Arts/Culture: People: Bittersweet Beirut: Q&A with Salma Abdelnour
Bittersweet Beirut: Q&A with Salma Abdelnour
At the age of nine, Salma Abdelnour was uprooted from her hometown by the Lebanese civil war and transplanted to the sleepy suburbs of Houston, Texas. Half a world away from the shelling and rocket grenades that had threatened her physical safety in Beirut, her existence still felt precarious. For the first time, insecurity was a social experience rather than a political one. She struggled to overcome a persistent awareness of her otherness and spent her adolescence trying to purge her English of its heavy Arabic accent. She persevered, eventually attending college in California and forging a successful journalism career in New York. But even as a published food and travel writer with a robust social life and lots of fulfilling relationships, she could never completely dismiss the residual feelings of outsiderhood that had characterized her first few years in Texas.
Thirty years later, Salma would revisit her homeland – and ironically, many of the anxieties she first experienced as an immigrant to the U.S. This time it was her Arabic, not her English, that had to be recalibrated, and familiar insecurities came flooding back: Would she be able to make new friends, build a life, feel ‘at home’? Or had her long absence rendered her powerless to ever recover her sense of belonging? In Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut, Salma traces the challenges and triumphs she experienced in the process of rediscovering a place (and a past) she had always longed to access. Whether reveling in the pleasure of a perfect cup of strong Arabic coffee or contemplating the meaning of “home”, she chronicles and interprets her year’s events with disarming sincerity and generosity of spirit. (Buy the book on Amazon)
Indagare spoke to Salma about her forthcoming book and the adventure that inspired it. Read Salma’s recommendations on places to see, eat and stay in Beirut.
What spurred your return to Beirut after so many years in the U.S.?
“It was actually a decision that was made a long time ago. My family left Lebanon with every intention of moving back as soon as things calmed down, and in a way, I never stopped anticipating our return. As a nine-year-old, I had developed strong attachments to my school and classmates and cousins, and though I was definitely absorbing the scariness of the war, there was also this strange but very real sensation of coziness and contentment. Sometimes the violence felt disruptive and threatening, and school would be suspended for weeks at a time. But then there would be a lull, and you were sure everything was on its way back to normal. When the situation really started to deteriorate in 1981, my parents decided we would move to the U.S. for a year. I was the first among my group of friends to leave, and it was wrenching, but the idea that our absence would be temporary was very real to my parents and to me. As a result, even as conditions in Beirut remained dire and one year abroad turned into two and three, that “this is home now” feeling didn’t sink in. I never let go of the idea that I would eventually be going back. When the war finally ended in 1990, I was already graduating from high school and on my way to Berkeley. But I always knew this move was something I would need to do for myself – it was just a question of when.”
During your first weeks in Beirut, you felt disoriented, homesick, and out of sorts. As someone who spends a lot of time on the road for work, do you have any travel rituals that help you feel grounded in a new place?
“I tend to ground myself in new places through a combination of engaging the new environment as actively as possible and retreating into familiar routines. When I was facing months and maybe even a year alone in my Beirut apartment, one thing that never failed to help me feel sane was to take a long walk. It’s a way to explore my surroundings and be inside my own thoughts. I’m not eager to jump in cabs or even public transportation when I travel. I want to see as much as I can step by step – to actually watch the sidewalk roll out in front of me. As a bonus, my neighborhood was abundantly supplied with stands selling man’ouche – Beirut’s quintessential breakfast flatbread slathered with za’atar and olive oil – maybe my favorite food in the entire world. When my walk seemed to need a destination, I would go and try a man’ouche from a new vendor and make mental notes about what I liked about it and how it compared to other man’ouches I had sampled. I taste-tested falafel all over the city. These self-imposed mini-assignments gave some welcome structure to my early wanderings.”
Jasmine and Fire is a mouthwatering read. In addition to reconnecting with the flavors of your childhood, did you make any new discoveries about Lebanese cuisine?
