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Hana Assafiri trades food for justice
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Hana Assafiri trades food for justice
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Hana Assafiri trades food for justice
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Conversations
29 March 2018

Hana Assafiri trades food for justice

Interview by Eleanor Jackson
Photography by Lucy Spartalis

Eleanor Jackson on Hana Assafiri

As I travel towards Moroccan Delicacy to meet Hana Assafiri—the powerhouse behind this bustling Brunswick café and its 20-year-old sister establishment, the Moroccan Soup Bar—I wonder how many others have met Hana in this same way, nestled amongst the warmth and clamour of food, people and voices.

I don’t want to presume Hana will remember me, although we have met at her restaurant dozens of times before. She’s written my number on a small, white napkin to secure a table; set down a Haloumi salad and roasted cauliflower; handed me a Tupperware container of the chickpea bake that was, for a time, the only cure I knew for heartache. We’ve spoken before, lightly chatting between the rituals of food, and Hana has a way of opening conversation with customers right in the middle of things, pleasantries aside, cutting to the heart of a matter while deftly delivering a plate. Some small part of me thinks I know, at least something, of Hana Assafiri and her ways.

Despite these glancing exchanges, nothing quite prepares me for the life-force of a conversation with Hana. Her energy for what she does and how she does it is potent, and prevails over the cars driving by, the construction site across the road, the interruptions of lunchtime at the café, and the waves of departing customers, arriving friends and passers-by.

It is clear Hana lives with purpose, passion and conviction, all of which must have sustained her through nearly two decades at the helm of the busy Moroccan Soup Bar, with its spoken menu, its feminist and transformative employment agenda, and its willingness to see food and women as a recipe for change. While adding another café to her interests might seem a natural next step for a popular business looking to expand, it is clear Hana’s outlook is more than economic: it is the business of memory, community and activism that has inspired her to take over a Brunswick nut bar and transform it into a centre for the trade of daring ideas.

Host of the “Speed Date a Muslim” events, convenor of a program of creative debates, Hana is setting tables in a climate of global mistrust and ignorance about Islam—particularly the relationship of Islam to women. At each table she invites customers to participate in an act of resistance against hate. In each interaction, she sees the possibility of radical human connection. I don’t care if she remembers me. I remember her.

This story originally ran in issue #51 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #51 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #51 of Dumbo Feather

ELEANOR JACKSON: I want to start where everyone starts, which is obviously with food. When you opened the Moroccan Soup Bar, which was nearly 20 years ago now, do you remember how you felt on the first day?

HANA ASSAFIRI: Yeah, I was so nervous. I think it’s one of those occasions where you’re so afraid and you know you’re going against the grain. What you’re doing has no reference. It has no tribe, no community. It has no one else with convictions other than your own stubborn ones grounded in whatever belief you have. And despite all the people who claim to care about you and your welfare and are concerned for your future, well, they’re equally kind of worrisome in their support. It’s like, “What are you doing? Stay in a wage-earning job! No meat, no chicken, no fish, no alcohol, no coffee. What is this place?” The more peculiar you were then, the more people thought you were peculiar. Whereas now, they seek you out. So yes, I recall being extraordinarily nervous. It’s that excitement that comes with anticipating and also considering the worst-case scenario: no one turns up.

Do you think some of those nerves were about the kind of model that you were starting? Because you’ve never shied away from doing something a little bit different. The Moroccan Soup Bar started before “social enterprise” and those kinds of buzzwords were even being used. You opened with employment practices that were out of the box for any restaurant at the time. Why did you make those choices?

To understand the Moroccan Soup Bar, it was born out of a dissatisfaction and a discontent with the limitations of the women’s services sector. Prior to the Moroccan Soup Bar, I worked in crisis intervention and women’s services. Although it was exciting to be attached to a vision of the world where the subjugation of women was something we sought to eradicate, very quickly it became evident that there was a deficit when it came to ethnicity politics and understanding the plight of indigenous women, or any women that weren’t a part of that community services sector.

So for 15 years, I worked in many capacities in that field—direct service, policy development, co-ordination, advising government, et cetera, et cetera—recognising more and more that we needed to develop a strategy that was anti-racist to incorporate the diversity of women and their needs. But then came the Kennett and Howard governments that sought to simplify, what they called at the time, unit cost, and to quantify violence against women.

Now firstly, that was an absurd proposition. And secondly, those who were more marginalised were more likely to fall through the system. There was a disincentive to take them because they cost more. So from there I found myself at this place of asking why things are not better than they are. I realised the only reason I’m staying in this employment is for fear of leaving. It offers me a job, it’s a consistent wage, salary. But I was no longer committed to it. And from there I came back to essentially what it was, or is, that gives my life meaning—which is speaking to justice. And

in the very quirky, unconventional ways I tend to live my life, I drove past this place and thought, ‘Women and food, no matter their plight or circumstances, in that context.’

