This winter, the kitchens of the Middle East took to the streets.
In Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, men demonstrated wearing frying-pan basinets. Tin-pot cervellieres. Water-bucket shakos. The green, plastic chain mail of a wastebasket. A young man trussed a rumpled trio of empty water bottles to his head with a swatch of torn bed linen. A protester in Sanaa taped two baguettes and an unleavened pancake of chapati to his skull.
Buying peace, one feast at a time
By Annia Ciezadlo
None of these impromptu helmets would have stopped a bullet. Few would have softened the vicious blow of a rock hurled in anger. They were not so much body armor as expressions of grassroots desperation. Yet there was nothing laughable about men who had dressed for combat in their sculleries and, taking a page from a Palestinian cookbook, dabbed their keffiyehs in table vinegar and sniffed onions to counter tear gas. Their ad-lib battle-rattle bespoke a kind of sincerity, an innocence of purpose. And it was apropos: The high cost of food was one reason people protested in the Middle East and Maghreb. Theirs was the purest kind of rebellion: kitchen defiance.
In a region where no one can guarantee that your next meal will be something you want, that your next meal will be there when you are hungry, or even that you will live to have a next meal, stepping into a kitchen is stepping into hallowed ground. Each time you break bread becomes a communion. Scraped from catastrophe and indigence, shared with equal magnanimity at weddings and funerals, food in the Middle East is the most elemental expression of humanity. Snapshots of men wearing their kitchens -- and, indeed, their food -- to confront tanks and tear-gas cannons offered a genuine glimpse into what it is like to live in the ragged margins of the world, not just to die there.
In his African travelogue Dark Star Safari, writer Paul Theroux describes a sudden invitation to a family lunch in Harare: "I was a stranger, and sharing a meal is peacemaking, so including me at their table represented a profound ceremony of acceptance and goodwill." Perhaps that was why the protesters who donned pots and bread as body armor in the Middle East this winter conveyed a tender integrity, a disarming largesse. These frustrated, trampled, disenfranchised men were inadvertently welcoming us -- complete strangers, observers from halfway across the world -- into the sancta of their kitchens.
I have been a guest in such kitchens, in Gaza and Iraq, in the West Bank and Afghanistan. Most of my hosts, like more than one-third of the world's population, lived on less than $2 a day. Many, like 42 million people worldwide, had been forced from their homes by war or ethnic cleansing. All muddled along in indifferent autocracies, failed states, or conflict zones. They shared their grief and their food with equal generosity.
Their defiance of death outside was the measure of our frail humanity as they insisted that I eat, eat, and eat some more -- because I had lived another day, at least as far as this meal, and so had they, and that was something to celebrate.
My journeys through some of the world's most destitute geographies brim with such hard-earned bills of fare. There was the dolma an Iraqi dissident's wife taught me to cook while American B-52s dropped 500-pound bombs on her city. Nargiz's enormous sundials of naan that shone from the clay floor of my first Afghan home 10 years ago. The paper-thin crepes of taboon that Bassam, my Jordanian friend -- and, once, a wannabe Palestinian terrorist -- used to scoop bits of yogurt-soaked lamb at an Amman restaurant its Palestinian owners had nostalgically named al Quds, after the Arabic word for Jerusalem. The eggplant stew and tabbouleh at the Baghdad house of my friend Hala, who had adopted me, a lost-looking foreigner, in the same motherly way she adopts everyone: her son's college classmates, bomb victims with ruptured organs and mangled limbs, teenage war widows.
And there was that masgouf dinner in a tiny, windowless Baghdad kitchen.