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Who stole my hummus?

Hummus, Falafel and Shawarma ARE Arab foods. And they are also Israeli foods. Those who claim differently, too often lack the knowledge or the wisdom to see things as they really are.

I already addressed the issue of subjecting hummus and other middle-eastern foods to political disputes. You can read all about it in my post Hummus, is it Israeli or Arab. But I can’t help commenting on this piece, a column by George S. Hishmeh titled ” The undeclared war on Arab cuisine”.

Hishmeh says: “My niece, Irene, called me a few days ago indignant that some of her American friends, including some Jews, keep describing typical Arab foods such as falafel, hummus and shawarma, among others, as Israeli. She wanted to know how she can convince them this is not the case.”

Later on he more or less explains how Israelis are trying to steal the fame of Arab cuisine, a claim I already know for some time – only he goes back some 40 years to establish that claim, involving people and deeds which were better left alone.

Since Hishmeh insisted on giving his reader a history lesson, I’m afraid there’s a need for some additions and corrections.

Israel only exists for 60 years, but there were Jewish people here long before that. There was always a Jewish community here – when falafel was brought here from Egypt by the Copts, and when hummus was eaten here by the Crusaders, and also when

Ottoman Turks brought Shawarma with them.

In our era, those foods are considered Israeli, because it was mostly Israelis who brought them to Europe and the US. And, because they are more common in Israel than in any Arab country. And I mean common both between Israeli Jews AND Israeli Arabs – which people like Hishmeh insist are Palestinians.

I do respect the fact that some Israeli Arabssee themselves as Palestinians, just like the Arabs in the occupied territories. What I don’t understand is why Hishmeh don’t respect the fact that there are also Arabs who see themselves as Israelis, having and Israeli citizenship, speaking both the official Israeli languages (Arab and Hebrew) and sharing a glamorous cuisine with the Jewish citizens of Israel.

22 Comments on Who stole my hummus?

  1. I disagree with “shawarma” being an Arab food. In fact, I totally disagree on these type of “which nationality made this food first” arguments. But if you want to make that argument, I usually try to see if the name of the food makes any sense in any language. At the end of the day when you `invent’ a food, you would not call it using a totally unknown language, would you?

    In the case as what most Middle Easterns call “shawarma”, I believe it has no meaning in Arabic or Hebrew (please correct me if I am wrong) but it is a derivation of “çevirme” from Turkish which could be translated to “the act of rotation.”

    The same food is called “döner” in Turkish, and “gyro” in Greek which are literal translation of “rotation”, “something that turns” just explains how the spit turns and turns to cook the meat as you know.

    Why do people go and make these arguments and be proud of their nationality is kind of beyond my understanding. This is one of the main reasons why people cannot get along, in my opinion, as they are so similar in many ways but cannot accept that fact.

  2. So, Hummus, Falafel and Shawarma are uncommon in other Arab states? I was sure that Israel’s neighbors also eat lots of these dishes.
    I guess that Iraqis, Lybians and people from more distant countries focus on other dishes, but I was sure that Egyptians, Jordanians, Lebanese and Syrians do eat a lot of Hummus…

  3. You overlook the fact that Hishemeh notes, with humor, that he goes to a kosher restaurant for his favorite falafel, made by Palestinian cooks.

    No one, not even the most ardent Arab-nationalist, would deny that Arab Jews, Syrian, Palestinian, Egyptian, and Iraqi, have enjoyed falafel and hummus for as long as falafel and hummus have existed. (Though, Jews from other Arab countries, north African and Yemeni, wouldn’t have had much experience with these foods prior to migration) And, surely, just as pizza has become an integral part of US-popular cuisine, falafel and hummus have become an integral part of Israeli popular cuisine. But, ask the average American what he/she she considers the origins of pizza. Except for the most ignorant, most will answer “Italy.” (I’m speaking of Italian-styled pizza, not lahmaajeen). Surely there are many Israelis who say that falafel and hummus are “Arab” foods in origin, too. Yet, for many, the question doesn’t even make sense, just as the notion that Palestinians have any right to the lands they have lived for millennia doesn’t make sense.

