Conflict Kitchen or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Make Mahalabiya

Conflict Kitchen was the brainchild of co-founders and directors Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski. The simple idea was to highlight the food and culture of nations often portrayed through a hostile, and thus dehumanizing, lens in the mainstream American media and among the Washington, D.C., class of politicians and pundits.

Located in Pittsburgh, the take-out eatery welcomes customers to a gastronomic journey with lunch served in wrappers inscribed with the voices of people from Cuba to Palestine, voices most Americans otherwise only encounter through a filter that is more often than not distorting rather than edifying. Conflict Kitchen focuses on a different country every few months. Each culinary focus includes not just food and personal perspectives, but events, national products such as, say, soap from Palestine, and a colorful design reflecting national patterns and style.

Since its founding, Conflict Kitchen has devoted menus to Venezuela, Afghanistan, North Korea and Iran. Its decision to focus on Palestine, however, provoked a backlash, which not only lead to donors rescinding their support and accusations of anti-Semitism, but even a death threat that temporarily forced the kitchen to close. Even Palestinian food was too much to bear for some local supporters of Israel.

Despite intimidation efforts, the kitchen is back in business with strong community support rallying around what is quickly becoming a Pittsburgh legend. Palestine Square recently spoke with Jon and Dawn about the inspiration for Conflict Kitchen, why they chose to focus on Palestine (the country of choice when the interview was conducted), the backlash and support, their trips to the West Bank, and the Kitchen’s future plans.

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The whole idea of Conflict Kitchen (CK) is very powerful since sharing plates has a way of breaking down barriers between peoples. What made you think of such a culinary forum for educating people who are simply looking for a meal?

Conflict Kitchen was created in response to much of what we felt was lacking in our city of Pittsburgh and, for that matter, in most parts of the country. There is a distinct lack of understanding or empathy in American public life for people living in countries we deem as enemies. We coax the public with the smell and taste of our food, and then use that food as one of many storytelling devices to introduce our customers and our city to cultures and narratives that they had most likely never experienced before. In addition to hosting performances, events, discussions, and film festivals, all the food comes wrapped in and is served alongside printed interviews that we’ve conducted with people from the country on which we’re focusing. The staff are also hired because of their capacity to not only cook and serve the food but also to engage the public in discussions around our focus country. In essence, we are trying to create a space on the street that catalyzes political and cultural discussions that are often uncomfortable for Americans to have because they involve challenging the polarizing and simplified narratives that are constructed by much of the media and U.S. policy makers.

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Have you been to Palestine to try much of the cuisine there?

Yes, we went in June 2014 and spent most of our time cooking dishes and eating a lot of amazing food in family kitchens throughout the West Bank and Nazareth. We like to go shopping as much as we can for the ingredients in local markets and get a sense of the daily customs around food production, distribution, and consumption. Many of the dishes that we ate during the trip are now on our menu.

Your wrappers include the perspective of Palestinians on politics and culture – how did you go about collecting personal narratives? The larger question would be, what kind of working relationship do you have with Palestinians in Palestine?

Many of the initial interviews happened during our trip to Palestine. Mostly we interview people as we cook and eat together – it’s really a very intimate way to exchange stories. We’ve maintained and expanded these relationships with folks in Palestine who have worked with us on school exchange programming, an interview publication with kids, and other initiatives. We also work very closely with members of the local Palestinian community here in Pittsburgh.

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I haven’t tasted any of your dishes, but judging from the photos it does look authentically Palestinian, are you self-taught or did you have a helping hand in crafting the menu?

Our chef, Robert Sayre, went to culinary school and has worked with food for twenty years. He travels with us when we visit the countries we focus on, and he develops our recipes with home chefs in each country. We also worked with the local Palestinian community here in Pittsburgh to taste test all the dishes before we add them to the menu. He’s always adjusting the recipes, and of course everyone’s mother comes and tells him he is doing it slightly wrong.

