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Dr. Hanan Ashrawi


Dr. Hanan Ashrawi

Dr. Hanan Daoud Khalil Ashrawi (born October 8, 1946) is a Palestinian legislator, activist, and scholar. She is one of the most well known faces of the PLO and I went to visit and interview her in Ramallah.

It took more than a year to arrange this interview. My first appointment to interview Dr Ashrawi was cancelled due to her heavy work and travel schedule. But finally we caught up at the PLO HQ in Ramallah.

Dr Ashrawi was a protégé and later colleague and close friend of Edward Said. She was an important leader during the First Intifada, served as the official spokesperson for the Palestinian Delegation to the Middle East peace process, and has been elected numerous times to the Palestinian Legislative Council. She is the first woman elected to the Palestinian National Council.

Ashrawi serves on the Advisory Board of several international and local organizations including the World Bank Middle East and North Africa (MENA), United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) and the International Human Rights Council.

Dr Ashrawi received her bachelor's and master's degrees in literature in the Department of English at the American University of Beirut. Ashrawi also has a Ph.D. in Medieval and Comparative Literature from the University of Virginia. In 2003 Dr Ashrawi was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize

the Interview

October 2011

How important is hummus to the Palestinian table and the Palestinian culinary heritage?

Well hummus is a very important part of our culture, of our identity. It's not just a food. It's not just a type of meal. But it is part of our history. It's part of the fact that we 'do' have a distinct identity, and that as we see everything else being taken away from us, we don't want to see our cuisine also confiscated.

So we are very possessive about our food, our culture, our clothes, our traditions and so on, and ways that would refine our relationship to the land. And of course, resist any type of attempts at distortion and, and confiscation.

But how significant is hummus within the Palestinian heritage?

Hummus is extremely significant because it is at the core of not just the, the, the taste and, and so on. But it is at the core of cultural heritage. Something that is comprehensive, but at the same time, there are a few key terms, whether in terms of food, of whether in terms of dress code, or language or whatever, that become easily identifiable...

...and that have been traditionally part of our reality, where children are raised, you know, with it. The...you, you eat hummus of course. You take it for granted, and it's yours, and you never suspect that it's going to become a battleground...a battlefield, not just on hummus, but everything else that we eat...all our national cuisine, of course.

When you were growing up in Nablus, was hummus part of your kitchen? Your mother's kitchen?

I didn't grow up in Nablus. I was born there. I grew up in Ramallah, actually. My...we go back to the founding fathers of Ramallah. So we are...my father was a doctor in the army, so every two years, he was in a different town, different city. And every two years, he had a daughter. And we're all born in different cities.

So I was born in Nablus, yes. But we...I lived in Ramallah most of my life. And yes, certainly, home-made hummus because at that time people sort of looked down on getting things from outside. It has to be home made. Not until later, did we accept the fact that you can get hummus from a restaurant, from outside the home.

But it certainly was part of my upbringing, yes. It was part of my...like labane, like, you know, Nabulsi cheese, things like that, like fūl, hummus was part of my youth, and growing up taste.

Would your mother make the hummus? Would she make a very good hummus?

Yeah. Our mother had help also, so I wouldn't say she made it all the way. She, she could. She did. But I know she had also help in the kitchen. So we always had good hummus.

The hummus war...the idea that hummus is Israeli, they're claiming it's theirs, Palestinians claim that 'it's our dish', and the Lebanese claim that it's 'their' dish. How do you see that conflict?

It's clearly symptomatic of a much larger conflict. Look, to us, it goes back to the days when we were told we didn't exist. So, such is the question of identity. It's a question of existence.

When they said that...the myth that this was...Palestine was a land without a people, for a people without a land, really, I mean it drove us all [makes noise] insane. That we...our very existence was denied.

And so we held on, and we are 'still' holding on to everything, not just that proves our existence, but that gives it meaning, and flavour, and culture. And we are very close to the land, and very close to our heritage and our culture. And we, we maintain this as not just defensibly, but as a statement, as an assertion.

Hummus is what we call, a food of the Mushrik. The Mushrik, which is Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan and so on. We all have hummus in common. Israel is a latecomer. This is something Israel has never admitted...that it was created on Palestinian soil.

It's a latecomer. It's a new State. It didn't exist before, and that it doesn't have this continuity with the land, and, and with the culture. So it is undergoing a process of what Ilan Pappe calls, displacement and replacement paradigm. You not only displace the people. You kick out the Palestinians, and replace them with other people.

