Sunday, 19 October 2014

Palestine - Better Together?

It was interesting, last Monday evening, to watch the televised backbench debate from the House of Commons, on whether or not the British parliament should recognise a Palestinian state.  It wasn't a surprise to see Labour MPs speaking in favour of the debate but, the idea of a two-state solution for Palestine/Israel has gained such common currency in Britain that even Conservative MPs were speaking in favour of recognition, which surprised me.

International recognition of a Palestinian state

Free Palestine by James_London
The outcome of the vote for symbolic recognition was overwhelmingly in favour (274 ayes and 12 noes) and, although this vote doesn't officially change the British government's approach to Palestine, it's seen as a historic moment, atoning for past mistakes in British policy on Palestine and the first step towards official recognition of the Palestinian state by the UK government, which would then join the 134 other countries who currently recognise Palestine.

Since I started blogging about Palestine just over a month ago, Grenada and Haiti have officially recognised Palestine and the newly-elected Prime Minister of Sweden, Stefan Loftven, has announced that Sweden will recognise Palestine, becoming the first European Union country to make this commitment.

Parallels between Palestine and Scotland?

Pro-Palestinian protest in London by James_London
I can't help but draw parallels between the campaign to gain recognition for the Palestinian state and the recent referendum on the question of Scottish independence.  I don't really believe in nationalism, however, in the case of Scotland, it seems so obvious to me that Scotland is a country, that I unreservedly support the right of the Scottish people to have their own nation.  Having said that, people voted as they did and the majority in favour of remaining in the United Kingdom was clear, so it would seem that independence is not really what Scottish people actually want . . . well, certainly not right now.

The reality is always a lot more complicated and how we understand the nature of a nation very much depends upon the times we live in.  There are pluses and minuses for Scottish people, in terms of independence and, unlike in Palestine, a 'no' vote in Scotland won't necessarily lead to repression of the Scottish people or their being denigrated to second-class citizens (although there has been some anti-Scottish sentiment in the media 'south of the border').

Demonstration at Houses of Parliament by James_London
Of course, the situation in Palestine is very different and whether or not Palestinians have control over their own affairs is crucial to protection of human rights and dignity of the Palestinian people.  Unlike Scotland, Palestine isn't an equal partner in any kind of union with Israel and, in reality, it's difficult to compare the need for independence in these two countries, as their contexts are not the same.

As with Scotland, it's always been obvious to me that Palestine is a country and, logically, should have its rightful place at the table of nations.  Until I started researching for this blog, I never really questioned the two-state solution for Palestine/Israel, however, I'm beginning to see another side to this situation that hadn't really been obvious to me before.

The Palestinian population of Israel and Israeli settlements in the West Bank

One thing I didn't really grasp before I started researching for this blog, is the fact that 20% of Israel's population identifies as Arab/Palestinian.  After the 1948 nakba more than 700,000 Palestinians fled their homes and sought refuge in neighbouring countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, where they remain to this day.  However, many Palestinians didn't flee, but chose to remain, particularly in places like Nazareth, which is still predominantly Arab-Palestinian.

As I've been researching the literature, movies, music of Palestine, time and again I'm coming across Palestinian culture originating from the modern state of Israel, as well as the West Bank and Gaza. Whether it's the music of the Palestinian rappers DAM, who grew up in al-Ludd/Lod, just a stone's throw from Ben Gurion International airport, or the movies of Elia Suleiman, who was born in Nazareth - the culture of Israeli-Palestinians seems incredibly vibrant and sure of itself and gives me some hope for the future.

I'm now wondering what would happen to Israeli-Palestinians in a two-state solution?  Not to mention, the post-1967 Israeli settlements that have been built in the West Bank, which put more than 300,000 Jewish settlers within what is traditionally defined as the West Bank and, under international law, would be part of the new Palestinian state.  By deliberately 'colonising' the West Bank, Israel has, in a way, bound the two states together for the foreseeable future.

Would Palestine and Israel be better together?

Perhaps a single, bi-national state would be better after all although, similar to the situation in post-apartheid South Africa, it would have to be a state where the Arab/Palestinian population plays as great a role as the Israeli/Jewish population.

Israeli flag in Palestinian colours
This isn't a popular idea at the minute - certainly not for right-wing Israelis, who are living according to the principles of a Jewish homeland and I understand how a single state with equal rights for Palestinians wouldn't appeal to them, as that goes against everything they believe in.  Equally for Palestinians, the idea of belonging to a single state where Palestinians might end up becoming second-class citizens isn't really a solution.  The legacy of the 20th century for Palestinians is so full of injustice, that it would be hard for any Palestinian in the West Bank, Gaza or elsewhere to accept anything less than full nationhood.

I find myself in the strange position of supporting recognition of the Palestinian state whilst also acknowledging that this could possibly prolong nationalist agendas on both sides for at least another century. Ultimately, even with a two-state solution, the question of living together peacefully remains.  I also find it hard to stomach the idea of any nation based on a religious or racial identity, so it's hard for me to see how a purely Jewish state of Israel will be sustainable in the 21st century.

