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Make Mezze, Not War

Published in J-Source on Dec. 11, 2010

By Claude Adams

It’s a delectable thesis: That if we would only put as much imagination into the delights of sharing food as we do in killing one another, the world would be a much happier place. That’s the underlying theme of reporter Anna Badkhen’s Peace Meals, the only book of war memoirs I’ve ever seen that contains recipes for baba ghanouj and boiled lobster.

“In the blighted places where I work,” writes Badkhen, an award-winning war correspondent, “food is the closest thing to normalcy.” She finds succulent scarlet tomatoes in Iraq, garlic eggplant in Kashmir, and fatoush salad in the Gaza Strip, and she spends her evenings sharing the local food—mostly vegetables—with the people she writes about, building friendships and breaking down barriers.

Presumably, this happens while less culturally-attuned correspondents—mostly men—barricade themselves in their hotel rooms at the end of a stressful day, and dull themselves with booze and protein so they can steal a few hours of untroubled sleep before the next round of calamity journalism.

Food is much more than nourishment, Badkhen says. It’s also comfort, and it reminds us what we have in common as human beings. How can one possibly feel bellicose toward someone who has just served you kaddo bowrani, Afghan pumpkin with yogurt sauce? It’s in the stomach, and in all those social rituals that accompany the filling of the stomach, that the differences among us are diminished. We ARE the sum total of our appetites, after all. Physical and spiritual.

“Over food, you talk to your hosts and fellow diners about their lives and tell them about yours, and after all the horrors of the day, such simple conversations make everyday life worth living.” This can happen over a fried egg, or over an entire roast lamb in an African village: the menu is not as important as the human interaction, the unspoken grammar of shared gustation.

Ah, but if it were only so easy. Once, while touring the on-again, off-again conflict zone of southern Sudan with a hired Egyptian TV crew, I decided to ask for a bed at the home of a wealthy Arab merchant in the village where we were filming. Not only did the merchant offer us sleeping quarters, he also ordered his wives to prepare us a lavish meal under the stars. When my crew saw the table laden with unfamiliar local dishes, they whispered to me: “We can’t eat this. We don’t know what Sudanese food is.” So over my objections, they slunk off to their tent and opened cans of tuna for supper, while I apologized to my offended host. I ate everything on offer, but the meal was not a success.

On assignment in Baghdad, while Saddam Hussein was still in power, I remember stepping into a restaurant along the Tigris and watching men beat giant river carp to death with sticks on a cement floor, before roasting them over a wood fire. There was little cultural bonding there for me; the fish blood on the floor killed my appetite. I drove back to the hotel and had an omelet.

Badkhen, on the other hand, is nothing if not adventuresome. A Russian by birth, she’ll eat anything that looks interesting, and she’ll flatter her hosts by copying the recipe. Apart from being a great learning tool, it’s part of her native survival mechanism. “We . . . did what generations of Russians, betrayed by their government over and over, have done to heal,” she writes. “We ate.”

Badkhen writes with vividness and passion, whether it’s about something as trivial as a turnip salad in Afghanistan or, as awful as a terrorist martyrdom in Israel. The problem comes when they appear on the same page. Any pleasure we might draw from the prospect of preparing and eating mezze in a Gaza market disappears when we read about Ahmat Salmi, a 15-year-old Palestinian boy who hung several grenades from his belt, hooked them up to a push-button detonator, and set off to kill some Israeli Jews. Ahmat was killed by soldiers before he reached his destination. “He never got to kill anyone, not even himself,” Badkhen writes trenchantly. At that point, I skipped over the next few pages of recipes.

This is not to suggest that Badkhen is in any way insensitive to the misery and deprivation around her. Her book is much more than a gourmand’s tour of grim landscapes. She appreciates the moral incongruity of the well-fed, well-equipped Western reporter arriving in a famine zone, staying only long enough to take notes and a few pictures before racing away in an air-conditioned four-wheel-drive. As she describes herself: “A transient witness only there long enough to document pain and privation; a professional intruder, mostly safe from the devastation I arrived to write about.”

Yet it’s a job she has to do. And she argues, with great conviction, that part of that job is to immerse oneself as deeply, and as intimately, into the environment one is writing about. That immersion will probably include sitting across a rough table from people and consuming something exotic and new, and sharing the enjoyment of it. Badkhen writes that one of the disadvantages of being an “embed” with the military is that the embedded reporter doesn’t have the freedom to share food with the locals; instead, she's forced to consume the military diet of defrosted buffalo wings, corn dogs and Baskin-Robbins ice cream shipped 10,000 km in refrigerated containers.

However, if you are going to be a ”professional intruder,” Badkhen concludes, you can at least do it with some grace and openness. “In extremity, an offer to break bread is more than an invitation to hear someone’s story. It’s a chance to link that person’s life and yours.”

Not a bad modus operandi for a journalist trying to better understand the world.

1 comment:

Linda said...

Lovely critique. I always enjoy hearing about your experiences as a correspondent on foreign soils.