You also displace their culture, and replace it with others. You confiscate your...their culture, and adopt it as your own, and utilise it as though it 'is' your own. The names of streets for example are changed from Arabic into Hebrew. The names of town and cities, they try to find the sort of Hebrew equivalent of an Arab name, and say this is it.

And this is...it's the same with hummus. It's the same with our embroidery also. The Palestinian cross-stitch on embroidery, it has been taken over, even by Israeli designers, who say these are Israel cross-st-,...'what' Israeli c-,...what? How much Israeli? Now, just because they can manufacture it, and just because they can have, you know, factories that can mass-produce it, doesn't mean it's part of their culture.

It means they came to a land, with their people, with their culture, with their cuisine, with embroidery, with everything...and slowly they started sapping our resources, our energy, but no-,...sometimes by osmosis, sometimes by clear violent usurpation. Our whole life!

And this to me, is an act of deliberate confiscation and distortion. So it is not just hummus [makes noise]. It is really the fact that you are claiming that which is not yours, as a source of legitimacy. And that is going to be a very precarious basis on which you build your legitimacy, because it's ours. It's our life. It's our culture. It's our identity.

And no matter how vehemently you try to dismiss us, and no [background noise] matter how violently you try to assert your legitimacy, it's not going to happen.

Some Israelis claim that there is no such thing as Palestine. People have told me that if there's no such thing as Palestine, there is no Palestinian cuisine?

Yeah the...again, the interlinkage of denial. The politics of negation and denial. Of course, there is a Palestine. They know that. I mean, i-it's very easy to dispel that myth, because all you need to do is a little research. I mean, in books, in literature, in history, the, the Palestinians were the centre of enlightenment of the Arab world.I mean we even exported our brains, and our skills, and our, you know, know-how and so on, to export...

And your hummus, maybe?

And hummus, of course we exported that. I mean, look, you can...hummus is Mushrik also. It's Palestinian, but it's Mushrik food. So I will not deprive the Lebanese of their right to hummus, because they make excellent hummus. And by the way, my mother is Lebanese.

So I, I'm loyal to, to both...no, the...like tabbouleh for example. Hummus, tabbouleh, all these things. They 'are' distinctly Mushrik, and therefore, they are part of our joint culture. And when Israel came, as I said, that they attempted to usurp and confiscate this culture.

So by, by denying the expressions of our identity, they feel that they have denied our very existence. So it's a sort of interdependent situation of denial. If there is no Palestine, then hummus was never Palestinian...or, if hummus is not Palestinian, then the Palestinians do not have a culture, or a cuisine, or a continuity, or a right to the land. And this is part of a process of negation.

Now we talked about, you know, displacement/replacement paradigm. But then, confiscation, usurpation, negation. And then you don't want to face the consequences of your own actions, because if you could totally dismiss [background noise] the existence of the other, or dehumanise the other, or rub the other of the most basic requisites of self-definition, then you can get away with anything.

You can do whatever you want to the other, and nobody's going to hold you accountable, which is what has happened so far, to the Palestinians. That's why we keep saying, we need protection for the Palestinians...accountability for the Israelis. We need protection for hummus, and accountability for the thieves.

As some type of evidence that it is a traditional Israeli food, people have told me that there are references to hummus in the Jewish Bible.

So it's become a biblical controversy? That is preposterous. Let's see what they call it. What did they call it? Chickpeas, garbanzo beans, what?

I don't know, but did they have tahini, and garlic, and lemon and so on, or is it just any kind of bean, because this is...here, it's been in Palestine for centuries. So, I'm sure they ate...when the tribes were here, you know, 2,000 years ago. And the black tribes didn't last long in Palestine. But still, I'm sure they ate the produce of the land. It was there.

But to have the continuity of the cuisine here, that's different, yeah.

How does the occupation and the existence of the settlements affect the Palestinian ability for self-sufficiency? By way of an example, we have interviewed a farmer near Bethlehem, and he tells me that he has lost some of his ability to farm chickpeas, and therefore to produce hummus, because he used his chickpea to make hummus, because an Israeli settlement has taken over some of his land.

I'm trying to link settlements, loss of land, and hummus. Do you think that is a widespread phenomenon that Palestinian self-sufficiency and the ability to produce, whether it's hummus or other foods, has been affected by the occupation and settlement really?

Certainly. The, the occupation has affected every aspect of our life, not just in terms of agriculture and produce, but also in terms of the focus of the, the work, and, and the economy.

