Sunday, October 12, 2008

Food Wars: The Battle of Hummus

One of the impressive attributes of my old LaTrobe University was its ability to harmoniously host a variety of cultures.

Most ethnic groups present on-campus had formed their own cultural group. We had everything from the Hong Kong Student Association, to the Italians, Greeks, Turks, Norwegian, and finally, Lebanese and Israeli.

I had finished from the university before the 2006 war, and helped form a Lebanese student association during my time there.

Throughout the academic year, the various student bodies would hold cultural days, which may have corresponded with a particular national date or anniversary of the foreign country.

So when it came time for the Israelis to showcase their culture on Israel Day in the main plaza, the Agora, I couldn't help but sneak a peak.

After 60 years of an artificial existence, on a land not of their own, that incorporated Jews from every corner of the globe, every skin colour, and essentially every culture, what exactly constituted Israeli culture?

No surprise, it seemed Israel was void of a distinctive culture. They had, instead, reverted to stealing the ingredients of a culture they despised, butchered and expelled from the Holy Land.

Tabouli salad, hummus dip, n'argileh smoke pipe, and the drbakeh drum were on offer on Israel Day. Not only have they stolen Arab land, it seems, but also aspects of Levantine culture.

Well at least they're making themselves feel at home, but the dilemma doesn't end there.

I recall a moment during my supermarket shopping in Paris when I absolutely craved a Lebanese delight. So after desperate searching in this grand store, I finally found a tiny dip section tucked away in the most inconvenient corner. But alas, there it held my favourite dips: hummus, baba ghanouj, and the works. All seemed OK until I turned to the back of the packets, and there it was marked "Made in Israel".

So not only have the Israelis stolen parts of our culture, but are now even marketing it to the world as their own. Could I be more insulted?

Our plan of retaliation against Israel Day at LaTrobe University was to make a Lebanon Day, ten times larger, with ten times more hummus, tabouli, and of course, with the upbeating folkloric dabke dance. It worked. A few weeks later, we hosted an enormous Lebanon Day, a highly successful event that ensured every student at LaTrobe knew what exactly constituted Lebanese (or Levantine for our Syrian, Jordanian and Palestinian friends) culture.

But the plan to retaliate against Israel's false global marketing of Lebanese products as their own requires a lot more effort, which leads me to the following article. Finally, some Lebanese producers have simply had enough of Israel's food grab, particularly in a market worth US$1billion a year.

Just as the French region Champagne has patented the sparkling "Champagne", one Lebanese campaigner aims to do the same for hummus and tabouli. The only problem now is that the move may exclude other rightful owners of the foods such as our brethren in Syria, Jordan and Palestine. As the article reveals, Lebanese culture is simply an attachment of the culture of "Greater Syria" or the "Levant", that is the area of Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Palestine carved up by the British and French over 80 years ago. The three remaining states have an equal claim to hummus, tabouli, falafel and the drbakeh drum.

The problem is that many Lebanese simply can't swallow the fact that their culture isn't exclusive, but actually transcends its current French-made borders. Despite the impressive move to protect the rightful Lebanese attachment to hummus and tabouli, it demonstrates that the identity crisis in the Middle East stifles even the most sacred element of a human being's existence ... food.

Expect a war of words between Lebanese, Syrian and Arab nationalists before it even reaches a court against Israel. Certainly, everyone will agree that Israel has no right to market our products as their own, but who are we? Is it Lebanese hummus or Greater Syrian hummus?

Lebanon turns up the heat as falafels fly in food fight

Hugh Macleod, Beirut
The Age, Guardian

AFTER decades of war, invasion and occupation, Lebanon and Israel have plenty of tensions simmering between them; but the latest source of strife is literally cooking.

From the deep-fried chick peas that make falafel to the parsley and burghul wheat of tabbouleh, the salad that's almost a national obsession — green-fingered enthusiasts once held the world record for making a dish weighing 1½ tonnes — Lebanon's foodies are pushing back against what they see as Israel's appropriation of their cuisine.

"At ethnic food exhibitions our producers go to the Israeli stand and find most of the specialities they are marketing as Israeli foods are Lebanese," said Fadi Abboud, president of the Lebanese Industrialists' Association (LIA). "Our culture goes back a few thousand years. It's time to set the record straight."

