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Nurturing Masculinities

Nurturing Masculinities
Men, Food, and Family in Contemporary Egypt

Dispelling the illusion that Middle Eastern men can be fully understood through the lenses of domination and patriarchy, this book looks at contemporary Egyptian foodways to better understand how men enact masculinity in displays of caregiving and love through food.

November 2015
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156 pages | 5.5 x 8.5 | 16 b&w photos, 2 maps |

Two structuring concepts have predominated in discussions concerning how Middle Eastern men enact their identity culturally: domination and patriarchy. Nurturing Masculinities dispels the illusion that Arab men can be adequately represented when we speak of them only in these terms. By bringing male perspectives into food studies, which typically focus on the roles of women in the production and distribution of food, Nefissa Naguib demonstrates how men interact with food, in both political and domestic spheres, and how these interactions reflect important notions of masculinity in modern Egypt.

In this classic ethnography, narratives about men from a broad range of educational backgrounds, age groups, and social classes capture a holistic representation of masculine identity and food in modern Egypt on familial, local, and national levels. These narratives encompass a broad range of issues and experiences, including explorations of traditions surrounding food culture; displays of caregiving and love when men recollect the taste, feel, and fragrance of food as they discuss their desires to feed their families well and often; and the role that men, working to ensure the equitable distribution of food, played during the Islamist movement of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2011. At the core of Nurturing Masculinities is the idea that food is a powerful marker of manhood, fatherhood, and family structure in contemporary Egypt, and by better understanding these foodways, we can better understand contemporary Egyptian society as a whole.

  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Nurturing Masculinities
  • 2. Food for Faith
  • 3. Such Is the Life of Men
  • 4. With Pleasure and Health
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Author Index
  • Subject Index

Bergen, Norway

Naguib is a professor of anthropology at the University of Oslo. Her books include Food and Foodways in the Middle East; Women, Water, and Memory: Recasting Lives in Palestine; and Interpreting Welfare and Relief in the Middle East. She also coproduced the documentary Women, War, and Welfare in Jerusalem.



There is one idea that stands out about Egyptian men and food. Contentment is the feeling a man should have after his meal. In all conversations, men talked about this particular desire for fulfilling and satisfying food.

fieldwork notes, Cairo, June 2012

I first got smiles, even laughs, from men in Cairo. Some considered food an odd topic of interest for a doctora (scholar): “Are you going to write a cookbook or write about us like some bizarre tribe?” they asked laughingly. Nonetheless, they did talk to me about food: they shared their favorite recipes and critiqued my choice of ingredients; they demonstrated how to tap a watermelon and listen carefully for the sound of ripeness; they taught me that small pieces of bread must be folded into the shape of a cat’s ear and that everything tastes better when cooked with samna baladi (clarified butter).

I heard about favorite dishes; food politics and activism; their mothers’ stews; childhood memories; and stories of love, food, and marriage. They told me that meals are not meals if they are not shared with conviviality and lightheartedness. In detail, they spoke about food justice, the religious duty to share food, their wives’ cooking skills, the tastes of rice, and the scent of passing by the local bakery on the way home. They talked about their attempts to teach their children polite and authentic Egyptian meal etiquette and to give them sweet childhood memories of family meals.

As the years passed and my fieldwork progressed, I observed and listened to men as they planned meals and then shopped for, ate, enjoyed, and worried about food. Fear and anger about food prices were often followed by smiles and jokes about the appetites of Egyptian men. Farouk Mansour, a café owner whom I have known for close to three decades, presented a prevailing indictment of the present mode of being an Egyptian “ordinary man,” as he put it. He said, “We never had as many fatal diseases like today. Groceries did not have as much food as today, but what they had was fresh, tasty, and affordable. We did not die from heart attacks because of worry about our way of eating or how we were going to feed our family.”

Farouk’s criticism of “today” is consistent with my other interlocutors’ views of their lives “before” and “today.” Feeding and eating are core components of the deterioration of everything from physical well-being to emotional fulfillment. But then Farouk turned back to me and added:

The Egyptian man is kindhearted and responsible. Even if life is more stressful today than before, men like us find a way with craftiness and wit. . . . Also, if you have enough, you can buy anything. Today we have supermarkets full of food. You can buy whatever you are in the mood for. Nothing makes men happier than to see the smiles on the children’s faces when they see their favorite meal. It’s worth the whole world.

In Farouk’s view, as in many narratives I heard during my work in Egypt, there is an odd and ambivalent meshing of memory making, longings for past forms of family life, striving to accommodate obligations, and enthusiasm for modernity and contemporary life. Unsurprisingly, beneath the surface similarities of “men like us” were individual variations, which are explored throughout the book. Uncanny associations with traditions and modernity, along with contrasting meanings and coherences between men’s social values and food practices, give room for reflection, especially when the scope of men’s domesticities is broadened and deepened into the idea of nurturing masculinities.

My concept of “nurturing masculinities” has been developed through exploring men’s relation to food, and it builds on the growing body of literature on “lived masculinities” (Inhorn 2012), which unsettles the dominant trope of relying on domination and patriarchy when discussing Middle Eastern men.