    There’s no problem as far as I’m concerned (and I’m Palestinian) with Israelis integrating falafel and hummus into their national popular cuisine. Hell, we all have to eat, and one might as well eat well. But, as long as Palestinian land continues to be confiscated, Palestinians are cut off from their farms, their ancient olive trees (over a hundred thousand) are bulldozed – and sometimes transferred to illegal Jewish-only colonies, as long as Palestinians are denied the right to existence itself as Palestinians (yes, there are some Arab nationals of Israel who do not identify as Palestinians, but one would be deluded to think they are anything but a minute minority of the Israeli Arabs) the notion that indigenous gastronomy (read Palestinian – Askhenazis are not native hummus eaters, and, of the Mizrahi population, those from north Africa and Yemen grew up on other foods) can be removed from its political context is pollyanish at best. Hopefully we’ll reach the day when identities will become blurred much as chickpeas are blurred into tahini, lemon juice, and garlic. But, I suspect by then, the definition of what is Israeli will have to change considerably (nearly 180 degrees) before that happens.

  4. Dear Jar,
    About the confiscation of lands and farms etc. – I totally agree. I think everybody who lives here should have the same rights as I do, and I think separating a man from a land he cultivated is a very very wrong doing, no matter how you look at it.

    Although as far as I know, most of the Palestinians are descendants of people who came here from Saudi-Arabia in the past few centuries, and despite the fact that my own ancestors were here for the last seven generation, I don’t think either of us – Israelis or Palestinians – “owns” the land.

    Being here together, sharing the same place and culture, is a given fact. We also share a common tragedy, of a bloody ongoing conflict for far too long. This is why I believe a Palestinian state should be founded, beside Israel, and I hope It’ll happen soon.

    Anyhow, the political situation in Israel is really more complicated than that. I didn’t vote for the current government, as I know most Palestinians didn’t vote for Hamas, or regret doing so (and those who did , didn’t do it because Hamas sent suicide bombers into Israeli cities, but because they were disappointed with Fatah).

    Many people I know agrees that we are all victims of evil and stupidity from both sides. Still, I wish hummus was left out of it.

  5. Hey Yohay,
    As far as I know, Syrian are no less hummus eaters than we are, and you can certainly find hummus on all our neighbors’ tables, except Egyptians. But only in Syria and Israel (including “the territories” of course) has hummus become such a basic and important dish. And that’s probably because it’s been eaten by the poorest people (except those in Egypt, were the national legume is the broad-bean)

  6. fethiye – couldn’t agree more.

  7. 1.most Jewish Israelis today come from Arab countries and brought there
    taste for food with them.
    2. both Israelis and Palestinians perfected humus and falalfal to levels that
    most people in the world just dont get!


  8. elie – actually, Ashkenazi people are the majority in Israel since the ’90s, because of the vast immigration of former USSR Jews to Israel. But about 40% of the Jewish population of Israel are Sepharadic Jews, from Arab and North African countries.

  9. i stand corected! forgot about the russians….

  10. Weren’t you the one who pointed out that hummus is mentioned in Ruth, long before Arabs arrived in the region? And ful is mentioned repeatedly in the Mishnah and as fethiye says, shawarma/doner/gyro is Turkish in origin, as are many “Middle-Eastern” dishes. (Hishmeh himself makes that point at the end of the colum, although he seems oblivious to its implications.)

    That said, Hishmeh’s daughter is correct that American Jews do mostly think that falafel and hummus are *uniquely* Israeli foods invented in Israel by Jews. It’s not the deliberate conspiracy Hishmeh imagines it as and Israelis mostly laugh when they hear it but it was what I believed for quite a while.

    So it’s a reasonable point, but could be expressed just as well without the conspiracy theories about the Mossad bombing Iraqi synagogues and that charming cartoon of the hook-nosed haredi. (That’s quite a career Nino Jose Heredia has carved out for himself in Dubai!)

