Whose falafel is it anyway?

Call it the falafel wars, the hummus wars or just a plain old foodfight: Lebanon made headlines all over the world last week by threatening to take Israel to court over food theft.
Make my day. R.R.

BEIRUT, October 13, 2008 (MENASSAT) – In one of Lebanon's most famous falafel stands, owner Fouad Moustafa Sahyoun only needed to utter the word Israel to set off a heated political discussion among his customers.

Sahyoun, whose shop is named after his family, was discussing a recent threat by the Association of Lebanese Industrialists (ALI) to sue Israel for appropriating what many consider to be traditional Lebanese foods, among them falafel, tabbouleh and hummus.

Fali Abboud, ALI's president, says Lebanon is losing "tens of millions of dollars" because Israel is claiming traditional Lebanese dishes as its own on the world market.

Yet, Abboud says, "These dishes existed long before the existence of Israel."

The feta precedent

Abboud says he was prompted to consider legal action against Israel after receiving complaints from the Lebanese agricultural industry that Israeli manufacturers are increasingly marketing Lebanese foods as their own.

In the United Kingdom, for example, supermarket chains like Sainsbury's and Tesco carry mostly Israeli brands of hummus, tabbouleh and falafel mix.

"It is affecting our business and creating unfair competition," Abboud told MENASSAT.

Abboud has invested his hopes in the "feta precedent" as a legal basis for bringing a case against Israel before the international courts.

In 2002, the European Commission ruled that only Greece could label feta cheese as feta, and it could not be marketed as such by other countries, after the Greeks conclusively proved that Greece was indeed where feta cheese originated. 

Of course, the differences between Lebanon and Israel transcend the culinary. The two countries have been at war with each other for decades, and Israel still occupies a piece of land, Shebaa farms, which Lebanon claims as its own.

"Stealing is the part of the existence of Israel, unfortunately," Abboud said. "But in my opinion stealing our culture is as important as stealing the land. We cannot stand still and accept the stealing of our culture and cuisine."

But while the "falafel wars" currently dominate the headlines, there are also those who suggest that food is precisely what unites the peoples in the region.

Ari Cohen, an Israeli-Moroccan filmmaker based in Montreal, is currently working on a film about falafel, using the often-politicized food staple to explore the larger issues in the Middle East.

"I don't want to speak for anyone but I'm curious to see where does this come from, that you feel that another country has appropriated their dishes. I want to get a sense of how and why feel they have been robbed. It's obviously a sentiment they feel strongly about," said Cohen, who has traveled to a number of places, including Israel, Palestine, France, the United States and Canada, looking for falafel-related stories.

One of the questions Cohen continuously asks in his film is, Where does this food originate? And can we own food?

"No one really owns food but we can pay tribute to it," he believes.

"I think Israel should be appreciative and should acknowledge where these foods originated. But they are adding their own spice to the mix. It's a question of acknowledgment and respect but also there have been Jews that have been there for hundreds of years and have been involved in the creation of this food," Cohen told MENASSAT.

The recent controversy in Lebanon is nothing new to Cohen, who has interviewed many Arabs who share similar feelings about Israel's claim to the foods of the region.

"It's a way to make Israel accountable, from their perspective," he says.

Lebanese... or Palestinian?

But Lebanon may be opening up a can of worms by claiming falafel, tabbouleh and hummus as Lebanese because the Israelis are not the only ones in the game.

Siham Baghdadi Zurub, a Palestinian chef in Ramallah and author of The Palestinian Cuisine, staked her own claim in an interview with the Daily Telegraph.

Zurub argues that the Palestinians were in fact the first to make hummus from chickpeas given that they were plentiful in ancient Palestine, unlike in Egypt or Syria where the fava bean was more common.

But, said Zurub, "No one has the right to call hummus and falafel as his national dish. Putting copyright on certain dishes is a selfish trend that reflects insecurity and a lack of common sense."

In Beirut's Hamra district, Shady is underwhelmed by Lebanon's latest culinary offensive.

Shady is the manager of Barbar, a Lebanese fastfood chain selling shawarma and falafel among other things. Barbar is famous in Lebanon for staying open – and delivering – throughout any of Lebanon's political crises, including the 2006 war with Israel.

"There are a lot of things we can sue Israel for – much more important things," said Shady. "They didn't just steal the food; they stole a lot of things. There is the segregation wall – we can sue them for that.

"It's only propaganda, it won't lead to anything," he shrugs.

Shady is equally dismissive of the power of food to bring people together.

"Food will not erase 40 years or 50 years of abuse," says Shady. "It won't unite anybody."

Moustafa Sahyoun, in his falafel stand on Beirut's former Green Line, says he tends to avoid politics these days, preferring to listen to classical Arabic music as he serves his customers.

But, being Lebanese, he can't help taking one more shot at the Israelis for good measure.

"Maybe they are thinking of coming to destroy something here because of the falafel issue?"