Decolonizing Food, from California to Palestine

Shakirah Simley, Reem Assil and Laila el-Haddad spoke about the similarities between food insecure communities in the United States and Palestine.  (Fox Nakai )

Saturday afternoon at the Museum of African Diaspora, Reem Assil served guests warm bowls of zibdiyit gambari, a rich Palestinian tomato and shrimp stew spiced with dill and cumin. In its Gazan birthplace, the dish has become a rarity. Israeli naval blockades have limited fishing along Gaza, the state’s only coast, driving the cost of seafood way beyond what most Palestinians can afford.

It’s with this in mind that Assil, who is of Palestinian and Syrian descent, prepared zibdiyit gambari for Decolonize Your Food, a program organized by Bryant Terry, MoAD’s Chef in Residence, in conjunction with Middle East Children’s Alliance.

In the lobby of MoAD, Assil presented a survey of Palestinian cuisine including her deeply craveable version of musakhan, Palestine’s celebrated roasted chicken dish served over flatbread and an assortment of ful and hummus with pomegranates and crushed peppers to top. Each dish was served next to a stack of notecards describing its origin and cultural significance in Palestine’s current state.

Zibdiyit gambari, a Palestinian tomato and shrimp stew, has been made a rarity due to fishing restrictions in Gaza.
Zibdiyit gambari, a Palestinian tomato and shrimp stew, has been made a rarity due to fishing restrictions in Gaza. (Ruth Gebreyesus)

With full bellies and probing minds, guests left the meal to witness a conversation between Assil; Laila el-Haddad, author of the seminal book, The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey; and Shakirah Simley, writer, organizer and newly appointed director of San Francisco’s Office for Racial Equity.

Drawing on the kinship between the Palestinian movement for sovereignty and the fight for Civil Rights in the United States, the dialogue between Assil, el-Haddad and Simley honed in on the historical origins of social inequities that cause food insecurity and cultural erasure of cuisines and their cooks.

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Though the two places rooting the conversation are thousands of miles apart, the speakers noted how land loss (especially of farmland), displacement and state violence have created similar circumstances for both black and brown Americans and Palestinians. Lack of clean water, inadequate access to fresh produce and inequitable employment opportunities resonated amongst the group. The women framed the parallels as an opportunity for solution sharing.

“If you solve for black people, you solve for everyone because you’re getting at deeply rooted causes,” said Simley. Food sovereignty, she emphasized, is unachievable without addressing redlining and other forms of institutionalized racism. Simley, who has organized around food justice for over a decade, noted that the city of San Francisco was behind many other major cities, including Oakland, in creating an office of racial inequity. All this despite the city's rapidly declining black population and the resulting attrition of black owned businesses—especially restaurants.

Shakirah Simley was recently appointed as the director of the Office of Racial Equity for the City and County of San Francisco.
Shakirah Simley was recently appointed as the director of the Office of Racial Equity for the City and County of San Francisco.

Assil, who runs Reem’s in Oakland’s Fruitvale Village and is set to open a second location of her bakery and restaurant at the former Mission Pie location in San Francisco, spoke about both the challenge and commitment to pay workers at her restaurant a fair and living wage. Her organizing background informs much of how she runs her restaurant. She opens Reem’s up as a gathering space for conversations lead by Jewish Voices for Peace Bay Area and hosts pop-ups from QTViệt Cafe Collective and Chicago’s Huda Supper Club.

In el-Haddad's words, cooking can be “a quiet, daily resistance,” especially when done under the pressures she witnessed in Gaza. This felt especially true as she recounted a story from a Gazan woman who updated the author over Whatsapp on her efforts to make kousa mahshi, a Palestinian ground beef stuffed squash dish, over the course of a week. Once the woman got enough money for squash, she relayed that she hoped her husband had enough for ground beef. By week’s end, she joyfully shared with el-Haddad that they were able to gather all the ingredients needed to make the recipe.

In the Bay Area, home to decades of organizing for Palestinian sovereignty and the Black Panther Party’s radically compassionate Free Breakfast Program, these topics are not new. But familiarity with the theory of food equity has not totally informed praxis. Though organic and local are high in demand and supply, conversations around labor practices of farms and the restaurant industry are less urgent among the general population. More recently, native cuisines and indigenous food practices have come to the forefront thanks to the work of Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino of Cafe Ohlone in Berkeley.

As Simley noted, the story doesn’t end with organic kale. It continues with the person who picked that kale, whether they can afford to buy it themselves and the history of the land it was grown on.

A recording of the full conversation between Assil, Simley and el-Haddad is available here.