“Breaking Bread, Building Bridges”: a Film Review

15 April, 2022
Still from Break­ing Bread with Haifa chefs Shlo­mi and Ali.


Break­ing Bread, Build­ing Bridges
(2020)
Direct­ed by Beth Elise Hawk
Run­ning time 1 hour 25 minutes

 

Food may not be the answer to world peace, but it’s a start. —Antho­ny Bourdain

 

Mischa Geracoulis

 

Break­ing Bread, Build­ing Bridges tells the sto­ry of Dr. Nof Atamna-Ismaeel’s culi­nary attempt at peace­mak­ing. The first Arab to win the Israeli real­i­ty show, Mas­terChef, in 2014, Nof sees her posi­tion of liv­ing amongst sev­er­al worlds — Pales­tin­ian, Israeli, and abroad — as unique­ly priv­i­leged to be an agent of good will, peace, and pos­i­tive social change. Hark­ing from “The Tri­an­gle,” a region west of the Green Line in Israel inhab­it­ed pre­dom­i­nant­ly by Arabs, Nof is Mus­lim, Arab, Israeli, Pales­tin­ian, a micro­bi­ol­o­gist, woman, wife, moth­er, and chef.  She speaks Ara­bic, Hebrew, and Eng­lish flu­ent­ly, and as evi­denced by her ground­break­ing win in 2014, is a gift­ed chef. 

Com­par­ing a plate­ful of vibrant, nutri­ent-dense food to peo­ple, Nof says that vari­ety enhances, off­sets, and “pops” the oth­er, increas­es com­ple­men­tary under­stand­ing and per­spec­tive-tak­ing. Vari­ety, she says, enhances human­i­ty. Wise words from anoth­er philoso­pher con­cerned with peace and under­stand­ing come to mind. “Human­i­ty begins around a table,” goes the quote attrib­uted to Han­nah Arendt (like­ly from her 1958 book, The Human Con­di­tion).  Arendt’s work is see­ing a revival at this time of war in Ukraine, and these remarks seem espe­cial­ly rel­e­vant in con­nect­ing con­flicts across the world. Part and par­cel to con­flict any­where is food (in)security, which ren­ders this doc­u­men­tary odd­ly comforting. 

Since 2015, Nof has orches­trat­ed a one-of-kind food fes­ti­val in Haifa, Israel that takes place over three days in Decem­ber and embraces all the hol­i­days of the sea­son. Haifa, accord­ing to May­or Yona Yahav (2003–2018), is the one place on the plan­et where there’s been full peace between Arabs and Jews for more than 100 years. 

The way the “A‑Sham” (Ara­bic for “The Lev­ant”) Fes­ti­val works is that Nof pairs an Arab chef with an Israeli chef, and assigns them with res­ur­rect­ing an ancient Ara­bic dish. The chefs meet for the first time, work togeth­er on the research and in the kitchen to repro­duce the recipe that’d been assumed extinct. 

Screen­ing a mes­mer­iz­ing mélange of beau­ti­ful food, music, peo­ple, col­ors, and cityscapes, the film also doc­u­ments some of the many chefs who give their rea­sons for get­ting involved with A‑Sham. We first meet the Marl­boro-smok­ing, buff and tat­tooed, Shlo­mi, 3rd gen­er­a­tion Ashke­nazi Jew who’s car­ry­ing on his grandfather’s restau­rant. He relays a sto­ry that’s all too time­ly in which he was approached by Russ­ian oli­garchs who offered to finance and repli­cate his restau­rant in posh cities across the globe. Rather than seize on poten­tial wealth, Shlo­mi was insult­ed. “We are only in Haifa!” For the fes­ti­val he’s matched with mohawk-sport­ing hip­ster chef, Ali, and togeth­er they ful­fill their assign­ment in reviv­ing an age-old Syr­i­an recipe for which Ali’s grand­moth­er pro­vid­ed nec­es­sary background.

