The Taste Of Perso-Arab Culture

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Smell, which I explored in my previous column, is hard to ex­tricate from the next sense under discussion: taste. When one has a blocked nose, pleasure in food dimin­ishes, while for the well person a meal’s aromas add to its enjoyment. As Diane Ackerman puts it in A Natural History of the Senses, “Smell contributes grand­ly to taste.” Smell has been neglected in academia. The same cannot be said of taste, which has spawned a vast body of research, including the literary. Many books examine food writing from South Asia and its diaspora. I have contributed to the topic myself with Britain Through Muslim Eyes’s analysis of the 19th and 20th century United Kingdom curry in­dustry. One region, whose diasporic cui­sine has been neglected, however, is the Perso-Arab world, a gap this column fills.

Leila Aboulela’s novel Minaret is qui­etly interested in feasting, fasting and a space of moderation in between. People who binge-read it as a piece of romance fic­tion or for its Islamic message may not di­gest its wisdom about the perils of over-in­dulgence and the importance of restraint.

Young Najwa lives with her wealthy family in Sudan, where she has consid­erable freedom in her dress, education, sexual relations and eating habits. Later, as an adult enjoying cannelloni and prof­iteroles alone in a London restaurant, she has an epiphany about her lack of constraints in the diaspora: “I can do what I like, no one can see me. … I could order a glass of wine. Who would stop me or even look surprised?” Instead of feeling free, though, Najwa is troubled by the tightness of her skirt’s waistband after the gluttonous meal. She goes on to experiment not with alcohol, but food re­fusal, buying “a copy of Slimming and a packet of Fox’s Glacier Mints.”

She starts attending the Regent’s Park mosque which furnishes devotees with sustenance, both physical and spiri­tual. After a stimulating Quran class, Najwa takes her dinner at a halal res­taurant serving the mosque and finds comfort in its simple international fare of dal and pita bread. Similarly, she is delighted to be given a box of chocolates for winning a quiz about Islam. Because both these victuals come after spiritual striving, they are portrayed as whole­some or tayyab rather than indulgent.

Yasmin Crowther’s The Saffron Kitchen centres on the kitchen as a fe­male- or family-oriented space of gossip and intrigue, ritual and stories. Readers visit various kitchens: in London and Richmond, and the village of Mazareh and second city of Mashhad in Iran. Sara has grown up with the stories her Farsi-speaking mother Maryam tells about samovars and black tea served in glasses in Iran. The novel rightly limns Iran, the ‘home’ Sara has never visited, as being steeped in tea culture. Iranians drink tea for pleasure, companionship and al­leged health benefits. The beverage is associated with women and the sanctity of domestic space. A contrast to the tea served in the home is set early on in the novel with the coffee drunk in the public sphere. Crowther depicts Iranian coffee houses as exclusively masculine spaces which allow debate, and sometimes vio­lence, to percolate in the lead up to the 1953 coup against prime minister Mo­hammed Mossadegh.

Saffron, or zaafran, recurs often throughout the novel’s pages. This spice, more valuable by weight than gold, is produced from the stamens of a rare crocus. In her “biography” of the condi­ment, Secrets of Saffron: The Vagabond Life of the World’s Most Seductive Spice, Pat Willard proclaims that Persian saf­fron “smells and tastes like the mother lode.” Saffron also functions as a symbol of modern-day Iran, as Crowther makes a connection between the surprising red colour of the purple crocus’s delicate stigmas and the bloodshed in the con­flicts of 1953 and the 1979 Revolution.

Finally, Robin Yassin-Kassab’s novel The Road from Damascus explores reli­gion and the consumption of food, drink and drugs. From the outset, it is clear that his sybaritic lifestyle has taken its toll on British-Syrian Sami, with his body “age­ing quickly, increasingly swell-bellied.” His appetite for instant thrills is clear when Sami plunges back into voluptuary pleasures in London after a sabbatical in Syria listlessly trying to find inspiration for his PhD. Downing a triple whiskey at the airport, he heads off to buy mari­juana. His smoking causes urgent food cravings and Sami knows where to sate them: “Along the Harrow Road […] and through the open entrance of the Tennes­see Bird Bar. (Or the Louisiana Chicken Shack, or the Mississippi Fry House, per­haps the Memphis Wing Palace. They’re all there.)” Yassin-Kassab pokes fun at the widespread attempt by local fast food businesses to emulate KFC’s global success. The artificiality of such restau­rants is emphasised via the description of a server whose translucent skin and dazed eyes have more in common with a battery chicken than the processed mass in batter that he hands to Sami.

In his article ‘Fried Chicken Shops’, Hussein Kesvani points out a link be­tween such establishments and British Muslim communities. Because unbrand­ed chicken shops sell halal meat at low cost in the warmth until late at night, they are popular with working-class Muslims seeking a change from home cooking or with no comfortable house to go to. Sami is right to worry about his “butter-churn stomach,” though, since the health prob­lems associated with fried chicken in­clude type 2 diabetes and obesity.

There follows a tumultuous period in 2001, as his indolence causes Sami to be expelled from university. Sami reacts to his humiliation by taking his customary drugs usage to new heights, leading to a one-night stand and crisis in his marriage to Muntaha. He comes to realise that he has neglected his spiritual life. To redress this, Sami eventually eradicates meat from his diet and embarks on Islamic fasts and ablutions. The novel ends soon after 9/11 with a newly abstemious Sami taking a reconciliatory holiday with Muntaha in Scotland. There they pray together for the first time and Sami realises that he has “developed a trembling, contingent faith.” The novel’s tranquil ending on healthy eating, prayer and marital harmony sug­gests the attractions of cultivating a flex­ible belief system.

In Minaret, The Saffron Kitchen and The Road from Damascus, the protago­nists’ gradual embracement of their re­ligious and cultural differences from the British mainstream is signalled through the sense of taste and their changing re­lationship with food. Whether in halal or haram ways, these Perso-Arab novel­ists are biting back against stereotypical ideas about Western freedom and Mus­lim oppression.

 


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