Food, gardening, foraging and hosting have always been an integral part of Samah Hijawi’s life. Her ongoing project Kitchen Table brings together many elements of her practice as an artist, thinker, storyteller, performer, instigator, educator and as a warm soul. It also resonates with her passion for collective work and experiences that bridge the gap between the public domain and domestic spaces. Her experiences remind us that playful performativity lies at the heart of research and investigation.
Migration and movement are the underlying themes of Kitchen Table. Hijawi describes the project as ‘an exploration of the histories, cultures and practices related to food-making, as a way to understand how these influence the politics of food on the table today.’ So far it has generated three performative food encounters: Ode to Asparagus, Holy Cow & Pomegranate (Nov 2020) and Chasing Za’atar (Spring 2021).
In Holy Cow & Pomegranate, which was first performed for an online audience in November 2020 at the Kaaitheater within the frame of VUB Cross Talks, Hijawi takes us back to the Abbasid Empire in 10th century Baghdad via Ibn Sayyar al-Warrāq’s Annals of the Caliph’s Kitchens, one of the earliest known Arabic cookbooks. Audience members were asked to prepare and enjoy a recipe of pomegranate soup that Hijawi had selected from his book, while she narrated a story that took the audience along past trade routes, exploring astrology, spirituality, mythology and health remedies.
Shuruq: To begin with, how did you stumble across al-Warrāq’s book? And why was it important to begin this journey of food with 10th century Baghdad?
Samah: Actually, the first book I came across was Kitab el-Tabikh (The Book of Dishes) by Muhammad al Baghdadi. At that time Baghdad was called Dar Al-Salam (House of Peace).
I came across most of these ancient cookbooks through friends in Amman, Kariman Mango and Ammar Khalifeh who, around fifteen years ago, started to collect a couple of these books and fantasized about illustrating some of the recipes and republishing them.
I like history. I like to understand and contextualize the present through the past. We are living in a time where things are moving so fast that it is hard to get a grip on how things, such as food, have evolved over time.
In the context of Mesopotamia or what is now referred to as the Middle East, the Levant or whatever you want to call it, some of the foods we eat today are recipes from thousands of years ago, which is really absurd but also unexpected. This is one of the reasons I decided that it would be interesting to see how these foods have traveled over time. Tracing the travel routes gives us an understanding of food that is not nationalistic. Food is often categorized by nationality, such as Palestinian food or Belgian food. In reality, both are good examples of quite small countries where culinary traditions and cultures are much more complicated than their national borders.
I find it reductive to say that food is defined by national borders. Palestine, for example, still struggles to have a border at all, while for a country like Jordan, its national history stretches back just 50 years.
“Food is often categorized by nationality, such as Palestinian food or Belgian food. In reality, both are good examples of quite small countries where culinary traditions and cultures are much more complicated than their national borders.”
Shuruq: One of my favorite aspects of your work is your often quirky and humorous titles. How did you come up with the title Holy Cow & Pomegranate and what does it signify?
Samah: Yes, I always have these titles that make me laugh!
One of the ideas of this project is to think about the sacred aspects of food and our spiritual connection to it. How food can be sometimes used to control the body through abstinence from certain ingredients or fasting. For example, I am thinking about one practice from the Indian sub-continent, where the ingredients a widowed woman can cook with are reduced enormously after her husband dies. They take away any foods that would constitute heat or create heat in the body. The logic for this, I guess, is that she shouldn’t have any sexual desire after her husband passes away. This is just one example of how cultures perceive the power of food in the body. I am also interested in thinking about food and spiritual practices such as fasting within the Islamic and Christian traditions, and more modern practices such as veganism, where people refrain from the consumption of certain foods for spiritual or political reasons.
I don’t know how I come up with these titles, they just come to me. I asked myself what could be funny, playful and says something about spirituality and food, and that is how I came up with it!