They didn’t need to be trained. That expertise is something innate to the way women are conditioned. So let’s go girls. You don’t need a CV. I’ll establish a space from which we can express our values. And all the while you can speak not just about conceptually shifting the plight of women, but practically—through employment and education. And so the Moroccan Soup Bar was born.

 

I love that it’s always felt like more than just hospitality in the industry sense. It feels like a definitional sense of hospitality, as in warmth and welcome. And I don’t know how that’s created, whether it’s the lack of a menu, the shared tables, your number on a napkin, “We’ll call you back in 10 minutes…”

As if—you’re lucky! If you’re lucky, you get on the napkin.

Ok, 40 minutes!

Yes, yes.

[Laughs]. We often question where food sits with culture. As the most immediate and embodied way to experience the other. Say, if you eat a meal, if you nourish yourself, if you taste and feel it, if it goes through your whole system, food has a kind of magic. Is there anything in that idea that feels true for you in the work you’ve done with the Moroccan Soup Bar and now here with Moroccan Deli-cacy?

When I first established the Moroccan Soup Bar, it was in the hope that at the very least it’s an honest expression of who we are, and in the hope that it would resonate with some people. So hospitality for me was very different to café-run, impersonal, printed menus, where almost always the owners and/or chefs are two steps removed from the establishment.

For me, hospitality was an extension of how we were brought up. That the kitchens were the places where real stuff happened. Where life happened. Where the intimacy and the secrecy of life— the informality, rather—existed.

So I wanted to replicate that on a bigger scale. And it was honest. And it’s not contrived, and you don’t need a menu to follow that. If it relies on you and your expression, then at worst people will respect that it’s not their thing. And at best people will embrace communal informality, peeling away the pretentious layers, all the while recognising the role of women in food. Food, intimacy, social change. Those things for me, although at the time weren’t present in my fore-thinking, evolved and developed. Say, in terms of the transmission of the wisdom of women. It happened in, amongst and around food rituals. You know, like you’ve just had a baby, for example. And a woman will…

Bring you over food.

Well yeah. And she says something like, “Oh you need some almonds to replenish your protein.” Now that’s not documented anywhere. It’s just a way of life and way of being between women. So the communal nature is something culturally I hold dear. And all other aspects became more and more developed. The more people and the community responded to it, the more it evolved. So women and food, to me, are a natural expression.

One thing I also take from that though, is that it’s not—apologies if this seems a strange way to phrase it—but it’s not a normative association. It’s not, “Women just like cooking,” or “Women just like serving food.” There’s always been a challenge there ultimately, too. And I think it’s partly because when you’re supporting women who’ve been traditionally marginalised by broader systems and exposing communities to sectors, they haven’t been seen as real people.

Yeah. So it’s the opposite of saying women are seen as traditional cooks and that’s it, and here it is. This is a starting point—a starting access point from which women can have a platform to grow and springboard into their own development and where they needed to go. So it’s a circuit breaker to recognise this is where you’re at, and from there it is valued, and it’s valued  insofar as it’s also your contribution and your expression that’s honest. But it’s also offering up practical opportunities to shift and evolve and change the social set of subjugation that women tend to occupy. So it’s from the inside out as opposed to the outside in. It’s not limiting women to cooking in kitchens, it’s saying, “If this is where things are at, then let’s use that as a way to validate and empower and springboard into where we need to go in our own development and evolution.”

And is that sense of shifting from the inside out what led to things like “Speed Date a Muslim?” Where did that start?

I mean, I just go back to what gives my life meaning. And that is speaking out against all forms of injustice in the most peculiar and at times unapologetic way. And at times it’s palatable, and at other times it’s confronting. But for me I need to do it.

So the way in which it’s perceived is often dependent on the climate that it’s in. So if the climate is more humane and reasonable, nobody will take offence, and I don’t need to be so loud. But if the climate is more hostile and more bigoted and peddling populism and hate, then I’m louder. And I’m more unapologetic. And consequently some sections will find me more offensive.

Over the years we’ve had many temptations to shift and change our convictions at the Moroccan Soup Bar. And we were tempted with a lot of money thrown at us to franchise it. And there is a lot of frustration in the world, particularly when the external climate becomes more hostile toward Muslims and people come in with their beer and wanting to have a go at a woman with a hijab and somehow blame her for the woes of the world. These kinds of tensions become temptations to shift your convictions or revisit them and consolidate. But over the years, we have not expanded or grown or franchised.