Mr Abboud and researchers say they have documentation to prove that 25 traditional dishes hail from Lebanon and deserve the EU's Protected Designated Origin status, meaning they can be marketed under their name only if made in the country.

Under an EU deal, Lebanon is entitled to seek European arbitration for its claim to protected status, but will require a World Trade Organisation ruling for the move to affect sales in non-EU markets. Thick files on each food are being drafted to make a case based on the 2002 ruling that only Greek-made cheese could be called feta. But in a region where food is as strong a source of national identity and pride as national borders, the move has caused friction.

"He's plain wrong. Falafel is originally Turkish," said Rabea Abdullah, chief falafel fryer at the famous King of Potatoes eatery in Hamra, Beirut's bustling commercial heart. "Maybe tabbouleh can be said to be Lebanese, because everyone knows we invented it."

Mr Abboud admits that copyrighting falafel would be hard — Egyptians and Syrians also lay claim to it. Tabbouleh is probably Lebanon's best hope at exclusivity, but it is in the hummus market, worth $US1 billion ($A1.5 billion) worldwide, according to the LIA, that Mr Abboud really believes he is on to a winner. "We believe we can prove Lebanon commercialised hummus in the late 1950s," he said. "We own the name and if (supermarkets in other countries) want to produce hummus they will have to produce it in Lebanon. Or they'll just have to call it 'chick-pea dip'."

The LIA move drew no official reaction in Israel, though some diners in Jerusalem cited shared Arab and Jewish heritage derived from Abraham to claim hummus belongs to all in the region. The move has also angered some Lebanese food experts, saying such dishes should be seen as originating in the Levant, the area of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, before Western intervention led to national borders and the creation of Israel in 1948.

"Foods like falafel are not Lebanese but they're certainly not Israeli either. How can they be when Israel is only 60 years old?" asked Rami Zurayk, professor of agriculture and ecosystems at the American University of Beirut, and author of a book on "slow food" in Lebanon.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Does the financial crisis spell the end of the American empire?

According to the article from The Age below, it does.

My attention has been drawn from the natural instability and bombings in Lebanon and Syria to the global phenomenon emanating from Wall Street.

America is collapsing.

Bloggers, journalists, academics, politicians, diplomats, business leaders, jihadists, leftists, rightists, mums and dads worldwide have been warning for eight years of the calamities the Bush administration has brought upon the world, but more importantly, upon the United States itself.

The US is losing its power. It was predicted, it was inevitable. Every dog has his day, and every great story has an ending.

Last week's bombings and rising tension in Lebanon and Syria has been met with an eerie silence this week as the Middle East, along with the world, follows America's financial collapse every step of the way. Implications of an American downfall will be felt immediately in the Middle East, where US policy in the last decade has defined current conflict boundaries.

Heads are already turning to Beijing to lead, but is China ready to take the throne?

The following article sums up my thoughts at present, but I won't make a full assessment of the situation and its impact on the Middle East until at least a new president is voted in office.

Incredible times.

A shattering moment in America's fall from power

John Gray

October 6, 2008
The Age

Our gaze might be on the markets melting down, but the upheaval we are experiencing is more than a financial crisis, however large. Here is a historic geopolitical shift, in which the balance of power in the world is being altered irrevocably. The era of American global leadership, reaching back to the Second World War, is over.

You can see it in the way America's dominion has slipped away in its own backyard, with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez taunting and ridiculing the superpower with impunity.

The setback of America's standing at the global level is even more striking. With the nationalisation of crucial parts of the financial system, the American free-market creed has self-destructed while countries that retained overall control of markets have been vindicated.

In a change as far-reaching in its implications as the fall of the Soviet Union, an entire model of government and the economy has collapsed.

Ever since the end of the Cold War, successive American administrations have lectured other countries on the necessity of sound finance. Indonesia, Thailand, Argentina and several African states endured severe cuts in spending and deep recessions as the price of aid from the International Monetary Fund, which enforced the American orthodoxy.

China, in particular, was hectored relentlessly on the weakness of its banking system. But China's success has been based on its consistent contempt for Western advice and it is not Chinese banks that are going bust.