There really is no one recipe for anything and, in this way, the word “authentic” can be problematic. Culture and food are based on personal experience and that inherently creates a unique sense of taste. We are always conscious that cooking, much like music, is all about interpretation and variations on a theme, and what we present to the public is filtered through our local ingredients and slightly changed through our local palette. This is one of the wonderful aspects of cooking and can serve as a metaphor for how culture is fluid, borderless, and shared. It’s also important to recognize, especially with Israel’s branding of historically Palestinian culture, how food can be colonized and used as a tool for erasing histories and identities.

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What are some of the Palestine related events you’ve staged alongside the menu?

In addition to publishing interviews with Palestinians on our food wrappers, in books, and on the Palestinian olive oil and Palestinian soap we sell, we also have a Palestinian guest Instagrammer take over our Instagram account every two weeks and post images of their daily life. We’ve featured many Gazan photojournalists on this platform, and it’s been an amazing way of offering a wider public a daily visual portal into the human side of life in Gaza.

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Although CK has devoted menus and events to Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and even North Korea, only Palestine appeared to generate a backlash. Did you expect such a backlash to occur and were you ever hesitant to focus Palestine?

We’ve been interested in focusing on Palestine for several years and, since we opened in May 2010, our customers have always been excited for us to address issues in Palestine and give voice to Palestinians. We were fortunate enough to be able to travel to Palestine in June 2014, and the trip was, to say the least, eye-opening. We have a large Jewish community in Pittsburgh, and we were conscious that some members of that community, and perhaps other communities, might be unhappy with our presentation of Palestinian culture, food, and viewpoints. There are many people, including Jews, who are supportive of the Palestinian struggle and critical of Israeli policies, but the vast majority of American Jewish institutions are not.

Because of this and America’s longstanding economic and military support for Israel, Palestine has become the most contentious issue in American political life, and frankly, not many institutions or individuals want to take it on because they know of the backlash they will get. We are fortunate that even though most of our supporters and partners have been and continue to be attacked because of our focus on Palestine, we are economically sustained through the support of our daily customers, who have supported this version of the project more than any other in the past. Our customers are curious about Palestinian culture and want to know more about how Palestinians live and view the world around them.

May you elaborate on the tone and content of that backlash and why you made the decision to temporarily cease operations?

What we went through is only a smaller version of what is happening throughout the U.S. to individuals and organizations who highlight Palestinian perspectives.

For years we have hosted biweekly lunch hours where expats and experts are invited to be part of an informal discussion with the public around food. For the last two years, these discussion-based events have been co-sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Honors College. We decided to co-host an event a week before the opening of the Palestine version with a young Palestinian doctor and a professor from the University of Pittsburgh who works on Palestinian human rights issues.

After the program was announced, a representative from the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh went to the Honors College dean, asking him if he knew that he was going to be co-sponsoring an anti-Semitic hate speech event. They said that if Conflict Kitchen did not add the Jewish Federation to the event or if the university did not pull their sponsorship, they would go to the board of trustees and tell their Jewish members to pull their support for the university. Eventually, after many conversations between the dean and I, in which I stressed that the claims were baseless and that pulling sponsorship from an event where a professor from his own university was speaking was a serious breach of academic freedom, the dean agreed to move forward with his support of the event.

What I later found out is that after the event, the Jewish Federation went to the provost and chancellor of the university and made the same threats – all of this just to silence free speech about and by Palestinians. The University of Pittsburgh Honors College dean eventually caved to the pressure and made the decision to end their relationship with us moving forward.

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KISHIK STEW: BRAISED LAMB, CHICKPEAS, RICE AND FERMENTED YOGURT STEW; SERVED WITH ARABIC BREAD, PICKLES AND OLIVES. (Conflict Kitchen) 

About 60 people ended up coming to the lunch hour, which is free and open to the public, including the dean and members of the Jewish Federation. We had an incredibly civil conversation. Subsequently however, the Jewish Federation, along with a few pro-Israel students, made claims that the event was anti-Semitic (because several attendees were critical of Israeli policies toward Palestinians) and that they felt unsafe (a claim often made to silence speech from a Palestinian perspective because it makes some pro-Israel supporters feel uncomfortable to have their viewpoints challenged). Some said that they were not invited or allowed to attend—which was not true.

