Our guest blogger this week for our new series, Food Stories: Memory, Culture, Perspective, is Michaela Yule, a family friend from Newton, MA who has spent the last five years, including her time at Dartmouth College, studying and living off and on in the Middle East, between Egypt, Syria and Jordan, with visits to Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, UAE, and Turkey.
The original version of this post appeared last February on Michaela’s blog, where she documented her experiences working with Iraqi refugees in Damascus and Amman. Despite the fact that Michaela has never been to Iraq, Iraqi food has become her favorite Middle Eastern cuisine due to its rich flavors and variety of dishes.
Here, Michaela shares with us her experiences with food, eating and hospitality at the home of Um Osama, her good friend, work partner, and Iraqi volunteer.
Eating Adventures in Amman
After a morning of interviewing Iraqi refugees with Um Osama, we return to her apartment for lunch and go straight to the kitchen to check out the final product. Abu Osama, Um Osama’s husband, has put the finishing touches on the meal that Um Osama started hours before; his task might include making a pot of white rice or boiling beans. I go and take my customary seat on the cushions on the floor in the living room, and the kids one-by-one carry in all the various items from the kitchen. The meal starts with an orange plastic tarp that goes on the floor to protect the carpet. There’s typically a main dish that is rice on the bottom with some sort of meat and other ingredients on top. That gets displayed on a large metal circular tray and is quite grand-looking. There are also small individual bowls of salad, which include chopped cucumbers and tomatoes in a lemony dressing. There is usually also a bowl of olives, pickled vegetables or hot peppers. A bag of bread follows, and one or two other side dishes, depending on the meal.
Um Osama brings me a plate and spreads a towel on my lap (yes, I’m the only one. Even her 4 year-old daughter does not need a towel on her lap. Sad). Then we all dig in. Um Osama serves me and it is 100% guaranteed to be more than I would ideally want. What used to happen was I would eat what I had been given and as I struggled to reach the end of what was on my plate, I would turn away for a moment to the television and when I looked back, suddenly there would be more food on my plate. Um Osama would be sneakily giggling next to me. This is guaranteed to happen at least three times over the course of a meal, but I have since learned a few strategies to combat her attempts: a) my bowl stays on my lap and I don’t put it down in front of me; b) I watch her closely and whenever she reaches for more food I determine if it’s headed for me and preempt her move; c) when I want to turn away from her or look at the television, I pull my bowl closer to my chest or even lift it up so she can’t reach it. The family thinks this is pretty hilarious.
This might sound a bit ridiculous, and you might be thinking, “What’s the big deal, just eat the food if it’s so delicious, it’s not like it’s life or death here.” Which is true. But really, it’s rude to leave food on my plate, especially when I know that this family pulled together such an elaborate meal on my behalf, one which they cannot necessarily afford. So at a certain point I have to ensure that she doesn’t give me more food because I am utterly sure I cannot eat another bite. This becomes a true contest of wills because Um Osama’s goal is to get me to eat as much as possible — to fatten me up (her words)– whereas my goal is to stop eating when I am full. It’s become a pretty funny, well-acknowledged joke at these meals by this point.
A few months ago, Um Osama’s mother joined us at lunch for the first time. She usually lives with Um Osama’s family but had spent the last few months with another daughter in a different area of Amman. I was slightly relieved when she sat next to me at lunch, because I thought I would be safe from Um Osama’s advances. How silly of me. Um Osama hopped up from her spot next to her mother and came to sit on my other side. Now, not only did I still have Um Osama on one side, but I had her mother on my other side, who, you will not be surprised to hear, is exactly the same! Of course, like mother like daughter. It was pretty hysterical, with food magically appearing on my plate from both sides.
After the main course the kids carry all of the dishes into the kitchen, wrap up the tablecloth, and clear everything away. Tea is brought out a few minutes later. Um Osama learned soon after we became friends that I like only one teaspoon of sugar in my tea, unlike her and most Iraqis, who fill the (tiny) cup at least a third of the way with sugar. All that sugar does make it quite delicious, but it’s a bit much for me. What follows is a stream of various sweets and fruits. I never really know when the supply will end, and on one occasion it included juice, soda, cookies, oranges, and salted nuts in succession. All this after the huge meal! Um Osama always peels the oranges and hands them to me, which is a sneaky, effective tactic to make me eat them because how could I refuse and make her waste them? She also insists on how healthy they are and the fact that it’s really nothing to eat, no need to worry. She’s good.
This last week with Um Osama’s mother as a new addition, she was the one supplying all the goodies. It was hilarious because she apparently had a stash hidden away in the corner and every minute she would pull out a new plastic bag, slowly and noisily untie it, and place it in front of me with an ear-to-ear smile on her face. Um Osama joked that her mother practically had a whole convenience store tucked away behind her.
At the end of nine months in Amman, with this tradition having played out almost every Saturday afternoon, I felt proud and grateful to be considered a part of this family. A month or so before my departure I brought my roommate with me, and reveled in the fact that I was no longer considered a guest, and was essentially left alone to eat however much (or little) I wanted – my roommate, however, was not so lucky, and I decided this was a necessary rite of passage for her.
A meal at an Arab family’s home is strikingly different from a dinner in an American home, the basis being overwhelming amounts of food that are not offered to you, but given to you forcefully. The American tradition of asking if someone wants something, and then acquiescing if they say no, would be unheard of and considered rude. In fact, it is customary for the guest to refuse an offering a number of times, and the host to persist in giving it. You can imagine how difficult this makes it to truly refuse. But all specifics aside, the concept of Arab (in this case Iraqi) hospitality is something that cannot be overstated, a tradition that I have seen persist through displacement, economic destitution, social and political marginalization, and the other oppressive conditions of refugeeism. And to be a witness to such warmth and generosity, in the face of desperation, is truly awe-inspiring.
Read more about Michaela’s favorite Iraqi dishes here.