I absolutely love reading stories about living in foreign countries, and I've never known a lot about Beirut or Lebanon, so I was really looking forward to receiving this book. I found it to be a pleasant, very interesting read about a place that has not gotten a lot of positive attention during my lifetime.
The author and her family fled Beirut for Houston, TX when she was a young girl. In her late 30s, after visiting Beirut several times, the author decided to move back for a year while deciding whether or not to live there permanently. What follows is her description of that year - her experiences trying to break into the social culture, the things that had changed since she had been gone, her efforts in exploring the areas of Beirut that she had not visited as a child, discussions of the politics, culture, history, and food of the country, and finally, her feelings about leaving behind a serious love interest in New York City so she could pursue this dream.
The author's writing is beautiful - at many places in the book, I really felt I could see the scene she was describing or taste the food she was sampling. I really liked learning so much more about Beirut and Lebanon in general; the book really gave me a sense of what it is like to live over there. It also inspired me to buy a book of photographs of the country and to put it on my list of places to go someday. The author has a great gift of weaving in the cultural and historical information in her day-to-day life, which is not always an easy feat with these types of books. However, I did find the book to be a little slow-moving and I didn't read it as quickly as I usually do. It may be because it feels slightly more like a journal than a narrative.
Recommended for anyone who likes travel memoirs, living abroad, or has an interest in the Middle East.
Although I've known many Lebanese ex pats and had heard Beirut described as once being the "Paris of the Mideast", my own impression of the city was as a substantially bombed out and abandoned place. Salma Abdelnour set me straight: Beirut is a hustling, captivating, maddening, beautiful city where there still is a bombed out Holiday Inn and undercurrents of religious violence, where deep male chauvinism coexists with thoroughly modern women and strong family life.
Salma's parents lived in the Hamra neighborhood of Beruit in a building full of friends and relatives near the Corniche promenade where women in string bikinis and women in full hijab share the beaches. Hamra is a multi-ethnic, tolerant neighborhood, sounding like a Mediterranean Park Slope with more apartments and better beach access. When Salma was 9, her parents tired of air raids and impending violence moved to Texas, intending to return in a year or so when violence had quieted down, but remaining in the US. Salma however always felt torn from Lebanon and a bit of an outsider. In her 30s, ensconced in New York with a career as a freelance food writer and with a rekindled romance, Salma decided to return to Beruit for a year to see whether she still belonged and would want to remain. Her parents had never sold the apartment so she had somewhere to live, her freelance work could be done anywhere there was an (even slow)internet connection and she spoke fluent Arabic. She sublet her apartment in New York and went to see whether she could go home again.
As a single woman in her 30s in a culture that promotes early marriage, she found it somewhat difficult to adjust to family social prejudices, yet had many young friends and relatives to go out clubbing with. She found an internet cafe with good coffee and a funky atmosphere where she could work. After a few months in the international atmosphere of Beirut, a visit to Egypt at the dawn of the Arab Spring, she consciously expands her visits to rural areas in the north and Palestinian camps to the south. This is indeed a beautiful land but with huge contrasts, and areas that can only be visited by Lebanese citizens due to military concerns.
Abelnour is a food writer, and she sensuously and evocatively portrays the food in her environment from Eid Iftar feasts with her aunt to Easter feasts with a full roast goat. (Her family is mostly Marionite Christian but there are Muslim friends and relatives.) Even Thanksgiving is adopted with roast turkey but also a dessert called "m'hallaya, a milky and slightly sour cheese based custard sprinkled with orange blossom nectar and crushed pistachios" and a phyllo cake made with chunky Damascus apricots.
After having had my tastebuds tantalized for enough time that I ran down to our local Lebanese deli looking in vain for man'ouche or eggplant fatteh, but settling on more common mideastern fare. But my fate was not to be bereft of the aromatic cuisine she so sensually describes. At the end of the book Abelnour includes recipes for Zingol (Chickpea & Bulgar Soup; Hrisseh (Cinnamony Lamb Soup); Fattoush (Tomato, Mint & Pita Salad); Baba Ganoush (Eggplant Dip); Hummus (Chickpea puree); Eggplant with Garlic Yoghurt; Tiss'ye (Spiced Chickpeas with Garlic Yoghurt & Pita); Harrak Osb'oo (Lentils with Tamarind and Pita); Kibbee 'Arass (Lamb Meatballs stuffed with Pine Nuts and Onions); Shish Taouk (Skewered Chicken Kebabs); Toum (Garlic Sauce); Atayef (Sweet Dessert Pancakes); Mouffataka (Sticky Rice and Pine Nut Cake). As someone who has enjoyed making middleastern food for over 40 years, but somehow missed several of these (and don't see them here in Brooklyn, home of all manner of exotic food), I ended up with some heaven to take with me after a fascinating book.
I chose this book from the long list of Vine products because I was intrigued by its title, "Jasmine and Fire," which seems to encapsulate Beirut, a city of sharp contrasts. I found Salma Abdelnour's account of her return to the city of her birth to be a page turner, which easily lives up to the promise of its title's striking imagery.
"Jasmine and Fire" is guaranteed to whet your appetite, both for travelling to Beirut and for sampling its food, on which the author lingers in delicious detail. Her prose is so vivid that even if you have never visited Lebanon (which I have not), you can see the city through her eyes and share her experiences as, month-by-month, she explores the city's colorful neighborhoods, dodges its chaotic traffic, and, most importantly, dines with family and friends, whether at intimate suppers or at elaborate feasts.
Best of all, she finishes the fascinating account of her "Bittersweet Year" with authentic recipes: Zingol (Chickpea & Bulgar Soup; Hrisseh (Cinnamony Lamb Soup); Fattoush (Tomato, Mint & Pita Salad--a favourite of mine that used to be served by the Lebanese Sisters when I was living in Rome); Baba Ganoush (Eggplant Dip); Hummus (Chickpea puree); Eggplant with Yoghurt; Tiss'ye (Spiced Chickpeas with Yoghurt & Pita); Harrak Osb'oo (Lentils with Tamarind and Pita); Kibbee 'Arass (Lamb Meatballs stuffed with Pine Nuts and Onions); Shish Taouk (Skewered Chicken Kebabs); Toum (Garlic Sauce); Atayef (Sweet Dessert Pancakes); Mouffataka (Sticky Rice and Pine Nut Cake).
Salma Abdelnour will not only keep you reading until the end, but she will also set your taste buds dancing.
I've never really thought about Beirut, or even Lebanon much before. Sure I can point to them on a map and I know a little bit, but it's one of the areas of the world that never really captured my attention. I now think that should change, and thanks to this book, I know a little more.
Salma was born in the United States, but with her parents, moved to Lebanon at a very early age. Then, when civil unrest made it dangerous to stay, her parents moved she and her brother back to the United States, to Texas. But she's always felt the longing for Beirut and decides to move back there for a year. Luckily her career as a journalist and writer allows her to do so, even though she'll have to leave behind a relationship to uncertainty and find her way around a city that hasn't been her home in awhile. But as she stays she meets with friends and family, learns about the political unrest and problems the city still has, and samples amazing food.
There is a lot of people to keep track of in this book. Salma is easy enough, since she's the writer, but I never feel as if I'm really getting to know her outside of her relationship woes. Her other feelings just seem to take a back burner. There's a little there, but not as much as I thought there would be. The rest of the people are her friends and relatives and there was just so many that I couldn't keep track of who was who or really gain interest in any of them.
What did capture my interest in this book was the descriptions of the food. I could feel my stomach rumbling as I read and the only thing in my city is a Greek restaurant, which was not nearly the same but the closest I could get. (Yes I did take a break from reading and went to get some food). Everything just sounded so delicious and Salma did a great job describing the different Lebanese dishes. She even included some recipes at the end. I also like the way she touched on the social and religious problems in Beirut. It was enough to make you realize that there are still problems with it, but it wasn't a predominant thing in the book. Which made the book more of an enjoyable read rather than a political one.
An enjoyable read. It made me want to visit Beirut and explore (and eat the food), but I also learned a lot more than I would have expected to about Lebanon.
Jasmine and Fire
Review by M. Reynard 2012
Home is where your heart is, so the old saying goes. But what if, by virtue of fate and war, your heart is divided between a pair of cities in countries separated by oceans, continents and cultures? This is the question author Salma Abdelnour ponders with absorbing style and wistful grace in her new book, "Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut."
Born in the States to Lebanese parents, then raised while young in Beirut before civil war forced her family to return to America, Abdelnour always felt slightly out of place as a child in Houston, a student in Berkeley, and an adult in New York. Nonetheless, she forged an admirable career as a writer and editor in New York, including stints as travel editor of "Food & Wine" magazine, food editor of "O, The Oprah Magazine," and restaurant editor of "Time Out New York." Her writing has been featured in publications such as the "New York Times," "Food & Wine," "Travel + Leisure," and "ForbesLife," and she has appeared on travel and food segments for CNN, CNBC, and the Fine Living Network. And yet all the while, a piece of her heart always tugged at her from Lebanon, making her wonder what she would feel if she were to leave New York and return to Beirut decades after her family fled the war. Not to return for a week or two as she had visiting family on vacations past, but to return to one of the world's most unpredictable cities and live there for an entire year. Would Beirut feel like the home, wherever and whatever that may be, from which she felt somewhat unmoored since she was a girl? Or would the incessantly chaotic but undeniably fascinating city prove to be only a capricious Lothario unworthy of permanently harboring her heart? With the considerable courage required for an unmarried woman in her late thirties to live alone in a turbulent society long dominated by unrepentant male chauvinism, Abdelnour packed her bags and committed to a year of living, if not dangerously, at least cautiously, in Beirut between the summers of 2010 and 2011.
With eloquence, passion and a keen eye for detail, Abdelnour explores the joys and turmoils of looking for home. In addition to the book's engrossing and well-written story in that regard, "Jasmine and Fire" will certainly satisfy fans of expert travel writing. It will also please food aficionados -- at the book's end, the author includes a section containing a dozen classic recipes for tantalizing Middle Eastern dishes, making it fair to say this is a very good book that will appeal to all its readers' senses.
on December 13, 2015
Abdelnour deftly describes her therapeutic year exploring the possibility of permanent residency in the country of her birth and childhood. With love and great respect, she relates both the beauty and frustrations of living in Lebanon, giving the reader a glimpse of Beiruti social habits, nightlife, and the food. Her musings on belonging are thoughtful, and her self-realization in the end describes the sentiment of so many people who have emigrated from that region.
Both new readers to Middle East culture or jaded armchair experts will enjoy this travelogue and will perhaps gain insight into those who have been displaced - whether by choice or force - from homeland.
The concept of this book is very good. Due to all the violence and fighting, Salma was forced to flee Beirut when she was but a child. She came with her family to the US, but always wanted to understand her birthplace and family culture better.
As an adult, Salma chose to live in her family's home for a year. Her story is beautifully told and gives a vivid portrayal of life in Beirut. The descriptions of the cuisine are perhaps the best part of the book.
Jasmine and Fire receives mixed reviews; it is an interesting first hand account of life in Beirut. This is not a rapid fire novel, it is a daily account of one person's experience.
on January 9, 2013
For anyone who's uprooted themselves and moved to another city or another country, this book will resonate because it handles the primary issue we'd all face about where we consider 'Home'. How long does one need to live in a place before we feel at home in it and not an outsider? Does one need to be born in a place? Does one need to have family around before it's considered home?
This is a memoir of the year the author spent in Beirut, the city in which she was born and from which she and her family fled when she was a child. Now a successful journalist and food critic living in New York, she nonetheless doesn't feel she belongs anywhere. Yearning to capture the feeling she had living in Beirut as a child, she makes a decision to sublet her Manhattan apartment, maintain a long distance relationship with her boyfriend and move into her parents' apartment in Ras Beirut.
As she rekindles her relationship with family members and old friends in Beirut, she also rekindles her love affair with Lebanese food. Her food descriptions are lush and so detailed you can almost smell and taste the food she describes. Bakery specialties, old childhood favorites cooked by her aunts or mother's friends, festive food served during holidays and parties are all lovingly describe. We're treated to a avalanche of textures, color, flavors and aroma. Thankfully at the end of the book, she kindly shares some recipes of her favorite Lebanese dishes.
In addition to her own soul searching, she also shares Lebanese political history, the rich and colorful culture built on Christians, Shiite and Suni Muslims and others living shoulder to shoulder in Beirut, the at times indifference of the Lebanese government towards improving the country's infrastructure, the multi-cultural edge on which the Lebanese live, the Palestinian support and Israeli contempt from some quarters, and the strength of the Lebanese not to allow political unrest to stop them from enjoying life. Or perhaps it's the uncertainty of another war that motivates them to defiantly and boisterously celebrate life and each other.
The one thing that stood out though, was her rather frequent trips back to the US during her supposed year in Beirut. I wondered how her feelings for the city may have been different if she had to actually spend an entire year there without any opportunity to leave.
on January 9, 2013
I appreciated Salma's detailed journey through the streets of Beirut, but it takes more than her love of Lebanese food, Beirut restaurants, and recipes to keep my interest. I had to fast forward through some of it.
"Jasmine And Fire" was not what I thought it would be.
Salma Abdelnour was born in America, but her parents moved back to Beirut, Lebanon, when she was almost two, and remained until unrest began in earnest when Salma was in fourth grade, when they returned to America and settled in Houston. There are still quite clearly many family and extended family in the Beirut area, however, and the family maintains an apartment building in Beirut. Must be nice, even in a country rocked by dissidents and wayward government, to have an entire apartment - and, apparently, dual citizenship - to retreat to when one is trying to figure out what to do with one's life. Salma is a successful writer in America and was living in New York, but yearned to return to Beirut and the way of life she remembered as a child. After a good deal of soul-searching, she decides to spend a year in the family apartment in Beirut - supporting herself with established writing assignments - to decide where she wants to settle.
Somehow I thought this was going to be an almost-exclusively food-oriented book and to be fair, there is an awful lot of eating that goes on in it. But there's an equal amount of here-or-there, angst over her various choices, and evidence that she can't make up her mind about where exactly she would be happiest. There's a boyfriend in the mix who is back in New York City; he very nicely puts up with a year's separation from Salma, with a few visits between them. In Beirut, Salma is feted and fussed over by a seemingly-unending horde of relatives and friends (oh, to travel to an exotic land and have that many people trying to make my transition smooth), and most of these encounters center around food, which is nice. The whole book is full of her questions about whether she should do this or that, and the possible consequences of each potential decision, helped along by the well-intentioned input of all those friends and family. By the time the year is up, you just want her to have decided with finality about what she is going to do.
But truthfully, I guess life isn't like that. There aren't any hard and fast answers, and it's just nice for her to have the opportunity to take a year to try to suss it all out. In many ways, I envy her. And she did include some great recipes at the end of the book, along with great descriptions of the food she ate along the way. I thought that, being a food writer, she would have included recipes throughout the book, but that's just a quibble. I do hope she has made the decision she so obviously worried over for 300 pages, though. And hey, any time she wants to let me use her apartment...