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Imagine Otherwise: Lila Sharif on the Settler Colonial Politics of Food

Imagine Otherwise: Lila Sharif on the Settler Colonial Politics of Food

retro
May 31, 2017

Black and white photo of Lila Sharif wearing a dark shirt

 

What does the rising popularity of the olive mean for global consumers, producers, and resisters? How do our intimate connections with food build memories and notions of place?

In episode 39 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach and guest Lila Sharif discuss the role of food in both transnational settler colonialism and resistance to it, how Lila uses the classroom to get students thinking about their own food histories, the complex dynamics of ethical consumerism and where we get our food, and decolonization as an embodied, everyday form of imagining otherwise.

This episode of Imagine Otherwise is part of Signal Boosting, a podcast miniseries collaboration between the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, Ideas on Fire, and the Association for Asian American Studies. Each week during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we’re highlighting an emerging scholar who is building new audiences for the field of Asian American studies. The Signal Boosting miniseries aims to show how interdisciplinary scholars, activists, and artists are producing socially engaged work in multimedia forms, as well as inspire you to create your own.

Guest: Lila Sharif

Lila is an assistant professor in Asian American Studies and affiliated faculty with the Center for South Asian and Middle East Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign.

She teaches courses on race and food, transnational settler colonialism, and Palestinian history. Lila is currently writing a book that traces the transnational olive from the moment it is plucked by Palestinian farmers to its global circulation in urban spaces through companies like Dr. Bronner. In doing so, she elucidates the material, political, economic, and cultural landscapes that enable the simultaneity of violence and survival for Indigenous peoples in Palestine and beyond.

We chatted about

  • The symbolic and material significance of the olive for Palestinians (04:18)
  • Ethical consumerism as it impacts olives and other global food products (6:36)
  • How ethics and respect for her interviewees shaped Lila’s ethnographic research (10:45)
  • Food studies in the classroom (13:54)
  • Lila’s work in the context of the broader food studies field (17:00)
  • Imagining otherwise (19:36)

Takeaways

The olive is an optic to study settler colonialism

Olive Epistemologies is a book about 21st century settler colonialism. It specifically looks at displacement for local peoples, land struggles, food sites and memory, through a transnational feminist perspective.

The olive’s symbolic and material manifestations

The fruit itself has a symbolic and spiritual aspect to it, but it’s also a central staple in Palestinian cuisine and in the landscapes of the Middle East, especially the Mediterranean region.

The role of food in both consumerism and active resistance

Thinking about the olive not as an ahistorical commodity that can solely be read to understand the pleasures and the desires of the consumer, but one that can also be used to tell stories about the people who are actively resisting an occupation.

How respect for her interviewees shaped Lila’s research

It was really hard to ask people to relive that trauma [of talking about displacement], so my questions started to change to accommodate that. I think that this is when, as a researcher, you’re trained to do ethnography, and you want to do it well, but you also want to respect the people that you’re talking to and respect their histories and their stories.

Food as memory-making

People are still retaining an attachment to places through their memory, and it often happens through everyday practices like cooking and eating.

Imagining otherwise

I envision a world in which Indigenous memories and traditions are not isolated from larger histories of displacement and colonial violence. But also a world in which Indigenous home-making, life-making, spirit ways, and food ways are respected and cultivated, especially in the face of a pending disappearance.

More from Lila

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

About Signal Boosting

This episode and the Signal Boosting miniseries is a collaboration between Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency that works with progressive, interdisciplinary academics, the Association for Asian American Studies, the primary research and teaching hub for Asian American Studies as a dynamic, interdisciplinary field, and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, a migratory museum that brings Asian Pacific American history, art and culture to you through innovative museum experiences online and throughout the United States.

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Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:22] Welcome to Signal Boosting, a podcast miniseries collaboration between the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, Ideas on Fire, and the Association for Asian American Studies.

Each week during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we’re highlighting an emerging scholar who’s building new audiences for the field of Asian American studies. The Signal Boosting miniseries aims to show how interdisciplinary scholars, activists, and artists are producing socially-engaged work in multimedia forums, as well as inspire you to perhaps create your own.

