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Democracies of Bread


August 15, 2011

The author of Day of Honey discusses ancient Iraqi cooking, the Middle East’s dependence on imported wheat, and the link between bread and civilian uprisings.

honey300wide.jpgIn the summer of 2003, Annia Ciezadlo married Mohamad Bazzi, who was then the Middle East bureau chief at Newsday. They moved from New York to Baghdad, where they lived on and off for fifteen months. As reporters and newlyweds living in Iraq a mere seven months into the U.S. invasion, and two years after September 11, 2001, they faced mounting violence and insecurity. They chose not to live in the fortified Green Zone, where many foreigners sought refuge, and Ciezadlo found solace hunting through the food markets of Baghdad and learning a new cuisine. Eventually, they moved onto Bazzi’s native Beirut.

Day of Honey is Ciezadlo’s memoir of that time. It also presents portraits of those who have had the misfortune to grow accustomed to war. It is about the everyday struggles of people in Iraq and Lebanon that unfolded in homes, grocery stores, and markets. It depicts a different side of war than what is presented in most news accounts: the underbelly of war (that is, the stomach), the side concerned with having enough bread to eat and to share with others.

Ciezadlo covered the Iraq war for the Christian Science Monitor, and Beirut’s sectarian conflicts and the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah for The New Republic. She is currently in Beirut. This interview was conducted in a café in Manhattan, where Ciezadlo lives part of the year, and by email.

—Ann Marie Awad for Guernica

Guernica: Beirut is thought of as an intellectually rich city—the Paris of the Middle East, some call it. But you make the case for Baghdad having that kind of status as well. You write a lot about Baghdad’s café culture and the Iraqi intellectuals you befriended. There hasn’t been a lot written about that sort of thing.

Annia Ciezadlo: There hasn’t been a lot written about it in the Western media. But in the Arab world, and Western Asia as a whole, Baghdad was always known as a famously bookish, intellectual city. There’s an old saying that Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads. There were a hundred booksellers in the old round city founded by the eighth-century caliph al-Mansur. The café and wine-drinking culture of Baghdad has been famous for centuries; there was a whole school of Iraqi poets who wrote poems about the wine bars of medieval Baghdad—the khamriyaat, or wine songs, that I quote in the book. Pedro Teixeira, the great Portuguese merchant-adventurer, wrote a beautiful description of a coffeehouse with windows overlooking the Tigris and the ruins of old Baghdad. That was in 1604, and he’s visiting the same street that I write about in the book, named after Abu Nuwas, though it wasn’t called that back then.

More recently, there’s an incredible book by an Iraqi journalist named Zuhair al-Jezairy, called The Devil You Don’t Know, that came out just a few years ago. He maps the cafés and the salons of a generation of Iraqi intellectuals who came of age during the Ba‘ath era. He talks about how they would sit in cafés discussing books and ideas, about the exiles versus the ones who couldn’t leave, the secularists and the communists, and the ones like him who went to fight with the Pesh Merga in Kurdistan. His writing is perceptive, profound, and full of rich details. It reminded me of Kapuściński at his most sympathetic. But unfortunately very few of the journalists who write about Iraq read books like this, or even know about people like Jezairy.

We’re taught that domestic life is not a “serious” political topic, like war and peace, but the fact is that we spend most of our lives doing everyday things: at the dinner table, in the kitchen, washing dishes, grocery-shopping, commuting.

Part of the reason you see so little about this in the Western media is that Iraq was closed off from the outside world for so long under Saddam. But I think there’s a deeper reason, which is that it messes with our assumptions—not just about Iraq, but about culture and human nature. One of the unspoken themes that I’m grappling with in Day of Honey is the relationship between violence and cosmopolitanism. It’s one thing to comprehend violence as an outgrowth of ignorance, poverty, and backwardness. It’s another matter entirely to confront incredible atrocities in a country with a rich civic and intellectual life. How can a country be home to sectarian militias and yet also to people who are educated, sophisticated, and pluralistic? This is not a simple matter. It’s the kind of dialectical inquiry that’s impossible to present in the world of Twitter feeds and newspapers where stories are shorter and shorter and more simplistic. I think you can only really explore it in book form.

Guernica: Your book looks at war through the lens of food. Why did you choose to do that?

