FORUM – Food In Arabic Literature
12 Sep 2003
Being a reflection on Geert Jan van Gelder Of Dishes and Discourse
Classical Arabic literary representations of food(Curzon, 2000)
In ancient times, for Arabs in front of a good meal, ‘slow food’ meant attaching capital importance to the pleasure of the eyes and the art of conversation. Eloquence was a specific characteristic of Arab Bedouins, who, though they shocked city dwellers with their lack of table manners, did not hesitate to show their disdain for the sophisticated dishes served at the banquets of the princes of Damascus. In the era of the Persian Sassanides and the Arabs in the early days of Islam, a person’s way of eating was in reality a badge of identification.
‘The food of Persians, Chosroe’s way of life … A bad way of life! This is not the way of life of the family of al-Khattab!’ was the reply given to an Arab who dared praise a Persian confectioner’s shop.
Despite making efforts to adapt to the new habits, the Prophet Mohamed, unifier of the Arabs, failed to hide his disgust when served with a plate of grasshoppers. He justified himself by explaining that the dish was unknown to his tribe, though religion did not prohibit it.
In the satirical poetry and literature of the Shu’ubiyya (the anti-Arab movements), it was said that all Arabs—even city dwellers were considered as descendants of the Bedouins, rustic inhabitants of the desert—ate lizards, scorpions, dogs, donkeys, insects and so on. It was a way of denigrating their culture in view of the spread of their power.
Bashshar Ibn Burd (died 783), albeit the finest poet of his age, was one of the most violent critics, famous for the strength of his language:
We, in our glory, used to eat white bread and to drink from silver and gold vessels (…) At night you lurk for hedgehogs; hunting mice makes you forget glorious deeds You envy someone who roasts a chameleon …
But the Arabs, ever proud of their peculiarity, felt in no way offended. On the contrary, they replied to slander with even less plausible stories. Like the one about the Bedouin who relishes a piece wild donkey fat fitted, sandwich-style, between two dates as big as the ‘hoof of a young camel born in spring’! Or the one about the poet Abu al Hindi who proclaims in a ‘culinary-nationalist’ poem that, ‘I have had all that, like you have, but I have never found anything like an
old lizard”, that the reptile’s eggs are the food of true Arabs and that ‘rice pudding’ and “and those big fish of yours [the Persians] always make me sick’.
But the poets of the desert say things they don’t do! They say more than they eat. Exaggeration and excess make up for the privation and sobriety of ordinary days, or everyday life.
How can we believe al-Tha’labi, who, describing the voracious greed of caliph Omayyade Mu’awiya, claims, ‘He ate thirty chickens and one hundred boiled eggs, drank several pints of date wine and took pleasure with four virgins’? It sounds like paradise on earth! The emphasis and the lyricismof Arabic help to transform food into something extraordinary. Ibn Sirin interpest food in dream. Eating with the eyes and tasting with words. Rubies, stars, diamonds, gold and silver to describe dates, caramels, cakes, eggs etc.
When Islam asserted itself in the Arab Peninsula and Mesopotamia in the course of the seventh century, it was by virtue of a text of exceptional force, the Koran, one which for the Arabs is an the example of the most perfect literary expression, perfect as only the divinity can be, inimitable and incomparable.
The verses of the Koran that describe the foods of Paradise are numerous and also somewhat abstract. The things they promise are very simple, but without doubt the most appreciable and most desirable for the Arabs: ‘fruits’ picked directly from the trees—cited dozens of times—‘palms, pomegranates, and vines’, rivers of milk, wine and honey. Arab literature after Islam is, on the other hand, impressively rich in descriptions of dishes and their preparation, is a fundamental source for knowledge of the evolution of the cuisine and the taste of the Arabs.
The role and importance of food in Arab culture—its meanings, its use, its metaphors, its erotic associations, its different forms of representation—are the subject of Of Dishes and Discourse: Classical Arabic literary representations of food. The ‘classical Arabic literature the author—Geert Jan van Gelder is professor of Arabic literature at Oxford University—begins in pre-Islamic times and proceeds into the seventeenth century (longer than usual) and, with rare exceptions, such as Andalusian and North African writers like Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Rashiq, essentially encompasses the Middle East and Egypt,. Extracts of pre-Islamic and medieval poetry, verses from the Koran, from Musaylima’s False Koran, from the Maqamat, from religious, philosophical and sufi literature, the stories of The Thousand and One Nights and other Arab literary genres are discussed and analyzed and copiously annotated. The 14-page bibliography denotes the abundance of sources and studies in the field of gastronomy and food in the Arab world. This work confirms the importance of the contribution of scholars of literature and linguistics for the history of food. It also provides supplementary information on Sulayma Mahjoub and Durriyya al-Khatib’s long introduction to Al-wusla ila al-habib fi wasf al-tayyibat wa-l-tib by Ibn al-Adim (published in two volumes in Aleppo, 1986, 1988), a piece of writing that would have deserved a volume all of its own.
Lilia Zaouali a lecturer in ‘Anthropology of the Islamic World’ at the University of Jussieu, Paris.
Adapted by John Irving
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