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Mansaf and the Nation: Shared Tastes and Disputed Origins


This article explores the genealogy of mansaf as a powerful political, cultural and social tool within a contested gastronomical heritage. As argued by Vanhonacker et al. (2004), gastronomy is understood as the culinary traditions associated with a certain place. Following this definition, this article traces the social, political, and cultural transformations of a specific Arab gastronomical tradition looking at its shared history and localised use. The history and importance of mansaf have been explored often in Jordan, where it has been declared a national dish. However, its flavours are also at the centre of other gastronomical systems—just as French-Palestinian Chef Fadi Kattan often reminds us (Kattan, 2021). The discourses that claim mansaf will guide this article in the investigation of its diversity, as well as in a brief review of the history and role of mansaf in both Jordan and Palestine with the aim of understanding the origins of its shared tastes and its subsequent differentiations.


Since the 1980s, mansaf has been considered “the national dish of Jordan”, featured in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list and the official website of the Jordan Tourism Board as “a festive dish that is central to Jordan’s socio-cultural events” (UNESCO, 2022) and “a Bedouin speciality consisting of a spiced lamb stew cooked slowly in a broth of dried sour milk (jameed) and served on a layer of bread with rice, parsley and pine nuts” (Jordan Tourism Board, 2020). Although nowadays this nationalist discourse is strongly established, it has not always been the case. To understand the appearance of this localised discourse (Wojnarowski & Williams, 2020, p. 166), one has to delve into its progressive construction through the geopolitical events that took place in Jordan through the 1960s and 1970s. This article aims to trace this development by exploring the relation between mansaf and the different cultural groups that have been detaching themselves from the dish both narratively and traditionally, as a consequence of its settlement in the Jordanian discourse. At the same time, it will expose, understand and find the shared tastes of mansaf in its different tales and memories, at national, familiar and personal levels.


Figure 1: Home-cooked mansaf (Renee Cox, 2021).

The Disputed Origins of Mansaf

Lebanese Chef and writer Anissa Helou describes mansaf in her books Levant: Recipes and Memories from the Middle East (2013, p. 68) and Feast: Food of the Islamic World (2018, p. 257) as a typical Bedouin dish original from the West Bank region, and more concretely, from Hebron (actual Palestine). In this introduction, mansaf is pictured as a celebratory dish saved for important occasions such as family reunions. As explained by Helou (2013, p. 68; 2018, p. 257), jameed is a dry yoghurt produced through fermentation, a process Bedouin communities would use to preserve their goat’s milk in their frequent moves through arid lands. However, what is particularly interesting about Anissa’s introduction is her repeated mention of Palestine, where she located the dish’s origins. This allusion to Palestine is nothing new: Chef Fadi Kattan makes the same reference on numerous occasions, having written different articles and recorded videos and podcasts on the topic. In The Markaz Review, Fadi Kattan associates this dish with familial and personal histories, just as much as it does with a broader and more collective memory that connects the dish to Palestine. In this way, mansaf is a “hearty dish shared in Jordanian and Palestinian traditions” (Kattan, 2021).


What both Chefs are arguing about mansaf shows how this dish can be localised in different territories and traditions, even if not directly contradictory. Howell (2003, p. 215) also participates in this debate when he locates mansaf in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and both sides of the Hejaz, apart from Jordan. This territorial diversity is centralised in its association with the Bedouin peoples, a community that, in itself, is not territorially fixed as it is rooted in nomadism, mobility and heterogeneity through the ample lands of the “Arab world”—i.e., the Maghreb and Mashreq. However, in the 1980s, a national discourse started to consolidate in Jordan, through which mansaf and its history were fixed as the national dish of the country. Howell (2003) explores this discursive change through the social, political and economic changes that took place in Jordan through the 1960s and 1970s, helping trace the origins of such developments.


Figure 2: Elaboration of Jameed (Ministry of Culture, Jordan, 2020).

Building a Jordanian Mansaf

In the 1950s, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan encompassed—amongst others—the Palestinian West Bank, including the territories of Bethlehem and Jerusalem—regions that were lost to Israel in the Six Day War of 1967 (Howell, 2003, p. 224). This territorial loss resulted in the creation of a border between Jordan and Israel and the dissolution of the Palestinian sovereignty in this region, subsequently provoking a massive exodus of Palestinian refugees into Jordan (Havrelock, 2007, p. 113). The following years were critical for the geopolitical and social stability of the region. In Jordan, groups of Palestinian fedayeen (militia groups) formed independent guerrillas that began to demand freedom of action from the government against Israel while creating their own operational institutions at the border (Nevo, 2008, p. 221). The response was negative and the Hashemite Kingdom decided to relocate these groups to the mountainous areas of the country with the intention of warding them off the most conflictive zones (Nevo, 2008, p. 221). However, the presence of fedayeen in Jordanian territory continued to consolidate and this displacement intensified already solidified tensions between these Palestinian groups and the Jordanian government. From their new locations, the Palestinian guerrillas commenced to block the main roads connecting key Jordanian cities, just as they started attacking Jordanian citizens and becoming a firmer threat to the military authority and political stability of the country (Nevo, 2008, p. 221). In 1970, these tensions culminated in a “civil war” when the fedayeen armed themselves against the Jordanian monarchy with the aim of deposing it (Howell, 2003, p. 224; Nevo, 2008, p. 221).