Despite incessantly urging other countries to adopt its way of doing business, America has always had one economic policy for itself and another for the rest of the world. Throughout the years in which the US was punishing countries that departed from fiscal prudence, it was borrowing on a colossal scale to finance tax cuts and fund its overstretched military commitments.

Now, with federal finances critically dependent on continuing large inflows of foreign capital, it will be the countries that spurned the American model of capitalism that will shape America's economic future.

The dire condition of America's financial markets is the result of American banks operating in a free-for-all environment that these same American legislators who have been debating a bail-out created. It is America's political class that, by embracing the dangerously simplistic ideology of deregulation, has responsibility for the mess.

In current circumstances, an unprecedented expansion of government is the only means of averting a market catastrophe. The consequence, however, will be that America will be even more starkly dependent on the world's new rising powers. The federal government is racking up even larger borrowings, which its creditors may rightly fear will never be repaid. It may well be tempted to inflate these debts away in a surge of inflation that would leave foreign investors with hefty losses.

In these circumstances, will the governments of countries that buy large quantities of American bonds - China, the Gulf states and Russia, for example - be ready to continue supporting the dollar's role as the world's reserve currency? Or will these countries see this as an opportunity to tilt the balance of economic power further in their favour? Either way, the control of events is no longer in American hands.

The fate of empires is very often sealed by the interaction of war and debt. That was true of the British Empire, whose finances deteriorated from the First World War onwards, and of the Soviet Union. Defeat in Afghanistan and the economic burden of trying to respond to Reagan's technically flawed but politically effective Star Wars program were vital factors in triggering the Soviet collapse.

Despite its insistent exceptionalism, America is no different. The Iraq War and the credit bubble have fatally undermined America's economic primacy.

The US will continue to be the world's largest economy for a while longer, but it will be the new rising powers that, once the crisis is over, buy up what remains intact in the wreckage of America's financial system.

There has been a good deal of talk in recent weeks about imminent economic armageddon. In fact, this is far from being the end of capitalism. The frantic scrambling in Washington marks the passing of only one type of capitalism - the peculiar and highly unstable variety that has existed in America over the past 20 years. This experiment in financial laissez-faire has imploded. While the impact of the collapse will be felt everywhere, the market economies that resisted American-style deregulation will best weather the storm.

The irony of the post-Cold War period is that the fall of communism was followed by the rise of another utopian ideology whereby in America and Britain, and to a lesser extent other Western countries, a type of market fundamentalism became the guiding philosophy. The collapse of American power that is under way is the predictable upshot. Like the Soviet collapse, it will have large geopolitical repercussions. An enfeebled economy cannot support America's over-extended military commitments for much longer. Retrenchment is inevitable and it is unlikely to be gradual or well planned.

Meltdowns on the scale we are seeing are not slow-motion events. They are swift and chaotic, with rapidly spreading side effects.

Consider Iraq. The success of the surge, which has been achieved by bribing the Sunnis, while acquiescing in ongoing "ethnic cleansing", has produced a condition of relative peace in parts of the country. How long will this last, given that America's current level of expenditure on the war can no longer be sustained?

An American retreat from Iraq will leave Iran the regional victor. How will Saudi Arabia respond? Will military action to forestall Iran acquiring nuclear weapons be less or more likely?

China's rulers have so far been silent during the unfolding crisis. Will America's weakness embolden them to assert China's power or will China continue its cautious policy of "peaceful rise"?

At present, none of these questions can be answered with any confidence. What is evident is that power is leaking from the US at an accelerating rate. Georgia showed Russia redrawing the geopolitical map, with America an impotent spectator.

Outside the US, most people have long accepted that the development of new economies that goes with globalisation will undermine America's central position in the world. They imagined that this would be a change in America's comparative standing, taking place incrementally over several decades or generations. Today, that looks an increasingly unrealistic assumption.

Having created the conditions that produced history's biggest bubble, America's political leaders appear unable to grasp the magnitude of the dangers the country now faces. Mired in their rancorous culture wars and squabbling among themselves, they seem oblivious to the fact that American global leadership is fast ebbing away. A new world is coming into being almost unnoticed, where America is only one of several great powers, facing an uncertain future it can no longer shape.

John Gray is the author of Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (Allen Lane)