The book tells the stories of ordinary Egyptian men and the cultural roots that connect them with food and domestic life. These are stories of men who care deeply about their families. We hear them speak about extraordinary economic hardship, politics, and activism; we feel them standing in endless breadlines under a scorching sun; we hear them recollect the taste, feel, and fragrance of food; and we feel their desires to feed their families well and often.

These accounts tell of the memories and aspirations of male interlocutors who lived and moved around in Cairo’s lower-class and lower-middle-class neighborhoods. Each chapter centers on men’s experiences as told to me in numerous interviews and conversations, but also during spontaneous moments of grocery shopping, cooking, and eating.

Nurturing Masculinities is full of fragments of history, nostalgia, faith, aspiration, and appetite. Alongside these positive reflections, however, are tensions between personal desires and the men’s quality of life—when the determination to be a dependable man is painful and the contemporary world doesn’t always make perfect sense. There are several things going on in the men’s food stories, resulting in the closely woven coherence of these thick ethnographic descriptions. I hope the stories about taste, smell, texture, and their combinations, as reflected in daily consumption, illuminate something about men’s concerns and the ambivalent embrace of contemporary social life in Cairo.

A Little Background

Cairo is friendly, noisy, dirty, smelly, polluted, and intensely crowded. Since the 1970s, the city has experienced tremendous growth and change in its urban sprawl. New, gated communities that cater to the affluent middle classes form a ring road along pockets of informal communities that house millions of people.

In Arabic, Masr means “Egypt”; for Cairenes, Masr also means “Cairo.” The central point of Greater Cairo is Midan al-Tahrir (Tahrir Square)—the epicenter of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. When it was constructed in 1860, based on a model of Paris’s Place de l’Étoile, the Egyptian army and the Ministry of Defense were located in the neighborhood (J. Abu-Lughod 1971).

To the east, Tahrir Square leads to older Cairo; its many bridges across the Nile link the central city to newer districts. In The Book of Jewish Food, Claudia Roden (1999, 4) offers a fitting description of Cairo as a city that is divided into “two cities that turned their backs on each other.”

One looked like Paris, because Khedive Ismail . . . had wanted to pull Egypt into Europe and brought in European architects to build it. The other had narrow meandering streets, mausoleums, and public baths; fountains with curvy iron grilles and windows screened by wooden lattices; Coptic churches and mosques with minarets rising into the sky like delicately embroidered candles.

Roden’s observations recall the city’s most penetrating cosmopolitan moment, sometime between the 1850s and 1950s. These years marked the end of one imperial period—the Ottoman—and the continuation of another—the British. The city has since undergone many social, political, and economic transformations. Yet city markers from its cosmopolitan past endure, and traces of what once existed remain. Contemporary Cairo is still divided by aesthetic contrasts, shifting colors, moods, and spirits that linger in the memory of the city’s past. Often, especially in people’s stories, Cairo is remembered by associating social traditions from the past with recollections of the taste, smell, texture, and price of food.

Besides trying to capture the tone, fabric, and odors of Cairo, this book provides an account of men whose lives have been shaped by the texture and flavors of the city, and divided by historical durations and rhythms. The chapters look at the ways in which men remember past events, respond to day-to-day demands, and find a balance between struggling and thriving as men doing what men do.

Each of the stories is about the complexities of change, lived experiences, and the valuation of food. Alongside men’s food stories are memories of moments that reveal themselves through concrete practices and their own sweet and melancholy narratives and modes of transmission. According to Sidney Mintz, “Eating is never a ‘purely biological’ activity,” but rather one of many arenas in which people invest “a basic activity with social meaning(s)” that are both “symbolic” and “communicated symbolically” and that “also have histories” (1996, 7). I propose that food memories are also about cultural repetitions and processes. Food reflects, in part, the interdependence between men and their memories, attachments, and significant relationships. To talk about men and food, then, is to reflect on the extent to which men’s domesticity is embedded in the wider historical and cultural milieus from which men’s accounts emerge.

When I began fieldwork in Cairo on men and family life, I gained insight into men’s personal experiences through a set of interviews conducted on another topic—histories of food. I seemed to obtain more reflective, friendlier, and more personal accounts of men’s lives when conversations turned to shopping for, providing, and cooking food. We traced the paths of many meals during interviews supposedly focused on Egyptian manhood and family relationships.

Cairo is a city where food and its circulation are crucial to a sense of identity, family, and public interaction: bread being baked or carried around on wooden grills; cries from vegetable peddlers; the smoky fragrance of roasting sweet potatoes or corn grilled on charcoal and sold from wooden carts; the occasional stall of wooden cages crowded with live chickens, ducks, rabbits, and pigeons, along with eggs carefully arranged on straw in baskets; butchers trimming cuts from lamb, camel, or beef carcasses hanging on hooks or resting on wooden blocks—these are some of the visible foodways that constitute daily life in the streets and alleys of Cairo.