Annia Ciezadlo: There is a feminist proverb I learned from my mother: The personal is political. There’s a powerful literary stereotype that men write about war and politics and public life, while women confine themselves to family and food and personal life. Or as my friend Charles Star put it: “War and foreign policy for the men, romance and recipes for the ladies!” He was joking, but he really nailed it. I wanted to play with that stereotype by combining the traditionally feminine genre of the culinary memoir with the traditionally masculine war/travel/adventure book.

We’re taught that domestic life is not a “serious” political topic, like war and peace, but the fact is that we spend most of our lives doing everyday things: at the dinner table, in the kitchen, washing dishes, grocery-shopping, commuting. These things make up the fabric of our lives. Americans are curious about the texture of everyday life in the Middle East because they rarely get to see it. I wanted readers to feel like they were sitting around the dinner table with me and my friends, hearing what average people really say and really think, [where] the dinner table is the best place to find out.

So much of what we see and hear about the Middle East focuses on what we call politics, which is essentially ideology. But when it comes to the Middle East, and especially the Arab world, simply depicting people as human beings is the most political thing you can do. And that’s why I chose to write about food: food is inherently political, but it’s also an essential part of people’s real lives. It’s where the public and private spheres connect. I wanted to show readers that the larger politics of war and economics and U.S. foreign policy are inextricably bound to the supposedly trivial details of our everyday lives. And now we have a series of Arab revolutions that began with bread riots and ended up toppling some of the region’s most powerful dictators! So we’re seeing that connection in a very concrete way.

Guernica: Let’s talk more about that connection between bread and revolution. What’s going on here? Why is bread so important?

Annia Ciezadlo: In the Middle East, bread is so essential to everyday life that word for it in Egyptian Arabic is aish, which means life. It’s always been the staple grain. But the predicament is that the Fertile Crescent, where wheat cultivation began, has now become the part of the world most dependent on imported wheat. If you look at the list of the top wheat importers for 2010, almost half of them are Middle Eastern regimes: Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, Morocco, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Tunisia. Egypt is the number-one importer of wheat in the entire world. Tunisia leads the entire world in per capita wheat consumption. So it’s no wonder that the revolutions began with Tunisians waving baguettes in the streets and Egyptians wearing helmets made of bread.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Part of it goes back to the Cold War, when the two superpowers were wooing third world countries with guns and grains and other goods. Rulers like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser started subsidizing bread as a way to buy loyalty, or at least obedience, and this system became so pervasive that the Tunisian scholar Larbi Sadiki described countries who used it as dimuqratiyyat al-khubz—“democracies of bread.” But the problem with this system of offering bread in exchange for genuine democracy is that it can never last—sooner or later, the bread will run out, and people will start demanding bread and roses too.

The Middle East is the only region in the world outside of sub-Saharan Africa where rates of malnutrition actually rose over the past decade or two, instead of falling.

This isn’t the first time it’s happened, by the way. There’s a long history in the Middle East of “bread intifadas,” starting with 1977 in Egypt, when Anwar Sadat tried to lift bread subsidies. People rebelled and poured into Tahrir Square, shouting slogans against the government just like they did earlier this year. Sadat learned his lesson and kept bread subsidies in place, and so did a host of other Middle Eastern dictators—many of whom were propped up for years by the West, partly through subsidized American wheat. The most infamous example being Saddam Hussein, who got billions of dollars of American aid, in the form of surplus American wheat, under George [H.W.] Bush.

Guernica: How does that explain what happened next?

Annia Ciezadlo: This system started to fall apart in 2008, when global commodities prices began to rise. Middle Eastern rulers tried to prop up their democracies of bread by handing out cash grants and subsidies and even making some political concessions, but it was too little too late. There are a couple of reasons why it didn’t work this time, one of them being that bread is important in its own right, but it’s also a symbol for what people really want, which is democracy and economic opportunity. I think it’s also because the margin is getting thinner for people here in the region. The Middle East is the only region in the world outside of sub-Saharan Africa where rates of malnutrition actually rose over the past decade or two, instead of falling. That’s especially shocking when you consider that the elites in countries like Egypt were thriving during this period, and external economic measures like GDP growth were considered perfectly healthy. Again, it’s that dichotomy between public and private: if you looked at the classic neoliberal measures of economic health, or talked to the English-speaking Cairo elite, Egypt seemed to be relatively stable. But if you talked to an average Egyptian family, you would have seen that they were struggling and frustrated and working harder to earn their daily bread. You can look at a simple piece of pita bread and see the entire arc of Middle Eastern history and politics.

