I remember as a little kid, how my hands would reach for food on the ground, that was the most natural process, me eating from my mama’s fingers on the floor, under my two legs a piece of cloth, and in front of me an ancient ritual. The plate that my mother would serve the food was made from the good old ways using iron we would call them “Sahan”
All my early memories before the war were so integrated into me and I still can remember them very clearly just because of the way we ate food, simply on a piece of cloth on the floor.
After the war, my uncle who used to live in Switzerland brought to us not only his “great idealistic ideas” but also the four-foot table. We were amazed at how now we will be “civilized” and eat not with fingers anymore but with a knife and fork. Not on the floor but in this so-called “aristocratic chairs”
However, my mama would still feed us with bare hands. Her genuine and pure way that subconsciously was screaming inside out telling me; I’m still choosing to feed you, nourish, and fill your belly with ancestral wisdom.
As a child, it was difficult for me to just grasp how food, table manners, and various traditional or modernist ways can be a means to transgress an idea, a thought, a statement, a movement, or even a symbolism itself. Seeing my cousins so easily just holding a spoon and a fork always felt alienated from this new civilization of eating. I was presented with a new idea without even knowing it.
These thoughts made me curious about what was before the Albanian transgression. Holding my grandmother’s tales of how dining rituals were and what they meant including her traditional Islamic heritage and collective memories of her time and before her, inspired me to write on this topic.
Now I’m a vessel for this heritage, I honor it, and I’m deeply grateful my life was immersed in it. Otherwise, this whole writing would have been meaningless.
To the dining rituals and divine knowledge!
A View of Traditional Approaches on Food and Spirituality in Albanian Heritage
These past weeks I have been thinking a lot about eating habits and the process of eating on its own. Starting from the way we prepare the food, what we choose to combine, how we honor the goods, how we settle the table, how we sit, how we pray, and how we nourish our bellies with it.
When I was a child my grandmother would tell me stories and tales from what she heard in her own life about food or events related to it.
In Albanian culture which happens to have a very rich and large indication of traditional Islam, thus the ritual of dining is still strongly tied and rooted in this tradition.
I remember her telling me the rituals of setting the table and the eating habits they had. The man of the house, who happened to be the father-in-law, had the honor to cut the bread by hand equally for everyone. It is best and honorable for the bread to be cut by hand rather than by any other cutting tool.
They would sit at a round table and all of them would eat from the same plate.
As if the ritual indicates a very meaningful symbolism. While the round table symbolizes the never-ending circle, eating from the same plate depicts the essence of the gnosis of taking knowledge from the same Source of light.
This ritual was vastly practiced in Sufi Lodges where dervishes would eat from the same plate: One; To express the gratitude of eating with others and train thyself from any resentment feelings or disgust.
And two; To arise in the hearts the sense of brotherhood and unity and taking light and nourishment from the same sun of knowledge.
As it is very important for the food we eat to have respect and eat it with mindfulness.
The other key thing that food requires is giving its Haqq ( the truthfulness it deserves) and this truthfulness lies hidden in Serving the Guest. While traditional Islam gives a special side of honoring the guests of the house and that of the heart. In higher knowledge, the house symbolizes its very heart and its very state of it.
An Albanian saying cites like this: Bukë, kryp e zemër literally translates as Bread, Salt, and Heart. This means whatever is there to offer for the guest is generously spread but most importantly this would be done through love and kind-ship.
This also brings us to the simplicity of eating modest meals as a way to be content with what we have and what God has sustained for us.
The early Sufi mystic and martyr Mansur al-Hallaj was said to have survived for seven years on a diet of only bread and salt.
Offering the guests the meal and preparing for them the best you have in your house is a piece of prophetic advice also. The prophet Muhammad’s peace and blessings be upon him enhanced the fact that one who serves a drink to his guests should be the last to drink for himself.
When a guest arrives in many traditional, cultural places, they offer not only food, but security, and protection as well. The guest and the host while being under one roof represents the threshold between the known and unknown worlds. That of the mundane, material, the objective reality, and that of the sacred, divine, and imaginal world. The relationship is nothing more than a mirror counterpart of each of these elements.
When someone knocks on our door, we welcome them warmly and we share the sincere company, we broke bread in sisterhood and in brotherhood, in the community— the heart and the soul speak for our inner capacity for unconditional love, fellowship, hospitality, generosity that we all have to offer for the Sake of God and for all of his creatures.
Threshold Between Life and Death
Another aspect of seeing food through the lens of spirituality is looking at how we celebrate special occasions by preparing certain foods and beverages.
Back in time Halwa (Havel) was prepared for greater nights such as special nights in the Islamic calendar or when someone passed away.
It is marking these two events one for celebration and the other when someone is permanently gone from the realm of this world. It wants to show if even death can be a part of a celebratory pave to eternal bliss.
Another occasion that my grandmother told me was that halwa was destined to be only for the dead because of the daughter of the last prophet.
The story goes as follows: One-day Hazrat Fatima was making halwa and someone said to her that Hazrat Ali is bringing another woman for a wife into the household. From the resentment and sadness, Hazrat Fatimah accidentally put her hand in the hot halwa. Burning her hand in hot flour and oil, with a deep sadness in her heart she said may this halwa only be made for burials and never for weddings.
However true or not the tale is, halwa in its original taste is sweet and a dessert that carries these two juxtaposed meanings becoming the epitome that is used for the nights and days, for the dead and the living, for the spirit and the breath.
Looking back, Ashura falls not far from halwa. In the Albanian context, Ashura was made in Sufi lodges and in homes where this tradition is still alive. In my home, the women of my family would put a large pot where Ashura wheat, water, and sugar were added to it. Stirring the pot and remembering the creation and symbols coming to it from Noah to the prophet’s family each stirring would be a remembrance of the archetypes of each event that is already inside of us.
The seekers of the divine station share the Ashura with the greater community that the spoonfuls of Ashura go out in the world.
Many of these celebratory recipes contain substituting sugar for the gnosis; the sweetness of sugar reflects the sweetness of communion with God and the deceptive nature of the physical world. The fleeting moments of this lowest station taste sweet but they melt instantly…
In the next number of the article we might talk about other aspects of food and spirituality. There are foods and recipes, stories, and hearts to fill our spirits and bellies with it.
*This writing in some places paraphrased was inspired by the finding collection of Kathleen Seidel
By Ardita Avdija