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.


Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 9

Gabrielle felt incredibly happy. Getting ready to drop by Lili’s, she was thinking about the business she had just started, her very own hybrid graphic design/ photography lab. She had done It for herself, but also for Grace, her beloved girlfriend of five years. Theirs has been a tortuous path, one that was lined with obstacles:hatred from society, incomprehension and guilt from their families, and ultimately, love for each other and acceptance from their true friends. Five years of emotional lifts to finally arrive at a plateau of relative calm and serenity, feeling like a lovely quiet home after a gruelling day.

She wished Lili could feel the same, but knew better than to interfere too much in her friend’s innermost feelings. Unlike Nina, who could behave like the most obnoxious Lebanese mother with her friends and still get away with it, Gabrielle dealt more easily with concrete actions, purposefulness and rational decisions. She was not born this way, but life, with its unexpected twists and turns, had wired her to only be able to swear and curse and come across as strong and hard as nails. Sometimes, she even felt it was true, that she had had to fight so many difficult battles, she couldn’t possibly be bothered any more by the never ending autopsies of hurt feelings over coffee. Try and come out to your Lebanese family while studying, working, and trying to keep your relationship together and then come back and see if the indecisiveness of a spoilt brat such as Ziad had the same impact on you.  

Yet Gabrielle felt Lili’s pain acutely and would have gleefully told Ziad what she thought of him had he not be Nina’s brother and her friend’s great love. Perhaps she’d be more useful to Lili when Lili decided she wanted to get over Ziad once and for all: for now, her pain was too raw for anyone to be able to do anything.

Putting on her jacket, she opened the kitchen door where Grace was experimenting new recipes. Living with Grace, or so she felt, was like living with a deliciously fragrant ray of sunshine. A chef, Grace loved to let her creativity loose by reinventing traditional recipes, adding spices here and a little less sugar there, creating odes to the country they both loved dearly despite and in spite of its numerous thorns. She had always hated the “love it or leave it’ mentality. Who had declared that weird notion that if you loved something you shouldn’t and weren’t even allowed to criticize it? Lebanon had a million and one things wrong with it, and not mentioning them would not be a sign of love, but rather, of acute hypocrisy and blindness.

Entering the kitchen, she felt the wonderful smells fill her nostrils, and amidst them all, her beloved, her hair tied back covered by a keffieh, her apron neatly tied behind her back, looking as if she was in trance over a steaming pot.

– Oh devilish witch, what pagan mixture are you brewing?

Grace gave a chuckles and a start. She loved it when Gaby pretended she was a witch enthralling people with her tantalizing blends.

– I, beloved child, am rediscovering the well known desert of Mhalabbiyyeh, measuring orange blossom water and a hint of rose water, debating if a pinch of cinnamon is advisable, leaving the condensed milk to brew with the Maizena, but, no! Oh No! Don’t even think for a moment that you shall be allowed to taste it before it is neatly sitting in my gorgeous mismatched cups covered in ground pistachios and raisins!

Grace’s quick hand swiftly hit Gabrielle’s own hand that had wandered a little too close to her precious desert.

– Behave yourself! If this version of Mhalabiyyeh is successful and as delicious as I’m suspecting it will be we will have to include it in the book!

– I will take the most beautiful pictures to glorify the most wonderful food Lebanon has ever seen, of this you can rest assured, smiled Gabrielle.

– Where are you off to?

– Nina has gotten in her head to have that customer of hers, Yasmin, renounce her upcoming wedding with that dreadful, incredibly rich fiancé she thinks she absolutely needs to marry not to wind up alone and suicidal. Believe me I’d rather work with you on the cookbook so we can progress design wise and choose the color palette, but our sweet crazy friend seems to deem  it necessary that she offers as many examples of the Great Diversity of Love, in all caps if you may, to that Beiruti Princess, so that she can see one can be happy outside society’s normative box.

Grace beamed at her.

– Nina can’t help herself, she has to be a protective mother to everyone except to herself, beamed Grace. I do love her for it. Go, do your intervention, then we’ll have plenty of time to work. Yalla! Go save that poor girl from the claws of society, or from Nina’s embrace, I don’t know what’s worse!

With a slight movement, Gabrielle pecked her girlfriend, stole a freshly baked almond-hazelnut coffee, avoided another pat on her guilty fingers and dashed outside, taking another helmet for Lili to ride her motorcycle with her.

Lili was waiting for her in front of the old fashioned blue door of her building, the beautiful gardenia tree blossoming above her, generously shielding Lili’s thin frame from the sun while filling the air around her with its sweet pungent smell.

– You look like death, boomed Gabrielle by way of greeting.

– That’s probably because I feel like it, retorted Lili grabbing the helmet from her friend. I’m never ever approaching alcohol ever again. From now on, just call me Lili Rose Water Drinker.

– Just stop kissing twisted bastards, you’ll be just fine.

By the wobbly smile and watery eyes she made out behind the helmet, Gabrielle understood full well it wasn’t one, but two interventions that were needed that day.