Food in Exile
It is not surprising that the dinner chat at her Majesty’s house, in that southern corner of Morocco, revolved round exile, for she has been an exile herself for almost four decades. And so, it was she who connected the dots between the dishes of the sumptuous dinner and the dominant theme round the table.
“Food in exile” is very important, she said, for food – and I am putting words in her mouth - conjures up memories of the land, the produce, the climate, the markets, the returns home at dusk, the cooking with family members talking in the background, the gatherings round the table, and the feelings of nourishment, in which the physical mix with the soulful.
Perhaps the soulful in the food goes farther. Food entails recipes, a passing advice from an old aunt, and “the breath” (el-nafas – indeed the soul in Arabic) of the cook that makes all the difference between the decently-cooked and the finger-licking delicious.
These tangibles and intangibles take us to what was in the early stations of our life familiar, as well as to acquisitions we made along the journey. It can delve us into our shapeshifting personal histories, primarily because food has always been a companion of both: the victorious and the defeated. For the Victorious, food is an expression of expansion. For the defeated, food fills the inner void – often to the extent of stuffing oneself. Food has also always been a companion of the wounded, and many exiles are wounded. Here food itself becomes the shapeshifter: often the bringer of memories, often their banisher.
On that dinner table at her majesty’s house in southern Morocco was a novelist who had travelled all the way from New York to that remote spot at the edge of the desert. She came to the border of nothingness to create new memories, as much as to set fire to old ones. She came seeking inspiration and healing through a Dervish-like ritualistic dance in which her mind swirls between the two. In a way, obliterating her tortuous past necessitated a serene present to fill the void that was to emerge. This is why the queen’s words of how food in exile awakens memories touched her. The catalysts of the flavours flared up in her mind rapid flashes, as if from a thriller movie, of chases and struggles between what she had left back in New York and what she is acquiring here in Morocco.
The writer in her wanted to unleash the plot behind the scenes her mind was throwing at her. As she left the dinner table, and took refuge under a giant old tree in a corner of the house’s garden, the scent of jasmine mixing with the mint flavour of her cigarette, she let her mind drown in these scenes.
The melanges of food and memories plunged her into a great inner silence where her memories have become spiderwebs: intricate, circular, and fragile. Exiles could be labyrinths. And, as in the Theseus myth, we need a ball of thread to guide us out of our own labyrinth; otherwise, we could lose ourselves in the past, condemning ourselves to repeat it, to continue tasting the same limited array of spices.
Yet as much as there is pain in the memories resurrected, there is also, at least equal, joy in treading paths where our growing understanding holds a torche for our minds. She saw the illumination in the melange of pain and growth. She understood that this illumination is never sudden, but always, by necessity, incremental, a gradual process within her. And entailed in that process is that she builds up into a whole the fragments of memories she has come here to crush. Acquire new ones, she may.. but crucial to her journey is her accepting of her becoming “one acquainted with grief”…She gets it.
The beauty of emotions that are stirred, digested, and emerged transformed in a more mature consciousness, is that the whole process is a sort of a cresting of a wave. That wave might have gathered force through triggers of taste buds, triggers of memory buds, and as the wave rushes onwards, it embodies colossal energy; it brings new insights; and ultimately it crashes on the shores of our mind. These insights are a way out of the spiderwebs.
With a faint smile, she inhaled the last of her cigarette’s smokes, left that jasmine-filled corner, and returned to the villa as the cardamom tea was being served.