The millstones rumble when the wheat is ground (Notes on the Culinary)


Drawings by Ali Eyal.


In his epic history of Beirut from antiquity until the age of Solidere’s reconstruction, the late journalist Samir Kassir wrote that what made the city its own and kept it true to itself was its residents’ nearly unbroken capacity for syncretism and acculturation. This was nowhere more apparent than on a downtown restaurant table, at almost any time during the twentieth century, set for a marathon meal and heaving under the weight of too many small plates, offering a tourist-friendly variation of Turkish-Aleppan cuisine being passed off as legitimately Lebanese. “A rather plausible piece of exoticism,” Kassir explained, “that defenders of culinary authenticity did not really find offensive.”[1]

On one hand, the recipes, ingredients, and rituals of mezze linked virtually all of the territories of the former Ottoman Empire, from the Balkans through Istanbul down to Jaffa, and were themselves based on food traditions dating back to medieval, even Mesopotamian, times. The notion of a shared culinary heritage was totally real, and remains so to this day. On the other hand, as a business (the culture of sharing meals in restaurants, and paying for them, developed much earlier in Lebanon and Turkey than elsewhere in the region), this notion was put forth in such a ruthlessly mercantile way that, if there was money to be made, matters of taste, style, and flavor could be adapted easily enough. The cuisine was in one sense timeless, in another, ever-changing. If the reason was basically profit in times of great prosperity, then we might learn something both useful and unexpected by looking at the shifts and upheavals in eating habits that occur in periods of hardship, disaster, and violence. When the city’s talent for synthesis broke down, in Kassir’s account of Beirut (as in others), what followed was often disordered on many levels, its inhabitants’ relationships to food among them.

The culinary is a line of collective inquiry, being pursued in myriad directions by an expanding group of artists and thinkers, culminating in a series of events organized by Sharjah Biennial 13 interlocutors Ashkal Alwan in Beirut, in the fall of 2017. It takes as its point of departure this notion of a shared if also troubled gastronomic history. The culinary begins with the idea that a particular part of the world—call it the Middle East, the Near East, the Levant, or simply, here—is held together by how and what its people eat (and why) far more so than by its nationalisms, ideologies, languages, religions, or ethnicities. The culinary proposes, from the start, that food rituals in this region are dramatic and enacted. They are the performative aspects of identity, more telling than country or community.

In the Abbasid era, when cooking was elevated to a refined and princely art, the elaborateness with which meals were prepared, served, and savored gave rise to one such notion of performance, that of the tfaili—literally translated as “parasite”— who was effectively an eighth-century party crasher. The tfaili arrived at a banquet early, stayed too long, annoyed his hosts, and thoroughly entertained his fellow guests. As Brigitte Caland, a scholar of psychoanalysis and Semitic languages as well an expert in Abbasid cuisine and one of the five researchers currently working with Ashkal Alwan on the culinary project, explains, the tfailis were in equal measure loved and hated, criticized and praised.

tfaili such as the elegant poet Bunan was extremely proud of his profession as he was a party-crasher for over thirty years. He took only one apprentice under his wing and taught him how to show up early in order to be well seated, meet the elite and be served the finest pieces. He recommended to leave before disturbing the host, and to remain to the right side of the crowd in order to better monitor the entire party. If he admits that eating with friends is never detrimental to anyone, he speaks with pleasure of his favorite dishes the madirathe sikbajthe adasiyya and the faludhaj. Connoisseur as he truly was, he used to advise partygoers on how many bites to take from each dish, when to take more, and how to eat from the dish, until they collapsed.[2]

In contrast to the exuberance of the extroverted tfailis, in times of social and political upheaval, the performative side of the culinary often turns inward, making the body susceptible to the deformations of anxiety, fear, delusion, aversion, and deviance. In his book Trials of Arab Modernity: Literary Affects and the New Political, the literary scholar Tarek El-Ariss traces the movements of the major thinkers of the nahda, the era of Arab renaissance in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, who “embody the modern through narratives of anxiety and collapse.”[3] Ariss pays special attention to the body as the relevant site of rupture, troubled by food aversions, bouts of disorientation, and panic attacks; and characterizes modernity as a series of accidents, mishaps, and calamitous or embarrassing events. 

