Can Stories About Food Upend Familiar Narratives of War?

Refugees are often portrayed as helpless victims — reporting on culture and cuisine is one way to tell the whole story.

Syrian residents of the rebel-held town of Douma, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, break their fast with the "iftar" meal on a heavily damaged street on June 18, 2017, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
 / AFP PHOTO / Hamza Al-Ajweh        (Photo credit should read HAMZA AL-AJWEH/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian residents of the rebel-held town of Douma, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, break their fast with the "iftar" meal on a heavily damaged street on June 18, 2017, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. / AFP PHOTO / Hamza Al-Ajweh (Photo credit should read HAMZA AL-AJWEH/AFP/Getty Images)

When it comes to conflict, culinary traditions and cultural passions are considered lighter fare — often ignored in coverage of war and the communities it displaces. But journalists Annia Ciezadalo and Dalia Mortada use food as an entry point for their reporting on the violent upheavals of the Middle East and the people they affect. Ciezadlo moved to the region in 2003 and covered wars in Beirut and Baghdad. Her memoir, Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War, raises the kind of civilian concerns that are “almost always erased” in conventional narratives about the Middle East. Mortada, an American journalist of Syrian heritage, uses her connection to the culture to tell stories through the lens of cooking. As the Syrian refugee diaspora has grown in recent years, she has focused on “documenting the Syrian kitchen in exile” with a recipe collection project, Savoring Syria. Here, the two writers discuss how cuisine can humanize people whose lives are being disrupted by war — and why stories of cooking and culture demand to be heard.

Annia Ciezadlo: Covering food was a great way to talk about civilian life during wartime — a way to say, “Hey, people are doing other things than just dying here.” Americans usually only see the Middle East in conflict. But this is a place where people do have actual lives. Because, actually, it isn’t normal for them to be in a state of constant violence.

Dalia Mortada: I totally agree with that. I moved to the region in 2011 with the expectation that I would live in Damascus and report on Syria the way that we see articles on France and Spain and Italy — these sort of very nuanced pieces that show these countries as whole societies that aren’t just wrapped up in turmoil. I wanted Syria to be a whole place because I loved it so deeply. That’s where my family’s from; it’s something I was always proud of. I grew up during the Bush years, during which Syria was almost considered part of the “axis of evil” — it was thought to be this dark, scary place. And it’s absolutely not. It’s so much more than that.

AC: I remember when I first had the idea for my book, Day of Honey. It was 2005, and I was standing at the kitchen sink, and I had all these different kinds of wild greens that they sell in the markets in Beirut. I thought, “What if people wrote about Lebanon the way that they write about France? What if they wrote A Year in Provence, but in Lebanon?” Why don’t we write about Lebanon or countries in the Middle East the way we write about Italy or France?

But you do need the yin along with the yang. When a country is subjected to conflict, you can’t ignore that.

DM: It’s kind of like sneaking in the broccoli. You’re sort of bringing people in from an angle that they wouldn’t ordinarily associate with conflict and with very heavy subject matter.

AC: I always joke that my idea was to trick Americans into reading about the Middle East in a humanized way. I definitely got a lot of pushback. Back in 2007, I was writing an article about Iraqi refugees for Saveur magazine. And I called UNHCR [the United Nations refugee agency], and they got really angry, and the guy said, “Well, you know we don’t want you to write about refugees as people who have food. You know, that’s really wrong and bad of you, because we want to present them as people who don’t have food.” I tried to explain to him, “Right, but the idea is to present them as human beings who have pasts and mothers and favorite foods and are trying to keep their lives together.” It made me think, “Wow, if he’s this angry about the idea of refugees being written about this way, I’m probably onto something.” Honestly, I think he believed, “We want refugees to be seen as suffering victims — people we are helping — and not as people who can do things themselves.” Unfortunately.

Journalists Annia Ciezadalo, left, and Dalia Mortada.

DM: I’ve had a similar experience, especially when it comes to larger NGOs or these larger aid organizations. Because for as much good as they do, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy: The aid organizations sort of fear that if we don’t depict people purely as victims, others, like donors, won’t think that these people deserve help, deserve donations, deserve anything. And I don’t buy into that at all.

AC: This gets to the core of the idea of how you depict people, right? If you have a photograph of someone who is doing nothing but suffering, it actually makes you turn away. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t depict suffering, but depicting people as only suffering can sometimes cause viewers to turn away, especially if they feel like there’s nothing that they can do.

One thing about the power of meals is that they can upend hierarchies. This year I was in Athens, and I was talking to a refugee from Cameroon. And the more we talked about his situation, the sadder he became, and so finally I just said, “Hey, tell me about Cameroonian food.” And his face lit up. If they’re sharing food, people feel like they have something important to share. One of the things that sucks the most about being a refugee is that people are constantly giving you things. You’re constantly this object of charity. Are you supposed to be grateful? To be able to say, “Hey, you have this thing that’s beautiful and valuable that you can give other people,” is often one of the things that they really want. I think that there’s a specific context for food sharing and hospitality. It can be something of an orientalist trope, but this idea is also grounded in a specific history.

DM: When my mom and I moved to the United States in the 1990s, when fax machines were a thing, I remember sitting for hours waiting for my grandmother’s Syrian recipes to come through from Spain, where she was living at the time, so that my mom could make them far away from her mom. We have this notebook of a bunch of my grandmother’s recipes transcribed, and it’s definitely helped drive, on a very personal level, my learning about where my family comes from. Because my family on both sides was in Syria for hundreds of years, and I didn’t know much about them until recently.

AC: Part of the reason why I wrote about food was because, as a woman, it’s very, very hard to sell stories about war. They’re not taken seriously, often when you’re pitching them as a woman. I started writing about food because I said, “OK, if I’m not going to be taken seriously as someone who writes about economics or war crimes or things like this, then I’m going to say, ‘Screw you,’ and I’m going to write about these things through the vehicle of food.” I was in Beirut in 2008 when the food prices had spiked, and I’d seen bread riots. That’s the sort of thing you are aware of if you pay attention to women and to mundane activities like making dinner that are also an enormous part of the public sphere.

DM: We need to look at women more and the work that they do. And we need to codify that. Starvation as a weapon of war is something that needs to be covered more deeply, too, because it is a collective punishment on civilians.

These methods specifically target the weakest of the weak. The people who go first are the weakest. It’s something that’s more or less accepted: “Oh, well, it’s war. What do you expect?” But that’s wrong. You shouldn’t expect people to starve to death or to be brought to their knees and forced to declare whatever it is they have to declare to be able to survive and in order for their children to be able to eat. It’s an accepted part of conflict, and it should never be a part of conflict.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for publication. This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of FP magazine.

Photo credit: HAMZA AL-AJWEH/AFP/Getty Images