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date: 25 July 2021

Musical and Culinary Itineraries around the Mediterranean: Taking Cultures Offshore

Abstract and Keywords

This article explores the circulation of music and food in the Mediterranean in order to advance a novel theory of culture and cultural analysis. Borrowing from recent scholarship in ethnography, ethnomusicology, food studies, and critical theory, it proposes that the Mediterranean be understood as a space of cultural contradictions and indeterminacies that is best analyzed as a rhizome. Moreover, moving theory and ethnography offshore allows for a more nuanced engagement with culture in circulation. It demonstrates the advantages of such an “aquacentric” approach through analysis of the circulation of a song and a recipe from Egypt to France and beyond.

Keywords: Mediterranean, circulation, flow, music, food, cuisine, taste, aquacentric, rhizomatic, culture

Culture, Circulation, and the Mediterranean

What can we learn about the dynamics of culture through paying close attention to the circulation of music and food? What might a fluid, circulatory metaphor of culture in one region, the Mediterranean, teach us about culture in general? How can such models help us to understand the nuances and contradictions of globalization transformations in understandings of selfhood, community, and politics in an era marked by neoliberalism? I argue that the circulation and flow of cultural artifacts in, across, and around the Mediterranean Sea in the last century reveal the contours and cultural dynamics of an emerging Mediterranean cultural space. In what follows, I propose a theoretical framework for understanding cultural mobility, and culture itself, from the standpoint of the sea. I discuss the advantages of an “aquacentric” approach to culture and subjectivities (dynamism, indeterminacy) and argue that a study of cultural artifacts such as songs and recipes reveals the intricacies of globalization and transnationalism. Moreover, this approach aims to take anthropological theory offshore to disrupt the very notion of the “national” at the heart of modern social theory. I focus on two case studies of the flow of music on the one hand, and of foodstuffs on the other, across the space of the Mediterranean to demonstrate the utility of rethinking not only how we approach the Mediterranean, but how we theorize and research culture more broadly.

Circulation, Flow, and Mobility: Toward an Aquacentric Model of Culture

The concepts of circulation, flow, and mobility have played an important role in anthropological theory in recent decades. Especially in the work of Appadurai (1988, 1996), Clifford (1997), and more recently their interlocutors and critics (Ho 2006; Rockefeller 2011), anthropologists increasingly understand culture today in terms of fluidities and movement in the multiplex spaces, or “scapes,” of globalization. In the shadow of the master narratives of modernity that emphasize unity and homogeneity, attention to fluidity and motion subverts social theory and points to a more fragmented, ruptured, or “interrupted modernity” (Chambers 2008). In a similar manner, Tsing (2004) deploys the notion of friction to account for the nuances and contradictions of contemporary global systems through a metaphor of motion and resistance. What these and other recent studies reveal is how a focus on flow and movement undermines commonly held beliefs about cultural fixity, especially in national contexts, but in larger-scale, global contexts as well.

In addition, attention to the circulation and flow of people and culture around and across national borders suggests a more fluid model of cultural analysis. In her work on Mediterranean literatures, Cooke (1999) proposes that we understand the Mediterranean from an “aquacentric” or sea-based standpoint; that is, one that takes as its point of departure not the landed certainties of cultural nationalism, but the indeterminacies and fluctuations of the sea itself. Adopting an aquacentric perspective allows us to conceive of the Mediterranean not as a unified geopolitical zone, but as a cultural and imaginal space characterized by the complex flows and wavelike indeterminacies of the sea. Adopting a sea-based, fluid metaphor of culture in the region allows us to transcend the limitations of the more grounded subjectivities of traditional terrestrial models of culture, which are inadequate for capturing the complexities of culture in motion. Like other intermediary geographical, political, and cultural zones, the Mediterranean is a site par excellence of contradictions and indeterminacies, not only in terms of geographical and political realities, but also in our conceptual modes of thinking about subjectivity. An aquacentric approach to the Mediterranean (and to culture more generally) embraces these indeterminacies and contradictions, the ebbing and flowing of ideas, peoples, sounds in and around this imaginal space, in order to propose a more nuanced theory of culture and being.

An aquacentric approach demands a new way of conceptualizing the Mediterranean—what the Italian critic Franco Cassano (2011 [1999]) calls Il pensiero meridiano, “Southern thought.” For Cassano, the value of “Southern thought” lies in its resistance to uniformity and homogenization—features, in his view, of “Northern thought.” To think in a Mediterranean fashion requires paying attention to multiple voices and pathways beyond the simplistic and, for Cassano, dangerous optic of development (see also Chambers 2008, 19). I would also add that shifting from optical to sonic and gustatory metaphors for culture can open new avenues for rethinking and sounding the Mediterranean. In a similar vein, Edgar Morin (1998–1999) proposes heterogeneity as the sine qua non of Mediterranean thinking. Thinking the Mediterranean (penser la Méditerranée) also implies a concomitant Mediterraneanizing of thought itself (M éditerran éiser la pensée); that is, locating philosophy in those qualities of life characteristic of the Mediterranean, which for these thinkers are openness, communication, and tolerance (Morin 1998–1999). Doing so is not merely an academic thought exercise, but necessary if we are to contract the hyper-rationalism of the global North and secure a better future not only for Mediterranean peoples but for the planet itself (Morin 1998–1999, 36–37).

