A chat with Italian-Egyptian Food Activist and Researcher Sara El Sayed
Sara Aly El Sayed is a young activist, Slow Food International representative , researcher, and a Ph.D student at Arizona State University.
She has been lecturing “Food Politics and Activism in Egypt” a course in the Master of Gastronomy: Food in the World – Food Ecologies and Sovereignty in the World program at the university in Pollenzo.
I met her and we talked about food, challenges and projects in agriculture, in today’s Egypt.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your experience?
I was born and raised in Egypt by an Italian mother and an Egyptian father, so there is a bit of Italy in my blood that shows up in many different things, especially, with food related topics. I had a very Calabrese grandmother that had a very big role in making me appreciate how food is made. Because, in her culture, making food from scratch, growing vegetables, raising animals was a strong part of who she was and got passed down onto me. So, I had this in my upbringing. In Egypt, I did my bachelors degree in Biology and Anthropology and then I worked in the sector of informal education most of my life. I also had a very strong connection with the natural world, and so, in 2011, I started this new journey into learning about Biomimicry, which is a field that relates nature with sustainability, through the idea of looking at the natural world to get inspiration to create more sustainable design.
Consequently, learning more about biodiversity and about the natural world, I was also introduced to Slow Food. This is an influence by my Italian mother, who is a big fan of Carlo Petrini. She watched all his interviews on tv and read his books and kept telling me “You need to bring Slow Food to Egypt!”
At that time, I was working at an NGO on biodiversity and education. I sent an email to Slow Food International saying “We are doing this big event for World Environment Day and bring biodiversity as a topic. Would you send a speaker?”. And they did send a speaker. It was 2008, and so, I started my journey with Slow Food. Then, I became very active and eventually, I got nominated to be representative of North Africa on the Slow Food International board where I was advocating for more Arab and Middle Eastern issues in Slow Food. At the same time, I was trying to bring back the Slow Food values into Egypt. I got more involved in the NGO sector in Egypt, and I left the education world to start working with small scale farmers.
Me and a group of people co-founded a few organisations: among them, one is called Nawaya, which works with small scale farming communities to try and transition these communities into more sustainable communities–both from an agricultural perspective on how things are grown, but also on their own livelihood.
With the values of Slow Food, this started to be translated into real projects, so today our flagship project is called Baladini which is a women’s kitchen, in Sakkara’s rural area, that empowers small scale farmer women to produce local products, and at the same time, it’s an educational space where we create curricula for women who to want learn how to produce in an hygienic way and learn how to run a business. After all of this activism and practical projects, I felt like I needed myself to get an academic grounding.
So, in August 2017, I started my Ph.D at Arizona State University in the School of Sustainability, specifically, looking at food systems. What I’m hoping to do now is to understand how a larger framing of food sovereignty fits in with the global economy, and then, how work that I’ve been doing in Egypt fits into this.
How did you find, in a male dominated society such as in Egypt, working on the ground with small scale farmers? I mean as a woman and a facilitator. Could you tell us about it?
First of all, I want to clarify that Egyptian women are very strong. The idea that it is a male dominated society where women don’t exist in the public sphere is not the reality. There are very strong women with very important positions across the country. Yes, it is a very patriarchal society and there is a big division, but there’s also a lot of influential women.
When I first I started working in the villages, the project I was doing was set in a small area. Initially, we decided to work with men, not with women; the reason we did that was the fact that men are the farmers, and women are helping.
It took a lot of time for me to be trusted. I’m a woman. I’m unveiled. The image that I’m portraying is not that of the traditional Egyptian woman, but I’m not pretending to be something else. I’m half Egyptian and half Italian.
It took a bit of time to gain that trust, but then we started working with a group of 10 farmers who really believed in values of insuring good food for themselves and not just for others, to change bad habits in food culture, to create a more fair system.
Eventually, this idea of man and woman was completely erased. This was actually how we were allowed as an organisation to easily enter in people’s homes and gain the trust to work with women. Today, with the Baladini project, we have rural women actively engaged in business. They are entrepreneurs. They go out to market. They do catering, and go to people’s homes, and are breaking taboos in this cultural context. And, this is because people that have embraced us really believe in these values.
How do you feel being here lecturing with Pollenzo students?
Being here, in Pollenzo, it’s important as I’m now trying to speak on behalf of the challenges of small scale farming communities and what that really means on the ground. It’s not a rosy picture. There are real problems in Egypt, a country that is very disconnected, with super rich people and very poor ones, so talking about how food can be sustainable is very important.
