Mutfak || Matbakh Workshop
Mutfak || Matbakh Workshop began in Gaziantep in 2016 to seek ways for women from different cultures and regions to live together on an equal basis and strengthen practices of coexistence and solidarity. We spoke with the team about the spaces they created and events they’ve launched with food, culture and art. We also discussed the challenges they’ve faced and the transformations they’ve initiated.
How and when was Mutfak || Matbakh Workshop, which started its work in Gaziantep to expand the space for learning living-together and dialogue in the context of refugees, established? Why Mutfak || Matbakh, which means kitchen in Turkish and Arabic? Who is doing what in this kitchen?
In 2015, we held various meetings with activists, representatives of non-governmental organisations, academics, migrants and local women in Gaziantep with the question, ‘How and in what way can we establish shared life practices and solidarity among women?’ One of the most important outcomes of these meetings was identifying the need for places where women would form solidarity based on gender equality. In the light of these meetings, we started our work in 2016 with the name of Mutfak || Matbakh Women’s Workshop.
The workshop was established with the aim of changing the notion of the ‘beneficiary-benefactor’ relationship that had shaped the interactions among migrants and the local population. It sought to be a structure in which women produce together on equal footing, establish and maintain solidarity. The kitchen was conceived a space where all kinds of production could be done. That’s how the ‘kitchen’ became both a space where food was cooked, as well as a place where arts and culture activities and seminars and talks were held. Migrants, especially Syrian women, and women from Turkey living in Gaziantep participate in our work. Many activists, civil society workers and academics from outside Gaziantep also attended the workshops. The name was changed to ‘Mutfak || Matbakh Workshop’ because it reached out to people from all parts of the society over time. That’s how we can summarise the work carried out since its establishment. Mutfak || Matbakh Workshop enthusiastically continues its activities to create different areas of solidarity.
Based on your concept of the kitchen as a space of solidarity and production, how would you describe the kitchen as a physical space in the home and in the lives of the women you work with? What is the place and influence of your ‘mutfak’ (kitchen) in the lives of these women?
When considering the distinction between the private and public spheres, the kitchen occupies a place in the private space, within the home. It is a place where gender roles are reinforced. That’s why it’s a space where we need to examine and question the many examples of assigned roles that we witness here. Additionally, it is a place where, through the repetition of their roles, women have a say; are able to create a system of their own, and most often establish their own sphere of power. At the same time, labour-intensive meals are prepared by groups of women, making the kitchen a collaborative space, where conversation, heart-to-hearts and entertainment are all ‘cooked’ along with the meal. These challenging dishes are always sampled around the table by the women who created them, helping them to relieve the stress of the day, and make the kitchen a space for co-production and sharing. At Mutfak || Matbakh Workshop, women also produce together and share the fruits of their labour. In doing so, they form friendships, share their troubles and have fun together, experiencing solidarity. Coming together gives rise to practices of solidarity and equal relations, and joining the workshop gives women the opportunity to form strong bonds. The culinary workshops give migrant and local women the chance to introduce their own cultures and learn about others; they become part of a milieu in which they can express themselves through food. After they come to the workshop, new areas emerge in their relationship with the city. Women who had only ever experienced the city via trips between home, the immigration office and the hospital now have a richer experience with public spaces as they participate in workshops held in different parts of the city. These culinary workshops have increased the visibility of migrant and local women in public. As the women came to know each other better and formed friendships, their shyness and mutual prejudices disappeared over time.
Are you continuing your work only in Gaziantep, or are you also working in other cities? Do the political, social and cultural characteristics of a particular city have a decisive influence on your work; if so, could you discuss that?
Mutfak || Matbakh Workshop was established to produce theoretical and practical answers to the question: ‘What are the ways to live together on the basis of gender equality in the city?’ Since those who created this practice live in Gaziantep, the work focused on Gaziantep. With time, relations beyond Gaziantep have developed in line with the scope, methodology and purpose of the work we have done and will do. At Mutfak || Matbakh Workshop, we have contacts and projects locally, nationally and internationally. While Mutfak || Matbakh Workshop recognises the local context of the problems it focuses on, its work transcends place by considering the problems’ universality and the power of developing solidarity practices.
The diversification of the population in Gaziantep with the arrival of refugees from Syria since 2011 has expanded our area of work. Migrants have become stakeholders in almost everything we do to spread the culture of living-together in the city. That’s why every effort we undertake to reach more people and improve practices of living-together comes out in at least two, usually three languages.
Cookout, 2017, Mutfak || Matbakh Workshop, Gaziantep || Photos: Kırkayak Kültür
Syrian Breakfast, MutfakNa, 2017, Gaziantep
Puppet Workshop, Mutfak || Matbakh Workshop, 2018, Gaziantep
Tandem, 2017, France
Women Farm Workers, Mutfak || Matbakh Workshop, 2020, Gaziantep
Could you briefly describe the activities you have carried out and participated in so far?