Activities like choosing favorite restaurants, bakeries, pastry shops, cafés, and takeout venues; ordering food for delivery from the neighborhood supermarket or butcher; and picking up the weekly groceries at a mall all shape daily food activities for the middle class. For the poorer majority of the population, meals are shaped by the availability of particular foods, the areas where grocery shopping is done, the allowances of ration cards, the length of breadlines, and preferences about which food stalls offer the tastiest and cheapest breakfasts. There is a food stall on nearly every street corner in Cairo. Every morning, men of all classes gather around the same ones. There is the smell of sizzling garlic, onions, falafel, fava beans (ful), and hot peppers. Vendors’ swift hands open rounds of bread and fill them with each man’s favorite meal. The ambience is convivial and informal. Conversations hum between the man serving breakfast and the men eating their food. One of my interlocutors introduced me to his “sandwich man and breakfast chums” by saying that I was “writing a book about Egyptian men.” They nodded and invited me to join them for breakfast. “You have come to the right place,” the food seller said while he prepared his special plate of ful “for the lady.” He moved to the side of his mobile stall and offered me a plate of warm puréed fava beans simmering in olive oil and lemon, with one hard-boiled egg floating in the middle, served with warm bread. “With ful and bread we are all the same,” said one of the breakfasting men before saying good-bye and walking off to catch his bus to work.

Men and Food

Food provides an extraordinary means of investigation because it resonates with attitudes and emotions related to men’s and women’s understanding of the self and others and of their underlying interactions. A meal is a gift that sates desire, gives pleasure, evokes memories, and creates attachments. The accounts in this book rest on Egyptian men’s voices, on how they convey food’s extraordinary ability to historicize, encode, and regulate their relationships with their spouses and children.

This book explores the role of food in forming Egyptian men’s identities and shaping their practices in daily life. Case studies examine food as a medium of social relations, as a tool for constructing notions of masculinity, and as a way to reveal perceptions of class, generation, gender, and other features of men’s identities.

Nurturing Masculinities looks to the notion of culture and food as an “art of living” and as a way for men to be in the world. My premise is that it is possible to identify, within a particular community, significant sets of foodways that constitute systems and provide overlapping messages about people, their attachments, and aspects of their cultures and lives. By operating on different levels, these messages present variations and contradictions about life as lived within the rich scope of practice, local living, and global developments.

Fieldwork for this book involved three winters and one summer from 2011 to 2013; interviews in Arabic were conducted with men I knew from previous studies in Egypt in the 1980s and again in the years 2005–2008. I interviewed fifty men between 2011 and 2013 specifically for this book, selecting the most relevant stories for inclusion. The picture that emerges is not homogeneous. Descriptions and analyses of the everyday reveal that although ordinary people carry out similar activities, they live their lives in different ways.

Although I present these stories as authentically as possible, I ground them in theory. Some were audiotaped, and some were taken from field notes. The stories are not composed of structured plots, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. They were not told in one day, but over a long period of time. Although my goal is to bring out the resonance of these voices, I also “construct” the outcome.

The oral-history fieldwork for this project was easy and pleasant. Men wanted to talk about food preferences, food memories, buying groceries, breadlines, feeding their families, and their food outreach activities. Each chapter studies how aspects of men’s identities and everyday involvements are created and then parlayed into wider networks of meaning and value. Men discuss how uncertainty about food and the power of food lead to deep questions about what it means to be an Egyptian man.

All the interview subjects are from Cairo and are between thirty and seventy years old. Some are ordinary family men with no political affiliation; others, often younger, are at least somewhat involved with the Society of the Muslim Brothers (the Muslim Brotherhood). Regardless, when asked to define themselves, they always included the phrase “ibn al-balad,” which literally means “son of the country,” in contrast to “ibn al-nas,” or “son of the people,” which implies coming from elsewhere and having no roots in the country.1 My interlocutors were all Muslim middle-class and lower-middle-class men with ties to popular inner-city quarters located on either side of Tahrir Square—medieval Cairo to the south, and the neighborhoods of Bulaq Abu ʿAla, Shubra, Fagala, and Abassia to the north and northeast. Hence, although these are lower-income areas, they are not strictly tied to economic class or consumption. Several of my interlocutors with middle-class incomes continued to live in their childhood neighborhoods, while others moved to more upscale neighborhoods. The important point is that my interlocutors had roots in these areas and continued to speak about themselves as awlad al-balad (plural of ibn al-balad).

The men in this book felt strongly about the things they eat and how and with whom they eat them. I use life histories to bring this forward. My reason for doing so connects with Marcia Inhorn’s (2012, 17) proposition that stories should be used to validate ethnographies. The stories, conversations, and observations included here are condensed, simplified, and edited in order to provide a clear narrative and elucidate its role as an instrument of basic inquiry about “being in the world.” Moreover, the use of narrative can evolve into a conversation about empirically controversial and difficult areas, such as the place of culture and the significance of historicity in an analysis like this one. This type of exposition is necessary in order to understand the basis of my claim that these stories can be generalized and used to interpret the wider universe of men’s worlds.

