If this has remained unmentioned for the five years I've been here, it's a clear indication none of us have been eating enough of the right kinds of food
-- or in the right style.
Too often the western tradition of dining has left the food experience a relationship of sterile interplay strictly between fork and mouth, as though we are so afraid of coming into contact with and really engaging the food we are about to ingest we cannot bring ourselves to touch it with our fingers. Picnicking removes the abstraction of cold metal from the equation and leaves nothing but the desired food to be conveyed between hand and mouth; gursha is the final breakdown of a rigid implementation of notions of personal space preventing eating from becoming a fully and truly social enterprise.
Beneath a Coptic illustration of a fellowship of thirteen enjoying themselves in a similar scene, a colossal communal platter arrives on the basket-woven table you share with a handful of close companions, people after whom you are comfortable reaching into the communal plate having observed them suckling errant drops of spiced sauce from their fingertips and reaching back to the plate themselves.
For despite the picture, the Ethiopian tradition follows their saying: those who eat from the same plate will not betray each other... and fear of the contents of the mouths of those you break bread with betrays a disturbing lack of trust. The rule of thumb is that if you trust what comes out of their mouths when it goes into your ears and resonates in your head, you are already more vulnerable and open to them than any vector of contagion could complicate. So loosen up, and try to enjoy this meal. You won't have to try very hard.
Unrolling and tearing off a strip of injera, the unleavened teff flatbread, you survey the spiced and steaming terrain before you, perhaps taking a sip of thick, pulpy mango juice, ginger-nutmeg tea, or tej (the mead-like Ethiopian honey wine), all the while contemplating with momentous gravity your first move. Will you wrap the garlic spinach in with a piece of hard-boiled egg or instead mate the curried lentils to the peppery goat wat (stew) -- all on a savoury mat of sauce-sopped bread beneath?
The precarious choice made, your right hand swoops down from above and with deft precision ensnares the fated ingredient(s) in the net of pristine injera, along with a small quantity of goat's cheese. Lovingly you wrap the edges tight and close around this little morsel, an impromptu dumpling, raising it to mouth-level. Your friend's smile widens and they obligingly part their lips to permit the passage of the mouthful you deposit on their tongue, fingerprint scraping lightly over their incisor like a skipping record as your hand withdraws and they begin the glad work of chewing.
What is going on? There is an allegorical saying from another tradition that distinguishes Heaven and Hell solely by the eating habits of its residents; for when the tortured in Hell try to feed all are gathered around a colossal, bubbling cauldron thirty feet around filled to the brim with rich, nourishing stew, each equipped with preposterous chopsticks ten feet long, rendering it nearly impossible for them to get the food they pinch into their own mouths. The arrangement in Heaven is very similar, except in that the bites its beatific souls manage to pluck from the roiling broth are fed to their neighbors on the other side of the cauldron; thus through cooperation everyone is rendered jovial and content. It is only this lack of consideration on the part of the selfish tormented that keeps them in Hell.
Gursha refers then to this practice, of selflessly arranging and putting into another's mouth portions of food, reaffirming in the feeding a certain carnal, fleshly connection in contemplation of the distinction between the meat you put into the injera and the meat you put the injera into. While it might be considered a romantic gesture between lovers, this is no sacrament restricted solely to people whose mouths meet on an ordinary basis -- as a fundamental gesture of appreciation the custom is no different from a hug between friends, no less bond-affirming than a mother feeding her child by hand. Before any sort of connection is made with anyone, you have to first reach out to them.
If you bring me to an Ethiopian meal, you are friend enough that I will gladly feed to you my first mouthful of food. If I am lucky you will feed to me your last -- and if I am not, I have still profited the messy wonder of an Ethiopian meal.
Update: While I wasn't paying attention, the full text of this write-up has been appropriated by a web resource of Ethiopian dining (at http://www.ethiopianrestaurant.com/gursha.html) -- perhaps the highest praise possible that my words are being used to promote the very cause that inspired them. This was done without permission, though I was credited as its source; now that I've found out what happened (c/o a bit of unrelated egosurfing), permission is now being granted. Mostly, I'm making this note to assure that this write-up doesn't get removed under suspicion of my having stolen it from their site. (If only this possibility were so remote that I didn't need to entertain it 8)