In this final episode of the miniseries, I interview Lila Sharif. Lila is an assistant professor in Asian American Studies and affiliated faculty with the Center for South Asian and Middle East Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. She teaches courses on race and food, transnational settler colonialism, and Palestinian history.

Lila is currently writing a book that traces the transnational olive from the moment it is plucked by Palestinian farmers—one of the most vulnerable communities in the world—to its global circulation in urban spaces through companies like Dr. Bronner’s. In doing so, she elucidates the material, political, economic, and cultural landscapes that enable the simultaneity of violence and survival for indigenous peoples in Palestine and beyond.

In our interview, Lila and I talk about the role of food in both transnational settler colonialism and resistance to it, how she uses the classroom to get students thinking about their own food histories, the complex dynamics of ethical consumerism and where we get our food, and decolonization as an embodied, everyday form of imagining otherwise.

[To Lila] Thank you so much for being with us.

Lila Sharif [02:03]: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Cathy [02:05]: You’re working on a really fantastically interesting-sounding book called Olive Epistemologies. I’d love to hear a little bit about what that book covers.

Lila [02:16]: It is a book about twenty-first-century settler colonialism and it specifically looks at displacement and Native people’s land struggles, food sites, and memory through a transnational feminist perspective. I want to look at the politics of everyday survival, specifically for Palestinians who are located in the West Bank but also in California and Illinois.

I look at the Palestinian diaspora through the optic of the olive. I trace the olive from the moment that it is being harvested in the West Bank by Palestinian farmers to its circulation in California and Illinois.

Cathy [03:02]: What’s the Illinois connection? I’m just curious.

Lila [03:05]: Chicago has one of the largest Palestinian populations in the United States. It was really important for me to look up and find the Palestinian enclaves in the US. I was able to find them easily in San Francisco and in places like Anaheim, California. But I was also really interested in expanding beyond the west coast and thinking about Palestinians who live in the Midwest and specifically Chicago and how they make a relationship to a homeland and ties to Palestine by their cooking practices and by importing all of products from the West Bank.

Cathy [03:56]: So in these nodes of circulation that you’re looking at, these locations, how is the olive circulating? We’re talking about olive products—olive oil, perhaps abstracted products like soap or things like that. How exactly are these things circulating? 

Lila [04:13]: That’s an interesting question because with the olive, people immediately make the connection that it’s symbolically important, especially in a place like the Holy Land. There are therapeutical references to the olive tree. My respondents would often refer to the tree as meaning the holy tree. And this is true for both Palestinian Muslims and Palestinian Christians.

So the fruit itself has a symbolic and spiritual aspect to it, but it is also a central staple in Palestinian cuisine and in the landscapes of the Middle East, especially the Mediterranean region that is Palestine. So for example, in the foods of Palestinian cuisine, olive oil is always an essential ingredient. It is something that people eat for breakfast with a side of crushed thyme called za’atar, which is seasoned with sesame and different kinds of herbs. And it’s something that circulates through those kinds of cuisine and cooking practices that circulate to the United States and other parts of the world because most Palestinians live and die outside of historic Palestine. It’s a largely refugee and diasporic population

[05:33] Secondly, because olive oil has become a way that Palestinians are drawn to connect back to homeland, through food but also through medicine too. So things like heating up a little bit of olive oil, putting a Q-tip in it and putting that inside one’s ear or warm oil on a person’s stomach, like a child’s stomach, if they have a sour stomach. So these kinds of practices are ones that Palestinian people in the diaspora carry with them naturally.

[06:24] But there are also other ways that it appears. A lot of what my research is about is how different companies are also taking advantage of this crop being so lucrative. [There is a discussion of] good fats, right? And this trend of thinking holistically about food.

One example that I think about is Dr. Bronner’s or Lush cosmetics. Lush cosmetics produces different kinds of creams, soaps, shampoos, and moisturizers. Everything is vegetarian or vegan. It has 600,000 stores in 43 countries, including the North American division. So it’s very widespread and the fair-trade olive oil ingredients in their products come from a woman-led cooperative in the Galilee, which is in the northern region of 1948 occupied Palestine—what is now Israel. It [Lush] collects this olive oil from this co-op that has Palestinian and Israeli women working together to develop this fine-grained olive oil that they can sell back to places like this UK-based company.

