The Limitations of Cultural Identity for Food

pat out bread

Baking hubez saj in Fassouta

I recently visited my old friend Ayoub in Fassouta up near the Lebanese border in the Western Galilee – one of the few Arab villages populated almost, if not entirely by Christians. Ayoub’s wife likes to use a certain kind of rennet for making cheese from the goat’s milk from their herd, and I had brought some back for her during my last trip to the US.

One of the formative experiences I had when researching for my book was a morning spent with Ayoub’s sister and sister in law as they baked bread in the baking room next to their house. Working in splendid coordination, the two women baked about 200 “hubez saj“, huge, wafer-thin flatbreads, on a concave metal surface called a saj, heated over a wood fire.

I thought about that morning during a conference I attended last week on Israeli food studies at the University of Haifa. One of the speakers, a professor in the Land of Israel Studies Department, challenged the audience with an Israeli food trivia quiz. A section of the quiz was devoted to “Druze Cuisine” and one of the questions was “what is a saj?”

While my knowledge of Israeli snack foods history was insufficient to answer most of the questions, I do know what a saj is. And I also know that it is not necessarily Druze. Sitting in Ayoub’s living room, sipping herb tea and savoring his sister’s ethereal honey-drenched semolina cake, I asked him if the saj has any particular association with the Druze, whose communities are centered in the Galilee and adjacent Lebanon and Syria.

He answered by way of a story, telling me that his sister’s saj was getting rusty and they wanted to buy a new one. After searching in all the villages and towns in the area, they eventually ended up travelling all the way south to buy one in Hebron, a city that is far from any Druze community and whose Arab population is predominantly Muslim.

Ayoub’s wife then related that their daughter, who is the only Arab employee in a high tech company, once brought some fresh hubez saj to share with her colleagues at work. “Druze pita” they told her, based on their familiarity with the Druze men and women who sell hubez saj baked on portable, gas-heated sajs at fairs and stands in shopping malls. But we’re not Druze, she explained.

Attaching ethnic identities to foods may be convenient, and in certain cases appropriate. But in this little slice of the Middle East, I think it has already caused way too much trouble. Flat breads in their various forms, farike and bulgar, and even hummus and falafel for that matter, are what people who live in a traditional relationship with this Levantine land and its local foods consume, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. The defining relationship, I believe, is between the earth, the farmer, the miller and the cook, not any religious or national orientation.

pile of elrif

Whose flat breads are these?

 

Comments

  1. fRANCES bUCIEN says:

    Are humans only happy when they are dividing and classifying? I read somewhat wistfully thinking about other barriers we have in this country, where our food is so separate from the earth that barely anything arrives without packaging. I would love to see hubez saj in place of boxed matzah at Passover.

  2. Abbie,
    Your take on the cultural as opposed to the religious or national orientation of indiginous Non Jewish foods in Israel is challenging but believable. I wonder if you see any parallels in Jewish Israel?
    Dad

  3. sheila Gerber says:

    Hi Abbie – Just a note to tell you how much I enjoy your posts. The subjects are always interesting and your spirit is admirable. There is a young-ish Druze woman who sells her stuffed grape/cabbage leaves , laffa, labenah etc nearby. I bring them to Belinda’s house for shabbat dinner to great appreciation. Your posts and this Druze woman have enlarged my understanding and enjoyment of Israeli cuisine. Keep up the good work!

  4. Miriam sivan says:

    Hear hear…… you keep plugging away Abbie….. and me with you.
    Well written, as usual….. pleasure to read.

  5. Richard Wilk says:

    I wnder to what degree this attachment is a kind of branding in a market economy. As much as it is sometimes an imposed connection, there are others who are busy with the work of authentification because it is an effective way to sell food. In the Late Bronze Age in the Levant, there was extensive trade in wines, honey, timber, dried fruits and nuts, incense and precious stones and metals. Many were named for the people and/or place they came from, often used as a way to affirm their authenticity and high quality.
    Just a thought.

    • Abbie Rosner says:

      And very apt. But in this neck of the wood, politics trumps market forces, and it is the hegemonic society that is applying its label onto a minority food, not because it will necessarily gain any benefit, but simply from an extremely narrow understanding of the culinary culture of “the others.” It is a long and confounding story, full of historical twists and ethnic complexity… Thank you for your comment.