Kneading Words: Mohammed Alnaas on Bread, Writing, and the Stuff of Language

By Mohammed Alnaas

Translated by Nashwa Nasreldin

Mohammed Alnaas

My relationship with bread is long and troubled, just like my relationship with writing, although it’s a connection that stems from my early childhood. When I was young, I used to carry trayfuls of kahk and magroudh to the Golden Sheaf bakery in eastern Tripoli, which was owned by one of our neighbours, so they would bake them for us in their large ovens. When I would go into the bakery, I would see rows of all kinds of dough, ready to be placed in the oven. I would stand there, held in the thrall of this complex procedure, basking in the heat of the oven beside me, breathing in the wafting aroma of bread. I would eat some of it on the way home, taking care not to drop it onto the ground so it wouldn’t be “sniffed by the devil” and become inedible, as my mother used to warn me: “If it falls on the ground, pick it up very quickly, brush off the dirt and say: now God smelled it. Then you should kiss it and pass it over your forehead.” This, she used to say, would negate the sniffing of the devil. I held this bread so dear to me; it was the most special of foods. Summers and winters went by, until one summer I discovered the bread of another country. It was on a family trip to Testour, a town in the north of Tunisia and it was there, that summer, that I was introduced to my first baguette, and my first casse-crout.

But this romantic liaison with bread didn’t last long and my memories of bread then took on a less appetizing turn. On similarly hot summer days, this time during the Libyan uprising in 2011, I can vividly recall the snaking queue I had to join at six o’clock in the morning, and stand in for two hours, before I could collect my daily quota of bread. Instead of a fascination with bread, that summer I was engrossed in a new passion that I had been gradually drawn to over the previous couple of years, alongside my usual interests in cooking, TV series and movies, and gaming. With no internet to pass the time in those revolutionary days, I had begun to spend my days reading, and writing. I even grew to reject bread over those three months, and gradually stopped eating it in an attempt to lose weight. By mid-2014, I had completely cut it from my diet. Writing took precedence in those days and I felt dragged by the craft like a donkey trying to chase a carrot placed on its head.

It was only after I returned from several trips abroad a few years later, during which I enjoyed sampling each country’s signature bakes, that I turned back to bread. In Tunisia, I became enamoured with the casse-crout, which is very similar to the Libyan mhawara; in Berlin, I fell in love with pretzels and the German Jijlaan (sesame), and in Turkey, I adored the flat bread they used in sandwiches. I savoured so many weird and wonderful types of bread that I began to doubt my childhood nostalgia that had fooled me into thinking I was a bread expert.

When I decided to write a novel about a Libyan baker a few years ago, I thought I really should learn how to bake bread. I didn’t believe in writing about an experience without having been through the test myself. Even if the story I wanted to write was a work of fantasy, I needed to find an element of reality. I had tried writing the book several times without having entered the bread-making world, without success. There was always something missing—something I was avoiding, something that, for no real reason, I hadn’t been able to delve into. The desire to indulge in this risky pursuit persisted in me for three years, until the global Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown finally got me to bake my first ever loaf. It was last April that, one morning, I woke up and told my wife that I had decided to bake bread. Rima had been following an Instagram account of a London-based Libyan chef, who had shared the recipe for making traditional Libyan mhawara bread (also known as mhoura, or madaas). I followed the steps of her recipe diligently. I was nervous, but it was a new kind of nervousness, the kind that’s full of enthusiasm. The same kind of nervousness you get at the airport when you’re on your way to an exciting adventure. The kitchen was a calamitous site—there was bread everywhere. It was on my face and my clothes; my hands were smeared in dough. The entire space got trashed as I baked. It was catastrophic, like a first dive into writing a short story you truly believe will be awe-inspiring. I was in such a rush to pull out my loaves and taste them, but the bread had its own plan. Bread needs patience; it’s a product of time and of air, given the yeast component. But despite taking out my unattractive loaves after two hours of baking, which tasted “not bad” as a friend of mine rates anything he doesn’t like, I was as happy as a father watching his young son grow, or like a writer watching his story take shape in front of him.

When I think back to the first loaf of mhawara bread that I baked, I can now assess it based on its physical properties, and can compare it to the many loaves of mhawara I went on to bake over the following four months. By then, I had also managed to solve the bread ‘conundrum’—how it requires patience, precision and a touch of creativity., and to develop my skills and knowledge of this process, which initially seems complicated, but in hindsight is just a simple process when broken down like a mathematics equation into a number of steps, ingredients and the ‘unknown’.