[07:35] Dr. Bronner’s is another example. They’re located in San Diego, California. That’s where their headquarters are. They’re a Jewish company, a Jewish family that was a Holocaust-surviving family. They wanted to do something to show that they are people who identify as Jewish and are supporters of Palestinian independence. One way that they do that is in their magic soaps: about 90 percent of the oils in their magic soaps actually comes from Palestinian producers through the Palestinian Fair Trade Association. So it’s in terms of businesses, but also ethical consumerism has created this trend and wanting to bring Palestinian products to the US.

Cathy [08:22]: It seems like the olive is such a powerful, as you put it, optic to get at these really complex and much broader geopolitical, ethical, social stories.

Lila [08:35]: That’s exactly right. So as I’ve mentioned to you before, the olive is not just symbolically important, but it’s materially central to the Palestinian economy. And one of the ways that the settler colonial occupation has happened, it’s been especially well documented since the early 2000s, was the systematic decimation of Palestinian olive groves as part of a settler colonial project.

So I’m thinking about the olive as a historical commodity that can be read to understand the pleasures and the desires of the consumer, but can also be used to tell stories about the people who are actively resisting occupation and have done so by collecting their recipes and their memories around the olive tree as a one that sustains their history. So it’s a very political and contextualized study of the olive from this particular context.

So this is something I’m trying to trace, but also to understand what are the checkpoints. When we think about Palestine, we think about checkpoints. We think about watchtower, we think about an apartheid wall. What are the different checkpoints at the olive has to cross in order to come to the US and to participate, to be a part of this commodity culture? And what’s muted in that process are things that I’m really wanting to look to look at in this book project.

Cathy [10:14]: Food seems like such a powerful tool to get at some of these questions and your work intersects with issues of food justice—food as culture, food as nation building, food as community or diaspora building. And I’m curious how you came to this. How did your own food practices or food history shape the way that you enter this research or even in the classroom when you teach it?

Lila [10:41]: You know, it was not an immediate project. I didn’t go on these trips to Palestine and look at the olive tree and realize that’s exactly what I was looking for. Initially, the project was about refugee remembrance and how refugees can connect to homeland through different practices.

But a lot of times when I would interview [people], when I was collecting my initial interview data set, I was talking to different people that were displaced but have memories of being located in Palestine and being born and raised there and having a life there. I would ask them questions about 1948 and I was met with a lot of resistance. I mean, there were a lot of people that felt like it was really difficult to relive those memories. I don’t blame them.

[11:40] I had one respondent once tell me a story. He was in his late 60s and he was telling me a story about being in prison, in an Israeli prison, and his mother coming to visit him. He was really young and she had to come visit him and they were able only to communicate through an iron door. As he was relaying this story to me, he became very emotional and it kind of foreclosed the opportunity for me to ask him more questions. I felt that it would be unethical, to be honest with you. I thought that it was really hard to ask people to relive that trauma. So my questions started to change to accommodate that. I think this is when, as a researcher, you’re trained to do ethnography and you want to do it well, but you also want to respect the people that you’re talking to and respect their histories and their stories.

[12:35] And so my questions started to change to things like, “Where did you learn this recipe?” A lot of the times, it was much more of an invitation to speak rather than an uncomfortable conversation. So people would say things like “I recall learning this recipe from my grandmother who came from a village that no longer exists” and that kind of thing to me. People are still retaining an attachment to places through their memory. And it often happens through everyday practices like cooking and eating. It became a bit more of the kind of project that I think I wanted to do, which is to really trace the intimate spaces that make Palestinian memory and learning that are happening at the site of the hearth. It became the way that I was able to continue doing this project.

Cathy [13:31]: What is it like to teach about this? Do you have particular assignments or approaches that you use to get your students remembering some of these stories and their own food cultures and food memories?

Lila [13:45]: Absolutely. So in my first semester here at University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, I taught a course on food and race. Students were asked to look at local eateries and understand sort of the histories through which they emerged in their campus town. And those were the places that they frequented in their final projects. They were pushed to do a little bit more original work and research.

