The Summer 2021 issue of ArabLit Quarterly is available today in print and e-form:
Print editions are available today via Amazon (US, UK, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Australia, Japan, the UAE, and elsewhere), and are forthcoming in bookshops and elsewhere. E-copies are available as PDF or EPUB via Gumroad. You can also subscribe on Exact Editions (as an individual or institution) and become a subscriber and supporter on Patreon.
This issue was guest-edited by Nour Kamel, who introduces the work within:
By Nour Kamel
“It is said that there are three things that are nerve-racking: a lamp that does not give light, a slow messenger, and waiting at a table for a guest running late.” Badr al-Din al-Ghazzi, translated by Hacı Osman Gündüz (Ozzy)
I am usually the guest running late. Often, I offer my apologies for doing so with something sweet I’ve baked or bought. None of my friends have sworn off me yet, and I continue to receive invitations to dinner despite being always, without fail, infamously tardy. So I offer this as a remedy if, like me, you lose track of time more often than not.
I’m late in writing this introduction, skimming through the pages of this issue for the millionth time because I’m trying to get all the right words down to describe it. I wanted this issue to platform writers I’ve worked with, writers I love, and writers whose words all come together to talk about something integral to our lives: food. A cornerstone of identity-making, especially in the SWANA region and for many Arabic speakers, food is the lifeblood of family and community. It is a unifier, a cultural symbol, how we remember our history and traditions, and above all a glorious, satiating pastime.
This is not a rose-colored reading of food, or kitchens, or eating—our relationship to all this is complex. In these pages, there is proof. There are family dynamics tempered by the issue of space(s) in poetry by Rym Jalil, social and personal dynamics that bleed into our food in Amira Mousa’s insistence on not writing about food, and an attempt at a chocolate cake that helps Mohamed Khalfouf understand his mother’s labor and love of cooking.
I was excited for the opportunity to guest edit an issue all about food: the act of cooking it, the spaces it inhabits in all of our lives, its histories, its meanings, and its intricacies. This issue is as playful as it is longingly, desperately serious—often, I have found, these two things bittersweetly coexist. Sohila Khaled’s illustrated recipe for mahshi flows joyfully across the page, while in her essay, “The Waiting in Waraq Enab,” Yasmine Shamma struggles to make this same meal, which, for her, is imbued with loss and longing.
Palestine stands central in my heart always and through these pages, even in its absence. The texts here teem with the ramifications of access and displacement, and how it affects our traditions intrinsically linked to food and our (literal and cultural) survival. Not only is food an inevitability of our survival, it is an inevitable relationship we forge for a lifetime—one that endures a process of loss, or which we adapt out of necessity, as Zaina Ujayli poignantly writes about while rifling through the archive of early-20th-century Syrian American women writers. On both the individual and communal level, the complexity of food wants to be unpacked, and the voices in these pages attempt to do so across different continents, eras, and ongoing struggles.
A plethora of essays, most of them personal, fill these pages. This issue features translations of five Arabic texts which I had the honor of helping their writers build over two months during the “Taste of Letters” workshop. My driving intention as guest editor for this issue was to finally have them not only translated into English, but reach a wider audience. These texts speak to each other, and to my surprise but not shock, they resonated with the rest of the majority submission-based pieces.
Whether referring to blood or chosen families, most of these texts are written with community, ancestry, and kinship as central themes, which bind and formulate our relationships to each other and to our food. They shape and recur in these pieces, from recipes handed down by grandmothers—as Salma Serry walks us beautifully through the making of mirabbet lareng and the fascinating, complex history of the woman from whom she inherited it—to the moments we choose (or choose not) to share the intimate act of cooking and devouring—as Rehab Bassam depicts in a joyful, solitary, Fairouz-filled making of roz bil laban.
My hope for this issue was for it to showcase the diversity with which contemporary Arabic writers are addressing food, cooking, and the act of care—be it for themselves or others. The act of eating is one we do to sustain, even delight (or dala3) ourselves, and when we cook for others it is an extension of us: our life-force, our energy, our caring for others. There is no more intimate act that hinges on a lack of immediate reciprocity: to feed and sate others. And even though I am always late when others offer to feed me, I make sure that this act of care is returned in kind—with a little bit of sweetness added.