wabuur <It vapore> /n

1 (primus) stove
2 ship, motor-driven vessel
3 locomotive, train
4a engine or motor
4b any of a variety of machines driven by motor or engine

– also babuur and baguur

Excerpted from Martin Hinds and El-Said Badawi, A Dictionary of Egyptian Arabic.

I study kitchens––specifically, home kitchens in a handful of Egyptian and Moroccan cities, and how they changed over the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. Although my project does speak to broad themes like gendered citizenship and anticolonial nationalism, my starting point is much more tangible: the physical objects that made up the kitchens themselves. My favorite is the wabur (wa-BOOR).

As the dictionary definition above indicates, wabur (also pronounced babur and bagur) is a colloquial Egyptian word, derived from Italian, referring to a variety of devices ranging from the petite stove a woman would use to brew coffee in her salon to a steam locomotive. In the kitchen histories I am exploring, the wabur as primus stove perches between older methods of cooking over coals or fire and the now-ubiquitous gas ranges, although it overlaps with both. As an interlude between those two culinary technologies, these stoves are a key chapter in the story I’m trying to tell. While pursuing them through cookbooks, magazine ads, and the archives, I’ve turned to junk stalls and antique shops, too.

Khan al-Khalili
Khan al-Khalili, Cairo. Photo by Anny Gaul.

When asked what my primary research sites are, I usually reply that there are too many to list: the kitchen, I explain, is both everywhere and nowhere. Any Egyptian novelist’s oeuvre or colonial Moroccan archival unit will inevitably offer some insight into kitchen and culinary history. But the evidence they provide is often fleeting or fragmentary. Incorporating objects into my research practice is one way to fill out my narrative.

Working with objects affords several advantages: in a comparative project like mine, it’s useful to track how similar or identical kitchen equipment became the focus of very different and changing attachments across different cities and societies. Objects also provide useful prompts for oral history work, which is central to my methodology. Handling or recalling physical objects often helps interview subjects conjure less tactile or concrete memories connected to emotions and tastes and smells. Conversations with the people who collect or sell the objects are almost always enlightening. And although it was a cookbook that jump-started my project in the first place, the fact remains that much of kitchen history exists outside of texts, albeit often in conversation or tension with them. A great deal of information about how people cooked is recorded not in cookbooks (which tend to be ideological and prescriptive, particularly during this time period) but in embodied knowledge and orally or somatically transmitted memories.

These two modes of transmitting culinary knowledge correspond to what Diana Taylor describes as the archive and the repertoire. Getting at the relationship between what has been written about the kitchen (its archive) and what has been enacted there (its repertoire) is, I believe, at the heart of my inquiry. She points out that the relationship between these two modes “is certainly not sequential…Nor is it true versus false, mediated versus unmediated, primordial versus modern. Nor is it a binary.”1Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 22. In my attempt to connect embodied repertoires of kitchen practices with written material from novels, cookbooks, and archives, objects have become a useful bridge in my fieldwork. Here, using the example of the wabur, I describe how this has worked on the ground.

My first encounter with the wabur was in Naguib Mahfouz’s classic novel Midaq Alley, which follows the lives of the inhabitants of one of Cairo’s historic quarters during World War II. The stove appears in the alley’s café, a social hub of the neighborhood. By contrast, a description of a domestic kitchen in a nearby home features not a wabur but a kanun––a simpler kind of stove entailing a base of bricks or stones placed around a fire, with a pot or pan resting on top. My next several encounters with the wabur were also in the central Cairo neighborhoods featured in the novels of Mahfouz and his contemporaries. Once I started looking for it, the wabur was suddenly everywhere: it was mentioned as a generic term for a stove in a 1915 household management manual. A 1941 Egyptian cookbook that I found in Cairo’s downtown book market featured a line drawing of a wabur in a chapter heading. Ads for the device appeared in popular Egyptian magazines as early as 1925 and continued into the late 1950s. My favorite, from 1959, features a housewife promoting an Egyptian-made wabur.

Egyptian Advertisement
Advertisement in the Egyptian weekly magazine al-Musawwar (December 11, 1959) (from the collection of the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo). Photo by Anny Gaul.

As exciting as these references were to uncover, however, they fell flat as evidence for my project: how and why was the wabur phased out in favor of the new gas stoves? Was it a matter of economy, availability, personal preference, or some combination? And what were the differences between the two in terms of cooking and maintenance? I needed to know more.

Over drinks with a friend one night, I mentioned that I was hoping to learn more about the wabur and asked if anyone in his family still had one. As luck would have it, he remembered a lone shop in Sayeda Zeinab, the neighborhood where he grew up, that still sold and repaired old gas lamps and stoves. We made plans to visit the following week.

As we wound our way through narrow streets, my friend pointed out the large building next to the alley where the shop was. “It’s the oldest girls’ school in Egypt,” he said.