And then the backdrop I guess for the Moroccan Deli-cacy came on the back of writing the cookbook.

Yes?

You don’t realise the emotional, psychological process until you do it. Writing the cookbook required that I become quite nostalgic about how we learned to cook, and how innate that has become. And equally, I recognise that the hospitality scene or chef scene, it is what it is. And it has some amazing culinary standards. It’s just so far removed from how we’ve grown up. I mean sometimes I look at a plate in a restaurant and I think it should be on a wall somewhere. Whereas the way we’re brought up with this earthy, innate capacity to combine food, all that sort of stuff is not necessarily on offer in hospitality anymore.

So in writing the book, I started longing for some of those things, or some of those influences and the rituals which influenced me. So I existed in the kitchen for the time that I was writing a book, experiencing the relationship between women. And it crystalised the very gendered nature of hospitality. And I wanted it to pay homage to women, and women’s cooking. But all the while, I became more aware of the traditions that just take one generation before they’re lost. Like pickling and preserving. So the deli for me was the rituals around which women come together.

Let’s say we pickle olives. And it’s a day-long ritual where women and kids and bottles and mortar and pestles are smashed, and there’s chaos and madness. All the while the transmission of cultural traditions happens in those settings.

I don’t care that a machine makes your olives or lemons. In fact it’s easier. But what we’ve lost as well, the ripple effect of what’s lost with modernisation and machinery, is the transmission of some important cultural traditions. I used to frequent this deli for over 25 years…

I used to live just under that crane. I used to get nuts here.

And I always got more than a handful of nuts, believe me, with the guy who ran it!

[Laughs].

So he passed on and they were selling it. They sold the building to a developer, and all the while I was really longing for maintenance of tradition and culture. So I offered to buy it. I thought women could come together and pickle and preserve lemons and olives and turnips, all the while sitting and imparting their wisdom onto the younger ones. And people protested, I kid you not! They stood outside and they said, “Where’s my lunch? Where’s my breakfast?” So it quickly turned into a deli-cum-food-cum-café—and with that it was inevitable in this changing climate with the increase in Islamophobia in particular. It’s unlike any other phenomenon I’ve known—other than in the history books—it’s a global tension. It’s not something simply that Australians do, you know, to the latest arrived community and we kind of pick on them a little bit in jest. This is much more dangerous and much more profound and the impact is much more readily seen systematically and in a consistent way on women.

I was just going to use that word—systematic.

So I just thought, in my very bizarre, quirky way, Why? If you humanise the very thing people have been made afraid of, you might start stripping away at that fear. I believe in people’s decency. That ultimately most people, 99.9 percent of people, when they can identify with an issue or the thing you’ve made them afraid of, will do the right thing. Always. And for me that’s reaffirmed daily in every interaction I have. So I thought, How do we do that in the context of the deli?

So how do you?

“Speed Date a Muslim.” There we go! And it was seriously a concept that was innocent. Initially it was, “Here’s a platform from which we can have a conversation.” Its uniqueness was not only to dissociate the Muslim woman wearing a hijab here from the events unfolding in Paris—we’re severing that connection, we’re saying that’s absurd. It was also about educating Muslim women about our own rights.

It’s a platform of solidarity where no matter what we think, our starting premise is that the subjugation of women and violence against Muslim women is unacceptable in Islam.

If you, as a Muslim, come to these events and believe that in any way women should be secondary to men, don’t come to these events. There are many other forums for you. This is a progressive platform reclaiming the empowerment of Muslim women within Islam, not denouncing Islam, and all the while speaking to a community engagement. And from which it became a thing. Now it’s a thing. “Speed Date a Muslim” is a thing!

And it’s a thing that’s going regional. I grew up in Ballarat and Bendigo, I even taught a little while in Shepparton…

Yes, we’re going to Shepparton.

And sometimes, I’ve found regional communities to be far more embracing of difference because there are fewer people to separate you from the other. The “other” is someone who’s working at the Ingham Chicken factory with you now. So I’m interested and curious in your thoughts about how “Speed Date a Muslim” will be different or similar in regional Victoria.