Stories in this book link the sentimental and the intellectual, the experiential (what some men know about the world) and the aspirational (what they hope to achieve for themselves and their loved ones). Food has the mental and physical potency to both create and destroy human integrity and attachment. My premise is that food—along with memories of preparing and eating meals—offers a sense of what it means to have a life.

This book returns to the promise of anthropology as an exploration of human social and political potentialities. For me, the essence of anthropology is its ability to address the social and political imaginaries of human beings, especially those likely to be intense and widespread. So it is among the men in this account, who worry and muse about the state of food affairs. They are able to theorize their own lives, speaking about the general social consciousness of radical shifts in the circumstances and the shaping of life projects.

This attempt at reorientation examines (new) social imaginings and their formation at the juncture of everyday uncertainties in Egypt. Providing, preparing, and eating food involves an immediacy of experience that allows anthropology to interpret how people reexamine their social and political forms of possibility. My objective is to bring out the pasts, presents, and futures (and the forces that inhibit them) of bread and other foods, as discussed and imagined by men. Consequently, writing about food and men addresses the processes by which meaning and life stylization are constructed. This is one way that anthropology can, I believe, evaluate the nature of human direction and potentiality during uncertain times.

It is difficult to envisage and theorize how human agency is linked with human subjectivity, with forms of the possible, and with new ways of conceiving the human subject and its relations to the world. How do we encompass human life and pursuit? How do we account for people’s projects of being in the world, including their desires to transform—at times, radically—the conditions that make them? The men’s stories recounted here are combined with broader reflections on issues to which those narratives relate.

Food and Gender Stories

Stories can be biographies, autobiographies, ethnohistories, oral histories, life histories, life stories, living histories, and narratives. Stories, like recorded histories, have an internal logic. In a sense, stories illustrate people’s reflexive engagements with their own lives. For those who recount the stories of other people, it is important not to confuse history with story. This point is of particular importance when dealing with life histories, in which history and ethnography can mingle and interact. These stories have a way of moving beyond the recorded and depending largely on reminiscences and feelings present at the time of their telling. Stories constitute incomplete evidence. They are human dramas about what people remember, want to remember, or cannot forget.

Then there is my retelling of stories. I have shaped these narratives by selecting only certain bits and pieces of them. Thus, my interlocutors and I are both creating and perhaps even inventing traditions. We might agree with Peter Gottschalk (2000, 7), who writes that narratives’ main trait of significance is that “those who communicate them believe that the stories depict actual events of their past.” The stories concern not what is true or false in an ethnographic sense, but how the content of narratives create real lives for those telling their stories. In previous work, I have argued that life stories are about the past, whether near or distant, and must be told as part of both the ethnographic present and “the felt force of past events” (Sutton 2001, 1). Retrospectively, I think life stories are more complicated. Noting what this link between past and present excludes in human relationships is as crucial as recording what it includes.

This is a story about how food is an endlessly evolving enactment of men’s and women’s interactions, family life, commensality, and social mobilization. Literature on food and gender dynamics suggests that gender does not differ from other social allocations, such as race, generation, class, and ethnicity. Gender acknowledges and addresses differences, but gender, like ethnicity, can be imagined; so too can associated differences between men, women, and food (Counihan 1999). Moreover, feminist scholars have been especially innovative in analyzing the relations between food and subjectivity, exploring how food systems give material form to social identities, inequalities, and power relations and naturalize them in daily, embodied experiences (see Counihan 1999).

Cooking has been claimed as a key source of women’s power (Kahn 1986; Jansen 1997; Counihan 1999; Weismantel 1988). However, in some ways, men retain the primary control over food (Khouri-Dagher 1996; Sutton 2001). The literature on masculinities in anthropology is astonishingly silent on food from the perspectives of Arab men. In the analysis of men and food in Egypt, patriarchy looms much larger than do foodways.

The anthropology of food and gender has emerged in response to particular cultural, socioeconomic, and political changes (Delaney 1991; Counihan and Kaplan 1998; Jansen 1997; Khan 1986; Mintz and Du Bois 2002; Weismantel 1988). As a consequence of expanding research into women’s and men’s personal and social lives, food appears both as an influence and as a specific kind of delineator of social order or social boundaries (see, for example, Douglas 1966; Lévi-Strauss 1966; Sutton 2001; Wilk 1999). In the contemporary world, debates about food and gender are often debates about empowerment, households, and negotiations. Food has become a particular aspect of the politics of gender. Elements of food in different communities seem to be sought as criteria of men’s and women’s cultural uniqueness and originality.

Sidney Mintz and Christine Du Bois (2002) point out that gender and food resemble other social allocations that define human identities and belongings. This similarity may explain the growing interest in food as an aspect of reconstructing personal and collective lives. It is thus not surprising that human struggle and the creation of new social movements draw on food as part of the transformation of societal relationships, cultural practices, and men’s and women’s roles.

But even as food creates new connections and new roles, it does not necessarily obliterate old links and habits. To remember the past, we need to recognize and understand relationships and to know how to share these references. Stories are memories of the past that merge with current life. But using narratives historically is awkward, because they are just that—stories. They are conversations, statements, and remarks, sometimes carelessly conveyed. But the use of stories communicates social acts; it lends spirit and vitality to significant testimonies about why people do what they do.

