Food on the frontline: finding common ground through cooking | Food

Giles Duley, a 47-year-old photographer, is no stranger to some of the world’s most desperate places. His work on the impact of war has taken him to Lebanon, South Sudan, Ukraine and Afghanistan, where in 2011 he lost both legs and his left arm after stepping on a landmine. But his experience in Mosul, Iraq, in the spring of 2017, covering the fallout of the military campaign to retake the city from Islamic State, was something else.

“I saw some of the worst things I’d ever seen in terms of war – just horrific things,” says Duley, shaking his head. “It was overwhelming and I came back in quite a dark place from that trip. It was shut the curtains, I don’t want to speak to anyone. And I just started cooking, I started making pasta and bread. I realised that was therapy for me, because when you’ve got those dark thoughts and you’ve seen children injured, you can put the television on or you can read a book, but you are still thinking about those things. You can’t get away from them. But I found cooking was the one time I did, because I think it’s the manual tasks: you are lost in that moment.

“Suddenly I was cooking obsessively,” he goes on, “getting up at 4am, making bread, cooking all day. Literally going up to my neighbours and saying, ‘Would you like a whole meal?’ I hadn’t eaten any of it, because I was already stuffed, but I’d just made a load of cannelloni.”

Sitting in Duley’s sun-drenched living room in St Leonards-on-Sea, watching him skilfully prepare fennel and lemon risotto with scallops, the horrors of Mosul feel a world away. But Duley’s obsession with cooking has continued – in fact probably intensified – and now influences both his life and work. The fun side is an Instagram feed called The One Armed Chef, where he shares the food he cooks at home and eats on his travels with more than 5,000 followers. Duley began posting photographs a couple of years ago, mainly as a distraction from his day job. But there’s also a serious element – a comment on how many of us respond to disability.

“It’s really a ‘fuck you’ to people in restaurants who said, ‘Oh, can I cut that up for you?’” says Duley. “Because I would turn around to them and show them a handmade egg-yolk ravioli and they’d go, ‘Uh?’ And I’d say, ‘I did that one-handed, I think I can cut my potato in half.’ I know people want to help, but it’s humiliating that somebody just assumes you can’t do something one-handed. Just because somebody’s different it doesn’t mean they can’t do things that you can’t even do.”

Last year, Duley was contacted by Instagram’s headquarters in San Francisco, saying it was an admirer of his work and wanted to feature it on its main feed. Duley was thrilled: he knows how difficult it is to reach an audience with stories of refugees. Only later did he realise that Instagram was reaching out to The One Armed Chef. “And they were like, ‘Oh, you’re a photographer as well?’” he recalls. “Yes, I can also do that!”

Nothing in Duley’s kitchen, or indeed his flat, has been altered because of his injuries: “I always say the only thing that was adapted was my patience.” He notes, with a laugh, that some things which sound easy are actually near-impossible, and vice versa. “I can travel to Iraq on my own and take photographs,” he says, “but I can’t put a woolly hat on.” When he first started cooking, frying an egg was an ordeal, just standing at the stove in his prosthetic legs. Even now he has to plan ahead when he puts a heavy casserole dish in the oven, because it’s awkward to remove it with one hand.

Food increasingly plays a central role in Duley’s work, too. Now, when he meets a family he wants to photograph, he asks to cook with them first. It might be borscht in Ukraine or goat stew in central Africa; he’s also eaten land snails in Nigeria and fried tarantulas in north Cambodia, but he’d rather not dwell on that. Only after he’s spent hours preparing food with someone will Duley lift his camera to take a picture.

“When a family invites me into their house and lets me cook with them, I feel like the most privileged person in the world, because you have that moment of intimacy with them,” says Duley. “For them it’s a sign of respect: I’m not just there to get your story, I’m not taking your story from you, I want to learn about you and I want to understand you.

“The difference between an acquaintance and a friend is when we’ve eaten together.”

Cooking with frozen chicken in Mosul, Iraq





Laila cooking for her four grandchildren in Mosul, Ira.



Laila cooking for her four grandchildren in Mosul, Iraq. Photograph: Giles Duley/Save the Children

“In this family, the father had died. He’d been on the roof collecting water and a drone strike had killed him. A few weeks later, a mortar had gone off in the garden and killed the grandfather. The mother was hit by shrapnel in the kitchen and died over several days. So it was just the grandmother Laila and four grandchildren left. The house was like a film set, if you were getting central casting to make a bomb-damaged house. It had blackened walls, windows with bullet holes. It was horrific.