Shuruq: You described performing in the virtual space as ‘a balloon you set in the sky and you watch disappear becoming smaller and smaller.’ Initially Holy Cow & Pomegranate was meant to be performed physically with a live audience, but then with COVID-19 restrictions imposed on Belgium in the fall of 2020, you needed to re-configure it online.
Many artists, performers and speakers have been feeling severed with this move to the virtual world, unable to interact with their audience, but also unable to fill the void created by the screens and the loss of spontaneity that has now been replaced with anxieties about internet connections and technological glitches.
I think you did a brilliant job creating a space of intimacy online through the choices you made for the performance. The recipe you choose from al-Warrāq’s book is easy for your audience to prepare on their own:
seed 3 fresh pomegranates, about ½ cup long grain brown rice, ¼ cup toasted sesame seeds, 1 tbsp. of grated ginger (or powdered ginger), 2 tsp. cumin, salt, 8 cups water, some chili flakes if you like chili. Put everything in the pot and bring it to a boil, then turn down the heat, stir occasionally for 30minutes. Eat!
Yet it is exceptionally different from what they would eat regularly. They can taste and smell their bowls as they follow an online streaming of your narration, which has a soft magical quality to it. So, you have found a way, as you say, ‘to be inside your audience’s intestines as you speak to them’. When we eventually look back at these corona years, we would hold precious how such performances are markers of the very conditions they were born in, as they also chart the new ways we conceive of public space, intimacy and community within the virtual sphere. Therefore, I wondered whether you would be against doing it physically in front of a live audience?
Samah: I will borrow from the intimacy that was created through this format. I kind of like this one as it is. It could definitely do with some development, but I think it is a nice, sweet encounter that accompanies you while you are eating a bowl of soup. I hesitate to reproduce it when the pomegranates are not in season, because that would contradict my own philosophies of eating seasonally. Instead I fantasize about creating other versions, for example one for the summer and another one for spring. It would be fun to have these half hour performances each dedicated to a vegetable or fruit in a way that connects back to these ancient cookbooks.
Shuruq: An important formal aspect and material output of Kitchen Table is to create alternative ways of mapping and visualizing topographies across geographies, where we are reminded that these lines are actually illustrations of subjective experiences and temporalities, and therefore malleable lines that have been drawn, but also lines we can illustrate differently. You challenge the authority of the conventional map by performing it as a story.
For example, in Holy Cow and the Pomegranate, the camera cuts from your face to a second camera anchored above your shoulder as it documents you drawing the map – the stage upon which you set up the story. In this drawing, you outline abstractly how relations were different prior to sea trade routes, and thus the relation between political entities that we now refer to in our contemporary world as Middle East, the EU, the Far East and the Arab World were understood differently when humans traversed the Earth only by foot and then by boat. As you speak, we become aware of them as geographies of the Mediterranean and the Arabian Gulf Sea, where the Red Sea was a gateway into the Indian Ocean. Your drawing (and narration) makes these dispersed locations feel much closer to one another, but also challenges our contemporary assumptions about national borders, and what is characterized or deemed ‘original’ vs ‘exotic’, ‘local’ vs ‘foreign’. In light of this, I am curious about how you feel about the word ‘diasporic’ in relation to Kitchen Table?
Samah: Thank you for asking about this, because the word ‘diasporic’ does indeed label me or position me. I want to own being part of a diaspora or part of diasporas, because the more I work with this food material, the more I think how ridiculous it is to frame things as ‘locals’ or ‘native’.
Anyways, I find it absurd that ‘diaspora’ would connote something negative. These diasporas are precisely what make food cultures and food experiences richer. People who were traveling and trading hundreds and thousands of years ago were bringing with them a lot of knowledge and this is how cultures mixed on many different levels, not just in food, but also in science and astrology which are the things that I talk about in the performance. I talk about Dar Al-Salam (Baghdad) as a place that was a hub, much like London is a hub today. The different people living in these places / diasporas are the reason why these places are so interesting and exciting; it’s the reason why people go to cities like Berlin, New York and Brussels. Brussels is the second most mixed city after Dubai, and it offers an enormous amount of knowledge and material in food cultures. So, when you are there, you can access a diversity of very basic ingredients that would be very difficult to find in a place such as Amman, Jordan for example.
