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Palestinian Restaurateurs Are Putting Their Identity at the Forefront

My local Palestinian restaurant just put up a new mural. Previously, while waiting in line to order falafel platters and ful medames at the King of Falafel & Shawarma, you’d be standing next to a painted street scene of the neighborhood showing other local businesses and buildings. Now, the mural depicts a scene of explosions, with people running from burning buildings and lying bloody in the streets. “This is where the story of #Gaza will be,” writes the restaurant on Instagram. It’s also replaced its sign; below the restaurant’s name, it now reads “Free Palestine.”

King of Falafel & Shawarma has called itself a Palestinian restaurant since owner Fares Zeideia opened his first cart in 2002. But as the war in Gaza has continued — which has resulted in widespread starvation as Israel blocks supplies, and for which the International Court of Justice has ordered Israel to take steps to prevent acts of genocide after South Africa alleged Israel’s actions constituted a genocide against Palestine last month — that identification has only become more prominent. “I actually get more support from customers now,” Zeideia told QNS in December. “The more people say, ‘Why are you involved in politics?’ the more I want to involve politics.”

Every restaurateur wrestles with the question of what to call the food they serve. Is it new American or Nordic fusion? Modern or traditional? What words do you put on your menus, your website, and your Yelp listings to set customer expectations? For owners of Palestinian restaurants, the impetus for identifying as such has always been twofold. There is, of course, the fact of heritage and geography. Culinary tradition does not map onto modern borders: Identifying a cuisine by a nation-state, with its government and military and passport checks — as opposed to by its people or region — always leaves something out. But broadly, a Palestinian restaurant is a place that serves food from Palestine, which naturally shares similarities with foods of the region, and of course has hyperlocal variations. “I do think there are nonetheless some things that are distinctly Palestinian: our use of citrus, olive oil,” says Moureen Kaki, an activist and owner of Saha, a Palestinian pop-up in San Antonio, Texas.

It is also a politicized identity. Kaki says she refuses to engage with the label “Middle Eastern.” “It’s a homogenizing term that’s never been clear about where it represents references,” she says. To identify as Palestinian, instead of the more watery “Middle Eastern” or “Levantine,” is to immediately call attention to conflict and oppression of Palestinians. Restaurateurs across the country say that call has never been stronger.

“Whenever it came to my Palestinian narrative, there was always a hesitation about putting that at the forefront,” says Marcelle Afram, chef and owner of the pop-up Shababi in Washington, D.C. Even when he had the autonomy to cook Palestinian food at other restaurants, it was a branding issue. “Palestinian,” he says, “just seems to be such a dirty word for so many,” whereas using a label like “Lebanese” on a menu would receive less pushback. Starting Shababi, which serves musakhan, taboon, and other Palestinian staples, was a way for Afram to “cook for [his] people first.”

Naming Palestine is also a matter of adding specificity, or engaging with one’s identity in a public way. Mona Leena, chef and owner of Lulu on Solano in Berkeley, California, has labeled her cooking “California Palestinian,” a celebration of the similarities she’s found between the Palestinian cooking she grew up with and other techniques she learned in professional kitchens. For Kaki, cooking Palestinian food at her pop-up, often with the Texan influence of offset smoke, was a way for her to set her own terms. “I just wanted a way that I could engage with it that people couldn’t deny. Food is an easy way to do that, because either you eat the food and shut up, or you don’t come.”

But identifying as a Palestinian restaurant comes with consequences. Leena, like Afram, says some potential customers simply won’t engage with her business as a result. “If it’s a Palestinian restaurant, there are certain people that aren’t going to support that.”

And the label itself is not universally recognized, to the frustration of many restaurateurs. Abdul Elenani, the owner of Ayat, a Palestinian restaurant with three locations across New York City, recently posted on Instagram that Google’s business profiles don’t allow restaurants to choose “Palestinian” as a descriptor when setting up a searchable business profile. A quick search of “Palestinian” on Google’s food page brings up multiple restaurants under the label “Middle Eastern,” but zero labeled “Palestinian.” Searches for “Israeli,” “Lebanese,” and “Egyptian” bring up restaurants with matching labels.

