A taste of coexistence: How a Palestinian and an Israeli found friendship through food
Haitham El Khatib and Itamar Shani are spreading peace with their weekly lunch events in Vancouver
While race, religion and politics can often be divisive topics, food tends to unite. For Haitham El Khatib, a 34-year-old Palestinian Muslim, and Itamar Shani, a 30-year-old Israeli Jew, their love of cooking and sharing food is what brought them together.
Growing up, the two men were taught to hate each other due to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. It's been described as the world's most intractable conflict, a violent and decades-long division between Israelis and Palestinians.
"In Arab countries, on TV, they never acknowledge Israel. They always say 'the occupying enemy,'" said El Khatib. "And if you are found to have any interactions with Israel, on any level, you are basically collaborating with the enemy."
El Khatib was born in Dubai but was deported during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He spent the rest of his childhood, until the age of 18, living in Ain al-Hilweh, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon.
Shani grew up in an Israeli settlement called Elkana. He remembers visiting an Arab village nearby called Mas-ha every Friday with his father. But following the first intifada, a Palestinian uprising that lasted for more than five years in the late 1980s, the Israeli government built a wall.
"[They] decided that those are enemies and we need to separate them," said Shani. "And it was like, 'Behind this wall there are Arabs; there are terrorists; it is very dangerous there.' And then everybody felt that all Arabs are terrible."
Eventually, both men emigrated to Canada — Shani, six years ago and El Khatib, three years ago — and opened separate restaurants less than 7 kilometres away from each other in Vancouver. El Khatib is the owner of Aleph Middle Eastern Eatery and Shani is the co-owner of Chickpea, a Mediterranean plant-based restaurant.
Shani remembers when he first met El Khatib, after an introduction by a local food supplier.
"I opened the door and I saw Haitham," said Shani, "I saw this tall strong guy looking at me with a giant smile."
"For me, it was a very strong moment because I'd never met a Palestinian person that smiled at me."
Their many shared interests, including young children of the same age and their passion for food, helped to solidify their friendship.
That friendship was also the foundation for a free, weekly lunch event called A Taste of Coexistence at the University of British Columbia. It was designed to celebrate what Palestinians and Israelis have in common with a tagline that reads:
No matter where we're from, we are all Hummusapiens.- A Taste of Coexistence tagline
The inaugural event in January attracted 80 people and it has since grown to over 150. The series runs until the end of the university semester.
El Khatib admits that the divisive rhetoric he became so accustomed to still sometimes lingers and gave him pause in the lead-up to the launch.
"There was a time, in the planning of these events, where that rhetoric of: 'You don't know who they are and you can't trust them,' came up for me. There's ancestral trauma," said El Khatib. "But, at that moment, I reached out to Itamar and [his wife] Jordana and I remember she told me: 'Take the path least taken and take the path of love.'"
Shani is glad he did and the two men are hopeful they can help others from different cultures and backgrounds to build bridges — just like he and El Khatib have.
"A small scale of success is our families. My son and his daughter, they're the face of coexistence," said Shani. "They're going to grow up and they're going to say: 'My father is Palestinian,' 'My father is Israeli', 'We love each other; we don't see the difference.'"