The Jewish Federation then started tweeting and blogging for Israeli newspapers, spreading a highly inflammatory narrative that Conflict Kitchen was spreading anti-Israel propaganda, hate-filled literature, and even promoting death to Israelis and Jews. This was picked up by media like the Washington Free Beacon, a newspaper run by a right-wing think tank in Washington D.C., then Fox News, and eventually Breitbart, who were now making the absurd claim that Secretary of State “John Kerry’s Wife Funds Radical Anti-U.S., Anti-Israel Eatery.”

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HAMASEES: SPICY STEW OF BRAISED SOUR GREENS, LEMON AND LENTILS;SERVED WITH ARABIC BREAD,PICKLES AND OLIVES. (Conflict Kitchen) 

We had received a grant last year from the Heinz Endowments (of which Teresa Heinz is the Chairman) and in response to all of these articles, B’nai B’rith went to the Endowment and publicly asked them to disavow the grant. At this point, things started moving from the fringes of media and political discourse into the center. It was a great opportunity for the Heinz Endowments to take a stand and support freedom of artistic expression and free speech, but they chose not to. I think they went into a panicked crisis mode. They gave a statement of disavowal to B’nai B’rith saying: “[the Endowments] want to be especially clear that [Conflict Kitchen’s] current program on Palestine was not funded by the endowments and we would not fund such a program, precisely because it appears to be terribly at odds with the mission of promoting understanding.” The statement went on to say, “[the Endowments] emphatically does not agree with or support either the anti-Israel sentiments quoted on Conflict Kitchen’s food wrappers or the program’s refusal to incorporate Israeli or Jewish voices in its material.”

Besides the fact that Heinz fundamentally ignored the premise of our project and never read our materials, this framing of the viewpoints of Palestinians as automatically anti-Israeli is such a gross over-simplification. Such statements negate the complexity of Palestinian history and culture and perpetuate the most dehumanizing reading of their lives and the silencing of their voices.

The president of the Endowments contacted me the next day, a little late, and when I met with him, I pointed out that the actual language of the grant funding was for “future programming,” of which the Palestinian version is a part. So their denial is convenient if not factually inaccurate. Furthermore, their argument that Conflict Kitchen is “at odds with the mission of promoting understanding” is outlandish. What it implies is that if you present the viewpoints of North Koreans, Iranians, Cubans, Afghans, or Venezuelans you might be promoting understanding, but if you focus on Palestine, you’re doing the opposite. What does this statement says to our local Palestinian community? Sorry, you hold no power in this city, thus your culture and opinions have no inherent value.

Their other claim, that we refuse to publish Israeli viewpoints or include Jewish voices, is just false. Many of the interviews we did during our research trip were with Israeli Arabs and the first event we organized included a Jewish voice—not to mention the obvious fact that I [Jon Rubin] am also Jewish. Of course, these are not the Israeli or Jewish voices some people are interested in hearing. In the midst of all of this criticism, we received at the restaurant a very troubling death threat letter and immediately closed the operation until we could work with the police to investigate and develop a security plan.

What convinced you to reopen?

Without getting too specific, we eventually worked with various authorities and developed a plan under which we felt it was safe to open again and, a week later, did so. We received a huge amount of support while we were closed from our customers, community members, and people worldwide. The scare tactics we were coming up against, which we certainly were not the only targets of, made us feel more strongly than ever that Palestinian perspectives need to be part of American public discourse. We are quite lucky in that 95% of our income comes directly from food sales, and this allows us to withstand the loss of certain funders or partners.

After the death threat we decided to extended the run of the Palestinian version and fund a Pittsburgh Palestinian film festival, which just finished up.

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Beyond the anti-Palestinian faction you encountered, what has been the reception toward CK’s focus on Palestine?

