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Is There Hamas In The Houmous?


Stepping inside the tiny Maramia Cafe on Golborne Road felt like crossing a line. Maramia promotes itself as a Palestinian restaurant, in fact the only one of its kind in the UK. Outside the door is a pamphlet which I assumed would be a copy of the menu with which to tempt diners indoors. Instead I found I was reading a brochure, published by the Palestinian National Authority, which extolled the virtues of cities such as Bethlehem, Jenin, Gaza and other places not high on the tourist map. Stapled onto the brochure was the restaurant’s calling card on which was a website for the FreePalestine movement.

 

Crossing the threshold therefore felt like playing politics with my palate. Having nailed its colours to the mast at the front door, my deciding to order the Gaza salad and extend my sausage repertoire to include the Palestinian sujuk, all felt like taking sides in one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. I have eaten many a smoky moutabal in Lebanese restaurants all over the city, but never had the faintest whiff of making a political statement.

 

Despite the good food and favourable comments on websites that diners seek for peer review, this eaterie was almost empty on a bustling Saturday. I asked the charmingly friendly front of house whether there are a lot of Palestinians in London and whether they eat at the Cafe. She informed me that mostly British people eat there although sometimes groups of Palestinian students arrive and that they had had coverage from the BBC. I assumed that this attention was due to the affiliation of the restaurant to a political position rather than the excellence of its Chicken Mousakhan. I wasn’t so sure about the Britishness of the clientele either as the only other diners were a couple of Spanish tourists who asked the waitress for a tea that they had drunk while travelling recently in Palestine – so not your run-of –the-mill tourist either.

I left the restaurant feeling well fed and my wallet happy yet I had an unresolved feeling about eating as activism. Of course those who espouse the cause of organic foods and keeping food airmiles low are engaged in politics too, putting their money where their mouth is in promoting eco-friendly and environmental activism which has enormous implications for global food production and the economic stability of developing countries. Yet somehow this felt different.

Should food not transcend politics I asked a group of friends? Yes perhaps, but the question itself felt naive. A Jewish friend commented that she would not eat at a Palestinian restaurant because she would feel unwelcome and disliked by the staff and perhaps at risk of harm. Another Jewish friend, who supports the Palestinian right to self determination, felt that it would be a positive endorsement of his politics to eat there.  One friend wondered if she would need to declare her religion if dining there. I was confused by this as surely not since Nazi Germany have Jews been required to declare their religion when going about the daily business of living and eating.  Declaring yourself a vegetarian in a restaurant is one thing, but your religion?

These conversations reminded me of a recent discussion about the ingredients purchased for a barmiztvah dinner. I was questioned as to why I had decided to buy so many products from countries that were anti-Israel. My food choices had been made on merit with the most outstanding pistachio halwa I had ever eaten coming from Lebanon and wonderful harissa and preserved lemons coming from Morocco.

Is anyone supporting or boycotting the Ottolenghi restaurants because they use Lebanese pomegranate molasses? Is not part of the warm backstory of the success of Ottolenghi  the fact that two men from different Jerusalem backgrounds can transcend the limitations of their homelands political restrictions and make magic in the kitchen?

This whole episode put me in mind of the dark days of Apartheid when Outspan oranges where definitely out of place on any liberal-minded table in the UK. Within South Africa itself, white activists engaged in the liberation struggle would cross town, divided as it was into racially segregated neighbourhoods, to eat in restaurants owned by black entrepreneurs in order to support the boycott of white-owned businesses – all part of the economic warfare encouraged by the Anti-Apartheid coalition. Nutrition was not neutral then and nor is it now. The Co-Op has recently decided to refrain from buying from Israeli suppliers who buy produce from settlements in the West Bank. Should consumers concerned to eat ethically boycott these products, only buy Fairtrade, organic and politically correct foods? It’s enough to bring on indigestion.

My visit to Maramia Cafe gave me more food for thought than I paid for. Our food choices are not simply a matter of fast or slow, full fat or no-fat, veggie or vegan. Whatever we consume is entangled with eco and geo-politics.  Never before has You Are What You Eat seemed so true.

Maramia Cafe, 48 Golborne Road, London W10 5PR

 

Copyright 2012, Madeleine Morrow

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