WORLDS TO CONSUME – A Dialogue on the Value and Place of Food in Building Sci-Fi Worlds

By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD

“All nature faithfully” – But by what feint

Can Nature be subdued to (the artist’s) constraint?

Her smallest fragment is still infinite!

And so he paints but what he likes in it.

What does he like? He likes, what he can paint!

— Friedrich Nietzsche

Eat whatever you fancy and wear what people fancy [كل اللي يعجبك والبس اللي يعجب الناس]

— Egyptian saying

The inspiration for this paper came from a virtual panel discussion I participated in during the highly prestigious FIYAH 2020 convention.[1] The specific panel I was invited to, as a fringe contributor, was entitled “The Many Flavors of Worldbuilding: Food in SFF” (Friday 16 October 2020 at 4am New York time, 10am Cairo time). As luck would have it while not being a particularly erudite chef I do like to eat quite a bit and I do continuously like to incorporate food into my stories. Not just the contents of the meal itself and how tasty and filling it is but how competently and nicely it’s served, how it’s prepared, its case history and how all these facets of food can be improved upon. There is so much to say about the issues raised in the panel discussion, not least in the related fields of fantasy and horror, and I’m sure my colleagues – especially the moderator Toni Wi and horror speculative author Dean Alfar – can do a much better job in those other genre fields. I will circumscribe myself to my field of specialisation which is science fiction. Moreover,

I would also like to emphasise early on that as an Arab, food is doubly important when it comes to literature and culture. Food has a pedigree and, as Arabs, we like to discuss the origins of food whether from our own extended family as Arabs or from beyond our direct cultural sphere. The Arab world stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian, and the Islamic world is even larger. What is Arabic and what is Islamic overlap and food is no exception – is kabab Turkish or Indian or Lebanese or Persian, and is it called kabab (in Arabic) or kebab (in South Asia)? Does tea come from India or China, and why does the word for spices in Arabic, baharaat, bear a striking resemblance to the city of Bhārat in India? The very name we have for our foods are evidence of diverse origins – Sharkasiya (Circassian), a kind of rice chicken casserole eaten in Egypt, while the mangos we eat in Egypt are called Taymouri and Hindi (from Timor and India). Another favourite topic for discussion on the dining table is how different Arabs cook or prepare the same kind of food differently. Egyptians, for instance, very uniquely make taamiya (falafel) from crushed broad beans whereas everybody else (Palestinians, Lebanese, even Sudanese along the Nile) make it out of humus (chickpeas). Why this is exactly is not entirely clear but it seems foods are adapted to local tastes and resources, with local chefs giving their own distinct ‘interpretation’ of what is ultimately a foreign food – indigenising it to the point that the native population can forget where it originally came from and see it as distinctly their own. That, in a nutshell, is why I write about food in my Arab-themed variant of SF, hoping to communicate this diversity and sophistication of food in our culture to an international audience, something that deserves to be showcased in all its authenticity whatever the futuristic setting. That in addition to the more common roles played by food in writing. Or as Toni Wi posed the question to us: “What are the benefits of using food as a way to explore character, relationships, community, as well as the world building?”[2]

I will elaborate on this query below but first it is important to highlight both why food is important in literature, of any genre, and what distinguishes how food is deployed in SF in particular. Food is part and parcel of the stuff of writing, but with added dimensions and added advantages in science fiction and other genres of the fantastical.

Food as Function: Satire, Realism and the Art of Invention

The perfect way to answer Toni’s questions about exploring the interrelated nexus of characterisation, relationships, communities and world-building is to refer to a novel that is both a classic of literature, deploying all the ticks of mainstream literature, and a classic of SF – George Orwell’s 1984. Food is a key ingredient in the novel and at multiple levels. The erstwhile hero, Winston Smith, lives on starvation wages and only begins to gain weight and get a nice reddish hue to his pale, pale skin after renting an apartment to have sex with Julia, buying all the foods he’s denied as a member of the outer party on the black market. Drinking tea and coffee that isn’t imitation and with genuine sugar not saccharine is something that helps build his romantic relationship with Julia, helping them defy the forced sexual austerity of the system.[3] Remember that the proles, as poor and illiterate as they are, can enjoy these authentic black market food items as well as enjoy pornography and beer whereas party members have to put up with chastity belts and preconceived austerity. Ironically it is the erstwhile middle class (outer party members) who are the ones that suffer the most.