Briefly summarised, these events show the amplitude of geopolitical changes that Jordan went through in these decades. Adding political and social instability to the territorial loss of 1967, which eventually resulted in tensions between the Jordanian government and the Palestinian guerrillas, the national unity of the Kingdom was considerably affected and threatened (Howell, 2003). In part, as a result of this amalgam of events, a critical need to build a strong national narrative was born (Howell, 2003). In the decades that followed, there was a radical change in the understanding of the Jordanian nation in a land delimited by new borders, and in a space where tensions between “indigenous Jordanian” and “Palestinian refugees” had to be firmly negotiated (Howell, 2003, p. 224). In this first attempt to create a differentiated, unique and localised nationalist discourse, the Bedouin culture was considered a starting point. Howell (2003, p. 225) explains how “nationalized Bedouin customs, whether or not individual families consider themselves to be of Bedouin origin, can now stand for a collective past that is idealised and normalised in the present”. In this way, it can be concluded that, through this gastro-political association, the Hashemite Kingdom looks to determine both the territorial magnitude of the Jordanian nation as well as who can belong to it. This was in part made possible by the marked differentiation between the Bedouin culture and those that are not (that is, Palestinian): “In the case of mansaf, a dish frequently identified with the Bedouin of the East Bank of the Jordan River has come to stand for a Jordanian nation-state in which Palestinians of non-Bedouin, West Bank origins are the majority population” (Howell, 2003, p. 216).


Figure 3: Before and after the Six Day War of 1967 (BBC, 2017).

Beyond the Nation

The persistent historical and sociocultural association with the Bedouin peoples allowed the national Jordanian narrative to be consolidated in and through mansaf, just as it allowed the creation of such ideas to float from food to society (Wojnarowski & Williams, 2020, p. 164). However, these ideas go beyond Jordan, representing a culture free of borders or nations. Synthetically, this section explores these values from a decentralised and deterritorialised perspective.


The aforementioned mansaf is a symbol of hospitality and protection, sensitively representing community and respect. From an official lens, these symbolic and social values associated with mansaf are suddenly appropriated and instrumentalised in the construction of a national Jordanian sentiment (Ferguson, 2010). However, in more gastronomical and cultural terms, mansaf also adapts to the times and situations that the people and the land are facing, fitting localised identities and ideas of place with its ingredients, elaborations, and more singular representations (Wojnarowski & Williams, 2020) — such is the case seen in the differing perspectives of Chefs Anissa Helou and Fadi Kattan mentioned above. Alobiedat (2016) contributes to this conversation with a very comprehensive analysis of the socio-cultural and economic situations to which this dish has been subjected through the years. Some of the changes the author narrates highlight the dynamic connections between regions and communities that are then translated into gastronomy, affecting the ways flavours, tastes and elaborations are processed (2016, p. 3). Regarding mansaf, he illustrates how the dish varies across regions both within Jordan and beyond the country. For instance, Alobiedat (2016, p. 4) describes how, prior to 1945, mansaf used to be elaborated with bulgur (deriving from wheat), before the use of rice was popularised in areas such as Harta with its rapid and abundant availability resulting from the commercial routes that traversed the regions close to Syria and Palestine.


Mansaf has also been a comforting dish for many migrant and diasporic groups, being considered a broader and more transnational identity symbol (Kattan, 2021). Not long ago, Diana Abu-Jaber (2021) published an article in The New York Times where she reflected on the importance of mansaf for the Arab diaspora in the United States. Also representing values of hospitality and munificence, the author narrates how the different “interpretations” of mansaf that travel “from Syria to Lebanon, from Zarqa to Salt, from tribe to tribe” congregate in one single community looking for safety and survival in a geographical distance (2021, p. 107). For Abu-Jaber (2021), mansaf cannot be understood through borders or other limiting nationalist discourses that define and are definitive, because mansaf represents the fluidity of memories, including the narratives of displaced families. Being a community dish for those in a “perpetual state of movement“, mansaf is not only identity or hospitality (Abu-Jaber, 2021, p. 108). For the Arab diaspora of the United States, mansaf, as writes Diana Abu-Jaber, is home.


