I have become interested in the way food plants have become an important part of everyday language and meaning in different parts of the world. Bread is a good example – it’s significance as a central part of our diet in Britain has declined – but we still have phrases like – ‘Our Daily Bread’; ‘Earning a crust’; ‘Bread winner’ mentioned in daily conversation. I looked into the countries that still had bread as a significant part of their diet where people consume a lot and these include countries around the areas where bread wheat first arose in the Fertile Crescent and in the Mediterranean in North Africa – parts of which were the bread basket for the Roman Empire going back in time. The Roman empire in its declining years was propped up by ‘bread and circuses’ – both made easily accessible to the populace to maintain harmony and votes. Even today with growing populations around the southern and south-eastern Mediterranean subsidised bread has been an important in maintaining harmony. However there have been occasions when bread prices have risen causing riots. In the Arab Spring which started at the end of 2010 it is interesting to note that bread and a wish for greater respect have been combined in some of the rallying cries of the populace. It may be that climatic change and a poor harvest in Russia and the drying up of sources of imported grain may have contributed to disquiet in Egypt.
Starting to understand the significance of bread and dignity in North Africa and the Middle East.
I was particularly interested in the phrases ‘Bread and Dignity’ and Dignity is more important than bread which were associated with disquiet in Egypt and before that in Tunisia. My initial enquiry followed on from reading stories about 26-year-old street Tunisian vendor Mohamed Bouazizi who self-immolation after a long period of harassment – his sister used the phrase ‘Dignity is more important than bread’ a phrase that spread rapidly thanks to social media.
To understand the background concern behind these words I enquired further and found a recording from Dr. Rami Zurayk American University Beirut on Food on YouTube. Here is a transcript from the video I wrote up as best I could which is from his point of view of the situation.
“Can you really be free if you are hungry? Can you really be free if you are in need? Can you really be free if you are in want? Can you really be free if you are dependent on aid to obtain your daily food?”
These are the relationships – freedom is indivisible. You cannot have freedom if you don’t have access to the main determinants of freedom. You cannot have freedom if you don’t have dignity and if your life everyday depends on you having a little bit of food to put on the table. Of your children to give to your family and to do that you have to go around being a client begging for food. Then you have no dignity and you have no freedom. There is general agreement what has brought people down to the street is the lack of dignity. It didn’t just come from dear socioeconomic circumstances, it came from repression and it also came because we had no sovereignty on the international arena. We felt our government, our state had no decision-making power. We were driven into economic system, political system and foreign policy system. We lost dignity because of the security apparatus, since we are kept in need We had lost dignity as a nation due occupation influenced by great powers for the last 60 years. Our foreign policy was influenced by foreign powers who could manipulate dictatorships.
This dignity issue has a lot to do with your perception of yourself.
It has a lot to do with the fact that you are in the middle of cities – misery belts – unable to produce enough money to make a livelihood. Unemployment is absolutely tremendous 30-40% of our youth are unemployed with no prospects for the future except waiting for remittances from people who are working away.
Our productive sectors and social service network have been destroyed. Among these are farming. Farming is always looked down upon and it is by people seeking rent from real estate speculation, from making money from import export of food commodities. This lead to a situation that rural people had to move to cities and to be the urban poor or to stay as the rural farm workers producing food they themselves could not afford and eating cheap low quality imported food.
I couldn’t understand how people living on less than $2 a day can spend 18-20 days in Tahrir Square without working and without making any money..
They need to make money to feed themselves and their families. How was the uprising fed? Not everyone was able to participate not all classes but all classes did contribute. Rich and poor contributed money sandwiches 1000 loaves which went into a central tent. This is in a World where Profit comes before people, the Neo Liberal World that has become the world which we live in. That says – sometimes I make investment in my local community in the linkages in the social relations are more important than the financial profit than I can make by selling food to people. This moral economy has disappeared from urban economies – it still exists in rural economies where someone can take a day off to help a friend mend a roof. In the cities and centre of the financial world this had disappeared and the Arab spring had brought this back.
Dr. Rami Zurayk American University Beirut on Food, Farming and Freedom, Sowing of the Arab Spring. Participated in Agropolis International horizon scanning “Food Security in the Mediterranean”).
Dr. Rami Zurayk YouTube presentation