Winston Smith going to the prole sector and asking for gin at a pub when they only have beer is a badge of status, for the technically middle class outer party members, just as drinking wine is a cultural signifier for the elitist members of the inner party. People construct their sense of self, certainly as members of a group, through such signifiers – food and clothes and dialects. There is also the fact that the gin is cheap and synthetic, the only thing the party can produce in plenty in a world replete with shortages of essential items – even razor blades – and by pure coincidence its’ something that helps the party medicate people into submission along with pornography, just like Soma and polygamy in Huxley’s Brave New World. (You also suspect gin is a symbolic substitute for Russian vodka in the Soviet Union, just as the word ‘brother’ is batted around like comrade). The shortages are in urn a gibe against the failures of the Stalinist five-year plans and the forced collectivisation of agriculture.

Winston Smith’s taste buds have also been numbed into submission for so long from drinking gin he can’t appreciate the sweet taste of proper wine. But most of all, and this seems to have been overlooked by most readers and researchers, is the fact that the citizens of Oceania seems to drink more coffee than they do tea. The English, interestingly enough, were a nation of coffee drinkers, until the trade with China and the British Raj brought them all the delights of the East and tea came to replace coffee. The Americans, moreover, could easily have become a nation of tea drinkers, were it not for independence and the infamous Boston Tea Party. This also might explain why Canadians are coffee drinkers, truer to their older English roots, while French Canadians don’t have a distinctive cuisine of their own while disdaining mainland French practices likes eating horse meat. Quebecers see the horse as a domestic animal, like a pet, and drink beer more than wine and eat toast not baguettes, and not coincidentally speak an older variant of French.

Therefore food operates on multiple levels in literature and art. This is to be expected since it is a cultural indicator as well as a key component of culture, since it embodies norms dealing with hospitality and generosity – or miserliness – as well as religious practices and caste and class distinctions. (How to slaughter animals, meats that are prohibited, customs and judgements about eating with your hands or not using utensils made of gold and silver as in Islam, certain sweets or pastries eaten at religious celebrations, etc.)

There are philosophies of cooking that only become evident when you compare foods from different countries. As Arabs we always note how Westerners cook food rather blandly then add salt and pepper and ketchup to it afterwards, giving people the freedom to decorate their individual dishes as they so wish. Arabs by contrast cook the food in the sauces and seasonings, and then compensate – or overcompensate – by having several different kinds of foods and seasonings on display in plates that you scoop, dip or collect food from, collectively. There is the daily ritual of life and the gender angle makes itself felt here given that women tend to do most of the cooking and buying of food. (I will have to thank Toni for pointing this out, during the panel discussion again, since she noted correctly how much time it takes to prepare a particular meal and taking that into consideration beforehand when buying ingredients let alone inviting guests. This wouldn’t readily occur to me as man with a taste for deliveries or eating on the run). Nikki Alfar from the FIYAHCON panel described cooking as pure alchemy and this is important because we as men think of food and cooking in very practical, utilitarian terms. Not magic and an expression of love. One way that gender and food overlaps in the male imagination, at any rate, is dietary regimen. For instance, how it is that French women – and Lebanese women – eat plenty of sweets and are excellent cooks and yet have such classically feminine figures. Slim American women by contrast are either muscular, on the stripper model, or starve themselves silly like supermodels. Clearly historically accumulated lessons are the deciding factor, with older, wilier nations like France and Lebanon coming out on top. (See the Iberian heroine of my story mentioned below, whom I describe as being ‘pear-shaped’).

Consequently we can add that food is a goldmine of historical information and an instrument of social critique, as we saw with regard to coffee vs. tea in 1984 above; check out the ‘Dust Bowl’ imagery in Idiocracy (2006) and Interstellar (2014). Any author neglecting such an important facet of culture and society and people’s lives could be accused of criminal neglect, especially if he is talking about another culture. Look at the sandwich eating scene in The Quiet American where Alden Pyle refuses to sample the local delicacies at a made-up religious ceremony, fearing the meat in a hot climate, when in actual fact the natives they are visiting are vegetarians. Pyle insists on eating a Vit-health sandwich sent to him by his mother all the way from the States while a local religious dignitary refuses to sample Pyle’s sandwich fearing there is some religious rule forbidding it, despite his religion’s acceptance of all religions as universally valid. Look at the meal scenes in Life of Pi (2012) and the issue of gravy and Buddhism, or how much mainstream American cinema and television portrays the supposed cruelty and barbarism of the Islamic (actually Jewish) way of slaughtering animals, compared to the ‘humane’ way they kill sheep (and little boys) in the latest movie adaptation of Stephen King’s It (2017), with a shot to the head.

