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Revitalizing the Culture of Palestinian Food

The Palestine Hosting Society project, founded and directed by Mirna Bamieh, usually begins with research into a city or family’s food practices and culminates in a hosted “table,” where this research is presented to a group of invited guests.

“Our Nabulsi Table,” a collaboration with Suzanne Matar, a commission project by Geothe Institute and Institut Français (©Ulla Marquardt)

The Palestine Hosting Society, a research project founded by Mirna Bamieh, an artist and cook from Jerusalem, examines Palestinian food practices. Bamieh began her research in 2016 after noticing that restaurants in Ramallah tended to serve a limited menu of Palestinian foods. “For me, restaurants and going out to restaurants is a way of practicing your identity publicly” says Bamieh. This limited offering was a reflection of a misconception held by some Palestinians that their cuisine was not diverse or unique. This misconception, which grew from the restrictions of Israel’s military occupation, is what Bamieh seeks to challenge in her work.

The project has evolved over time but usually begins with research into a city or family’s food practices and culminates in a hosted “table,” where this research is presented to a group of 50 to 60 invited guests in the form of a meal and performance by Bamieh. While the first table focused on the food practices of five individual families, more recent tables have been centered on cities (Hebron and Nablus) and specific crops, such as a recent table at the Palestinian Museum that focused on wheat. The project is also attentive to more expansive educational projects, including food walks and a self-guided tour in the old city of Jerusalem.

Kufta wrapped in wine leaves, “Our Jerusalem Table,” a collaboration with Suzanne Matar, a commissioned table by Al Mamal foundation for Contemporary (©Claire Bastier)

By name and nature, these tables foreground values of hospitality and hosting. Bamieh points to the importance of hospitality in Arab culture — as well as Jacques Derrida’s writings on hospitality, particularly the political relationship between guest and host — as influences on her interest in hospitality. Living under occupation forced Palestinians to take on the role of the guest, perpetually hosted by others. “To have this mobile hosting society, is to create those tables where we, as Palestinians, offer something [to others]. It also takes us out of this passive role of guest or refugee. Instead, we become the ones who host” says Bamieh.

“Our Jerusalem Table,” a collaboration with Suzanne Matar, a commissioned table by Al Mamal foundation for Contemporary (©Claire Bastier)

As in most cultures, food is important to Palestinian identity for its relationship to their history, culture, and politics. However, life under occupation atrophied this connection through policies that prevent access to crops. Bamieh points to za’atar (hyssop) and akoub, two wild greens commonly used in Palestinian dishes, that are now illegal to forage. While control over foraging may seem minor in the larger scope of the occupation, these restrictions reflect larger damages to the richness of Palestinian identity. “It’s not about actually having the ingredient in the kitchen” says Bamieh “It’s because your children will not know akoub but, as well, there’s a whole experience in relation to spring and to your relation to the land.”

Whereas Instagram users are, by and large, of a younger demographic, Bamieh’s audience tends to skew older. Palestinians of this generation, those born in the 1960’s and 70’s, grew up in the wake of the 1967 war and the rise of the Israeli settlement movement, watching their chances of sovereignty disappear. Under military occupation and with limited access to the land that formed the basis of many food practices, this generation lost touch with the diversity of foods that formed their cuisine. For them, the recipes and tables shared by the Palestine Hosting Society are a way to reconnect to this part of their identity.

Preparations for the Wheat Feast, in collaboration with Haifa Zaitoon, a commission by the Palestinian Museum (©Palestinian Museum)

To find these forgotten recipes, Bamieh meets with the oldest generation of Palestinians, those born before 1948 and the founding of Israel. This aging generation hold the last memories of these traditional recipes. “I’m dealing with those recipes as archives” say Bamieh “not archives that I want to put aside but archives that I want to reactivate and put forth again.” As the Palestine Hosting Society reactivates these recipes through public tables and posts on Instagram, Bamieh hopes it will encourage a new discussion on Palestinian food practices and identity.

I met with Bamieh during a trip to New York in preparation for her first table in the United States, which will be held at Bard College this November. Unlike previous tables, the Bard project will be a large-scale retrospective of the Palestine Hosting Society‘s work, serving about 180 guests. She also expanded her approach to include research on diaspora Palestinians, with a focus on intergenerational food habits and memory. At the same time, she is reckoning with the fact that many Palestinian foods are branded abroad as Israeli.

Mthawamet Bandora roasted tomatoes with garlic and Jameed dried yogurt dip, Our Jerusalem Table, a collaboration with Suzanne Matar, a commissioned table by Al Mamal foundation for Contemporary (©Claire Bastier)

Israeli food has long defined itself as an amalgamation of different cuisines brought by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, as well as those appropriated from surrounding cultures. In the past few years, propelled by Israel’s growing economy, Israeli chefs began to experiment with dishes and open restaurants in the United States. But, as Bamieh notes, this was only possible because Israeli chefs felt comfortable, both economically and socially, to experiment with their cuisine and bring it abroad. Palestinian chefs, however, are rarely afforded that luxury. As a result, Palestinian foods such as maftoul and za’atar (a spice ingredient made of several herbs) are marketed abroad as staples of Israeli cuisine, rather than Palestinian foods. In the case of maftoul, it has been completely rebranded as “Israeli couscous.”

Luckily, Bamieh is not alone. In the past few months, several restaurants that attempt to modernize Palestinian cuisine have opened in Ramallah alone. Likewise, there are a growing number of Palestinian chefs who are researching and experimenting with Palestinian food. Bamieh hopes that, by researching and uncovering these long-forgotten recipes, she can help reconnect Palestinians to their kitchen and reclaim the significance of food in Palestinian identity.

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