The inherent romanticism of Cassano and Morin’s arguments notwithstanding, recent critical scholarship—from Abulafia (2011) and Horden and Purcell (2000) to Chambers (2008), Matvejevic (1999), Tabak (2008), and Kousis, Selwyn, and Clark (2011)—has also promoted the idea that the Mediterranean in all its complexity and diversity is more a set of ideological constructs than a unitary place, so that anthropological and historical studies that posit a geopolitical and cultural unity miss the ways in which this unity is a discourse, often colonialist and even orientalist (see Herzfeld 1984, 2005). Traditional Mediterraneanist anthropology, with its fixation on honor and shame complexes, rural villages, and agrarian political economy, gives us little sense of fluidity and motion aside from shepherds roaming in their fields. In addition, even though the region itself is defined by the sea, in fact most studies of Mediterranean cultures have largely ignored the sea except when it defines a limit or horizon. Following Braudel’s famous injunction that, to best define the Mediterranean, “mountains come first” (Braudel [1966] 1995, 25), the classic studies of Mediterranean peoples have focused on rural populations, often far from the sea or in the shadows of the mountains. The Braudelian focus on geography and the longue durée, while bringing much-needed attention to questions of human ecology and adaptation, has perpetuated the modernist focus on the land as the true territory of culture and nation. As a consequence, sea-based modes of being and the role of the sea as bridge and barrier to cultural flows and exchanges have been undertheorized (Bromberger 2007).

In the twenty-first century these models are insufficient for analyzing the increasingly complex ebbing and flowing of people and ideologies, both within the cultural and imaginary space we call the Mediterranean and between this area and others in northern Europe, North and West Africa, the Americas, and elsewhere. The new Mediterranean, as many scholars have pointed out (e.g., Suárez-Navaz 2004; Monzini 2007), is constituted today by the transnational processes that animate the entire world: labor migration, political economic unification, increasing class stratification, and the cultural tensions that the processes of globalization produce. Over a million Moroccans traverse the Straits of Gibraltar each summer returning from homes in Europe; the flows of their remittances as well as hybrid ideologies of identity (Are they European Moroccans? Moroccan Europeans?) force us to rethink not only what “Mediterranean” can mean, but what Europe can mean as well (Dainotto 2007). The Spanish province of Andalucía, once a bastion for outmigration, is now a destination for many North and West Africans who seek their fortunes by making the journey across the Mediterranean, often risking their lives in the process. Syrians, less often though increasingly found in Spain, given recent history, own and operate not a few “Oriental” or “Mediterranean” restaurants and small industrial concerns in Andalucía, and other Arab and North African artists can also be found playing ‘ouds (lutes) and tablas (drums) in the old Moorish neighborhood of Granada, Albaicín. What makes these populations more or less “Mediterranean” than others in the same geopolitical and cultural space? With what Suárez-Navaz (2004) calls the rebordering of the Mediterranean, we need to understand these and other migratory populations as part and parcel of the Mediterranean experience.

New Cartographies: The Mediterranean as a Rhizomatic Space

The Mediterranean, like other intermediary geographical, political, and cultural zones, is a site of contradictions and indeterminacies—not only in terms of geographical and political realities, but also in our conceptual modes of thinking about subjectivity. An aquacentric approach to the Mediterranean (and to culture more generally) embraces these indeterminacies and contradictions, the ebbing and flowing of ideas, peoples, sounds in and around this imaginal space, in order to propose a more nuanced theory of culture and being. A focus on fluidity and flux suggests a novel cartographic imagination for the analysis of culture in the Mediterranean. Following Cooke and Chambers, to comprehend the Mediterranean in light of an aquatic metaphor requires a move from a terrestrial understanding of culture to a “pelagic” or “terraqueous” model in which the poetics of body, sound, and gesture “exceeds the conclusive logic of a monument, a book, a map, an archive, a law” (Chambers 2008, 10).

Chambers’s radical repositioning of Mediterranean cultural cartographies suggests the relevance for understanding the Mediterranean of a “rhizomatic” conception of culture (Deleuze and Guattari [1980] 1987). Rather than a linear, genealogical linkage among cultural forms in the region (what Deleuze and Guattari term an “arborescent” epistemology), a dispersed, rhizomatic approach reveals the shifting, fluid, and complex interconnections among elements and entities in an emergent Mediterranean. A rhizomatic model suggests that Mediterranean cultures can be understood not as variations on a theme, or as sets of practices and values associated through tropes of complementary differences or Wittgensteinian family resemblances (Bromberger 2007), but rather as a regional “assemblage” or network of contingent, heterogeneous, dispersed, and immanent multiplicities. Where the arborescent, genealogical model suggests stability, tradition, and hierarchy, the rhizomatic suggests a Mediterranean space of fluidity and openness, of continual change and processes of becoming and immanence; as with Cassano’s and Morin’s “Southern thought,” we can understand this approach as constituting a direct challenge to the standard Western ontology of the Mediterranean.