He gives the example of the writer Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, who made ample contributions to the literary renaissance of his time, but did so through a painful and often difficult process of dislocation, traveling from Lebanon to Egypt and later to England, France, Tunis, and Istanbul. In Europe, at a time when elements of colonialism and orientalism were coiling into literature on both sides of the East-West divide, Shidyaq set out to observe the customs and habits of “civilization” in the metropolis. But in a crucial travelogue published in 1863 (titled Revealing the Hidden in the Arts of Europe or Revealing the Hidden in European Civilization, referred to in Ariss’s text as Kashf), he wrote most trenchantly of the disruptions to his own eating habits, of his body suffering the indignities of indigestion, malnutrition, and collapse. In the City of London, known for its business and financial bustle, Shidyaq finds not progress but rather decay, chronicling the hidden (mukhabba’) in the unhealthy place (mawrid wakhim):

The mukhabba’ takes shape in al-Shidyaq’s text as unveiled decay, which appears and disappears, poisons the body, makes it collapse, deprives it of fresh air, and suffocates and strangles it. Decay and rot are apparent in the City streets and buildings, in the produce at the village store, in the dead animals and food served in restaurants and at the homes of the wealthy, and even in the coffee mixed behind closed doors at cafés. This decay lies also in the way European civilization is organized through categories of work and knowledge as a way of determining its relation to the “other”—who “lacks” work ethics and organization. Kashf thus operates as a diagnosis of the ideological production of civilization on the one hand, and as an identification of symptoms and traces, smells and fumes on the other. The mukhabbba’ as ill and decay arises from a mawrid wakhīm, which produces indigestion, capitalism, and modern writing. The hidden in Europe’s arts (funūn), which al-Shidyaq seeks to diagnose, is the hidden in funūn al-tahi (culinary arts) as well. This hidden, exuding as a poisonous smell from the rabbit’s orifice yet naked for all to see in al-Shidyaq’s poem, exposes modernity as a disgusting work of art (fanfunūn), disgusting dish, and a disgusting “modern” text that reeks and smokes.[4]

As we move closer to the present day, we find that the culinary delves into experiences of dislocation, not only among intellectuals on the level of Shidyaq per se (some of whom are the subjects of a survey on contemporary food rituals by Caland) but also among young people in Beirut who have ended up in Lebanon as both official and unofficial refugees. Six years into the uprising and war in Syria, more than six million people have been displaced from their homes, half of them children. While stories of the various and often devastating paths to Europe and the rest of the world have been constantly told in the mainstream international press, millions of Syrians have remained in the Middle East. So many have moved to Lebanon that the public schools are running double shifts, accommodating only a tiny fraction of the students who have had their formal educations disrupted. Nancy Naser Al Deen, another researcher working with Ashkal Alwan on the culinary, has taken an oblique and illuminating approach to the situation by questioning child and adolescent psychiatrists about the effects of displacement on young people’s eating habits. She tests out the idea that perhaps refugees experience a higher propensity for disordered eating and full-blown eating disorders than those who are able to remain in their homes, lives, and routines.

We used to think, back in the day, that eating disorders were very specific to . . . families who come from high socioeconomic classes, just because of their access to media and body-image issues. . . . But I think with globalization, current data is showing that it could occur . . . across socioeconomic classes. Even in societies with financial deprivation we still see anorexia and other changes in eating habits. . . .  

And now if you talk about someone who is at risk to experience problematic eating—whether biologically or genetically or the way his or her body is formed —definitely the presence of an environmental stressor (in this case displacement) can unleash an eating disorder. It can unmask it and trigger it, and I think this is where the relation is. . . .  

