x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

'Invented people' an idea hard to swallow

Newt Gingrich¿s assertion last weekend that Palestinians are an ¿invented people¿ has really left them fuming ¿ it is one thing to try to hijack a key part of your heritage, quite another to say the whole thing is fabricated.

Newt Gingrich attacks the Palestinians to win more Jewish votes, his critics say .
Newt Gingrich attacks the Palestinians to win more Jewish votes, his critics say .

WASHINGTON // For years, Samir Abu El Hawa and his son Mohammed have batted away suggestions that the hummus, falafel and other dishes they serve in their Washington restaurant are Israeli.

But Newt Gingrich's assertion last weekend that Palestinians are an "invented people" has really left them fuming - it is one thing to try to hijack a key part of your heritage, quite another to say the whole thing is fabricated.

The Republican Party's front runner to face Barack Obama in next year's presidential election made his tendentious declaration first during an interview and then during a debate with his party rivals.

Without apparent irony, Mr Gingrich even prefaced his remarks by proclaiming: "I am a historian."

"He is a hypocrite," said a sputtering Mr El Hawa when he finally settled on a sentence fit to print. Along with his brother, Abdullah, the 60-year-old Mr El Hawa owns Mama Ayesha's, an institution in the US capital for more than a half-century.

"He is only saying this because he wants the Jewish vote in the election and money for his campaign."

Apart from that motive, Mr El Hawa was at a loss to understand why Mr Gingrich would now bring up a claim he has made many times before and was first wielded by early Zionists who were trying to persuade mostly disinterested Jews in Europe in the early decades of the 20th century that the region of Palestine - first under the Ottomans and then the British - was, in their words, a "land without a people for a people without a land". "It's an old story. Even the Israelis are not telling it any more. Why would [Gingrich]? It makes no sense."

Mr El Hawa's anger is typical of the outrage Mr Gingrich's remarks have caused in the Arab-American community and among Palestinian Americans. Arab-American organisations urged the Republican Party to denounce the remarks.

They also called on Mr Gingrich, who served 20 years in the House of Representatives and rose to become its most powerful member before resigning in 1999, to retract the statement and issue a public apology.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee characterised Mr Gingrich's remarks as "simplistic and strange," pointing out that nations are "not defined by the existence of states". The Arab American Institute, meanwhile, said Mr Gingrich's defence of his statement describing Palestinians as terrorists, was "a new low" in the election campaign.

"Somebody ought to have the courage to tell the truth. These people are terrorists. They teach terrorism in their schools. They have textbooks that say 'If there are 13 Jews and nine Jews are killed, how many Jews are left?' We pay for those textbooks through our aid money. It's fundamentally time for somebody to have the guts to stand up and say, enough lying about the Middle East," Mr Gingrich told an audience in Iowa that appeared unfazed by his comments.

Nevertheless, the outrage has been especially palpable among a younger generation that had not been exposed to such insults before, said Randa Serhan, the director of Arab Studies at American University in Washington. "They've heard they are Muslim terrorists, but they haven't heard that they are non-existent Palestinians."

Ms Serhan, whose doctoral thesis was an ethnographic study of the Palestinian community in New York and New Jersey, said the narrative about Palestinian identity, or lack thereof, may not have been heard in a while, but it never went away.

Israel's policy to deny Palestinians statehood was a way of trying to deny their existence, she said. "We're not on a map. We're not acknowledged anywhere."

Mr Gingrich's remarks - "stupid narrative and hyperbole" though they may have been - gave rare voice to the American politicians' tacit support for this policy, Ms Serhan said. "The policy has always been about removing Palestinians, denying them, or hoping they will turn into someone else, by assimilation or emigration. For an older generation [of Palestinian-Americans] the only form of political activism available to them is just to exist."

Palestinian Americans have strived for years simply to be recognised as Palestinians, noted Ms Serhan. Nevertheless, Mr El Hawa did not want to mess with the formula that has seen Mama Ayesha's serve its "Middle Eastern" cuisine in the same spot since 1960, so he has never described his restaurant as "Palestinian".

The restaurant was opened as the Calvert Café by his aunt, Ayesha Abraham, who emigrated to America from Jerusalem in the late 1940s. It was renamed Mama Ayesha's after her death in 1993, at the age of 103.

From behind the bar where he was serving on Monday night, Mr El Hawa chuckled at the thought of some of the things he has heard in his years here. "Customers would look at the menu and say, 'Oh look, Israeli food'", he recalled.

"I always correct them. Imagine, falafel and hummus, Israeli. Still, I say let them have them. Take our falafel. Take our hummus. Just give us back our land."

Located in the Adams Morgan neighbourhood of the capital, Mama Ayesha's gained fame as a regular haunt of Helen Thomas, the legendary Lebanese-American White House reporter who covered every US president since Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s - 11 in all - before retiring two years ago.

The faces of all 11 US presidents that Ms Thomas peppered with questions adorn a mural on the restaurant's facade. The prospect of adding Mr Gingrich's image to that fraternity, however, put Mr El Hawa at odds with his 36-year-old son. "Absolutely not," he said, as his son said that, "of course it would".

"The mural is not political," said Mohammad. "It should not become political."

Personally, he said, he considered Mr Gingrich's take on Palestinian identity unimportant. "He can talk all he wants. It doesn't make it so."

After a while, Samir eventually came around to his son's way of thinking. The mural was simply a way to "mark time" from the moment his aunt had opened the restaurant.

"I suppose Gingrich would have to go on there as well. I won't like it though."