“On the Hummus Route” begins with an antique-style map of the road taken by the chickpea paste. A simple dish, nonetheless its path has been convoluted. Hummus meandered between Egypt and Gaza, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Acre, continuing onward to Damascus. One might wonder how much there is to say about this utterly simple Middle Eastern staple. But the deeper one gets into the book the more the plot thickens and the journey along the hummus route, a contrivance invented by the authors, does not bore.
The book is the impressive creation of Ariel Rosenthal, owner of Falafel Hakosem in Tel Aviv; food researcher Orly Peli-Bronshtein, who has a dozen cookbooks to her name; and Dan Alexander, a well-known designer who moved to France some years ago. The book has 408 large-formatted pages and a golden-hued cover bearing the word “hummus” in Arabic, English and Hebrew.
I was simply in shock. This publication threatens my reputation and beliefs, in London and globallyChef Joudie Kalla
It contains hundreds of high-quality and wonderful photos, texts written by dozens of writers, and 70 recipes that include hummus as an ingredient. Yet it defies categorization. It’s somewhere between an art book and an anthropological treatise, a cross between a book of travels in the Middle East and a cookbook. One could not imagine a wider disparity between a serving of cheap, simple hummus and this book.
Published a year ago by Magica, the book was an instant hit and was awarded, among other prizes, the “Oscar” of the genre: the Gourmand Award, in March. The New York Times showered it with praise. Even the pope (I swear) appears on the communiqué that accompanies the book, blessing its message of spreading human ties and fraternity around the world.
'Hummus was not created by Israelis. They do eat it, but Frenchmen eat couscous without claiming that they invented it'
All the texts are in English. Hebrew and Arabic appear only as graphic decorations in chapter headings, each of which is dedicated to a city. These include Cairo, Gaza, Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Nazareth, Acre, Beirut and Damascus. No states are mentioned. The photographers hail from these cities too.
Naturally, the three authors write some of the book but it features texts and recipes provided by Palestinian chefs in Paris, London, Acre, Dubai and other cities. These include well-known names such as Sami Tamimi and Karim Haidar, and some lesser known ones. There are also texts written by sociologist Liora Givon and historian On Barak from Tel Aviv, philosopher Anne-Marie Ravitzky from Paris, and the legendary cookbook author and cultural anthropologist Claudia Roden, who lives in London.
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Hummus has long been a symbol of identity and culture in the Middle East, explains Paris-based Dan Alexander, the book’s chief editor and designer. “Hummus is a battleground in terms of cultural appropriation. Everyone claims exclusive ownership,” he says. “There is a hummus-covered elephant in the room. Hummus is a Palestinian dish. Palestinians rightly claim that not only were their homes taken from them, so were their food and culture.”
Identity makes a statement. I don’t want to be identified with things now taking place in IsraelDan Alexander
In fact, it’s because the whole issue of hummus is so charged, that he’s interested, Alexander explains: “Charged topics contain energy.” He had no interest in participating in the routine discourse on the chickpea paste, which just exacerbate the alienation and polarization. “In this book, I wanted to propose a different perspective, a better one, I believe. This is a journey of remorse and expiation, a desire to live in dialogue, in which each one of us grants the other this basic ethical demand, the right to exist in equality and with love.”
My father threw the copy I gave him into the garbage, saying I’d ruined years of my workChef Joudie Kalla
Alexander does not define himself as Israeli anymore, he says, explaining: “Identity makes a statement. I don’t want to be identified with things now taking place in Israel. That’s how I managed to convince the contributors to this book to embark on a joint journey with us. I promised them the book would not deal with countries, only with cities. We regard the Middle East as if from a spaceship, from where reality looks different. You won’t hear me talking about peace but about equality and a new social order.”
According to Alexander, in any location you pick in Israel, within a radius of less than an hour’s drive, there is someone oppressed or conquered. “I clarified to all participants up front that this was not an Israeli book, God forbid. We were meticulous in making sure that was the case. We stood by our promise to all of them.”
‘Normalizing the occupation’
Although love is in the air, it’s appropriate to remember that we are in the Middle East, even if some of the action takes place between Paris and London. Just after the interview with Alexander, I contacted the chef Joudie Kalla, whose family hails from Jaffa. Kalla, one of the book’s contributors, lives in London and is doing very well. She’s published several bestsellers on Palestinian cuisine, including 'Palestine on a Plate'. I liked the sensitive text she wrote in “On the Hummus Route,” called “Memories from my Mother’s Kitchen,” in which she describes the connection of her Jaffa family to Middle Eastern food.
As soon as the interview began, I realized I was in for a surprise.
“When I received the book a year ago, I was simply in shock,” she says. “From my perspective, the book normalizes the occupation, and this of course is something I never would have dreamed of lending a hand to. I didn’t know there would be Hebrew writing on the cover or in chapter headings, as Dan had told all Palestinians contributing to the book that this would not happen, among many things.
“Alexander introduced himself as a Frenchman, and only later did I realize he is in fact Israeli. This is not a problem for me, as I have many friends who are Israelis, and also we knew Ariel and Orly are. But he lied about this – why?