Paul Ricoeur’s insights help contemporary scholars in their approaches to narratives. He explains that narratives are fundamental as instructions in human experiences through time. Ricoeur’s (1984) work on narratives is the theoretical backdrop for Peter Gottschalk’s work. Gottschalk (2000, 70) goes beyond Ricoeur, recognizing the “reflective tool of history that connects lived time with cosmic time: place.” Narratives exist in context, and should be seen in relation to time and space: “Narratives regarding the past offer a particularly useful tool of examination because by their very nature they often include important ingredients for identity: references to the present community in time and space” (69). Indeed, we can interpret narratives best when observing their tellers’ social interactions and relations.

My interlocutors regularly began their accounts by recalling, for example, childhood meals or the price of specific food items: “At home we used to eat . . .” or “I remember when watermelons cost . . .” At the source of recollection lies the ability to retrieve a story. “Life consists of retellings,” writes Edward M. Bruner (1986); it is a reminder of the story’s lifeline and of how it is told. Narratives of meals or food costs belong to memories that are culturally shaped by the places they occupy in people’s lives; they lend themselves to our understanding of how men and women re-create their “sites” of memory (Nora 1996), which are taken up in their telling.

Knowing history through narrative implies that men’s stories are more than just remembrances from other times. Their accounts combine experiences with nostalgia, adding to the poetic, emotional load that food is made, retrospectively, to carry. In this book, men often link grocery shopping, food outreach, and family meals with caring, giving, marriage, and parenting; financial concerns (familial and global), political rage, and social pressure; and accomplishment and satisfaction. The stories show how, cumulatively and over time, small, everyday events surrounding food have broader implications for being an Egyptian man.

Men’s food struggles reverberate through their everyday lives: their economic and political battles, their intimate relations, and their defense of culture, traditions, and religion. This book rests on men’s voices, on how they convey food’s extraordinary ability to historicize, encode, and regulate their relationships. Alongside food, other themes about events and activities emerge—locally and sometimes globally.

The Male Portion

By bringing together the food concerns of Egyptian men of different classes, politics, and ages—and their struggles to feed their families during uncertain times—this book provides a new density and definition to the complex negotiations of gender and other social allocations that underpin social and cultural continuities. These men help us understand how contemporary redefinitions of Egyptian domesticity, gender roles, concepts such as “husband” and “father,” proper images of men, and the relations between faith and popular customs are powerfully shaped by everyday food practices.

In addition, this book is concerned with the image of masculinity as a product of time. History, politics, and economics bring with them new voices that contest the monopoly of power, hierarchy, and gender images. Food provisioning entails a sense of vulnerability that pervades social life. For example, Fahmi Hassan, an enthusiastic farmer turned gardener and florist described in chapter 1, likes to talk about the divine distribution of life: “Every man is given a portion in life.” For him, food is not just something he uses to feed his family or, in his words, to “fill their stomachs”; rather, providing it is a mark of proper male behavior and day-to-day morality.

One must examine the particularities of individual lives in order to understand what at the outset may seem quite ordinary. Sarah Pink (2012) notes that everyday goings-on are a challenge for the person trying to analyze them. She quotes Michael Gardiner (2000, 385): “We cannot simply ‘go on’ the everyday; we are ‘always already’ immersed in it.” I agree with Pink’s (2012, 31) conclusion that to use the everyday “requires the recognition that researchers are in the same way always part of the lives and worlds they are researching.” As a life-giving substance, food has immediate implications for the everyday, a phenomenon whose intensity warrants additional consideration.

Indeed, the key question, here as elsewhere, is not why everyday food practices should matter (they must), but how they are pathway systems that produce relations between persons and between people and the world. Because this book is concerned with men’s stories as memic reflections of relationships and practices (Harrison 2006), I find that Fredrik Barth’s way of knowing might provide an analytical language for interrogating other people’s everyday. To come to grips with the Balinese everyday, Barth did not question their world; instead, he observed “the process by which people endow their life with meaning” (Barth 1993, 95). While values and institutions make up the structure under which men and women live, they do not explain how people act in their everyday lives.

To understand—to come to grips with men’s everyday happiness, concerns, and sorrows—we must better understand intentions and actions. But this requires understanding how everyday life takes place. Barth (1993, 160) writes that this is possible “with a reasonable amount of patience and genuine interest in the lives of particular individuals we encounter.” Expanding on this notion, I suggest that understanding everyday goings, comings, and conversations depends on taking to heart what the men in the book do and say, and on regarding their reflections as displays of culture or patriarchal variation.

The men in this book lived (and continue to live) in the midst of change, and the complexities of flux affect their relations with their spouses and children. Men in contemporary Egypt do not repeat established repertoires in order to connect with their world; they mold and reproduce relationships and practices at a time of great uncertainty, with serious consequences for their lives.

