“Ever since I can remember, I’ve planned food-related end-points and landmarks for my journeys near and far,” writes Salma Abdelnour in her new memoir, Jasmine and Fire — A Bittersweet Year In Beirut, as she’s about to detail a hunt for falafel. Seeking out amazing food is a motif in this page-turning account of her return to her home city, which her family left in the 1980s to escape war-ravaged Lebanon for the U.S. But the grape leaves and eggplant fateh have to share room on the table with a quest for self-discovery, reconnecting with family and friends, and navigating the rippling effects of the Arab Spring.
It’s an unlikely recipe for a great book, but Abdelnour’s diary-like tale is gripping, in large part because she’s so honest. When we meet in NYC’s West Village for lunch on a recent sunny day, she tells me it was an unintentional path to her first book. “The memoir route wasn’t a specific decision,” she says. “It was just certain things in my life converging at the same time.”
A veteran food writer who was facing her late 30s with a non-commital boyfriend and career trajectory that had led her from Time Out New York to Food & Wine to O, The Oprah Magazine, Abdelnour decided to press pause and return to the city of her childhood, Beirut. There, she hoped to figure out if her uprooting at a young age had led her to romanticize the place, or if indeed she had a serious connection that she’d been missing since her parents re-settled the family in Houston.
“I had this idea that there’s this unresolved sense of home,” she says. “It was this burning question: Is the reason why a part of me feels unsettled because I crave being back there? Once I move back there, will I feel settled in some profound way? Or is it more of an existential human quandary? That was the thing I needed to sort out for myself so I didn’t have to keep thinking of this question for the rest of my life.”
The book should come with a warning: “Do not read while hungry — especially if you like hummus.”
It’s a common dilemma for many, many people, whether they’ve been displaced because of war, work, personal decisions or even exile, and it’s driven a lot of great narratives in literature. Abdelnour’s tale starts from the beginning: it’s August (2010), and she’s packing her suitcase in Brooklyn, about to take the plunge and return to her family’s apartment in Beirut, with no game plan other than to spend at least a year in her native city and to keep an open mind. From there, she gives a month by month account of a year that includes expected ups and downs, some memorable side trips (including a travel writing assignment to Cairo, which coincides with the start of the revolution), lots of tantalizing food, some aimless flirtations and engrossing anecdotes about reconnecting with a complex place. Beirut is after all in the cauldron of the Middle East and a neighbor with Israel, and while it’s generally peaceful these days, there’s always the threat of violence.
Looking relaxed and sounding almost lucid, Abdelnour says, “A lot of the things I was craving about going back to Lebanon, they did transpire. I think being surrounded by so much family and to speak Arabic — which initially meant working on my Arabic again — having a lot of these familiar touchstones from my past… it’s been deeply reassuring and calming. And at the same time Lebanon continues to be a pretty difficult place to live.”
In fact, another motif of Jasmine and Fire is Beirut’s shaky infrastructure; she endures apartment leaks and faulty elevators and inconvenient check points. But she also has revelatory meals in the apartments of family and friends, and in Beirut’s endless maze of restaurants and cafés; she even includes a dozen authentic Lebanese recipes for things like spiced chick peas and lamb meatballs as a bonus. The book should come with a warning: “Do not read while hungry — especially if you like hummus.”
“Lebanon is a very food-obsessed culture, and I am also food obsessed; it’s what I’ve written about most of my career,” she notes. “Those two things came together in a way. I think the book could have been the quest for home, but because I’m living in Beirut, which has this food culture, and so much of my magazine writing revolved around food, it was a natural growth.”
The book’s one awkward moment comes when Abdelnour checks into a hotel room in Cairo for a quick travel assignment, and soon finds herself surrounded by a popular uprising that was the start of the Arab Spring. While she’s at home writing about food, revolution is another story. I felt compelled to ask her about her reaction. “I realized that I was not cut out to be a war reporter, in the sense that I’d seen all these riots break out and I was on the edge of a couple of them,” she says. “I was in a cloud of tear gas because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Other than that, I watched most of the coverage in my hotel room. I had other instincts. If I wasn’t so gun-shy, and possibly because I grew up in Beirut in the civil war, I’d be out there with a notebook trying to report. But in fact I wanted to be safe.”
While Abdelnour doesn’t milk the tension of the political situation around her, her relationship with her boyfriend Richard back in Brooklyn is another story. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but her attempts at self-discovery in Jasmine and Fire seem intertwined with whether or not she’ll re-connect with him if and when she returns to Brooklyn. And at times, the portrait of him isn’t flattering. “He needs to win some kind of award,” she says, laughing. “It’s not easy being written about by the person you’re involved with. I’m not sure if our situation was reversed if I’d be as forgiving as him.”
Back in New York City and with Beirut fairly well behind her, Abdelnour is getting back into a routine, picking up editing work at a magazine and enjoying the relative convenience of living in Brooklyn rather than in Lebanon. So does it all feel like some crazy dream?
“In a way it feels so recent and at the same time it feels like a blur,” she says. “There’s a dreamlike aspect to it because that entire time went by [so fast]. I look back and think, ‘Did that really happen the last year?'”
Jasmine and Fire ($14, Broadway Paperbacks) is available on Amazon.com and at bookstores everywhere.
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