As part of the festival’s “Hum­mus Project,” we’re intro­duced to Jew­ish, Shoshi, and Arab, Fadi, a long-mar­ried cou­ple who runs a hum­mus café in Haifa. The par­ents of five chil­dren, they insist that strength and beau­ty come from diver­si­ty, and that evo­lu­tion hap­pens through peo­ple — in homes, cafés, mar­kets, even over hum­mus — rather than through politicians. 

A hum­mus dish, still from the doc­u­men­tary by Beth Elise Hawk.

Among some of the oth­er chefs on screen are Tomer of Moroc­can ori­gins who speaks of the mul­ti­lay­ers of food, fla­vors, eth­nic­i­ties, and lan­guages that con­nect peo­ple. “Cross­ing bor­ders in the kitchen,” Tomer who works with Salah from Jaf­fa, relates that “we speak in Ara­bic, laugh in Hebrew, curse in Roman­ian, get upset in Moroc­can, and make and solve prob­lems around food.”

Osama from Akko, a chef in Tel Aviv spe­cial­iz­ing in seafood, points to the inti­ma­cy of the city — mosques next to church­es neigh­bor­ing syn­a­gogues. His fes­ti­val chef-col­lab­o­ra­tor, Ilan from Haifa who is of French, Ital­ian, Arab, Jew­ish, Chris­t­ian, Mus­lim her­itage, asserts that “if Israel and the Arab states could set egos and reli­gion aside, the entire region would rival that of the EU and US. Instead, we keep going back­wards into dem­a­goguery, his­to­ry, bor­ders and land rights, armies, laws — things that pre­vent us from pro­gress­ing…. When Osama and I are togeth­er, we’re going to cre­ate a new real­i­ty on the plate. No one here gives a fuck if he’s Arab or Mus­lim, or if I’m Chris­t­ian and Jew.”

Argues Nof, “The fur­ther we stay from oth­ers, the more unin­formed we are, and mis- and dis-infor­ma­tion pro­lif­er­ates.” To her point, she describes her efforts to gar­ner media cov­er­age for A‑Sham Fes­ti­val, and how each year, cov­er­age is scant. “Neg­a­tive news makes head­lines here and sad­ly, when so much neg­a­tiv­i­ty is hyped, the pub­lic starts to believe it.” Nof sus­pects that politi­cians are behind the neg­a­tive hype, pro­pa­gan­da, awful stereo­typ­ing, and rumor mills, because, in her expe­ri­ence, the major­i­ty of peo­ple prefers peace­ful coex­is­tence. Still, as much as she’s com­mit­ted to her mis­sion to insti­gate pos­i­tive social change through food, she’s not naïve. Her efforts to come up with an apo­lit­i­cal name for the fes­ti­val (refer­ring to the food as Lev­an­tine, rather than by nation-state), she acknowl­edges the com­pli­ca­tions of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics. Rhetor­i­cal­ly, she asks how to most polit­i­cal­ly-cor­rect­ly order a dish in a café that’s known as both Ara­bic and Israeli. That said, hum­mus, she insists, has no borders.

Pre-fes­ti­val signs post­ed around Haifa paint­ed in Eng­lish instruct, “If you’re racist, sex­ist, homo­pho­bic, or an ass­hole, don’t come!”

For any­one need­ing an infu­sion of hope, Break­ing Bread, Build­ing Bridges, deliv­ers.  View­ing infor­ma­tion can be found here.

 

ArabcoexistenceHaifahummusIsraeli foodJewishMuslimPalestinian cuisinepeace

TMR contributing editor Mischa Geracoulis is a writer and educator of critical media literacy, English for speakers of other languages, and those with learning differentials. Her writing, teaching and approach to life are informed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Some of her topics of research include the Armenian Genocide and Diaspora, restorative justice, equitable education and child welfare, and the multifaceted human condition. Her work has appeared in Middle East Eye, The Guardian, Truthout, LA Review of Books, Colorlines, Gomidas Institute, National Catholic Reporter, and openDemocracy, among others. Follow her on Twitter @MGeracoulis.

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