Universal human rights

Getting back to Edward Said's ideas on humanism - it would be better to facilitate the basic rights of people and their access to recognised citizenship in Palestine/Israel, rather than think along religious or ethnic lines.  We're all human and the fact this fact alone should entitle us to basic rights regardless of which part of the world we happen to have been born in.

Image credits:

For this blog post, I wanted to highlight the work of Flickr member James_London - James is currently based in Nairobi, Kenya and you can see more of his images on his Flickr photostream.

Thanks James for sharing these images with us, using the Creative Commons license.  

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Palestine - How I made Musakhan

Although I've cooked Arabian and Yemeni dishes before, like Kabsa and Saltah, this was my first attempt at making proper Middle Eastern food. I was spoilt for choice in terms of Palestinian dishes, but settled for Musakhan in the end, as I needed something easy after my recent experience trying to make a Mexican mole!

I looked at two different sources for inspiration - the first, a very entertaining and enjoyable book called Classic Palestinian Cuisine (2001) by Christiane Dabdoub Nasser.  Nasser tells the stories of the dishes and recounts his personal experiences, which makes this so much more than just a book of recipes!

Ground cardamom, sumac and cinnamon
If I'm being honest though, I was more influenced by the recipe in The Middle Eastern Kitchen (also 2001) by Ghillie Başan, as this recipe was a bit simpler and less labour-intensive.

I really love the format of The Middle Eastern Kitchen as it focuses on the individual ingredients and, perhaps not surprisingly, the recipe for Musakhan comes under the section on the spice called sumac.

My first time using sumac

Apart from sumac, the main flavouring for this dish, I was pretty sure I would find all of the ingredients I needed in my local area.  As it turned out, it was quite easy to find sumac as well and I think it's much more commonly available than I realised - I've just never noticed it before.

Sumac is made from dried berries and quite often sprinkled on salads or cooked meats to give them a kind of citrus flavour.  It's very tasty and I can see myself using this flavour a lot in future, as it adds a satisfying piquancy, if you don't want too much heat in your dish.

The ingredients

For the Musakhan

Musakhan ingredients
Olive oil - زيت زيتون
Butter - زبدة
2 onions - بصل
2 chicken breasts - دجاج
sumac - سماق
cinnamon - قرفة
cardamom (ground is best) - هال
1 lime - ليم
Mint - النعناع
Coriander - الكزبرة (although I decided not to use coriander in the end, as I wanted a more minty flavour)
4 pitta breads - خبز (actually it would be best to use real Palestinian bread, known as tabun which is the name of the oven it's cooked in, but I didn't have access to this, so pitta was a good substitute, especially as it's hollow inside and can be easily filled)

For the salad

2 cucumbers - خِيار
4 tomatoes - طماطم
Red pepper - فلفل حار
Yoghurt - الزبادي
Mint - النعناع
1 lime - ليم

How I made Musakhan

I started by making the salad, so I could chill it in the fridge whilst cooking the main meal.  I must admit that I'm not a massive fan of cucumber which I know sounds ridiculous, as it's probably one of the world's most inoffensive food products - I think I ate too much cucumber when I was living in Uzbekistan and it put me off!

Lovely, refreshing cucumber

Anyway, I first chopped the cucumber into chunks and mixed it with the yoghurt in a big bowl.  I then chopped up the tomatoes, pepper and mint, mixing these ingredients with the cucumber and put this in the fridge to chill.  Before taking it out of the fridge to serve with the main meal, I added lime rind and juice.

Red pepper added to cucumber and yoghurt mix

Cucumber and tomato salad
I added lime rind and juice to my salad, as well as to the main dish

To make the Musakhan I started by frying a lump of butter in some olive oil, then adding the onions and frying these until they turned a soft golden colour.

Fry the onions until they turn golden

I then added the chicken pieces and a couple of spoonfuls of sumac and stirred until the chicken had cooked through.

Add the chicken pieces and the sumac
Then I added the ground cardamon and cinnamon, along with lime rind and juice and chopped mint leaves, leaving the dish to simmer gently, only stirring occasionally,

Add the mint and spices

Let the dish simmer for about 20 minutes
As the main dish was cooking, I halved the pitta breads, opening up their central cavities before putting them in the oven for a few minutes to soften them up.

Halve the pitta bread and open the centre

A stack of pitta bread
Once the pitta breads had heated a bit, I took them out and spooned the Musakhan mixture into each piece of bread, before returning them to the oven to cook for around 8 minutes.  

Fill the pitta bread with the cooked Musakhan mixture

Bake in the oven for around 8 minutes
The end result was very yummy and the cold salad made a nice contrast to the warm bread and musakhan.  This was an easy dish to make and I'd highly recommend it!

Musakhan with salad

My Palestinian dinner
Image credits:

All images were taken by me on my trusty Canon EOS 1100D.  Feel free to re-use these images with the Creative commons license:

- Attribution (especially to this blog post)
- Non-commercial
- Share alike