When they first began arriving in the country in 2005, Sudan’s war-weary Darfuri refugees posed a serious problem for Israeli immigration authorities. With no real historical or cultural connection to the Jewish state, these animist Africans added yet another layer to Israel’s complex – and controversial – illegal immigration problem.
But unlike the hundreds of thousands of Asians, Eastern European and other African illegals whose fate remains uncertain, the Darfuris were different. Fleeing Sudan’s government-backed janjaweed marauders, their plight evoked Israel’s own tenuous history with ethnic cleansing and regional conflict. So with public sentiment behind him, Israel’s interior minister Meir Shetrit granted citizenship to several hundred Darfuri asylum-seekers in 2007 – much as then prime minister Menachem Begin did for scores of Vietnamese boat people back in 1977.
Almost four years later, possibly thousands of other Sudanese refugees remain in Israel – illegally. But for those Shetrit made citizens, a certain sense of “Israeliness” is beginning to emerge – perhaps nowhere more so than at Hummus Gan Eden (Paradise Hummus) in downtown Tel Aviv.
Opened by 33 year-old Darfuri Moohi Muhamed, Hummus Gan Eden is not just one of the first formal businesses launched by the refugees, it’s a symbolic stab at Israel’s cultural and culinary core. “Hummus is the heart of the nation, so to be part of Israel’s hummus world is to become an honorary Israeli,” explains Eytan Schwartz, former spokesman of the Committee for the Advancement of Refugees from Darfur (Card). “The Darfuri situation crystallised what it means for Israel to be both a Jewish and democratic society,” Schwartz adds.
“Israel knew it could not allow in everyone if the country is to remain Jewish, but as Jews we have a responsibility not to allow ethnic persecution on our watch.”
For Muhamed – who owns the 20-table restaurant with a pair of fellow Darfuris – launching Hummus Gan Eden was a far more practical than prosaic endeavour. He ran several restaurants back in Sudan, and later toiled in the kitchen at a popular hummusia in Tel Aviv.
What’s more, Sudan has its own hummus tradition, often serving it spiked with sugar as a dessert. “We’re quite used to hummus, it’s eaten after the fast during Ramadan,” says Muhamed, who arrived in Israel after an arduous journey involving trains, automobiles and ultimately Bedouin “handlers”. “I’m just happy to have my business – to finally have my own restaurant.”
Locals appear happy as well with Hummus Gan Eden’s arrival. Omer Laor, a 25 year-old PR agent was a vocal fan of Muhamed’s hummus at his former restaurant. “Now at their new spot, the hummus is even better,” he says.
A groovy new neighbourhood café has also opened alongside Hummus Gan Eden, helping to turn this city centre corner into an ascendant hipster hangout. And, most crucially, Hummus Gan Eden’s location close to the beach fills a gap in a culinary marketplace full of tired tourist traps begging for decent places to eat. “Hummus Gan Eden is both good and good for you,” says Laor. “We always visit on the way back from the beach; already half the crowd is made up of foreigners.”