Iran. Afghanistan. Venezuela. What comes to mind when you hear these names?

. . .

"How could anyone survive in a place that is just rocks, sand and screaming people?"

"Why are they always fighting? Can't they ever stop yelling and arguing?"

"That place is such a mess. Their culture is inherently violent and brutal. No wonder they're always in trouble."

"It's a good thing we're sending troops over there to set things right. If the US wasn't taking action, nobody else would stop the terrorists."

"Why does the US always have to start trouble where they don't belong? We should have never gotten involved in the first place."

"I'll tell you the problem in three letters: O.I.L."

. . .

"Do they drive on the right or left side of the street?"

"Is DSL internet available there?"

"What do they have for lunch?"

What is really going on overseas that has been causing so much trouble? Are news reports that cover conflict telling the whole story? In seeking to report exciting and sensational stories, news reports leave out information and background that could help to form a reasoned opinion about what the best course might be to resolve conflict.

Deploying the military isn't cheap. Why would the leaders of the US government spend the money of its citizens and risk the lives of its soldiers if there wasn't a clear plan or reasonable chance of success? There must be a coherent logic behind their choices, since they have studied the successes and failures of the past, right? Maybe there is some other information that the media has failed to present, which would explain why the US has chosen military force over diplomacy in places around the world.

A typical news report covering strife or hostility in other countries might have a scene of screaming rioters, damaged buildings, or someone wounded in a skirmish. There might be a fast-talking, sad-looking victim talking quickly towards the camera, while a voice-over translates a few phrases.

Eventually, the rioters will go home, fires will be extinguished and peace will return. Businesses will open again. The people who were filmed and broadcast have the same basic needs for shelter, clothing and food. Little of this finds its way into the reports, which focus on edgy clamor and hostility.

In their search for more viewers, the media might be excused for passing by the details and background information that would provide a complete understanding of what a person's daily life is like in the countries where the US has sent military force. With incomplete information, viewers in the US might find it hard to empathize with people depicted as having a culture that is at best ambiguous and at worst barbaric or primitive.

Practically speaking, where can people in the US learn what it's like to live in another country, especially one that is in conflict with the US? Looking through a newspaper will give them only information about what's going wrong in another country. Watching TV or listening to the radio offers the same. An especially curious person might try Wikipedia or a blog, but this isn't something you can do during lunch unless you lug around your netbook. Is there a solution? Conflict Kitchen provides light fare for the body and a feast for the hungry mind.

Conflict kitchen approaches people in a gentle way, offering information about the daily lives of people living in countries US is involved in overseas conflict. A person might feel relaxed while they are enjoying lunch, and would be more willing to read over information while they're munching on a sandwich.

Over a period of several months, Conflict Kitchen focuses on a specific country and stimulates the palates and minds of visitors. The project started in 2010 and has gone through three 'iterations,' or themes on a specific country at odds with the US. Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski of Pittsburgh created the project. Among their other projects, Rubin has created Never Been To Tehran, a project capturing what people imagine Tehran might look like. Weleski has also created the Bus Stop Opera, mobile 30 minute performances on public transit.

Around April 2010, Kubideh Kitchen debuted as a takeout restaurant selling Iranian food. A few things people may have learned from the colorful wrappers surrounding savory kubideh sandwiches are:

  • The Iranian government is led by a Supreme Leader and is selected by a guardian consul, a group of religious elite. A president is elected every four years, but the Supreme Leader must approve the President’s decisions.
  • Iranians perceive that Americans are ignorant of global politics, since the mainstream media filters their information.
  • 70% of Iranians are under 30, a result of religious leaders encouraging high birth rates after the revolution. While this was part of a plan to train a loyal group indoctrinated in the values of the revolution, it seems to have backfired. Instead, the Green Movement now threatens the government.
  • Women in Iran have become more influential and now attend universities and head businesses and government. However, they are do not have the same opportunities women in the US have, where laws are enforced to protect their rights.
  • Persian Iranians are proud of their ancient culture, which was highly developed even before the ancient Greeks.
Then, close to December 2010, Conflict Kitchen changed into its second iteration, Bolani Pazi. Visitors enjoying bolani turnovers from Afghanistan could also learn a few facts, including:
  • While education is valued highly in Afghanistan, the Taliban controlling the government have watered down the curricula since modern education threatens their belief system.
  • Women have become more active in society, especially in large cities like Kabul. Since so many Afghan men died in the war against Soviets (a war that lasted from 1979 to 1989), 80 percent of university students were women at one time. Today however, some families still prohibit women from leaving home, especially in rural areas.
  • Afghans have grown weary of unstable governments in general, and view the current system as overly dependent on the US. Mainly, they seek a government that will respect human rights, provide stability and encourage economic opportunity.
  • Arranged marriages still dominate in Afghanistan, and involve family members on both sides. Dating as known in the US is a rarity. Instead, families on both sides negotiate and coordinate marriages for their children.
  • Traditional Afghan culture prizes hospitality to such a degree that some find a need to temper their warmth when meeting Americans. Their attempts to encourage goodwill are sometimes received awkwardly, which can be frustrating.
  • The Taliban and Al-Qaeda did not start in Afghanistan, but rather in Pakistan. They found a foothold into Afghanistan's government during the civil war and war with the Soviets. Later, their extremist interpretations of Islam would lead to human rights abuses, especially towards women.
  • Afghans don't cut carbs. Bread is the main food in Afghanistan, which is prepared as flat "naan." After becoming disappointed in American bread, one arrival to the states developed a liking for pizza.

Around July 2011, Conflict Kitchen transformed into La Cocina Arepas, which focused on Venezuela. While enjoying a freshly grilled arepas (homemade grilled corn cakes with stuffing), customers could learn a few things about Venezuela:

  • Venezuelans value education highly, especially at universities that specialize in medicine and engineering.
  • Watch out - kidnapping is disturbingly common.
  • Venezuelans view Americans as peaceful but isolated, partly due to how information is delivered through the media.
  • Oil was discovered in the 1930s, and the oil industry was nationalized in the 1970s. It provides a major source of the country's income.
  • The muralist Pedro Leon Zapata published a newspaper illustration which insulted Hugo Chavez. Later, Chavez ordered all of Zapata's murals within Caracas to be destroyed.
  • The Chavez government has discouraged personal travel by requiring people to apply to be allowed to spend money, and placing limits on the total spent in any country. Travelers may spend only $300 in Colombia , or $2,500 in the US and Europe.
  • Chavez has also restricted freedom of the press by eliminating all but one television channel that does not support his government.

The food wrappers give voice to the people who live around hostility, giving a clearer picture of their situation. A complete understanding would require knowledge of a country's political system, their industries, education, natural resources, customs, religious beliefs, and geography. This is beyond the scope of the limited space on a food wrapper, but Conflict Kitchen offers a second helping for those with a hunger for knowledge.

Along with the morsels of information handed out with sandwiches, Conflict Kitchen has invited the public to feasts of information through Skype conferences. Each event was free and open to the public. Visitors in Pittsburgh and in the focus country sat at long tables and were served the same foods. Creative use of webcams and video projectors created an illusion of a single long table where diners in both cities shared a common meal.

All three iterations of Conflict Kitchen seem to send a consistent message. Americans have seen that generally, people in other countries have no malice towards them, but instead criticize the American government. Likewise, Americans have been surprised by how the goodwill and civility of citizens in other countries contrasts with the actions of their leaders. The view from either side seems the same: good people under bad government.

Conflict Kitchen is open 7 days a week, at 124 S. Highland Ave, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Plans are in the works to create take-out based on the cuisine of Cuba and North Korea.

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