x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Well served

Ahead of Eid al Adha, a look at the many forms of sacrifice and love - and how they relate to the way we eat.

"The simple act of eating can nurture qualities that are integral to a rich and fulfilling ­spiritual life," says Nouf Al-Qasimi.
"The simple act of eating can nurture qualities that are integral to a rich and fulfilling ­spiritual life," says Nouf Al-Qasimi.

"Look!" says my cousin Omar, holding a shiny, bulbous aubergine up to the lens. "It's my brother's nose!" As usual, the footage is so dark and grainy that we can scarcely make out the silhouettes, and this isn't helped by the fact that November in New England is cold, so all the shadowy figures are dressed in bulky sweaters. It's become an annual tradition to await the arrival of a Betamax tape in the mail each new year, and to savour these dreadful recordings of our cousins congregating at my grandmother's suburban New England home for a Lebanese-American Thanksgiving. Around the centrepiece of a bronze roasted bird stuffed with sumac-laced Lebanese pilaf is an array of mezze and about 40 familiar faces beaming in tryptophan-induced euphoria.

It's been a while since I thought about those tapes or said "Betamax" aloud, and it's been a painfully long time since I sat on the stoop of that old clapboard house. Omar, then an aubergine-wielding teenager, is now approaching 40. The aunt whose smooth, jittery hands held the camcorder, and whose ineffable laughter resonated through almost every frame, passed away more than six years ago. And my grandmother, Situ, the epicentre of our family, has been gone for more than a decade.

Eid al Adha, also known as the festival of sacrifice, brings new depth to the concepts of love and sacrifice, and how they relate to how we eat. Although the Eid is always on the same day of the Islamic (lunar) calendar, the date on the Gregorian (solar) calendar varies. This year, the Eid begins on the sunset of Thanksgiving Day: tomorrow. I took Situ for granted every time I sacrificed her wonderful leftovers in favour of the nuclear cheese-laden gas station nachos on which I was fixated at the time.

"Because I'd rather keep the good stuff aside for you guys" is my mother's response when I ask why she insists on scavenging through the fridge for leftovers when there's hot, fresh food on the table. Did she routinely sacrifice pleasure for fear of waste? I am fascinated by the Depression-era domestic habits of previous generations. But clearly, a conscientious and mindful attitude about food is not necessarily generational, genetic or socioeconomic: it's logical, sociopolitical and just.

As a teenager, I was hard on my mother for subsisting mainly on leftovers, quipping that everything she'd eaten in years had seen the inside of a Tupperware container. But after moving away to attend college, my reign of tyranny ended. Once I witnessed my own conspicuous consumption, calculating food costs and forced to deal with my own waste, I developed a new appreciation for her dedication. What I think we were really after, in watching those old videos of Thanksgiving, was a pervasive sense of security and abundance amid chaos and activity. Eid in the Emirates, by comparison, felt formulaic and subdued; it may have been the grandest holiday of the year, but there were no eccentric greeting cards, no humorous gifts, no gags and no roughhousing with cousins. There was an almost trick-or-treat quality to the acquisition of Eidiyah, traditional gifts of cash that would be pressed into our keen and capitalistic little paws.

The word "sacrifice" is derived from a Middle English verb meaning "to make sacred". It can be the practice of offering something to God as an act of atonement, or it can imply a temporary loss in return for a potential reward. It can be used figuratively to describe a good deed for which nothing is expected in return, or it can mean to cut one's losses, as with shepherds who will forfeit their sickliest sheep to predators in order that their herd may move more safely and swiftly away. Ultimately, what defines a sacrifice is its value, however subjective, and the uncertainty of a quantifiable outcome: sacrifices are soulful in nature, not cerebral.

In the Emirates, when a person compliments something, it is customary to gift the item to the admirer. I am neither superstitious nor selfless enough for that, however I do get tremendously uncomfortable while eating around hungry people who are awaiting food. It's one reason that I can't stand eating in a restaurant where a line is gathered in anticipation. Restaurants are famously wasteful; huge quantities of food are disposed of daily, and very few establishments recycle. Though I generally avoid restaurants that serve mastodonic portions, I still need to ask for a doggy bag now and then. An awareness of the role of hunger, both as a spiritual discipline and a result of poverty, is important. But I don't fool myself into thinking that a heightened awareness, in itself, is sufficient. It is the very least we can do.

With extensive references to the Prophet Mohammed, Abu Hamid Muhammad al Ghazali's On the Manners Relating to Eating (Kitab adab al-akl) offers an esoteric window into how the simple act of eating can nurture qualities that are integral to a rich and fulfilling spiritual life. After breakfast on the great Eid, Muslims who can afford it sacrifice one of their best animals; usually a goat, sheep or camel, as a symbol of Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail at God's command. The meat of the sacrificed animal is divided into parts and distributed, often to the deprived. Families that do not own livestock can make a contribution to a charity that will provide meat to those who are in need.

Animal sacrifices are nothing new. The Abrahamic religions, the Hindus, Greeks, Romans, Aztecs, Yoruba and Ancient Egyptians have all done it. Agnus Dei is a Latin term meaning "Lamb of God", and refers to Jesus Christ's sacrificial offering to amend the sins of humanity in Christian theology. In Islam, animal sacrifice as a ritual happens only during the four days of Eid al Adha. The sacrificed animals, called udhiyah, have to meet standards of health or are not considered an acceptable sacrifice. In Hinduism, Yajna, often translated as "sacrifice", also means worship, love and devotion; it also describes the offering of ghee, grains and spices into a fire.

Gripped with a maddening nostalgia, I went to Lebanon in the summer of 2006 in pursuit of something (Situ's ghost? My lost milk teeth?) but I, along with many others, was evacuated six weeks later on a bus. At the Syrian border, where we were delayed for several hours, a young soldier reached into the bus and handed me a Twix bar and a can of warm Coke with a smile. I know what junk food contains, and that's why I don't eat it, but there was a war going on and I was ravenous. I split the Twix bar with the gentleman behind me. Transformed by gratitude, it tasted like manna from heaven.