June 20, 2023 - Written by: Nancy Pollard
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Before Current Events

Fertile Crescent from Wikipedia
Long before we picked up the headlines about the religious and political battles in Lebanon, the proxy war in Syria, our own disaster in Iraq, the sectarian strife in Israel, a simmering revolution in Egypt and the massive public debt and unemployment in Jordan along with the bloody turf wars over Palestine – these artificially created states were once called “The Levant.” It was a vaguely defined part of the Fertile Crescent – something that I remember having to memorize  in Junior High School world history classes.

The Levant has been home to numerous ethnicities for thousands of years. The modern borders were essentially created  after World War I by the French, with some neighborly help from their frenemy, the British. This area, which was home to Samaritans (both good and bad), who were the ancestors  of later Jewish settlements, was also home to many others, including Maronite Christians,Turks, Greeks,  Bedouins, Yazidi, Kurds, Druze and Armenians. The Levant has withstood the Roman and Ottoman Empires and the colonization of both Britain and France.   The interminably long and losing European Crusades against various powerful Muslim and Mongol warlords were fought there.  On a current map,  The Levant comprises part of Egypt and Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon, Israel, Syria, and Jordan – the major part of what was Palestine is now included in Israel, and about 30% of it remains in Jordanian territory.  The food of The Levant  ignores boundaries and  is the setting for a modest documentary I recently stumbled upon.

Hummus Has No Borders

I had enjoyed watching films on a home screen or a laptop even before the pandemic. I  resented the cost of tickets (not to mention the popcorn),  the interminably long and loud ads, and sitting next or near to someone who had their  mobile on speaker phone. Small films such as this documentary often get bypassed by critics, who feel that they don’t do a good enough job of dissecting the larger issues that give rise to their particular focus.  But I think those critics miss the point. These films, often produced with tiny crews and a fistful of currency,  reveal stories and perspectives often unnoticed by more ambitious and generously financed productions.

Breaking Bread two chefs72 (40)In Breaking Bread, for instance, the producer – Beth Elise Hawk –  recounts the events of  an unlikely winner  of a TV competition, who then takes that opportunity to showcase the cuisines of The Levant. As producer, she also combined the Arabic music in the background  with European melodies – the  film’s composer is Egyptian and relied heavily on the Oud for the score. But Beth Elise Hawk thought the composition needed to have an overlay of a violin to reflect an Eastern European  musicality. She contacted a German friend of her step sister who was a violinist in a symphony, and on Whatsapp (remember this is a shoestring production) they coordinated the strains of the violin which Omar El-Deeb successfully integrates throughout the film.

Respecting Food

First Ottolenghi Cookbook coverIf you own any of the Ottolenghi cookbooks, pull them out and be inspired by the photography  — a gorgeous accompaniment to the unique story of Dr. Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, a microbiologist who in 2014, won the Israeli Master Chef TV championship. It’s notable, as she is the first female Arab citizen to win this very popular televised event. But even more engrossing is that she created a food festival in which Arab and Jewish chefs are paired together to recreate dishes of the Levant with their own personal flourishes. This festival takes place in Haifa, a city in Israel that apparently is quite comfortable in its assimilation of different ethnic and religious groups. You will not see it on the chyrons of TV newscasts as  you would Tel Aviv, Jerusalem  or the West Bank. 

Dr Atamna-Ishmaeel has nurtured the A-Sham Food Festival forNof in Breaking Bread 72 several years, and it has become a “thing”.  One of the smaller features is The Hummus Project, in which chefs use hummus as the base and fill it with toppings of their own imaginations and cultures. So festival goers might get hummus with bangers and mash or eastern European dumplings  or a salad – all delicious. She has no illusions as to the “grandliness” of what A-Sham tries to achieve. She has set a stage where two cultures that have shared the same land and have been pulled apart by politics and religion,  now can cook together, share culinary ideas and riffs on foods that are common to all the cultures of The Levant. She’s created a peaceful meeting ground around food, and Breaking Bread offers a morsel of hope that similar acts may follow. 

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11 months ago

The food of the Levant had called to me from my early teenage years. I was making hummus long before it was in grocery stores and introduced many people to it and tzatziki. I’m truly looking forward to seeing this film. Thank you Nancy for all you do. I still miss my favorite Alexandria store.