Eat, Drink, Protest

Buying peace, one feast at a time.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

There are many ways to celebrate a military victory — you can sack a city, purge your opponents, or put on a flight suit and strut around an aircraft carrier. In August 2006, I was in Lebanon, where bridges, highways, and entire neighborhoods had been smashed to rubble in the war between Israel and the Iran-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah. Just after the cease-fire, I got an email from a friend in Tehran: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had celebrated the "divine victory" over Israel by treating his subjects to what he claimed was the world’s largest grilled kebab. The "victory kebab" was 21 long feet of juicy, meaty celebration — a display of raw carnal politics that would have made a 19th-century New York Tammany ward boss proud.

We tend to speak of food in benevolent terms, as the social glue that binds us together. But in the wrong hands, food can be a weapon. A piece of meat can say: "I own you." Bread obligates. Generosity creates dependence. The Romans were not the first rulers to rely on bread and circuses to prolong their rule, and they won’t be the last. Modern-day Middle Eastern dictators have been particularly insistent practitioners of the art of using food to maintain their power, from Saddam Hussein’s self-serving and corrupt use of the United Nations’ oil-for-food program to the food subsidies that for years helped prop up Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak — until they didn’t. Food’s persuasive hold over loyalty has its limits, but in the long tradition of Middle Eastern food imperialism, those limits have been reached on very few, and very brief, occasions.

Ahmadinejad’s victory grill was part of a tradition going back centuries to an ancient feast called a simat. A simat was a massive public banquet served by a king, a sultan, or a caliph: not just food, but propaganda — an edible reminder of exactly who buttered your bread. The first such meal that we know of was the banquet of Ashurnasirpal II, an Assyrian king whose empire spanned Iraq, the Levant, and parts of Turkey, Egypt, and Iran. Around 869 B.C., he inaugurated a new palace on the banks of the Tigris, in what is now Nimrud, Iraq, and decided to hold a massive housewarming party.

Ashurnasirpal was a master food propagandist. Wherever he conquered, he collected seeds, like an imperial Johnny Appleseed. He left us a clay tablet enumerating his accomplishments, both military and agricultural: "I provided the lowlands along the Tigris with irrigation; I planted orchards at [the city’s] outskirts." And he listed each of the trees he brought back "from the countries through which I marched and the mountains which I crossed."

The fruits of his conquest included fig, plum, pomegranate, pistachio, pear, and 29 others. "They vied with each other in fragrance," he boasted of his trees, whose pomegranates "glow in the pleasure garden like the stars in the sky." Ashurnasirpal’s victory garden was a microcosm of his far-flung empire — a fertile, edible map of his power.

For his housewarming banquet, which lasted 10 days, the king summoned 69,574 guests from all corners of his empire. No guest list survives, but given that one of his successors dined underneath the severed head of an Elamite king, mounted on a pole above the dinner table, attendance at an Assyrian banquet was probably less than optional.

According to the tablet, Ashurnasirpal’s guests feasted on 2,200 head of cattle, 27,000 sheep and lambs, 1,000 stags and gazelles, 34,000 birds, 10,000 eggs, 10,000 assorted fish, 10,000 jerboa (like a tiny kangaroo), 1,000 crates of vegetables, 300 jars of oil, 100 pistachio cones, 11,000 jars of beer, and 10,000 skins of wine — among other things. After the banquet the Assyrian king anointed his guests with oil and sent them back to their homelands, "healthy and happy."

Ashurnasirpal understood something about empire, which is that it spreads by the seed as much as by the sword. The ancient Athenians knew this too, which is why they required their citizens to swear loyalty to a country defined as wherever wheat, vines, and olives grew; spreading these crops, and their cultivation, meant expanding Athenian rule. If you happen to read the infamous memos released by WikiLeaks in which U.S. diplomats try to convince European leaders to accept the American corporation Monsanto’s genetically modified crops, remember Ashurnasirpal and his orchard.

