Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 24

It was always the food. Grace had noticed that during her early upbringing in Paris. The insistence of making food that reminded you of home. The comfort of smelling well known flavours, the pleasure of doing something that linked you with your homeland, the bitter sweet sensation of your heart tasting home yet unable to be there.

This is why she became a chef. She wanted to recreate this comforting sense, but she also wanted to add a bit of joy to the nostalgia, she wanted to be creative, to give hope.

Exile is the bitterest bile, the pain gnawing at your soul in the most corrosive manner. You leave your life behind, it’s as simple as that, you leave in a hurry, you forget half of your things, mostly because you think you’ll be back in no time, but also because you don’t want to take everything with you. No, that would make things definite.

Some left never to look back, to shield themselves from the pain. Others could not let go, just little enough to make life bearable again, and thus let themselves drown in a pool of guilt and regret. How could I leave? What did I just do? How is my family going to cope? Shouldn’t I be next to them, sharing their fate? Reclaiming one’s right to have a peaceful life never quite made it up for this insane feeling of foreboding and shame emigrants feel.

And so they cooked. The Lebanese would make large vats of hummus and tons of tabbouleh, the Palestinians would fry cauliflowers and aubergines until blue in the face for their makloubah and sprinkle their kitchen red with sumac for their msakhan, and now, now the Syrians. Grace was more and more invited to dinners where kebab bkaraz was lovingly made with special cherries from Aleppo, the last frozen remnants that people who left did not forget to pack, eating the muhammara with a knot in her stomach as she tasted such an acute sadness and longing for home she could barely swallow.

Gabrielle and herself had started a cookbook that was due for the end of the year, when her publisher wanted to release it for the holidays. The book was called Twisted: Creative Lebanese Cuisine where she would artistically present her rose water Muhallabieh sprinkled with almonds and raisins and Gaby would shoot it to make it look like an art piece rather than something that was meant to be eaten. The book was almost done and ready to be sent for printing but somehow Grace seemed dissatisfied with it.

– This is lovely and it will probably sell well and be very popular and keep me from having a day office job for a while.
– But?
After five years, Gabrielle knew where there was a ‘but’ in sight.
– But this doesn’t feel right. Something’s amiss. I feel it’s a bit pretentious, missing the point of what I had wanted to do in the first place. I don’t know if I’m making myself clear, but what I truly would want to do is sit down and cook with other people and talk and apply a balm to their wounds.
– With Olive oil or something?
– Mock all you want, this is what I feel.
– Well then do something about it!

Unlike Gabrielle, whose philosophy ran along the lines of ‘Jesus Fucking Christ, stop whining about it and bloody well do something about it’, Grace’s will was as strong but more reflective. She needed to ponder on things before throwing herself in them.
And so she thought about it. She thought about it when she was talking to her editor, she thought about when when she was cooking, each spices revealing their secrets to her, she thought about it when she was picking pictures with Gabrielle for their book.
And so one day, she found herself knocking on Nina’s door.

Her friend’s pregnancy had started to show and she had never looked so radiant. She told her as much, leaving Nina to look at her doubtfully.

– Radiant? Are you kidding me? Habibti, I throw up what seems to be a gazillion times a day, I feel pain in muscles I didn’t even know I had and most of the times I feel like sitting down with a one kilo pot of Nutella and eat myself through the remaining 7 months except I can’t because everything makes me nauseated. Radiant, my ass.

– I find it uncanny how pregnancy is almost channeling the inner Gabrielle in you. If you start yelling Jesus Fucking Christ every second, I’ll take you to a voodoo priest to lift the spell from you.

– I might let you. To what do I owe the pleasure of seeing you?
– I need you to put me in touch with the different women you work with, especially the Palestinians, and women from different parts of Lebanon. I’ve already spoken to my Syrian friends.
– Oh-Kay. May I ask why?
– I’m putting together a soul kitchen. I am calling it Cooking for Exile. The idea is to form a core group of people cooking together, mixing specialties from Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, and then sell what we do, but with no prices. People can come and buy their food at the price they deem just. All proceedings will go to women refugees and organisations that put in place gender friendly spaces, as I hear it’s been quite a catastrophe so far. This is why I need to speak with the people you work with. I know you pay them decently and they might be interested to participate even though it’s not going to bring then any money.

Grace finished her explanation feeling a little self-conscious and sheepish, bushing slightly while Nina exclaimed: brilliant! It’s fucking Brilliant! And they can bring and sell as well the pouches, collars and and clutches they make.

– So will you help me?
– Of course I will! And Lily can give you coverage on her newspapers, since she’s been subtly changing the focus of her column.

For the first time since she had formed her plan Grace exhaled.
She was determined to make exile sweeter, with what she could do, with what she knew what to do. Love, she found, even though directed to an indistinct mass, was a powerful drive.

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