There are many ways to
celebrate a military victory -- you can sack a city, purge your opponents, or
put on a flight suit and strut around an aircraft carrier. In August 2006, I
was in Lebanon, where bridges, highways, and entire neighborhoods had been
smashed to rubble in the war between Israel and the Iran-backed Shiite militia
Hezbollah. Just after the cease-fire, I got an email from a friend in Tehran:
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had celebrated the "divine victory" over
Israel by treating his subjects to what he claimed was the world's largest grilled
kebab. The "victory kebab" was 21 long feet of juicy, meaty celebration -- a
display of raw carnal politics that would have made a
19th-century New York Tammany ward boss proud.
to speak of food in benevolent terms, as the social glue that binds us
together. But in the wrong hands, food can be a weapon. A piece of meat can
say: "I own you." Bread obligates. Generosity creates dependence. The Romans
were not the first rulers to rely on bread and circuses to prolong their rule,
and they won't be the last. Modern-day Middle Eastern dictators have been
particularly insistent practitioners of the art of using food to maintain their
power, from Saddam Hussein's self-serving and corrupt use of the United
Nations' oil-for-food program to the food subsidies that for years helped prop
up Egypt's Hosni Mubarak -- until they didn't. Food's persuasive hold over
loyalty has its limits, but in the long tradition of Middle Eastern food imperialism,
those limits have been reached on very few, and very brief, occasions.
victory grill was part of a tradition going back centuries to an ancient
feast called a simat. A simat was a massive public banquet served
by a king, a sultan, or a caliph: not just food, but propaganda -- an edible reminder
of exactly who buttered your bread. The first such meal that we know of was the
banquet of Ashurnasirpal II, an Assyrian king whose empire spanned Iraq, the
Levant, and parts of Turkey, Egypt, and Iran. Around 869 B.C., he inaugurated a
new palace on the banks of the Tigris, in what is now Nimrud, Iraq, and decided
to hold a massive housewarming party.
was a master food propagandist. Wherever he conquered, he collected seeds, like
an imperial Johnny Appleseed. He left us a clay tablet enumerating his
accomplishments, both military and agricultural: "I provided the lowlands along
the Tigris with irrigation; I planted orchards at [the city's] outskirts." And
he listed each of the trees he brought back "from the countries
through which I marched and the mountains which I crossed."
The fruits of his conquest included fig, plum,
pomegranate, pistachio, pear, and 29 others. "They vied with each other in fragrance,"
he boasted of his trees, whose pomegranates "glow in the pleasure garden like
the stars in the sky." Ashurnasirpal's victory garden was a microcosm of
his far-flung empire -- a fertile, edible map of his power.
For his housewarming banquet, which lasted 10 days, the
king summoned 69,574 guests from all corners of his empire. No guest list
survives, but given that one of his successors dined underneath the
severed head of an Elamite king, mounted on a pole above the dinner table,
attendance at an Assyrian banquet was probably less than optional.
According to the tablet, Ashurnasirpal's guests feasted
on 2,200 head of cattle, 27,000 sheep and lambs, 1,000 stags and gazelles,
34,000 birds, 10,000 eggs, 10,000 assorted fish, 10,000 jerboa (like a tiny
kangaroo), 1,000 crates of vegetables, 300 jars of oil, 100 pistachio cones,
11,000 jars of beer, and 10,000 skins of wine -- among other things. After the
banquet the Assyrian king anointed his guests with oil and sent them back to
their homelands, "healthy and happy."
Ashurnasirpal understood something about empire, which
is that it spreads by the seed as much as by the sword. The ancient Athenians
knew this too, which is why they required their citizens to swear loyalty to a
country defined as wherever wheat, vines, and olives grew; spreading these
crops, and their cultivation, meant expanding Athenian rule. If you happen to
read the infamous memos released by WikiLeaks in which U.S. diplomats try to
convince European leaders to accept the American corporation Monsanto's
genetically modified crops, remember Ashurnasirpal and his orchard.