“One gorgeous summer day, I was at a cherry festival in a town outside Beirut when I noticed a woman stirring a pot that smelled amazing. When I asked her what was inside, she pronounced a word I had never heard before – zingol. The fragrant lemony broth with little marble-sized balls of chickpeas and bulgur was so warming and rich and delicious that when I finished my bowl, I went back to tell her how much I had enjoyed it. She insisted I have another one on the house. Another dish I experienced for the first time was a strangely addictive dessert called moufattaka. Associated with an obscure Lebanese holiday commemorating the day the prophet Job healed himself by jumping into the sea, the dessert is said to require “the patience of Job” to make. It’s like a thick rice pudding formed into the shape of a cake. Though it’s made with three of my favorite ingredients – turmeric, tahini, and pine nuts – it was a novelty to find them in a dessert. While turmeric gives it its lovely mustardy color, tahini thickens its texture, and the pine nuts are a nice crunchy element on top. The combination was delicious in a way that I would never have expected.”
Now that you’re back in the U.S., what Lebanese foods do you miss the most?
“Going to a farmer’s market in Lebanon is unbelievable. Certain fruits grow there that I’ve never had anywhere else – mulberries, for example. I’ve never had fresh mulberries outside the Middle East. They are dark purple and juicy and have a certain floral quality. Another one of my seasonal favorites is called janarek. Though related to the plum, they never lose their green color, even when ripe. Many people prefer them at the beginning of the season when they’re very sour and crunchy – it’s even common to sprinkle them with salt to heighten the tanginess. Another fruit I miss dearly is akadinia. In Lebanon, they’re soft and syrupy and ubiquitous for a few weeks in the spring – everyone is eating them. Their flavor is unlike anything else I know how to describe, like orange candy. When my family moved to Houston, our neighborhood had trees with loquats, which closely resemble akadinia in appearance. My brother and I climbed the trees to pick them, triumphant that we could introduce our neighborhood friends to an unfamiliar delicacy. As it turned out, the much-too-sour Texan version was totally inedible!”
Gastronomically speaking, how close can New Yorkers get to Beirut without leaving the five boroughs?
“The best place in New York to get Lebanese food, and Middle Eastern food in general, is Bay Ridge. There’s a tiny place I love called Karam (karam-brooklyn.com) that’s always packed. The food is incredibly fresh and vibrant – it tastes like my grandmother’s cooking. If I close my eyes, I could be in Beirut. There’s a pastry shop called Cedars (7204 5th Avenue; 718 238 8111) that sells the stretchy Lebanese ice cream I write about in the book. Stretchy ice cream is a foreign concept here, but for anyone who grew up in Lebanon, it’s simply the way ice cream is supposed to be. Its elasticity comes from a derivative of the orchid tree root. Ilili (www.ililinyc.com) and Naya (www.nayarestaurants.com) are both very good, but some of their dishes feel like New York riffing on traditional Lebanese cooking, and their sleek dining rooms certainly feel more New York than Beirut. I wish there was an excellent Lebanese restaurant whose ambience was a little cozier and more intimate. In Beirut, even at the higher-end places, there is this warm, bustling, rolling-all-night-long feeling. One place that might be a little closer to this is Balade (www.baladerestaurants.com) in the East Village; I’ve been for parties but haven’t had the chance to have a proper dinner there yet.”
How has your year abroad influenced the way you experience New York?
“After living in Beirut, my blood pressure is a lot lower on New York subway platforms. MTA delays and construction pale in comparison to the constant blackouts and Internet outages that are a routine part of life in Beirut. On one hand Beirut is hyper-cosmopolitan – a city on the cutting edge of fashion and design with a technology obsession. So you would expect the city to operate like an efficient 21st-century metropolis, but it doesn’t. All of this sophistication coexists with a government that is perpetually gridlocked, incredibly inept, and slow to undertake civic improvements. New York is a much less exasperating place to live, and I’m a lot more patient now. My time in Beirut has also helped me to focus on taking certain things slower. In Beirut, as in New York, everyone is very busy, running from one thing to the next, but Beirut natives still take the time to have long coffees with friends. They make time to linger over weekend lunches with family, and no one is checking their watch. It’s a priority that’s woven into Lebanese culture – and a priority that’s often very difficult to reconcile with New York life.”
Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut will be released on June 5th. Visit Salma’s blog.
Read an Indagare insider’s tips on where to shop in Beirut and her recommendations on where to stay, eat and sightsee.
Read Indagare’s write-up on Lebanon: Why Now.