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Begova Habeten -Culinary Bridges versus Culinary Barriers: Social and Political Aspects of Palestinian Cookery in Israel
By Liora Gvion
233 pages; NIS 84
'When you're invited for dinner by an Arab family, you can almost always know in advance what will be served," says Dr. Liora Gvion. "You will receive typical traditional dishes, including, of course, meat - and it will all be in huge quantities. And unlike what is expected in other cultures, if you are a polite guest, you do not eat it all but make sure you leave some food on your plate. Otherwise, you will offend your host and make him think there is not enough food."
Gvion is a sociologist and a lecturer and fellow at the Institute for Pedagogical Thinking at the Seminar Hakibbutzim College, and also teaches in the Nutrition Department of the Hebrew University. Her research deals with the various aspects of the understanding of ethnic and national foods, as factors in the changes in a cuisine as a result of the emergence of a new identity or living in new or different conditions.
Her book, published in Hebrew, Culinary Bridges versus Culinary Barriers (Begova Habeten), provides a deep look into the kitchens of Israel's Arab population, and through it, a fascinating glance at an ethnic group which, in some respects, acts almost as immigrants in their own land.
"The Palestinian kitchen in Israel acts in two tracks," Gvion says. "On one hand it preserves traditions - culinary and social alike - and on the other hand, in its encounter with Jewish Israeli society, it serves as a tool to develop a political discourse. This double-track encounter opens on very essential questions and issues - like the right to a homeland, political and national identity and, above all, the issue of the depth of participation in Israeli society."
From the first sentences of the introduction, it is clear that the book is not a "cookbook" of traditional Palestinian dishes, although some interesting recipes, as well as an index of local terms and dishes, are included in its 230 pages. But it is a book that talks about food and what it means in different places and societies.
"An ethnic kitchen is a kitchen that is looked at from the outside, mostly in terms of different socioeconomic status," says Gvion, who admits that neither the wider public nor the media is her major target. Yet, her book will be at the center of a Hebrew Book Week event.
One of her findings is that Israeli Arabs are apparently in a transition period; they have started to write cookbooks, thus opening themselves to Jewish Israeli society. Some of them are considering the radical option of serving "authentic" Arab Palestinian food to Israelis visiting their villages and restaurants.
According to Gvion, authentic Palestinian food is more elaborate, more complex, perhaps even more sophisticated and certainly much more than the humous, tehina and ful we might have considered the "real thing."
WHY WOULD Israeli Arabs hesitate to serve their authentic food? Gvion suggests a lack of respect for the Jewish population as one of the reasons.
"It is a kind of territory they would prefer to protect from outsiders, intruders," she explains. "There is a comparison I always use, and though it is overused, it is still a good one: Imagine you order a dish of spaghetti with tomato sauce and basil in a restaurant. Although we all know that the ingredients are not really expensive, we all find it normal to pay at least NIS 40 for such a dish. Now how many of us will agree to pay the same sum for a dish of humous - with tehina, pine nuts, ful, olive oil and all the additional things that come with it?
"Humous will usually be the cheapest dish, and this hurts, as if Arab food is connected in our mind with cheap, non-special and non-gourmet food. I agree, generally speaking, Arab food is mostly functional, but though an Arab kitchen can be a gourmet one, this is still not in our frame of mind."
Living close to Jewish Israelis has introduced some changes to the Palestinian kitchen. The use of one communal dish as a tool to preserve the family unit is slowly diminishing, especially in the younger, more educated generation. Today one can find frozen food in the supermarkets of Arab villages, and the use of canned food is very prevalent. But Gvion has found that Israeli Arabs draw the line at meat: Frozen meat is still unthinkable in the Arab kitchen. The use of forks and spoons instead of pita and the fingers, however, is becoming more and more accepted.
Gvion gives the reader lots of glimpses into the customs surrounding food and nutrition. For example, modernity can show up in some unexpected situations, but it has its limits. In the small villages of Galilee, even modern young women wouldn't go to a restaurant before they are married: If they want to, they would rather go to a Jewish city or at least to mixed Jaffa or Haifa. And no Arab would go to a restaurant with his wife or fiancee to order dishes he can have at home - at a restaurant one orders meat, mostly grilled, not one of the dishes one's mother or wife prepares at home.
While Israeli Jews would try to surprise their guests with a new and unknown recipe, that would never happen in an Arab home. There the host will always serve more or less the same menu, based on large amounts of meat and traditional side dishes.
"In contrast to animals, people think and give meaning to whatever they do, including of course what they eat, and what they give others to eat. By your food, you declare who you are," Gvion concludes.
Dr. Liora Gvion will be speaking (in Hebrew) on June 12 at 6 p.m. at the Museum of Islamic Art, Rehov Hapalmah 2, Jerusalem, (02) 566-1291/2.