When they first occupied, the, the '67 territories, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza, the Israelis were very busy transforming the Palestinian peasant population, and to cheap labour, to work in Israel.

And they destroyed our agricultural economy very rapidly by flooding our market with mass-produced...you know, an organic type of food that they produced, at a cheaper, of course, rate. And they turned all our...most of our farmers and peasants into cheap labour in Israel, without rights.

So that had created a tremendous economic and social transformation in Palestine, because we were basically...we call ourselves a people of the, of the land. Basically peasants, close to the land. We grow things. We live on what we grow, and so on.

So that was the first tremendous shift. And then with the settlements, the land on which these people needed to, to survive, to, to grow their own produce, hummus or chickpeas or, or other things, that land shrank slowly, and was surrounded systematically, and was fragmented also deliberately.

And Israel superimposed a grid over Palestine ov-over the West Bank, particularly of apartheid roads, and extra-territoriality linking Israel to the settlements, and sett-, the settlements to Israel.

And then, it added to this fragmentation, a state of siege. And it rendered the Palestinians unable to even move within their land. So there was no freedom of movement for people or goods. This is the second major shift...the fragmentation and siege.

And that rendered the, the land that 'we' have, that 'we' can use, impossible to sustain the, the requirements of, of the people.

And the third thing, of course, came with the attempt at maintaining a type of economic control, where...with the Paris Agreement and so on, with the ongoing siege and fragmentation, where we couldn't export or import, and we had to depend on Israel, and Israeli licences and so on.

And so that managed to, to complete the cycle of control, dependency and distortion. That distortion in many ways, had very severe social and human implications, including division of families, including changes of lifestyle, including inability to, to reach services that you want, whether they're hospitals or schools, and so on.

I'm wondering if there's a link to what we've just talked about...if you can't grow as many chickpeas because your land has been confiscated, then if you want to eat hummus, perhaps you're forced to buy Israeli hummus, mass-produced, at a supermarket?

That certainly would be the ultimate irony...is that they prevent us from growing our own chickpeas. They confiscate our land, and destroy our ability to grow our own produce. And then they sell you this mass-produced, artificially manufactured hummus, that has very little authenticity, in terms of its relationship to the real hummus.

I've seen that happening in the supermarkets and some of the settlements, where you do actually see Palestinians, particularly construction workers, building the settlements and then at lunchtime, they're going in to buy their little tubs of plastic hummus.

That, that to me, adds insult to injury.

Another example of perhaps the occupation affecting Palestinian business is, we went to a cafe in Bethlehem called Afteem, famous for its hummus. And the owner there talked about the wall impacting on people coming to the restaurant. Is the wall a significant impediment to Palestinian business?

The wall is much more than just a physical impediment. It is the, the embodiment of the ugliness of the occupation. The worst horrors that you can see in the occupation. I've always described it as their attempt to steal your horizon. Their attempt to prevent you from seeing beyond this grey, ugly, cement wall.

But of course, they imprison themselves on the other side, because they steal 'their' own horizon. And they create all sorts of hostilities, and, and ignorance, because they're ignorant of what's happening behind the wall.

But to us, the wall represents again, this, this essence of injustice, and the ugliness of this injustice. It, it, it is an expression of a siege. It's an expression of land theft. It's an expression of imprisonment.

And it's an expression of power, politics and domination...this ominous horror on your land, that tells you, you have no freedoms whatsoever, and that your life has been devalued even further. So it has had, of course, a severe effect on the economy, on people's ability to work.

It has separated even families from their 'own' land, where they live on one side of the wall, and the land that they used to cultivate and to live off, is no longer accessible to them, except if there's a gate, and if the guard...Israeli soldier at the gate...allows you at certain times, to go to your land or not...with very severe restrictions and so on.

So all the excuses for this monstrosity are certainly not acceptable, whether security or otherwise. You don't build a wall, this huge, grey [background noise] edifice, you know, to, to rob people of their right to look beyond the here and now...to see the sunset and the sunrise, to see the horizon.

You don't do that, under the guise of security, because people have always found ways around the wall, under the wall, through the wall. And we've seen from...since the Great Wall of China to Hadrian's Wall, to the Berlin Wall, that was a failed policy.

And I think this is again, another expression of Israel's bankruptcy. It 'is' going to demonstrate itself to be another failed policy. But in the meantime, we as Palestinians, are praying [sic], paying an enormous price for this wall.

Well the owner at Afteem certainly claimed that it's affecting his business, and people being able to come from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to enjoy his hummus.

