A Beirut Homecoming: Salma Abdelnour’s Memoir Jasmine and Fire
Editor's Note: Salma Abdelnour is a writer and editor based in New York City. She has been the travel editor of Food & Wine, the food editor of O, The Oprah Magazine, and the restaurant editor of Time Out New York. Her memoir, Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut, is now available.
Everyday eBook: Why did you want to move back to Beirut, in your thirties, after spending your adult life in the United States?
Salma Abdelnour: 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 nine years old, but part of me had never really left Beirut. I still had this persistent sense of being a foreigner in America, an outsider, even this many years later. In my late thirties, 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 very difficult or even impossible to do that -- for instance if the relationship I'd restarted in New York was going to lead to marriage, kids, and a deeper commitment to stay in the U.S. long-term. If I wanted to move back to Beirut ever again, it was now or possibly never.
EE: What was the most difficult part of returning to Lebanon?
SA: For one thing, I had to say a very tough good-bye 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 the brutal civil war in Lebanon, then just saunters back in at will, while everyone actually living there was 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 and 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.
EE: 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?
SA: 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 in 2010 and 2011, and in my childhood before that, I never managed to run out of things to see and do in Beirut.
I’m sitting on my suitcase, trying to force it shut so I can zip it; I leave for Beirut later today, and right now I’m grateful for these distracting last-minute tasks. If I keep dwelling on my decision too much, I’m afraid I’ll chicken out and call off the car service to the airport. But as drastic as the big move feels to me right now, in my last hours in New York, I’m reminding myself that it’s not such a crazy idea, at least from a logistical standpoint. It shouldn’t really affect my work too much: I’ve been a freelance writer and editor for a couple of years now, having decided to quit corporate magazine life after nearly a decade and a half in the industry, to make time for well-paying freelance projects I’d been offered, and to be able to travel for long stretches without giving up a paycheck. I could do the vast majority of assignments from Beirut just as easily as from New York. And at least I don’t have to worry about finding a place to live, since my parents have held on to our Beirut apartment all these years, although they’ve continued living most of the year in Houston.
Though two of the normally pain-in-the-butt logistics of a move—the job, the house—are thankfully not an issue, the should-I-shouldn’t-I’s are still running through my head, even now at the last minute. For weeks I’ve been rehearsing every scenario that might play out in Beirut, knowing I’m probably leaving out all the actual, unpredictable scenarios that will in fact unfold. I’ve been lying in bed for hours night after night, rocked by waves of insomnia and sadness and excitement and fear.
But there’s no more time to fret. The subletter for my New York apartment moves in tonight, and I still need to finish packing and speed out the door. It’s early morning, and Richard has just woken up; he stayed over last night to say goodbye. But something ominous is already happening on my last day in New York: right now there’s no running water in my apartment or, it turns out, in the entire building. Richard and I both need to shower, but all the faucets in my apartment are bone dry.
Having the water in my modern downtown Manhattan building vanish is just too fitting for a morning when I’m leaving for Beirut, land of constant electrical and water-pipe breakdowns. This must be a giant cosmic joke, or maybe someone-up-there is gently easing me into Beirut life before I even arrive. But humor aside, this sucks. I can’t go on two back-to-back international flights, a twenty-hour journey in total, without a shower. I go into the bathroom to try again, and water does start to trickle out this time—a freezing, arctic drizzle. Still not a drop of hot water.
No way can I walk into an ice-cold shower on a morning when I’m already a fragile mess. Last night Richard and I had both cried, held each other tight, fretted, and said I love you for only the second time; the first time was last weekend, when he’d whispered it to me as we lay side by side in the guest room of a friend’s beach house, realizing we only had one more week together. Before finally falling asleep last night, we decided to try to make this morning like any other, just so we could get through it. We agreed to stay in close touch when I got to Beirut, and then see what happened as the months went by. We’d try to make the best of the situation and see where life led us as the year unfolded. Not the most comforting thought perhaps, but at least not apocalyptic.
Of course, pretending this is just a normal morning—him heading to his teaching job, me to the airport as if I were only off on a short travel-story assignment—was a preposterous idea to begin with. The only way for me to make it through the morning and get myself off to the airport without dissolving again is to remember that I’m planning to come back for a week sometime this fall, to pack another suitcase or two with my winter clothes and boots and various things I couldn’t fit, thanks to my airline’s luggage limit; to make sure my subletter isn’t wrecking my apartment; and, if our spastic relationship survives until then, to see Richard. I’m wondering if he’ll still want to see me. But the minutes are ticking by now, and I need to keep my focus on two things: getting ready, and making my flight.
I turn on the faucet again, daring to hope, but no; I flinch at the freezing splash, and . . . we both start laughing. Absurdity, slapstick, a dose of silliness. I need this right now.
Richard clenches his teeth and braves a cold shower, then gets dressed, and we say goodbye, both of us still giggling about the water, kissing, hugging quickly but trying not to linger.
How can I possibly leave? And how can I not leave now, after I’ve told everyone I’m going? Maybe I just want to hold Richard for hours and order pizza and stay here, with him, and with my New York life just the way it is, forever. Or maybe I’m ready to take on this adventure at last. I guess if Richard and I are meant to make it through it all, we will. I’m all over the place, everywhere. Excited, wrecked. Time to finish getting ready, zip up the bags, lock my apartment, and go.