Following “Southern” thinking, anthropological and historical studies that posit a geopolitical and cultural unity miss the ways in which this unity is a discursive construction, often colonialist. Following Cooke, Cassano, and Chambers, I envision the Mediterranean as a volatile space for the promotion and contestation of ideologies of nationalism, regionalism, and even notions of peace and tolerance. Mediterranean thinking does not merely entail replacing unity with diversity or finding unity in the diversity of the region (a sort of sea-based E pluribus unum). Rather, it’s more a matter of acknowledging the diversity of the Mediterranean as a form of resistance to the master narratives of Europe, which in fact draw on a unified view of the Mediterranean as a place of origin, as the foundation of European identity. We need to insist on plurality, indeterminacy, and change as the basis of Mediterranean cultures and of culture in general. As a form of culture theory, an aquacentric, wavelike metaphor might work better than the more usual particulate model; traditional anthropology, drawing on a linear narrative of world history, has typically understood cultures, in Eric Wolf’s words, as “so many hard and round billiard balls” (Wolf 1982, 6), separate entities that occasionally crack into one another on the table of world affairs. Embracing a rhizomatic, aquacentric model requires analysis of culture as a network of potentialities and actualities in particular cultural-historical moments, as tendencies and particularities, trends and individual life stories. Attention to circulation, flow, and mobility not only allows us to rethink aspects of the Mediterranean as a culture area, but promotes a deterritorialization of social and cultural theory. Unmooring culture from the landed biases of the nation-state allows us to glimpse and taste a Mediterranean basin both more alive to cultural exchange and dynamism and more threatening to Anglo-Saxon narratives of modernity.

New Models of Mediterranean Culture, New Ethnography: Itineraries of Culture

An aquacentric theory of culture suggests a different sort of ethnographic practice as well, one less anchored to terra firma and its landed ideologies and more open to navigating new spaces, new cartographies of the imagination. Following earlier injunctions to trace “the social life of things” (Appadurai 1986) and more recent calls for a multisited ethnography (Marcus 1998), in what follows I explore a set of cultural itineraries of songs and food across and around the Mediterranean.1 Doing so allows us to access the rich interplay of forms in the Mediterranean and as a result reformulate our conceptions not only of the Mediterranean as a culture area, but also of the culture concept itself. The itineraries reveal not a Mediterranean space of unity and diversity, but an emergent assemblage of ideologies and pathways of rupture as well as connection.

Why music and food? Why are these substances, at once material and immaterial, such powerful markers of identities not only in local and national contexts, but also in “second homeland” (Aksoy 2014) and diasporic situations? Aside from the metaphors that tie them together (“If music be the food of love,” etc.), both music (including song and instrumental music) and food (including foodstuffs and recipes), through their portability, malleability, and sensuality, best capture the nuances of the contemporary Mediterranean space of indeterminacies, contradictions, hopes, desires, frustrations, and unfulfilled destinies. Music and food embody and embrace this rhizomatic complexity. As the two most transportable forms of cultural heritage of itinerant cultures and peoples, musical and culinary practices and lore animate the cultural imaginary and transport ideologies of selfhood and person. In their production, circulation, and consumption, they also discipline bodily habits—in music through the practices of performing, listening, and dancing (Cowan 1990; Shannon 2004; Small 1999), and in food through preparation, circulation, and commensal consumption (Allison 1991; Counihan 2004; Sutton 2001). Both have the power to create states of being in the world that allow for the construction, reenactment, and contestation of communal memories and histories.2 Songs and recipes offer, as Chambers puts it, a “cultural testimony” to the complexity of subjectivities in and about the Mediterranean geo-imaginal space (Chambers 2008, 42). Music’s special force derives from its ability to animate imaginal spaces, and perhaps more important, to penetrate and traverse margins and boundaries of the self, bodies, and entire nations and regions. Culinary cultures, also eminently portable, transcend national boundaries even as they are rhetorically deployed to enforce them. Like song, cuisine links people together in affective “food chains”: imaginative, material, yet dispersed, disjunctive (see Marte 2012; Mankekar 2005).