The story that got buried under the “controversy” is that our Palestinian version is incredibly popular with the public. We have had a record number of people eating our Palestinian food and attending associated events. We’ve been in the city for five years, and we have an amazing customer base that very strongly supports us and identifies with our mission.

Do you feel like CK has made an impact on the perceptions of people who previously felt hostility toward Palestine or were simply uninformed, or does CK attract a crowd already sympathetic to Palestine, such as Arab-Americans looking for familiar dishes, or people simply uninterested in the politics?

I think all of the above are true. Certainly, we have many customers here in Pittsburgh who do not even know where Palestine is, and for them, the restaurant functions as an introduction. We also have people who are specifically interested in the political content of the project and come to support us on that front. The Palestinian version is very popular with local Arab Americans, but it is important to note that they were also coming to eat our Cuban and North Korean food.

While living in Nablus, I remember an Israel Defense Forces commander saying that the IDF was going to target “the terror capital of Nablus” (during last summer’s search for the three missing Israeli boys who were later found to have been executed), it was incredible to read such a dehumanizing designation of a city unlike any other city of families, markets, schools, and the lives of so many. A whole city can be attacked as a “terror capital” akin to Gaza being a “terror Strip,” – but if Nablus is known as the home of, say, Knafeh [a sweet cheese pastry for which Nablus is renowned], it works to counteract propaganda by presenting a human face. Israeli bombs dropped on the city may be recognized by many as an attack against civilians and not a “war against terror.” So what you’re doing can have tremendous impact – that’s my understanding. But what is your ambition for Conflict Kitchen?

We spent many days in Nablus and were overwhelmed with the hospitality we received from several families who cooked for us. We were also introduced to the historical and cultural significance of the city for many Palestinians. Beside being home to the sublime knafeh, which we gorged ourselves on, the city was the center of the historic olive oil soap trade for the entire region. We were fortunate to be able to visit one of the few still operating factories, run by the Toukan family for over a century, and interview the manager. He spoke of how the Toukan family, one of the oldest and most famous families in Nablus, has been a champion of the Nabulsi soap makers and is still today maintaining the traditional craft as a form of historic preservation and resistance to the occupation. They really don’t make much of a profit anymore but maintain the business to keep a proud tradition alive. We purchased cases of soap from them directly and have been selling bars at the restaurant wrapped with the story of the factory and an interview with one of the owners. For us, it’s a way to experientially share stories with our public of Nablus, its material culture, and its history that humanize the place and counter the “terror capital” rhetoric. To be honest, most of our customers have never even heard of Nablus, so often the soap or food is the first introduction they are getting.

mahalabiyaMAHALABIYA IS A TRADITIONAL DESSERT SERVED THROUGHOUT THE MIDDLE EAST. PARFAIT OF ORANGE AND MILK PUDDINGS WITH ROSEWATER AND PISTACHIOS. (Conflict Kitchen)

We also visited a small family farm outside Nablus, where the family who has been on the land since the Ottoman times, and has been coming under monthly attacks from the Israeli settlers who live on the hills all around the farm. We purchased a large quantity of olive oil from the farm and use it on all of our mezza dishes. We also sell the olive oil to our customers accompanied by an interview with the farmer about his daily life and struggles against the settlers. The olive oil bottle has a quote on the label from the family patriarch, Khalid Daraghmeh, which states “I am challenging the occupation by living only off the fruits of my land. In this way, the land itself is empowering me to resist.” What we want our public to know is that this amazing olive oil is both the taste of a very specific place with a rich Palestinian history and the byproduct of a farmer’s daily persistence as a form of non-violent resistance. It makes quite clear that sometimes food can be deeply political.

One last question, what countries are you considering for the future?

We will be focusing on Cuba starting May 26, as we feel U.S. citizens are now actually paying attention to the island and debating what our future relations will be now that diplomatic ties are being restored. After that, we will be refocusing on Iran, as the current nuclear negotiations make it more important than ever to do so.

Photographs and Captions: Conflict Kitchen. 

By Khelil Bouarrouj.

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