Saturday, 10 July 2010

Food, power & meaning

Cilantro. You either hate it or love it. Alongside Marmite, the Mediterranean culinary herb is as famously celebrated as it is detested, regardless of age, gender, class or race. Recently, however, it made the headlines in connection with a different kind of controversy. It had been on a list of banned foodstuffs, part of the ongoing sanctions on the Gaza strip, for quite a while. It is still a mystery as to why decision makers declared the dominant herb as warfare: was it a security threat? Perhaps a luxury product? A personal vendetta against the herb itself?

Either way, the ban on both cilantro and coriander seeds has now been lifted, and regional dishes may once again retain their true flavours.Being deprived of cilantro as part of the conflict could have been the perfect metaphor had it not been a local reality, highlighting the relevancy for a discussion on and through food. Against this backdrop, of an on going Israeli Palestinian conflict and banned herbs an international conference titled “Food, power & meaning in the middle east and the Mediterranean” took place at the university of Beer- Sheva last month. The conference was organized by the department of Anthropology and provided the rare opportunity to research, explore and discuss local matters from a food perspective. Invited speakers, guests and listeners arrived from all corners of the globe, sharing a passion for food, speaking a culinary dialect, and hungry for its meaning; anthropologists, geographers, researchers, students, lawyers, therapists, gastronomes and chefs were all present.

Beer Sheba in itself made for an interesting choice of venue with regards to food, power & meaning. It is the largest city in an arid stretch of land known as the Negev, an area settled by the Israelites back in biblical times. Today the population is made up largely of a Jewish immigrant community from both Ethiopia and the former USSR, as well as the Bedouin population, or, as is often referred to, the ‘The Bedouin problem’. Bedouin tribes that previously inhabited the open desert, given herding rights by both the Ottomans and British rule were gradually forced by the Israeli rule to give up their nomadic lifestyle and settle down. This, in turn, has had an effect on the collective Bedouin identity, nomads, roamers and shepherds at the core of their existence. This has led to a rise in the level of crime and violence, the cause for which often ignored.

Walking through the narrow passages of the local central market, passing through vegetable stalls, butcheries, desert fishmongers, ethnic spice shops and dry goods stores revealed the full complexity of the local social structure and internal social hierarchies.

The breadth and scope of the topics discussed throughout the conference included food & power in the media and arts, historical perspectives, civil society, food regulation, a national culinary identity, religion and class, to name but a few.

In recent times the controversial Hummus has also come to headline the issue of food, meaning and power in the region. With a Hummus front line between Israel and Lebanon showing no signs of slowing down, the coronation of the dense paste as the ‘National dish’ was discussed in depth.

In addition to lectures, panels and discussions the conference included several ‘food themed’ tours. One of which was a visit to the small town of Dimona, 22 miles south of Beer Sheba, to an eco- commune equipped with environmental preachers, a sustainable gospel and a vegan restaurant.

Home to the African Hebrew Israelite community, we arrived there for a vegan cooking workshop, dinner and a lecture hosted and presented by Sar Elyakim Ben Yehuda, a “Minister of the people and redemptive scholar” as printed on his business card. The Hebrew Israelites believe they are the decedents of the ten lost tribes that ended up in Africa, and later sold to slavery and shipped to America. They arrived in Israel from the US, after a ‘cleansing’ sojourn in Liberia in 1969, a year after Martin Luther King’s famous “I see the promised land” speech, making a clear reference to the biblical story of the Israelites exodus from Egypt. Upon arrival, 40 years ago, the state ruled them out as Jews, thus they were denied citizenship and consequently any social services. It was only last year that the first member of the community awarded an Israeli citizenship. Their unique lifestyle is an amalgam of their interpretation to biblical texts (not recognizing interpretations by rabbinical Jewish texts) and the African American civil rights movement. Food is very much at the heart of the community, reflecting their heritage and beliefs.

As we sat in a fluorescent lit dining hall, and enjoyed a vegan tofu curry, fried seitan and green leaves, Ben Yehuda told us of the community’s vegan diet and their ecological lifestyle, the collection of local heirloom seeds gathered for the past 40 years and their religious dietary practices. These include a fast on the seventh day of the week, and a regime of raw food for weeks each year. They utilize the scorching heat of the desert sun to sundry their food and even invented a solar cooker.

Food, power & meaning are all interlinked. One cannot discuss the subject of food in the Middle East without discussing power and meaning. Yet it is precisely the lack of discussion that is missing, the results of which are echoed in local reality. The conference, like a shared meal, created an atmosphere of commensality, and a platform for the exchange of thoughts and ideas on different aspects of food in the region. Being the storyteller, mirror and communicator that it is, food proved its ability to do so in a relevant, accurate and distilled form. A powerful tool that can help better understand many of the hows and the whys.

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