From watching Iranian cinema you notice that Persians wash fruits and vegetables in a completely different way to Arabs. They leave them to soak in water in a plugged up kitchen sink, a habit they seem to have picked up and – critically – preserved from the olden days when they placed fruits and vegetables in a communal village pool or smaller indoor pools. (I’ve incorporated this into a Persian-themed story myself, about conservatism and energy conservation).

Secondly, food is a motif by which the author or artist can both express and explore his or her own themes. It is part of the baggage of symbolism evident in any wok or art and a very versatile set of symbols at that, given how food in real life signifies so many things, in terms of culture and individual taste and history and religion, etc. In The Quiet American reference is also made early on to cultural myopia and isolationism, through food. You have the cosmopolitan British hero Thomas Fowler noting how many American officials in Vietnam have their own private stocks of coca cola and how Alden Pyle sees something that reminds him nostalgically of a soda fountain, signifying homesickness. (Look at the lunch scene in Apocalypse Now and how the army men insist on eating roast beef, which isn’t cooked too well, and not the creepy looking locally cooked prawns. The civilian in the group, most likely CIA, does eat the shrimps however. As a spy he has to blend in and turn native). Social critique, as said above, bemoaning double standards and moral hypocrisy and making tongue-in-cheek references to corruption and black markets or the role played by imperialism in changing people’s tastes. And food doesn’t just mean the act of eating but where you eat too and how you eat it, at home in front of the TV set in your pyjamas or all dressed up at the dining room table or complaining about lousy room service at a so-called five star hotel or a crowded coffee shop in downtown Cairo with the sound of dominos and the smell of the water pipe or talking philosophy and art and politics at a Parisian cafeteria in the run-up to the Second World War. All of those ‘settings’ have their own stories as well, in terms of history, culture, economics, technology, and so on and so forth.

Watch film noir Desperate Hours (1990) and you have the escaped convict played by Mickey Rourke insisting on wearing a tuxedo for dinner, signifying how he has ‘improved’ himself while in prison, taking up English literature lessons in an effort to get a reduced sentence. Food and food-related themes and practices as a social signifier. This is equally true of science fiction, with multiple examples evident in the long-running British sci-fi comedy series, Red Dwarf. In “Better than Life” the crew enter a virtual reality game and each has his own idea of the good life, which includes very different taste in meals and different settings for them.[4] The Cat wants live goldfish to eat while Lister has mundane blue collar-type foods served in a classy way while Rimmer has fancy dinners with military people in uniforms showing off their medals, with him at the head of the table. Arguments about cultural distinctiveness and authenticity are tied up with food as well. In the episode “Marooned” Lister, although working class, prefers to eat a can of dog food instead of a pot noodle even when faced with starvation.[5] In the US however pot noodle is a big deal, evidenced by the scene where Denzel Washington gobbles away on a pot noodle while witnessing a murder after being brainwashed in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004). Americans, apparently, like the efficiency and predictability of the food whereas the English don’t. In the Red Dwarf episode “Kryten” the hologram Rimmer describes the skeletons of three dead women as having more meat on them than a chicken McNugget.[6] Note this was in the 1980s when there was a wave of hostility from comedians in England towards the influx of American fast food because the English are used to Curries and Fish & Chips and can see how lacklustre and unsatisfying many American fast foods actually are.

Contrast this to the status of Oreo biscuits in American popular art, also beginning in the 1980s. Witness the Oreo scenes in Barbarians at the Gate (1993) and season one of Halt and Catch Fire (2014), both set in the 1980s. In Egypt and England they’re run of mill at best. (I’ve heard Baskin Robbins being called ‘Bastard’ Robbins in Egypt for how tacky and lifeless their ice cream flavours are). Oreo biscuits then symbolises economic aspirations just as fast food symbolises the conveyer belt-production line model of American modernity and the idea that you can have anything you want. (If you want an inkling of what burgers symbolise to Americans in their popular imagination, watch Episode 3 of Season 7 of The X-Files, “Hungry”). That, to me at least, is the significance of the sushi bar scene in Blade Runner (1982) where the Japanese chef refuses to give Deckard four pieces of fish, while speaking Japanese the whole time. In proper restaurants and cafeterias they have rules about two kinds of starchy foods being eaten together or the kinds of wines you can drink with particular kinds of meat and the need for appetisers and starters to liven you up for other courses in a meal. But, and this is paramount, science fiction has an advantage because you can invent new types of food and new technologies to produce, store, cook and transport them and new rituals and customary practices and special occasions and terminology. (Look at the references to ‘brunch’ in Halt and Catch Fire and Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town and its association with resuming long lost romances).

