Mfattqa: Toil and Trouble

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Mfattqa being prepared at Makari and Hashem in Basta al-Tahta, Beirut, 2017. Image courtesy the author.


A witches’ house, a boiling cauldron set in the middle 

Round about the cauldron go:
In the poison'd entrails throw . . .
Sweltered venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first in the charmed pot.

          Double, double toil and trouble.
          Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble . . .
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good . . .
O well done! I commend your pains:
And everyone shall share i' the gains.
And now about the cauldron sing.
Like elves and fairies in the ring,
Enchanting all that you put in.

—William Shakespeare, Macbeth.[1]



Her name was Shafiqa (pronounced Shafi’a in Beiruti Arabic) and she was one of the three witches in Macbeth. At the end of the play, she flew her magic broom to Beirut, where she disguised herself as my dad’s maternal aunt, so we called her khalteh, “Auntie” Shafiqa.


Shafiqa loved to come for sleepovers at our house, across from the Sanayeh Garden in Beirut. She always described how her nephew—my dad—would spoil and pamper her. And she would spoil and pamper him back. “Shafiqa, make us khabissa,[2]” “Shafiqa, make us mbahtra,[3]” “Shafiqa make us mfattqa.” These dishes my father craved as he craved the maternal.


But the dishes that Shafiqa made also came from her book of witchcraft, and the words she uttered, like wa’eh (“oh you” or “hey you,” a vocative particle with which old Beirutis began each sentence), were incantations that tied her to a world she had never left behind.


Shafiqa’s visits brought us to her world. They opened a portal into a past with strange ingredients and words that ripped (fattaqat) the veil off of our family unit by confronting it with its ghosts, accents, demons, and cravings (tiftiq).


Of all the dishes that rushed through Shafiqa’s portal, mfattqa (the ripped one, the craved one) was definitely my favorite.

The Patience of Job

Mfattqa (or mufattaqa in Standard Arabic, pronounced mfatt’a in Beiruti, with a heavy “t” sound, dropping the “q” and replacing it with a glottal hamza) is a typical Beiruti dessert that takes hours to prepare and is made with rice, sugar, turmeric, tahini, and pine nuts. After soaking the rice, you strain it and add it to boiling water, mixing in the turmeric, constantly stirring until the water evaporates. Then you add the tahini, the sugar, and the pine nuts, stirring until the very end.[4]


Mfattqa was consumed on special occasions like Arba‘t Ayyoub (Wednesday of Job). Every last Wednesday of April, Beirutis would flock to the seacoast at Ramlet al-Baida to picnic, bathe, and eat mfattqa. This spring ritual commemorates the story of the prophet Job, whom, according to local legend, had washed in the sea at Ramlet al-Baida to purify himself and alleviate the hardships with which God had stricken him to test his faith and patience. It is said that Job washed seven times under seven waves in the sea of Ramlet al-Baida, a number and a ritual thought to give Beirut its identity, its seven families and seven gates.[5] Beirut, it would seem, was a city dedicated to the memory of Job’s pain and salvation.


When the Muslim residents of the city used to stage the celebration of Four Ayyoub on the last Wednesday of April, they would go out from the neighborhoods to the beach in Ramlet al-Baida and Shawran “in the company of horses and tambours, and they would clap, sing, and wail,” in a way befitting a spring celebration . . . As evening came they would wash, and then call out in remembrance of the healing of Job, the Quranic and Hebraic prophet of patience, who was cured from leprosy after bathing.[6]


Ramlet al-Baida is the only sandy beach on the otherwise rocky seacoast of Beirut. It’s also the last public beach situated on the southern tip of the city that today is under threat from developers. This strip of coast was a holy site for Beirutis—a place of communion and community centered on bathing and eating mfattqa. Washing in the sea on that day reenacted the biblical narrative that is shared by the people of the eastern Mediterranean coast stretching from al-Arish in Egypt to Latakia in Syria. This spring ritual enabled these people—of the Book—to assert their identity and common lineage through a painful pact with God and his ever-faithful and ever-patient servant—Job. Commemorating Job’s endurance was a way to shed the toil and pain of the past, and to gather enough strength to endure what the future would bring.