In combination, music and food are powerful conduits for the transnational movement of people, ideologies, capital, and mass media images (Appadurai 1996); songs and recipes travel wherever people go, but they also travel where people cannot go, or to where they might hope to go, sounding and tasting at the same time spaces of hope, desire, and longing. This is an apt description of the new cultural dynamics of the Mediterranean basin, where music and food have come to mark boundaries between people even as they transgress, transform, and reinterpret them. Like the waters of the Mediterranean itself, musical and culinary practices construct and challenge cultural imaginaries, offering spaces for the elaboration of memories and desires and for the creative play with identities, margins, and boundaries. “The smells from the kitchen,” Chambers writes, “like the sounds coaxed from the ‘oud or guitar, can suggest connections, collusions, and subsequent maps of meaning that the rigid grids of national geographies are neither able to contain nor recognize” (Chambers 2008, 131).

Tracing musical and culinary itineraries can help us overcome our terrestrial geopolitical biases and understand the deeper core of cultural creation and dynamism in the region. Yet aside from indirect references to the linkages between these domains, scholars have paid scant attention to the ways musical and gastronomic cultures are coperformed, how music and food are often coconsumed and coperformed.3 To paraphrase and extend Chambers, what we need is not so much “the anthropology of music and food, but music and food as anthropology” (Chambers 2008, 47). Following the “sound waves” and “food chains” across the length and breadth of the Mediterranean thus should allow us to apprehend cultures not as distinct separate identities but as interacting, overlapping, mixing, resurging, ebbing, and flowing potentialities. Moreover, the circulations of songs and recipes also trace emotional, affective, mnemonic, as well as geographical itineraries. Moving beyond the confines of the Mediterranean, such an approach helps us understand culture in general as wavelike, indeterminate, in flux, though with certain ports of call and anchorage points that give it temporary groundings and moorings of stability and continuity.

Sound Waves: Cultural Itineraries of Song in the Mediterranean

I begin with music. Many genres of music circulate in and around the Mediterranean today. Some we can identify as traditionally (even stereotypically) Mediterranean, including those that feature core “Mediterranean” instruments such as accordion, guitar, ‘oud, and bouzouki; rural and urban song forms characterized by tense vocals and nasal timbre; and songs whose lyrics treat not only themes related to the sea itself, including fishing and voyage, but also themes considered typically Mediterranean, such as fate, love, and honor (see Plastino 2005, 181–183). As a result of migration patterns that have grown both more intensive and extensive in the past decade (Monzini 2007), other musical styles have emerged in the Mediterranean space in the last decade: not only transnational or global popular forms such as rap, pop, rock, jazz, classical, and world music, but also songs from West Africa, Egypt, the Arab lands, sub-Saharan Africa, and as far away as India, Pakistan, and China (Plastino 2003). Therefore the Mediterranean is a complex sounding board and “echo chamber” (Chambers 2008, 48) for a variety of musical styles, and tracing the formation and circulation of musical forms in the region can reveal a lot about the dynamics of culture in the region as well as about the limitations of our terrestrial conceptualizations of culture and national identity. As Chambers notes, “The history of the Mediterranean can be rewritten following the formation of sounds that precede and exceed the limits imposed by national cultures and histories: from Oum Kalthoum to Almamegretta, the Euro-Mediterranean diaspora of raï, or the distillations of Arab, Latin, Jewish, and Rom itineraries in flamenco” (2008, 140).

While we could trace the social lives and cultural itineraries of any number of musical forms and songs around the Mediterranean, for the purposes of this essay I wish to follow one—the popular song “Salma ya salama” (or “Sālima yā salāma” [Safely oh safety]). Following the song’s voyage in and around the sea reveals a fascinating set of sonic and cultural itineraries that belie simplistic narratives of Mediterranean musical and cultural identity. Originally composed in 1919 by the Alexandrian composer Sayyid Darwish (1892–1923), “Salma ya salama” is a song of voyage and return. Performed in a monophonic and meditative style typical of the early twentieth-century taqtuqah or light Egyptian popular song (Lagrange 1996), “Salma ya salama” was initially composed for a musical theater piece that referred to the emigration and return voyage of emigrant Egyptians.4 Its strong nationalist sentiments also echoed the mood of the 1919 Egyptian Revolution against British colonial rule, and according to popular tradition, “Salma ya salama” was sung upon the return from exile in Malta of the Egyptian nationalist leader Saad Zaghloul in April 1921.5 The lyrics recount the longing for home among Egyptians returning after having traveled widely in the world and references both the digging of the Suez Canal and the Great War. The eponymous refrain, “Salma ya salama, ruhna wa gayna bi-salama” (We’re safe, oh safety, we went away and returned safely), sets the mood for the first chorus, in which the narrator calls to be let off the ship in his homeland, stating, “bala amrika, bala auruba / ma fi shi ahsan min baladi” (Not America, not Europe / nothing is better than my country). Before resuming the refrain, the song states, “al-markab illi bit-giib / ahsan min illi bitwadi” (The ship that returns / is better than the ship that departs). Later stanzas detail that while some may have financially benefited from being abroad, homesickness and the travails of war bring them home, by the grace of God. The religious referents are important in the overall thematic of the song, as they were important undercurrents in early twentieth-century nationalist sentiment.