World-building, in a word. If you watch Automata (2014) carefully you’ll notice the processed food they eat is always contained in a plastic container that resembles a modern-day TV dinner, conveying the dystopia, over-mechanised world of pollution and desperation people live in. This is one of many ‘retro’ motifs in the movie, including the old-fashioned neckties men wear and the omnipresence of shotguns – no tasers and ray guns in this technologically advanced future – while eating a home cooked meal is considered a big deal in this world. You will also notice that just as cultural homogeneity in futuristic sci-fi involves the predominance of English as the universal language, as in Planet of the Apes (1968) or The Time Machine (2002), it also involves the predominance of chopsticks as the uniform utensils of the future. Watch everything from After Earth (2013), Sunshine (2007), Max Headroom (1987-88) and Blade Runner (1982) and you will see this; the same goes for non-SF works like Tully (2018) and Kiss of the Dragon (2001). Chop sticks signify the cultural solidity as well as the demographic weight of the East in human affairs; instead of westernisation it is the West that ends up imitating the Far East.

On the topic of Blade Runner again, in the sushi bar scene you can’t help but hear the commercial about the Off-world colonies and how the message announced is being brought to you by the Shimata-Dominguez Corporation. This entity is (conveniently) “Helping America into the New World”, signifying the end of America’s status as a young nation (the new world) now overrun by peoples from the old world. Deckard, as a white man, has to play by ‘Asian rues’, you could say.[7] In regular fiction however you are saddled with the already existing world and can hardly ever transcend it. This limits your motifs, mode of expressing ideas and communicating scenarios and developing characters around these sets of signifiers that come with food and drink and meals and hospitality and hotels and restaurants. Transcending these realist limitations is specifically what science fiction is all about.

For a simple illustration you have the comedic sci-fi horror movie Freaks of Nature (2015). There is a made-up item of food in it called ‘Riblets’; miniature ribs with a name I assume modelled on giblets, the disgusting parts of chickens you normally don’t eat.[8] One of the characters, the nerdy boy Ned, refuses to eat them because the chemicals in them will mess up his metabolism whereas his overly trusting blue collar, small town America family can’t believe that ‘the system’ would allow for something fake and unhealthy to be fed to people, let alone at the school cafeteria. The upshot is that Riblets are specifically what draw the alien invaders to this humdrum small town of no special significance, for the artificial and harmful chemicals in them. Their presence at first drives the inhabitants apart – vampires, zombies and regular humans – and then forces them to unite up against the common alien threat. The business tycoon responsible for the Riblets industry, played by the ever cynical Denis Leary, sees himself as an outsider and a city kid and so wants to dominate the town, while also bringing in outside cheap migrant labour (Zombies) to keep costs low and profits high. It’s the focus of the whole story, from start to finish, although the story itself isn’t about Riblets or artificial flavouring or preservatives. It’s about young people and teenage angst and how diversity can be abused and how downright boring and not terribly wholesome small town America really is, the so-called moral heartland.[9] Again, a motif that facilitates it all, artistically and practically, something that would not really be feasible in realist fiction.

From Words to Worlds: The Evolutionary Cycle of Fact and Fiction

Motifs however do more than express ideas in a culturally recognisable way. Motifs also help crystallise thoughts in your mind’s eye, help clarify themes and the ways in which you hope to elucidate those themes to the reader or viewer. In the process they feed back into the world-building itself as you make modifications or get ideas for the world and the plot that is carried out against this setting from the motifs you choose to deploy. This is true in science fiction as it is in regular fiction but doubly so given that you have more flexibility in the construction of a scenario, characters, plot and of course the world – the setting for the storyline. You can literally create an entire world to serve one scene or a single character or, as you can imagine, a single meal or item of food or place to eat or piece of cooking technology. And if the article of food, the idea you are trying to get at and express, can give you other ideas for that cooking technology or the place in which you consume that meal or the way the meal is presented or the production system and economics of interplanetary trade that facilitate the delivery of that food, then all the better.

