The Baguettes of War

Inside the Middle East's defiant kitchens.

Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images
Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

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.

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.

THE KITCHEN WAS A SLUM. Archipelagos of black mold smudged its pale-green walls. A small table draped in a tablecloth of torn pink plastic wobbled between a four-burner stove fueled by a rusty propane tank and a fetid, squat toilet from which the rats came out at night. The only other furniture was a lone shelf on which rice, flour, and tea sat in identical bags. There was no light; the dozen women and girls who shared the kitchen had to guess the bags’ contents by feel.

The women were runaways. They had been raped, battered, or forced into prostitution, sometimes all of the above. Accused of bringing dishonor to their relatives by having suffered abuse, in line with the warped logic of their ultraconservative patriarchal society, they had then been rejected or threatened with death by their families. The grimy kitchen in an anonymous, two-bedroom apartment behind an unmarked plywood door was their sanctuary, part of a small, clandestine network of shelters for the countless but commonly overlooked casualties of the war in Iraq: victims of systematic domestic and sexual abuse that has proliferated since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Outside, firefights and bombings concussed the broken capital. Inside, the women told me their stories and showed me their scars: cigarette burns; long, narrow lesions, as if from lashing. They cried. My stomach grabbed; I took notes.

And then, abruptly, it was dinnertime.

Someone felt through the kitchen shelf and found the tea; someone else brought out some oranges. I rinsed bunches of cilantro under suspect tap water. A 16-year-old girl — her parents had sold her into marriage at 12 to an older man who soon abandoned her — ladled tomato salad onto a plastic plate. (Iraqi tomatoes: the best in the world, succulent, sweet, the shape and color of a human heart.) Someone brought fresh masgouf: carp from the Tigris, half-grilled, half-smoked over hot coals. Someone switched on the TV in one of the bedrooms and tuned the channel to Egyptian disco videos.

Dance tunes, synthesizer-heavy, cut through the squalor and the heartache that hung over the kitchen. We sliced yellow onions and danced barefoot on speckled floor tiles. We cha-cha’d with the colander. We raised knives and spoons to our mouths like microphones and lip-synced. We bit into the oranges and laughed when the juice ran down our chins. In that miasmic kitchen in the heart of a war zone, we were alive, we were defiant.

THOSE NOT INTIMATE with the world of unspeakable poverty, war, and injustice that girdles the Global South may find it difficult to understand how it is possible to derive joy from food in the middle of tragedy. The discrepancy is too jarring. "It wasn’t possible, just not possible, to have been where we’d been before and to be where we were now, all in the same afternoon," Michael Herr observed in Dispatches, his chronicle of the Vietnam War. Herr had just returned from documenting the slaughter at Hue, one of the Tet offensive’s longest and bloodiest battles — and now he was eating hamburgers and drinking shot after shot of brandy at the press center in Da Nang.

But how better to tally our losses and give thanks for having made it through another day than to eat? What more fitting way to challenge depravity and death than to join the women whom war has maimed as they dance late into the night in the kitchen of their Baghdad shelter, and laugh, and eat grilled fish, and toast with sweet tea to having pulled through?

In a part of the world where millions of people live hand to mouth, how appropriate that dissent could take the form of strapping some bread to your forehead, grabbing some kitchen utensils for a shield, loading up on onion bulbs, and going out to serve your pharaonic, self-indulgent, blubbery government a generous helping of rebellion for dinner.

What happened after the protesters left the streets at the end of the day? News photographs did not document the homecomings. But I imagine that when the men returned from the streets, their wives and sisters and mothers embraced them. And then, the women must have reclaimed the kitchen utensils and used them to make supper with whatever food they had at hand.

I picture the wife of the Bread Helmet Man carefully unwinding the tape from his scalp. I picture the couple sitting down cross-legged on a striped mattress in a cramped, hard-used apartment that smells of fried onions and lentils and leaky sewage pipes, as I have done so many times in the Middle East. Their overcoats hang from bare nails next to a faux-silk tapestry depicting an aerial view of Mecca’s Grand Mosque. Maybe a baby wails in an apartment upstairs. Maybe teenage boys yell after a stray soccer ball outside the small, low windows.

And then, I imagine, the couple dips the — not stale, no; battle-hardened — baguettes in runny fried eggs, or hummus, or the sweet juice of a tomato salad, and rejoices in having survived one more day on the edge of the world, where governments are callous, poverty is inescapable, and every meal, no matter how scant, is a celebration.

<p> Anna Badkhen is the author, most recently, of The World Is a Carpet. She is working on Walking with Abel, a book about transience. </p>