Salma ya salama” constitutes an important part of the urban repertoire of twentieth-century Egyptian light song and remains popular not only in Egypt but also around the Arab world. However, this deeply nationalist song took on new life in the 1970s under the influence of another of Egypt’s great artists, Dalida (1933–1987). Born and raised in Cairo to Italian parents, Dalida (née Yolanda Gigliotti) performed in many languages, including her native Arabic and Italian, but also French, Greek, English, Hebrew, Spanish, German, and even Japanese and Dutch (Lebrun 2012, 2013; Pessis 2007). Moving to France in 1954, from the 1950s through the 1970s she became one of the most popular recording artists in French history. Her stardom in France was built initially around her Mediterranean persona: on the twentieth anniversary of her death by suicide, then mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoë referred to her as an “Enfant de la Méditerranée” (child of the Mediterranean) (Pessis 2007, 7; cited in Lebrun 2013, 86). Her Mediterranean roots—Italian born, Egyptian raised—were important signifiers of difference in a France coming to terms with its own trans-Mediterranean dilemma, the Algerian Civil War. According to Lebrun, “It was precisely in this period that Dalida, born in Egypt and billed as a ‘Mediterranean’ singer, became France’s most successful female artist. Her success typified France’s remapping of a ‘Mediterranean’ Other onto the northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, so as to avoid (post)colonial undertones” (2013, 87). In this context Dalida’s Mediterranean-ness was exemplified by recordings in multiple Mediterranean languages, instrumentation, styles, and sentimental aesthetics (Lebrun 2013, 89).

Dalida made a major splash internationally in the 1970s, with successful concerts and recordings in North America and worldwide. Among her landmark recordings was her 1977 version of “Salma ya salama.” Dalida’s version, originally recorded in Egyptian Arabic with later versions in French, takes the original song and updates it for an international dance music scene; performed, like the original, in a minor key,6 her version is upbeat, with significantly altered lyrics. While still invoking a longing for the homeland and using the original refrain “salma ya salama,” Dalida’s song revolves more around love; the homeland and the beloved become interchangeable in her version. “In the wide world I’ve traveled,” she sings, “but when my first love called me, I gave up everything and returned, and threw myself in his lap, and sang” (fi-d-dunya al-kabira wa biladha al-katira/lafayt lafayt lafayt/wa lama nadani hubbi al-awlawani/sibt kullu wa gayt wa gayt/wafi hudnu itramayt wa ghanayt). She then sings the famous refrain, “Salma ya salama ruhna wa gayna bi-salama,” linking her version to Sayyid Darwish’s original composition. Far from its original meditative aura, Dalida’s version is certainly more danceable, but it also focuses more on the qualities of the homeland that the voyager missed: the moon, the weather, evening gatherings, a tree in a garden—all markers of a generic Mediterranean conviviality and sentimentality but without any reference to war or the religious references found in the original lyrics.

Dalida’s “Salma ya salama” became a transnational hit song and among the first major world music hits. This is a landmark achievement for a song performed in Egyptian Arabic, not French, Spanish, Italian, or English. This song, in addition to reinserting Dalida’s Mediterranean-ness into the Euro- and transnational pop scenes, constituted one of the earliest and best-known Arabic-language songs to enter the world music market (Swedenburg 2005, 2012). She went on to make recordings of the song in other languages, and “Salma ya salama” has featured in a number of remixes, including a posthumous Hispano-Arabic duet with French Romani singer Sébastien “El Chato” Abaldonato, “Salma Ya Salama (Sueño Flamenco),” on the 1998 album Le Rêve Oriental. A recent version features samples not only of her voice, but of her image as well; the Egyptian vocalist Khaled Selim sings with a virtual Dalida, not only realizing what he claims in a television interview to have been a childhood dream,7 but offering an excellent example of what Stanyek and Piekut (2010) call “intermundane collaboration.”

In her shadows other artists have recorded versions of the song (but never the original composition by Sayyid Darwish), including well-known versions by the French group Alabina, including an Arabic-Spanish version (“Olé Ola”) featuring Israeli artist Ishtar; by the Alexandrian-born Canadian singer Chantal Chamandy; by Greek artists Hrispa (whose song “Fotia” uses the melody of Dalida’s Arabic version) and Mariposa; by Italian singer Patty Pravo; and by innumerable lounge musicians worldwide.8 Dalida’s version has featured on the song tracks of a number of films, including Gabriel Aghion’s Pédale douce (1996) and Didier Caron’s comedy Un vrai bonheur (2005), as performed by the group Les cochons dans l’espace. As a global dance hit, the song has at once transcended its Mediterranean origins and at the same time reinscribed them in a wider circuit of European and global self-fashioning, in which the Mediterranean (and especially its southern and eastern shores) plays a constitutive role. The song and its cultural history and itineraries are fascinating examples of the subversion of national borders and the decentering of subjectivity in and of the Mediterranean.

