By the FT's Chloe Cornish
I’m in an ancient citadel in central Tunisia. In among the whitewashed walls and lattice of streets there are dark souqs, carpet sellers, people pushing carts full of fresh, flat breads or carrying round dishes of date-stuffed cakes, puffs of steam and sweet smells and cigarette smoke. If this sounds familiar to you, its probably because this is where they film scenes of ‘old Cairo’ for movies (I later discovered that this beautiful city is also a hotbed of islamist extremism, but that’s another story).
It’s mid-afternoon and we - my boyfriend and I - are hungry. But despite Kairouan’s appeal, this is 2014, and Tunisia is no longer a tourist hotspot - we can’t seem to find any sort of cafe or restaurant, and the hungrier we get, the more lost we become.
Round yet another corner, we stumble upon what looks like a garage full of men, all jostling around what appears to be a set of blackened frying pans as wide as my arm span. One breaks away holding a sandwich which appears to be stuffed with oozing fried egg and chilli. It looks delicious. I’ll have what he’s having.
I wriggle my way in towards the harassed chef. I ask (in Arabic) for two of his egg sandwiches. The hubbub in the crowd stills. The chef regards me quizzically, and then asks me if I want chilli sauce. “It’s very spicy,” he warns (in Arabic). I say something to the effect of, “Bring it on”. He laughs jovially and hands me two chilli-soaked pockets of dripping egg-yolk and flat bread.
Food is a great reason to learn Arabic. The middle east has phenomenal cuisine, and the good stuff is nearly always off piste. But more importantly, being able to speak Arabic helps you connect with people over food - people who you’d never get to chat with otherwise.
In Oman, I made friends with a Yemeni chef who demonstrated how his stretchy national bread, ‘khobez yemeni,' is crafted - slapped against the side of an oil barrel-shaped oven, in which a raging fire burns, before being scooped off with a metal pole.
In a refugee camp in Greece, Syrian grandmothers described how to make speciality Aleppine dishes, many of which they managed to recreate over open fires in blackened saucepans - sticky, garlicky rice, stuffed peppers, burnt aubergine sauces. I was there during Ramadan and iftar, the breaking of the fast, brought divine smells, delicate flavours, and a warm welcome to everyone who passed.
In Erbil, northern Iraq (also known as Kurdistan), Christian women displaced from Mosul showed me the traditional bulgur wheat balls, ‘kibbeh,' they’d made in the drafty concrete shell of a shopping mall they now called home. It was Christmas time and very cold - having escaped ISIS, the best they could do for their children was cook the foods they knew from home.
In these three examples, food - and language - was a constant in lives otherwise brutally disrupted by war and violence, something of a comfort in dark times. My Arabic is very far from perfect, but I hope in these cases it made me a more sensitive listener to the stories of home which came with each dish.
I’m not a natural linguist, but I chose to learn Arabic because I didn’t want language to be a barrier between me and news in the middle east - as a reporter, I didn’t want to miss anyone's story. Yes, it’s a continuing labour of love - different dialects still knock me off balance, and apparently my accent is somewhere between Lebanese, Syrian and Iraqi. But if I’ve learnt anything, it is that you speak Arabic with your hands, your voice, your hands, and your stomach.