This brief case study illustrates the devious ways in which technologies are transmitted from one culture to another …..
….. a case study by Paul D Kennedy
Once upon a time the French took over Egypt. Though they only stayed for a few short months they made an enormous impression on their hosts and in the decades that followed many young Egyptians were sent to study in Paris.
When these scholastics returned to Cairo they brought with them new political thought-processes with which they set about revising the legal system of their native land. Later, in this century, their descendants propagated a new form of governance in various Arab countries which was grafted onto local traditions in politics.
Today there is hardly a country from Morocco to Oman that does not have a constitution or basic law devised by Egyptians which they in turn had modelled on the Napoleonic Code.
Unfortunately the talents of the French as propagandists were not matched by their abilities at naval warfare and they were ousted by the English. Now the soldiers in the English armies were a poly-ethnic lot.
They included various contingents of Irish tribesmen who, deprived of their hereditaments by war and connivings, had been forced by extreme want to join the very armies that had been the instruments of their defeats. Among them were representatives of the ancient clan of O’Malley from the western edge of the Green Isle, men of culture and prowess.
Though the forces of history had subjected their tribe to several centuries of penury the O’Malley had survived by being masters of the practical. In the days before the famed potato arrived from America, their only sources of sustenance were beef (when they were not robbed of their cattle), grains and occasionally, depending on the season, foraged vegetables and fruit.
The women of the clan were a resourceful lot and, though they jealously excluded men from their dominion over the hearth as was their right since time immemorial, they were able to feed their tribe on what was around, little though it was. The secret of their success was a special dish they had concocted to ensure that their men-folk were thrice strong, in heart, arm and loin, and full of energy.
When the ancient O’Malley went awandering they carried with them quantities of bread which grew stale as the day wore on. In the evenings, after a peat fire had been coaxed into life-giving warmth, the womenfolk mixed the stale bread with milk, which in Ireland has always been more plentiful than water. To this brew was added honey and berries, if they were to be found, before the gooey mess was stewed slowly over the fire.
When cooled, the sticky high-energy porridge was eaten by slurping from the communal pot as it was passed around in order of seniority. Night over the glens in which the O’Malley men and women lay, after the sounds of porridge-induced carnality had died down, was disturbed by little more than the lonely cry of the curlew and irregular slow plops and blurps emanating from satisfied bellies. Come morning and the men would rise strong and ready for any chance to come.
Once in Alexandria members of the O’Malley clan, in the service of a foreign lord who was not their liege, found that their paymaster was slow in honouring his obligations. Despite promises of the king’s shilling, they were provided with neither coin nor messes and had to fend for themselves. Their women-folk were not with them and, perhaps because young Irishmen are loath to enter a kitchen save under escort, they had to make alternative arrangements for their victuals.
They noticed that the ingredients for their wondrous energy-enhancing diet, stale bread, milk and honey, were available locally and soon their natural charm and ability in demonstrating their three-fold strengths enabled them to inveigle a few comely locals to expand their cultural horizons.
“Sinu?”, the sweet young Egyptian thing asked of the bold but famished Irish grenadier after following his culinary instructions to the letter.
“Umm Ali food?”
“O’Malley!” he swallowed loudly in satisfaction.
“Yes, Umm Ali,” slurping demurely from the pot. “Yellaa, Mother Ali very good cook.”
And so it came to pass, by a process known as technological transfer, that the pleasant and life-enriching O’Malley porridge came unto Egypt where the dish was refined by the addition of native sweeteners, most notably the noble grape in dried form.
As the Egyptian scholars moved out into the Arabian hinterland to spread the glories of their new legal system they took with them the curious cuisine bestowed upon them by the O’Malley.
And today there is not a hotel from Kuwait to Qatar, Taif to Bahrain, that does not have a large tureen of erroneously labelled Umm Ali on its buffet table.
© Paul D Kennedy, December 1999
Sinu = what
Umm = mother
Yellaa = (a) an untranslatable expression signifying enthusiasm or agreement with a point of view; (b) an exuberant exhortation
This article was first published in the Arab Times in the After Iftar section during Ramadan 1999. Muslims fast throughout the day during Ramadan and Iftar is the time just after sunset when the fast is broken. The hour or two following Iftar is considered by Muslims to be a time that should be set aside for reflection.