José Ciro Martínez, States of Subsistence: The Politics of Bread in Contemporary Jordan (Stanford University Press, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

José Ciro Martínez (JCM): A healthy dose of gluttony and several unforeseen friendships. The book’s origins lie in a homestay I did more than a decade ago in Damascus. A few days in, I discovered that the father of the family was a mana’ish maker, dabbling sporadically in bread. I have had a life-long fondness for carbohydrates, so avidly offered an extra pair of hands, quietly hopeful that I could eat to my heart’s content. Days at the bakery soon became part of my routine—the grind was addictive, the camaraderie unexpected. When I reflect on that formative period, I know the foundations for this book were all firmly laid then.

Of course, the intervening years (and the demands of the academe) have led the book to be inflected by a set of scholarly considerations. Most consistent among these was a frustration with subsidized bread’s place in accounts of Middle East politics. Despite its omnipresence, bread has always functioned as the prompt for a story about social contracts and authoritarianism, a metonym for the exchange of sustenance for compliance. As an object of inquiry itself, bread has been largely overlooked. And so I wondered, what would an account that centered subsidized bread illuminate and reveal? Could probing one foodstuff help elucidate mechanisms of rule and modes of living amidst them?

But in truth, the most sincere response is probably best conveyed by an M.F.K. Fisher quote I return to often: “The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.”

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

JCM: States of Subsistence is foremost an ethnography of the Jordanian state, examining the latter in places where it is rarely disinterred and dissected. Through a variety of settings and historical moments, and in conversation with a diverse range of interlocutors, the book seeks not just to interrogate the state’s apparent unity or expose its inconsistencies, but to think through some of the ways the state maintains its solidity and inevitability. How? Through what practices and modes of address?

I tackle this question through the prism of khubz ‘arabi (Arabic or pita bread) and the welfare program that ensures its discounted provision. I was frustrated by how welfare services were studied by political scientists, who far too frequently elide the objects, people, and ideas that compose such services, as well as their productive effects. But what quickly became apparent to me at the bakery is that subsidized bread is a living and lively thing. As readers will learn, ambiguous regulations, haphazard standardizations, convoluted decisions, and fluctuating ingredients permeate this welfare program. Subsidized bread is the contingent outcome of humans and nonhumans working together and in cooperation, a marshalling of agencies that coalesce to make khubz ‘arabi not only cheap and accessible, but edible and appetizing.

While this welfare program is composed of an amalgam of socio-material practices, its regularity, uniformity, and arrangement create the effect of a structure—the state—that seems to exist outside this world of practice, separate from the society it organizes, manages, and dominates. That is to say, welfare has performative dimensions. It is not simply a reflection or result but a congealing that acts and does, authorizes and renews a set of relations that produce an effect. And so I examine these relations—at and around the bakery, amongst bakers and bureaucrats, along with ordinary people and policymakers. The literatures addressed are diverse, I draw copiously from geography, anthropology, and political theory, which all help me unpack why bread is there and what it is doing. How come bread never lacks, when so many other things do? What are the politics of this food? 

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

JCM: It is intimately connected, if only because I am very much at the outset of my career. Subsidized bread, whether in Syria or Jordan, has been at the center of almost everything I have written. I made missteps in some of the earlier writings, ones I hope to have corrected in the book. If I were to identify a common thread, it would be the place of subsistence in mechanisms of rule and an abiding interest in the ways political authority transpires amidst the seemingly unglamorous and unspectacular day-to-day. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

JCM: After my interlocutors in Jordan, I would start with enthusiasts of ethnography. Much of what I tried to do—both in the field and while writing—was inspired by encounters with wonderful instances of participant observation and observant participation that I read and went back to while working on this book. If States of Subsistence can entertain and incite in just half the ways certain works did for me, that would be incredibly rewarding.