Bathing and eating mfattqa at Ramlet al-Baida as a reenactment of Job’s trials and salvation are integral to the making of the dish itself. Mfattqa involves hours of stirring and fingers burned by the fires of hell and memory, which rise up from the bottom of the charmed pot.



Beirutis heading to Ramlet al-Baida beach to celebrate Wednesday of Job, 1919.


The story of mfattqa thus involves a divine dialectics of pain and pleasure that could be traced back to the bible, to the suffering and healing of Job on the Beirut coast, and to the world that Shafiqa stirred up in her cauldron every time she came for a visit.


Emerging from the root f-t-q (ripping),[7] the word mfattqa comes from the register of fabrics and tailoring but also of medicine. The root f-t-q has given us the word ftaq, which means “hernia,” also denoting a ripping at the seam of the body, within its membranes. Given its history and etymology, there is no other dish like mfattqa that captures the pain of the body, of the people of the coast, and of cooks tempting its boiling cauldron.


Though it came from Shafiqa’s book of magic, mfattqa also enacted a communion in the household itself. Mfattqa is the outcome of ritual, pain, and constant stirring so that the dish doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. Undoing Norbert Elias’s theory about the advent of modernity, which involved the veiling of food preparation,[8] the making of mfattqa, at least in our house, brought the entire family to the kitchen as eager volunteers and accomplices in the making of the magic potion. Shafiqa was the priestess overseeing this sadomasochistic ritual that stirred up a collective memory of toil and labor, momentarily relieved or suppressed by mfattqa’s sweet taste.


The making of mfattqa is a time-consuming activity that not only requires endless stirring but also depends on a chemical reaction, namely the coagulation of the sesame oil contained in the tahini. When the dish is nearly finished, the painful process of fatq (ripping) opens up the pathways through the now solid mfattqa for the oil to make its way to the top. This process of coagulation is called fatq al-sarij (ripping at the seam), signaling the readiness of the dish, which is then transferred to plates to cool and be eaten.


Predicated on a coagulation wherein the ingredients part ways as a condition of the dish’s readiness and oneness, mfattqa thus bears within its name—its making and its history—the fatq, the rip, the internal rupture that brings together the different elements yet marks their separation at the end. Mfattqa reenacts the story of Job and his people, the story of their scattering into different yet connected sects and communities across the coast. Those who craved mfattqa had to suffer in order to heal like Job, break apart and then come together every spring to celebrate their connection and mourn their separation.

'Tis Divine!

The sesame oil that appears at the surface when mfattqa is done makes the person stirring at that moment announce its “apparition,” calling everyone to the kitchen to confirm, if not witness, the dish’s completion and rejoice that the toil has passed. The one stirring calls the others to recognize the divine sign or to witness a new moon, announcing the beginning of a holy month. Stirring and observing the dish on the stove involves not only a delicate handling of a chemical process through the mastery of fire (low heat, medium heat), but also the recognition of a sign that comes from the ingredients of the dish—and from somewhere else. Stirring and then witnessing the moment of “ripping at the seam” (fatq al-sarij) make mfattqa what it is and anchors its significance in a collective and personal memory. Fatq al-sarij is thus a sign, a divine message not in the sky but rather bubbling up from the belly of the monstrous pot, announcing a new birth, a new temporality, the opening of a portal into a world of legends and myths, witches and prophets, and childhood memories.


Making mfattqa to celebrate a religious holiday in Beirut—Wednesday of Job—did not become a tradition simply because it was a common dessert that could be easily transported to a picnic site by the beach. The divine is manifested in the dish itself, announcing its completion, its readiness to be consumed by the members of the community like the eating of the father in Freud’s Totem and Taboo, and the consuming of the body and blood of Christ through transubstantiation. The divine in these cases is embodied in the meal, in the dish, and in its painstaking labor.