Salma ya salama,” itself a song of voyage and return, in its own permutations and voyages reverberates with Mediterranean thinking. In its original form, it spoke to the displacements and aspirations of a nation struggling under colonialism. In the voice of a postcolonial subject, the song reveals the fractured nature of contemporary Mediterranean subjectivities: it performs boundaries and subjectivities in states of flux; it carries echoes of rupture. “Salma ya salama,” in its rhizomatic fluidity and multiplicity, both resounds in the Mediterranean and sounds the Mediterranean itself. The circulation of the song traces the arcs of trans-Mediterranean memory cultures, invented traditions, and what we might call, borrowing from Rosaldo (1989), a postimperialist nostalgia and desire for the Mediterranean Other.

As noted, we could trace and analyze any number of trans-Mediterranean musical itineraries: the circulation of raï between Algeria and France (Schade-Poulsen 1999; Marranci 2005); the flow of Arab-Andalusian musics among Spain, Morocco, and Syria (Shannon 2015); the cultural politics of Palestinian-Sicilian Mediterranean musics in Italy (Plastino 2005); and the regional and global circuits of arabesk (Stokes 1993), rebetiko (Tragaki 2005), and flamenco (Chuse 2003; Martínez 2003), among many others. Like “Salma,” these and many other musical forms reverberate within circuits of desire, despair, fixity, openness, connection, and rupture. They collectively sound a Mediterranean that both draws us into its expanse and exceeds our capacity to define and limit it.

Culinary Itineraries in the Mediterranean: Circulations of Taste

Leaving the circulation of song in the Mediterranean echo chamber, I turn now to gustatory circulations. Like music, food is both portable, mobile, intimately tied to conceptions of home, and literally incorporated into bodies, both individual and sociopolitical. As a moral substance, food, in its production, circulation, and consumption, engages collective identities and social contradictions, national histories and cultural indeterminacies, memories and amnesias. Food also intimately connects with forms of knowing and distinction, hence the close linguistic associations in many Mediterranean languages between taste and knowledge: the Spanish sabor-saber, the French saveur-savoir, and the Arabic dhawq, which applies to both taste and knowledge in Sufi thought (Chittick 1981).9 Hence, foodstuffs and ideologies of food and culture (what we can call culinary or gastronomic cultures) are at once deeply attached to territory and mobile, thereby confounding cultural geographies based on notions of fixity. The tensions of rootedness and migration in culinary cultures can be analyzed by tracing what I call “food chains”—that is, the affective ties and cultural histories that link foodstuffs and recipes to specific places and communities, thereby tracing circuits of memory and nostalgia as well as erasure and forgetting. In this way, cuisine as a multisensorial moral substance links peoples in such a way as to challenge the cultural and political forgetting at the heart of nationalist agendas.10

From ancient to early modern times, the spice trade linked Mediterranean populations with a far-flung network of middlemen and traders as far as sub-Saharan Africa, northern Europe, East Asia, and, beginning in the late fifteenth century, the New World (Abulafia 2011; Abu-Lughod 1989; Freedman 2012; Wright 1999). This extensive trade in food commodities linked Mediterranean ports such as Barcelona, Valencia, Naples, Rhodes, Tangier, Salonika, Athens, Marseille, Tunis, Tripoli, Ancona, Trieste, Alexandria, Carthage, Beirut, Genoa, Venice, Majorca, and many others in a vast network spanning the length and breadth of the Mediterranean, with connections extending globally. The historical nexus of Mediterranean trade forms the background to the contemporary global circulation not only of foodstuffs and commodities, but also of ideologies of food, taste, and consumption—not the least being ideas concerning the “Mediterranean diet.”11 In addition to providing instructions on the preparation of dishes, recipes and cookbooks are rich cultural documents as well. They encode cultural and social memories and forms of nostalgia and are at the same time manuals for a type of self-fashioning in a postmodern era of multiple and contrasting subjectivities. Darra Goldstein (2010) argues that by “reading between the lines” of recipes we can catch glimpses of latent and submerged cultural histories, for recipes, like cookbooks, are precipitates of complex histories and challenge fixed geographies of identity. They at once are important documents in the construction of national identities and carry within them traces of centrifugal cultural forces that undermine them.12

Recent ethnographic and historical research has focused on the production, circulation, and consumption of food commodities such as sugar (Mintz 1986), olive oil (Meneley 2007), coffee (Roseberry 1996), and salt (see Matvejevic 1999, 52). For the purposes of this essay I do not trace the cultural history of a single foodstuff (given my focus on rhizomatic thinking, the cultural history of a rhizome like ginger might be illuminating), but rather propose a reading “between the lines” of a collection of recipes from the Eastern Mediterranean that reveal hidden histories and connections that undermine our current cultural map. I take as my starting point Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food (2000), an updated version of her original and now classic text from 1968.13 The manuscript is far more than a collection of recipes. In it Roden weaves discussions of favorite foodstuffs and ingredients with tales, riddles, proverbs, poems, and family anecdotes, because for her—Cairo-born daughter of Syrian Jews—these foods and ingredients form a “food chain” linking her both to the homeland she had to leave (like Dalida, Egypt, and in the same era) and to the long cultural histories tying her family to the manifold populations that created the cuisine that we today call “Middle Eastern.” Reading between the lines, we can find traces of cultural histories both near and far. In other words, it is an aquacentric text par excellence.

