From what I gather, traditional Kurdish meals are quite the affair. Family and friends gather in the most spacious room of the house, one that probably has a minimal amount of furniture because the focal point is the absurd amounts of food to be eaten while sitting on the floor (or carpet, rather). There is always salad, soup, rice, bread, and some sort of meat dish; very often there are at least two of each. Because there is a minimum of 10 people gathered for the meal (quite possibly more), the “table” is set so that at every 3rd or 4th place setting there is a dish of everything being served. I say “table” because the food is set on plastic sheets that cover the carpet, which makes cleaning up quite convenient – just throw the leftovers on the “table”, wrap it up, and bin it.
These meals don’t happen every day. I have a feeling the women of Kurdistan would rise up and revolt if they were asked to cook such enormous meals on a daily basis. It seems to be either for special occasions, when you have guests (and trust me, we’ve been invited to quite a number of meals), or for the weekends and the ‘day of rest’. Which, by the way, is Friday here. So these family meals are a chance for close family and friends to get together, catch up, and eat a good meal together. I like this idea. Food is a powerful way of bringing people together, and there’s nothing like a food coma after an amazing meal.
Yet I wasn’t really comfortable at most of the family meals we’ve been to. Partly because I can’t really communicate with any of our hosts, other than through the five Kurdish words I know and a lot of pantomime and smiling. It’s difficult to get into the thick of things and really feel the bonding effect of a family meal when you don’t understand anyone around you. But that’s not really what bothers me about these meals, because that isn’t really that important. I am an outsider – a warmly welcomed guest, but still an outsider and therefore not as important that I am able to fully participate in this ritual of coming together, eating, and talking politics. And that’s the part that really gets me – these family meals are where men gather in the ‘big room’ to eat, talk politics, and be served while the women cook, serve, talk, and gossip in the kitchen. I obviously have only been to a few of these meals, so I’m sure this is a generalization, but these are the impressions I got. It’s not that the men don’t help out at all – a lot of the shuttling back and forth of dishes and setting of the table was done by the younger men of the family. However, the fact remained that the men were sitting around waiting to be served their food while they talked politics, and the women had to do the brunt of the work. Sad to say, this really isn’t that uncommon throughout the rest of the world – it happens in my own family. But at least men and women don’t eat separately.
Anna and I sit with the men. By virtue of the fact that we are guests, foreigners, and Westerners, we join the men and are served. Now of course, anywhere you go in the world, guests do not help cook or set the table; they are given seats of honor (or something less pretentious). So it’s only natural that we would be sat down and given the chance to talk to our host (in spite of what I just said about the almost complete lack of communication). Yet when that means we are the only women around the ‘dinner table’, it is quite unsettling. It begs the question, are Kurdish women forced to be second-class citizens behind not only men but also to Western women? I don’t think the fact that women cook and serve us means that I am complicit in the oppression of women in Kurdistan. If I had guests in my home, of course I would do the same. The difference is that after cooking and serving food and later tea, I would sit down with my guests to enjoy the meal together. I really do appreciate the gracious invitations from our hosts and the opening of their homes to us, but by only eating with the men, that’s half the family I haven’t had the opportunity to pantomime with! Though in their (and I use the word “their” very loosely) defense, maybe it’s a logistical thing. You just can’t fit that many people into one room. Okay, that’s just an excuse. A lame one at that. One saving grace is that this seems to be a non-issue with people of younger generations – everyone helps out, everyone eats together, everyone falls into food coma and lolls about for the rest of the day. My kind of a family meal.