This conversation between novelist Donia Kamal and literary critic Asmaa Abdallah first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of ArabLit Quarterly, guest-edited by Nour Kamel. We re-run it now as part of Women in Translation Month (#WiTMonth):
By Asmaa Abdallah
The first time I read Donia Kamal’s Cigarette Number Seven, I was in tears. Over the revolution that came to nothing, over the narrator’s relationship with her father, over all her other relationships. It stayed with me for years.
The author later said, in an interview, that she’d been overcome by the idea of “unfinished dreams” and built the novel around that, as well as the desire to bring her long-deceased father back to life, so he could experience the revolution.
I read the novel again this year, with a fresh round of tears at all that could have been, but also with a new appreciation of the book’s meals: described in detail, yet mostly left uneaten.
Cigarette Number Seven is filled with food references: long paragraphs of characters examining, buying, and prepping dishes, ingredient by ingredient, then chopping and mixing and cooking. From the chicken-and-potato dish in the first chapter to the homemade fuul and moussaka later on, the reader can almost smell and see these sumptuous meals. Yet there are no descriptions of anyone actually eating or tasting them. The act of consuming is left to the imagination, or the reader is explicitly told that the food went uneaten.
Donia Kamal: All the details of food prep, and the descriptions of ingredients, were meant to develop the main character, whose character is reflected in her choice of raw vegetables and her method of cooking. Cooking is a central way in which the narrator feels; it reflects her state of mind and how she perceives the events and people around her. So it was more important for me to write about the process of making the food rather than about people eating it.
One of the few references to food being consumed is when Nadia eats—well, even smears her face with—the ice cream that her father got her. Does this show us that theirs is the only functioning relationship?
DK: Yes, the relationship between the narrator and her father is the one round, wholesome relationship in the narrative.
In many parts of the book, Nadia cooks for her father or for her boyfriend Ali. The former, we come to learn, has been dead for many years, while she constantly expects the latter to leave.
DK: Some people can only show their love for others by making them food. Nadia is always making food for the people she cares for; this is true with Ali and with the father. As for leaving, it is part of the narrative’s dilemma. Parting roads, break-ups, death, and all forms of leaving are the core of the story. Even as the reader gets to know that her father hasn’t been physically present, Nadia makes him present by describing his favorite meals and the time she spent preparing them. Ali is a different story; Nadia is always comforting him by making him his favorite meals, for instance when they have a fight, or when he ditches her once or twice, and the food is thrown in the trash as a sign of her disappointment in their relationship. Food can be an agent of love and comfort; it can be a sign of failure and sorrow.
The food each character prefers hints at their personality. For Nadia’s father, it’s traditional Egyptian classics such as fuul, while her boyfriend likes mashed potatoes, and Nadia is happy to make both. When Nadia leaves for the US, will her cooking also adapt to the people she is feeding, or will she want to protect her cooking memories?
DK: This is a question for Part 2 of Cigarette Number 7, if there is such a thing! Since this part hasn’t been written, there is no right answer. She may need to satisfy the people around her by learning how to make their favorite meals, and she might try to impress them with her skills in making traditional Egyptian food. We may never know!
Most of the cooking scenes were accompanied by music, which also pervades the novel.
DK: It was very much intentional for those scenes to be touching the readers’ senses. Also, don’t forget that having a radio in the kitchen is something that exists in the back of the heads of most Egyptian women. This radio might have been in a mother or a grandmother’s kitchen, but it was there. The radio, and some staticky old tunes, are common kitchen memories. I was trying to bring back that memory, to make the scenes real and warm.
As a child, Nadia seems to take more pleasure in anticipating food—such as when she’s waiting for the colorful bounty of rice, chicken, and potatoes that her grandmother will serve her—while, as an adult, she seems to take more pleasure from preparing it.
DK: As a child, her pleasure came from sitting in the kitchen and watching her grandmother prepare everything from scratch until she reached the stage of the fully cooked meal. The pleasure came from the mystery of the process in her young eyes; yes, from the anticipation. As an adult, she recreated the process as she’d seen it when she was young, and so cooking was more of a legacy that related to warmth and love, rather than about consuming food.
Near the end of the novel, as Nadia’s relationship and life unravel, we are told of “a smell of decay in the kitchen,” for which she can find no source or remedy. It’s ironic that this happens in the kitchen and not in another part of her small studio apartment—the couch perhaps, where she spends most of her time, and which she claims is her “ultimate pleasure.”
DK: This was the cathartic scene in which Nadia rids herself of all her nightmares and failures. The kitchen was where she cooked her emotions, and so it was the kitchen where these outdated emotions had to be expelled.
Adept as she is in the kitchen, Nadia does not dare make her father’s homemade fuul, even though she knows the recipe well. This is understandable, given her grief. Yet she keeps a bag of dried beans in her kitchen at all times. Is there hope that she’ll make it one day, perhaps as a sign of making peace with his departure?
DK: This dish was her father’s specialty. It contained all the warmth of a safe childhood before everything in Nadia’s life went south. This meal was her representation of family and of comfort; it was described as a hardship for Nadia to prepare or recreate the same dish, since she couldn’t recreate everything that came with the meal. The beans in her kitchen were only a symbol of what she’d lost and could not bring back, no matter how well she cooked.
There is a green pepper mirroring an eagle on the back cover. How did that come about?
DK: That was the brilliant idea of the artist who designed the cover of the book, Ahmed Al Labbad. He linked the events of the revolution with cooking in the book, and thus came up with this green pepper eagle that you saw on the back cover. I fell in love with the design the minute I saw it.
Which meal in Cigarette Number Seven did you most relish portraying?
DK: I loved writing all of them, but the potato-and-chicken meal that the grandmother prepared was a scene I liked writing a lot. But it was the moussaka that got me many comments from readers, who used this part as a recipe.
Do you like fiction that features food and cooking? Does food also take center stage in your other books?
DK: I like writing about anything that touches the senses. For me, this was the first time to write about food; my first novel had zero cooking scenes, and my most recent one is an epistolary novel that also did not include any cooking. I have to say I enjoyed writing the food sections more than I’d expected.
Asmaa Abdallah is a US-based literary critic and editor. She reviews Arabic fiction and interviews Arab authors for English-language publications such as ArabLit, Mada Masr and Jadaliyya. She also writes reader reports for publishers interested in Arabic translations. She studied literature for seven years, culminating in an MA in English and Comparative Literature from the American University in Cairo.