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.
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.”
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.
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.