Shahrazad’s Pharmacy: Literary Objects that Delight and Instruct

American University in Cairo CAASIC fellow Anny Gaul (who blogs at  recently gave a talk at the AUC on “Shahrazad’d Pharmacy: Literary Objects that Delight and Instruct.” Will Barnes was there:

gaulBy Will Barnes

How does our understanding of food and its intended purposes effect our reading of Arabic texts? Doctoral student Anny Gaul‘s talk yesterday at the American University in Cairo attempted to answer that question.

A graduate student at Georgetown University in Arabic Literature, Gaul’s research focuses on food, society, and culture in the Middle East. She began by recanting the “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad,” a story from 1001 Nights.

The three women live alone in a lavish palace. One day, one goes to the market with a shopping list that includes, among other things, a number of flowers. Thereafter, they throw a lascivious party with several male strangers. Elliott Colla, in a chapter in Scheherazade’s Children, described the party as a “lusty sexual-linguistic romp,” and Geert Jan van Gelder in his book Of Dishes and Discourse refers to its “rich diet of food and sex.”

A superficial reading of the story would lead the reader to believe that the flowers only play an aesthetic role. But, as Gaul pointed out, some of these flowers served medical purposes, with some regulating the health of the uterus and with others inducing abortion.

Gaul qualified her point, stressing that it’s impossible to know for certain whether or not these women were aborting pregnancies, but being aware of the medicinal roles played by these flowers alters our understanding of the text.

Intrigued by this intersection of food and pharmacology, Gaul interviewed a number of ‘atariin. The word does not translate smoothly into English, being rendered variously as apothecary, pharmacist, druggist, apothecary, perfumist, or spice seller. She has spent hours discussing the various purposes of spices, foods, and perfumes with the ‘atariin.

The ‘atariin have continued to play an interesting role in the Middle East. A number of their products have been continually sourced from the same places for centuries. Regardless of whether ‘atariin have been characterized more by continuity or change, Gaul stressed that they still serve as nodes of cosmopolitanism in the Middle East.

One of the prevailing trends in the study of food and culture, Gaul remarked, is toward localism and is the outgrowth of European-centered studies. ‘Atariin challenge this framework and encourage scholars to stress how food represents intersecting networks that span and connect localities and disregards national borders.

Further emphasizing this point, Gaul referenced Abla Nazira, an Egyptian woman who the Egyptian government sent to Great Britain as part of a delegration to study culinary arts. Upon returning, Nazira published a 900-page cookbook in the 1940s. On the surface, Nazira’s experience seems to mirror those of other Arabs commissioned to study in Europe by governments keen to adopt the practices of the West. Nazira’s cookbook features French and British recipes, but it certainly does not fully endorse a Western view of cooking. In one telling example, Gaul pointed to Nazira’s instructions for cleaning. The book does not explain the best methods for cleaning Egyptian cheeses. Rather, it reminds its Egyptian readers that they know best and that they should maintain their current practices.

One of those practices involved washing poultry in a mixture of water and vinegar. This specific practice, Gaul argued, reminds scholars of the need to be attuned to both localism and cosmopolitanism in the study of food. After an informal survey of this practice, Gaul found that mainly people living in the Middle East and Latin America today wash their chicken in poultry and vinegar. Although this finding merits further study, Gaul noted that it resembled the journey traveled by mole from Baghdad to Al-Andalus to Latin America.

Gaul’s research focuses on an understudied topic. It reminds us of the artificial nature of national borders in the Arabic speaking world and the importance of understanding the roles of objects in Arabic literature.

Will Barnes works for the Center for the Study of Youth and Political Conflict. He was a CASA fellow at the American University in Cairo from 2012-2013.