I can only speak from my experience as a writer, not being privy to the creative process in other people’s SF writings. In one of my published Mars stories, the aptly titled “Lambs of the Desert” (2019), I begin with a quote ascribed to the greatest of Ottoman sultans, Suleiman the Magnificent: “Janissaries are famous for their cooking. Perhaps you’d like a taste?” I presumed at the time that this was a tongue-in-cheek reference to how good these slave soldiers were at fighting. The reason I used it was for the opening scene of the story which had the so-called hero, codenamed Abu Jozeif, preparing a hearty meal to his Iberian wife (equally codenamed Nour). Note the very deliberate gender-role reversal, with a man dressed in kitchen mittens and wondering if he did it right this time, and him a macho Arab dude. He’s a secret agent, entrusted with the security of the Arab quadrant on Mars, and he’s busy spoiling his foreign wife with her petit girlish frame. The meal however consists of one single item of fruit, an oversized prickly pear – called a prickly ‘fig’ in Arabic – that the hero has to inspect with a knife that is also a metal detector, almost unwiring it like a ticking time bomb. (He’s very concerned with getting Nour’s approval not just for his skills as a husband but as a foreigner sampling the delights of the Arab quadrant, of how they’re staking their claim to modernity). The prickly pear comes from the ‘Lighthouse Cactus’, specially grown on government-owned farms that don’t need any surveillance and protective fences.[10] Cut to the next scene, with an old Bedouin man and his son lost in the middle of the night in the Martian plains. The boy has forgotten his ultramodern position finder, his father’s traditional Astrolabe and also a small mechanical contraption they use to cook food that looks like a donut. Then they notice a light in the distance – multiple florescent colours, from plants that inexplicably glow.

The cacti are solar-powered, you see, with metal thorns and wiring, storing up energy from the sun to electrocute anyone who dares trespass. The man lobs off an arm of a cactus plant with a sword and gets electrocuted and then his tempestuous boy gets electrocuted too, even though the cactus branch is no longer connected to the body of the plant.

It’s a comedy act meant just to illustrate the cactus, the bioengineered technology meant for the pharma export sector to Earth. I’d got the idea initially on the street in Cairo because prickly pears are sold all the time but, later on, I came across a reference to prickly pears in a very interesting book on camel economics called Camels in Palestinian Folk Heritage (1993) by Saliem Arafat Al-Mabyad, and it turned out that they had medicinal value too. They were known as the pharmacy of the desert, fighting blood pressure and hypertension. Hence, the pharma export industries in my story, incorporated in a little later. I also learned that camel milk, while not terribly tasty or economical – too low in fats to make proper cheese – was high in vitamins, which is why Bedouins have good teeth and bones although they don’t have access to fruits and vegetables. (Camel milk also has medicinal value since it can be used to counter a certain poisonous magic potion Bedouin women use to stop their husbands marrying other women. See below!) Note that the military commander of the desert forces is an Englishman who enamours himself to the Bedouins by living like them, dressing like them and – wouldn’t you know it – drinks authentic Arabic coffee like them. (Boiling coffee beans and seasoning it like tea, not roasting and grinding beans on the Turkish model).

As for the Bedouin father and son duo, I then decided to make them recurring characters in my Mars story, members of a family that I wanted to pitch as an ideal futuristic family, proving once and for all that Arabs can be true to themselves as Arabs and be hip and modern too. I took advantage of the father’s repeated scoldings of his son, which was there again for comedic purpose, to make the Bedouin man’s daughter the smart one. When they return to their camp you meet the little girl and she’s reading classic books on revolutionary warfare – she’s the strategist-tactician while her brother’s the warrior full of gumption who loves Turkish wrestling, doused in olive oil. And, wouldn’t you know it, the father forces his son to prepare a meal, using the family-sized version of the cooking donut they had to buy because of his negligence. To quote myself: “A few minutes later the boy unscrewed the top of the dome-like lid to expose the rich contents of the four compartments. The first with dates, as an appetizer; the second with oatmeal, as a filler; the third with steak and kidney immersed in onions and gravy, the main course; the fourth, rice with raisins and nuts and a little paprika, to level off the main course.” This selection was a mixture of humour and history. I like steak and kidney pie, a very Englishy food, while mixing raisins and nuts with rice is a very Gulf Arab tendency not entirely familiar to Egyptians. (I was born in the UK in 1974 and spent most of my childhood in Kuwait in the 1980s). Paprika, an Italian flavouring, was more for humour but dates are a serious food item because they a saturated with everything you need in the desert – water, bread and dates is often enough for a Bedouin. Eating dates before a meal in Ramadan is also a Sunnah (good habit) learnt from the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and may even function as a healthy appetiser in disguise.

