Portion control

Reflections on fate and food

Farid Alsabeh


On my way to work last year, a careless driver took a sudden left turn into a gas station, forever committing our life-paths to an unavoidable collision course.

The phrase “came out of nowhere” meant nothing to me until that exact moment, when I saw the side of the truck materialize in an instant, as if from thin air. Before I could even hit the brakes, my car was stopped in its tracks, and the airbags jumped out against my body.

Waiting for the tow truck, I got into a conversation with the other driver, a businessman of Nigerian origin. When he told me that he was a native speaker of Swahili, I asked him to teach me a word from that language.

The word I chose that day was ‘luck’, that having been the driving force behind our encounter, and he translated it as bahati. Later I would learn that this word was originally a Persian one, which was itself derived from the Proto-Indo-European root behg, meaning ‘to divide or distribute’.

This shift in meaning is an intuitive one. The products of fate, the random happenings of the world, are conceived to be allotted to each person, who receives from this cosmic storehouse their own share. In English, this same metaphor gives use the expression: a person’s ‘lot in life’.

It was this same semantic shift that led the ancient Greeks to name their three goddesses of fate the ‘Moirai’, which derives from a verb meaning ‘to receive a share’. And the connection between fate and potions is further elaborated in the myth of Zeus and the two jars, as quoted in the Iliad:

“On Zeus’ floor stand two jars which hold his gifts
one has disastrous things, the other blessings.
When thunder-loving Zeus hands out a mixture,
that man will, at some point, meet with evil,
then, some other time, with good.”

Arabic also attests to this semantic shift with the word qisma, coming from the Semitic root Q-S-M, which signifies separation. This gives it a literal meaning of ‘portion’, but it’s commonly used as a metaphoric expression of a person’s individual fate. For example, it appears as the first half of a common fixed phrase, qisma wa nasib, which my mom…