“You mean al-Sania school is here?” I asked. This was where domestic science had first been taught in Egypt in the early 1900s; I had been reading about this place for years. And here it was, looming over what was allegedly the last place in Cairo where you could get a stove as old as the school itself. These kinds of connections aren’t exactly data points to plot out and footnote in my dissertation, but I still find them reassuring reminders that the fragments I’m assembling did once exist in a time and place whose traces linger in the present day.

Sayeda Zeinab
A wabur in Sayeda Zeinab, Cairo. Photo by Anny Gaul.

The stoves were dusty, and heavier than I’d imagined. The owner of the shop explained that they were all Egyptian-made and wiped away a thick layer of dust so we could see an Arabic inscription on one stove. He also showed us his collection of gas lamps and said that the only use they get anymore is when he rents them out to movie producers filming movies set a half-century ago. The rootedness of these objects in a nostalgic version of the past was reaffirmed elsewhere in the city. You can also buy an old wabur in Khan al-Khalili, the market in Islamic Cairo where tourists buy handcrafts and souvenirs, but only as a novelty item: the vendors there don’t bother to keep them in working order. In one of my favorite restaurants, a cozy three-table spot downtown specializing in home-cooked Egyptian food, I spotted a wabur painted, cartoon-like, on a kitschy decorative plate on the wall.

Wabur Restaurant
On a restaurant wall, downtown Cairo. Photo by Anny Gaul

After moving to Morocco in January, it didn’t take me long to find ads for primus stoves in magazines dating back to the 1920s and ’30s. It also wasn’t difficult to track them down in the antique shops in the old cities of Rabat and Marrakesh, often not far from bookstalls selling the old magazines that advertised them. In Moroccan Arabic the stoves are referred to as rechaud (after the French) or the kanun. In Marrakesh I finally took the plunge and bought one of my own, a gorgeous restored “Sunflower” model manufactured by the Vacuum Oil Company, with instructions in English, French, Spanish, and Arabic. According to the forums on the hobbyist website Classic Camp Stoves (a formidable archive itself), it seems likely that the stove dates to 1931 or earlier.

Sunflower stove
Sunflower primus stove, Marrakesh. Photo by Anny Gaul.

As I prepare to use it (if and when I get it to work, the results will be blogged here), I’ve been drawn back to transcriptions of the “oral kitchen histories” I’ve conducted. Descriptions of how the wabur worked, its advantages and drawbacks, have all helped me understand the stoves on a visceral, sensory level. It’s true that women recall their economy and convenience: the kerosene that fueled them was often the cheapest, easiest fuel available, and the flame they produced was intense and strong. Because they were relatively lightweight, they could be moved from room to room with ease. Families often kept an old wabur around as a backup for the pesky days when your butagaz tank ran out (if you have ever cooked on a range with changeable gas canisters, you know that this always happens on the day of a dinner party), or to heat hot water for laundry quickly, before they were able to afford an automatic washing machine. But the most vivid memories around the wabur tended to revolve around the constant smell of kerosene and the loud hissing noises certain models produced. Their removal would have signaled a colossal shift in the sensory universe of the kitchen.

Unlike in Egypt, in Morocco these stoves don’t seem to crop up much in films or novels. And anecdotally, fewer of my Moroccan friends and colleagues recall their grandmothers or mothers using them. So I have delved back into the archive in search of more clues about how these stoves fit into the Moroccan culinary repertoire.

“Stove historians” on Classic Camp Stoves have pointed out that it was a common practice for these stoves to be sold at a discount by petroleum companies themselves if household consumers purchased their fuels, and so I delved into the fonds of the Moroccan colonial archives dedicated to oil and gas. I found a report from a colonial official written in 1916 noting the urgency of supplying Rabat’s Moroccan population with charcoal because gas stoves had never caught on in their communities. I also learned that the Vacuum Oil Company (which presumably sold the stove I now own) held a virtual monopoly on the Moroccan market until 1923, when two more companies entered the market and fuel prices dropped appreciably.

Marrakesh bookstall
A Marrakesh bookstall. Photo by Anny Gaul.

Consulting my favorite sort of archive, in a Marrakesh bookstall I found an undated science textbook, in Arabic, that likely dates to the late 1950s or early 1960s; it begins with a unit on fuels, or “the use of fire and its relationship to the civilizing of humankind.” It presents the gas stove (here labelled a mawqid, a formal classical Arabic word pointedly eschewing the foreign borrowings implied in wabur and rechaud) as the most evolved in a long line of cooking technologies. I have yet to find a home economics textbook in Morocco; this may be as close as I’m going to get.

Each of these disparate points will inform the conversations I pursue in the next round of oral histories I conduct. How did the costs of various fuels in Morocco impact the choices women made about what to cook with? Were stoves brought up in school, and in which classes? How did the introduction of gas stoves affect the social or cultural value placed on cooking over charcoal?

As I attempt to weave a dissertation from rich but very different kinds of data, objects like the wabur––anchored in the past but still collecting dust here in the present––are essential finding aids. They help me both navigate the archive and conjure what vestiges of embodied knowledge remain.