As for oats this was historical, since Alexander the Great is supposed to have fed his horse oats to make it ride like the wind, a factoid I’d encountered in a Romanian play called Stop News: A Comedy in Three Acts (1943-44) by Mihail Sebastian. (Oats, barely and wheat, I later learned, were one of the key reasons the American settlers beat the native Indians, who only had access to corn, allowing for longer ranging food stores and larger populations). Oats, moreover, aren’t well known in Arabic cuisine and seen as a modern import for luxury dietary purposes. Therefore, you have to take extra measures to encourage Arabs to learn to eat this healthy and economical food, beginning from the ground up with the origins of Arab society, in the desert.

Later in the progression of “Lambs of the Desert” I have a war breaking out between the American-led western quadrant, hungry for land and resources and energy, and the Arabs, and the Bedouin boy gets captured by the US forces. But his culinary skills are what save his life, and a key talking point for the Americans themselves. To quote the sequence in total here:

… “But sir, why are you so concerned with…”

“An army marches on its stomach. We need to know what we’re up against, how well fed these desert rats are, and how they’re supplying themselves.”

“Dried goods, canned food?”

“You’re still living in the days of the wild, wild West. We’re about to find out.”

The boy opened up the device without any difficulty. “Only the right combination opens it.” He showed them the four empty compartments. His dirty palm went for the foods on display to place…

The G.I. hit him. “Use a spoon.”

“That is what my father always tells me.” So he used a spoon, giving equal measure to rice, oatmeal, meat and… beans. No dates. He almost laughed to himself. Dates were the perfect desert food. Not so with these amateurs, eating things that made them fart. You could smell them a mile away, in the dark. And they drank ‘cow’ milk. With camel milk, you didn’t even need vegetables. (Rich in minerals and vitamins, but not in fats, which is why it never took on in the cheese market). And with camel milk-serum injected into your veins at an early age, you were immune to most poisons. Like the ones they used against these oafs with their poison-tip homing arrows.

The boy poured in some water and was about to clasp the donut shut, then he noticed a bottle of olive oil. “May I have some, please?”

“Now that’s more like it,” the G.I. said.

“If it adds to the taste…,” the officer gave his okay.

“A few minutes and the meal will be ready for your pleasure.” He added a touch of oil in each compartment and pulled the top half back and forth like the dial of a safe. Half naked, he clenched his teeth shut as he emptied the remaining contents of the bottle on his head, the liquid scolding his wounds.

The G.I. tried to grab the boy but he ‘slipped’ through between them and out into the desert from the tent.

The donut went ding, ding, ding, then BOOM!

Art is always one step ahead of reality. Some years after writing this story I came across a documentary series about the Vietnam War and you learned how children were as dangerous and as good at killing American G.I.s as the Viet Kong, with the added advantage of booby traps.

In Conclusion – Of Arabs and Agendas

Food, moreover, is a quite literal instrument of protest. People tend to focus on placards and slogans and woman’s dress. In Egypt, during the British occupation, a popular song used to drum up support against the English was Balah Zaghloul, a reference to dates from the village of Zaghloul, where the national leader Saad Zaghloul (1859-1927) came from.

I said above that I like to pitch classic Arabic meals and cooking habits to a foreign audience. This is not as restrictive as it looks since I have modern technologies and ingredients thrown in their too – witness my four-way donut meal – and it is also a rejoinder to the dominant discourses about Arabs and Muslims you see in Western media and art. The way we slaughter animals and our dietary restrictions, for one. But there’s also cultural myopia and outright Orientalism to tackle as well. There is an offensive spythriller by Norman Lang, The Last Ramadan (1991), set in Nasserist Egypt that both makes light of the Islamic practice of fasting in the holy month of Ramadan while also making horrendous cultural errors when presenting what Egyptians eat. For some bizarre reason the fictitious Egyptians that populate this novel, from miserable peasants to aristocratic assassins, always seem to eat humus-chickpeas. This is laughable. Humus is an exotic item in Egypt as Egyptians always prefer fuol-broad beans, as said above. I used to go to a Syrian restaurant (that sadly went bankrupt) and almost every time I was there I would ask for humus and they would tell me the same thing – Egyptians don’t eat it so they can’t afford to stock it up. Egyptians also aren’t keen on olive oil, probably because olive oil isn’t suitable for frying falafel unlike corn and sunflower oil, and Egyptians eat an awful lot of taamiya (made of broad beans).

