Thursday, June 06, 2013

Controversial food claim in the Middle East

I can't remember the first time I ate za'atar, but I know I've been eating it my whole life.

It's a tasty spice blend, deep green in color, and until this week, I had never given it much thought. For me, an Israeli-American, born in the U.S. and now living in Tel Aviv, 20 minutes from the town where my father was born, za'atar was just what you sprinkle on your salad for an added pop of flavor. It's a mix of dried herbs -- usually oregano, thyme and marjoram -- and it makes a great dusting on top of hummus or labaneh, the thick, super-strained yogurt I routinely enjoy for breakfast. It often has sesame seeds and some chunky crystals of salt blended in, making za'atar a handy spice rub for lamb or other grilled meats. It's just food: harmless, delicious, and totally benign. It's certainly not political.

But then last week I wrote a short, simple, 200-word piece on the herb blend for an Israeli newspaper, explaining the spice to tourists who visit the country and might be curious about it. And suddenly, faster than you can say "retweet," I realized that in this part of the world, it's not just land that's contentious. It's the very contents of your lunch.

I filed the text, describing the spice blend as a Middle Eastern favorite enjoyed by Israelis. An anonymous web editor was left in charge of selecting a photo and writing a headline. The piece ran with a title calling za'atar "The Spice of Israel" and a picture of an Arab, headscarf-wearing woman hand-sorting the mix.

Within moments, the armchair outrage of online commentators began clogging up my Twitter feed.  "In the latest step of its ongoing psychological war with Hezbollah, Israelis claim za'atar," tweeted Foreign Policy's David Kenner.

"Za'atar, the spice of Israel. Oh dear, this could start a war," wrote the Guardian's Brian Whitaker.

And from Muhammad Karim, a marketing manager for the BBC: "WTF?!? -à 'Za'atar, the spice of Israel,' this could spark some violence. They're stealing the whole culture now..."



Anonymous said...

Food is not responsible for who eats it.

A. Levy said...

Those comments will be seen as weakness by Muslims, and weakness begets aggression.