The love language of the Arab world is preparing and providing food. A lavishly laid dinner table may be a status symbol, or a display of wealth, but food and drink are also vehicles for empathy. From the peasants to the princes of the Arab world, everything about the way we eat, drink, celebrate, and consume is catered towards group structures, and we are taught from a young age to consider those around us before we consider ourselves.
Take the staple English cup of tea: steaming, milky, inviting, alone. 40 bags of PG Tips means 40 cuppas. There may be five of you at the table, but there’s no uniting tea pot, no common ground. Just five solitary sippers, unaware that they’re missing out on discussing the tea. Is it weak? Too strong? Who made it? Did they add cardamom? There’s definitely cardamom in there. Arabs make pots and drink from small glass cups, and the pot is refilled until the conversation lulls, which might be a while.
There is something peaceful about waking up before everyone else and making a mug for yourself. There’s something calming about moving from library to coffee shop to library again, pushing through one oat milk latte at a time. But it’s also quite lonely. I don’t think an Arab would really know what to do with a big inelegant mug of tea, or a vat of coffee. In fact – without other people – what’s the point?
Mezze, similar to tapas, are the small side dishes that make up a breakfast or lunch spread. Passing plates, ripping bread – we share, and each of us try everything. The meal is balanced and engaging. It’s a social exercise. Even at dinner, the bigger dishes are placed on the table before serving. Everyone oohs and aahs and congratulates the cook. The food is presented as a complete work of art, a coherent whole. And then it begins. The food is divided off, but the act of serving is really an art. There are no set portion sizes. You have to stay on your toes, casting a keen eye over who’s eaten and who hasn’t, who hasn’t yet had salad, who’s growing and might eat more.
And then there’s the cheap dishes that are easy to make in abundance, like mujadara (a lentil, rice, and onion combination), or molokiyah (mallow leaves stewed and paired with meat and garlic). There is the month of Ramadan, which is now nearing its end, where families fast and feast together. At the end of Ramadan comes Eid al Fitr – where communities come together to cook, eat, and give food to the poor. When there is a death in the community, neighbours send meals to the bereaved for days, taking turns cooking. There is the battleground that is paying for food at restaurants: sneaking off during the meal to pay, physically dragging each other away from the till, grabbing the nearest child and stuffing notes into their fist, whispering ‘give this to mama when you get home!’, there is no end to the chaos.
It’s no secret that Arabs smother. They visit you when you’re mourning even if you want to be alone. They feed you even if you’re full. They gossip and share secrets. But they’ll never leave you behind. There is much more order to the English custom of separate plates, the separate mugs of tea. It makes sense, in a way, to send everyone off with their respective portions and pray that there aren’t any more social cues to respond to for the rest of the dinner party. And I hope this doesn’t read as an angry, anti-English tirade, because I don’t mean it that way at all. I myself have English family, so I know that people are products of their culture, and each culture has its strong points.
But England is missing out. Not just on good food in good company, but on what food teaches us about how to look after our families, friends, and neighbours. Perhaps food is the messy paste that Arabs use to seal open wounds. We probably rely on it too much. We may say ‘eat more!’ instead of ‘I love you’, but it teaches us to consider a collective humanity, to love within a group, to equate necessity of food with the necessity of pack structures. Whether fasting or feasting, the togetherness is what’s important.