Barth (1994, 355) asks us to study closely the reality that people choose to mold and produce in their attempts to give meaning to the world, “in conformity with an embracing construct of balance and harmony between cosmos, society and morally excellent souls.” In writing about the experiences of individuals, Barth uses everyday experiences to reveal how knowledge is always in flux. Hence, we are advised to appropriate “knowledge” rather than “culture.” Knowledge can then provide theoretical avenues for talking about knowing and being in the world.

But a knowledge system is a conceptual approach largely concerned with constructing a coherent sense of self with little regard for narratives or forms of temporality. Nurturing Masculinities calls for a return to culture in the sense of what in an earlier work I explored as “formulating grammars” (Naguib 2009). My enterprise is a thick description of a time when men responded to and carried forward ideas and practices about food. The anthropology of Marshall Sahlins remains, in my view, one of the most pertinent assessments of the significance of culture. Sahlins uses culture to argue for the uses of history. He writes that culture is flexible when personal histories are being addressed, especially within the framework of people situating their lives and defining themselves in historically relevant (for them) moments (Sahlins
1999). In sum, he treats culture as the product of people’s responses to circumstances and specific history. In Sahlins’s article “Two or Three Things I Know about Culture” (1999), he shields culture against abrasive treatment and total dismissal. He sees cultures coming together in ritual systems and in cosmological orders that are reproduced, elaborated, and changed by people as they actively engage with historical realities.
I am troubled by the need to recount men’s stories structurally, since doing so would reduce their talk of culture to mere utility. Everyday friction that I experienced during fieldwork and that created contradictions and variations would be neglected. But Sahlins’s notion that people not only share, but also are committed to, a culture helps resolve these dilemmas (1999, 410). The individual stories in this book cannot be understood unless a foundation of language concerning basic cultural categories invites us to understand practices as both stability and change.

Patriarchs in the Kitchen

Since the 1970s, and in particular following Cynthia Nelson’s (1974) article, which challenges the stereotyped images of patriarchal rule, the theme of patriarchy as integral to Islam has been replaced gradually by one that treats men and women as agents who negotiate their own survival—mostly women, in part by “bargaining with patriarchy” (Kandiyoti 1996). In the 1980s, a burst of work on women appeared; these pieces aimed at moving beyond simply debunking stereotypes to constructing theory (L. Abu-Lughod 1989). Another trend has looked at male and female roles in gender relations concurrently, particularly within the family.

Suad Joseph (1993) discusses ways in which patriarchy operates through domination by men, but also through deeply enmeshed, loving commitments between patriarchs and their female and junior kin members. According to Joseph, socialization within Arab families places a premium on connectivity, the intensive bonding of individuals through commitment and responsibility.

Recent anthropological research into the lives of men and masculinities in Egypt has significantly changed our understanding of male aspirations and practices in the family sphere. Given anthropology’s past interests in the character and cycle of Egyptian lineage, the study of men seems a natural way into the ethnography of capitalism and the shape of globalization in Egyptian families. Global forces such as urbanization, migration, financial crises, political upheavals, and expanded educational and employment opportunities, as well as old and new media and information technology, all challenge and expand the boundaries of what it means to be a family man and the relationships between children and fathers.

The study of gender in relation to men, and particularly to the construction of masculinity, has created new ethnographies that include men’s roles in systems of hierarchy and domination, whether in communities of study, in a national context, or in one of global conflict and inequality. The literature has moved away from a focus on women toward the study of gender relationships, including the construction of gender identity and notions of masculinity and femininity. Hence, analyzing men’s and women’s life strategies requires researchers to pay increased attention to ambiguity. Such an approach appeared in gender studies when biographical data on family life diverted attention from social agency and instead foregrounded agent-centered accounts that show how the family is at once modern and authentic. This scholarship allows us to grapple with individual life strategies without ironing out their inconsistencies.

In anthropology, one approach to women in the Middle East demonstrates that the social constituency of gender is fluctuating. It is concerned with bringing forth “real” individuals with particular, complex, and contradicting histories. In this type of ethnography, the style of writing expresses the dynamism, variation, and uniqueness of women’s experiences. Significantly, contemporary scholarship on gender issues is founded on taking women’s stories seriously. Stories are based on individual perceptions of facts; they provide knowledge of women’s lives and of the gendered experiences of economic, social, and political processes. Although people’s lives are lived simultaneously, stories or narratives convey patterns of experiences that show variation, contradiction, and complexity.

The gender project in the Middle East is dedicated to observing, recording, and figuring out everyday happenings. In the quest for authenticity, and to contest existing stereotypical accounts of women in the region, it is crucial to include native stories or statements, including the marginal voices of women. The pathbreaking gender research of several scholars illustrates that narratives are valuable conveyers of information about the wealth of women’s lives. Their studies make the dynamism between creativity and agency accessible. The complexity that surrounds these stories demonstrates that among Middle Eastern women there are no uncomplicated lives.

