Rabbat al-bayt: The Middle-Class Housewife between Egypt and Sudan

By Anny Gaul
Submitted to Session P5879 (Cookbooks and Kitchens: Gender and the (Trans)National Politics of Food, 2020 Annual Meeting
Gender/Women's Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
In Egypt between 1914 and 1976, cookbooks written by and for the modern middle-class housewife (rabbat al-bayt) flourished, with at least 17 distinct titles –– far more than the number of cookbooks published by men during the same period.

The most famous book of this genre was Nazira Niqula and Bahiya ?Uthman’s 1941 U??l al-?ah?: al-na?ar? wa-l-?amal?, popularly known as ‘Abla Nazira’s book.’ Yet their volume was not the first of its kind and was in fact part of a much broader trend: British and Egyptian archives attest that Niqula and ?Uthman were only two among dozens of Egyptian men and women of their time who participated in transnational circuits of culinary education, training, and exchange, and wrote cookbooks as a result of those experiences. Egyptian women learned European cooking techniques from domestic science schools in England; Egyptian men apprenticed with European chefs trained in French haute cuisine. In the introductions to their cookbooks, these men and women framed themselves as experts translating modern culinary knowledge into Arabic for the benefit of their compatriots. These books invite us to reconsider the kinds of texts and actors working as translators in twentieth-century Egypt, as well as the kinds of modern knowledge that introduced new words and publishing conventions into the fusha of the period.

This paper focuses in particular on one title from this genre, al-M?’ida al-?ad?tha (The Modern Table) by Najiba Qurunfuli, published in 1949. It is largely similar to the other cookbooks of this genre, with one key difference: it addresses the Sudanese, not the Egyptian, housewife. The paper argues that this text is emblematic rather than exceptional within its genre, however. Analyzing the book’s text and imagery offers a new reading of the gender politics of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium that governed Sudan at the time as well as the racial and ethnic dimensions of those politics. Specifically, it shows how the emerging norms of modern womanhood were bound up not only with a specific middle-class identity, but with racial and ethnic overtones that emphasized a proximity to light-skinned, Arab, and European identities over non-Arab African ones. Drawing on an understudied corpus of texts, this paper offers new insights into the intersections of gender, race, and class in late colonial Egypt and Sudan.