As Palestinian families faced imminent eviction in Sheikh Jarrah in May 2021, Khaled Alshehab, owner of Southeast Portland food cart Alley Mezza, took to Instagram to express his outrage — not just in response to the violence itself, but to the silence in the Portland food community. “What’s up Portland? Where are all the woke postings? Is Palestinian suffering not trending enough? Portland chefs making money off of Palestinian/Arab cuisines, what’s up?” he wrote in his Instagram stories.
From Alshehab’s perspective, this silence was nothing new. Dining in Portland, he has encountered several restaurants serving Southwestern Asian and Northern African (SWANA) dishes while separating themselves from the cultures: When Tusk first opened, it offered a multicourse tasting menu called the “Magic Carpet Ride.” He enjoyed Aviv’s all-vegan selection, but felt uneasy about the way it labeled its broad SWANA menu “Israeli”; for him, it felt like attributing the cuisine to the colonizer. Walking into Shalom Y’all, he found a wall of words in several languages, but only the Arabic words had been flipped around. To Alshehab, all these restaurants served Arab foods, and had pulled art, design, and even words from the people of SWANA countries without acknowledging the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq; the ways Americans supplied military aid to the Israeli occupation of Palestine; U.S.-imposed sanctions on Iran; or the bombings and drone strikes in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. “How can you eat at the restaurant, eat the food, while you’re fucking bombing them?” he says.
Alshehab is one of many chefs who are addressing the complexities of SWANA identity in their food and their work. Palestinian chef Reem Kassis, who grew up in East Jerusalem, reclaims and examines the cross-cultural culinary history of Arab cuisines in her cookbooks The Palestinian Table and The Arabesque Table. At Qanoon in New York City, Tarek Daka draws menu inspiration from his mother’s home cooking from his childhood on a farm on the West Bank of Palestine. Meanwhile, Reem Assil opened San Francisco’s first Arab bakery with