Contemporary gender research promotes the sense of liveliness and contradiction found in everyday life as they address women’s agency and self-reflection. Its reflexive writing style includes symbolic expression and an analysis of negotiated identities. Moreover, perhaps more frequently than in other localities in the gender project, these discussions are framed around the theory of patriarchy. The assumption is that Islam undergirds the emphasis on patriarchy in Middle Eastern gender studies, functioning as a patriarchal organizing factor for control of the social order and, therefore, of men’s and women’s social maps.

Patriarchy is undoubtedly the foundation of every part of Arab society, and the role of women in the region is often defined within the context of patriarchal rules. In this book, patriarchy is treated simply as the idea of the ideal Arab family—with a responsible adult male head. Patriarchy is considered a mere ideal because, as Kandiyoti (1996) argues in her work on the role of patriarchy in Muslim society, its benefit is unattainable for poorer women in the Middle East.

Recently there has been more emphasis on gender rather than on family. Still, as Nicholas Hopkins (2003) reminds us, the Arab family is a recurrent and dynamic topic. Its image is all-embracing: a sheltered foundation within which men, women, and children live and share whatever life brings along. In effect, anthropologists of Egypt have always had to cope with an indeterminate and multifaceted understanding of the family, but the disquiet has increased greatly in recent years as scholars have become dissatisfied with the traditional uses of the family in, for example, cultural and political studies. Traditionally, the family was seen as a highly patterned and consistent set of representations constituted of perceptions handed down through generations of Egyptians.

In addition, the anthropological critique took exception to the broad acceptance that the concept of consistency had gained in the public sphere, where all kinds of behaviors were seen as expressions of familial dependability. The family was proclaimed to be an essential factor for understanding Egyptian men and women’s behavior and forms of interaction. This view had obvious problems when family was seen as something that people have en bloc. In scholars’ attempt to add nuance to this approach, they deconstructed the concept of family, by using an idiom of power that addressed the nature of human interaction and explored the extent and kinds of family connections and practices under various social and economic conditions (L. Abu-Lughod 2013).

Scholars have posed new questions about what it means for families to go through change, especially financially induced change. They have probed deeper into temporalities in order to study change more closely and also to investigate sites where traditions were reproduced. For example, Suad Altorki provided a general historicized approach to the Egyptian household in her ethnographic analysis of middle-class family life as presented in the Cairo Trilogy, by Naguib Mahfouz, which shows political and economic circumstances shifting the patriarchal character of the family but still recalls specific patriarchal structures (Altorki 1999).

Recent ethnographies have provided theoretical insights into the interface between family, masculinity, patriarchy, and culture, along with new methodological orientations for understanding masculinity in its wide-ranging familial manifestations (Inhorn 2012; Ghannam 2013). In many ways, recent ethnographies on men are a reminder of Joseph’s earlier work on “connectivity,” in which she opened up the field by depicting the family as a collection of lives “lived together.” Indeed she exposed the anthropology of family to assumptions of agency that also account for men’s sensitivities and active pursuit of making a family.

With the exception of Joseph’s work on connectivity and Inhorn’s on conjugal love, family bonds, and care, affective practices are almost forgotten features of Middle East studies. The depressive approach to family life in the region is perhaps unsurprising, given the conflicts and spaces of exclusion for men and women. At issue here is an intellectual uneasiness about how to develop critical thinking about nurturing men—Muslim Arab men.

Contemporary anthropology literature concerning masculinity and the Middle East touches on men’s vulnerabilities, dependencies, and inner conflicts (see, for example, Ghannam 2002, 2013; Hafez 2012; Inhorn 2004, 2012). Farha Ghannam looked at how men participate in authentication or actively define masculinity in public and private life. She also investigated how men discursively establish authority over both themselves and assumptions of masculinities, which are connected to “good grooming, nice manners, fashionable clothes, skill in navigating the city, assertiveness and courage, the ability to provide for one’s family, and knowledge about when to use violence to defend self, family, and relatives” (Ghannam 2013, 24). Ghannam foregrounds biological and cultural constructions of men and the importance of denaturalizing gendered ideologies when studying masculinities. In synthesizing existing debates on masculinity and social constructions of men’s body, Ghannam asks us to reconsider how men, and not only women, in the Middle East are embodied. The men in Ghannam’s anthropology are emotional, body aware, vulnerable, worried, and assertive. For Ghannam, the most pressing problem remains not the recognition that men collectively still have overwhelmingly greater access to authority but, rather, men’s continuing need to be recognized as having greater authority—by both women and men. Men’s hopes, sorrows, humor, and relationships with their mothers, male relatives, neighbors, friends, and society are vividly recounted through detailed life histories collected from families in al-Zawiya al-Hamra.

When analyzed as a social and political dimension of men’s lives, masculinity conceptualizes male identity as variable and contested rather than as fixed and monolithic. A subset of literature on this topic is particularly relevant here; it disputes the view that men enjoy timeless status as patriarchs or as “Arab Muslim men.” Close attention to the negotiations that take place between men and women and to local lives and agency offers new paradigms for conceptualizing social change.