“I find it absurd that ‘diaspora’ would connote something negative. These diasporas are precisely what make food cultures and food experiences richer.”
Shuruq: Chasing Za’atar is the outcome of your residency at Beursschouwburg in March 2021, where you traced and located the different items that make up the dip za’atar (which is a mixture of the herb za’atar1 with salt, sumac and sesame seeds) in Brussels. Audience members were invited to pick up a food map poster that documented your investigation, along with a small takeaway bag of homemade Belgian za’atar that you grinded and assembled at the Beursschouwburg space.
Chasing Za’atar produces an alternative view of the urban fabric of Brussels, one that is ignited by your passion to find a taste of your home within the Belgian landscape. It also tells your audience that there are different ways to see this landscape, and that it is inevitably tied to other histories that they may not be aware of. The project also brings up a lot of issues in relation to economy and trade, even within the smallest ingredients.
Did this experience of chasing za’atar also change the way you see the city? Did it make you feel closer to it? Or that now you had more access to it? Or maybe a better way to say it: did you feel that you inscribed your presence into the city landscape through this inquiry?
Samah: Ever since I came to Belgium, I have been running around buying specific ingredients from different places, so I already had the idea, or the knowledge that ‘the more you look the more you find’, especially in Brussels, because it is a very diverse city. The three main ingredients that needed good sourcing were the za’atar, sumac and sesame seeds.
Sumac: I had to try several before I decided on the one I really liked, which I found in an area of the city that has Lebanese shops. For sesame, I consulted with my mom on what types of sesame to use, because in Brussels you can find different kinds of sesame from different parts of the world. I needed to understand what kind of sesame to use. It is very funny that this one very tiny mixture has opened up a lot more questions: questions on trade and the history and movement of food are very prevalent in the research.
“I think wherever this work is presented, it will hopefully immediately confront people with the complexity of the movement of food around the world, and the histories connected with people’s movement.”
The research did not change my view of the city, but it gave me a way of representing the city through my experience, and that is what I am trying to do with the food posters.
I started one with za’atar and am now almost finishing one on sesame, which took me to tahineh. So, sesame that started from the mixture of za’atar, took me into the history of the seed and its cultivation, and its processing through tahineh. I also found out that other Asian traditions have something that is also called sesame paste but it is different from tahineh.
I found out about these different processes through my visit to a local tahineh factory which is owned by a Belgian with Syrian origins, who has been here for 25 years. What is super beautiful about the whole thing is that we have local tahineh in Belgium, which is in some way a beautiful circle on one of the themes of this research.
So, chasing za’atar will be chasing sesame and then chasing sumac and then chasing all of these lovely beautiful, very small ingredients and what their histories look like.
Shuruq: Overall the food encounters you create with Kitchen Table allow us to appreciate the micro journeys of the smallest components of what we consume on a daily basis. This appreciation of the micro also makes us question the bigger picture. Do you perceive Kitchen Table as an intervention on current public debates in Europe about migration/immigration?
Samah: I think my project is not precisely concerned with that. I am not precisely speaking back to it with an intention. But I think it definitely does. I think wherever this work is presented, it will hopefully immediately confront people with the complexity of the movement of food around the world, and the histories connected with people’s movement.
What is central in this project are the tiniest ingredients. I need to come up with a different word to describe them, because it does not give justice to how I view the sesame seed which is what is on the table for me at the moment. I am trying to look at where it comes from where it is cultivated, how is it used, what flavors it produces and how it is combined in certain recipes and what that brings to a specific dish.
I would love it, in fact, if my work brought change to public debates, but I don’t want to go there, especially in Europe, because I find the tone of some of these debates reductive.