The cooking workshops that migrant and local women participated in facilitated communication and lay the foundations of friendships that continue today. These workshops did not seek to provide training on cooking or food. Migrant and local women decided what dishes to cook, agreeing on who would do what and how. The workshops were held at the Emine Göğüş Culinary Arts Education Centre, as well as in our kitchen called MutfakNa (Our Kitchen in Arabic). In order to enhance the visibility of migrant and local women together in public, and for them to experience the city together, picnics, museum visits and excursions were also organised.
The coexistence practices that began with food workshops continued in other areas with seminars. So far, we have held three seminars on labour, space and art based on the themes of migration and gender. Migrant and local women living in Turkey and in different countries and cities in the world, civil society workers, activists, academics and university students have participated in the seminars.
As an arts and culture activity, we held the exhibition ‘Women Solidarity for Art’ in which artistic works produced by women reflecting on their own migration experiences were exhibited.
When the pandemic prevented us from meeting in person, we struggled at first, but we continued our work and fostered solidarity through online platforms by producing ‘The Voice of the Subject: Migrant Women’s Labour During the Pandemic’. We spoke with women about the challenges posed by the pandemic and the transformations they experienced in a series of videos, and published a report on this project.
We also participated in the Critical Cooking Show, a digital film and lecture programme under the 5th Istanbul Design Biennial, with a video work titled ‘Gold Water: Landscapes of Olive and Olive Oil’ in which women talk about their memories and the significance of olives in their lives while preparing a dish of green beans in olive oil, and experts discuss the history and production of olives and olive oils.
How would you describe the relationship migrant women form with the city they now live in after having to leave everything behind including their homes and previous lives? Where does food culture and food fit into these women’s past, present and future, in social, economic and psychological terms?
Women forced to migrate don’t just experience this journey physically. The body bears the physical change of space, while also embodying memories, pain, joy, hope and memory within. All experiences a person brings with her present themselves in the relationship that she establishes with a new city. As such, each relationship preserves its subjectivity and uniqueness. Women are deeply impacted by the problems of migration, and seek to establish their own safe spaces. They find these safe spaces by spending time in places that are similar to what they left behind, by retaining old friendships in the places where they now reside, by living in areas where they can speak their own language, or by maintaining in their kitchen aromas that remind them of their previous home. As we have experienced in our cooking workshops, memories are revived through food, and women not only share stories of their past with the women they encounter, but also sustain their food culture through the meals they prepare. Sometimes the dishes stir up painful memories, and sometimes joyful ones, but either way, these memories are preserved and handed down through recipes.
Co-production and solidarity are at the heart of your work, but that can be affected by the hardships and tough lives of the individuals. What are the difficulties you encountered during your work, and what are your methods for overcoming them?
When people who do not know each other come together, they bring their prejudices with them as well. We worried that we would not be able to subdue these prejudices, maintain solidarity based on equality, and break the existing perceptions of the guest-and-host dynamic. From the very first moment that we established the workshop, we expressed our call for equality at every opportunity, and set a solid foundation by applying this in practice. However, fewer Turkish women want to be a part of our work than migrant women do. We diversified our activities to find more opportunities to bring women together to change this. We believe it is important for both migrant and local women to be represented. For example, in our cooking workshops, we had both a Turkish and a Syrian facilitator present. At each session of our seminars, the speakers were always migrant and Turkish women. Both a Turkish and a Syrian artist conducted our ‘Women Solidarity for Art’ activity, and all of the women cut the ribbon at the opening of the exhibition together. Of course, there have been times when we despair, but we get past this despair by standing side by side with women. The solidarity that we have built out of these wonderful partnerships gives us strength.
What are your observations on the interaction and sharing among people from different cultures when they come together at events? Could you share a favourite memory?
Food is a very easy way to bring people together and open the channels of communication. The women parcel out the tasks for all stages of food preparation and become part of a team. They are in contact with one another and share the same space, even if they do not speak one another’s languages. They experience together both the rigours and the pleasures that go into a meal. In other words, they increase their exchange over time by interacting over food. When there’s a difficult job, someone rushes over to help, or there are moments of sweet-natured disagreements. Perhaps the most enjoyable moments of the food workshops are after the food is eaten, when those women who belong to a choir lead the group in song. During these songs, pots, tables and spoons turn into rhythm instruments. Sometimes Arabic, sometimes Turkish songs are sung, and sometimes songs that start in one language continue in the other.
What awaits Mutfak || Matbakh Workshop in the future? What are you planning?
We want to expand our solidarity network from local to national. Our work has actually evolved in this direction. We are continuing to form partnerships with many individuals and institutions. We want to create and establish different areas to work in, and with the solidarity we hope to create, we want to experience this practice of coexistence locally, nationally and internationally.
One other field that produces gender inequality is online platforms. We want to start working in this field on migration and gender equality. We are continuing our preparations for this.
We want to open a space for projects where people are not just a statistic, where their voices are heard, and where we listen to their experiences from their own mouths. We think that each person’s experience is unique, and we aim to create spaces where they can speak for themselves.
Translation by Ayla Jean Yackley