Shopping for Poetry in the Grocery Aisle: Guest Post by Sonia Saikaley

Turkish Delight, Montreal Winter

I love wandering down the aisles of grocery stores. Different types of food fascinate me. I stop, touch the exotic fruit, examine the vegetables from faraway places and wonder how each of these could become part of a poem. A poem about an apple or an orange may sound dull but a poem about a Red delicious or a mandarin orange, well, that’s something, no? Chinese and Italian eggplants, Shanghai bok choy, couscous, feta cheese, goat milk, naan and pita, Polish kielbasa, Jamaican patties, baklawa and Turkish delights, green tea, allspice and ginger all suggest something exotic, somewhere between the old world and new, some place where Canadians had once lived before making new lives in this land of freedom and glacial landscapes.

All these foods and spices are poetic and represent a connection to the past and a way to still hold onto the memories of old countries. Several years back, when I first started writing poems that would later become part of my poetry collection Turkish Delight, Montreal Winter, I was watching my mother cook, crushing dried mint leaves with her fingers and tossing these green bits into the fattoush. While she explained the art of making this Middle Eastern salad, it suddenly struck me how important food is to understanding a culture and how people simply don’t just jot down recipes for cooking itself but for remembrance of their heritage, their past. As my mother chopped the parsley, her hands moving fast, I decided to write some poems that included traditional Lebanese meals.

Making and eating food is very similar to writing and reading poetry. Poems are a way of remembering a past, similar to sitting around a table covered with small plates of maza, splitting pita bread with family members or guests and scooping up the hommus or taboulleh while chatting about the old country and the past that somehow doesn’t feel so distant with the aromas of fried kibbee balls or garlic filling the air. All these dishes are meant to connect you to another time, another place. Through food, relationships can be formed. Through poetry, ideas are created. Through food and poetry, cultural and language barriers can be overcome. Food, like poetry, is a way to communicate, a way to show concern, love, friendship or even loss and sadness.

My poetry collection also explores the role of women in Middle Eastern cultures and one such role is that of the Cook. I haven’t mastered that role and probably never will, but I do love incorporating food in my poems! Every culture has its own rich culinary history and it’s no surprise that so many poems and stories describe feasts that could force a reader to put down a book and head to the closest Indian, Japanese, Italian or Lebanese restaurant. But underneath all the sensuous words there may be a more powerful message, one of longing for a country abandoned because of horrible circumstances like war or gender inequality. How can one hold onto the good memories of their birthplaces? Food is certainly a cultural connection that new citizens strive to maintain when faced with homesickness, alienation, loneliness, language barriers and intergenerational disconnections.

A couple of years ago I had lived in Japan and I was homesick for Lebanese food and when I recounted this to a fellow Canadian, who lived in a different part of Japan, she showed up one weekend at my place with a bag filled with olives, pita, something very close to stuffed grape leaves and kibbee balls. Because she lived in a city that had a large foreign population, she managed to find these items. Later on, we sat around my small table and shared these tiny dishes in a country that was neither our home nor future but an adventurous, beautiful place. We ate the Middle Eastern food as a popular Japanese soap opera played on my TV. We clinked our cups of green tea together and cheered to our friendship. That meal satisfied my longing for Lebanese food.

I grew up in a traditional Lebanese household with the wonderful smell of Lebanese food filling our house and where Arabic and English words came together. As a teenager, I struggled with being a first-generation Canadian. I desperately tried to find a balance between my Lebanese and Canadian cultures, tried to understand my parents’ values and traditions while attempting to come up with my own. I questioned why I couldn’t do some of the things my Canadian friends did, why I had to behave a certain way in order to be the good Lebanese daughter. But despite our differences, food was a common ground that brought my family together and I learned about the olive groves around my father’s childhood home and the goats my mother’s parents nurtured on their village farm. The goat cheese and olives I see when grocery shopping remind me of my heritage. We discussed passionate politics while sipping cups of Turkish coffee and cracking open pumpkin seeds. Food enticed discussions and calmed tempers.

I still fondly remember my childhood home in Ottawa filled with my father’s aunts and uncles who often visited us. They all spoke at once, clamouring to be heard. When my mother rose from the sofa, she motioned for me and I followed her into the kitchen where she prepared a pot of coffee and a tray of Lebanese sweets. Holding the tray in my hands and serving my older relatives, I noticed a sudden shift from strong, loud voices to soft, broken English as they thanked me for offering them my mother’s delicious baklawa and ma’moul. Although they couldn’t speak English well and I spoke slang Arabic, we managed to connect through vibrant memories of a mountain village in Lebanon, where olive trees grew, a place my parents and relatives sometimes longed for, a place that I came to know through dazzling food and passionate conversation.

Sonia Saikaley

Sonia Saikaley was born and raised in Ottawa, Canada. She grew up in a traditional Lebanese household and much of her writing is influenced by her rich Middle Eastern heritage. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Still Point Arts Quarterly, Things Japanese: A Collection of Short Stories, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and the anthology Lavandería: A Mixed Load of Women, Wash, and Word. She is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers and the University of Ottawa. Her first book,The Lebanese Dishwasher (Quattro Books, 2012), was co-winner of the 2012 Ken Klonsky Novella Contest.

October 2, 2012
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