New Internationalist

Sfiha and gingerbread vs. monoculture and extremism

Andalucia is a long way from Vancouver, I thought, as I prepared for our official West Coast Canadian launch of the October issue, which explores the cultural diversity, political complexities and social realities of majority Muslim countries.

Our fir-heavy rainforest by the Pacific town is about as far from the olive and almond trees of Granada as you can get. We have no Andalucian arabesques. We're a city of shiny new green-glassed towers. Freighters just in from China sitting in the harbour dream of future greatness while the stories of the Peoples who have lived here for thousands of years are paved over by amnesiac sea walks, where the good citizens of Vancouver can jog themselves silly.

But despite our new world sense of dislocation, the cultural and religious pluralism so key to the Andalucian experience is alive and well here. An important point in my October issue keynote is that monoculture breeds extremism, and pluralism and mutual respect go hand in hand. I also call for a re-invigoration of the universalist interpetation of the umma or Muslim community - as extending to all of humanity.

These are concepts at ease in Canada's third largest polyglot city, where mosques and Buddhist shrines, churches and Sikh temples peacefully co-exist, and where half our populace were not born here and do not speak English as a first language.

True, we have no Alhambra, but we do have stunning Arthur Erickson concrete masterpieces, buildings that evoke the mountains and sea that surround our city in a singular modernist vision. And we do have one good flamenco bar in town. But what we lack in passion, we make up for in diversity.

I thought about this as I prepared two dishes for guests who would soon be arriving at Sophia Books, the book shop/cultural emporium run by a French man from Africa on a street called West Hastings. 

One recipe was for sfiha - the Bekka Valley lamb and pinenut meat pie - I'd inherited from my Lebanese grandmother, whose parents had fled the Turks 100 years ago and settled in a North West Coast town called Prince Rupert, where they were adopted by a Haida chief. The other was my English granny's recipe for gingerbread, one she'd inherited from her Welsh/Liverpudlian mother, who'd met her father on a steamer to Vancouver in 1908 and married him at the high Anglican Christ Church Cathedral.

Just getting the ingredients was a bit of an expedition. Finding the right amount of ground lamb at my local supermarket offered an interesting foray into culinary anthropology. At the meat counter, I was met by a First Nations lady who called to her Anglo colleague in the back, 'Hey Rodney, where do we keep the ground lamb?' to which he frowned, 'we don't carry that here'. To which she replied 'Yes we do!' Soon she led me to the frozen food section where she proudly handed me half a kilo of frozen New Zealand ground lamb - it was halal to boot. (Vancouver's growing Muslim community - 55,000 plus - it seemed, had caused a sea change in the merchandise available at my local grocery store, hitherto a  halal free zone.)

I'd told her that I was preparing one of my Lebanese grandmother's recipes for a special event and she smiled at me with a certain familiarity, even complicity.

The exchange made me think of my great-grandparents' store in Prince Rupert, one of the only ones at the time that allowed First Nations people inside and did not harass them by having security guards monitor their every move. When I went up north several years ago to interview native elders who had known my great-grandparents, one lady smiled and said 'Yes, the Mussallems. They had good meat!'

And now, a hundred years after they opened their store, I felt a kind of primal satisfaction in this simple yet powerful retail exchange, with a Haida woman who worked at my neighbourhood Safeway.

I carried the meat home happily, and thawed it overnight. The next morning I began to prepare everything - gingerbread makings in one corner of my kitchen, sfiha in the other. Amidst the various kinds of dough making, bread rising, baking, sautéing of lamb and pinenuts in olive oil, there emerged a kind of culinary harmony. Even some of the spices crossed over. There was cinnamon in both the sfiha and the gingerbread, and in my tiny kitchen, the allspice called for in the Lebanese recipe wafted into the aroma of cloves in the gingerbread and they embraced in mid air.
I baked all day, as the West Coast rain socked in the city, and emerged from my kitchen, some six hours later, slightly dazed, with dough on my fingers, smelling of lamb, olive oil and cinnamon.

