Do you like hummus? Or pita, falafel, shawarma, baba ghanoush, or tabouleh? Ok, great! You like Arabic food.
Have you eaten salad made of petite diced tomatoes, red onion and cucumbers with parsley and a simple olive oil vinaigrette? Cool, you’ve eaten classic salata Arabiyyeh, or Arabic salad.
Years ago, when I was finishing my sous chef internship, I had a few opportunities to be the head chef of some big weekend dinner events. For my second one, I did an all-Palestinian dinner series: tables were spread full of maqloubeh, kibbeh, and all sorts of mezzeh salads. Admittedly, I had a political agenda in this: I wanted to use food to raise awareness of Palestine, its culture, and its humanity (inspired by the incredible work of Leila el-Haddad.) And wouldn’t you know it, I got racist hate mail clogging up my inbox as soon as the event was publicized. Had I kept the same menu but called it “Mediterranean” instead of Palestinian, I guarantee the hate mail would not have come in.
When you see restaurants that serve dishes like hummus, shawarma and mjaddara, they often label themselves as “Greek” or “Middle Eastern” restaurants. Walking through the streets of DC last winter, I passed by “mezzeh” restaurant after “mezzeh” restaurant. What you rarely see is these restaurants labeling themselves as Syrian, Jordanian, Palestinian, or simply Arabic, even when the owners themselves are from Arab countries. When I was living in North Carolina, one of the best restaurants in town was (and still is) a Palestinian deli in Chapel Hill. The menu is full of beautifully-executed Arabic dishes, and the deli is owned by a proud Palestinian family who have become local celebrities for all the good work they do in the community. However, as Arabic as their food is and as proud as the owners are of their homeland, the restaurant is called “Mediterranean Deli.”
“I wanted to use food to raise awareness of Palestine, its culture, and its humanity.”
This is not the fault of the restaurants or their owners. It is not their fault that there is still such a painfully pervasive cultural attitude that Arab people are not quite people, but something more savage and primitive we like to call “terrorist.” Even people who consider themselves liberal often hold intense subconscious anti-Arab racism, seeing Arab people as dangerous and not quite as human as themselves. Arab restaurant owners should not have to disguise themselves to appear more culturally palatable to our racism. If we are going to eat Arabic food, the very least we can do is challenge our own prejudices and recognize Arab humanity.
So yes, absolutely go to these restaurants. Eat Arabic food, love Arabic food, celebrate Arabic food – but know where it comes from and give proper attribution to those roots. Mjaddara is not Greek, and hummus is not Israeli. Celebrate this cuisine’s origins and the people who make it, and use the food as an entry point to educate yourself. You, your palate, and this world will all be better off for it.