by Roa Harb
It begins when any one of us living abroad confirms dates for a visit. My mother starts asking weeks in advance for our favorite foods so that she can core, stuff, mince, chop, and knead her way into neatly packed pans, ready to be thrown into the oven at a moment’s notice. On too many occasions, I’ve objected to this cheerful affirmation of the assumption that as expats we must be living in a state of food deprivation, possibly surviving on caloric stores between one visit and the next—to no avail. But it turns out that my younger sisters do have their favorite foods. It also turns out that I’ve had them—vociferously—in the mid-2000s.
For more than a decade now, the following script is rarely deviated from upon our arrival. Usually my mother allows until midmorning, sometimes noon, for the effects of jet lag to recede before she launches her campaign.
At the bedroom door:
It’s eleven. How about a meshtah with labneh and olive oil? Maybe with three mint leaves from the garden?
At the bedroom door, ten minutes later:
It’s eleven thirty. Meshtah with zaatar, tomatoes, and cucumbers? Pure deliciousness.
From downstairs as someone stumbles her way into the shower:
One meshtah, half labneh and half zaatar?
Next to the pantry with the one Nescafé jar and thirty kinds of teas:
I know. How about meshtah with the Belgian chocolate spread your sister brought with her yesterday?
In the garden:
At some point during this flight and pursuit, my father is bound to return from the orchard, jauntily carrying a basket of citrus, which he will proceed to sort and press for juice. Every now and then he will emerge from the kitchen and ask whoever happens to be languishing on a sofa in the living room if they wanted a glass of orange juice.
A glass of orange juice? It’s special.
On the last foray, he might stand in the hallway and simply point in the general direction of the kitchen.
What about half an avocado with honey?
Afternoon tea consists of several trays of hot drinks and cakes and pastries in perpetual orbit between the kitchen and the living room, where someone can reliably be found still draped around the furniture since the orange crisis. As additional proof of my parents’ preoccupation with alimentation, my mother refers to this state of being as “lying around like colons.” The Arabic word does not necessarily differentiate between small and large intestines, but given the multitude of possible positionings on each day, both can apply.
Tea is one of many on the program of daily sustenance, but it is lunch and dinner that offer the prime opportunities for a cataclysm—“gratuitous discussions” according to my father—instigated by an invitation to try the hindbeh, for example. The risk is constant, and this is whether lunch and dinner take place indoors or out in the garden for “all the village” to hear, whether it is parents and daughters only or relatives and friends as well. Fortunately, these affairs are conducted, on average, in under twenty minutes, during which there are random acts of vanishment of persons. They’re not so much sitting at a table as being in a spatial relationship to said table. This includes but is not limited to standing, hovering, leaning, sitting on the table, placing one knee on the chair, ricocheting from stove to table to countertop, and strolling aimlessly around the kitchen or patio with a plate of food in hand.
For so long, I had been distracted by the table discourse and its familial and familiar heavyweight champions of denial, displacement, projection, and regression—into which everyone dives with glee. But time and practice had ensured that our techniques were scrubbed and polished until they sparkled, and it was now possible to jump into the fray on auto and listen to what was also said.
Why aren’t you eating the tomato and kamouneh spread? I know it’s your favorite.
Today half my salary went to grocery shopping. And what did I get in return? Only four kilos of bulgur, three kilos of flour, three kilos of rice with this and that and…Boom. My money’s gone.
Who’s the brainiac who told you this is enough? Add more mulukhiyah.
Mujaddara with yogurt? It’s homemade with the fresh milk I bought from the Straw.
Look at your sister. She’s so thin, she looks like a cricket.
I don’t see you eating fruit after lunch. You should always eat fruit after lunch.
Put two grape leaves on her plate. They’re vegetarian.
Thyme salad. Pure deliciousness.
Your mother and I always, always eat fruit after lunch.
Who wants carob molasses? It’s special.
That Straw has doubled her prices. She’s now selling the bucket of cow milk for—
Apricot jam: pitted fruit spread on white muslin cloths and sundried in the scorching dry heat of Baalbek on the rooftop of my maternal aunt’s house.
Zaatar: dried oregano ground to fine powder by mallet and mixed with salt, sumac, and toasted sesame seeds in the courtyard of my paternal aunt’s house.
Salt-cured zaytoun: green olives crushed by stone, submerged in salt, and left to sweat in their oils on my parents’ countertop during the harvest.
