Rising Interest in Bread

Modern views, demographic changes leavened Jordanian cultural traditions surrounding the staff of life.

HUMANITIES, May/June 2014, Volume 35, Number 3

“The religious meaning of bread is changing,” says teacher and translator Helen Ayoub in the NEH-funded Bread Culture in Jordan, a short film by Amanda Lane that explores the once-great significance of bread and bread making in the country. She recalls being taught as a girl to pick up any bread that had fallen to the floor, kiss it, and hold it to her brow. Farmer Mamdouh Bisharat adds, “The wheat was always there—the backbone of the Jordanian national income.” He then sadly muses about the mere seven-to-ten-day reserves of grain Jordan has today. And anthropologist Carol Palmer observes that grain culture in the region “shaped the world,” adding, “because it was born here.”

The making of bread in Jordan goes back to the seventh century BCE. The Valley of Hauran, between Jordan and Syria, served as the grain basket to the Roman Empire. Up till the late 1940s and early 1950s, Jordan still exported wheat. In 1948, however, the kingdom’s population doubled nearly overnight, both increasing the demand for bread and bringing pressure to use land for purposes other than growing wheat. Two more influxes of refugees—in 1967 and in the 1990s—continued the trend.

Today, bread that had been made at home by women is made almost exclusively in commercial bakeries by men, and the tradition of grandmothers and mothers passing on the skill is being lost.

Fond memories of the arrival of warm bread in the house from the neighborhood oven around the corner still linger for Basharat, who would always stop what he was doing to taste the manna, dipping it in pure olive oil. “The bread which was made at home when I was a child,” recalls Ayoub, “was completely different from the bread we eat these days. It was really tasty, and you could eat it without even anything. It was delicious, simply.”

In Amman, bags of wheat were delivered to homes, and women would prepare dough that would be baked in a neighborhood oven. In rural areas, however, two other types of bread prevailed. Shrak is unleavened and is baked directly on the surface of a saj, an oven in size and shape akin to an inverted wash basin. While shrak is primarily made by Bedouins in the desert, which lies in the south, tabun, a thick bread made in a clay oven, is prepared in the north.

Young women today respond to exigencies outside of the home and often regard the making of dough and bread as nothing more than an embarrassing throwback to a not-too-distant past. Even so, interest in learning the bread-making methods of their grandmothers has been rekindled. Better taste is one reason, but two others would be reconnecting with roots and, as an architect interviewed in the film puts it, “dissatisfaction with the plastic environment.”