Guernica: You traveled to the Middle East with your husband, who was born in Lebanon and speaks fluent Arabic. How did that affect your experience?

Annia Ciezadlo: Zora Neale Hurston tells a great story about collecting African-American folktales from the Deep South. She would never just roll into town and say, “Hi, I’m Zora, and I’m a New York City anthropologist.” Instead she would show up in these little Southern towns, with a gun in her purse, and tell everyone that her man was in the joint for bootlegging and she needed to lie low for a while. People would feel protective toward her, and they would open up and tell her their stories.

Unfortunately, as a journalist, you can’t lie and make up a cover story like Zora Neale Hurston did. Unless you’re going undercover, which is a whole other set of rules, and which I wasn’t doing. But you can use the truth to construct a narrative—which is what journalism is, after all.

There’s a brilliant subtlety to her strategy, which is that it reverses the usual polarity between subject and object. As a journalist, or an anthropologist, the convention is that people are there for you to study, and they are your objects. But she gave them a chance to make her the object instead of the other way around, and in some ways this is what happened with me and Mohamad. Suddenly we weren’t just American journalists—or in his case, Lebanese-American—but this young, cross-cultural couple that was just starting out on married life. There were some people who found that threatening, too, but they would never have trusted an American anyway.

Downtown Beirut became a metaphor for so many things: man’s inhumanity to man, what Charles Bukowski called “the impossibility of being human.”

Being an American journalist can put people on the defensive. In countries where people assume the press is partisan, like in Lebanon, or where it had essentially become an extension of the government, like in Iraq, people tend to see a journalist as an agent of his or her government. That can be dangerous if the United States military is occupying their country, or aligned with their enemies. But being an American woman married to an Arab guy—and a Muslim to boot!—put me in a different category. People would open up, and tell me things that they would never tell another journalist, no matter how persistent.

Guernica: Was there a downside to that as well?

Annia Ciezadlo: You [can] become part of someone else’s narrative. Every once in a while I would get people asking me questions like, “If your husband is a Muslim, then why haven’t you converted to Islam?” Interestingly enough, almost every person who asked me that was a Sunni, and it was their not-so-subtle way of implying that my Shiite husband was a bad Muslim for letting his infidel wife run around unconverted. Which is one of the dangers of immersion journalism: you can find yourself getting sucked into battles you have nothing to do with, in this case an ongoing battle between Muslims. There’s a scene in the last chapter of the book where one of my Lebanese friends says to me, “Look, this is my country, and this is the shit of my people, and you don’t have to tolerate it any more than I do.” That was an important lesson for me.

Guernica: Your book implicitly criticizes the media focus on bad things happening in the Middle East, particularly Lebanon. What would you actually like westerners to know about Lebanon?

Annia Ciezadlo: I don’t have a problem with the media focusing on bad things happening. That’s our job, after all. But I think it’s incomplete, and I would even say it’s inaccurate, to only portray a place through its tragedies. For my generation—the “Children of Nixon,” as I call us in the book—the Lebanese civil war was an iconic event. Downtown Beirut became a metaphor for so many things: man’s inhumanity to man, what Charles Bukowski called “the impossibility of being human.” It shaped our perceptions of war and human nature, just as Vietnam did for our parents. We used it to understand how the world works. But how can you understand a war without any knowledge of the society where it happens? It’s like trying to understand birth without knowing anything about pregnancy or conception. Or like trying to understand our current economic collapse without knowing what a derivative is.

The oldest written recipes in the world are from Iraq!

Guernica: Why do you think that people in other parts of the Middle East, like Lebanon, say Iraq has “no cuisine”?

Annia Ciezadlo: It wasn’t just people from the Middle East. It was Westerners too, and all kinds of people who weren’t Iraqi. What they all had in common was that they hadn’t experienced Iraqi home cooking. So they would go to hotels and restaurants, or eat dinner with the English-speaking Iraqi elite who have servants, and they would eat the typical status food, which are bad imitations of Levantine meze like hummus and tabbouleh—which have nothing to do with Iraqi cuisine—and conclude that Iraqi food was bad. It’s a little like if a Martian touched down in Times Square, ate at Sbarro, and then flew back and told the other Martians that Italian food was no good.