With time, I came to the conclusion that bread-baking as a creative act resembles the art of writing in many ways that might not be obvious to the untrained eye. And that the similarities become clearer with practice, and by persevering with the act of creation and creativity. In fact, it was thanks to my introduction to these adventures with bread that I managed to overcome a problem I had been struggling with for a long time: patience. Unlike how others may view me, by nature I’m an impatient person. Learning to bake bread is a test of endurance. This was helpful for me when it came to setting down drafts of my writing, but also in revising them, since I always hate reading what I’ve written and it takes a great deal of effort before I sit down and edit my own work. It also taught me when to give up, and that it’s okay to bin things that aren’t working out—even lengthy bits of writing that I thought could turn into a novel, instead of publishing them on my blog.

It wasn’t long before I attempted to bake my first French baguette, a bread that calls for a great deal of patience—all that waiting and bearing the heavy weight of time—as well as different techniques of kneading, shaping and reshaping. Baguettes need to be baked in a completely different way to mhawara bread; they have to be saturated with air and steam in order to come out crispy and delicious, just like the French bake them. They are created out of four main ingredients that I would say symbolically resemble the components of a narrative: flour symbolises Truth; water symbolises the soul; salt symbolises language, and yeast symbolises life. All you need is to add some air, use your own hands to perfect it, and then bake it at a scorching heat.

After baguettes, I moved on to many different types of bread: the Italian ciabatta (the older sister of the mhawara /madas bread), which needs half a day to prepare; large English country loaves; toast; Italian focaccia with olive oil and basil (hawsh bread as my mother calls it, or home-made) or tomatoes, olives, onions and peppers; sourdough bread (baked with natural yeast); Sicilian bread with semolina; burger buns, and New York-style bagels. I also had a go at other types of bread and pastries that require different methods of kneading and additional ingredients, like brioche, Polish babka, croissants (which we call ‘brioche’ in Tripoli). With each new exploration, my confidence would grow. Every time I learnt something new, I would begin to grasp just how much effort and passion others must have put into their baking, the ingredients, and even the type of flour they used, or how much time the loaves took to rise. The experience was filled with successes and disappointments, but it was also filled with learning. Each adventure was a new opportunity for self-expression and giving life to your personal creations.

Now, this is where I get to the point: after months of working in a kitchen baking bread, I find myself compelled (and impassioned) to refer to a cliché that many writers succumb to, by comparing the act of writing to a separate activity they have been equally absorbed in. You must have come across writers who claim that writing is similar to engineering, or driving a car, to mountain climbing, bull-fighting, growing potatoes, and even to sex. So, it won’t harm if I tell you my personal cliché, which is that writing is definitively similar to the act of baking. Writing needs a certain “je ne sais quoi”, or what we call “nafas”, or “breath”, in Arabic, which distinguishes one cook from another, and one writer from another. You also need a strong knowledge of the tools and techniques of the job, just as you need to persist in the work, to engage in self-critique, to notice minute details and variables, to handle your work with care as you shape, re-shape and polish it. Each text/loaf needs you to treat it as though it’s a brand-new text/loaf, with its own individual identity, while essentially forming part of a continual process of development.

Your piece of writing is like that loaf of bread, even when it comes to your health. Please note that I do not promote the over-consumption of bread, or even writing (and in fact, my first book even included a warning that reading is unhealthy). However, it is a therapeutic and spiritual experience of soul-searching—while you are engrossed in the act that is. And the act of sharing or publishing your text/bread is more than a form of possession; it is a quest for questions rather than an attempt to answer them, of connecting with your creations and trying to listen to what they are saying to you. Don’t try to force the dough to do what you want it to. Sometimes it’s better to follow the narrative. And despite the air/composition being a component that is added at a later stage, it is just as important as the main ingredients. The time it takes to work on your text/loaf of bread remains the determining factor in terms of its quality. You need patience and perseverance, the courage to explore, and to be brave enough to reveal your own personal contemplations to your loaf. And finally, don’t forget to clean up after yourself and to sweep the marble floor when you’re done, so that you don’t annoy Rima.

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Mohammed Alnaas is a 31-year-old Libyan writer from Tripoli. He writes in Arabic and English and has published several essays on Raseef22, Khatt30, New Lines Magazine and Culturico. His first book, Dam Azraq (Blue Blood), is a collection of short stories published in 2020, his debut novel Bread On Uncle Milad’s Table (Meskliniai Publishers and Rashm, 2021) won the 2022 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and his second short story collection A Place Where No Dogs Roam is under publishing by Fergiani Publishers in Cairo. 

Nashwa Nasreldin is a writer, editor, and translator of Arabic literature. She is the translator of the 2014 Sheikh Zayed Book Award-winning novel, After Coffee, by Abdelrashid Mahmoudi. Her book translations include the collaborative novel by nine refugee writers, Shatila Stories, and a co-translation of Samar Yazbek’s memoir, The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria. She holds an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is a former documentary producer and journalist. She is a contributing editor of ArabLit Quarterly, and managing editor of its sister website, arablit.org

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