Audiences who I hope will read the book, engage with its arguments, and find it stimulating are students and scholars of comparative politics, geography, anthropology, sociology, and Middle East studies; Jordanians and anyone interested in the country; bakers—both amateur and professional; and all those who wrestle with the attractions, revulsions, and ambivalences that have come to characterize living with the state. And perhaps some others, who may be drawn by my efforts to underscore the political import of the everyday, repurpose the concept of performativity, and think through modes of government that have repeatedly failed us, yet continue to loom large over our collective existence.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

JCM: I am currently in the midst of fieldwork for a new project, one that seeks to explore iterations of sovereignty via the production and trafficking of hashish in southern Spain and northern Morocco. This has meant a turn away from food and welfare provision towards a very different type of commodity, although its implications for practices of government are, I think, no less important. The project is equally driven by ethnographic concerns and modes of political inquiry attentive to the ordinary and mundane, a commitment I hope comes through clearly in the book.

J: With the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the resulting rise in energy and food prices, there has been ample discussion of potential impacts in the import-dependent countries of the Middle East. Can we expect unrest if bread prices increase?

JCM: We do the people of the region a disservice when we consider bread solely (or even primarily) through such a reductive lens. Surely rising prices will hit the poor and working classes, as they will elsewhere in the world. But to speak of the presence of the state, one linked to the availability of bread and the sensations emanating from the bakery, as the book does, takes us in a very different direction than the sort of instrumentalism implied in terms such as bread riots or bread revolutions. This is not to say, however, that political concerns are not integral to such a perspective. It just means that, if we foreground questions of authority and power, we should look at these events in an altogether different manner.

Bread has undoubtedly been at the center of a wide array of contentious episodes in the Middle East. Yet in no instance was bread a passive symbol or facile evidence of anger, indignation, and rage. Insomuch as the hold that states have on us is shaped by our experience of particular governmental programs, the milieus within which citizens are formed will play a key role in determining how and when unrest forms. But to assume that hunger and deprivation, or the price of bread, are the straightforward drivers of dissent, obscures the complicated ways people encounter and respond to their historical emplacement.

By unpacking the Jordanian bread subsidy, States of Subsistence dissects how welfare programs operate in relation to the hegemonic orders they frequently enshrine. A corollary of such an approach is to interrogate how the forces that govern us are produced and reproduced. And so the book explores: Are citizens implicated in that which they contest, rely on, or criticize? Does the state subsist by forming and fashioning the very mechanisms that underpin our agency? Resistance and revolution may indeed be possible. But for now we remain scrupulously situated within the state’s orbit, longing for its company and consolation, even as we decry its abuses and mistreatments. An escape may very well be required, but I wonder, do we have anywhere to go?


Excerpt from the book (from pp. ix-xii) 

Preface: Breadlines

On a cold Saturday morning in early November, Zayd and I leave his house, walk a couple of blocks, and join a single-file line. About ten people are ahead of us; another five soon join behind. The queue moves swiftly. It always does. While we wait, an unmistakable aroma wafts through the air. A scent impossible to confuse, and even harder to resist. The local bakery is in full swing, and the breeze carries the distinctive smell of bread. We come here often, and Zayd’s order is always the same—three kilograms of bread, fresh out of the oven—what he describes as the vital component of his family’s breakfast of hummus, falafel, and ful (fava beans).

Across the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, variations of this scene occur every day. Families pick up bread to make a speedy breakfast before school. Construction workers briefly pause their labors to collect items for their second meal of the day. Friends gather to eat after football. Office workers descend upon hectic sandwich stands during their breaks and commuters hastily gather supplies for dinner on the way home. More than nine million people reside in Jordan. Each day, they eat approximately ten million loaves of khubz ‘arabi—the slightly leavened flatbread also known as Arabic or pita bread. Some rely on this bread to avoid starvation, others to help make ends meet. For the more fortunate, it is an occasional pleasure, rather than a gauge of poverty. But inevitably, on all days and at all working hours, someone goes to the bakery, where khubz ‘arabi sells for the subsidized price of 16 qirsh (US$0.25) per kilogram. Without exception or exclusion. Devoid of doubts or apprehensions, without conditions or prerequisites. So easily accessible that one can forget the many hands that make it. So palpably present that one can overlook the vast array of actions required to provide it. “There’s bread,” Zayd beams as we wait. “There’s always bread.”