Elenani says Ayat first noticed the issue with Google in 2020. “Most people had no idea Palestine even existed,“ he said of opening his first restaurant, which he named after his Palestinian wife. “They would come in [after finding us on Google] surprised, thinking it’s Israeli and not Palestinian.” He says it felt more important than ever to publicize the omission, and “to brand fully as Palestinian and educate as many as possible on Palestinian cuisine and culture.” This has been the case especially as Ayat has been inundated with fake negative reviews on the platform. “Unfortunately many are fearful and don’t want to mix business with politics, which is respected,” says Elenani. “I won’t fall into that and will continue to communicate the occupation.”

Afram also noticed this a few years back, and at the time sent requests to Google to add Palestinian as a category. “It’s not allowing us to describe ourselves as we are,” he says, nor does it allow anyone looking for specifically Palestinian cuisine to accurately search. “There’s no excuse, outside of it being blatant racism.” Ayat’s post was shared widely among Palestinian restaurants and their supporters, who tagged Google on Instagram asking for an explanation.

In a statement, Google told Eater, “We regularly update restaurant categories on Maps to ensure that they’re relevant and helpful. To do this, we look at a number of factors, including how frequently they’re searched for, how many places in that category exist, feedback from our community, and more.” The company says it’s in the process of adding “Palestinian” as a restaurant category to maps, a change which should be implemented in the coming weeks.

“I started Shababi to say Palestine,” Afram says. All identity is political, but many chefs see the project of running a Palestinian restaurant or pop-up as inseparable from the goal of ending Israeli occupation of Palestine — which has become especially pressing as the U.S. continues to fund the bombing campaign in Gaza. For Afram, this means being a center for his Palestinian community, and connecting with allies and other marginalized communities. “Food creates a bridge, and it opens up conversations. It opens up people’s eyes to a region or a place that they may not be familiar with,” he says. And that, ideally, creates political solidarity.

“I think just the existence of a Palestinian restaurant is enough” to act as a counterbalance to negative depictions of Palestinians in the world, Leena says. By providing a hospitable experience under the banner “California Palestinian,” she can ideally change perceptions.

Kaki agrees that restaurants have the ability to use their weight as cultural institutions to enact change. “There’s a long history of the idea of ‘breaking bread’ as a metaphor for trying to work through differences,” she says. However, she emphasizes the limits of what visibility and cultural influence can do. In the past few months, she’s seen her pop-up tagged in lists of “Palestinian businesses to support.” But the idea of “support,” while well-intentioned, felt hollow — how does frequenting a pop-up in Texas help the people being bombed in Gaza? “I noticed that our members were growing, almost 1,500 followers in, like, a matter of a month. To me, it felt kind of weird,” she says. “I wasn’t intentionally opportunistic. But I couldn’t live with the idea of becoming bigger because my people are getting killed.” Saha is currently on hiatus, as Kaki engages in more direct political organizing work.

Breaking bread, even literal bread, is still a metaphor. Going to a restaurant in America won’t automatically change the country’s foreign policy, the money you spend there won’t necessarily get in the hands of people needing the most help (and what good is money when there’s nowhere left to spend it?), and your patronage won’t even directly encourage other people to visit the same restaurant.

Of course, Palestinian restaurants are doing more than just existing. Leena ran a bake sale for relief in Gaza, and regularly posts about what’s happening in Gaza, sometimes to the shock of her customers, some of whom have sent her negative messages (her reaction: “You are going to a Palestinian restaurant. Like, did you think I was self-hating Palestinian?”). Afram has organized with Hospitality for Humanity, a group of hospitality industry professionals pushing for a cease-fire, and asking chefs and restaurants to boycott Israeli products. Because the goal for these chefs is to turn the metaphor into material reality. To serve a meal that inspires someone to call their Senators and ask for a cease-fire, or to donate an eSim, or join a protest. Or at the very least, know that if you enjoyed yourself during a dinner out, it was because of Palestine.

Perhaps most importantly — like many restaurants in the diaspora — Palestinian restaurants in the U.S. exist for Palestinians. “I think too often [restaurants are] focused on changing people’s minds, and I don’t know if that is what this is about,” says Afram. “I think this is about those of us who are really subjected to oppression standing up together. Food is one of those spaces that allows us from those communities to do that.” The invitation is there. And at least, it seems people are willing to join.

Shirien Creates is an artist, designer, and community organizer based in Chicago.

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