The Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan, is traditionally well-known in Syria, not for piety and frugal meals, but for quite the contrary, all night feasts and cuisine displays, taking the mantra of “Don't grocery shop while you’re hungry” to an entirely new level.
The past few years have witnessed starvation under siege in a country that was accustomed to use the phrase “No one ever starves to death” as its local version of “Hakuna Matata”. Still, once a year, fasting all day gives people an excuse to make up for it at night, something Syrians everywhere know how to do very well.
The forced displacement has meant large family gatherings over the Iftar feasts are no longer an option for millions of displaced Syrians, inside and outside their country. In an attempt to connect with at least some of their Ramadan rituals and memories, many have turned to cooking for a glimpse, or a scent, of the good old days.
Rita Bariche, the founder of the 10K strong Facebook page Diaspora’s Kitchen (DK, Matbakh Gherbeh in Arabic), told SyriaUntold: “I turned to cooking when I first found myself a stranger in Germany. It’s hard to feel at home in a rented flat here… until you fill it with your aromas.”
The group had started with a bunch of her friends sharing tips on how to cook Syrian dishes with locally available ingredients in Europe, sharing tips and recipes and comparing the culinary traditions from different regions.
Friends invited friends to the virtual feast, and the group grew in geographic scope and popularity, as several media outlets started covering it, including a cooking program it now shares with an online radio station.
This Ramadan, Rita came up with a new idea. “With the start of Ramadan, I noticed the guys in the group were acting competitively when posting [their dishes]. So I decided to make good use of that to celebrate our male chefs and their talents, and to encourage their participation beyond the stereotypes of women as cooks. So we started the Mr. Diaspora Kitchen (Beauty King of DK) Competition.”
Things got heated up very quickly, as members were asked to nominate candidates during the first stage. In a matter of days, the votes skimmed five or six candidates that started posting elaborate dishes more frequently, pushing their posts up with comments, and asking friends for help winning votes. They also offered cooking tips for the group members.
It got to an overwhelming point where some of the members started to object. "We need a first aid response team till the competition ends. So far I’ve documented about a ‘trozen’ cases of passing out -- including myself -- and heaven knows how many cases of increased blood sugar, one case of suffocation, two cases of hyper-tension, 9.000 breaths held with every ringing new post and 0.75 cases of hyperventilation,” wrote one of the members.
The answer she received was: “This is the last time we hold a male competition! The ladies’ competition is so much easier: A few polite half-hearted compliments between the candidates, one or two subtly poisonous comments, kitchen members decrease every time a candidate gets upset leaving the group and taking her friends with her, FB messenger fires up with gossip and chit chat… so sweet and calm. Not like the guys: ‘Spartaaaaaaa!’ … sending out invitations to 300 groups to come invade and vote and mess up turning over all the pots!”The group administration, which is made up of Rita and two other friends, decided to give the voters a hand by better informing them about the candidates. So the top candidates were asked in a post (photo on the right) to introduce themselves, their place of residence, their hobbies, social status, etc. A quick reply came from a ‘democratically-confused’ voter. “Could you please just put each candidate’s sect next to his name so we can know how to elect. Is there a Catholic candidate? Latin [rite] or Maronite could also work…”, followed by the photo to the left.
Different campaign strategies were adopted by the various nominees. Some proved a quick failure, such as resorting to sophisticated political jargon to make up for the fact that the candidate could only cook eggs in different forms. The feminist card was not enough for another candidate who openly admitted not being able to cook, but took pride in actively “supporting” his wife’s cooking by looking after their baby, chopping, peeling, and doing the dishes.
Frederick Ballit, one of the most prominent candidates now living in Sweden, explained his strategy to SyriaUntold. “My method was to film and explain, rather than take photos. That’s why people were happy at the sight of a dish explained in a simple, light, and inexpensive recipe.”
Hashtag humor proved effective in catchy slogans along the lines of “Ajlani la tinsani” (Don’t forget Ajlani), which was ideated by Riyad Ajlani, another prominent candidate living in Saudi Arabia.‘Electoral’ posters were also featured. Some were created by the group admins for the candidates to help them focus on their cooking.
Some ‘fans’ of the candidates circulated their own ‘electoral’ posters in what might have been mistaken for a parallel mostly annoying competition.
As dishes flowed and votes soared, one candidate was tempted beyond his reach. Around half way through the month, he was confronted with harsh evidence of his plagiarism on the group wall, leading to what Rita refers to as “our François Fillion scandal.”The news hit the group with a bang. Rita and the other admins took some time before they reached their final verdict:
“Candidate X Z is excluded from the competition for integrity reasons. He is banned from participating for three electoral rounds. All the votes he collected thus far are now counted null.”