The early caliphs of Islam learned this lesson too. As
the new faith marched across Asia and even into Europe, its armies rode a wave
of innovation that historians now call the "Arab agricultural
revolution." The caliphs spread the long-standing Middle Eastern practice of
irrigation to the countries they conquered; from the East, they brought back
spinach, eggplant, oranges, limes, and other booty.
The Prophet Mohammed died in 632 without leaving a clear
successor. After his death, a civil war broke out over who should become caliph
-- a relative of the prophet, or one of his closest companions. The conflict
between these two camps would eventually split Islam into two major sects: the
Shiites, or Partisans, of Ali, the prophet's cousin and son-in-law; and the
Sunnis, who followed the prophet's companions. Out of this struggle came the
simat as we know it.
The Sunnis won, but battles, betrayals, and intrigue had
left Muslims bitterly divided. The third caliph, Othman Ibn Affan, founded the
tradition of the mawaid al-rahman, or "tables of the merciful": lavish
dinners to feed the devout and the destitute during the holy month of Ramadan.
But it was Muawiya, the governor of Greater Syria who
seized the caliphate after Ali's death, who turned the simat into an art form.
A notorious gourmand famous for both gluttony and generosity, he distributed
food throughout his empire; in Damascus, during Ramadan, he would
set up 40 tables every day loaded with food. The message was clear: My greed is
When the Fatimid dynasty rose to power in North Africa,
its caliphs perfected the art of the propaganda feast. The 11th-century
Egyptian caliph al-Zahir celebrated Ramadan with 157 sculptures, including
seven palaces the size of dinner tables, made entirely of sugar. A Persian
emissary reported that in 1040, a sultan used 73,000 kilos of sugar for Ramadan
sculptures -- a tree made of sugar, as well as a giant sugar candy mosque that
he fed to beggars once the feast was over. European ambassadors liked what they
saw, and by the late Middle Ages, the sugar sculpture craze had spread to the
Christian kingdoms of Italy, Spain, England, and France. At the coronation of
Henry VI in 1429, according to anthropologist Sidney Mintz, the court served
elaborate sugar sculptures, known as "subtleties," of the king accompanied by
various saints and the Virgin Mary.
This exuberant culinary display had a serious political
purpose. It was a form of what we might today call "perception management."
Imported food was a symbol of wealth and power, of deep pockets and long arms.
A British monarchy divided by an incipient civil war, crowning a king who was
only 8 years old, needed all the legitimacy it could get: A giant sugar
sculpture of the king, flanked by saints and emperors, conveyed a not-so-subtle
political message. Likewise, the caliph's lavish banquets sent an unforgettable
signal to courtiers who might be plotting against him, as well as emissaries
from rulers who might be considering an invasion. Feeding beggars a gigantic
mosque made of sugar -- in those days, one of the most precious commodities in
the world -- said, unmistakably: "Don't even think about messing with me."
A FEW MONTHS AFTER
Ahmadinejad's victory kebab, I found myself in a part of downtown Beirut called
Martyrs' Square. It was the night before Christmas 2006, and the square was
full of glittering Christmas trees, bonfires, and tents. I was sitting around a
fire with a rowdy group of shabab (young men) from Hezbollah, the Shiite
group whose name means "Party of God." We were discussing politics in a mixture
of Arabic and English.
"We are poor!" shouted a lanky boy with a long face who
claimed his name was Abu Batta, Father of the Duck. "Who will give us money?"
As if on cue, a Hezbollah security guard brought over a
blue plastic garbage bag and laid it tenderly on the gravel next to the fire.
He rolled back the plastic to reveal a large roasted turkey.
