Basil AlZeri / The Archivist in the Kitchen

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Introduction and interview by Gina Badger for FUSE.

The following text is excerpted from FUSE Magazine 36.2 (Spring 2013). In order to read the full text, you can purchase the article below.

Cuisine is a vivacious and mutable cultural practice that has history and politics folded right into it. The privileged eaters who make up North American foodie culture may often miss the specific histories of conquest and migration built into their eclectically global palettes, but they are present in each bite. Israeli appropriations of Palestinian ingredients and dishes are illustrative; for instance, the rebranding of tabouleh as “Israeli salad,” and maftoul (a small, round pasta made from wheat and bulgur) as “Israeli couscous.” The complex etymology of the word sabra, commonly known as the name of an Israeli-produced hummus, reveals a complex history of linguistic colonialism. In Arabic and in Hebrew, sabra is a generic word for cactus, plantings of which were used pre-1948 to delineate borders between Palestinian villages. More recently, in Modern Hebrew sabra has become the descriptor for Israeli-born Jews — metaphorically and literally, the beneficiaries of the clearing of the Palestinian cacti. In 1982, residents of the Sabra Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon were massacred by a Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia, in collusion with Israel, one of the most brutal events in the history of the occupation. The name of the hummus, so cunningly appropriated, can’t be separated from this settler-colonial history.

Palestinian cuisine — in Gaza and the West Bank, in camps and in cities worldwide —reflects a history of occupation and displacement. But more than that, it reflects the skills, proclivities and ingredients required to survive those conditions. Basil AlZeri has captured hours of Skype video of his mother teaching him how to cook from her impressive oeuvre of Palestinian dishes. This archive of cultural knowledge is the private counterpart to a series of public food-based performances he has presented since 2011. The first performances were mezze-style dinners in which AlZeri presented his guests with an array of Palestinian recipes in tiny dishes resting on his body. Lying face-down on the table, the uncomfortably shifting body of the cook became an antidote against the commodity fetishism of foodie culture. These early performances established the labour politics of AlZeri’s work by highlighting two kinds of unrecognized and often unpaid labour: gendered domestic work and artist’s labour. Next, AlZeri began cooking live as a performance with his mother, Suad, instructing him from Dubai, over Skype. Most recently, AlZeri has been working on The Mobile Kitchen Lab, which he will use as an itinerant stage for future cooking performances. AlZeri performs simple and generous gestures, inviting his guests to identify the Palestinian stories of land, resources and labour that are built into his recipes.

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FUSE – When did you learn to cook?

Basil AlZeri – After I left home, at age 17. My sister Karmel and I were living together in Cairo, and we were sick of eating out all the time. So she proposed a deal where I would wash the dishes and she would cook. She said, “I’m not your wife or your mother, if you want me to cook, you have to wash the dishes.”

FUSE – Was she a good cook?

BA – She just copied my mother’s dishes exactly.

FUSE – So it was your mother who cooked at home?

BA – Yes, my mother was always in full control of the kitchen. It was her domain.

FUSE – So you always had these women cook for you. How did you get interested in cooking yourself?

BA – I became really good friends with Rina, a Japanese student at the American University in Cairo where we were both studying. She was really well traveled and adventuresome. She was really knowledgeable about world food and introduced me to so many new ingredients.

She also taught me about street food in Cairo. We started cooking together and she eventually moved in with Karmel and I. She was very proud of Japanese cuisine, and so I wanted to learn more about Palestinian food so I could share with her.

FUSE – Eventually, you began to incorporate food into your artistic practice. How did you come to that?

BA – Cooking became an entry-point for me to introduce myself, as a human being who is also a Palestinian, to my peers in Canada. Cuisine became a way for me to express myself, my history, my cultural identity, with a lot of specificity but without being over-determined by certain politics.

FUSE – Mezze is a form of cuisine you’ve drawn on in your recent work. In Arab cuisine, is mezze an appetizer course within a larger meal, or more its own style of eating?

BA – People don’t necessarily eat mezze and then a main course and then dessert. Mezze can be the whole meal. The meal is made of many different little dishes, and that’s all you eat. For lighter meals, or lunch, or even a lighter dinner. It’s usually the type of meal for when you have a little time to sit around and talk. It has a social aspect to it. Where people sit around and eat for longer, and the plates keep coming.

FUSE – How many times have you done the mezze-style dinner party performances?

BA – The first time I experimented with that gesture was very informal, in a private space, in 2010. It was Mother’s Day, and I dedicated the first dinner party performance to my mom. I kept working with the idea of the body and cooking and food preparation. I did a short residency at Don Blanche in August 2012, where my role as an artist was as a cook’s assistant. I realized that I’d like to present something there towards the end of my residency, and it seemed like a really great chance to re-enact certain elements of the food gestures, but in a different context.

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Basil AlZeri is a Toronto-based Palestinian artist working in performance, video, installation, food and public art interventions. His artwork is grounded in his practice as an art educator and community worker, and engages with the intersection of everyday actions and life necessities. AlZeri’s performance work has been exhibited in Toronto (FADO, Nuit Blanche, Whipper Snapper Gallery), Quebec (Fait Maison 14), Winnipeg (Central Canadian Centre for Performance) and Mexico City (Transmuted International Performance Art Festival, Performancear O Morir). Upcoming projects include a public performance project with the Ottawa Art Gallery/Creative Cities Conference and performances in Chile and Argentina in 2013. On 15 March, FUSE and Israeli Apartheid Week Toronto will co-present AlZeri’s performance at Xpace Cultural Centre as part of the FADO Emerging Artists Series, .sight.specific.

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