When I worked in the women’s services sector, it kind of reaffirmed that sentiment. That the Country Women’s Association was far more on  board with a conversation around diversity than some of the woman-centred academic institutions. So yes I agree. All the while, when we’ve been running “Speed Date a Muslim” events here, for over a year, we’ve had a couple of women from Shepparton come and visit. And they’ve attended these events and said, you know, “For all of your latte-sipping ways and means, in Shepparton things are different.” And Shepparton—and this is the only reason we’re going—is the highest Pauline Hanson-voting town outside of Queensland. And a woman who is a doctor who wears the hijab was beaten in the face for no other reason than wearing a hijab. So this woman came up to us and said, “This is their reality, how do you pitch something like that in Shepparton?” We said, “Okay, what do you want?” She said, “Come up!” We said, “We’re coming!” So we’re taking a busload of women tomorrow as it be. And we’re going up there to Speed Date Shepparton and humanise the fear.

With more and more hysteria unfolding and all this craziness, anyone would believe Sharia law is coming to town and it’s upon us. The way the conversation’s been, take Jacqui Lambie— it’s been two weeks! Every day it’s in the paper. It’s a storm in a teacup. But all the while I guess there’s got to be some basis to people’s fear. That it’s not enough to just say, “Okay so this is happening because people are afraid.” It’s important to say why they’re afraid, and then what do we need to do to turn it around? And this is where I take responsibility for some of those things and offer up these conversations in the hope that we can all go on a journey and shift and change. I’m not interested in a conceptual journey that says you need to say the politically correct thing and the right thing so that we all are on the same page. I need to know where you’re at, why you believe what you believe, respectfully. And hopefully we can have a dialogue and we’ll all change as a result. And this is where I come back to women.

Women deal with conflict very differently to men. We deal with it by engaging compassion and engaging intellect and humanity.

Whereas men historically, every single society that I know of—even the Buddhist society at the moment is killing Muslims—their conflict is underscored by aggression. So when people jump up and down and go, “Oh, you know, ISIS is an Islamic problem and not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims,” I take it a step further and say, “All terrorists are men, my friend. And if you want to hold some woman with a hijab to account for ISIS, it’s just as reasonable that I hold you as a male to account for ISIS.” It’s a consistent male characteristic. And then they don’t know what to do with that. They’re like, “What?”

I can imagine there would be a real impasse. I read recently that your mural was defaced.

Yes, yes…

How do you engage with intellect and compassion when insidious things like that happen?

Oh look, easy. Easy. I mean I start from the premise that everybody’s behaviour is an expression of themselves. You can’t take personally what people say or do. Yeah? It is a reflection of their own values, their own intellect, their own way of viewing the world and navigating through the world. I hope that we can affect it to some degree. Now if a mural which is simply calling for women being their own guardian symbolically and practically is plastered on a wall, if that is causing somebody so much distress and hate and hostility to the point that they have to actively vandalise it, then I guess it tells me a lot about their own very fragile convictions. That if those convictions are built on the foundations of subjugating women and women are stepping out from under your feet my friend, and that’s making you anxious, well really? We’ll just do another mural bigger.

Good! I was hoping you would!

Bigger, better. And it’s keeping a conversation alive. It’s okay. It’s a reflection of how things are. I’m not at all dismayed. I’m realistic about the world we live in. And when we speak about violence against women, sadly for some women the violence is not just domestic violence or private violence, it’s probably much more overtly public violence leaving us in a predicament of straddling the lesser of two evils so to speak, and then making a decision about staying with a violent perpetrator at home at the cost of the public violence and lack of safety that we experience.

This kind of backtracks to something you said earlier. That these issues in this time have become ever more present and ever more systematic. And you’ve spoken out really clearly about the so-called Muslim travel ban in the US. What ripple effects do you hope kind of stem out from speaking out like this?

Social change happens with an idea, with a conversation. And the conversation becomes 10, and 10 become a hundred. The minute you leave room for a conversation to happen, ideas can’t be killed. You can’t violently undo an idea or a system of belief. And re-engaging people’s humanity and sense of compassion and decency, although the world has departed from those principles and values, I believe they will become mainstream once more.

And it’s through these micro-solidified communities where respect and dignity can be had. That’s the antidote to Trump and to bigotry and to Lambie and Pauline Hanson and whoever else—Bernardi, Christensen and the whole lot of them—who more and more are falling into line for trying to find economic gain out of a wave of hate. I think people are better than that. And I think the more people ask and want to host these occasions, the more it’s reaffirming. And there are specific differences between Islam and the West. Let’s not pretend there aren’t. So we try to speak to those by, on the one hand, interrogating all Muslim institutions. All. And the narrative, which claims itself and is expressed through Muslim cultures, we interrogate its premise. That if it’s founded on subjugating women, we reject it as Islamic.

Yeah.