  11. JSinger –
    You put it into words better than I do (probably due to the fact that English is not my mother tongue).

    I see it as an internal American dispute – between Jewish Americans and Palestinians Americans such as Hishmeh .

    About the Iraqi synagogue – it’s a true story. Israelis – just like their neighbors – did many stupid things over the years. But this has nothing to do with the right of one man or another over territories and foods.

  12. Shooky,

    I’m happy to hear we’re in agreement about the traumas of land confiscations, etc. I know there are many, many Israeli’s like you, but it’s nice to hear it, again.

    As for the origins of Palestinians, they did not migrate from what is Saudi Arabia in the last few centuries. Or, anyway, the overwhelming majority of them didn’t. Palestinians are the descendants of people who have been living in the land we call Palestine/Israel from time immemorial (no apologies to Joan Peters) and those who came and went over the centuries. Please remember a couple of things 1) borders were fluid until the twentieth century. People live in Jerusalem for a few years, Cairo the next, Beirut, Damascus, etc. Peasants surely were not so mobile, though they did move as necessity dictated, too. The Levant has always been a crossroads. 2) If one is to put any credence in biblical accounts of history (and one would be advised not to put too much credence in them, one reads in the Hebrew Bible that Moses encountered the peoples of Canaan as he migrated to the “Promised Land.” Whichever exile the ancient Hebrews supposedly suffered (yes, I’m challenging biblical historiography in hopes that a better source for historical knowledge will emerge), there is no reason to believe that the Canaanites, the Samaritans, the Philistines, or whichever peoples were living on the land, were also removed from it, thereby making one of the most important geopolitical positions on earth back then (as now) empty of people. Palestinians trace their ancestry to that time and before, even claiming some Hebrew parentage. Is there some mythologizing? Of course. That’s how national identities are formed. But, there’s no real reason to doubt that a people who have been extant on the land for countless generations wouldn’t legitimately trace their heritage to the earliest days. Now, while there were “Arab” tribes/clans/peoples in Palestine for thousands of years (again, look at the Bible), the land surely wasn’t “Arabized” until the second or third generation after the Prophet Muhammed. And, even then, there were still patches of non-Arab peoples living there, up until the first political Zionist colonies were established in the last fifth of the 19th century. Interestingly, my family does trace its origins to the Arabian peninsula, but has had a continuous presence around Gaza since at least 1100 AD. It doesn’t take much to guess that they ate some form of hummus, too.

  13. Dear Jar

    This is all very interesting, only what evidence is there that Palestinians are the decedents of Canaanites?

    We do know that today’s Egyptians, for example, aren’t the decedents of ancient Egyptians but mostly of Saudi tribes who conquered Egypt in the 7th century AD, in the name of Islam.

    In the 10th century AD Rashi (Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzhaki) wrote: “why is the Torah starting with the story of creation? Because one day, when Jewish people will return to the land of Israel, there will be people who’d say this land isn’t theirs…”. Now forget the rest of the explanation, which is the Jewish narrative – can you think of a Palestinian equivalent?

    Shortly after Rashi wrote this, the land of Israel was conquered by the Crusaders, then by Mamluks, then by Ottomans. So maybe, just maybe, some of the Palestinians are descendents of these people too?

    On the other hand, we have 3000 years of sequent Hebrew literature mentioning the land of Israel and Zion. There are also 2500-3000 year relics, including old synagogues in Israel. Can you think of Palestinian equivalents?

    The name “Palestine” BTW, derives from the name of the “Plishtim” (Philistine), Phoenicians who came here from Lebanon and are mentioned in the bible. Jerusalem, is also mentioned hundreds of times in the bible – but not once in the Koran.

    Throughout the 18-19th centuries, a number of pilgrims and explorers came to Israel, and wrote about it and drew maps of it. Non of them mentioned a mass of Arab people who were living here. They all found SOME local Arab populations, just as they found my Ancestors, in Jerusalem and Safad.

    So you see, we can argue about this for all eternity. I say: in my heart I believe this land is “mine”, but this does not give me the right to hurt other people. I demand equal right for everybody who lives here. Also, I believe a reasonable and fair solution should be found, to compensate all the people who were hurt, deported, evicted, etc.