The irony is that Iraq actually has one of the richest and most sophisticated cuisines in the world. So many classic American or European foods—ceviche, albondigas, even the mint julep—have roots in Iraqi cuisine, which was a crossroads of Persian and Arab and Turkic traditions. The oldest written recipes in the world are from Iraq! And it was amazing to see how much these recipes, which were carved into clay tablets 3600 years ago, had in common with the foods I was cooking and eating here in the twenty-first century. If you’re eating real Iraqi home cooking, and if you know the history, you can trace this culinary tradition from 3600-year-old Mesopotamian tablets to the bowl of soup and the loaf of bread on the table in front of you. So in this discussion of cuisine, I’m using food as a metaphor for civilization: there’s an incredibly rich history here, but it’s invisible to us until we have enough basic knowledge to see what we don’t know.

Guernica: You write about how you struggled with certain dishes like mlukhieh. How did you arrive at the recipes at the back of the book?

Annia Ciezadlo: Extreme recipe testing. I didn’t want to include things like hummus and tabbouleh because cookbooks and food blogs have plenty of recipes for them. I wanted readers to taste the flavors that I write about in the book, especially the dishes that are part of the story, like batata wa bayd, the comfort food that I cooked with my mother-in-law during the war. A lot of these recipes are rare and not found in many cookbooks; they’re part of that universe of home-cooked meals that most Americans never see, that hidden private life of the Middle East, and I wanted to give readers a taste of that world. So I had to spend a lot of time convincing people like my mother-in-law to show me how she made the dishes, and then going back home and trying to reconstruct the recipe and control the variables. Collecting recipes is a lot like reporting a complicated investigative story: people can tell you their version, but they’ll inevitably forget key facts, or tell things out of sequence, or make assumptions that they won’t even think to elucidate, like that naturally you would always peel the potatoes. So you have to go back and do an elaborate forensic reconstruction—a kind of “CSI: The Kitchen.”

Guernica: Writing about food in the Middle East struck me as a way to see and show people from Iraq and Lebanon as people, rather than as insurgents or body counts. There are so few stories from there in which a Westerner can truly relate to the Middle East. Why do you think that is?

Annia Ciezadlo: Look, the stories are out there. The problem is that so many of them are not getting told. This is a massive problem, not just in the Middle East but for places from Africa to Afghanistan. There are millions of stories out there, millions of potential Booksellers of Kabul or Valentino Achak Dengs. I could walk out the door right now and find a dozen characters in half an hour, all of them as rich and fascinating as the people that I write about in Day of Honey. The sad thing is that readers love these stories, but editors will hardly ever assign them because they don’t fit the stereotypes that they’re comfortable with. They don’t consider these kinds of characters glamorous enough, or violent enough, or simply male enough to be worthy of coverage.

I’ll give you an example. Back in 2005, I wrote a magazine profile of a human rights lawyer and democracy activist who was running a guerrilla presidential campaign. Now, the presidency in Lebanon is not an elected office—he’s chosen by the parliament, behind closed doors, in a ritual that’s about as democratic as a duck hunt. But by running his mock “campaign,” this activist was making the point that the Lebanese people should be allowed to elect their president, which is of course what most of them want if you look at the polls. He was using social media long before it became fashionable. He was holding press conferences and fundraisers; he even asked a local anti-corruption group to monitor his campaign finances, which is unheard of in Lebanon. He was running a huge risk because activists like him were being assassinated right and left in those days. His shadow campaign was exactly the kind of creative, provocative, intelligent activism that Americans never get to hear about. But the magazine ended up killing the story, and then asking me to do yet another article about Hezbollah instead. And that’s the kind of decision that editors make every single day.

I’m optimistic, though. Now, with the Arab Spring, I think that people in the region are beginning to overturn some of these clichés, and Western editors are starting to catch up. We’re seeing some exceptions to the stereotypes, like Elizabeth Rubin’s great piecein Newsweek, “The Feminists in the Middle of Tahrir Square.” But an article like that shouldn’t be the exception. It should be the rule.

Illustration by Erin Schell

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One comment for Democracies of Bread

  1. Comment by sabbir azam on February 12, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    Learnt a lot from this interview.Wish to collect the book soon.Thanks a lot for such kind of different interview that encourages us to throw away cliches made by orientalist eyes

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