Dispatch

Food Fight

A look inside the Middle East's new weapons of mass consumption.

ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images
ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images

One of the lesser known, but no less bitterly contested, fronts in the Arab-Israeli conflict is the setting of records — in particular, food records.

Back in 2006, Nasser Abdulhadi, a Palestinian hotelier and restaurateur from the West Bank town of Nablus, gained his troubled nation a new kind of notoriety when he whipped up the world’s largest salad: a 2,383-pound vat of tabbouleh, the tangy Middle Eastern mixture of cracked wheat and parsley.

Not to be outdone by its political rivals, in 2007 the Israel farming community of Sde Warburg snatched away the salad record, which had fallen in the meantime to a couple of other countries, by producing a lettuce salad nearly 10 times as large as Abdulhadi’s tabbouleh. The record still stands to this day.

Then last year, Lebanon — in a propaganda ploy to reclaim what it says is its national cuisine — launched a food blitzkrieg, cooking up not just a mound of tabbouleh weighing in at 3.5 metric tons, but also a 215-square-foot tray of minced-meat-and-cracked-wheat kibbe and a 4,532-pound plate of hummus, the chickpea paste that is a Middle Eastern staple.

The Lebanese also turned to the courts in an effort to defeat Israel. In October 2008, Fadi Abboud, president of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists, announced that Lebanon would file an international lawsuit against Israel for violating its food copyright. By marketing Lebanese national dishes such as hummus and tabbouleh as its own, Abboud claimed, Israel was costing Lebanon tens of millions of dollars per year. He stated that Lebanon’s case would rely on the "feta cheese precedent," whereby a European court granted Greece the sole right to use "feta" in the name of the cheese it produced.

Nevertheless, the hummus record Lebanon set in 2009 lasted less than three months: On Jan. 8, Israel, which had set the previous record with a measly 900 pounds or so, hit back by getting a crack team of Arab chefs to mix up more than double the Lebanese portion.

Meanwhile, Abdulhadi was determined to win back the laurels — not just for Palestine but also for himself, ever since a compatriot in Nablus last year baked the world’s largest knafeh, 243 feet of pastry made from goat’s cheese and syrup. And just to ensure that he would not be trumped so easily, he asked Guinness World Records, the British publisher of the almanac of amazing achievements, to judge three new records: the biggest mujadara, a dish of rice and lentils; the largest performance of the dabke, a group folk dance; and the "longest existing occupation," Israel’s 42-year-old control of the West Bank and Gaza.

The publisher consented to weigh Abdulhadi’s lentils and count his dancers, but it sent a form letter declining on the occupation. "We do not accept proactive applications for these records," it stated. Damian Field, a spokesman for the organization, explained in an email that people cannot apply to have records of a "political nature" recognized and that the company hires "specialised consultants [to] research these types of categories for us."

Abdulhadi, unfortunately, misread "proactive" as "provocative" and concluded that Guinness World Records was exercising political censorship. Incensed, he sent an email to friends and supporters. "I was angered," he wrote. "Since when is it a provocation to be occupied???"

What really stung was that the form letter, designed to prevent the company from being implicated in every act of reckless record-breaking on the planet, contained some unintentionally apt, if not very useful, advice. "As your record application has not been accepted," it reads, "Guinness World Records is in no way associated with the activity relating to your record proposal and we in no way endorse this activity. If you choose to proceed with this activity then this will be of your own volition and at your own risk."

Abdulhadi still hopes that his mammoth mujadara will take its place in the record book alongside the humongous hummus and titanic tabbouleh, and he plans to pursue the dabke, if he can find space in crowded Nablus for 15,000 people to dance at once. The occupation, however, will have to continue breaking records without any help from him — a feat it seems perfectly capable of accomplishing.

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