When I first tried Falafel at Skaramagas refugee camp in Greece, I couldn’t eat anything else for the following couple of months. Falafel was the common language between the camp communities and the social workers from different countries.
When I first tried it, excuse my ignorance, it totally skipped my mind that it was made of vegetables. For the anti-vegetarian that I am, I wouldn’t have imagined myself liking it. But the thing is, I didn’t mind because I wasn’t only trying the meal itself, I was in reality having a taste of a whole culture behind it, enjoying every bit of its history. For us, working there, that was our own retreat from the hustle and bustle of everyday life at a refugee camp. And for those who freshly made it, it was their way of peacefully rebuilding their home.
When I first tried Falafel, not any Falafel, those made by hands by people who mean it, I wanted to share it with everybody else. I took some to our headquarters when I presented a session about Syrian culture. I shared it with a tourist that I once met on the bus station. And I even took some to my college when I was defending my dissertation proposal, just to give my professors one more reason to approve my topic; I knew no one could resist a savory gift. Falafel was the new chocolate !
You can imagine how happy I was when I found out, later in June, that I wasn’t the only one eager to share this cultural treasure with the “outside world”. They weren’t only sharing a piece of Falafel with a stranger on the bus like I did, though. All Athenians were invited to satisfy their curiosity with “exotic” delicacies from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Somalia and other distant lands.
“Restaurants in Athens open their kitchens to refugee chefs”, I read.
Have you ever seen something brilliant and wished YOU had come up with it ? Well, you know I did.
The initiative was the kind of creative idea that makes you feel jealous of whoever came up with it! A “Refugee Food Festival”, in collaboration with UNHCR and The Athens Insider, brought together talented chefs with a refugee status for five days in different restaurants around Athens and let them add their own magical touch to the existing menus. Names of dishes, often unpronounceable to the guests, were being repetitively chanted by the waiters who seemed probably relieved to have a break from serving Greek Souvlaki and Pastitsio. 13 more countries in Europe followed, celebrating refugees around their World Day. I couldn’t think of a better peace-building initiative at the moment.
At that time, I had a knee injury. The doctor said I should stay home for a week to rest. “Yeah, sure”, I replied. Little did she know I had been waiting for this festival for weeks. “I can survive the walk”, I thought. It was the kind of event you wouldn’t want to miss. I felt the urge to witness people’s first encounter with cultures that have been the closest to my heart. Even more than that, I felt responsible. I have been wanting to share this with the rest of the world, the world I don’t meet anymore, being busy in the camp. I couldn’t miss it; “my knee wouldn’t break just because I went out one evening”, I convinced myself.
You know you’re too involved in a cause when, you see the exact same faces at ever event you attend. I have started to notice this very recently. You find it intimidating at first. But sometimes you internally wish for it, as if you were going to a family gathering or to a random hangout at a friend’s; and you find yourself constantly scanning the place hoping to find those same people you see every time. It makes total sense to me now. If I wanted to share Falafel with everyone I knew, it meant that Ahmed and Maryam (imaginary names), who were volunteering at the camp like me, wanted to do the same thing.
Indeed, the Refugee Food Festival was a social gathering not only for “foreigners” who wanted to discover these new cuisines but also for us, the “Ambassadors” of these cultures.
To tell you the truth, when I was thinking about how this intercultural encounter would look like, scenes of Mr. Bean trying oysters for the first time popped into my head! Not the most best scenario, right? But as a cultural mediator, I have always enjoyed those moments when one culture meets a second one for the very first time, when that unusual tingly feeling takes over. Butterflies in your stomach ! A Spanish friend of mine was rushing to the restaurant on the Afghan night. “I didn’t have anything today on purpose. I’m ordering the whole menu!”, she said, over-excited. Let me just say that made me forget about the pain in my knee. I followed her pace, my eyes were grinning.
People in Athens have been talking about refugee cultural integration in the Greek society for so long, and they were finally about to discover these cultures. It’s a piece of cake to talk about something when you know you won’t actually have to do it. “You either say it or do it”, my mother used to say, an inside joke of ours. She was always right. It was finally time for people in Greece to discover new cultures!
When you yourself are afraid of the “other”, you wouldn’t want to introduce them to your community? You have to convince yourself first before. Building cultural bridges is an art in itself; and an artist knows how to attract their audience and keeps them hooked on their art. Food, in my culture, and in any culture really, is an irreplaceable element of our heritage, thus it is an art. It is “both substance and symbol, providing both physical nourishment and a key form of communication that carries many kinds of meanings.”
When I first tried Falafel, I knew there was so much more about to it than the actual ingredients, frying and toppings. I knew it was those people’s way of saying “welcome” and “let me tell you about my homeland” when language failed them. So they used another language, the food language. And even now, if I share with you a piece of my Falafel, it means: “I like you”. The refugees taught me that Falafel is the new chocolate!