    I guess we are sort of stuck together. So it’s more reasonable to think of a way we can live here together.

  14. will humus be the ansewr for peace??

  15. It makes me sad that even on a blog about hummus we can’t get away from politics. But then in the world we live in, everything is about politics, and politics is about everything.

    I come here to read about hummus. As an American living abroad in a city where I can’t find good hummus (though — there has to be some out there somewhere, doesn’t there?), I’m determined to MAKE good hummus for me and my son to enjoy.

    Shooky, keep up the good work. I hope I can come to Israel some day and try the local hummus (and baba ghanouj, and falafel, and ful, and whatever else is worth trying!). But if I can’t, I am grateful for this blog for giving me the information I need to try to make my own.

  16. I agree with Xenobia, and I too would like to thank shooky for the work he is doing. Just imagine! Whirled Peas!
    If we could only accept the situation we find ourselves in, and then work out a way to make things as fair and survivable, and as good, for all, as we can… like when you go to see what you have in your cupboard to cook, and make something out of what there is (I am imagining the shop is shut, or that I have no money anyway). It’s no good shouting at the kids for eating all the cheese. It won’t bring the cheese back. You just have to get on and make something else. And what you do make often turns out to be really good. Better even that what you had planned.

    I first came across hummus and Falafel and other such dishes when I worked at the Bagdad House restaurant in 1966. I worked out for myself, around 1980, how to make hummus because I couldn’t find a recipe – no www then – and once made 300 portions of hummus (1984?) and 300 portions of chilli sin carne, sold it all in pitta bread with salad at a pop festival, in a day! I didn’t make the pitta – a bit of a mission – but I did make money, and friends.

    I froze down the hummus, and the chilli, in ice cream tubs, the week before, and took the defrosting bricks to the camp site. I used often to freeze it, but it doesn’t keep well frozen for more than a couple of weeks. Unlike the chilli, which freezes great.

    I won’t blame you for editing this 😉

  17. Since the discussion originally touched on origins and etymologies of famous ME dishes, can I return to all that and ask someone where the word “pita” comes from? It’s a bread people assume to be Arab but as there is no letter “p” in Arabic, the word itself can’t come from it. Is it a Turkish word? I once read somewhere that the words “pita” and “pizza” are derived from the same word and, I guess, bread… Any ideas?

  18. Adam – indeed, the Arabs call it “chubz” which means “bread”. The word pita originates from ancient Aramaic (also “bread”) and was used several times in the Talmud. It was later used by Sephardic Jews as a name for the Arab bread, and had spread to the world from there.

  19. Thanks Shooky. Do we have any idea what kind(s) of bread and recipees for it “pita” stood for in Eretz Israel during the Talmudic period?

  20. Daniel Becker // December 14, 2009 at 5:35 am // Reply

    Hummus in Israel is so good cuz it’s made by Arabs. I tried making hummus once, didn’t go very well, not because I’m Jewish though.
    I like the author’s ideology, stop fighting and start eating hummus together.

  21. to anyone who said that hummus and falafel isn’t served in countries like lebanon, egypt, syria, etc… you’re dead wrong. Israel isn’t the only place where it’s served. In the countries that i just named, if you go to practically any traditional restaurant hummus would be one of the first plates you would get on the table, and they would do it automatically, its not even something you have to order. and theres a falafel shop like every kilometer. so next time be sure of your facts before you go blabbing about random things you have no idea about.

  22. not sure what country the author is in but it is most definitely not true that people in the US consider these to be israeli food. nor was it israelis who brought them here. the US has an arab population much older than the state of israel and much larger than that of palestinian jews who’ve immigrated to the US. and it is arab people, mostly syrian, lebanese, and egyptian, who own the restaurants where these foods are served. in the last 10 years or so there have been a growing number of israeli restaurants but they are not common. it’s pretty horrible jouranlism to just make things up out of thin air. and it does no service to anyone.

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