The importance of normalising Palestine

The importance of normalising Palestine
Comment: Ongoing efforts to delegitimise Palestine mean that investing in everyday Palestinian culture is as important and relevant as ever, writes Amal Awad.
6 min read
30 Nov, 2017
Hummus is often marketed as an Israeli dish, not a Middle Eastern one [AFP]
In the moving documentary, 'Stitching Palestine', which screened at this year's Palestinian Film Festival Australia, several women recount not only their connection to traditional Palestinian tapestry - thawb ­- but why it matters to them to retrieve and celebrate a unique cultural practice.

As one woman narrates, "Now our country is gone… but we have embroidery, and this no one can take away from you. When you're embroidering a piece, it is yours."

We shouldn't allow the significance of this to get lost in the melancholy of shattered memory. This is more than an act of cultural practice; it's an act of normality, which will preserve a beautiful emblem of Palestinian culture.

When it comes to the occupation of Palestine, might be easy to think that greatest source of controversy is general media coverage of casualties and Israel's so-called defences, but it's actually the everyday normality that most threatens Zionists.

Most recently, we've seen this play out with the offensive reaction to a children's book called 'P Is For Palestine', mocking the idea that there is such a place as Palestine, let alone an identity to go with it.

But this sort of response is anything but fresh.

For years, we've seen how easily the Israel lobby bristles when someone in the public eye simply identifies as Palestinian if they are being recognised for something positive, or even if they are simply telling a story from their perspective; that is, where it's not in relation to an act of terror.

It's actually the everyday normality that most threatens Zionists

Take, for example, the time I recorded an oral narrative that was broadcast on Australian radio about experiences as a woman in the Palestinian diaspora. My piece was about many things, including the ordinary trials and experiences of growing up, but mixed in with a plague of identity confusion and troubles.

I referred to Palestine as a country that people like to pretend doesn't exist. I later discovered that an Australian Jewish media monitor picked up on this and tried to find fault in it. Note: this was a personal, reflective piece, not an incendiary one. But there was emotion in it. Universal experiences of life challenges, longing and discovery.

It was utterly normal. And this is exactly what caused the negative reaction.

A similar reaction, but with a far greater threat, was directed at Palestinian Canadian Australian playwright Samah Sabawi, who was accused of anti-Semitism for her play set in Gaza, 'Tales of a City by the Sea'.

When it was introduced to the Victorian state high school curriculum, there were calls for it to be banned - accusations flew that it was outright propaganda.

Sabawi was on point in arguing that it was the critics who politicised what is a "non-confrontational" play

Sabawi was on point in arguing that it was the critics who politicised what is a "non-confrontational" play. "To come to me and expect me as a Palestinian-Australian writer to be responsible for telling their narrative, whatever that may be - I think it's ludicrous," she told media.

But this is exactly what we are constantly asked to do. If you portray ordinary life in Palestine, the other side has to be shown, even though the prevailing narrative is the other side.

The play is a love story set among the ruins and hopelessness of living in what has been called the world's largest open-air prison. Its offence is that it doesn't dilute the struggles of life in Gaza. Thankfully, the play saw its run.

When John Lyons documented the troubles of a Palestinian man in his journalism, he came up against the Israeli lobby, which tried many times to discredit him as an impartial observer. As he recounts in his excellent book, 'Balcony Over Jerusalem', he later found out what the issue was: He gave his interview subject a name, a personality, the shape of a life story.

Stitching Palestine - Trailer from Forward Film Production on Vimeo.

Coverage is never so frustrating as when Palestinians are portrayed as humans with desires and needs that mirror those of people the world over. 

"If a foreign correspondent writes about 'Palestinians' as a generic group there is no problem. But if a journalist gives Palestinians a name as I did - an identity, an ambition, a profession, a life - it can bring down the wrath of Israel's supporters…" wrote Lyons.

This sort of negative reaction extends to all aspects of culture, including mainstream popular culture. While the way in which Arab-American model Gigi Hadid proclaims pride in her Palestinian heritage (from her father's side) can lead to fierce reactions (her Vogue Arabia cover wasn't a hit with everyone), what's more troubling for others is her joyful invocation of her half-Palestinian identity.

Read more: This children's book recognises that Palestinians exist and pro-Israel media is angry

Here is a mainstream fashion icon normalising her nationality with Instagram photos with henna on her body, wearing fashion garments that allude to her heritage. Her equally famous sister Bella has taken it a step further and endorsed her Muslim roots.

Of course, the trouble is not limited to how we are portrayed. It's that in the process, there are persistent acts of cultural theft and appropriation. In Australia, we've seen the rise of Middle Eastern cookery as a uniquely Israeli occupation, and restaurants that use flavours of the Levant are often run by Israelis.

Gorgeous hardcover cookbooks often feature typically Arab-looking dishes, often hummus, on the cover. The supermarket fridge is packed with hummus of a variety of flavours, some nonsensical (beetroot hummus is just beetroot dip, given hummus is literally chickpea dip), and these are once again Israeli-owned purveyors.

As The New Arab columnist Steven Salaita argued earlier this year, these offerings are not merely appropriation, they may be considered theft. It's no longer a case of denying Palestinians statehood, it's the desire to erase their sense of identity and culture. And furthermore, to profit off it.

As Salaita notes: "The problem isn't who cooks or eats, but who controls the branding and profitability of the food. Cuisine isn't merely an ethnic signifier; it is likewise a valuable commodity."

In Australia, you can be racist, but still want to eat the food of the person you hate

In many parts of the world, hummus is becoming an Israeli dish, not a Middle Eastern one.

It's a clever approach to propping up Israel's modernity and universal delights. Cuisine is quite famously a connective element for dissecting cultures. In Australia, where we see racism play out at both an institutional level and in the form of public abuse, food seems to be the one uniting force.

You can be racist, but still want to eat the food of the person you hate. It's not a solution to anything, but it's a softener. So it's no surprise that part of Israel's propaganda campaign is to extol its cuisine credentials and distract the narratives away from war and occupation. Instead, we'll break bread.

It's notable that new cookbooks are emerging that counter this trend, with Palestinians, both in Palestine and in the diaspora reclaiming family recipes, sometimes rejigging them, to create a fresh narrative around Palestinian cookery. It's not simply healing, but an act of preservation.

Restoring, renewing, reviving or reinventing - all of it secures Palestinian flavours and influences for posterity.

One hopes such ordinary acts continue to be a growing cultural force that uplifts Palestinians and their culture.

Amal Awad is a Sydney-based journalist and author. Her latest book, Beyond Veiled Clichés, explores the lives of Arab women. 

Follow her on Twitter: @amalmawad

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.