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A man cooking? More gendering around the Arabic speaking world

A man cooking? More gendering around the Arabic speaking world

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Thursday 23 February 202302:35 pm
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My mother passed on to me the skill of cooking and many other habits that made me realize I was just like her. There are many ways I've copied her in my life: wiping the tiles with chlorine and a "squeeze of lemon", washing the dishes with hot water before using cold water, washing clothes with a peel of locally-made soap and then soaking them for hours, or how to prepare coffee "by the smell" and set the dining table.

All these habits that "mechanically" turn into a lifestyle are not far removed from cooking "recipes", and "cooking is a knack", as we colloquially say. That is, it is the soul of the person and the way he/she takes in life and the air together, as a kind of therapy as well.

So we’re all attached to our mothers' cooking. We say with almost complete certainty and obligation that "My mother is the best cook in the entire world". This is what psychology refers to children justifying their taste identities in relation to the very first source: the mother. The mother feeds the child in many different ways and forms; the first taste, food, and the innate affection we need. With the mother, children experience desires starting from the stage of infancy and breastfeeding to when they begin to babble and speak. All this special language between the mother and her children pushes us to distinguish our mothers' cooking from others, even if we are convinced by maturity and experience later that what we are saying is just an exaggeration. Fathers also love cooking. Some of them have been able to liberate themselves and their image in front of a society that classifies every move we make and stereotypes it according to gender (gendering) and based on the criteria that: This is for girls, and that is for boys. Some love cooking, and some know that there’s no social role behind cooking as a daily act that can make equal living between partners better.

Fathers also love cooking. Some of them have been able to liberate themselves and their image from a society that classifies every move we make and stereotypes it according to gender, based on the criteria: This is for girls, and that's for boys

Cooking according to the concept of the women of our region – Syrian, Lebanese, Palestinian and Iraqi women – is a quiet and peaceful outlet from daily life concerns, and can even be a clever trick to turn regular days into “joyful treats and pleasures”, although "some" mothers complain about the act of cooking as a sort of protest against the heavy effort it requires, especially if there are plenty of mouths to feed. This reminds me of the role of Faten Hamama in the film, "Sweet Day, Bitter Day" (‘Youm Mor We Youm Helw’), who has a bitter experience with cooking because of poverty, destitution and sometimes the humiliation it entails.

Gender roles

Although cooking is part of a domestic "system" based on the division of gender roles, it is in reality far from this consecrated symbolism, stemming from a "logic" that is slowly fading day by day, that the place of a woman belongs in the kitchen while the man works outside. In another consecration, an opposite distinction was made; it asserts that the majority of chefs of major restaurants, or celebrity chefs in the world of social media and television, belong to the male sex. This relates to the obvious fact that males control the sources of decision and the appointment of roles. Equality is still a long way off in many fields and professions, especially that of cooking. I once saw a French documentary about the subsequent "inequality" in this field. The percentage of women does not exceed 15% of the percentage of chefs who work or manage Michelin-star kitchens or alternative restaurants. This is a meager number in front of the many male chefs, such as Britain's Jamie Oliver, whose appearance on TV cooking shows increases viewership.

I have many times heard friends, colleagues, or even acquaintances criticizing me for cooking. The phrases I usually hear include: “How can you be a man and cook!?”, or "Surely you cook because you’re gay".

“How can you be a man and cook!?”

The truth is that cooking is an artistic and tasting experience that precedes the role of any social construct attached to it. I have many times heard friends, colleagues, or even acquaintances criticizing me for cooking. The phrases I usually hear include: “How can you be a man and cook!?”, or "I’m sure you cook because you’re gay". Here, the "feminization" of cooking and then its "homo-sexualization" has become normal for many, even among intellectuals and the elite. I once received a Facebook message from a fellow writer saying: "Pay attention to your social image. You are a writer these days. It is not befitting of your image to post pictures of food." For our friend here, cooking is very distant from the world of literature, and for the image of a writer (according to him), it is shameful to show love for this enjoyable everyday activity. Literature is not that far from cooking. They are two worlds that inspire each other. When I finish writing a piece of text, I go to prepare myself a meal with spices from the spice market in Tripoli. The scents carry me back to the city and I go back to my writings. I write with a ‘riper’ and more mature memory. Cooking opens the paths of my heart, my soul, and all my memories.

The "feminization" of cooking has become normal for many, even intellectuals. I once received a Facebook message from a fellow writer saying: "Pay attention to your social image. You're a writer. It's not befitting of your image to post pictures of food"

Cooking is my space as a man too

Yes, I cook, because I inherited this charming and pleasant habit, and I share it with my friends and sit down to taste with them what I had brought back with me from Tripoli and from my mother's kitchen: Mulukhiyah (Jute Leaf Stew), Shish Barak (Chuchvara), Kibbeh Bil Sanieh (Baked Kibbeh), Warak Enab (Stuffed Grape Leaves), Mujaddara (lentil dish), and even a plate of Fattoush salad. What I have never disclosed is that I’ve never changed the recipes my mother had prepared for us throughout her life, even if the ingredients are wrong or she did them "from the top of her head". These little mistakes are still a secret that I cling to, and keep as if this is the first and last recipe for this type of food, and any harm to them is a violation of the right flavor.

Literature is not far from cooking. The two worlds inspire each other. As I make myself a meal with spices from Tripoli's old market, the scents carry me back there and I go to my writings. Cooking opens the paths of my heart, my soul, and my memories

My mother tells me that ‘Cooking is our space as women’. I too, thought with the same sincerity that she had stated this, that cooking is my space as a man as well. It is the only space where I can relive and recall almost everything quietly and carefully. I recall our neighbors, the smells of our first building, the screams of the children playing in the neighborhood, the Ramadan iftars, the Friday dinner tables, the souks and markets of Tripoli, and the Grand Mansouri Mosque. Why do I relive all those distant images, when I am in a small kitchen in Paris?

Because it is smell that sticks the most in memory, and exile, no matter how narrow and spacious it may be, cannot erase it. The smell of food is a magic thread that unites all our memories, women, men, and children alike. It is the intimacy that cannot be killed by distance and alienation – and it is the intimacy that, of course, cannot be killed by “gendering”.



* The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Raseef22

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