It took me some time to realize that these scenes and routines would become the indelible heart of this book. I had thought, and was often taught, that politics was entirely distinct from the mundane; that politics was about big institutions and even bigger events: revolutions, coups d’état, wars, elections. It required the detailed study of campaigns and coercion. Data sets were needed, large-scale surveys indispensable, lab experiments highly recommended. There was simply no occasion for the monotonous or humdrum, the dreary or commonplace. The real action happens elsewhere, I was led to believe, far from the tedium of the quotidian. And so I went in search of that “real action,” only to realize that the ordinary was more significant. Perhaps we are governed not at the level of the spectacular or the episodic but in the realm of the most mundane: the actions, experiences, and repetitions that make up the everyday.

We have all waited in line for food. Many of us have experienced analogous forms of anticipation or excitement while waiting for bread and baked goods. The familiar monotony of purchasing a basic foodstuff and consuming it among neighbors and co-workers makes such occasions easier to dismiss as having political import of any kind. This book, then, is a call to pause, to consider both the routine practicalities and broader repercussions of these moments. It addresses how subsidized bread is made, moved, and managed as well as the ways in which it is demanded, distributed, and desired. Most centrally, it asks why bread is there and what it is doing. How come bread is never lacking, when so many other things are? Why do so many in Jordan continue to demand that it be made available as a public good? What are the politics of this food?

There are many ways to answer these questions. Several would lend themselves more easily to the comfort of an armchair or the efficiency of a linear regression. I chose another path—to situate myself as deeply and durably as possible in the processes I sought to examine. And to think with, rather than against or without, those from whom I learned and with whom I lived. I eschewed distant observation. Instead, I decided to bake. To blend, beat, dust, fold, knead, mix, mold, proof, punch, score, and soften. Week after week, loaf after loaf, with weak arms and terrible posture but no shortage of enthusiasm, I observed, listened, and participated. To better understand how bread becomes welfare, and how welfare becomes something else entirely.

This book is not a detailed study of Jordanian bakeries. Nor does it offer a social history of bread or bread riots. It is instead an attempt to study the state ethnographically, in places where it is rarely disinterred and displayed. These settings are varied and unevenly examined, but they all seek to illuminate how the state coheres—not as a thing or institution, but as an effect of power that assembles and entangles. My argument here does not just interrogate the state’s apparent unity or expose its inconsistencies, but thinks through some of the ways the state maintains its permanence and inevitability—the labors, echoes, and reverberations required to make an unwieldy set of processes transpire in its name. Despite its continual construction, the state appears robust and durable. Notwithstanding its manufacture, it feels and appears perpetually stable. How is this feat achieved?

As it is only through practice that subjects and objects are actualized, this book examines material, bodily, and discursive practices in order to explore how the state becomes a tangible, thinkable entity among Jordanians. I have turned to the bakery and started with bread in order to approach power at its point of generation and consequence rather than the other way around. That is, I look at power where it occurs and see where that leads, rather than automatically attribute agency or actuality to someone or something. Examining bread may seem at f irst glance an odd way to do this. My own fascination with this foodstuff arose because I very much loved to devour it; only later did its import become discernible. Despite its undeniable ubiquity in accounts of Middle East politics, bread has always functioned as the prompt for a story about social contracts and authoritarianism, a metonym for the exchange of basic goods for acquiescence, sustenance for compliance. As an object of inquiry itself, bread has been all but invisible. We have little sense of how it is prepared and produced, used and consumed, discussed and circulated. Here I want to give a sense of these dynamics while drawing khubz ‘arabi, and the welfare program that ensures its discounted provision, into a constitutive relationship. Like sugar and oil, bread establishes connections and enacts realities, in careful alliance with people and things.

Foremost among these associations are those with the structure that is imagined and felt to provide the bread. And it is this relationship that I will scrutinize here, in order to explore how one foodstuff both governs and creates the effect of a structure doing the governing. Not to do away with the state, but to pursue more insistently the conditions of its emergence, operation, and reproduction. Without glorifying the ostensibly menial, this book seeks to reinsert the routine and commonplace into our thresholds of visibility and analysis. Perhaps we are formed, acted upon, and dominated—anchored in this world—not by structures that exist outside ourselves but through forms and practices folded within our bodies amid the unglamorous and unspectacular day-to-day. Maybe the forces that govern us do so not from a distance, but through the immediate and immanent—the rhythms and routines, the sociomaterial worlds in which we dwell, subsist, and survive. And yet . . . we do not live on bread alone.