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Trader Joe’s and the Dirty Word: Arab

posted on: May 11, 2022

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By: Menal Elmaliki / Arab America Contributing Writer

In post 9/11 America, the word Arab carries a negative connotation. Over the course of two decades, the representation of Arabs has been and continues to be abhorrent.

The public has been bombarded with images of war throughout the Middle East. The constant association of Arabs with terrorism, figures like Bin Laden, and 9/11 in the mass media have indoctrinated the public and increased anti-Arab sentiment. The word Arab has become a dirty word. 

In this new age of modernity, companies have diversified their products to reflect the status quo. Customer favorite Trader Joe’s takes center stage in representing the marginalized, they have even come out with new lines of ethnic foods.

Nobody can refute the popularity of Trader Joe’s, every now and then, this unconventional grocery chain surprises its customers with new products, keeping them on the edge of their seats. Amongst it all, there is also controversy. 

Despite their attempts at representing and diversifying, Trader Joe’s made headlines when they came out with product names like Jose Joe and Trader Ming’s.

Trader Joe’s has even upset many of its Arab consumers, it seems they can’t say the “dirty” word Arab, preferring to use words like the Middle East or Middle Eastern.

When news hit that Trader Joe’s was coming out with Kibbeh, it had everyone excited. Everyone’s favorite quirky and unique grocery store was bringing Arab cultural awareness to all its customers. How else can you bring people together, but by food?

It was great until the box read, “Middle eastern inspired.” Besides the exoticization of other cultures, one can’t help but wonder why Trader Joe’s shies away from using the word Arab or Arab cuisine. Kibbeh is not ‘inspired’ but IT IS a Middle Eastern or Arab dish and a popular one too.  It would appear that simply acknowledging the presence of Arabness is too much for quirky Joe to handle.

Kibbeh, كبة, is translated to ball or dome, and it is essentially meat and bulgar mixed together, coated in toasted pine nuts and spices, and then fried. 

On their website, Trader Joe’s refers to other Middle Eastern foods as inspired,  “Either way, Trader Joe’s Kibbeh are a natural match with any of our Middle Eastern-inspired meze condiments, such as Zhoug Sauce, Herbed Tahini Sauce, or Tzatziki Creamy Garlic Cucumber Dip.” (Description on their website).

Another prime example is Trader Joe’s underrepresenting Arabs is the Middle Eastern “inspired” Zhoug Sauce.

Zhoug is the Hebrew name of sahawiq (سَحاوِق). Sahawiq is a Yemeni spicy salsa or sauce that’s an essential part of Yemeni cuisine. It is made to give an extra kick to rice, chicken, lamb, salta, aseeda, etc. It’s Yemeni and extremely popular with Yemenis and Yemenites (Yemeni Jews).

“The word Sahawiq comes from the Arabic root (s-ḥ-q) which means to pestle or to crush.” It can either be red or green and it is made with tomatoes, garlic, cilantro, jalapeño, and spices. 

The main concern is a lack of representation and ownership in the packaging. On the zhoug package, it states, “with Yemeni roots,” rather it should be labeled as Yemeni sauce. The overarching theme is that companies are reluctant to properly represent Arabs, and stay clear from labeling anything Arab-related.

Why couldn’t they have said Yemeni sauce instead of “very spicy green herbal sauce with Yemeni roots”? Why not name it sahawiq instead of zhoug, or perhaps accommodate all voices by mentioning both names.  

Check out Arab America’s blog!