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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?

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Descriptions of other dishes such as rizz w’djeje – strips of roasted chicken over rice with golden raisins and pine nuts – or kibbe bi’sayniy – a savory ground lamb and burghul pie served hot with mint-spiked yogurt – will have readers longing for a taste.

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In order to fully absorb the culture, Abdelnour pounded the streets of the city, at first in search of a decent cup of coffee, and later to “help bind and clarify [her] feelings for the city. She deliberately got lost, to force herself into finding new routes back to her apartment as she wanted to “learn and relearn Beirut up through my soles and ankles and knees.” 

Some of what she discovered flustered her, like the intense stares, hoots, and whistles of the men as she walked past, unaccompanied by any male partner. Although “Lebanese women can drive, work, and dress however they want, [they] are still struggling for equal rights and a voice in government.”

As she grew more comfortable within the city limits, Abdelnour ventured into the countryside, up into the mountains and down to Marjeyoun, near the border with Israel. She also took a trip, part vacation and part on assignment, to Egypt, and wound up on the streets when the first demonstrations of the Arab Spring began.

The longer Abdelnour remained in Beirut, the more at peace she felt. Which in turn brought its own questions. Would she be able to return to New York after her year in Beirut was over and reconnect with her friends and life there? Would her relationship with Richard survive the year apart? Would he consider moving to Beirut if she decided to remain in the city? Suddenly, Abdelnour was faced with the growing certainty that she could call more than one place "home" as “it’s where you feel most yourself … and to be really at home means having a relationship with that place.”

For food lovers and travel adventurers, Abdelnour’s journeys in Beirut will bring the city’s streets and social life to light, with insights into its political and religious worlds as well. Several  Lebanese recipes are included (although a street map would have been another useful addition to aid the reader as Abdelnour meandered through the city.)

 "Jasmine and Fire" is a pleasing account of life in Beirut, the "Paris of the Mediterranean." Its rich food details will stimulate appetites and the author's quest to find her true home will resonate poignantly for anyone who's ever conducted a similar search.

Lee Cart is a book critic and translator living in Maine.

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