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.

Our Destiny is to Fight

Our destiny is death and destruction she said. Just because we’re from this land, they call it Holy, I don’t see the holiness in all this helplessness, our destiny is death and destruction and warplanes above us she said, from the sandy Sinai to the blue immensity of Lattakieh, from the fertile plains of the Bekaa to the ever resistant Palestine, our destiny is death she said.

Our destiny is tears she said, all of us under that blackened sky, from below the exquisite mosaic of the Qom Mosques, to up above the white Mount Sannine, to the green valleys of Kurdistan to the hot sand storms of Iraq, our destiny is tears she said.

And she kept imploring a God she wasn’t so sure she believed in, imploring to know why it was our destiny to die our faces crushed in the cracked mud, imploring to know why our people were becursed, trying to find answers and logic in the dissolution of her world, trying to impart blame, Oh God, let me make divine bargains with you, protect me from evils and I shall put my faith in you.

Our destiny is death and destruction and the tears for our martyrs she said.

And so I picked up a stone left astray in the rubbles by a previous battle, and put it in front of her.

We choose our destiny, and our destiny is to fight I said.

Our destiny. Is. To. Fight.

This post is for all my beloved people from Aleppo, friends and family and husband and stangers I do not know whose hearts are slowly bleeding for their beloved city and country. We shall overcome. We will be back to rebuild Aleppo. 

Road Trip

Travelled yesterday morning from Beirut to Aleppo in Syria. Willed with all my powers (yes, I do have super powers, I’m a woman) for my driver not to be a member of the We Like Talking gang, as my pre-coffee morning mood usually oscillates between simply murderous to Hitler meets Pol Pot on a bad day.

I like the road. Maybe not in a Jack Kerouac-y fashion, drunk, high and with barely shoes to walk in, but rather in a contemplative way. I love watching people passing by, seeing landscapes moving from one Lebanese city to another, to finally arrive in a kind of no man’s land by the sea, with only one or two cows peacefully eating away their day. Leaving the luxury shops on the “autostrade” (word used by the Lebanese for “highway”) for the unbelievable beauty of Jbeil, to finally reach the busy, poorer city of Tripoli, sporting in all their glory humongous sized posters of political figures of the region, I lost myself in thoughts (and in writing notes for the post I m currently writing. In the words of the immortal Pheboe from Friends “Isn’t it too spooky”?). I also love observing people on public transports in Geneva, but this is a whole other story, not to be told with my Middle Eastern tales (Is that why I never learnt to drive? Definitely something to be looking into, and way more romantic than the plain psychological explanation of “maybe i’m too scared”).

Finally reached Lebanese boarder of Arida. Laid back atmosphere, manoukches and Pepsis being passed from one soldier to another, quick, efficient passport checks, a hint of flirting. Am I coming back to Lebanon? Why didn’t I stay longer? Do I know Jbeil? Yes, I’m coming back, Promise I’ll stay longer, Yes i know Jbeil, Officer does my closed face doesn’t give you a clue that I did not have time to get my coffee this morning? Do you really want me to break down and cry right this minute?

And on to the Syrian side. Dozens and dozens of drivers drenched in their sweat, trying to get all their passengers the stamp that will enable them to carry on their journey. Tired fans moving hot damp air in a vain attempt at refreshing even more tired officers who seemed to be drowning in official documents. “Get OUT!” bellowed one of them at the small crowd that was happily gathering at his desk. On his desk. Around his desk. Two seconds more, and he probably would have to ask for oxygen just to be able to actually breathe properly. Speaking of breathing, the syrian authorities seem to take very seriously the health of their people. A non smoking sign at the border alerts you that smoking is forbidden, and to make matters clear, it is specified that you’re not allowed to smoke a) cigarettes, b)cigars, c) pipes and d) hookahs. Geddit? You. Are. Not. To. Smoke. Of course, haven’t seen anything like that in Lebanon.
The music of stamps being slapped on passports, the rows and rows of men trying to get through as fast their bakhchich would enable them, the blend of coffee and sweat and cologne, the odd tourist looking absolutely terrified in their shorts,pressing a Lonely Planet or Guide du Routard on Syria against him as if his life depended on it, I was back in Syria.

And when I saw the white city of Aleppo lazily basking in the glorious sun, quietly baking under the 44°C , I couldn’t help but smile. After all, who am I, if not another Lebanese having yet another love-hate relationship with the Land of Zanoubiyya?