Eat, Drink, Protest: Stories of the Middle East's Hungry Rumblings: Buying Peace, One Feast at a Time
Ciezadlo, Annia, Foreign Policy
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.
We tend 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.
Ahmadinejad's 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, …
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Publication information: Article title: Eat, Drink, Protest: Stories of the Middle East's Hungry Rumblings: Buying Peace, One Feast at a Time. Contributors: Ciezadlo, Annia - Author. Magazine title: Foreign Policy. Issue: 186 Publication date: May-June 2011. Page number: 76+. © 1999 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.
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