Anthropological and ethnographic aspects that turn up during fieldwork—such as food—offer edifying ways of questioning the complexity and contingency of masculinity. This book considers historical specificities in connection with the interplay of masculinities: in narratives of political and social change, in patterns of generational and family transformations, in labor relations, and in class structures. Historical transformation and change open up new possibilities for men and women to emerge as near reconstructions of the past or in absolutely new ways. In either case, masculinity is not entirely defined by history, a singular identity, or specific conditions.

This book is premised on masculinity’s plurality, as a component of identity that does not develop according to restrictive rules but rather follows the logic of men’s, and women’s, everyday lives and experiences. Put crudely, men are complex selves bearing the imprint of a multitude of experiences that form their capacity to practice, to know, and to be men. By learning about their notions of what makes a man a man, we see how they interact with their families and the world to provide food and foster an ethos-informed sociability that shapes their lives.

Wit and Appetite

The progression of Nurturing Masculinities mirrors my movements in the streets, alleys, and markets of Cairo, as well as my decades of talking, cooking, and eating with my interlocutors in Egypt. Food in this book is about daily life, identity, memory, senses, aesthetics, and humor. The chapters aim to show how food, its preparation, and its consumption connect men—from different neighborhoods, age groups, classes, and educational backgrounds—to their families, their communities, and the nation at large. Chapter 1 bypasses the Arab masculinity slot and instead develops “nurturing masculinities” as a key conceptual trope for this ethnography of men and food. An anthropology attentive to food’s capacity to forge ties and fulfillment has much to tell us about how men’s potency is, to a great extent, also the potency of knowing, providing, and handling food. At the same time, the chapter challenges the generally strict reliance in Middle East studies on reserving the sphere of nurturance to female domesticity.

Besides being a lens for thinking about what it means to be a man and how men enact masculinity in Egypt, food can help us understand undercurrents of the 2011 revolution and the appeal and work of the Muslim Brotherhood. Chapter 2, which focuses on young members of the group, analyzes the connection between faith and pragmatism, inner conviction and conscious marketing ploy, and men’s generational struggles and power shifts. In looking at the contemporary revolution, the chapter explores male outreach, the plight of stressed and hungry Egyptians, and the kind of ethical dilemmas the anthropologist faces when thinking about how to portray poverty and disillusionment.

Chapter 3 examines the long histories behind recent events, and the relation between current political change and enduring cultural practices. I revisit Mary Douglas’s (1974) now-classic anthropological formulation of “deciphering a meal” in order to expand on the idea of meal recollections. Specific ingredients and dishes can reconstruct notions of manliness and thereby become memorable as sensory, as well as social, experiences. As David Sutton (2001) shows, food binds time; I draw on his work to analyze how an ingredient like samna baladi or a site like a bakery can serve as a poignant memoryand identity-making stimulant.

Phenomenological perspectives on eating, smelling, memory, sentiment, care, and nurturance provide the substance of chapter 4. It discusses gendered social roles and shows how men’s manliness is inherent in being ibn al-balad. A discussion of conviviality and congeniality, and their aesthetic yet random association with eating and sharing food, leads to theoretical questions about men’s sense of being content. For example, the men in this chapter want their children to know the ways of eating, such as tearing a small piece of bread and folding it into a cat’s ear before scooping from a common dish.

The concluding chapter raises major issues one last time. As I wrote during the white nights of summer in Oslo in 2014, the Muslim Brotherhood government was ousted by what the media calls the largest street protest in history. A new military government was sworn in, and one of my main interlocutors, an officer, called to ask when I was coming back to Cairo to celebrate and eat.


“In exposing the importance of properly feeding one’s family, and of the enjoyment of food in family circles to Egyptian men’s notions of manhood, Naguib sheds light on a gentler side of Egyptian masculinity, one related to caregiving and social responsibility. The book gives its readers a strong sense of Egyptian men’s commitment to their community and family, as well as of their sociability and sense of humor, through the stories they tell.”
Bustan: The Middle East Book Review

“This utterly unique book takes readers to the streets of Cairo, where working-class men struggle to provide food and sustenance for their families. Nurturing Masculinities challenges dominant tropes of Arab manhood, suggesting instead that masculinities are measured by the care, nurturance, love, and daily bread that men bring to domestic life. A beautifully written and eye-opening account of Muslim men’s food activism, as well as an evocative rendering of Egyptian culinary traditions.”
Marcia C. Inhorn, the William K. Lanman Professor of Anthropology and International Affairs, Yale University

Nurturing Masculinities is an important addition to a growing, both in number and influence, body of ethnographic work on masculinity in the Middle East. Both its theory and ethnography are strong.”
Lisa Wynn, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Macquarie University, and author of Pyramids and Nightclubs: A Travel Ethnography of Arab and Western Imaginations of Egypt, from King Tut and a Colony of Atlantis to Rumors of Sex Orgies, Urban Legends about a Marauding Prince, and Blonde Belly Dancers

Nurturing Masculinities is well timed and promises to enrich our understanding of gender and food in contemporary Egyptian life.”
Farha Ghannam, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Swarthmore College, and author of Live and Die Like a Man: Gender Dynamics in Urban Egypt