Minneapolis-based chef Sameh Wadi recently experienced firsthand the sort of indignation that can unfold from Israel’s relentless defenders who want to redraw history.
On July 25, Wadi, a young Palestinian-American restaurant owner and an acclaimed chef who has appeared on Food Network’s TV program Iron Chef America, took a photo of what he believed to be a historic, pre-1948 globe-map of Palestine and posted it on his personal Facebook wall. Wadi inscribed his wall-post with the comment, “we need more world maps that are correct, such as this one!” The next day, someone commented on the post, “This ‘map’ is missing Israel…,” to which Wadi replied “exactly the way that is should be” [sic].
A week later, fellow chef Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel and of MSN’s Appetite for Life, saw the post and tweeted about Wadi’s post, “Your joking right? [sic] Are you saying Israel doesn’t exist? Or shouldn’t?” Next tweeting directly at Wadi: “Care to explain your comment at the top? Do you deny the existence of Israel? Or just want it to go a[way?]”
After Wadi calmly clarified that he of course doesn’t deny Israel exists but that he was “merely showing the existence of Palestine on the world map,” Zimmern continued with a ranting tirade of accusations edging on hysteria (and which have since been deleted):
“I don’t see how altering a map and saying ‘this is how the world should look’ helps find a solution to a huge problem.”
Wadi replied, “not altering. It’s a picture of a globe that was seen in a [Minneapolis mall] last month,” adding that he never said what Zimmern quoted him as saying.
Zimmern then retorted: “No, you are actually wiping Israel off face of earth AND showing Palestine existence in the world. I believe in home for both” [sic].
With more than 400,000 followers on Twitter, Zimmern’s harangue quickly went viral, adding to both the bile and the accolades from those chiming in on the issue through both Twitter and Facebook. The next day, prominent Twin Cities publication City Page’s ”Dish-cussion” Food section blog picked up on the story, reporting on what the author called a “twitter spat” between Wadi and Zimmern with a headline that read, in part, “How much do we want to know about our celebrity chefs?”
In a new Facebook post on 4 August, Wadi felt the need to apologize to “all the people I offended with my posts and comments,” following it up (on 7 August) with a much longer note, clarifying and elaborating on his reasons for putting up the map.
He shared that his mother was born in Yaffa and his father in al-Lidd, both from families displaced in 1948 (when the State of Israel was declared on 78 percent of historic Palestine). He talked of the stories that he, at a younger age, had heard about Palestine — “the olive and orange groves, the beautiful land and its history” — but that he was never allowed to visit nor meet his grandparents who remained in Palestine because his family was never allowed to “cross the border back into the old country.”
“I didn’t have a home until I became a US citizen a few years back,” he added. “As a person without a homeland that is recognized on the world’s map, I was ecstatic to see Palestine on a picture of a globe, and I wanted to share that joy with my friends and family. It was not until later that someone mentioned to me that what I said may sound negative” to some people.
Wadi apparently felt compelled to go from great to greater — and still to absurdly larger lengths — to show that not only was he sorry some people were “offended” but that he was not spurred on by hate nor was he a generally hateful person. And neither was he denying Israel’s existence nor wanting anyone “wiped off the map.”
He explained that he has family members with Israeli citizenship who speak more Hebrew than Arabic. “I advocate for all Palestinians, of all religious faiths, to have a homeland, where they can live in peace and prosperity, and that was the sentiment behind the post and comments, not hatred.”
Reality imitates art
Wadi’s experience is also a case of reality mirroring art.
Some months ago Jerusalem-based Electronic Intifada blogger Jalal Abukhater posted a short clip of an episode of the popular TV series The West Wing in which a dramatic controversy among the characters ensues because an 18th century map of the Holy Land doesn’t include Israel.
In the episode (from Season 3, aired in January 2002), fictional US President Jed Bartlet, played by veteran actor Martin Sheen, wants to decorate the West Wing’s outer hall with the 1709 map of Palestine, a gift and newfound object of Bartlet’s giddy and nostalgic affection. To the president’s dismay, he is roundly dissuaded by all his advisors who, one by one, passionately implore him not to put up the map because “some people [Israel’s supporters] are going to find it offensive.”
The reasons given by his advisors are lost on President Bartlet himself as to how a map made 250 years before Israel was established can mean it doesn’t recognize Israel. In the end, a dejected and defeated president reluctantly gives in to the pressures to avoid the frothy ire of Israel’s supporters.
Ironically enough, the level of attacks Wadi faced were similar (though likely less in scale) to those which President Bartlet’s fictional advisors warned him about. Wadi’s experience is a real world example of what the fictional West Wing president might have gone through had his advisors not talked him out of hanging the map beforehand. As one of President Bartlet’s advisors explains: “It’s not like I am agreeing with the people who are going to be offended. It’s just that you’re asking for a whole lot of pain in exchange for which you get nothing but an old map.”
Unlike the fictional President Bartlet, however, Wadi didn’t censor himself on the reality or rights of Palestine and the Palestinians. To be sure, one could truthfully say that Wadi was exceedingly meek and compassionate to feel sorry for those he “offended.” But Wadi never apologized for being himself or longing for the freedom and independence of his home country and its history and lands, despite growing up just out of reach and somewhat estranged from his roots, inherited with exile. Indeed, Wadi maintains through every word he said — and explicitly in his last words on the issue — his life of loving his culture and advocating for the ties that bind the diversity of all Palestinians together.
Wadi’s motivations and resolve through this tribulation may be summed up by the phrase, “to exist is to resist” — resist all that threatens Palestine from erasure: foreign occupation and settlement, cultural theft and expropriation.