The cooks had prepared the bird in the old Arabic style,
roasted whole and laid on a heaping mound of short-grain rice. The rice was
studded with pine nuts, pistachios, sweet raisins, and ground lamb, fragrant
with cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and cloves. Each of the bonfires got a turkey
or two -- hundreds of birds, enough to make the whole square smell like
Thousands of shabab had been camping out in downtown
Beirut for the past month in the hope of bringing down Lebanon's U.S.-backed
government. To that end, Hezbollah had formed an alliance with Gen. Michel
Aoun, a Maronite Christian politician; earlier that day, Aoun's followers had
consumed a 30-yard-long Christmas cake. On this Christmas Eve, Hezbollah's
Islamic, anti-Western agenda took the form of Christmas dinner -- sharing a
meal, and more importantly a tradition, with its Christian allies.
Four months after the cease-fire, Lebanon's economy was
still devastated by the war. Fields were still full of cluster bombs. People
had lost their livelihoods. Hezbollah's Christmas Eve simat sent an
unmistakable message: America through its ally Israel sent Lebanon death in the
form of bombs; the Party of God and its allies provide comfort, both spiritual
and material, in the form of roasted turkey. (Never mind that turkey is a
quintessentially American bird.)
Hezbollah wasn't the first to use turkey for political
support, of course, and it certainly won't be the last. Remember U.S. President
George W. Bush holding his giant trophy turkey in Baghdad on Thanksgiving Day
of 2003? In the Middle East, the simat survives today in the lavish Ramadan
feasts that politicians put on every year. It lives on in the mass food-offs
between Israel and Lebanon, in which both sides whip up nationalistic fervor by
competing to make the world's largest hummus and tabbouleh. And it survives in
countries like Syria and Egypt with modern-day caliphs who continue
the tradition through the symbolic simat of cheap food subsidies.
During the Cold War, Arab leaders like Egypt's Gamal
Abdel Nasser subsidized bread in order to ensure obedience -- and dependence on
the state. "This was one means of controlling the society, and one way of
managing society," says Ibrahim Saif, an economist and secretary-general of the
Economic and Social Council of Jordan. "They have the money, and in order to
have influence in the society, they have to subsidize."
Other Middle Eastern autocracies also lavished tons of
cheap food on their subjects. (Many were Western allies, like Saddam Hussein,
who received billions of dollars' worth of surplus American wheat through
grants and loan guarantees.) This form of patronage became so pervasive that
Tunisian scholar Larbi Sadiki described it sarcastically as dimuqratiyyat
al-khubz -- the "democracy of bread."
But the democracy of bread has a weak point, which is
that sooner or later people will want a real democracy. When that happens,
bread -- and the ruler's failure to provide it -- turns into a symbol of
defiance. "In our Arab culture, bread is the basic: If you do not have it, then
you have nothing," says Saif. "So if you want to accuse someone of being
helpless, you say he cannot even afford to eat the bread. There is an
assumption that it should be available, it should be affordable."
A decade ago, Sadiki analyzed a wave of bread riots that
spread through the Arab world when dictators tried to reduce subsidies in
response to the global trend toward market liberalization. In 1977, when
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat tried to lift Nasser's food subsidies, Cairo
erupted into riots that left 160 people dead, hundreds of buildings burned, and
Sadat badly shaken. Cairo's "bread intifada" was followed by protests that
rippled across Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Jordan throughout the 1980s and
into the 1990s. Sadiki considered the riots a rejection of the tacit agreement
of bread for obedience -- a sort of anti-simat.
Getting the message, most countries in the region kept
their food subsidies in one form or another. But in 2008, when grain prices
again started to spiral upward, history began to repeat itself. A wave of bread
riots spread through Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Governments
responded then as they are responding now: by increasing subsidies, raising
wages, or simply lavishing cash grants on their subjects -- in other words, the
simat in modern-day dress. By 2010, Egypt, the world's largest wheat importer
by far, was spending about $3 billion a year on food subsidies. When prices
skyrocketed even higher late last year, Mubarak and rulers like him responded
the way they always had, by announcing a panicked round of handouts. This time
it didn't work: Rioters rejected the arrangement and demanded regime change,
not just a quick meal. The dictators had failed to understand the true meaning
of the simat: that food is not only something to eat, but a symbol of something
larger -- freedom, justice, security, call it what you will. In the end, it's
about much more than bread.