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Jasmine and Fire

What do you do when war-torn Beirut – thousands of miles from where you work and live – is the city that feels most like home?

By Lee Cart / June 7, 2012

Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut By Salma Abdelnour Broadway Books 304 pp.

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Home. The sense of belonging to a certain locality, surrounded by familiar people and places, regardless of whether one still lives in that location or not. This is the feeling food writer Salma Abdelnour had whenever she thought of her family’s apartment in Beirut. Although just a child when her parents fled the Lebanese civil war for the safety of Houston, Tex., Beirut lingered in Abdelnour’s mind as a place of contentment.

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She remembered with fondness being surrounded by family and friends and days filled with simple pleasures like “a day at the beach during a cease-fire.” In Houston, she didn’t quite fit in and never felt fully accepted or integrated into the culture. She writes “I had a hunch that at ‘home,’ I wouldn’t always need to explain myself, my name, my culture, my past…” 

These feelings continued into adulthood, remaining with Abdelnour in her new home of New York City. Despite living for over 30 years in the United States, Beirut still lingered in the author’s mind as the place where she really belonged.

In order to test this nagging suspicion that Beirut might be the place that she was really meant to live, Abdelnour turned her back on New York – which meant giving up a very full social life, her career, and a renewed romance with a man named Richard – to return to Beirut to live for a year. Jasmine and Fire is her book about that year.

Abdelnour returned to her parent’s apartment and forced herself to submerge into the war-torn atmosphere of modern Beirut. Family members who had remained in the city during the war were immediately on hand for her, providing her with a refrigerator full of her favorite childhood foods on her very first night back.  She instantly felt “embraced in a way [she’d] forgotten about” and thought “how strange to be surrounded by people who love you for no other reason than that you’re Salma.”

Dinner parties, phone calls and various social outings pulled the author from a beginning case of the blues and she slowly settled into a rhythm of writing coupled with an exploration of the city’s streets.

Being a food writer, many of Abdelnour’s reflections revolve around the food she re-experienced on her return to Beirut, dishes she remembered with fondness from her childhood. Specialities like man’ouche, “the seminal Beirut breakfast: doughy flatbread smeared with olive oil and zaatar – a spice mix of sumac, thyme, and sesame seeds – and served hot, straight from the oven.” Slathered with labneh, a creamy yogurt-cheese, to Abdelnour, it is the ultimate comfort food, a meal Abdelnour feels she could eat “every single day, forever.”

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