Q&A with Salma Abdelnour
Why did you want to move back to Beirut, in your 30s, after spending your adult life in the U.S.?
I felt it was my last chance, in a way, to figure out why Beirut was still on my mind, why it kept nagging at me after all these years. My family had moved to the States when I was 9 years old, but part of me had never really left Beirut. I had this recurring sense of being a foreigner in America, an outsider, even this many years later. In my late 30s, I was enjoying my life and journalism career in New York and had rekindled a romance with an ex-boyfriend, but it dawned on me that if I didn't come to terms with Beirut now, and scratch the itch to move back and try to live there again, it might soon become difficult or even impossible to do that—for instance if my on-again off-again relationship in New York was going to lead to marriage, kids, and a deeper commitment to stay in the U.S. long-term. If I hoped to ever move back to Beirut again, it would have to be now or possibly never.
Why does Beirut as a city hold such an ongoing fascination and mystique, both for those who have never visited before and for those who know it well?
Beirut is one of the world's most complex, beautiful, messed-up, endlessly dramatic cities. It combines a stunning setting along the Mediterranean with a thumping nightlife, a diverse and sophisticated population, ancient historical sites dating all the way back to ancient Rome-- and a tendency to always be on the verge of total chaos. Lebanon seems to be in the news all the time, for one reason or another, so Beirut stays top of mind--and for every person who thinks "It's too dangerous there! I can't go!" there must be at least three people who think "What a fascinating place. I must visit!" Beirut as a city has so many layers and nooks and crannies that even locals can never fully wrap their heads around it. In the year I spent there in 2010 and 2011, and in my childhood before that, I never managed to run out of things to see and do in Beirut.
How might readers be surprised by the scenes of daily life in Beirut now?
I've gotten all kinds of questions about what life in Lebanon is like nowadays, and that's made me realize how intriguing and also mysterious the country can seem. These are some questions I've heard recently:
"Are women allowed to drive there, or are they forbidden to, as in Saudi Arabia for instance?"
Yes, women are allowed to drive. Not only that, women are some of the most fearless drivers on Beirut's crazy streets.
"Do women have to cover up, in a veil or hijab?"
No. Lebanese women often wear some of the most stylish, skin-baring outfits in the world. But many do cover up. Lebanon has a very diverse mix of religious sects, mostly Christian and Muslim but with nearly every iteration of those. You'll notice every imaginable combination of outfits on the Beirut sidewalks: from the most fashionable, the skimpiest, the outrageously daring, to the most conservative and covered-up.
"Does Lebanon have all the modern conveniences, or is there more of a rural, old-world lifestyle?"
Lebanon has everything, all at once. The Lebanese are just as obsessed with the latest gadgets and apps as Americans are, and Beirut has ultra-modern architecture and the hippest fashions and nightlife. At the same time, because of political corruption and ongoing infrastructure problems, electricity and the internet are very unreliable in Lebanon, and it often takes forever to send an email or download a video. But Lebanese lifestyles vary around the country. Life in many villages outside Beirut is still rural and traditional--the exact opposite of manic fast-paced Beirut--and that can be incredibly refreshing, and also jarring at times. You wonder, "Is this really the same country?"
What role does food play in your personal and professional life, and how did food impact your search for home in Lebanon?
Whenever I take walks, or travel, in any city in the world, I always have some kind of food adventure in mind. That's been the case for as far back as I can remember, and since long before I became a food and travel writer for a living. Hunting down a specific bakery I've heard about, or a particular dish or street-food vendor, gives me something to do when I'm traveling or just walking around, and gives me a way to connect with a place I'm discovering or rediscovering. It's an excuse to wander off on a quest, to interact with a city and its people, and of course to treat myself to something delicious or fascinating in the process. I've been addicted to food adventures much longer than I've been an enthusiastic cook--I came to cooking later in the game--and through a stroke of luck I've managed to make a living off this lifelong food obsession.
When I moved back to Lebanon, I found myself doing just what I do in New York or anywhere else: Going off on long walks, around a city or a village, often with a food-related endpoint in mind. The walks and the food adventures I went on in Beirut and smaller villages in Lebanon helped me find my way around, geographically and, in a way, emotionally too. Some dishes I came across reminded me of key moments of my childhood--a life I'd had to abandon in a hurry when we escaped during the civil war--and certain foods made me feel soothed, taken care of, welcomed in, especially during rocky times when I wondered whether my move back to Beirut was a horrible idea.
Did moving back to Lebanon make you define your identity differently--for instance, did it make you realize you're ultimately more "Lebanese," or more "American"?
The move back to Lebanon made me think about and confront questions of identity in new ways--but that's not to say I have a definitive answer now, or ever will. Both the Lebanese and the American identities, however you define them, are complex and diverse and hard to pin down, and in many ways I claim both at the same time. But living in Lebanon also brought me into closer contact with the kinds of identity issues that continue to divide and define and threaten the Middle East, if not the entire world. In Lebanon, people are always trying to pry into your family identity, to figure out whether you're Christian or Muslim, and what sect. My family is Christian although I don't specifically identify that way, but in Lebanon you don't so much choose how to define yourself religiously or non-religiously. People tend to define it for you: It's all about your family and background. My boyfriend is Jewish, from Boston, and when we visited each other in Beirut and New York last year, we found ourselves debating, more than ever before, issues of identity and politics and how they affect the Middle East, not to mention America and the world.