It is an unwritten military maxim: in order to turn the nation against an enemy, the nation must seize seeing the other side as human, and begin to understand them simply as an enemy.
That is pretty depressing, and it's something the owners of Pittsburgh's Conflict Kitchen are acutely aware of. The restaurant seeks to overcome cultural misunderstandings by exclusively serving the cuisine from countries with which the U.S. is in conflict.
The restaurant works with those still living in the country at hand, as well as local members of the diaspora, to develop "events, performances, publications and discussions" to supplement the food, and also to "instigate questioning, conversation, and debate with [its] customers."
Every few months the restaurant rotates its identity to relate to current geopolitical events. So far it has seen installments from Afghanistan, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, and Cuba. But the restaurant's most recent identity— Palestine— drew controversy after conservative groups said that the food wrapping (click to read) contained anti-Israeli messages. A death threat letter was directed at the business, forcing it to shut its doors. Earlier this week, the restaurant reopened.
"As I see it, the point is not to come together and hold hands, but to confront these long lasting conflicts where people have very strong opinions," Omar Abuhejieh, a Palestinian-American who runs a bakery in Pittsburgh's Jewish neighborhood Squirrel Hill, told Fusion. "It's a good thing to put Palestinian identity and issues on display, because honestly: when does that happen?"
"The medium of food creates a comfortable space to discuss potentially sensitive topics," Dawn Weleski, co-director of Conflict Kitchen, told Fusion. "Perhaps it is hard for some people to hear that Palestinians are not happy with Israeli policies or the actions of some of its citizens, but to cast their viewpoints as simply anti-Israel is to reinforce the simplest, most polarizing, and dehumanizing reading of their lives and perpetuates the silencing of their voices."
In a sense, the backlash and subsequent death threat show a lack of understanding of the purpose of the project: entering into a discourse with different perspectives, Weleski said. The viewpoints being explored on the food wrapper might be contentious, but country after country, the food comes first, and the food for thought follows. Now for the food:
"Oftentimes, Americans’ first, and sometimes only, introduction to other cultures is through 'ethnic' restaurants in their cities," said Weleski. "Conflict Kitchen literally entices, via smell and taste, the Pittsburgh public to engage in cultural and political discourse through food."
All photos courtesy of Conflict Kitchen
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.