Cooking with a grandmother in Mosul, Iraq Giles Duley Food Stories



Photograph: Giles Duley

I arranged to cook with the grandmother and the only things I could find in Mosul were a frozen chicken, a bag of rice and a couple of onions. It turned out she was a terrible chef! We later discovered that her sister used to help her cook. We spent the first hour trying to break the chicken to get it in the pot. We got a knife and hammer and smashed it.

The kids were laughing and jokes were being made, and there was a warmth to what was happening. Then we sat down and ate. Arab food is personal because you put your hands in the food together. You are at the same level when you share food like that.”

Making borscht in Avdiivka, Ukraine





Oleksander with his young nephew.



Oleksander with his young nephew. Photograph: Giles Duley/Save the Children

“Another family, another terrible story. Oleksander, a teenage boy had been at home, his father was out and his mother was cooking in the kitchen. He went into his bedroom to listen to music and he heard this massive explosion; he was thrown from his bed – an artillery shell had landed in the kitchen, which destroyed the room and killed his mother.

This is the kitchen where it had happened. They’d patched up the roof, and his older brother was living there with him, looking after him, because their father had passed away since then, too.

I thought, ‘Do you know what, I don’t need to talk to him about it because you don’t need to, to understand that that was a terrible thing.’ So what I did was ask him questions about the food they used to have and the traditions of their food.

Of course, being Ukraine it was all about the borscht. And so I said: ‘Can I come back tomorrow? Why don’t we cook together?’

So I did, and that taste will never leave me. It was beautiful that borscht, and we were all laughing.”

Eating with a Syrian family in Lebanon and Holland





Jamal cooking in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon.



Jamal cooking in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon. Photograph: Giles Duley

“I met Khouloud and Jamal in 2014, when I was just starting to work again. Khouloud is a woman who was paralysed by a sniper in Syria six years ago, near the beginning of the war. They were the first family I sat down and ate with, which started the idea that this was how I could build relationships. I would turn up and Jamal, Khouloud’s husband, would cook the most amazing food and I knew they didn’t have the money to do it. I was so humbled sitting there eating with them.

I have known them over the years, so the first meals we shared were in a tent in the Bekaa valley in Lebanon, where they had nothing. And now they live in Holland; they have been relocated there and now when I go there they still cook for me, but they are able to do much more.

They are able to cook as they always said they wanted to in the past but weren’t able to.”

Running a cafe in Omugo refugee camp in Uganda





Rose preparing food in her cafe in Uganda.



Rose preparing food in her cafe in Uganda. Photograph: Giles Duley/Save the Children

“Rose is a smart businesswoman. She is also one of the strongest women I’ve ever met. I met her in Uganda in a refugee camp for the South Sudanese where she had, well, let’s call it a cafe, but it was a little mud hut. It had a stove made of mud and she made stews and bits and pieces, and refugees would give a few pennies to eat there.

I said: ‘It’d be fun to cook with you.’ I could tell her mind was ticking over, and she said: ‘Yeah, be here at 9am.’ So she got me there and she said: ‘You can cook today.’

She’d worked out that as soon as there was a one-armed white bloke cooking in her cafe everybody was going to come and see this. We were absolutely packed: it was the most successful day she’d ever had.

At the end of the day I’m like, ‘Do I get a cut?’ And she said: ‘No! Of course not!’ She was hilarious.”

Sharing beans with Reida in Omugo refugee camp





Beatrice and Reida. Omugo Refugee Camp, Uganda. 2018



Dividing up beans for meals in the Omugo refugee camp.

Photograph: Giles Duley

“Food is a moment of release for a lot of people living in terrible situations. On the trip that I met Rose, I met Reida from South Sudan who was less fortunate, who had a child with a severe disability. She had lost her husband and was surviving on just a handful of beans given to her by NGOs. I remember sitting with her while she split those beans into days for her three kids and herself. When you see someone counting the beans they have for that day – that’s survival at its most basic.

She would cook the beans and add a bit of flavouring: she had something like dried anchovies which she would add in to give it a little more protein. But, of course, she still offered to share that food with me.

Even then, food was still a moment when the family came together, they laughed and chatted, and for a moment they escaped everything going on around them. It was humbling for me. You think, ‘I’m going to appreciate every meal I have and every moment.’”

Follow Giles Duley @one_armed_chef

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