So that conversation is happening simultaneously whilst refuting the hostility against Islam. And in that way I guess what we’re offering up is speaking and resonating with people. And saying, “Look we’re all different. You don’t, nor should you, care whether I pray to a wall or don’t pray or believe in whatever absurd thing that gives my life meaning.” And you show that there is no threat in somebody’s hijab or niqab or burqa or hair or tattoos or piercings or gayness or straightness or whatever.

I think removing or addressing and interrogating prejudice in one respect makes you more aware of all other assumptions and prejudice that we all hold. So I think that’s where hope lies. One conversation at a time.

One thing I’ve noticed about the conversations you host, the salon, the times when I’ve come to your events, there’s always an important acknowledgement of country. The Islamophobia conversation is an enormous global conversation. But we’re also having a similarly important conversation here in Australia around indigenous people. And the role of migrant Australia in that.

I know exactly what you mean. Look, any conversation that presumes to speak to justice or marginality or prejudice needs to be grounded in telling the truth, and grounded in its social-historical context. Indigenous women or indigenous communities don’t need me to defend them. What they require is that we take responsibility for our privilege, which is a consequence of their continued dispossession. Nelson Mandela put it beautifully, saying, “You can reconcile any atrocity committed against any people no matter how awful, provided one ingredient. And that ingredient is the telling of a truth.”

So I take it as our personal responsibility to tell the truth about the continued nature of dispossession. And the similar features through which Muslim women and indigenous women may find themselves navigating public-private violence. All those conversations may share similar features. That’s our starting premise. It’s that foundation when it’s built on solid recognition and truth-telling. It’s not vulnerable and fragile, and it’s not built on the dispossession of others.

But if you are just off on identity politics doing your own thing and all the while ignoring the other, then sadly it becomes futile. But when you recognise and come back to a foundation that is just and is rooted in, for lack of a better word, notions of justice, then no matter the sway of the wind and the political trend, the relevance is almost always there for those that society violates and marginalises.

And it’s not dependent on the media cycle.

No. Far from it. The futility of just reacting to the media storm in a teacup conversation is ridiculous. And that’s a whole other conversation about why Trump got in. But lastly, maybe just a little bit about the conversation salon and how it contributes to the very conversations that we used to have. In societies a couple of hundred years back, certainly across Europe, women hosted these events where they invited artists, poets, intellectuals and social ratbags to speak. And they invited them and hosted them once a month. And they contested ideas and pushed and pulled at what was going on and what was unfolding and meaning was had and progress was had. And then we, without consultation, we replaced it in a very sinister way with TV.

Okay, a kind of mediated conversation that we watch from somewhere else. That we don’t participate in.

That’s right. It’s become this thing we just simply absorb. There’s no incentive to dialogue. There’s no incentive to contest the truth that’s been presented and offered up. So more and more our social conditioning has been shaped by what I call a manipulation of truths. And conditioning the people to aspire to a certain vision of society. So I wanted to reclaim those events and bring them back to a contemporary setting all the while speaking to the issues at hand. So the platform in the conversation salon is a women’s speaking platform, and I will find women across the country who inspire the most difficult, socially-tense topics. And the audience has to necessarily be men and women. Because that’s how societies change. But

until societies can recalibrate the balance between men and women and gender equality, we will always have women speaking. And the most marginalised group of women.

So the margin speaks. The minute we put the events up they book out. It’s another thing, like when I opened the Moroccan Soup Bar and I had that nervous anxiety about offering up something unconventional. With “Speed Date” and the conversation salons, they have no reference. You’re kind of putting yourself out there for ridicule. And that’s okay. But also possibly to showcase that you can do things differently. And you can back yourself as a woman especially. In a public setting that is largely the backyard and playground of men.

So the events upstairs that we run, we’ve hosted topics like climate change and the changing political climate, and the moral challenge. And I had three indigenous women speak at that. We hosted Migration, Movements and Moorings and simply talked about how migration and movement is everybody’s right, and it’s a human condition. Yet in this current environment we find those entitled to migrate and those not. We hosted Islam and Feminism, Beyond Belly Dancing, Bombs and Burqas. We try to have a sense of humour.

[Laughs]. Yes!

We did Art and the Theatre of Narratives. We did Freedom of Expression—that was amazing. Freedom of expression, should it have limits? And if so who deems what those limits are? And for me the major distinction between free speech and hate speech is not being discussed anywhere. We’ve conflated the two and assume free speech is hate speech.

Sometimes we can assume that.

Well it’s not. I say,

you can have hate speech in your shower, in your bedroom. But once you occupy that public platform, you will be made accountable. As you should be. These aren’t values this society cherishes.

Not hate speech. So when Lambie says, “Not on my watch,” well, get acquainted with some concepts first, my friend.

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