On food

Food has always been an issue in Egypt, whether happy arguments such as who makes the best tameyya or koshari in town, or the persistent anxiety of Egyptians about food prices and how to make the means to buy enough food. Recently, with the events of the past weeks, I’ve been thinking about food quite often.

Submitted by Ed on February 8, 2011

News about checkpoints almost always has to do with whether they will or will not allow food into Tahrir square at a given point. There seems to be no consistent policy for what is allowed in Tahrir and what isn’t (except for weapons, citizen checkpoints ensure that no weapons enter the square). One isn’t sure whether this is an intentional policy of irregularity and uncertainty or simply irregularity among the army soldiers at checkpoints acting on whims to the same effect. Similarly, there have been reports of confiscation and destruction of food by pro-Mubarak thugs, throwing bread into the Nile in what looks like a small scale scorched-earth tactic. At other times, such as “Bloody Wendesday,” besieged protestors had to time their entry and exit from the square carefully to avoid getting beaten or possibly killed on their way to get food.

The sharing of food within the square, partially a consequence of this forced supply shortage, is similarly astonishing. Egyptians have a sense of hospitality tied to their food culture, and encountering anyone even a stranger while they eat you will likely be encouraged to join them and share their meal. This is largely rhetorical, of course, but I have no doubt that if you were to actually take someone up on this offer they would follow through. I don’t know that this speaks to some deep fact about the Egyptian people, that sort of essentialism has been disproven in many other ways these past two weeks. I think it’s more their knowledge of just how important food is, how vital it is when scarce. The encampment within Tahrir square has demonstrated and deepened this over and over in the past few weeks, illustrating not just scarcity in concentration but also generosity beyond what one would imagine.

Collections have gone around as people try to leave Tahrir to go buy snacks or sandwiches to bring back for everyone, and no one has any doubt or hesitation contributing. There’s not even a sense of charity, it’s something stronger and more profound. Everyone is hungry together and there’s the feeling that even if you don’t see the food bought then you may be paying for a later bite, or helping to prop up the strength of someone standing next to you in front of a banner or barricade.

I might end this post with a personal reflection, at risk of being maudlin. As I stood locking arms with two strangers in a ring formed around one of the makeshift forward clinics by the museum, a man came by with some sweets, breaking off a piece for each of us and either handing it to us or even putting it in some people’s mouths if we couldn’t reach for it. I hadn’t eaten all day, and not much in the past couple of days. Smelling it I felt hungry then for maybe the first time, and while I then felt weak and that I needed to eat, I almost couldn’t take it, refusing at first but giving in to his hospitable insistence. Who was I, and where do I come from that I deserve to share food with these people who have been fighting for so much longer than me, who’ve scraped together some of what little they may have had (particularly as they were now not working, and the hand-to-mouth connection was cut off). I wanted to cry right there, out of shame but also happiness; the former because I didn’t deserve this, and the latter because it came so freely and without reservation. Several other times people came by with food, water; a man offered us a half a piece, maybe less, of pita bread. It seemed no one would finish anything they started eating, knowing surely there was someone else to pass it to.

At another point later I shared some Koshari with a friend and another person. I couldn’t eat more than a couple bites before I felt full, and I remember taking up a spoonful from the plastic dish and just staring at it, looking intently at its contents and on the verge of thought but not thinking anything. I was glad to share these passing meals, I found it strange how good everything tasted, while nervous and tired, even without an appetite. As if this were not a time for food to taste good.

Taken from Occupied London.