If Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas sat down together over a bowl of Fatéma Hal's couscous, the Middle East problem wouldn't get solved, but the two sides might understand each other better. "A dish exists to heal each one of our woes," writes Hal chef, restaurateur, cookbook author and feminist in her memoir, Fille des Frontières (Border Girl), published this year in France. Healing is the reason she cooks. In 2001, with the second intifadeh in full swing, Hal went to Israel to speak at a conference on "the cuisine of connections" and organized interfaith "couscous for peace" meals. "Regardless of religious or political disputes, people can communicate when they share a meal," she says.
A good deal of connecting happens nightly at Mansouria, Hal's 150-seat Paris restaurant. Since 1984, celebrities, artists and politicians have flocked to it for food that approaches the conceptual ideal of Moroccan cuisine. Dishes like pigeon pastilla a pie of pigeon, onion, eggs and almonds are the fruit of exhaustive research. Hal spent years crisscrossing Morocco, seeking recipes from hundreds of women and dada, a now almost vanished caste of female cooks. "What is important is to hear the stories that the dish, the produce, the techniques, have to tell us," she says.
Hal's own story begins in the cloistered world of Oujda, Morocco, where she was born in 1952. From an early age, she nurtured dreams of escape and thought they had come true when, at 17, she received an offer of marriage in France to a handsome man she hardly knew. Six years later, she was divorced, broke and a mother of three. Determined to support herself, she went back to school, studying Arab literature and ethnology. She also took up women's advocacy work, catching the attention of the Mitterrand Administration, which made her an adviser to the Minister for Women's Rights in 1982.
The restaurant Mansouria was a bid to unite in a single project Hal's feminism and love of food. Financed by the sale of prepaid meals to friends and associates, it employed only women and featured dishes like mourouzia based on a 12th century recipe and consisting of lamb simmered in honey and 27 spices that highlighted the historic role of women as chefs and consumers. "He who controlled the [early] spice routes controlled the world," says Hal. But if these spices were not "adopted, transformed and used in the homes" by women, then "there would have been no such economy." Other dishes revealed forgotten bonds between peoples. The Sephardic Jewish dafina stew, French cassoulet and North African chickpea hergma are related, Hal points out, being carried to different countries by Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.
In an age when top chefs are laboratory technicians, tantrum-prone divas or glorified brand managers, Hal's humanitarianism is welcome. "I like to think of myself as an ear that can hear when cuisine whispers," she says. "I think that's how I'd like to be remembered, as someone knew how to listen and help others to as well." Looks like the Middle East peace talks have just found the perfect caterer.