The early caliphs of Islam learned this lesson too. As the new faith marched across Asia and even into Europe, its armies rode a wave of innovation that historians now call the "Arab agricultural revolution." The caliphs spread the long-standing Middle Eastern practice of irrigation to the countries they conquered; from the East, they brought back spinach, eggplant, oranges, limes, and other booty.

The Prophet Mohammed died in 632 without leaving a clear successor. After his death, a civil war broke out over who should become caliph — a relative of the prophet, or one of his closest companions. The conflict between these two camps would eventually split Islam into two major sects: the Shiites, or Partisans, of Ali, the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law; and the Sunnis, who followed the prophet’s companions. Out of this struggle came the simat as we know it.

The Sunnis won, but battles, betrayals, and intrigue had left Muslims bitterly divided. The third caliph, Othman Ibn Affan, founded the tradition of the mawaid al-rahman, or "tables of the merciful": lavish dinners to feed the devout and the destitute during the holy month of Ramadan.

But it was Muawiya, the governor of Greater Syria who seized the caliphate after Ali’s death, who turned the simat into an art form. A notorious gourmand famous for both gluttony and generosity, he distributed food throughout his empire; in Damascus, during Ramadan, he would set up 40 tables every day loaded with food. The message was clear: My greed is your gain.

When the Fatimid dynasty rose to power in North Africa, its caliphs perfected the art of the propaganda feast. The 11th-century Egyptian caliph al-Zahir celebrated Ramadan with 157 sculptures, including seven palaces the size of dinner tables, made entirely of sugar. A Persian emissary reported that in 1040, a sultan used 73,000 kilos of sugar for Ramadan sculptures — a tree made of sugar, as well as a giant sugar candy mosque that he fed to beggars once the feast was over. European ambassadors liked what they saw, and by the late Middle Ages, the sugar sculpture craze had spread to the Christian kingdoms of Italy, Spain, England, and France. At the coronation of Henry VI in 1429, according to anthropologist Sidney Mintz, the court served elaborate sugar sculptures, known as "subtleties," of the king accompanied by various saints and the Virgin Mary.

This exuberant culinary display had a serious political purpose. It was a form of what we might today call "perception management." Imported food was a symbol of wealth and power, of deep pockets and long arms. A British monarchy divided by an incipient civil war, crowning a king who was only 8 years old, needed all the legitimacy it could get: A giant sugar sculpture of the king, flanked by saints and emperors, conveyed a not-so-subtle political message. Likewise, the caliph’s lavish banquets sent an unforgettable signal to courtiers who might be plotting against him, as well as emissaries from rulers who might be considering an invasion. Feeding beggars a gigantic mosque made of sugar — in those days, one of the most precious commodities in the world — said, unmistakably: "Don’t even think about messing with me."

A FEW MONTHS AFTER Ahmadinejad’s victory kebab, I found myself in a part of downtown Beirut called Martyrs’ Square. It was the night before Christmas 2006, and the square was full of glittering Christmas trees, bonfires, and tents. I was sitting around a fire with a rowdy group of shabab (young men) from Hezbollah, the Shiite group whose name means "Party of God." We were discussing politics in a mixture of Arabic and English.

"We are poor!" shouted a lanky boy with a long face who claimed his name was Abu Batta, Father of the Duck. "Who will give us money?"

As if on cue, a Hezbollah security guard brought over a blue plastic garbage bag and laid it tenderly on the gravel next to the fire. He rolled back the plastic to reveal a large roasted turkey.

The cooks had prepared the bird in the old Arabic style, roasted whole and laid on a heaping mound of short-grain rice. The rice was studded with pine nuts, pistachios, sweet raisins, and ground lamb, fragrant with cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and cloves. Each of the bonfires got a turkey or two — hundreds of birds, enough to make the whole square smell like Christmas.