In the cab to the airport, I’m trying to stay as stoic as possible as I watch Manhattan’s postcard skyline, only half visible on this foggy morning, disappear behind me and Brooklyn’s tenements and rows of ethnic grocers and delis flick by on the Williamsburg Bridge. These workaday scenes, so banal I rarely even register them anymore, suddenly seem poignant as the taxi speeds me away, the colors of store awnings and sanitation workers’ uniforms and street vendor trucks standing out sharply now against the gray sky.
Soon I’m waiting at the departure gate at JFK, leafing through a celebrity gossip magazine I find on a chair and trying to think fluffy thoughts: Is Jennifer Aniston pregnant, for real this time? Didn’t I see this same headline splashed on every gossip magazine a year ago, two years ago? Seems like yesterday. So a year is nothing, then! Right? . . .
I board my flight, spilling coffee on myself as I try to jam my carry-on into the overhead compartment while juggling a nonfat latte in the other hand. The effects of the gossip mag are wearing off quickly. No, a year is definitely not nothing.
I decide to let myself cry the whole flight long if I need to. Or ideally, I’ll be tough and stone-cold determined if I can manage it. Or I’ll slip into one of my Zen, play-it-as-it-lays modes, the emotional holy grail, available to me only in rare flashes throughout my life. All through the first eight-hour flight, and the two-hour layover in Rome, and the connecting five-hour flight to Beirut, I shuffle clumsily between the three states. I can’t fall asleep even though, incredibly, there’s no screaming baby and no turbulence on either flight.
All in all, my trip, including the connection in the normally maddening Rome airport, is one of the smoothest journeys I’ve ever had, objectively speaking. My luggage makes the transfer from Rome to Beirut despite the tight layover: unbelievable. Even the customs and immigration lines at the Beirut airport go fast. I notice for the first time, as I walk through that legendary airport—wrecked by bombs again and again before, during, and after the civil war—that it’s been spiffed up recently into a gleaming twenty-first-century international hub and now seems to run more smoothly than JFK; not saying much, but impressive for a war-ravaged country with a less-than-stellar record for bureaucratic efficiency.
My luggage, despite the uneventful journey, arrives in better shape than I do. By the time I step off the plane, I’m zonked from all the emotional turbulence, and just dead tired. My cousin Josette and aunt Marcelle are picking me up at the airport on this hot August afternoon to take me to my family’s old apartment.
As I walk out of the airport terminal onto the sidewalk, breaking a sweat in the late-afternoon heat, my cousin Josette, a stunning and trim brunette in her forties, sees me and calls out my name. She’s always been one of my favorite relatives, warm but bitingly witty, a creative and successful interior designer who never married. I’ve often thought of her as exhibit A in the “see, it’s okay not to marry” campaign I’m forever waging silently against my relatives and against an imaginary Lebanese chorus, or maybe just against myself. My paternal aunt Marcelle, Josette’s mom, shy and soft-spoken, widowed when her husband died young of a heart attack during the war, is here, too, her chin-length dark hair neatly groomed, her dark purple skirt suit giving her olive skin a warm glow. We pile my bags into Josette’s trunk and drive off to my old family apartment in Hamra, part of the hilly Ras Beirut area—the name means “head of Beirut”—on the city’s west side.
Yesterday I was walking around Nolita, the trendy Manhattan neighborhood next to Little Italy where I moved in the late 1990s while it was still a little rough around the edges. I’d spent the afternoon gazing long and hard at the sights I’ve passed daily for years with barely a glance, the tiny but adventurously stylish clothing and shoe boutiques, the crowded bistros and umbrella-terraced cafés, the elderly Italian men in their white T-shirts sitting on the creaky fire-escape balconies of old brick buildings, the clumps of hipsters and curious tourists milling around Café Habana on a busy corner of Elizabeth Street, the slow-strolling pedestrians on their cell phones, the old Italian meat and cheese delis—taking in all the details, a zoomed-in snapshot uploaded straight to my brain, to flash back to in moments of deep New York nostalgia if they hit me hard in Beirut.
Today, a Monday afternoon in August, here I am arriving in Beirut on a humid hundred-degree day. The streets from the airport to Hamra are as chaotic as ever, cars and motorbikes going any which way: zooming in the wrong direction down one-way streets, cutting corners on the sidewalks, U-turning in the middle of traffic. In some ways, the city never seems to change, even as it’s constantly changing: a schizo mix of glossy new high-rise condo towers, side by side with nineteenth-century arch-windowed stone houses with graceful balconies draped in geraniums and fragrant jasmine and gardenia, and bombed-out shells of old houses and hotels destroyed in the war, all lined up along the narrow winding streets flanked by pink bougainvillea bushes and bright green Sukleen dumpsters, the neighborhoods ringed by multilane autostradas wrapping around and through the city, and everywhere brand-new Ferraris and SUVs, and beat-up 1970s Mercedes and Peugeots, and street vendors pushing wheelbarrows through the traffic, and young messenger boys on mopeds riding up on the sidewalks. Honking and yelling from car windows everywhere, the mournful and sweet ballads of the singer Fairuz, the iconic voice of Lebanon, competing with Method Man thumping out heavy hip-hop jams from the next car over. Running alongside all this daily mayhem, and curving around the Beirut coastline on the city’s north and west sides: the glittering bright blue Mediterranean.