“As part of the book’s promotion, I saw Ehud Barak holding a copy,” she adds. “To me – and to all Palestinians and many around the world – Barak is a war criminal, responsible for the death of Palestinians in Operation Cast Lead that killed many unarmed women and children [in Gaza]. I was told by one of the Israeli contributors that Barak said if he was a Palestinian, he would have been a freedom fighter. This was outrageous for me to hear, and so mind-blowing: that they were trying to justify why he was promoting the book!
“This publication threatens my reputation and beliefs, in London and globally among my Palestinian friends and huge communities I have built around preserving our identity away from Israel appropriating our food,” Kalla tells Haaretz. “I now demand, as do all the other Palestinian contributors, with the help of lawyers, that our names be taken off any future editions. We want no part in this, and I feel we were deceived. We were denied this right when we spoke to them.
“My father threw the copy I gave him into the garbage, saying I’d ruined years of my work,” she adds. “To me, this is an Israeli book built on lies – and promises, of which none were fulfilled. We had hoped it would be a beautiful project, but it’s turned into a nightmare. We were all promised certain things, but things were done differently, without our knowledge. ... This was a manipulation to use us Palestinians to normalize the situation going on in Israel.”
The book is the first step in a million to save humanity, no less. It gives me hopeKarim Haidar, a Lebanese chef living in Paris
Later in the interview, Kalla says she has no problem having relations with Israelis. She says she has some really good Israeli friends in London. Her problem is with breaking promises.
Replying to a question about complaints made by Palestinian contributors to the book, Alexander said that “each one of them took a bold step. I value and respect any decision they make. I know very well that we kept everything we’d promised.”
On a more personal note, he admits that he knew he’d take lumps when he set out on this journey. “When you enter a minefield, you know that at some point you’ll hear an explosion. You can’t make a book like this without hearing explosions. It’s clear to me that some people want to get off the spaceship, to leave the journey without continuing along this path, but I will. I know that our idea and path are new and demand courage. Our road doesn’t deal with forgetting or with coexistence. It comes from a cry and a wish for change, with an uncompromising demand for equality. Anyone who joins and helps is welcome. I’ll understand anyone who doesn’t want to. However, it’s important to clarify: the book will never come out in Hebrew. That is the language of the occupation. As a yeshiva graduate, I love the language, but it’s now the language of soldiers at roadblocks, which is why the book will never come out in Hebrew.”
The next interview, with Karim Haidar, who is a Lebanese chef living in Paris who has contributed a chapter to this book, made it clear how surprising hummus can be.
Haidar is the main chef and co-owner of the Askini restaurant in Paris. He also founded an academy of Arab cuisine, which aims to promote this cuisine around the world. In contrast to Kalla, Haidar likes the book and blesses the moment he agreed to contribute to it.
At first he hesitated and fretted: as a Lebanese it wasn’t trivial for him to work with Israelis, and he worried about the risks. “If the book were just about hummus I would have refused. The concept whereby the book was about people captivated me. I insisted that two cities be added to the original list – Gaza and Damascus. When Dan agreed, we embarked on a joint path and we’re now good friends. When I received the book, I shivered with excitement. I wondered whether all the promises had been kept. I took the book and sat down at a café. I leafed through it and was happy with it. Everything that was promised had been fulfilled.”
Haidar explains that for him, this book is about a dream. One can’t change the past, but that it’s possible to change the future, he says. “Hummus was not created by Israelis. They do eat it, but Frenchmen eat couscous without claiming that they invented it. Everyone can innovate in his own way. That’s the way to live.”
The responses he got about the book were positive, he says. At first, he worried that he’d be assailed for participating in such a book, but he was surprised by the applause. The book stresses human aspects, he says, and Alexander’s promise that it wouldn’t be published in Hebrew clarify the book’s international character.
“The book is the first step in a million to save humanity, no less. It gives me hope. The past is indeed horrific and the present is fraught with problems, but one can talk about it without hatred or violence. One can simply move forwards. For me, a written text is more powerful than a weapon. If the book helps people understand that children in Gaza are human beings, we’ve done something good.”
Dr. Yahya Diwar, a senior doctor at a Cairo hospital, is an amateur photographer. Most of the photos from Cairo in this book are his. They are beautiful and colorful and have a human character. I sent him some questions by email and he responded immediately.
“It’s been a pleasure working with few people around the world who believe in humanity disregarding the ethnicity race and the colors of one flag or another, people who believe that there is something to unite us because there are so many reasons to divide,” he wrote. “The journey of the hummus through different cities and countries, sharing different ways of cooking and eating hummus, will spread the word of peace because this is one thing that could unite the people” — though, he adds, justice is not something one can simply find between the pages of a book: “You need to dig deep to find it like a gem. Hummus could be this bridge between people so they could find a way to communicate and know about each other and sharing our daily eating habits,” he adds.
He too had been a “little anxious” when first approached to join the route of hummus, worrying about the content and purpose of the book and the message the book delivers. But as he came to know the people involved through the pages, “as we built bridges between Cairo, Gaza, Beirut, Jaffa, Acre and Damascus in this journey ... then I felt like I want to make it and I want to join the hummus route.”
By now I felt pangs of hunger and a hankering for hummus. I called Yehuda Litani, a local expert who wrote a book about hummus in the past. He mulled for a moment and told me I had to taste the Lul hummus from the Arab town of Tira. He was right. Eating it at the nearby Kfar Sava branch, I realized that if everyone made hummus like they do, peace and friendship would conquer the land.