One project, for example, looked at the way that hummus has come to replace peanut butter as the stellar protein for people who are really health conscious. But positioning that within the debate of is hummus Palestinian or is hummus Israeli and learning about the different claims to these food sites. So this particular person produced a paper about what it means to think about hummus today as being an Israeli food, as an object of food appropriation, but also the different social movements that have come around it, such as boycott, divestment, and sanctions and others that have been about trying to promote Palestinian hummus.

Students had to connect to a food site of their choice. And then they had to look at the political and cultural and social history of that product or commodity. S lot of people were interested in doing it about Palestine because of the BDS campaign that has become so popularized, especially with campus activism.

Others were interested in talking about the history of things like chop suey and how that came about in a particular historical moment when Chinese exclusion from mainstream jobs created the site of the ethnic enclave, which then gave birth to the Chinatown. This informed the way that we experience Chinese food. So it’s a critical lens from which we look at food and we contextualize it within these broader social, cultural, historical, and political contexts.

They had a lot of fun with that project and they produced a final presentation. It was really great for students to learn from each other about their own community, where they go to school, and where their food comes from, for example. So it proved to be a really great experience and a really rewarding one for me too, as their professor.

Cathy [16:41]: How you see your work in the classroom, in your research, and in various other of your creative endeavors combining activism, art, and academia?

Lila [16:55]: Well, I think that there are two major things that I’d like to do with this project. I think one of the most important things is to look at food as political. So I’m looking at the olive as a cultural, environmental, and political site for looking at Indigenous history, for looking at gendered memories, and different kinds of colonial violence. I’m also moving away from the [inaudible] studies that tend towards discourses of excess or deficiency. So it’s all about who has access and then who is deficient. We can think about this in relation to a lot of the food desert literature for example. But then there’s also another trend that tends to look at Indigenous food as something that’s authentic and everything else is just a sham.

[17:58] But I want to look at how that gets complicated because of these different layers of colonialism that happened through space and time. So in a way I want to rethink food as an important actor and as a medium that is involved in transnational circuits of militarization, but also local policies like in the Gaza Strip, for example. In terms of resistance efforts, as I’ve mentioned, Palestinian women retain the memory of particular cuisine and recipes as a way to not forget their connection to a place that may not be located on a map. It’s one that still gets carried over, gets transmitted to other generations as an important place.

Cathy [18:50]: This brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask people, which really gets at the heart of what this podcast is all about. Obviously the name of this is Imagine Otherwise and I feel very privileged to be able to talk to so many amazing creators and artists and scholars and activists who are doing just that in their work. They’re creating a different world. They’re collectively and supportively and fantastically creatively making some different world. So I’ll ask you, what kind of world are you working towards when you get in front of a classroom? When you create your research, when you create the projects that you do? What kind of world do you want?

Lila [19:32]: That’s a really great question and I can’t wait to hear what others have said. When I think about a world that I’d like to imagine, I think that there is an intellectual need to understand settler colonialism as it relates to food, environment, and culture so that we can really start to think about what decolonization means. We know that settler colonialism is not an event but a process. I want to sort of take this opportunity through this project to really think about this process and how it connects to people’s daily lives.

Taking decolonization seriously, I hope I envision a world in which Indigenous memories and traditions are not isolated from larger histories of displacement and colonial violence. I also want a world in which Indigenous homemaking and life making and spiritways and foodways are respected and cultivated, especially in the face of a pending disappearance, which is always the case in the context like Palestine.

Cathy [20:46]: Well, thank you so for being with us and sharing your vision of imagining otherwise.

Lila: Thank you so much, Cathy. It was a pleasure.

Cathy [20:57]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for joining us for this episode of Signal Boosting. You can view the show notes for this episode created by Priyanka Kaura on the Ideas on Fire website at ideasonfire.net, as well as find links to the people, projects and resources we discussed.

The Signal Boosting miniseries is a collaboration between the Association for Asian American Studies, the primary research and teaching hub for Asian American studies as a dynamic interdisciplinary field; Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency that works with progressive interdisciplinary academics; and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, a migratory museum that brings Asian Pacific American history, art and culture to you through innovative museum experiences online and throughout the United States.


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