But the candidate did not take this easily, and he tried to appeal explaining his motivations as ‘force majeure.’ “This is a despotic measure against me. I don’t have a kitchen right now to cook and photograph. I resorted to my archive and the recipes I taught the backstabbers.”
The ‘repercussions’ were heard across the competition. A sense of suspicion had crept into the elections, and as a result, the finger was pointed at another prominent candidate, Canada-based Basel Abdo, accusing him of fishing his photos online.This prompted Basel to add photographic evidence by including himself in the frame of at least one of the shots he took for each dish. He also encouraged the accuser to ‘Google’ his photographs if ever in doubt.
Basel’s campaign was indeed the most elaborate. He had formed another closed FB group that included a handful of his friends who would discuss his campaign strategy and agree on techniques and ploys.
The best move by these campaign organizers was convincing two of the weaker candidates to join Basel in an electoral alliance stretching from lower Strasbourg (Assem Hamsho) to Bavaria (Sarmad Al-Jilane) and upper Canada (Basel).Therefore, Basel’s handwritten electoral statement emphasized his sincere, unbiased commitment to the cause of upholding the kitchen to the benefit of all. The Politics
At around this point, one of the members came out with a question that had perhaps been silently running through the minds of several voters by now. “Is this a cooking group, or an undercover political group? It’s all full of activists I see!”
Group members’ replies flowed in:
“Stop stirring the pot, man!” “The pot is calling the kettle back…”
“Here you can turn your passion for the cause into useful skills for your kitchen life: May the class struggle be an inspiration for a new Tiramisu, may your Béchamel be as puffed as Arab Spring dreams.”
“I must maintain my reservations against class struggle inspirations for the Tiramisu, for it will lead either to a state of fake awareness or a mashed desert.”
“We stuff secret letters into our vine leaves, and send coded messages in our recipes.”
As the final week of Ramadan approached, the challenge became overwhelming for some candidates, like Nabil Attar in France, who was already participating in a ‘real’ refugee food festival in Paris that week. Cooking for over a hundred people every day prevented him from keeping up with the other candidates, like Basel, who actually took a day off work to finalize his “shock and awe” strategy, as Rita puts it, and stayed up until 4am on the last day of open competition.
Eventually, with the photo on the right, Rita announced an electoral silence for a couple of days, giving voters a chance to confirm their choice, and candidates an opportunity to prepare for the final competition: the maqlubeh ("the upside-down") in any of its variations.
Turning the tables?
It was announced that the maqlubeh competition alone would count for 50% of the points, while all the previous work counted for the remaining half. However, a dilemma emerged when Frederick, who was almost heading the polls, announced his withdrawal from the final competition, saying this was a plate he “will never cook in [his] kitchen,” because of the particularly painful memories it evoked, without further elaborating.“Freddy”’s fans asked the administration to change the designated plate, only to be confronted with a firm refusal. So, one of the weaker candidates, Sarmad Al-Ajlani, volunteered to cook Frederick’s maqlubeh for him, and asked the admins to add his votes to Fredrick’s points. In this initiative, he didn’t forget to capitalize on his hashtag (#Single_Sarmad) in an attempt to boost his popularity among female voters by displaying his chivalry and cooking skills!
As Ramadan came to an end on Saturday the 24th of June 2017, the voting on the maqlobeh competition closed at midnight CET Sunday night, which was the first day of Eid Al-Fitr. After counting the votes, the results were announced as follows:It was only at this point that an award was announced: In addition to being “crowned" with the title, Basel was promised a cooking apron with the kitchen logo and his name embroidered on it.
When we asked the top five participants why they went through all this trouble, their answer was unanimous: for the love of cooking, and the social bonding it entails.
“King" Basel further elaborated on that. “When I first arrived to Canada, cooking was my only savior from burn out. It was my sole refuge to feel productive again, capable of doing something good. It got me back on my feet after all I had gone through before arriving here, all the harsh conditions that had seriously undermined my self-confidence.
The competition gave me a great atmosphere, a feeling of love and familiarity between people, many of whom I don’t know, and they don’t me either. But their good wishes were more than enough.”
Up Next: “The Observatory”As for the next group activity, some members agreed there is an urgent need to establish a new “Observatory for Syrian Cuisine Violations.” Its mechanisms are yet to be developed, but Rita told us “it aims at gathering and documenting violations against our cuisine in the different countries we live in.”
This is in turn opening a new debate about the limits of “variation and innovation” and what constitutes “an overt crime” against taste!As for the next competition, Rita told us it will be the 2nd Annual Makdus Pageant during the upcoming eggplant and walnut season in September.
[All images are courtesy of Diaspora Kitchen FB page. All rights reserved to the authors].