Jessica Barnes, Staple Security: Bread and Wheat in Egypt (Duke University Press, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Jessica Barnes (JB): I had been interested in bread and wheat since my first period of fieldwork in Egypt, back in 2007 and 2008. This was a time when there were shortages in the supply of the government-subsidized bread, long lines at bakeries, and lots of complaints about scarcity. Most of the farmers I interacted with in Fayoum, where I was conducting my doctoral research, grew wheat and most of the women in the village where I lived baked bread. I remember commenting to my dissertation advisor that it might be interesting to focus on wheat. He agreed, but irrigation came to preoccupy my thoughts and my wheat-related notes became one of a number of things that I did not have a chance to write about in my dissertation.
Shortly after I received my PhD, though, as I was turning my dissertation into my first book, the Egyptian revolution took place. The call of the revolution—for bread, freedom, and social justice—reverberated through the media coverage, scholarly work, and political commentaries. I was struck by the relatively little attention paid to the first in this trio of demands— ‘aish—partly a call for better livelihoods, but also a call for the food that constitutes the cornerstone of Egyptian diets. I decided to write a book about this staple food and knew that to understand bread in Egypt, I would have to look at the wheat from which it is made.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JB: This book is about the central role that bread and wheat play in Egyptian daily life and the anxieties that pervade Egyptian society surrounding the possibility that the nation could run out of wheat or that people might not have enough good bread to eat. The book looks the ways in which people seek to secure the continuous supply of a palatable staple, on a national, household, and individual level. I call these practices staple security. Such practices range from scientists breeding varieties of wheat that are productive and disease resistant, to the government building silos for grain storage, bakeries producing hundreds of millions of subsidized loaves a day, and women baking bread for their families.
In introducing the term staple security, the book departs from the much-discussed concept of food security. It focuses attention on staple foods, showing how these foods are unlike others in the particular ways in which they are tied to questions of national and household security. Moreover, it brings security— as an affectively charged state of being and a form of action— to the fore. I did not set out to study security, but it was impossible to ignore this frame when hearing politicians talk about the vulnerability of relying on imported wheat and the need to shore up strategic grain reserves, or parents talking about their sense of precarity when they did not have good bread to feed their families. The book shows just how important bread is to most Egyptians and their everyday efforts to ensure that they have a tasty staple to eat.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
JB: While the topical focus of this book departs from my first book, Cultivating the Nile: The Everyday Politics of Water in Egypt (Duke, 2014), there are a number of points of connection. My discussions of wheat farming and bread baking draw on data that I collected during my fieldwork on irrigation in 2007 and 2008, which—in conjunction with a number of return visits to the village where I lived—add an important temporal dimension to my analysis of wheat and bread production in rural Egypt. In addition, a key feature of this book—as with Cultivating the Nile—is its multi-scaled approach. Just as I linked the global, national, and local in my study of Nile water politics, Staple Security connects international flows of grain, a national subsidized bread program, and everyday household practices.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JB: The subject matter of Staple Security will resonate with scholars who are from, live in, or study the broader Middle East, who will no doubt have eaten many a meal with the kinds of bread that I discuss here! Egypt’s long-standing bread subsidy, which lies at the heart of the book, will also likely be familiar to many, but the work that goes into growing, importing, procuring, and storing the wheat from which that bread is made perhaps less so. In contrast with the political economy lens through which Egypt’s bread subsidy has commonly been analyzed, this book will help readers see this bread as more than just an object of policy, but as something that enters into people’s homes and bodies and becomes part of their lived experience of security.
Beyond the regionally specialized audience, Staple Security will be of interest to scholars across a range of disciplines. To those interested in food, the book offers an in-depth theorization of staples. It also offers a nuanced understanding of the nexus between food and security. To scholars of security, the book demonstrates how security extends beyond military domains into lived experience, in the Middle East just as it does elsewhere, and into the realm of food specifically. To anthropologists and geographers interested in environment-society interactions, the book presents a framework for understanding how security is part of the way resources are imagined and managed on both a national and household scale.
Staple Security is a text that would work well in undergraduate and graduate classrooms. I worked hard to write in a way that is clear, engaging, and jargon free, and the result is a book that is widely accessible. The subject matter is topical and speaks to issues of broad interest—the foods that anchor our daily lives and their links with questions of national and household security. I have developed a teaching guide to go with the book, which contains a number of questions and resources that I hope will enrich readers’ engagement with the text, spark new lines of thought, and help them see the connections between this material, current affairs, and their own lives.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JB: I am currently developing a new project on air. One of the things that has long been a theoretical interest of mine is the question of how the material nature of different environmental components shapes the terrain for political engagement, cultural formations, and livelihoods. Having studied a liquid, water, in Cultivating the Nile, and thought a lot about solids—bread and wheat—when writing Staple Security, I now want to extend my thinking into the gaseous realm. I am interested in how the material properties of air—its unboundedness, dispersiveness, and shifting concentrations—open up some possibilities for action while confounding others.