Makdous: olive oil–cured baby aubergines stuffed with walnuts, red peppers, garlic, and chili, stored next to the jars of pickled Armenian cucumbers, olives, and jams, and best sampled during midnight raids on my mother’s pantry.
Kamouneh: cumin seeds, allspice, dry mint, marjoram, dried hot pepper, cinnamon sticks, cloves, and rose petals combined with bulgur at my mother’s kitchen table.
Curled-up ka’ak: family moniker for the crumbly, crunchy aniseed sugar pastry rolled and folded into small, individual cookies that look like they are hugging themselves.
Last summer, I visited Lebanon after an absence of eighteen months. In the interim, the financial crisis, compounded by COVID-19, had hit the country like a sledgehammer. On August 4, the explosion that rocked Beirut obliterated any remaining hopes for change, for a future, and for normalcy. Almost a year after the date, most of the people I met were in varying degrees of shell shock. My parents and relatives were also gripped with a fevered obsession for watermelons.
Everyone loves watermelons.
Once, when we were young, my cousin confessed at a family gathering that the smell and taste of watermelon made her nauseated. To see the shock on everyone’s faces and to hear their exclamations, she might as well have confessed to murder.
Watermelons are mouthwatering on their own, but they’re ridiculously good with white cheese on pita. Watermelons are served after lunch, in the afternoon, after or instead of dinner on hot nights, and on visits to friends or family or neighbors. Before the Collapse, watermelons were served—gratis!—at Lebanese restaurants after meals (if the head waiters, in their singular capacity as defenders of the honor of the establishment and the honor of the clientele, had determined via complex and mysterious calculations that the right amounts—or kinds—of food had been ordered).
When we were children and my parents could still press us into outings to the river, they and their friends brought along entire watermelons, which they secured with small rocks beneath the ice-cold river water. And when, once or twice, a watermelon managed to dislodge itself and float defiantly away from the rescue divers, the melee that ensued could reasonably be compared to one that follows the drowning of a child.
Everyone loves watermelons.
And yet. Something about the situation I encountered last summer hinted at a shift from passion to cult. To begin with, at any one point, there were two to three 15-kilogram watermelons stored on my parents’ kitchen floor and sequentially finding their way into cold storage as soon as the ones in the fridge were consumed. Most of these watermelons came from our garden or had been gifted to us by one of my relatives from their own gardens. All these people lived within a ten-minute walk from one another. Doubtless, in their own kitchens, my parents’ watermelons were also lined near the fridges, awaiting their turn to be served.
Instead of avocados and molasses and kashkaval cheese on the SEB—orange juice never in serious danger, belonging as it were, to a different season—we now awakened and slept to propositions of watermelon.
Have you tried your uncle Hassan’s watermelon?
Have your tried your aunt Dalal’s watermelon?
Who’s the brainiac who opened the fridge when the power’s been out all day? Enjoy warm watermelons tonight.
Are the watermelons in Washington special?
Anywhere and everywhere we went, it was the latest and greatest in watermelon news.
Imm Mhammad’s watermelon? Nectar and ambrosia. One hundred percent.
Ours was better. That one was pure deliciousness.
Which one? The one we had last night at cards? It was okay.
No, that was Hassan’s. I’m talking about the one from the other night.
Why are you giving Nazar the white parts?
Nazar has diabetes. Do you want to kill him?
It can’t have been Hassan’s. We finished that one on Sunday.
Nadia, you won’t believe this watermelon I’ve set aside for you. There will be a battle over this one, so let’s step quietly outside.
Uff! Uff! We’ve still got four to go, and the generator can’t keep up. Why don’t you give it to Imm Mhammad?
One morning I woke up to my mother’s litany of the daily hike in prices after the Collapse.
Did you hear that the baklawa kilo is 360,000 Lebanese pounds today? It was 320,000 yesterday. How is God not punishing these thieves and murderers?
My uncle’s voice came out of nowhere. He must have stepped in through the side entrance behind the kitchen.
Let them eat watermelon. It’s good. It’s cheap. It’s delicious. Here, we saved you some. This is the best one of the season. One hundred percent.
- Roa Harb, MD, lives in Washington, D.C. and is an academic associate at the Psychoanalytic Training Institute of the Contemporary Freudian Society. Her medical training and current practice are in clinical pathology.
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