Is there a “Kurdish” dish?: Exploring the effects of aid and internal displacement on culturally cohesive concepts of food in Iraqi Kurdistan

By Anna Tribble
Submitted to Session P4834 (Narratives of Struggle: Maintaining and Preserving Kurdish Cultural Heritage, 2017 Annual Meeting
Kurdish Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Background: During my most recent visit to Slemani, Iraqi Kurdistan in 2016, every morning began with breakfast. The table was always set with yogurt, honey, cheese, and certain kinds of bread, all lovingly prepared by my Kurdish research assistant’s mother, who insisted that I eat with the family before work began each day. We usually had lunch and dinner while working around the city. Certain dishes like dolma were always claimed as being “Kurdish,” while others such as falafel were labeled as “Arab” in origin.

People operationalize their cultural preferences and expectations about food daily. Food is necessary to maintain health, but it also concretizes connections to concepts of heritage and cultural identity (Brulotte and Di Giovine 2014). Culture is dynamic and responds to external influences. Community food preferences and market availability are similarly subjected to external stimuli. Recently, large communities of Syrian Kurds and Iraqi Arabs have entered Iraqi Kurdistan, sharing space and food. These communities of internally displaced men, women, and children have also attracted the attention of numerous aid agencies who have attempted to buffer these food insecure populations with food aid. Faced with more diverse communities in Iraqi Kurdistan, this research hypothesizes that food provides an outlet through which to perform Kurdishness and solidify shared cultural domains (Mahmod 2011).

Additionally, women in and around Slemani are central to their family’s food acquisition, preparation, and consumption. Thus, they can provide unique perspectives on these key aspects of Kurdish and Arab iterations of cultural heritage. Thus, my research questions are as follows: Are there culturally coherent concepts of a “Kurdish” cuisine and an “Arab” cuisine among women in eastern Iraqi Kurdistan? Do these concepts differ across rural and urban locations?

Methods: Surveys were given to 100 women. Sampling included internally displaced and host women from both the Arab and Kurdish communities. Women were surveyed in the urban center of Slemani, the smaller city of Chamchamal, the village of Kan e Mel, and the internally displaced people camp of Ashti. In the survey, women were asked to write (or say) a list of all the foods they think are “Kurdish” and all those they think are “Arab”.

As these data are analyzed, the relationship between cultural constructs around food is examined to contextualize future research on food aid strategies, community food security and cohesion, and community health and nutrition in Slemani, Iraqi Kurdistan.