Cairo would certainly be a fascinating site for looking at this (any students interested in research on air quality in Cairo should contact me!), but I have decided to center my research on this topic in London, the city where I grew up. London is an interesting case for thinking about the everyday experience of living in polluted air because while its infamous smogs are no longer, the city’s skies now carry dangerously high levels of largely invisible pollutants. Based in a low-income, diverse neighborhood of West London, my research will examine the racialized and class-inflected ways in which urban air pollution shapes daily life. I will be conducting the ethnographic fieldwork for this project during my 2023-24 sabbatical.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-4)
On the morning of January 25, 2011, Egyptian protestors took to the streets, calling for “bread, freedom, and social justice.” The bread that featured in their rallying cries was in part symbolic. Bread, in Egyptian colloquial Arabic, is ʿaish, which means life. Alongside the demands for freedom and social justice, bread was a reference to livelihoods, to people’s frustrations at their inability to access basic services, get good educations, find jobs, and build decent lives for themselves. But it was also literal. Some protestors carried loaves of bread in their hands, waving them above the crowds. They were calling for bread because bread is a food that most Egyptians eat every day, three times a day. They were calling for bread because the years prior had seen severe shortages in the supply of the widely eaten government-subsidized bread and widespread complaints about quality. To the protestors, these deficiencies were emblematic of the Mubarak regime’s shortcomings. The lack of satisfactory bread was not acceptable.
Eight years later, one morning in 2019, Hisham left his apartment in a Cairo neighborhood to get bread. By this time, subsidized bread was no longer in short supply. But its significance had not waned; it was still a central part of daily sustenance for most Egyptian families, especially at a time when other costs of living were escalating. At the bakery that sells subsidized bread, Hisham handed over his ration card and requested twenty loaves of bread for his family of four. These round, flat loaves are made from a mix of domestic and imported wheat, procured by the government from Egyptian farmers and international grain traders, stored in silos, milled, and distributed to bakeries as flour. As the server placed the loaves on the counter, Hisham picked up each one to check it. He handed back a couple of loaves that were slightly burnt and another that had a tear in it, asking for replacements. He then laid the loaves to cool for a few moments on the hood of a car parked nearby, before stacking them carefully in his bag. He took the bread back to his apartment, where his wife prepared breakfast, placing a pile of bread on the table next to bowls of stewed fava beans and pickles. The family began to eat.
Eighty miles away in the village of Warda in Fayoum Governorate, Marwa rose early. She took a large metal bowl and the sack of unrefined flour ground from her family’s wheat harvest the previous year. She mixed flour, salt, and yeast, then added water by the cup until it came together into a dough, which she kneaded. Leaving the dough to rise, she and her daughter spread a mat on the floor and covered it with bran. When the dough was ready, she divided it into balls, dipping her hands in oil, taking out a handful and throwing it between her hands a few times, then placing it on the mat and pressing down slightly to form a dome. She lit her gas oven. Picking up the first mound of dough, now enlarged after resting on the mat, she put it on her matrah—a circular wooden implement with a handle. She tossed the matrah gently up and down, expanding the dough until it reached the edges, forming one of the large round loaves that her family prefers to eat. The bread was ready to bake.
These moments are united by bread and, implicitly, by the wheat from which that bread is made. The first is a moment of exception in which bread deficiencies reverberate as a symbol of popular unrest and dissatisfaction with an autocratic regime. The latter two are moments of normality, one in which a man buys bread, the other in which a woman produces it. The monumentality of overthrowing a nearly thirty-year regime stands in stark contrast to the mundanity of feeding a family. Yet they are linked by bread as a staple food.
This book is about bread and wheat in Egypt. It is about the central role they play in Egyptian daily life, the sense of existential threat tied to the possibility of good bread not being available, and the acts designed to ensure that it is. I introduce the notion of staple security to describe a set of practices that seek to secure the continuous supply of a palatable staple on a national, household, or individual level, so as to address anxieties about staple absence and meet desires for staple quality. Staple security is not something that a country or individual has or does not have. Rather, staple security is an ongoing process of ensuring not only that people do not run out of bread but also that they are able to eat bread that they find satisfying. People care about the quality of the wheat and they care about the flavor of the bread. There is a taste to security.
Among Egyptians, there is a prevalent sense that they cannot live without bread, even though physiologically this is not necessarily the case. Bread is a central component of the Egyptian diet, eaten at almost every meal, and often used as a vehicle for eating other foods. It is also inexpensive and so, for poor Egyptians, constitutes a major portion of their caloric intake. From an individual perspective, therefore, not having bread is a threat to one’s very being. From the perspective of the Egyptian government, on the other hand, not having bread is a threat to the state’s very being. Cheap wheat bread has become an expected part of the state’s social contract with its people. Violent protests in the past—in 1977, for instance, when the government tried to increase the price of one kind of bread; in 2008, when there were bread shortages; and in 2011, when revolutionaries took up bread as a central part of their call for change—have underscored how people do not sit idly by when their bread expectations are not met. The absence of good bread carries the risk of political instability.
Hence at the national level the link between wheat, bread, and security is clear. Military symbols abound as politicians talk about procurement campaigns to secure the wheat necessary to produce subsidized bread for the masses, build strategic stores of grain to guard against harvest risks, and call on the army to distribute bread in times of shortage. At a household or individual level, the explicit security discourse fades, but the underlying rationale remains. Individuals are just as concerned with securing their supply of good bread as the state is, whether through carefully handling the bread that they buy each day or growing their own wheat to bake bread.
By connecting disparate realms of action—breeding seeds, altering government bread specifications, planting wheat to make homemade bread, building silos to store imported wheat, standing in line to get a ration card, and freezing and heating a loaf of bread—this book reveals the multiple practices that go into securing a quality staple food. It connects the labor of policy makers, who frame security planning as their domain, with the less visible security labors of crop scientists working in experimental fields, women preparing bread for a meal, or men making daily trips to the bakeries. It shows how staple security infuses everyday life.