Roden begins the revised and updated version of her classic text with a story of her first recipe: ful medames (or ful mudammas), a popular Egyptian dish of cooked fava beans in olive oil with cumin, garlic, lemon, onion, and sometimes tomato and parsley, often served at breakfast time but eaten in Egypt throughout the day. From her perspective as a young student in Paris, the ful was no longer merely a “poor man’s dish” but “embodied all that for which we were homesick and became invested with all the glories and warmth of Cairo. Delicious ecstasy!” (Roden 2000, 4). Like her recipe for ful, Roden’s recipe for falafel/ta’amia (“bean rissoles”; Roden 2000, 61–62) weaves family lore, evocations of times past, and advice on the selection of ingredients and equivalents outside of Egypt with techniques for the preparation of the dish. Like Dalida’s evocation of Alexandrian warmth and intimacy in her version of “Salma ya salama,” Roden’s description of falafel evokes home as a place of simple pleasures that yield supreme ecstasies. These dishes—simple, popular, easily portable, and in many ways the culinary equivalents of Sayyid Darwish’s popular nationalist songs—link Roden to a (lost) homeland. These associations had earlier precedents: I often heard the story that Egyptian composer Muhammad ‘Abdel Wahhab (1902–1991), during a visit to France, searched high and low to find a restaurant that served ful medames. The lowly fava bean, for the great modern composer as for the exiled Egyptian schoolgirl, symbolized the comforts of home. People migrate and travel, and their ideologies of home travel with them, often in culinary form—and usually the basic national dish comes to stand metonymically for the entire nation. The recipes for these dishes then become manuals for rehearsing a rupture and reliving its momentary repair.

Similar “comfort foods” are well known around the Mediterranean, each the product of specific histories, taste cultures, and available ingredients. Others are so evocative of place that they become emblems and even culinary clichés of entire populations: couscous and tagine for Moroccans; bouillabaisse for Marseillais; meze, kebabs, and fish dishes for coastal Turks, Greeks, and Arabs; paella for Valencians; olives for Andalusians; and so forth. Moreover, the historical and contemporary links between Middle Eastern and southern European cooking are well known (Rodinson 2006, Zaouali 2009). From spices and ingredients, to the names of dishes and preparations, the Mediterranean—from Syria to Spain, Malta to Morocco, Turkey to Tunisia—has been a crossroads not only of peoples but of foods and ideologies of cooking and eating that one can literally taste when voyaging about the sea. The Mediterranean space encourages the rhizomatic diffusion of gastronomic ideologies, recipes, and spices that form powerful food chains, some manifest, others hidden, connecting peoples both in and across the region and with others both near and far. From “Slow Food” convivia sprouting in Turkey and Lebanon, to the New World food items at the heart of the “Mediterranean diet” (Morilla Critz et al. 1999), these circulations and irruptions teach us that “the traffic between cultures and histories, however much it may be resisted and denied, is the very basis of our modernity” (Chambers 2008, 128).

Indeed, in an era of increasingly policed Mediterranean borders and resurgent cultural (and culinary) nationalisms, the cookbook qua memoir reads as a marker of a rupture. Chambers, commenting on Roden’s book, argues that it

reads almost like a tragedy, and yet in the very details of gastronomic and cultural sustenance there s a constellation of being that continues to survive. Dishes that are the distillation of centuries of cooking, of culture, of historical composition and combination not only evoke the aroma and tastes of a place; they also register what elsewhere has often been brutally cancelled and institutionally ignored.

(Chambers 2008 130–131)

Roden’s recipes are bathed in nostalgia for a lost homeland and the lost potential of the cosmopolitanisms of the early twentieth-century Levant: the celebrated mix of Arabs, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Turks, and others, who in places like Alexandria, Beirut, and Smyrna sought pleasures from the same simple dishes that were their joint gastronomic inheritance.14 Reading between the lines of these collections, we discern a world in the throes of a heady mix of revolutionary and nationalist politics, of expulsions and reclamations, of battles won, but histories erased and often lost.

