Christina Hajjar - Feeding Diaspora
Written by Anna Sigrithur Chew on This! is a bi-weekly mini speaker series hosted at the South Osborne Farmers’ Market that aims to bring market-goers and local food champions together with the idea that a market should be a meeting place and a place of critical ideas as well as commerce.
For our final speaker event of the 2019 season, we welcomed Christina Hajjar to come speak to our market audience about food, identity and diaspora. Christina is a queer, femme first-generation Lebanese-Canadian artist, writer and organizer whose name you might have heard in the media as one of the voices of the groundswell ‘Not My Stella’s’ campaign in late 2018-- one that demanded an end to harmful labour practices at the Winnipeg restaurant chain. But for Chew on This!, Christina wanted to speak about something that generates more interesting and ongoing valences for her work-- that is, her own process of grappling with power, relationality and identity through food. Christina has many practices through which she addresses these ideas, including visual arts, performance work and writing a column in The Uniter called “Feeding Diaspora”. In the column, she writes critically and candidly about her own personal experiences as a Lebanese-Canadian and how food is one of the only things tying her to a homeland she has never seen-- and how those ties are often complicated:
“I used to think that to know home was to learn my mother’s hands - her repertoire of creation forever connected to homeland. While I still believe that learning how to make Lebanese food from my mom is a reclamation, I know there is an irreconcilable distance between her and I, here and there.” -- Feeding Diaspora, The Uniter, October 4, 2018
Food and cooking, Christina explains, are a great source of pleasure and connection for people living in a diaspora, and can be a way to address history and family trauma. Recipes might turn into love letters, time machines, and channels through which to speak to one’s loved ones. But food can also be a reminder of pain: she discusses the common anxiety of feeling like a ‘failure’ if you do not feel adequately connected to your culture or homeland. But connecting can be tough: many people in diasporic communities are people of colour who face oppression and racism in their new homes, which complicates the politics of food in a new way-- especially when foods of their homeland are consumed by outsiders.
“Both food and the ways we consume, create, and interpret it can be political.” -- The Racist Sandwich podcast
Christina then explained the concept of “eating the other”, an idea explored by decolonial and feminist theorists. It says that colonization is an ongoing and extractive process, and that by consuming the cultural and other resources of a place or people (like food), a colonial body is in essence, “eating” the colonized body. It also holds the tension that due to colonial histories, white and colonizing people tend to conflate consuming the foods of a colonized people with an acceptance of them-- without examining the ongoing structural and overt racism and discrimination implicated in these relationships. She gave the example of Israelis claiming ownership over Palestinian foods-- a common occurrence in the occupation in Palestine today. “Eating the other” is also at play in the industry of culinary cultural appropriation; white chefs and restauranteurs travel abroad, learn to cook a cuisine, and bring it back to profit off of-- all while people of that diaspora are often structurally disadvantaged to be able to do the same thing. Think about the “street food” craze in trendy restaurants over the past several years-- these are almost exclusively the foods of the global south. For white people, Christina says, eating the other can be a signal of worldliness, of sophistication-- while for diasporic communities, the pressure is often on assimilation.
So, Christina as asks in her column, “how [can] chefs and artists use food and social engagement to autonomously tell their stories, affirm their communities and work towards liberation?” She suggests that reclaiming food as a nurturing and pleasure-filled thing is one way to ensure an active resistance: food is care, and for people in diaspora who face daily oppression, one of the best ways to “feed diaspora” is to take care of one another.
“My friend making me dinner or sharing their cupcakes, my partner asking me what I want to eat or my mom asking me if she can drop something off are all transformative forms of community care…. When loved ones show up in this way, it decentres the individualistic mentality of surviving and thriving.” -- Feeding Diaspora, The Uniter, September 19, 2019.
Resources: Feeding Diaspora column: http://uniter.ca/author/christina-hajjar Mizna, Prose Poetry and Art Exploring Arab America: https://issuu.com/mizna_arabart/docs/vol15iss1_for_issuu The Fig Tree zine: https://maamoulpress.com/The-Fig-Tree-by-Leila-Abdelrazaq