I imagine that for many of us in the United States, it’s hard to appreciate the full import of staple foods, largely because it’s not a concept that exists within our culture. Generally speaking, a staple food is one upon which a diet is based, but its importance is far greater than that. Culturally, it is a commodity without which one cannot feel safe and secure in their land and life. While in the United States we generally don’t place such stock in one particular food, the same is not true everywhere. Specifically, in Egypt, the staple food is bread. Regardless of the other food available a family or individual might have available, if they do not have bread, then they might as well have no food at all. As a result of its importance to Egyptian culture and security, bread has been the source of great national unrest in Egypt. When the price of bread skyrocketed, and its availability was reduced, there were riots in the streets of Cairo protesting the government’s actions and ludicrous price of bread.
My awareness of the situation in Egypt is based off the work of a professor, Dr. Jessica Barnes, who teaches at the University of South Carolina. Her research is focused on Egyptian culture. She is in the process of writing a book that discusses Egyptian dependence on foreign wheat and the consequences thereof, given the country’s dependence upon bread. The logistics of the wheat industry in Egypt are fascinating, and the effects far-reaching.
The availability of bread is uncertain for many Egyptians because of financial limitations and a significant dependence on international wheat. In fact, Egypt is the largest importer in the world of wheat. Approximately half of the wheat used Egypt is sourced from outside the country. Given the strong relationship between a stable wheat supply and populace happiness, the government invests significant effort keeping wheat supply stable. This is challenge given the necessity of importing large quantities of foreign wheat, and its process has been frequently plagued by both corruption and paranoia.
Dr. Barnes’ presentation focused on the efforts of individuals on all levels of society, from the government’s effort to import adequate amounts of wheat to the residents of Cairo depending on (what is in essence) a “bread card”, allowing them to purchase adequate bread for their lives. She also discussed the rural farmers of Egypt who not only produce wheat for the nation but also for themselves. Each strives to provide a measure of security to their lives and the lives of those around them through effort to procure enough bread for their lives.
As I learn more about other cultures, I appreciate more and more both the commonalities and differences that exist in the world. Yes, we live in different places, under different systems of government with different levels of comfort in our lives. And yet, when it comes down to it, we are all looking for comfort and security in our lives. Now, the paths we follow to reach this comfort are vastly different. In Egypt, that comfort and security is grounded in the possession of enough bread to eat. What is it for you?