Reflections on the “Chef”: with Leyla Hussein to end FGM
Updated: Aug 30, 2020
Sometime in the mid-90s, the very first time my cell phone rang, I was taken aback. At the Hauptwache in Frankfurt, the wholesome weight of a farmer’s market peach full in my palm, I relished the sensual experience of firmness, smoothness, and aroma. I anticipated the summery taste.
How odd then that delight should shatter on intrusion by a merely auditory world until then anchored in another place, namely at home where telephones belonged. Annoyance at the interruption has now lapsed, given how mobile devices encourage social change. But I knew I’d never forget that ‘first time’, and so the memory flew back when the brilliant Jade Anouka in Sabrina Mahfouz’s one-woman play Chef opened the show with a peach.
Reminiscent of Anna Deavere Smith’s multiple voices from life—replaced in Mahfouz by narratives of incarcerated women told after their release–, Anouka gives us “the gripping story of how one woman went from being a haute-cuisine head-chef to a convicted inmate running a prison kitchen.” (1)
Cooking of course features cutting, and the metaphor resonates throughout the show. But FGM wasn’t on the surface of the play even though the London performance raised funds for the FGM Project, part of Health Advocacy at Manor Gardens Welfare Trust. The Dahlia Project is part of this and all proceeds, including ticket sales and a silent auction, went to benefit the FGM work there. Leyla provides “specialist psychological support for survivors of FGM.” (2) Thus, even without explicit reference, mutilation was never wholly absent from the script.
Seated in the first row, I could see how intact and enticing the ripe fruit appeared as Jade Anouka held it like a trophy at arms’ length, then inhaled it, caressed it, addressed it, and asked the audience to admire it, too, “this ready-to-eat, beautiful … meaty peach flesh.” A memento of nature’s flawlessness, the succulent sphere could, if skilfully, tenderly and knowingly transformed, — enhanced by flour, eggs, butter and milk–, become something else. Playfully, the opening vignette vacillates between the raw and the cooked.
“Life is my thing. Mother earth. So why hurt perfection?” Chef asks. “Why shake it about with flashes of flour and sparks of sugar, trying to make it look like a bit of puke after a good night out? … What is that about? Just keep it as it is … [or at least] try to make it the best bleeding peach it can be…” How? You “put your face right up to its glow and let it know you love it. Respect it, think about how it grew before you smash it in your mouth.” At which point, in the trailer at least, (3) prison sirens pierce your ears.
Twinned destruction and creation guide viewers through the sketch. The trope of the cru and the cuit provides a muted descant to the surface action, often brutal. “Eva plunged the knife quickly into the middle of the split fruit. With one twist of her wrist she cut out the large pit. It carried ragged pieces of dark amber flesh with it…” (4)
This evisceration of the juicy globe doesn’t take place in Chef but in Gloria Naylor’s novel Bailey’s Café where, admittedly, the peach is a plum. Still, evocatively, barista Eva uses the fruit to explain what had happened to the character Mariam. The infibulated girl is mute; instead of her voice, the excised harvest speaks a metaphoric language not unlike that of the Chef.
The invitation from Caroline Pridgeon and Lisa Erickson had brought more than a hundred guests to the 20th Century Theatre in Notting Hill on January 31, 2016. An appreciative audience rewarded the dazzling performer with prolonged applause. “Art and theatre can expose us to difficult subjects and affect the status quo,” Pridgeon and Erickson wrote in the programme. “Chef … spotlights … violence against women and girls and its consequences. Artists have long been at the forefront of campaigning against injustices and tonight’s play is a perfect illustration.”
Rosalind Jerram of the Manor Gardens Centre Health Advocacy Project, who spoke at the event, elaborated on other forms of advocacy against FGM. For instance, she had met African women whose problems clearly linked to excision. Her response was to recruit them as facilitators from practicing communities. “What makes our project unique,” she went on, “is the fact that we go into people’s homes. We find someone to cook so the atmosphere is friendly and relaxed. Then, not only do our professional educators offer instruction but equally important, the women themselves begin to speak out. So instead of flashy PowerPoints in public settings, we hold workshops where we are more likely to hear, for instance, ‘I’ve always wanted to do something [to stop FGM]’. Or ‘what they did to my sister went very wrong’. Or ‘There’s no good reason to go on with this’. Among the 15-20 participants, you get proper conversations going, and some who have never spoken out before are doing it now for the first time. You can hear the anger when they articulate their own experience. And, most gratifying, someone will say, ‘I saved my daughter, so she can save others as well’.”
As Leyla Hussein wrote in the programme, “FGM is affecting British girls. It’s happening to them here, as we speak, right now.” Public outrage, Leyla reminds us, “really brought this issue to the forefront. My daughter is free from FGM, and this is my success.” Let’s enable other mothers to proudly claim the same.
LEYLA HUSSEIN appears in Contestations around FGM: Activism and the Academy, workshop proceedings edited by Tobe Levin von Gleichen and Phyllis Ferguson, a publication of the new Oxford Feminist E-Press (OxFEP) launched by the International Gender Studies Centre at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford, on January 21, 2016. It is available for download at https://theoxfordfeministepress.wordpress.com/contestation-around-fgm-activism-and-the-academy/ A book expanding on discussions and networking at the Workshop is a work-in-progress to appear in 2016 from UnCUT/VOICES Press. Extended reference to Leyla Hussein’s The Cruel Cut, basis for her keynote speech, is made in both documents.
By the way, you can still contribute to the Manor Gardens Centre fundraiser for the Dahlia Project. Go to http://www.manorgardenscentre.org or directly to http://www.mayacentre.org.uk/dahlia-project-survivors-fgm/
1 http://www.sohotheatre.com/whats-on/chef/ Retrieved 1 February 2016.
2 “Ending Female Genital Mutilation is a shared responsibility: Dispelling Myths. Safeguarding Children.” Flyer distributed 31 January 2016 at the 20th Century Theatre performance of Chef. London: Manor Gardens Welfare Trust Health Advocacy Project, nd.
3 Trailer available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Dpa_I1b3PU
4 Naylor, Gloria. Bailey’s Café. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992. 115. See also Levin, Tobe and Augustine H. Asaah, eds. Empathy and Rage. Female Genital Mutilation in African Literature. Banbury, Oxfordshire: Ayebia, 2009. Excerpts from Empathy and Rage can be found in the African Studies Review. Vol. 53 No 2, Sept. 2010. See also http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/africain_studies_review/v053/53.2.kehinde.html