I arrived at Sophia Books and was greeted by owner Marc Fournier, who was serving mint tea to his guests, and playing Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan's latest musical offering - qawwali meets Jamaican reggae/dub.

Already assembled were First Nations film-maker Loretta Todd, Israeli/Quaker activist and author Maxine Kaufman Lacusta (whose book Refusing to be Enemies explores anti-occupation non-violent activism amongst Israelis and Palestinians) and Loring Bohach, a Ukrainian-Canadian member of the local Friends of the Library. There were a dozen other people - already a good crowd for a rainy night in a small Vancouver bookshop. (The intimacy of this event was a nice contrast to the successful event we put on last month in London's Asia House, its grand Georgian interiors hosting a panel of contributors and a crowd of 200 - check this site for video soon.)

Marc introduced me and said: 'In our own ways, we are all trying to re-create little Andalucias.'

After speaking about the history of New Internationalist in Canada (we've had offices here since the 1970s and used to receive funding from CIDA as part of their public participation programme), I spoke about the October issue, highlighting dispatches from Saudi feminist Wajeha al-Huwaider, gay Iraqi activist and practicing Muslim Ali Hili, and Jewish-Iranian American writer Roya Hakakian. I also spoke about the article by Ziauddin Sardar on how the whole concept of the 'Islamic state' - inspired by the Western idea of the nation state - is un-Islamic, as the faith is a universalist, not a nationalist or parochial, movement. And I spoke about author Nafeez Ahmed's excellent piece on the continuing post-Cold War complicity between Western intelligence agencies and 'Islamist terror'. (His article makes the 'war on terror look like a make-work programme for the military.)

Then I invited Aziz Khaki, a long time interfaith activist and father of El Farouk Khaki (founder of the gay Muslim group Salaam) and Imam Fode Drome, a West African Sufi, to join me for a discussion. Aziz - the consummate story-teller - spoke of his experience inviting a German friend to pray with him in the mosque, and later entertained with tales from his native Zanzibar, where the rich cultural mix is epitomized in the tarab music that combines the local Omani, African and Indian traditions. 'Islam is not a monolith,' he commented. 'My experience of Islam is rooted in my African culture and is different from the experience of a Pakistani or an Indonesian.'

Imam Drome, with his deep, mesmerizing baritone, spoke about the Sufi tradition in West Africa, and said that 'Jesus is revered by Sufis - and Muslims in general'. Imam Drome runs the locally based Al-Zawiyah foundation, where meetings with Jews and Christians are regular events and the original role of women in Islam - as equals to men and community leaders - is being reinvigorated. 

Imam Drome also spoke of the diversity of the Muslim community and his shock when he travelled to Yemen with his wife, only to discover that there was no place for women to pray in the local mosque. 'She had to wait in the car, while I went inside to pray,' he said. 'It made me feel uncomfortable.' In early Islam, he related, men and women prayed in the same area. 

He also spoke of Andalucia as being a model of cultural and religious pluralism and said: 'in some ways Vancouver really is a new Andalucia.'

Imam Fode explained that the concept of the umma originally referred to Jews, Muslims and Christians and in fact extends to all of humanity.

Indeed all the great faiths - in theory if not in practice - speak to the reality that we are all one human family. From the Prophet Mohammed's statement after conquering Mecca 'I trample under my feet all distinctions between man and man, all hatred between man and man' to 'Love thy neighbour as thyself' to the First Nations' 'all my relations'.
I thought about this as we all finally broke bread - er... gingerbread - together, sharing stories and connections from all of our backgrounds.

There was a universal rush for the sfiha, and a general sense of satisfaction as we left Sophia Books with smiles on our lips, and food in our tummies. 

As we parted ways, Imam Drome invited everyone for an Eid feast, as it happened, on Halloween. 'If you come in costume you might win a prize,' joked Aziz. And then we were off into the warm, wet Vancouver night, momentarily a West Coast Andalucian idyll.

Comments on Sfiha and gingerbread vs. monoculture and extremism

Leave your comment