Seeing the ripping is like witnessing a miracle or a foreshadowing wherein Virgin and child shed oil and blood tears. Fatq al-sarij is thus the manifestation of the divine through pain and labor, casting a spell or announcing salvation.


Mfattqa bears within itself a rupture, a rip, a déchirure that is constitutive of the community yet haunts and mines the community by denying it the unison of its elements. The witness to the ripping is also a witness to an impending doom, the separation of the family members and the breaking of the family as a unit, as a body.


Witnessing fatq al-sarij heralds another ripping that makes the individual grow old, leave, come out, go to another house, leave for another country, start a new family, but always craving the experience of pain and pleasure of and through mfattqa.


Mfattqa is thus a dish, a sadomasochistic ritual, a miracle, an apparition, and a reflection on what makes a community a community. It’s an interrogation of the bonds that connect family members to one another, and that connect atoms and molecules breaking down under intense heat only to reunite after cooling down on plates wherein the oil turns into a hallowed crown.


Mfattqa bears within itself its own miracles and contradictions, its own multiplicities and singularities. It’s about the human and the divine, people and food, parents and children, Beirutis and their city, and their love-hate relationships.


Mfattqa served to friends at the author's home, 2017. Image courtesy the author.


A Painful Birth

The appearance of the oil on top that announces the readiness of the dish is like a “crowning,” or the witnessing of the head of a fetus when it first appears. In Lisan al-‘Arab, the fourteenth-century Arab lexicographer Ibn Manzur associates fatq with shaqq (opening). The bubbling up of the oil to the surface thus involves a ripping and a casting away, an unveiling and a clearing out, a jouissance and a birthing of the mfattqa as a finished dish.


This clearing and ripping as fatq and shaqq gives us the word shaqiq/shaqiqa—siblings emerging from the same shaqq that rips and opens in the act of birthing. In this sense, fatq is a ripping of membranes that produces the separation of mother and child, which gives the child life and gives the child to life.


Fatq is also tied to a condition of the reunion of the children (ashiqqa’), the trauma of birth that ties them together and to the mother, that determines their shaqaqa (brotherhood/sisterhood) through an experience of shaqa’ (toil, labor) emerging at the beginning, through the fatq and shaqq, a traumatic experience of being born.[9]


Mfattqa captures the pain and the miracle of birth also given its pattern (wazn mufa‘‘ala), designating an act of activation whose subject is unknown (majhul), where the father is unknown, likening the birthing to the divine, rahm (uterus) to rahim (misericordious, merciful).


Mfattqa is the labor of food preparation and giving birth, and the painful experience that ties the mother to her children, and the children to one another as survivors of the shaqa’ (pain, toil) of being born—of having ripped through the same passageways—and of having to stir and burn their fingers every time Shafiqa came for a visit.


Clearing and ripping through a process of shaqq ends with life. This fatq and shaqq are at the origin of the divine as birthing, an unknown and inexplicable mystery that has to be witnessed in order to be believed, in order to be complete, to be done. It is also the shaqa’ of the Magi crossing long distances, bearing gifts for the miraculous child whose mother continues to weep and bleed for him and for all who believe in his miraculous birth.


Mfattqa is thus a birth, the outcome of pain and labor involved in stirring, and a giver of nutrients and life. It is the experience of shaqa’ (toil) that Job went through to be blessed by God, and to be born again in the sea of Beirut off Ramlet al-Baida.

Confronting the Past

The stirring of the mfattqa pot with a long spoon conjures up the witches stirring their cauldron in Macbeth. The gathering over the cauldron is a mystical act, a dance, a throwing of spells that bring back a world that no longer exists, that could only be stirred up when Shafiqa—the witch, the aunt, and now the midwife—came to visit.


Shafiqa came to stir and make us stir the cauldron of mfattqa, initiating the family into a lost culinary art, an ancient spell, a communal bond, and a painful memory that could only be staged in tragic plays.


Shafiqa came to visit her nephew to reenact the trauma of his birth, he who was born from a dead father, and he who turned out to be a gynecologist, expert in shaqq batn (cesarean).


