jasmine and fire by salma abdelnour - author q&a

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As Beirut exploded with the bombs and violence of a ruthless civil war in the ’80s, a nine-year-old Salma Abdelnour and her family fled Lebanon to start a new life in the States. Ever since then— even as she built a thriving career as a food and travel writer in New York City—Salma has had a hunch that Beirut was still her home. She kept dreaming of moving back—and finally decided to do it.But could she resume her life in Beirut, so many years after her family moved away? Could she, or anyone for that matter, ever really go home again? Jasmine and Fire is Salma’s poignant and humorous journey of try-ing to resettle in Beirut and fumbling through the new realities of life in one of the world’s most complex, legendary, ever-vibrant, ever- troubled cities. What’s more, in a year of roiling changes around the Middle East and the rise of the Arab Spring, Salma found herself in the midst of the turmoil, experiencing it all up close. As she comes to grips with all the changes in her life—a love left behind in New York and new relationships blossoming in Beirut—Salma takes comfort in some of Lebanon’s enduring traditions, particularly its extraordinary food culture. Through the sights, sounds, and flavors of a city full of beauty, tragedy, despair, and hope, Salma slowly begins to reconnect with the place she’s longed for her entire life.To read more about Jasmine and Fire or Salma Abdelnour please visit Crown Publishing at www.crownpublishing.com.


Page 1: Jasmine and Fire by Salma Abdelnour - Author Q&A
Page 3: Jasmine and Fire by Salma Abdelnour - Author Q&A

A Conversation With Salma Abdelnour, author of

Jasmine and Fire

A Memoir

Broadway, June 5, 2012

Photo Credit: Karen Wise

Q) Why did you want to move back to Beirut, in your 30s, after spending your adult life in the U.S.?

A) 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.

Q) What was the most difficult part of returning to Lebanon?

A) For one thing, I had to say a very tough goodbye to my New York life, even if I knew I'd be coming back for

visits now and then. But I had a sense that this could be it; Beirut could draw me right back in, and my life

would never be the same again. New York would turn into a place I just visit occasionally, which was a strange

thought but I had to prepare myself for it.

On the other hand, I also had this fear that all my fantasies of feeling at home again in Beirut would turn into a

giant sham: I'd arrive in Beirut and realize the city had moved on without me, and everyone I used to know

there, from childhood friends to relatives to old neighborhood characters, would see me as an outsider now,

just naively swooping in from New York without any clue what I was doing. I'd be seen as a dilettante--

someone who got to escape during the brutal civil war in Lebanon, then just sauntered back in while everyone

actually living there was still fantasizing about getting out. Life in Lebanon is tough, and the Lebanese who

actually live there don't always necessarily understand why someone who successfully got out would want to

return to live there. But Lebanese life is also richly layered, dynamic, diverse and never dull, and for me, it was

full of pieces of myself that I'd left behind. I needed to go back and reconnect with my old life there, and

confront all my new fantasies and fears about it.

Page 4: Jasmine and Fire by Salma Abdelnour - Author Q&A

Q) Did you feel at home in Beirut, once you'd settled into your family's old apartment there? What was it

like to leave your New York life behind?

A) I didn't feel at home in Beirut-- at least not for some time. Moving back into the Beirut apartment I'd grown

up in felt sad and weird and lonely, in a way I hadn't quite anticipated. Initially, I had the sense that I was trying

to resuscitate a plant that had died a long time ago. No matter where I might have decided to move--whether

Lebanon or France, say, or Japan--it would've been a sad and lonely experience to leave behind everyone I

knew in New York to move to another city alone, and unpack my bags in an empty apartment. But moving back

to Beirut felt all the more poignant because this had once been my city, my home, and now it wasn't anymore.

I missed New York fiercely, for weeks on end, and for a while I'd felt I'd made a terrible decision to drop

everything there and come back to Lebanon now.

Q) What role does food play in your personal and professional life, and how did food impact your search for

home in Lebanon?

A) 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.

Q) What's it like to eat Lebanese food in the U.S.--at home or in restaurants--compared to the experience of

eating it in Lebanon?

A) In more and more food shops around the U.S., it's getting easier to find certain ingredients you need to

make key Lebanese recipes at home, for instance pomegranate molasses, sumac, and orange-blossom nectar.

Then again, I recently had to travel seven subway stops to find a jar of tahini in New York, to make baba

ghanoush. But international or Middle Eastern food stores like Phoenicia in Houston, and Sahadi's and

Kalustyan's in New York, have just about everything you need now, and more mainstream food shops in the

U.S. are starting to stock up too. So for people who have grown addicted to or fascinated by certain Lebanese

Page 5: Jasmine and Fire by Salma Abdelnour - Author Q&A

recipes, duplicating them at home is getting easier than it used to be.

As far as restaurants in the U.S., there are some great Lebanese and Middle Eastern spots in just about every

state now—but still not nearly enough, in my opinion! One thing that's exciting to see is that some of those

menus list dishes typically eaten in Lebanese homes, not so much in restaurants, like kibbeh bi labniyeh,

deliciously rich lamb and bulgur meatballs floating in a garlic and mint-spiked yogurt sauce. But sadly

customers rarely order homestyle dishes like these in restaurants, so they're often not available if you decide

you want to try them. More American customers tend to order the popular mezze dishes, like tabbouleh, baba

ghanoush, hummus, and such. I love those dishes, and they're very common in Lebanon, but they represent

such a small fraction of Lebanese and Middle Eastern cuisine, and it's a shame more of the repertoire is not

well-known around the world.

