The Iranian Sofreh – A Journey from Private Spaces to the Public Arena Weaving Togetherness through Culinary Traditions arabic titleturkish title

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Culinary traditions that are deeply rooted in different cultures are more than nutrition – they shape human relations. The way food is prepared, presented and consumed varies in different societies. Culinary traditions are shaped by and in turn shape various institutions in a society, such as religion, economics, households and even politics. Iran is no exception. This text explores the multifaceted role of culinary tradition, presented with the help of the concept of sofreh.

A sofreh is a rectangular fabric spread on the floor to serve a meal and often wrapped for the next mealtime. Sofreh is a symbol of relations: kinship and friendship. It also signifies hospitality and generosity. Furthermore, it is a core element in national and religious rituals. Historically, women played a central role in the craft of making sofrehs, alongside other Persian treasures like carpets and glims. The meticulous labour of women and girls in weaving these delicate tapestries, along with their roles as nurturers, caregivers and fostering unity remains shrouded in obscurity.

Over time the term sofreh has come to symbolise the idea of sitting around for different purposes, acting as a space creator beyond its physicality to share emotions, thoughts and food. Sofreh is the main part of some traditions and celebrations, such as engagements, the new year (Norouz), votive offering and other events, where personal talents, experiences, policies and economic dynamics converge and manifest themselves.

In Iranian and Middle Eastern culture, food conveys meanings beyond practical functions. In Iranian linguistic expressions, food transcends as a concept and enters the language expressions to symbolise moral values and to express different emotional states, related to social bonds and friendship. For instance, people swear on food, on bread, “barakat” as God’s blessing. People use sofreh when making oaths expressing sincerity. Sharing food creates a moral bond; salt as a symbol describes many of the emotional meanings (such as “namak gir shodan”) and “hamsofreh shodan” illustrates how sharing the same sofreh reflects moral responsibility and fosters social bonds. In Farsi the expression “sofreh del ra baz kon”, which means “open your heart”, refers to the healing power of sharing emotional burdens.

I will present the complexity of sofreh with the help of two examples. First, I want to show the role of sofreh in the practice of togetherness through the movie Mama’s Guest (by Dariush Mehrjui, 2004). Then I will present how sofreh has recently turned into a political symbol.

Private Spaces and Sofreh

The film Mamma’s Guest which unfolds in a lower-income neighbourhood in Tehran, depicts the traditional role of the sofreh in Iranian culture. The protagonist Effat, is a middle-aged woman, who embodies traditional values. Fuelled by her hospitable spirit, she has to prepare food for unexpected guests. However, her poverty makes hospitality impossible and she struggles to save her dignity (aberoo) as a mother, housewife and host. That’s when her neighbours step in to help her save face (preserve her dignity). They gather and share all they have to help Effat lay out a rich sofreh for her guests.

In return, she invites her neighbours to join them around the sofreh, fostering a shared dinner experience. The film paints a vivid tableau of a traditional collective lifestyle where communal bonds take precedence, sharing despite economic austerity, underscoring the value of communal fabric over individualism. Directed by the influential Iranian filmmaker Dariush Mehrjui, the narrative explores the traditional significance of the sofreh and the pivotal role of women in cultivating inclusivity, togetherness and hospitality within Iranian society.

Sofreh in the Public Sphere

Since 2009, Iran has witnessed various political uprisings and movements. Different social groups have participated in these movements, each with distinct demands and priorities. This includes workers and labourers who face challenges in securing essential necessities for their livelihoods due to denied rights.

The evocative image of an empty sofreh was initially used by labourers in peaceful protests in Iran, portraying them sitting around empty sofrehs, spread out on the streets or outside their workplaces, such as factories.

From 16 September 2022 onwards, Iran saw extensive riots and revolutionary demonstrations, starting with protests against gender apartheid and advocating for regime change. This symbolic sofreh image resonates within student movements as well. University students have frequently utilised sitting together around a sofreh to challenge gender segregation in university restaurants and cafeterias. By spreading sofrehs around campus buildings, sitting around them together, and inviting passers-by, they collectively activated the public realm. Sofreh became a dynamic intervention in the highly controlled public space, expressing dissent, resistance and a desire for change and freedom.

Sofreh, in its various forms, embodies a cultural anchor that extends from private tradition to public symbol, transcending culinary practices to become a powerful and dynamic representation of solidarity, hospitality and resistance in Iranian society. Its range reflects the enduring power of culinary traditions to shape culture, identity and the shared human experience.

Maryam Omrani is an independent curator and researcher who have collaborated with Botkyrka konsthall on the Fittja Kitchen Cookbook, as well as with Residence Botkyrka in 2017 when she presented the project I always pretend I don’t care.

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