Palestinians break records to reclaim culture

Nasser Abdulhadi (right) and his chef. (Jerrold Kessel, Pierre Klochendler/IPS)

RAMALLAH, occupied West Bank (IPS) — Nasser Abdulhadi is a mild-mannered man who runs a restaurant. He was always known as the jovial sort. One day, his friends say, he stopped being jovial. He chose instead to fight for a world title for one of his country’s national dishes, and through that to gain worldwide recognition for Palestine.

Nasser’s campaign began when he heard from a friend who had flown in from the US that the Israeli national airline, El Al, had served musakhen, a dish made of bread, chicken and onion spiced with purple summak, as an “Israel national dish.”

“That was hard to digest. Everyone knows mosakhen is Palestinian. They’ve tried that before, with hummus [the famed Mideast chick pea paste], and falafel [fried chick peas in a pita bread sandwich]. It’s below the belt,” says the Palestinian-born New Yorker, who came back to his homeland in the peace years of the early 1990s.

“Israeli chutzpah [cheek] at its worst, I call it,” he adds, “I had to ruin their tasteless assault, to cook up something that would instead celebrate our Palestinian national culture and identity in the world.”

His chosen vehicle to put Palestinian cuisine on the world’s table was the Guinness Book of Records.

He succeeded. A certificate proudly adorns his “Zeit and Zaatar” (Olive Oil and Thyme) 50-seat restaurant on main street here opposite the famed Rukab ice-cream parlor: “Guinness Book of World Records: World’s largest salad,” it reads.

Quite some record: tabbouleh salad is usually not an entree, just a side-dish appetizer. Not Nasser’s. His salad was made from 1,081 kilos of chopped parsley and coriander, bulgur wheat, onion, tomato and mint. “The dish was four-and-half-meters in diameter,” Nasser says proudly.

What he remembers most fondly, though, was his “political victory” over the Guinness jury.

“It took me a year-and-a-half to convince them to put the entry under ‘Palestine’ as the listed country, not ‘OPT’ [occupied Palestinian territories] nor ‘occupied West Bank,’ not even ‘occupied Palestine’ — simply Palestine.” He relishes the memory of how eventually he brought the Guinness folk round.

Palestinian culinary pride, fine, but Nasser had himself vexed a gastronomic rival. And what a rival — Lebanon, the Middle East’s cordon bleu!

Irritated Lebanese gastronomes went on a Guinness crusade of their own. They proceeded to produce the world’s biggest ever hummus dish, thereby sidelining Israel which just a year earlier had won the “Champion Hummus” title.

“I guess you can call me a warmonger,” chuckles Nasser, “I seem to have started the war of food in the Middle East.”

But like the French, even though he has a New York background, Nasser knows the power of filling a happy stomach, and of providing food for thought.

He knows the power of Guinness too: “We need recognition as a regular people, for what we can achieve in the normal run of life. We’re not just a resistance movement fighting the occupation.

“We’re part of the world. Like people everywhere we love our children, we’re protective of our families, we’re chefs, dancers, plumbers, farmers, ordinary human beings, part of the family of nations.

“I know it’s important that the world should be told stories of how we suffer under occupation, of the inequities of daily life in Palestine. But what makes the most impression on people around the world is when they can identify with other people who are just like themselves. Don’t we laugh, cry, love, dance, eat well. Sometimes we can also be best. The world should know.”

Since the grandeur of his tabbouleh, Nasser and his team of 18 chefs and their assistants have gone on to be crowned “Makers of the World’s Largest Musakhen.” “I want to show the world we’re more than you think we are when you see us in the news.”

“It’s about making the world understand that Palestine exists. By competing in the world we become more like everyone else, accepted as a people. And, we should serve everyone, including Israelis. The more people we see here, the more people will see us as normal.”

As if caught in a frenzied search for recognition, other Palestinians have begun to emulate Nasser.

Next month on the beaches of Gaza, thousands of kids will attempt to break the record for the number of kites flown at the same time. And in October, no fewer than ten thousand Palestinians will line up in Jericho for a step-dancing dabka that resembles Irish line-dancing.

Biggest tabbouleh, most gargantuan hummus, most massive musakhen — hardly widely sought-after world title categories.

But Nasser doesn’t confine himself to food “biggest.” “Last year I applied for Palestine to be recognized as the longest occupation.” Now that would be a major title.

He was rebuffed, though: “First, they said ‘Tibet has been longer.’ I argued Tibet didn’t apply. Then they said, ‘You’re just being provocative.’ All right, so now I’m applying afresh for recognition to the title, ‘The Most Wonderful Occupation.’ Why should they object to that?”

But what if Israel was to object, we ask. “I’d tell them, wonderful, beat me at my own game any time, end your wonderful occupation, the nicest occupation ever. I’d be thrilled to surrender my Guinness certificate — just give me an end to the occupation.”

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