Posted by Guest on March 02, 2017 in Blog
By Raneem Alkhatib
The Middle East Institute’s Art and Culture Program held an event on March 1 titled, “Food for Humanity.” MEI coined the event as a conversation “about the political, emotional and symbolic significance of food for displaced and diaspora communities.” The panel included Laila El-Haddad, Michel Moushabeck, Hazami Sayed, and Honey Al Sayed as the moderator.
Food in the Arab world goes beyond just sustenance. It’s a vital characteristic of Arab culture and is heavily incorporated in traditional and even religious ceremonies and events. Preserving culinary traditions can be a form of resistance in times of loss and war. Arabs living abroad, especially, look to food as a way to get a taste of home. In many ways, food represents home to Arabs who have been displaced.
Honey Al Sayed, who has been displaced twice before, said that when asked what home meant to her, all she could think of was her mother’s Kusaa Mahshee, a traditional Arab dish consisting of stuffed zucchinis. When she asked her mom how she made it so delicious, her mom claimed it couldn't be taught because it was more than following a recipe. It was the nafas she put into it.
The direct translation of nafas, is breath in Arabic. It’s the love and patience you put into making the food, that makes it taste good. Arabs who cook for guests do more than prepare a simple meal, they’re putting their love and appreciation into the art of traditional food. And vice versa, they can channel their loss and frustration into food. It serves, in many ways, as a gateway back home. It also gives a sense of trust and comfort to those in a foreign country.
In the Arab culture, betrayal after breaking bread with someone is unforgivable. “There’s khubz and mileh [bread and salt] between us, now we’re like family” is an old Arab Proverb Honey shared with the audience. It illustrates the value of food in the Middle East, and what it means for Arabs to share a meal.
Laila El-Haddad, an award-winning author and public speaker, spoke of how food has connected her to her homeland, Palestine. “People think there’s this one uniform Palestinian experience and identity.” She spoke of her time in Palestine after writing her cookbook, The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey. “I came away thinking even in Gaza, it’s not homogeneous, not just in terms of food but experiences. It’s just not the same.” Haddad explained how every Palestinian village and city has their own specific traditions and ways of cooking. During the Occupation, Palestinians held onto their recipes to keep their historic villages alive.
“If they knew something about the Arab world- they knew the food,” Hazami Sayed talked of the little knowledge Americans have regarding Arabs. Sayed is the founder of Al-Bustan: Seeds of a Culture, a nonprofit that aims to educate communities on Arab culture specifically through arts and food. More recently, Sayed started using food as a way to connect Syrian and Iraqi refugees with their new communities. She talked of how it humanizes everyone, and makes it easier for communities to interact.
Michel Moushabeck, founder of Interlink Publishing, also agreed that food is a useful way to break down barriers. “It takes you on a journey. It triggers your taste buds, your mind, your memories. It breaks down barriers and builds bridges,” Moushabeck said, “I felt that if people in America started reading our literature, eating our food, and listening to our music they would be less likely to want to bomb us and they'd be less likely to support our occupation.” Upon moving to the U.S from Lebanon, Moushabeck was disappointed in how little Americans knew, and were willing to learn about Arabs. Since then, he started his own publishing company with now over 100 international cuisine cookbooks published. At one point of the event, when an audience member asked if it was possible to enjoy Arab food as a vegetarian, Michael laughed. He has been a vegetarian for over 20 years and has published multiple all vegetarian Arab cookbooks.
Vegetarian or not, Arab dishes are not only delicious, but aim to preserve Arab identity, tradition and a window to “home.”
All photos are courtesy of the Middle East Institute.
Raneem Alkhatib is a Spring 2017 Intern at the Arab American Institute.