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Munchies

Za'atar Is Always Served with Politics

One of the most ubiquitous herb mixtures in the Levant, za'atar's national identity is fiercely challenged by both Palestinians and Israelis. Who knew wild thyme could be so contentious?

by Jennifer Shutek
Sep 5 2014, 12:00am

Photo via Flickr user Drew Dies

During a recent trip to Palestine-Israel, I took a morning walking tour of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Stopping my tour group on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean coast, the guide pulled out several loaves of French bread and a small container. Unscrewing the lid and smelling its contents, he informed us that this was a wonderful spice mix called za'atar. "Everyone in Israel eats it," he said. "You all have to try some. You will immediately become Israeli as soon as you do." Using a piece of bread to scoop up some of the tangy, salty spice mix that is a staple in many a Palestinian kitchen, I realized that he was not intentionally refuting Palestinian land claims by describing za'atar as Israeli. To him, "Israeli" za'atar was an apolitical food, as harmless a national symbol as maple syrup in Canada. Slightly cliché, but we like it—we really like it.

In the last several years, numerous articles have been published about za'atar, a controversial spice with an opaque social and political history, as well as contentious dishes like hummus and knafeh. After Buzzfeed published a divisive listicle entitled "19 Israeli Delicacies That Aren't Hummus," it shot back with a counter article: "13 Delicacies That Aren't Israeli." Hummus is now the topic of at least two documentaries, and social media has been buzzing with debates over knafeh and cultural appropriation.

Read More: Hummus Is a Metaphor for Israeli-Palestinian Tensions

From a culinary perspective, determining exactly what one means by "za'atar" is perplexing, largely because this term is applied to different foods. Wading through articles on wild thyme, biblical hyssop, oregano, za'atar (the herb), za'atar (the spice mix), and even one investigation of the levels of the phenol carvacrol in various plants, it became clear why this particular herb is so mysterious. Regardless of these vagaries, however, if you purchased a bag of za'atar, you would invariably take home a pungent, rich, dark green mixture flecked with tiny white sesame seeds, as well as salt and sumac. Palestinians and Israelis eat it on labneh, bake it into bagels, mix it with olive oil to make a mouth-watering bread dip, or generously sprinkle it onto flatbread to make manaqeesh.

The very notion of declaring any one food as the exclusive property of a given nation is a modern one.

The roots of the national identity debate, however, run deeper than they might initially seem. A 1977 Israeli law prohibited the gathering of wild za'atar in Israel, declaring it an endangered and protected species. According to Oxford-based "gastrodetective" Fiona Ross, restrictions on its harvest within the West Bank have also been enacted, and, since 2006, Palestinians transporting the herb can face confiscation and fines at checkpoints. These restrictions are not motivated by ecological concerns alone, but rather are also tied into the battle over land and the foods that it produces. The use of food and agriculture to stake claims to the land dates at least to the 1890s, when the World Zionist Organization (WZO) began to purchase land in Ottoman Palestine to allow Jews to settle and cultivate crops. The Jewish National Fund, established by the WZO in 1901, is a land acquisition agency that is, to this day, involved in promoting Israel's identity as a nature-loving, tree-planting nation that lives in harmony with the olive trees, vines, and fruit orchards of the Holy Land.

No less a prestigious person than renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish captures the emotional power of the land within the popular imagination of Palestinians, pointing to its centrality in Palestinian identity and in the history of the conflict that began in the late-nineteenth century. Darwish frequently draws upon images of land and agriculture, and mentions za'atar itself in "Ahmad al-Za'atar," demonstrating the interrelatedness of agriculture and identity. The poem is for two hands of "stone and za'atar," and links the herb to the former Palestinian refugee camp, Tal al-Za'atar ("Hill of Thyme"), the site of a siege and massacre during the Lebanese Civil War. Darwish's poetry demonstrates the significance of harvesting, consumption, and the Palestinian-Israeli battle for land, nation, and identity.

In response to Internet controversies over za'atar's national identity, one journalist noted: "We're not talking about the Green Line. We're talking about a handful of green herbs." While not entirely untrue, such a dismissive comment misses a crucial point: For Palestinians living in the West Bank, who are denied statehood and suffer from limited mobility, green herbs and the Green Line can be synonymous. The people who often suffer most from the politics of za'atar, and the larger struggle over land access that it represents, are Palestinians living in the West Bank. Struggles over land proprietorship and national legitimacy based upon environmental stewardship have characterized the conflict in this region for over a century. The recent media fascination with za'atar often overlooks the longue durée history of battles between Zionist and Palestinian organizations over the ideological, moral, and material ownership of Palestine, in which cultivation of the soil and culinary traditions become evidence of nations that are deeply rooted in the land.

At the same time, it is virtually impossible to uncover the precise provenance and historical genealogy of most recipes. Fusion foods are at least as old as the Columbian Exchange, touched off by European contact with the Americas and Africa. The very notion of declaring any one food as the exclusive property of a given nation is a modern one, as food is an effective tool in the construction of national identity. While I would not argue that za'atar can or should be conclusively categorized as "Palestinian" or "Israeli," I do think that discussions of za'atar and its history cause us to reflect on those for whom eating can be portrayed as apolitical, and those for whom eating constitutes resistance and a struggle for identity and recognition.