“As Ali and David were leaving the kitchen, Ali stopped and looked at the sign saying the kitchen was kosher and asked, “Can I also put a sign at my end of the kitchen?” ...”What would your sign say?” ...”It would say, this kitchen is fifty percent kosher and fifty percent Arabic.”
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Ali, a Palestinian Muslim, and David, an American Orthodox Jew, share a small apartment with an even smaller kitchen in the Bronx, are brought to life in Moustafa Soliman’s book 'An Arab, a Jew, and a Truck' (Infinity Publishing, 2012).
In the novel, rather than focusing on the differences, Ali and David manage to find their similarities. They share a kosher/halal kitchen at home, each with his own set of dishes, and they eventually start a moving business together, symbolizing the possible collaboration between the two nations and religions.
The novel and its protagonist inspired Moustafa, together with his wife Lynn Skynear, to start a foundation they titled 'Arab-Jewish Truck to Peace'. It's goal: to encourage and sponsor collaboration between Jewish and Arab artists, writers, actors, and young entrepreneurs. And Moustafa already has an idea for a project he intends to carry out himself: an Arab/Jewish food truck that will serve both kosher and halal meat on the streets of Washington, D.C.
I met with him last week at his beautiful house on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, between some of the fancy embassy buildings that fill this part of town. A native Egyptian, Moustafa remembers his country the way it once was: “so cosmopolitan and secular, international. Completely different from what you see today.” His parents had many friends, he says, and it didn’t matter if they were Christian, Jewish or Muslim.
It was Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Israel in 1977 that inspired the novel. When he started off writing it, Moustafa’s protagonist was created as a young Egyptian. But as the novel neared its completion, some thirty-five years later, he decided to change the character's nationality: Ali turned into a Palestinian- part of a more up-to-date conflict.
In the years that have passed since the book's conception, Moustafa has been keeping very busy. He got his PhD in engineering from Berkley, proceeded to work in the Southern California aerospace industry, and moved to Washington upon the establishment of the new Energy Department in 1974. He took part in various collaborative ventures that brought together the U.S., Israel, Egypt and other Middle East countries- projects such as the Israel-Egypt gas pipeline, and the “Solar Peace Project”- a trilateral U.S.-Israel-Egypt alternative-energy venture. As part of such jobs, Moustafa traveled extensively in the region. “I sat and talked to people in the government and people in the street- sitting in cafes in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Cairo, you start feeling that the average person really wants peace, he wants to raise a family, wants to feed his kids, wants to send them to school.” Jews and Muslims, says Moustafa, lived together in peace for thousands of years- “It’s really only a fight over real estate now.” The hostility, he adds, is “not something that is deep rooted.” In his view, a return of the old harmony he remembers from older times is still possible.
And this is where the 'Peace Truck' comes in. Moustafa envisions a two-window food truck: selling halal meat out of one and kosher fare out the other. Muslims and Jews, standing in line for the delicious food, will naturally strike up a discussion. A space for dialogue will thus be created.
The similarity between kosher meat and halal meat is one of the many examples of common ground between the two religions. The animal is slaughtered with one fast stroke, and its blood is then drained. The process is accompanied by “the sayings of the words of God, from the Koran or the Torah,” in Moustafa's words. In fact, I have a few kosher-keeping friends who eat halal meat as such, and Moustafa knows of Muslims who will eat kosher meat.
Moustafa is aware of the complexity of serving kosher and halal meat from out of the same kitchen, and knows he might not be able to satisfy everyone. He’s not planning on having a mashgiach (kosher supervisor) on sight, and instead plans to offer “certified kosher ingredients”. He knows that ultra-Orthodox Jews will prefer to have their own kosher truck and hardline Muslims will want a separate halal one. “This is more symbolic,” he said. “I will get a lot of the moderate Jews, the Muslims and Americans.” Enough to start a dialogue.
(The truck, by the way, was supposed to start operating a couple of months ago, but it is still in the making. D.C.’s ever changing regulations stopped the process for a while, but it is now back on track.)
Besides the meat, Moustafa wants the Peace Truck to serve falafel. I asked him if he knows the kind of problem he’s bringing upon himself. The falafel war is a long, tiring one.
“Why don’t we equally share the ownership of the falafel and use this as a recipe and metaphor for compromise on bigger issues,” Aisha, Ali’s cousin, says in the book.
In Moustafa's eyes, “Falafel is symbolic”- he actually appreciates this disagreement. “This by itself will start a dialogue.”
Can eating kosher and halal meat together in America make a difference?
“If we can’t [find a fair solution] sitting here, eating delicious kosher and halal food, how can we expect our people over there to reconcile and arrive at a solution?” asks Aisha.
Moustafa was pleased to see peace talks resume in Washington this week. “This is a day for celebration, even if it's the first step in a long journey towards a final settlement. I look forward to having our Kosher-Halal Food Truck standing outside and ready to serve when they sign the final agreement.”