Figure 4: Mansaf (Palestine in a Dish, 2023).

Conclusion

Mansaf is a traditional dish from the Mashreq region prepared with lamb and rice in a jameed (or dry goat yoghurt) broth. Since the 1980s, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has considered mansaf its official national dish, having elaborated around it a very concrete, localised and localisable nationalist discourse (Howell, 2003; Wojnarowski & Williams, 2020).


This article has traced the social and geopolitical history over which this discourse was consolidated. Starting with a consideration of mansaf as a dish of Bedouin origin, it follows its evolution into the national dish of Jordan. To do this, it explored the geopolitical changes that took place in this region from the 1960s to the 1980s, a time when the turmoil between Palestinian guerrillas and the Jordanian government intensified after the Six Day War of 1967. In this period of political and social instability, important transformations in territorial configurations took place, evolving into an ever more notable loss of national unity in Jordan (Howell, 2003). The need to fortify a concrete national discourse in the country became a top priority, resulting amongst others in the emergence of mansaf as a national dish, a symbol of the Bedouin past of the land (Shunnaq, Ramadan, & Young, 2021, p. 4). One of the objectives of the Kingdom with this narrative was to mark a concrete, consumable and bodily separation between the Jordanian peoples of Bedouin origin with those non-Bedouin populations (concretely, the Palestinians), which were left at the margins of the nation (Wojnarowski & Williams, 2020).


Likewise, this article also attempts to transcend these limiting nationalist narratives to simultaneously analyse the roots mansaf grows in other places. This demonstrated how this dish is associated beyond Jordan with Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, the Hejaz and the diaspora, highlighting the trans-border amplitude and transnational fluidity of gastronomy (Abu-Jaber, 2021; Fattan, 2021; Howell, 2003). In this way, the article shows how culinary traditions, even when localised in their interpretations and diversifications—including ingredients or elaborations—are not fully localisable. Abu-Jaber (2021) presents mansaf embodied by the diaspora, her words aim to highlight the grandiosity of a dish so comforting, hearty and generous. Her conclusion distances mansaf from the nationalist discourse that reduces and renders exclusive traditions and values. In its place, she allows the reader and eater to feel a reflection at the core of gastronomy: “Food, more than borders, helps us to know who we are and where we came from” (2021, p. 109).


Bibliographical References

Alobiedat, A. A. A. (2016). The Sociocultural and Economic Evolution of Mansaf in Hartha. Northern Jordan. Humanities, 5(22), 2-9.


Abu-Jaber, D. (2021, November 11). The Lost Meal: For Many Members of the Arab American Diaspora, Mansaf Offers a Taste of Home. The New York Times.

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/11/t-magazine/mansaf-bedouin-rice.html


Ferguson, P. P. (2010). Culinary Nationalism. Gastronomica, 10(1), 102-109.


Havrelock, R. (2007). My Home is Over Jordan: River as Border in Israeli and Palestinian National Mythology. National Identities, 9(2), 105-126.


Helou, A. (2013). Levant: Recipes and memories from the Middle East. New York: HarperCollins.

Helou, A. (2018). Feast: Food of the Islamic World. New York: HarperCollins.


Howell, S. (2003). Modernizing Mansaf: The Consuming Contexts of Jordan’s National Dish. Food and Foodways, 11(4), 215-243.


Jordan Tourism Board. (2020, November 27). Mansaf | El Plato Nacional De Jordania. Visita Jordania. https://www.visitajordania.com/mansaf-el-plato-nacional-de-jordania/


Kattan, F. (2021, October 15). The Story of Jericho Sheikh Daoud and His Beloved Mansaf. The Markaz Review. https://themarkaz.org/the-story-ofjericho-sheikh-daoud-and-his-beloved-mansaf/


Nevo, J. (2008). September 1970 in Jordan: A Civil War? Civil Wars, 217-230.


Shunnaq, M., Ramadan, S., & Young, W. C. (2021). National meal or tribal feasting dish? Jordan’s mansaf in cross-cultural perspective. Food, Culture & Society, 1-20.


UNESCO (2022). Al-Mansaf in Jordan, a festive banquet and its social and cultural meanings. UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/al-mansaf-in-jordan-a-festive-banquet-and-its-social-and-cultural-meanings-01849


Vanhonacker, F., et al. (2010). How European Consumers Define the Concept of Traditional Food: Evidence From a Survey in Six Countries. Agribusiness, 26(4), 453-476. doi.org/10.1002/agr.20241

Wojnarowski, F., & Williams, J. (2020). Making mansaf: the interplay of identity and political economy in Jordan’s ‘national dish’. Contemporary Levant, 5(2), 161-177.

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