In Lebanon, the restaurant experience is significantly different than in the U.S.: It's more Mediterranean-style,

long and drawn-out and wonderfully varied. Lunches and dinners at restaurants can be lengthy rituals where

plates and plates of food keep descending onto the table. You tell the waiter, "Nazzilna mezze," which means

literally "bring down the mezze," and soon after that, your table is covered in plates of labneh, hummus,

muhammara, olives, baba ghanoush, fattoush, tabbouleh, kibbeh meatballs, and more. And THEN, you order

entrees. Those are typically huge platters of grilled meats or seafood. Then comes coffee, fruit, maybe a small

pastry. But dessert is not usually eaten after meals in Lebanon. It's reserved for parties and special occasions,

or for afternoon visits over coffee. Good thing too, because eating those extra-sweet, creamy Arabic pastries

after a Lebanese-style meal could mean you'd collapse into an instant food coma and have to be fork-lifted

from your seat.

Q) What was the most unexpected part of your journey in Lebanon? The most rewarding?

A) The most unexpected part of my time in Lebanon was how little the country has changed since I moved

away many years ago--and also how much it's changed in some ways. Lots of details are still exactly the same

as I'd remembered them: the same grocer and his wife running a shop on the corner of my street, the

stationery shop down the block run by the same owner who has been there more than 40 years, the old

hookah cafe overlooking the sea. Those some-things-never-change moments are comforting, and in some

ways shocking after all the country has been through. Some villages around Lebanon are still, thankfully, rural

and quiet--not prone to the same kind of glamour-obsession or rampant overbuilding that can plague Beirut.

But Beirut has also changed dramatically, in many ways: Certain parts of town have been completely rebuilt

after the war. The downtown is mostly brand new, and there's a new waterfront marina there now (just

completed this winter, after I left) and a huge park in progress. And because Beirutis are restless about their

nightlife, the hip part of town keeps moving around--so you have to act fast to keep up with where "everyone"

is going right this minute. Or you can decide to ignore all that and just hit the places you love, some of which--

like the bar Pacifico, which I mention in my book--have stuck around long after they were the coolest place in

town. A loyal clientele still keeps going there, year after year, keeping places like that, and entire

neighborhoods, lively every night.

Page 6: Jasmine and Fire by Salma Abdelnour - Author Q&A

Q) 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?

A) 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.

Q) How might readers be surprised by the scenes of daily life in Lebanon now?

A) 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


"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?"

Page 7: Jasmine and Fire by Salma Abdelnour - Author Q&A

Q) What was it like to be living in the Middle East during the events of the Arab Spring?

A) Lebanon was in the very ironic, and needless to say unusual, position of being just about the only peaceful

country in the Middle East, right when all the Arab countries around it were undergoing revolutions and era-

changing transformations. But those of us who were living in Lebanon in 2011, while the rest of the region

went through its upheaval, couldn't help thinking, "Shouldn't there be a revolution here in Lebanon too?"

Lebanon is different though, in that it doesn't have a dictatorship, so there isn't a specific person or regime to

overthrow; it's just that the political system is terribly dysfunctional and based on an outdated sectarian

division of power, and the Lebanese are always complaining about what a miserable joke the political situation

is. Last spring and summer I attended some rallies in Lebanon aimed at bringing down the sectarian system,

but so far that movement hasn't picked up enough momentum to make a difference. At least it's a start...

I did get the chance to go to Egypt, for a magazine travel assignment, just before the revolution there broke

out in January 2011-- and I was there as the protests and the government crackdown started up. It was an

unforgettable experience, scary and exhilarating-- a sense of being on the verge of something unknown, and

volatile, or exciting, or dangerous.

Q) Your great-uncle, the political scientist Cecil Hourani (brother of the well-known Oxford historian Albert

Hourani), appears in your book as well as in another recent book about Lebanon: House of Stone, by the late

journalist Anthony Shadid, who was a friend of Cecil's. Is this "small-world" experience typical of life in


A) I've had more "small-world" experiences in Lebanon than anywhere else I've lived or traveled. While living

in Beirut last year, I discovered so many random-seeming connections between friends, acquaintances,

relatives--from Beirut and New York and all over-- that were so coincidental they were almost shocking. But

those "small-world" instances are somehow typical of life in Lebanon, and they actually expanded my world in

a wonderful way, bringing more and more interesting people into my life.

To read about my great-uncle Cecil in Anthony Shadid's House of Stone was yet another of the strange and

amusing small-world examples. It was lovely to see Shadid pay a form of tribute to Cecil, a key figure in the

southern town of Marjeyoun in Lebanon where both Shadid's and my ancestors come from. Reading about

Uncle Cecil in that book felt as if I were having a virtual conversation with Anthony Shadid about a relative I

admire and adore-- a conversation I sadly never got to have with Shadid in real life, as I never got the chance to

meet him before he died. It's funny that Cecil appears in both books, in a minor role, but I consider that a

wonderful testament to his dynamic character and influential personality, even well into his 90s.

Page 8: Jasmine and Fire by Salma Abdelnour - Author Q&A

Q) 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"?

A) 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.