Of course. The wall is another obstacle. It's...that doesn't just affect his business, and people coming to enjoy hummus.

Look, Jerusalem has been extracted from the heart of Palestine. And we think of it as a living, throbbing city. But it is no longer alive. It, it's...they're sapping its, its, its life, its blood. Why? Because it's surrounded by settlements, surrounded by military checkpoints, and it's surrounded by the wall.

So you have a triple siege on Jerusalem, which is at the heart of the West Bank, which was built as the capital of Palestine, to serve everybody in terms of its educational institutions, hospitals, trade, whatever. And now, it's dying. It's dying off, and it's, it's being, you know, transformed into almost a ghost town at night.

And why? Because of greed. They want to annex Jerusalem, transform its character, change it [makes noise], and turn it into an Israeli city, which it's not. So anybody who wants to go from Ramallah to Bethlehem now, cannot go there because there are checkpoints, settlements, and a wall.

Anybody who wants access anywhere, has to bypass Jerusalem, by going through what is called Wadi Nar, the 'Valley of Fire', which is really worse than a baptism by fire for Palestinians. Th-This is again, an expression of the torture through which Palestinians have to go, in order to maintain a minimal level of acceptable life.

And we don't have that, 'cause when they take away the core of your existence, like they did with Jerusalem...and you can look at it as hummus as well...and when you're besieged in multiple ways...military siege, and physical siege, and settler siege and so on...

...you're telling the Palestinians that 'the very source of value that you have, is no longer yours, and that we can prevent you from even having access to it', not just access to your livelihood, access to your produce, access to your restaurants, to your hummus, to everything else, but access to that which imbues your life with meaning and value. And they've done that.

Given the Israelis and Palestinians love their hummus in equal measure...that's my experience...can you imagine a day when Israelis, Jews and Arabs will sit down together, and wipe from the one plate of hummus?

Of course I can. I don't see why not, provided they don't say that 'this plate is all mine, and you have no right to it'. That's the problem...is that we were willing to accommodate. We made the historical compromise. We accepted Israel on 78 percent of historical Palestinian. And we said, 'Okay, we recognise your existence', which we did, in 1993, and even before that, in, in 1988, with the Palestine National Council.

But the problem is that they didn't extend the same courtesy. They're attempting to displace us and replace us again. They're attempting to continue the, the tragedy, the, the Nakba of 1948. And that's the problem.

Once Vaclav Havel asked why can't Palestinians and Israelis live in harmony with each other, the way we see the stones of the Old City of Jerusalem living in harmony? And we told them, because there isn't one stone trying to push off the other stone, saying 'you get..'...you know, 'get off, I want to sit in 'your' place'. That's the difference.

Human beings have a sense of greed, control, domination, violence, that has been expressed in many ways, to create this situation of, of tremendous tragic dimensions.

So if they're willing to share the hummus the way 'we' were willing to share Palestine, dating back to 181, if they want, 1948, or '67...22 percent of Palestine...then we can eat hummus together. But if they claim the whole plate, and if they claim all our heritage, and if they deny our identity and our history, and our deep rootedness, then we 'won't' be neighbours, and we will continue to be victims.

But if it is a question of mutual interest and benefit, rather than mutual exclusiveness, then we can eat hummus together.

Quite a few Israelis I admit, particularly left-wing Israelis, say to me, 'We have this expression in Israel about, we know that peace will be here when we can drive to Damascus to eat hummus'.

Yeah, well, if they keep building settlements and walls, they won't be able to drive anywhere pretty soon.

Could you explain what is important in Palestinian history about Nakba [Nakbah] Day? Why is Nakba Day so important?

Nakba Day is the day in which the, the dispossession of Palestine started. It didn't end. It started there. And it started in a tragic and dramatic way. The expulsion of Palestinians. The exile. The sense of uprootedness, of dispossession and dispersion throughout the world. Of having the largest refugee population.

This is an expression of a tremendous historical injustice. And it continues 'til today. That's the problem. So it is not part of our historical memory. It's part of our ongoing experience of denial and destruction.

At its very starting point...let's say, a visible starting point of the obliteration of a nation...I describe this as, we were being cast outside the course of history. We were being told that we didn't exist.

And if we existed, we were subject to two Aristotelian extremes...pity and fear. Either the pitiful refugees, or the fearful terrorists. But the essence of our humanity was denied. And ever since then, we've been trying to reclaim our heritage and our rights.

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