The topic of my seminar was originally about ‘Food Activism in Egypt’. But, I was invited three years ago when Egypt was still in the wave of the 2011 revolution, so I decided to change it to ‘Food politics and activism in Egypt’ to allow students to learn about the complexity of food in the Egyptian system.
For example, talking about bread. Bread has been a symbol of protest and resistance for many Egyptians, for decades. Since the 1970s, we’ve had food riots related to bread. Bread is a real voice for change. Even the 2011 Revolution had bread in its slogan like “Bread, freedom and social solidarity”. So bread is really part of Egyptian culture and resistance.
There a lot of complex issues. And with the students, we talk about food subsidies, about Egyptian cuisine and how it’s influenced by different traditions. Egypt has been colonised and settled by so many different other countries and this is translated in our food. We have desserts that come from the Ottomans, we have “pasta al forno” from Italy, we have several types of coffee that are influenced from the Horn of Africa.
We also talk about challenges of agriculture. We had important changes after building the Aswan High Dam, and as a result, what is the traditional way of farming has been completely changed. I paint this whole big picture of how the situation looked like and I try to put a layer in understanding food sovereignty. Food sovereignty is an important movement that needs to penetrate the world and Egypt even more. That’s why I’m talking about the new Egyptian Constitution and how food sovereignty is part of it.
Baladi food (which means locally produced and countryside food) is the real Slow Food. Is this Baladi food an important issue for Egyptians? Are younger generations connected with this idea?
There is both an interest in Baladi food and not. On one side, there is a romantic image of food from the countryside that is full of flavour and rich. A lot of people romanticize these products, considering them the best.
However, in the modern world, there is also this feeling that this kind of food is not healthy because it is very fatty. The other concern is that it could be non-hygienic. There is this image of the countryside that’s very dirty, which is true. If you look at the canals that irrigate, in Egypt, they are very polluted.
So, people are interested, but, they want to make sure it’s quality. However, given that the country is very corrupt and there is a lack of information and knowledge that doesn’t transfer, people don’t trust what’s written on a label or what they find in a supermarket or they see on tv.
Even if there is a potential market for these products to reach people, there is a lack of trust that makes these people sure that the product is Baladi, it’s clean, authentic, and they are not going to get poisoned by it.
There is a real opportunity for things to change. One of the things we’ve tried to do with the Baladini is to create that trust between you and the consumer, but it is hard because you are in an environment that has problems; problems of water, salinity of soil, huge use of chemicals and pesticides.
In Egypt, are there many foreign food companies or are there more local food companies?
There is a very interesting mix in Egypt. We have very large agribusinesses that are Egyptian, but many of them are connected to other international organisations. So for seeds, for example, there are locally owned businesses that collaborate with large international corporations. So, to the Egyptians, it looks like these are local agribusinesses, but the reality is that they have connections outside and are part of larger businesses. And these businesses are not interested in small scale agriculture, but more interested in mass production.
In Egypt, is there a revival in traditional cooking techniques? Are the media pushing this trend?
Not yet. The food sector is not yet pushing for the traditional and artisanal food, but it’s getting there. In the handicraft sectors, like jewelry, clothing, and textiles, there is a trend that is reviving the traditional manufacture.
On the other hand, cooking shows are a very big deal in Egypt, with two tv channels devoted only to that. But, in the middle of these shows, you might find one single chef maybe connecting a little to his grandmother’s recipes. It is not yet a trend, though.
Do you have any special recollections of your experience as an activist in Egypt?
One of the things I appreciate most about rural Egypt and the countryside is generosity. I think that’s something that you may find commonly in rural areas around the world.
When I was working in Sakkara, a rural region well known for its pyramids, everytime a guest arrived in the house, local people who raise chickens and roosters, they’d go up, get a chicken, slaughter it and cook it for you, in your honour. You need to know that these kind of proteins are not easy to get for these people, because they are expensive. Sometimes, they’ll not eat meat for weeks, but when a guest shows up, the food–it’s for him. It’s a matter of respect.
For me, this represents what rural Egypt looks like. These farmers would rather give their animal to a guest, that maybe they’ll never see again, than eat for themselves. To me, it is important to talk about this right now because in a world that is really focused on being vegetarian and vegan–in some parts of the world–this is not an option. Having that choice is a privilege and people should be aware of it.