In the wake of the regional realignments that submerged these cosmopolitan histories, new Mediterranean “gastronationalisms” (DeSoucey 2010) have arisen, including the incessant “hummus wars” in Israel-Palestine (Ariel 2012) and ongoing debates about the “true” origins of such foods as baklava, “Turkish Delight,” lahmaçin, and grape leaves/dolmas: Are they Greek, Turkish, Cypriot, Arab, Kurdish, Armenian, Jewish, or what? These debates (sometimes lighthearted, but often very serious) are also reminiscent of recent food politics in crisis-ridden Europe. One example is the recent banning from the ancient walled quarters of the Tuscan city of Lucca of “fast-food” restaurants (Donadio 2009), which in the Italian context means the foods of immigrants: shawarmas/kebabs, gyros, and other pan-Mediterranean foods that do not fit the model of a conservative gastronationalism. In a similar fashion, the anti-immigrant sentiment of extreme right-wing groups in Greece, including the now outlawed Golden Dawn, have often found expression through food: restrict the circulation of certain foods, the message seems to be, and you restrict the flows of the people who produce and consume them. Ironically, international agencies such as UNESCO have had a hand in the promotion of gastronationalisms in their nomination of towns and even culinary traditions as World Intangible Heritage.15


The sound waves of circulating songs and the food chains linking dispersed communities not only reveal to the analyst the complexities of decentered, nonessentialist Mediterranean subjectivities—of “Southern thought”—but at the same time challenge our understanding of culture elsewhere. Terrestrial models of culture cannot capture the nuances of flowing circulating forms. Songs like “Salma ya salama” and dishes like ful medames and falafel exceed the grounds in which they emerge and tie disparate communities together through nourishing discourses of nostalgia and longing. They form the material and affective linkages in a widespread, decentered, and indeterminate cultural system in which taste is knowledge, the savor of life the savoir faire of making do in new lands and circumstances. I have argued in this essay that scholars of the Mediterranean can benefit from an aquacentric, rhizomatic orientation toward cultural forms in this region, for doing so allows us to transcend the landed certainties of a terrestrial knowledge and capture the nuances of lived experience in situations of flow, flux, and transition. The two brief cases I have explored in the realms of music and cuisine are merely two intertwined strands in a multifaceted and ever-changing Mediterranean tapestry. Moreover, I argue that unmooring social theory from the dictates of terrestrial national models opens up new trajectories for cultural analysis that do not attend to fixities and coherence, but take disruption, erasure, and nostalgic reconstruction as the basis of analysis, not only for a Mediterranean modernity, but for global modernity as well. In an era marked by increasingly rapid movements of capital, technology, peoples, and mass-mediated subjectivities and ideologies, an aquacentric, off-shore anthropology grants us a novel perspective from which to devise social theory.


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(1) For excellent examples of recent multisited ethnography, see Myers (2003) and Feld (2012), among others.

(2) See, for example, Sutton (2001) on food and memory in Greece, and Romero (2001) on music and collective memory in Peru.

(3) For example, Cowan (1990) examines the role of commensality and dance in everyday sociality in Greece; Feld (1990) analyzes the relationships among food, community, and song forms in New Guinea; and Shannon (2006) discusses occasions for musical performance in Syria, when the provisioning of food is a social obligation. There are also numerous cookbooks related to food cultures or the peoples who study them, including Williams (2006).

(4) The play was composed by the poet and playwright Badi’ Khari (1893–1966). For more on the taqtuqah and related genres in early modern Egyptian music, see Lagrange (1996).

(5) I can find no scholarly or journalistic account of this occurrence, but many Egyptians and Syrians I interviewed in the course of my research recounted this claim.

(6) The Phrygian mode, known in Arabic as Kurdi. The original song is in the Arabian mode Bayyati, a minor mode in D characterized by a neutral second interval.

(7) The interview and performance were broadcast on MBC television and can be seen on YouTube at (accessed April 10, 2014).

(8) I once heard a Filipino group perform the song at a hotel in Sana’a, Yemen, and an American duo perform it in a Damascus lounge.

(9) For the social dimensions of food consumption and symbolism, see Bourdieu’s classic study of distinction (Bourdieu 1984).

(10) On the cultural history of foods and the circulation of foodstuffs among diasporic communities, see Gabaccia (2012), Pilcher (2012), Mankekar (2005), and Marte (2012), among many others.

(11) For a recent review of the Mediterranean diet, including its ideological underpinnings, see González Turmo (2012).

(12) On the role of cookbooks in nationalism, see Appadurai (1988) and Pilcher (1998). On the global connectedness of Neapolitan cuisine, see Chambers (2008, 95).

(13) My analysis of this cookbook takes inspiration, like so much of this essay, from Iain Chambers’s citation of the same text (Chambers 2008, 130).

(14) On cosmopolitanism in these Levantine ports, see Mansel (2012).

(15) On UNESCO’s role in culinary debates over baklava, see (accessed 10 April 2014); on the controversy over the provenance of lahmaçin, see (accessed 10 April 2014). On “gastrodiplomacy” in the dolma battles between Armenia and Azerbaijan, see (accessed 10 April 2014).