Talking about Arabic culinary tastes and food eating customs is there to communicate a good and correct image to the invariably Western, English-speaking audience but it is also there for our sake as Arabs and Muslim, to mend cultural bridges with ourselves. Egyptians don’t necessarily know what people in Bahrain or Iraq eat, or how they eat, anymore than they know what Pakistanis, Sudanese or Indonesians eat. If we’re to make a full frontal assault on the international arena we have to be an internally united front ourselves. You can showcase traditional foods through regular literature and art of course but science fiction has the added advantage of avoiding the pitfall of exoticising yourself, only giving the foreign audience what they know and expect of Oriental dishes. Chickpeas again, let alone the travesty you witness about Indian food in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), with monkey brains and snakes and beetles’ guts and soup with eyeballs in it. (In The Last Ramadan the only salad Egyptians seem to eat is ‘Greek’ salad, an exotic item in its own right. Regular green salad and Egyptian pickles don’t seem to exist, let alone Rocca and green onions).

SF can avoid many of these problems in entire, whether nonsensically made-up exotic foods or authentic exotic foods we don’t eat or can’t afford. Showcasing doesn’t mean fossilising yourself in the past since you can invent new foods and new means of cooking and presenting, buying and selling and growing and transporting and storing already existing older foods. And in the case of Arabic food you have the added advantage of showcasing the diverse origins of your meals too and so your cosmopolitan credentials to the international audience, between the West and the rest.

Food in a deft sci-fi writer’s hands isn’t just liberating from real-world literary constraints, it’s an act of national liberation and Third World solidarity. Science fiction has come a long way from the time of food pills the size of breath mints. All hail science fiction… from the Global South!!


Special thanks are due to Mavi Cruize (Philippines) and Toni Wi (New Zealand), for their faith in me, and my esteemed colleagues in the FIYAHCON panel Nikki and Dean Alfar (both from the Philippines) and Rafeeat Aliyu (Nigeria).

I also owe a special debt of gratitude to my dearly departed friend R. N. Stephenson for publishing “Lambs of the Desert” (pp. 231-249) in his edited anthology ‘The Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Volume IV’ (Altair, 2019):

Thanks also to Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi, a SFF writer from Egypt. Finally wishing thanks to all those unsuspecting restaurants, hotels and cafeterias I’ve frequented in Egypt that are cannon fodder for my sci-fi speculations.

[1] This was for FIYAH – Literary Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction. The convention stretched from 15 to 17 October 2020 and was organised via Zoom and Discord, given the COVID crisis.

[2] Email to the author dated 17 October 2020.

[3] Check out the tea ritual scene in The Karate Kid Part II (1986) between Miyagi and his old flame, with the woman doing all the culturally proscribed seduction.

[4] Episode 2; Season 2, broadcast on 13 September 1988 on BBC2.

[5] Episode 2; Season 3, broadcast on 21 November 1989 on BBC2.

[6] Episode 1; Season 2, broadcast on 6 September 1988 on BBC2.

[7] I’d mentioned my interpretation of this scene in the panel discussion, after Toni had cited it as a classic example of food and world-building in SF, something I was very happy about because I cited that scene myself frequently when I taught at university. I had even prepared commentary on it for the panel discussion beforehand!

[8] A British stand-up comic, Ben Elton, once described chicken McNuggets as chicken ‘McBollocks’, again in the 1980s.

[9] The main female character, Petra (played by Mackenzie Davis), is a Goth girl that ‘converts’ to vampirism to please a vampire boy she’s interested in only for him to dump her for a more attractive and more cooperative Latin girl that says she’s a virgin. Petra is also an historical name, the legendary capital of the kingdom of the Nabataeans, and given that the actress Mackenzie Davis is a Canadian you feel there’s lots of satirising of the school system in the US given how beholden it is to the private sector. Hence the Riblets on the cafeteria menu.

[10] Abu Jozeif also makes a point not to use gold and silver utensils, out of deference to the dreaded religious police. My reading of the religious dictum is to keep gold and silver, traditional stores of wealth, in economic circulation. This avoids the Scrooge phenomenon and the Midas Curse, if you ask me.

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