Interview: The Politics of Food in Gaza

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Women Unlimited, India’s first and oldest feminist press, hosted a three-day Palestine in India Writers’ Colloquium. One of the speakers at the event was Palestinian journalist, blogger and author Laila El-Haddad. Although El-Haddad grew up in the Gulf, she returned to Gaza as an adult, and she now travels between the US and Palestine.

El-Haddad’s style of writing uses the lens of personal experiences to talk about political developments and the Israeli occupation of Palestine, to describe what she called ‘the intimacy of the Palestinian struggle’. In conversation with The Wire, El-Haddad talks about The Gaza Kitchen, an ethnographic cookbook she has co-authored.

Laila El-Haddad. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

Laila El-Haddad. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

The Gaza Kitchen doesn’t sound like your average cookbook. Could you describe the project?

Ever since I was a child I’ve had a passion for exploring ethnic Palestinian cuisine. I was trying to piece together fragments of my identity at a time when my parents were doing everything they could to not necessarily repress those memories, but have me live a “normal life” and keep me away from all the turmoil. But I wanted desperately to extract those memories and form my own identity. So I had a fascination for exploring native dishes, even those that were no longer as common, or weren’t cooked for children so I didn’t know about them.

Then as I got older and went to Gaza, it became a habit to record these kinds of dishes and sometimes write about them on my blog. Then fast forward a few more years to when I was back in the US, and was approached by a colleague, Maggie Schmitt, who had just visited Gaza. She is an activist and writer herself, American but living in Madrid. She was interested in writing an article about the foods of Gaza, because she too noticed that the cuisine there is unique, quite different from the rest of the region. That was the beginning of the inspiration for this book. I had been wanting to do this for a long time, and she brought her anthropological background and mind, and localised knowledge.

It was quite difficult to make this project a reality, because at the point the border was closed. We had to wait a year for the border to open, and once it did we kind of just seized the moment and went there – that was actually the first time Maggie and I met in person. I even took my children; we were like a big travelling circus. We spent the next two to three months there just talking to people about food. it was very hard, because this was during the Ramadan period and people were fasting. I still often wonder how we did this, it’s insane the amount of information we were able to collect in a short amount of time. We interviewed men and women, farmers, agronomists – one interview would lead to another. We just wanted to get a sense of the everyday life, and people were constantly surprised that we were there to talk to them about food. Of course our understanding was that through food other topics would emerge, more political topics. But our questions weren’t about the latest attack or tunnel, they weren’t the kind of questions people are very used to from journalists. People were really receptive to our idea. We were pleasantly surprised that it was not just the women but also men who were so enthusiastic to tell us these recipes.

In the book, we often refer to what happens in the kitchen as the ‘perpetuation of history’. The reason we chose Gaza is because first of all I’m from there, but also because Gaza is very unique in the sense that a majority of the people living there are not native Gazans. They’re from villages and towns in southwest Palestine that were ethnically cleansed, forcing people to flee to Gaza. Then the borders were drawn around them. So we explore the historic southwest Palestine through the microcosm of Gaza. You get to not only taste all the different foods, but also the memories of all those disappeared villages. They may no longer exist on a map, but you can still taste them through their food. So the idea was to be able to codify this knowledge, talk about the intersection of food and politics, and use food as a lens to explore other topical issues like the blockade on farming, the water crisis, and local debates around agricultural sustainability.

So it may not be a glossy, pretty typical cookbook, but that was the idea.

You call the book a feminist project. Could you explain that?

It was conceived also to oppose the very caricatured representations we have of not just women in Gaza but also of Arab women as a whole in the media. Gaza has a reputation of being very conservative, very “backward”. We wanted to show real human depictions of people. We call it feminist mainly because it was women-centric, not so much feminist in the Western sense of the word. We wanted to create a space where experiences could be narrated through the voices of Palestinian women.

Frequently, our stories are narrated through men. The public face of food is male, even here in India. We wanted to go beyond that, to look at things a little differently. A lot of history is perpetuated by women, knowledge is passed on by them. So our aim was to get their perspective on things.

Has there been a noticeable change in the cuisine through the occupation, especially now that so many cuisines exist in the Gaza strip?

A lot of the food has maintained it’s regional specificity, in the sense that even though it’s a very small areas, two-thirds the size of Delhi, yet you have people from villages and towns that no longer exist insisting that this food is from this particular village. They say “It’s different from how they do it in Gaza city,” even if now they live five minutes from Gaza city. It’s incredible, and it really speaks to the human capacity to retain memories.

People are obviously very proud of their heritage, but this is also a tool of resistance for them. It’s empowering to be able to say, “we can still cook this and nobody can interfere with that,” even in the face of insurmountable odds with risks to your lives and livelihoods. They may not have access to the same ingredients, but this still have control over something in the realm of food.

What has this exploration into food said about the region?

What I learnt was that the broader Gaza region was a major spice depot, and a stop along the Frankincense Route to Arabia. There were several resting places for caravans, and it was the intersection of continents, Africa and Asia. So it had an important historical role, and was known as a rich city, quite different from how it is today. It was also at one point the main port along the Mediterranean. The inland part of Gaza was completely separated from the port area, which had heavy Mediterranean influences like the use of dill, which is not used elsewhere. There’s also a lot of spices used, probably absorbed because of the Frankincense Route. It’s just a fascinating story. The rest of Palestinian cuisine has a lot in common with Levantine cuisines of Syria and Lebanon. The Gaza region breaks this mould.

It’s also nice to remind ourselves that Gaza wasn’t always isolated this way, it interacted with the rest of the world and exchanged ideas with different cultures and peoples. This opens up the realm of possibilities for our imagination.

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