Thousands of shabab had been camping out in downtown Beirut for the past month in the hope of bringing down Lebanon’s U.S.-backed government. To that end, Hezbollah had formed an alliance with Gen. Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian politician; earlier that day, Aoun’s followers had consumed a 30-yard-long Christmas cake. On this Christmas Eve, Hezbollah’s Islamic, anti-Western agenda took the form of Christmas dinner — sharing a meal, and more importantly a tradition, with its Christian allies.

Four months after the cease-fire, Lebanon’s economy was still devastated by the war. Fields were still full of cluster bombs. People had lost their livelihoods. Hezbollah’s Christmas Eve simat sent an unmistakable message: America through its ally Israel sent Lebanon death in the form of bombs; the Party of God and its allies provide comfort, both spiritual and material, in the form of roasted turkey. (Never mind that turkey is a quintessentially American bird.)

Hezbollah wasn’t the first to use turkey for political support, of course, and it certainly won’t be the last. Remember U.S. President George W. Bush holding his giant trophy turkey in Baghdad on Thanksgiving Day of 2003? In the Middle East, the simat survives today in the lavish Ramadan feasts that politicians put on every year. It lives on in the mass food-offs between Israel and Lebanon, in which both sides whip up nationalistic fervor by competing to make the world’s largest hummus and tabbouleh. And it survives in countries like Syria and Egypt with modern-day caliphs who continue the tradition through the symbolic simat of cheap food subsidies.

During the Cold War, Arab leaders like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser subsidized bread in order to ensure obedience — and dependence on the state. "This was one means of controlling the society, and one way of managing society," says Ibrahim Saif, an economist and secretary-general of the Economic and Social Council of Jordan. "They have the money, and in order to have influence in the society, they have to subsidize."

Other Middle Eastern autocracies also lavished tons of cheap food on their subjects. (Many were Western allies, like Saddam Hussein, who received billions of dollars’ worth of surplus American wheat through grants and loan guarantees.) This form of patronage became so pervasive that Tunisian scholar Larbi Sadiki described it sarcastically as dimuqratiyyat al-khubz — the "democracy of bread."

But the democracy of bread has a weak point, which is that sooner or later people will want a real democracy. When that happens, bread — and the ruler’s failure to provide it — turns into a symbol of defiance. "In our Arab culture, bread is the basic: If you do not have it, then you have nothing," says Saif. "So if you want to accuse someone of being helpless, you say he cannot even afford to eat the bread. There is an assumption that it should be available, it should be affordable."

A decade ago, Sadiki analyzed a wave of bread riots that spread through the Arab world when dictators tried to reduce subsidies in response to the global trend toward market liberalization. In 1977, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat tried to lift Nasser’s food subsidies, Cairo erupted into riots that left 160 people dead, hundreds of buildings burned, and Sadat badly shaken. Cairo’s "bread intifada" was followed by protests that rippled across Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Jordan throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. Sadiki considered the riots a rejection of the tacit agreement of bread for obedience — a sort of anti-simat.

Getting the message, most countries in the region kept their food subsidies in one form or another. But in 2008, when grain prices again started to spiral upward, history began to repeat itself. A wave of bread riots spread through Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Governments responded then as they are responding now: by increasing subsidies, raising wages, or simply lavishing cash grants on their subjects — in other words, the simat in modern-day dress. By 2010, Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer by far, was spending about $3 billion a year on food subsidies. When prices skyrocketed even higher late last year, Mubarak and rulers like him responded the way they always had, by announcing a panicked round of handouts. This time it didn’t work: Rioters rejected the arrangement and demanded regime change, not just a quick meal. The dictators had failed to understand the true meaning of the simat: that food is not only something to eat, but a symbol of something larger — freedom, justice, security, call it what you will. In the end, it’s about much more than bread.

Annia Ciezadlo was a special correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor in Baghdad and the New Republic in Beirut. Her book Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War, from which this essay is adapted, was published by Free Press in February.