Alumni, History

Alumna Profile: Jennifer Shutek, History

November 25, 2014
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When you look at Jennifer Shutek’s contributions to The Peak during her undergraduate career, the SFU History Alumna’s writing is clearly critically engaged—whether she was writing a thoughtful review of a local restaurant or an informed commentary on the Islamic tradition of wearing a burqa.  Shutek graduated in June 2013 and is now entering the second year of a Masters of Philosophy in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford University, St. Antony’s College.  She’s spent two summers in Morocco studying modern standard Arabic and just this past summer she spent six weeks in Israel continuing her study of Arabic while conducting research for her thesis on the complicated significance of food, cooking and cookbooks for Palestinian and Israeli cultural identity. 

Shutek says her interest in studying the Middle East was largely shaped by her upper-level coursework in History at SFU.  In particular, she recalls taking History 249, Classical Islamic Civilization, with Dr. Derryl Maclean as being a “game changer” for her academic life: “I realized on a very profound level how little I knew about a massive aspect of History and the modern world (Islam and Muslim societies) and the ingrained assumptions I had accumulated about this topic without even realizing it.”  The experience compelled Shutek to take a variety of courses in Middle Eastern, North African, and Islamic history, but the focus on Palestine/Israel in her current research came with an intensive a seminar on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict with Dr. Paul Sedra.

The paper Shutek wrote for that course, entitled “Romanticizing the Land: Agriculturally Imagined Communities in Palestine-Israel,” focused on how depictions of agriculture are central to building national identities and supporting claims to land in both the 2008 film Lemon Tree and in historical propaganda posters by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The project was one she subsequently presented at several conferences and submitted as part of graduate school applications.

Fig salad from the restaurant Majda in the village of Ein Rafa

At Oxford, Shutek’s research for her thesis further engages the cultural politics of food in Palestine/Israel.  As primary documents, she’ll be looking at three cookbooks produced by Palestinians and/or Israelis engaging with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict:  Sami Tamimi and Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem (2012), the Parents Circle-Families Forum cookbook  Jam Sessions (2014), and Laila El-Haddad’s The Gaza Kitchen (2013). While these texts are contemporary, she explains that her research into the region’s food history goes back to the late 19th century.   Her supervisor is historian, Dr. Sara Hirschhorn whose specialization includes the history and politics of modern Israel.

Looking at cookbooks as historical documents is a rather emergent field in history. Shutek says theoretical work on Middle Eastern cookbooks in particular is not as available as European or North American cookbooks. Borrowing from a number of areas to build her theoretical framework, there are a range of books that will inform her project, including: Raey Tannahill's Food in History (1973), Amy Singer's Constructing Ottoman Beneficence (2002), Arjun Appadurai’s scholarship on cookbooks in India, and Lynne Ireland's work on cookbooks and autobiography. Shutek says there are many works to take cues from, but one that directly addresses Arabic cooking is A Taste of Thyme: Culinary Cultures of the Middle East by Richard Tapper and Sami Zubaid.

Graffiti of Handala on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem

One ingredient that is characteristic of Middle Eastern cooking and that has special cultural and political importance is olives, olive oil and olive production. Shutek’s article for the independent news site Muftah.org,  “A Land of Vines & Olive Oil: Agricultural Volunteer Tourism in Israel-Palestine”   discusses the recent history and significance of olive production in Israel/Palestine.  In an interview about her thesis research, she explains that this important food is difficult to track because the “periodization of Palestinian-Israeli history almost always follows the chronology of wars and failed peace negotiations.”  In particular, she says, such events as the 1936-39 Arab revolt during the British Mandate, the 1948 Palestinian war, and the 1967 war greatly impacted olive production and harvesting. Shutek notes that the war in ’67 holds particular significance as it resulted in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and—by extension—gave Israel control of the olive harvest in that region. 

This history has an international impact, she explains: “the formation of the Olive Tree Campaign (2002) was, in my opinion, crucial for drawing international attention to the issues faced by Palestinian farmers in the West Bank who are trying to tend to their crops and carry out the olive harvest in the autumn.” What is crucial about this, she emphasizes, is that “these claims are made based upon historical precedent and upon cultivation. So a Palestinian farmer cultivating olive groves isn’t just producing food for his family (which, of course, is very important in and of itself), nor is he just producing goods to be sold on regional and international markets. He is also symbolically demonstrating his stewardship of the land.”

Perhaps it is the nature of the research itself, but Shutek says she’s become “more politicized” since her time at SFU.  Working with politically engaged scholars at Oxford has been part of that politicization.  Shutek explains that she’s been able to be in proximity to Dr. Avi Shlaim, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at University of Oxford, and pioneer in the New Historian approach to Israeli history.  Dr. Shlaim, she says, is an excellent example of an academic who is not only “well-versed in the political, military, and cultural history of Palestine/Israel” but also an intellectual who “involves himself to a great degree in public outreach.”  Shlaim, Professor Emeritus at Oxford, lived in Israel and served in the Israel Defense Forces before 1967 and frequently gives free public lectures.  Shutek explains that she’s also had the opportunity to work with scholars Dr. Eugene L. Rogan, whose work focuses on 20th century Palestinian history, and Dr. Stephanie Cronin, whose specializations are Subaltern Studies and Iranian history.

Al Jazzar Mosque in Acre

In her travels to Jerusalem over the summer—while the Israeli army proceeded with air strikes on Gaza—Shutek says she witnessed a “shocking” amount of “hatred and xenophobia” among certain groups there. It is impossible not to become politicized when working on a topic involving such a longstanding political conflict.  Shutek says it is “not only a crucial historical conflict, but it is one that continues to impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. It is an emotive issue that, unfortunately, often involves inflamed rhetoric without much nuance.”

Shutek’s work on food and food production is motivated by adding nuance and, she says, maybe seeing food as one way to “facilitate dialogue” between those affected by the conflict.  Her work on the cookbook Jam Sessions particularly demonstrates this possibility: “Here, you have bereaved Palestinians and Israelis cooperating and collaborating on a collection of recipes, which reminds us that all people, regardless of their faith traditions or identities, have memories and aspects of their culture related to the production, preparation, and consumption of food.” Admittedly, she says, there is no way food alone can “magically solve the complex issues of the Palestinian right of return, borders, or settlements,” but perhaps  it can  “facilitate dialogue between those people who are most deeply impacted by the conflict on a daily, grassroots level, which I think is a small ray of hope in this seemingly intractable situation.”

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