When my dad asked for mfattqa, when he was ‘am yitfattaq (having cravings for it), it was precisely this impossible scene of his birth and of his relation to his ashiqqa’ (his two older brothers) that came from another world, another dimension, from the bible and from tragedy, that Shafiqa reproduced as a stage—as in theater—of his trauma, now ours. The stage moved to the kitchen.


Shafiqa came to make us all stir the cauldron, to toil and labor and witness the miraculous scene of the fatherless child, to bear witness to the original trauma, to believe in miracles, in magic.


The act of fatq and tiftiq, the ripping at the seam in and the act of craving for mfattqa is this activation of the traumatic. This return to the site of the traumatic—to the coast of Ramlet al-Baida to rehearse Job’s toil and witness his deliverance—can only be mediated by a witch, a medium and a priestess who transferentially stands for the mother. She knows the secret language of the past and can stage the ritual that makes it reveal its painful truth. 


Making and eating mfattqa is the experiencing of pain as a condition of belonging to a family and a community. Mfattqa puts us face-to-face with our past and beliefs, folklore and love for the sea, Ramlet al-Baida and Job.


But Shafiqa has died and so did her cherished nephew, and almost no one makes mfattqa anymore; they buy it ready-made and served on plates from Makari and Hashem in the Basta al-Tahta neighborhood of Beirut.


The decline of mfattqa with the death of those craving it and willing to burn their fingers in the process of making it marks the decline of the community both in the household and on the coast.


We don’t make mfattqa anymore but we buy it from Basta and serve it at our parties as a link to a forgone past, a relic adorning our sufra—our dining tables, banquets, and spreads. We don’t swim in the sea either, claiming it’s polluted. But by refusing to perform the sadomasochistic ritual of Job we forfeit part of our identity, part of our city, and part of our coast. Our rituals have evolved and multiplied, and Ramlet al Baida is assailed by greedy developers taking advantage of our weakened bonds.


Shall we start making mfattqa again?


[1] William Shakespeare, Macbeth (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), act 4, scene 1, pp. 108–111.

[2] A Jell-O-like dessert containing walnuts.

[3] An omelet made with potatoes and other vegetables.

[4] This recipe is from Makari and Hashem, the oldest and most iconic mfattqa maker in the Basta al-Tahta neighborhood of Beirut. The photographs of mfattqa illustrating this essay were taken at Makari and Hashem.

[5] For more on this subject, see the work of the historian Hassan Hallaq. The seven gates refer to the gates of the city that existed in the nineteenth century, from Bab al-Dirka to Bab Abou Nasr. All of the gates have since disappeared, or they exist, in the case of Bab Idriss, as mere place names today. There is some debate among historians about the existence of an eighth gate, whether the vestige of an earlier entrance to a cemetery (Bab al-Kharija) or a later place name (Musalli) that came into use as the city grew. As for the seven families, they are the Sunni families of Beiruti notables whose names change depending on who you ask.

[6] Waddah Charara, “From the Walled Town of Eight Gates to the Architecture of the City,” http://portal9journal.org/articles.aspx?id=54.

[7] Ibn Manzur, Lisan al-‘Arab, ed. ‘Ali Shirri, 18 vols (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1988), vol. 11–12, pp. 122–124.

[8] Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations, translated by Edmund Jephcott and edited by Eric Dunning, Johan Goudsblom, and Stephen Mennell (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), 5.

[9] One could think of Otto Rank’s theory of birth as a defining traumatic experience for the subject. See Otto Rank, The Trauma of Birth (1924).


Tarek El-Ariss is associate professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas in Austin and associate editor of Journal of Arabic Literature. He is the author of Trials of Arab Modernity: Literary Affects and the New Political (Fordham UP, 2013), and editor of The Arab Renaissance: A Bilingual Anthology of the Nahda (Modern Language Association), which will appear in December 2017. His forthcoming book, The Leaking Subject: Arab Culture in the Digital Age, examines the way that cyber modes of confrontation, circulation, and exhibitionism shape contemporary cultural practices and critiques of power.