The Arab World in Idaho
“Wherever there is Arabic food on a desert table,” Lebanese-American writer Gary Paul Nabhan has written, “there is homecoming.”
This is increasingly true in the high desert of the American West as well, as more and more immigrants from the Middle East settle in places like Boise. To acknowledge that demographic/ culinary shift, a conference and gala titled “The Arab World in Idaho: Food, Innovation & Culture” was held in Boise in October. Organized by a group called the Community Unbound Project (CUP), the event featured a semi-academic conference at Boise State (which I helped moderate), followed by an evening of Arab food, dance, culture and comedy on the 17th floor of the downtown Zion’s Bank Building. Refugees from Iraq and Syria, students from the Gulf states and Boiseans from Egypt and the Levant gathered to share their cuisine and stories with fellow Americans.
“Our mission,” says Susan Obasi-Ikeagwu, one of the event’s organizers, “is to overcome stereotypes and biases through positive and authentic cultural and cross-cultural experience... and we use food as the common denominator.”
These food and culture based events give participants new tools, information and experiences with which to reflect on the community and, indeed, on world events. In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Beruit and Paris, CUP and those who have shared our tables are better able to counter the broad brush with which media pundits and politicians have painted the entire Arab world and impugned the well established humanitarian process of resettling political refugees.
At the conference, panelists spoke about the trauma of fleeing their homes in war-torn places like Iraq and the Gaza Strip. Through tears, one participant showed before-and-after photos of her once beautiful Syrian homeland, now reduced to rubble by the same forces that unleashed terror in France. All expressed relief to have finally found a safe haven for themselves and their families in Idaho.
Many spoke of the vital role that food plays in making a successful transition to a new land, how familiar spices and ingredients provide continuity, forming an edible bridge from the past to the future and also enriching the cuisines of the host country.
Later that evening, surrounded by the scent of cardamom, saffron and strong coffee, spurred by generous heapings of rice and chicken, new Americans and second, third, fourth generation Americans expanded their comfort zones and palates exponentially.
“The Arab World in Idaho conference was a big success,” Susan Obasi-Ikeagwu, an immigrant herself, says, “because it not only educated the participants about the Arab world and its diversity, but also demonstrated the growing roots of Arab cuisine in Idaho—and the way that food, and with it culture, tradition, family and community, bring us all together.”
Nathaniel Hoffman is the co-author of Amor and Exile: True Stories of Love Across America's Borders, editor of The Blue Review at Boise State and a member of the Community Unbound Project, which produced the Arab World in Idaho conference. His youthful vegetarianism was complicated by significant time in the Middle East, where lamb supplanted tofu as his comfort food of choice.