This article was first published in the SPRING 2014 issue of The Carton. Below is the unedited version.
When I was 9, our school bus driver, Maalim Georges, taught every kid on the bus a little trick. Every time he saw a pretty lady walking down the street, he would unleash the full power of his vehicles melodic horn, after which all the little boys would shout out in unison: “Aassal ya maallem, aassal”.
A few years later, when I turned into an awkward teenager, I couldn’t get through a day without being serenaded in the street, enduring calls of “chou ya achta?” as I walked the streets of my neighbourhood.
It always amused me when I tried to imagine a plump cherimoya (don’t worry I had to google that too) with legs. Of course, it is entirely debatable whether the reference is to the fruit or its homonym, the clotted cream famously used in many Lebanese desserts. Although the latter is more likely, the former would be more comforting for some reason.
Throughout the years, I have been ‘lovingly’ called Ashta (clotted cream), Jello, Assal (honey), fraise (Strawberry) and Helo (desert) by many a scooter-riding thug. Though my inner feminist revolts every time I am on the receiving end of these gastronomic idioms, I can’t help but find them endearing.
Of course every culture has its own edible terms of endearment. The French beckon and assuage their loved ones with ’petit chou’, in reference to the pastry. The Americans have all sorts of sugar coated, calorific variations. Honeys and pumpkins and sweetheart and sugar pies. The Japanese favor metaphors that reference shape rather than taste, Tamago gata no kao, egg with eyes. Sexy stuff.
Nowhere do these sweet expressions veer as sharply towards the overly sexualized representation of femininity as they do in the Arab culture. Nowhere are they as normalized as on the streets of our dusty medinas, and in the tunes of Arabic pop stars.
This doesn’t mean that other cultures don’t use the imagery of food to characterize women, occasionally with slightly ludicrous consequences. You could point to the Clovers’ 1953 R&B hit “Lovey Dovey”: “I really love your peaches wanna shake your tree / Lovey dovey, lovey dovey all the time.”
Bringing things closer to today’s charts, Beyonce perpetuates the fruit-based sexiness, with claims like ‘He like to call me ‘Peaches’ when we get this nasty’. On the same self-titled album, she describes her own body parts as Skittles, “Can you lick my Skittles, it’s the sweetest in the middle/ Pink is the flavor, solve the riddle”, and cherries “I can’t wait till I get home so you can turn that cherry out/ I want you to turn that cherry out, turn that cherry out”. Though, as far as I am concerned, none can compete with our very own Ahmad Salah’s Manga, when he sings gleefully ”Ana kount bahab el mechmech dil wa’ti baheb el manga”.
Perhaps what is most interesting in our Middle Eastern culture is that, unlike the American example, where this type of representation is specific to Hip Hop and R&B, these edible endearments have made their way to everything from Pop, to Rap, to more classical Arabic music. From Ramy Ayash’s Tefaha, to Saber Robai’s Assal, our musical references abound with culinary catcalls. My personal favorite is a Rap tune, titled Achta w 3assal, by an obscure band known as Secteur Zahle. I suppose I am just grateful someone finally employed this expression ironically.
In 2011, Nasawiya, a collective of feminists working on gender justice in Lebanon, had two trucks roaming the streets of Beirut, shouting back some of these loving expressions at men. Unlike the English language, ours does not have male equivalents to edible body parts. Maybe its time we started making them up. I am sure the culinary world is full of appropriate metaphors. Something involving bananas perhaps. But we’re probably too proper to stoop to that level.
We could get deep here for a second, and realize that psychologist often argue that what they call ‘Infantile food endearments’ originate at the stage of infancy, from the dependence to the nourishing maternal body, resurfacing in adulthood in relationship to love and sexual relationships. Maybe the widespread and normalised use of our edible endearments just confirms what we’ve suspected all along, Arab men are just fully-grown momma’s boys.