, a chef at Akub, considered London's first Palestinian restaurant, also sees it as important to identify food as Palestinian, given what he has seen as years of erasure of its food culture, then people shying away from using their identity, and appropriation by Israel.
"We were victims of globalisation," he said. "We believed people didn't want Palestinian food. And that's when food appropriation started hitting hard."
As Palestinians developed their food narratives, they inevitably faced questions about the seriousness of food as a subject matter, something that El-Haddad contended with as a food writer.
"People were sceptical," she said. "There was this idea that somehow writing about food seemed trivial and frivolous. It's considered in the realm of strictly cultural. How does one not risk tokenising a culture?"
Though the panellists continue to face challenges in bringing their food and stories to the table, they are also seizing on this moment when there appears to be a genuine growing interest in what they have to offer.
"Things have changed," said Assil. "We need to keep pushing the envelope. Food writing is an extension of literature. We need to keep pushing when we have the chance."
Historic photos and art give a backdrop to the Palestinian festival
At the Palestine Writes Literature Festival, one is also immediately taken in by the sounds of chatter and applause, the colourful exhibits of vendors, and the aroma of food and drinks.
In the background of this boisterous celebration of culture, on the white walls of the entry and stairwells of the University of Pennsylvania's Irvine Auditorium were around 175 black and white photos, mostly from the first half of the twentieth century, as well as colourful works by Palestinian artists.
Some of the newer works include depictions of a dividing wall, scenes of traditional agriculture, and Palestinian embroidery.
The man behind the exhibit, Faisal Saleh, himself a photographer, had a simple aim in mind when he put it together.
"There were societies, industries and factories that made things. So, that goes to show that Palestine existed a long time ago. and all the claims to the contrary are just false, basically an attempt at erasure to erase Palestine from existence"
"Our adversaries have always floated the narrative that there's no such thing as Palestine and Palestine's history started in 1964 with the PLO. This goes to debunk all of these claims and shows that as early as 1900 there was all kinds of life and a very vibrant community," Saleh told The New Arab, as he gave a tour of his photo and art exhibit, during a break between the festival's panel sessions.
"There were societies, industries and factories that made things. So, that goes to show that Palestine existed a long time ago. and all the claims to the contrary are just false, basically an attempt at erasure to erase Palestine from existence," he said.
"And we are obviously trying to prove the opposite and to show that Palestine, as a society, as a nation, as people, existed a long time ago and continue to exist."
It might seem like a moot point at a Palestinian festival where most of the attendees have some sort of connection to Palestine. However, only footsteps away from the event, on the opening day, pro-Israel demonstrators had gathered to protest the festival.
One large truck sign read: 'Palestinians are a fictionalised Arab people.' Indeed, many of the festival's sessions touch upon the theme, either directly or indirectly, of proving and documenting the existence of Palestinian history.
The black and white photos, most of which come from the collection of around 22,000 images of Palestinian life from the Library of Congress, show various aspects of everyday Palestinian life. Some show agricultural workers using traditional farming techniques. Others show portraits of urban life, showing sophisticated city life.
"It shows the level of sophistication and advancement prior to '48," said Saleh, who as executive director and curator of the Palestine Museum US has made it his mission to document and raise awareness of Palestinian history.
With a limited budget, Saleh said he had to be creative with the material used for his exhibit, leading him to use inexpensive poster board (normally used for yard signs) for the black and white prints. In the end, he was pleased with the bumpy texture, which he thought added character to the old photos.
The contemporary art pieces, by contrast, were framed and encased with glass, a sign of new life being displayed with the old.
The artists featured at the exhibit included: Sliman Mansour, Reema Ghannam, Raghda Zaitoun, Rasha Al Jundi, Michael Jabareen, Mustafa al-Hallaj, Halima Aziz, Israa Ahmad, Mohammed Al Hawajri, Ghassan Abu Laban, Jacqueline Bejani, Laila Kawash Dalia Ali, Shaima Farouki.
Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's Washington, DC correspondent. She spent five years in Damascus, where she studied Arabic and worked as a journalist and eight years in Beirut, where she mainly worked as a journalist. She has won awards for writing about police brutality in the US and Syrian refugees in Lebanon
Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews