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Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut Paperback – Deckle Edge, June 5, 2012
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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.
“Salma Abdelnour writes with grace, intelligence and wit about what it means, in this day and age, to call a place home. Jasmine and Fire gives readers the lucky chance to follow this foodie writer on a raconteur’s moveable feast from Houston to New York to Beirut and back again. This is the perfect summer book for vacations virtual and real. Just be sure to pack a snack, you don’t want to read this book hungry.” -- Veronica Chambers, author of The Joy of Doing Things Badly and Mama’s Girl
“This is a sweet, heartfelt book by a writer who finds herself both insider and outsider at the same time. Salma Abdelnour beautifully evokes the mood of the city she left as a child and the memories brought back by its wonderful food. A delicious read!” --Moira Hodgson, author of It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time
“Salma Abdelnour captures the flavors of Beirut - the familiar mixed with the exotic - in her year-long search to rediscover her culture, with recipes that will let you experience the sublime flavors of Lebanese cooking...no matter where you are.” --David Lebovitz, author of The Sweet Life in Paris
“A year in Beirut allows Salma Abdelnour to ponder everything from family and love to loneliness, home, and the strategy necessary to consume several extraordinary meals in one day. Frank, contemplative, and confiding, Jasmine and Fire makes for a delicious and absorbing investigation of a fascinating place.” --Michelle Wildgen, author of You're Not You and But Not For Long
“Jasmine and Fire takes readers on an unforgettable journey to home, family, and identity. Along the way we’re also treated to glorious meals, political analysis, and some stirring reflections on the nature of becoming a global citizen. Salma Abdelnour is a wonderful host to a region that so many readers long to understand and connect with on a newer, more profoundly meaningful level.”-- Diana Abu-Jaber, author of Birds of Paradise and The Language of Baklava
“Abdelnour brings her skills as a travel and food writer to this delightful look at Beirut life from the perspective of a native daughter returned after a long stay in America.” – Booklist
“A piquant mix of memoir travelogue and culinary adventure…A multilayered portrait of a complex, chaotic, and contradictory city.” – Publisher’s Weekly
“[A] page-turning account of Abdelnour’s 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. The book should come with a warning: "Do not read while hungry — especially if you like hummus." – Food Republic
“In Jasmine and Fire, Salma traces the challenges and triumphs she experienced in the process of rediscovering a place (and a past) she had always longed to access. Whether reveling in the pleasure of a perfect cup of strong Arabic coffee or contemplating the meaning of “home”, she chronicles and interprets her year’s events with disarming sincerity and generosity of spirit.” - Indagare
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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.
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.