So if you were a displaced adolescent and you do not have a lot of food around and you are anxious about it and you are already experiencing psychological stressors because of displacement, if I were to guess, you may either restrict further because you would worry that you would run out of food, or you would worry that your brothers or sisters won’t have enough food to eat, or you would worry that your mom might get sick and not have enough food to eat—these kids would worry about everybody else and they may restrict their own food intake because of the worries, or you may binge eat on unhealthy food rather than healthy food—these I think are the two scenarios that may be possible. [5]

Iterations of disordered eating in relation to war and conflict exist in many variations in Lebanon, ranging from mild to extreme. They also appear in art as they do in life. In The Stone of Laughter, Hoda Barakat’s visceral novel of fractured masculinities in the context of an earlier civil war, the culinary appears in many fascinating guises, including as a delicate dance of erudition, seduction, and abstention in a conversation between two men, one of whom, a sensitive, gay man named Khalil, will be thoroughly burned for his attempt to live outside of the war’s violence.

There are many things about Naji that Khalil could never imitate. . . Naji’s passion for the taste of food, for example, his ability to tell apart spices and seasonings or to tell how ripe something is, although he only eats a little, which makes Madame Isabelle worry all the time and usually makes her invite Khalil to eat, so as to whet her son’s appetite.[6]

The artist Franziska Pierwoss, in her research for Ashkal Alwan, is looking at the more extreme end of the disordered eating spectrum. She has been interviewing pharmacists, dieticians, bariatric surgeons, the mothers and sisters of young women with eating disorders, and young women suffering from eating disorders themselves. In doing so, she has uncovered a vast and alarming world of obsessive self-harm and abuse—much of it pegged to stresses ranging from parental separation, school bullying, and run-of-the-mill puberty, to the war in Lebanon and the siege of Beirut in the summer of 2006—including excessive exercise, anorexia, and bulimia; the abuse of laxatives, pharmacological fat blockers, appetite suppressants, antidepressants, and anti-psychotic agents to alleviate the agitation of food deprivation; and anti-glycemic injections, which are intended for diabetics but have a well-known side-effect: weight loss. Some women in Lebanon are injecting themselves with such medications in specific bikini-baring areas of their bodies—ahead of beach season in Beirut. What’s remarkable in Pierwoss’s research is the struggle among virtually all of her subjects (men and women) to find an adequate language to describe what they are going through.

The way my daughter dealt with [her disorder] was to hurt herself and cut herself. She is revenging herself because she ate more than enough. When she gets to this level and feels the pain, she stops and decides to either go to someone who can organize her eating or she enters this level for a short period and when she sees that she is not losing weight in the time she wants and in the way she wants, she restarts starving herself. One episode drags [into] the other. [7]

Weaving various strands of research, the culinary considers how food rituals and eating habits shape the individual and social psyche. Taken collectively, the projects consider not only matters of consumption but also notions of mobilization and care, such as in the use of the so-called red devil, a chemotherapy agent prescribed in the treatment of many cancers, and dokha, a kind of tobacco cultivated in the Arabian peninsula for five hundred years, often mixed with herbs, dried flowers, spices, and dried fruits. Another researcher, Uns Qattan, has been researching dokha smoking, in the United Arab Emirates, among young people at risk for obesity and diabetes. Is it only through moments of illness, dependence, and scarcity that a society becomes able to rethink its relationship to the environment? Are we forced only by the erosion of resources to make our recipes, our agriculture, and our kitchens sustainable? What do anxieties about food tell us about the collapse of a body, state, civilization, culture, or time? These ruptures often assert themselves in dramatic ways in the body, as Norma al-Sannouh told Nancy Naser Al Deen about her “red devil” chemotherepy treatment:

About that red medicine . . . [when] they injected it in me—look, even now, talking about it makes me sick to my stomach—I used to feel a weird taste in my mouth and I used to feel nauseated. I felt sick in a way where I [could] not stand smelling perfume or food. I could not eat anything. I had constant nausea in the first session, which was on a Thursday. My nausea lasted until Sunday. Monday morning, I felt like a normal person again, but [after] the second and the third sessions (there are four sessions [in total]), the nausea used to stay about five days. I used to say that it feels like [as] if I am sitting in Baalbek and my sickness is reaching Hermel. This is how far I felt my nausea. . . . I was rejecting all types of food during the course of these sessions. When I see someone who is about to undergo the red-devil treatment, I feel nauseated again and really stressed. I started developing a psychological complex from it. . . .  I used to also not sleep much after it. . . . Even drinking water made me vomit. . . . I felt as if my face was covered with a black curtain. . . . I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t enjoy my time. . . .  I couldn’t talk. I was constantly nauseated. . . . In the whole course of my treatment from cancer, this was by far the toughest on me and it lasted three months, during which I was extremely exhausted, I was nauseous, I stopped eating, and I was fatigued in general—and of course I lost my hair then, too.[8]

It is thus in the culinary that processes of consuming and being consumed meet cultures of taste and delectation. Maybe it is in the furnace where death is dealt, converted into culture (served on the dining table), and then metabolized and converted back into life through the bodies of eaters.  When considering the case of a young woman with an eating disorder, whose best shot at good mental healthcare (not covered by insurance, of course) was a doctor who prescribed her seven different medications a day, and who was obsessive-compulsive and tragically creative in her suicidal drives, the site of the culinary is less about the dry findings of social science than control—or lack of control— over one’s person and body. The culinary is concerned with the weaponization of routine, and apparently healthy, practices—such as eating—in relation to the culture of starvation, denial, and self-harm. The experiences of these fragile bodies, and the extremely distorted visions people have of them, offer a harsh but necessary material expression of a body politic in profound distress.

The coastal wind blows in my direction, lifting me to the end. I look back and there is the Cannibal, swinging from side to side on his bicycle. And then out of nowhere, like a useless gate that stands by itself in the middle of the desert, a parked car sends me into the cement. I’m not sure of the model or the make, but I feel as though I’m in a public stadium, completely naked. The bystanders watch as if witnessing an execution. My bicycle trembles and the crowd roars in anticipation. I have difficulty recalling the moment of impact, except that the force sent me tumbling to the ground. In an instant, the world turns prune black, shriveled at the edges. I slowly lose my appetite. My senses start to fade. My blood, sweeter than a pomegranate, drains from within me. My limbs taken from me so that others can eat.

The millstones rumble when the wheat is ground.[9]

[1] Samir Kassir, Beirut, translated from French by M. B. DeBevoise (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, University of California Press, 2010), p. 387

[2] Brigitte Caland, “Between Reality and Myth: Food as a Display of Power and Intellectual Movements from Mesopotamia to the Abbasid Empire,” pp. 8–9

[3] Tarek El-Ariss, Trials of Arab Modernity: Literary Affects and the New Political (New York, Fordham University Press, 2013), p. 54

[4] Ibid, p. 77

[5] Fadi Maalouf, child and adolescent psychiatrist, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the American University of Beirut Medical Center, in conversation with Nancy Naser Al Deen

[6] Hoda Barakat, The Stone of Laughter, translated by Sophie Bennett (New York, Interlink Books, 1995), p. 5-6

[7] Mother of a daughter, age twenty, with an eating disorder, in conversation with Franziska Pierwoss

[8] Norma al-Sannouh, red-devil chemotherapy treatment and cancer survivor, in conversation with Nancy Naser Al Deen

[9] Viken Berberian, The Cyclist (New York, Simon & Schuster, 2002), p. 187

Omar Berrada, Amal Issa, Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, and Brian Kuan Wood are the editors of, the Sharjah Biennial 13 online publishing platform.