The following is from a series of musings on trauma, memory, community, and place. The introduction to the series and beginning essay [link] explains the purpose of this month of entries.
I remember when the hajjeh upstairs came to my door.
I mean to say one of the hundreds of times she has come knocking.
Often bearing food.
And this often during Ramadan.
Such a visit quickly escalates into a rather comical battle of “not returning a dish empty”.
If she can’t find me at home, she’ll avail herself of the network of local delivery boys.
Such that all of a sudden a dish of food will arrive wherever I happen to be.
It’s really rather magical.
My first Ramadan was spent mistakenly considering the month as a series of more-or-less 30 Thanksgiving dinners in a row.
By this I mean to say it was rather gluttonous.
Focusing on all of the wrong things.
I collected Ramadan invitations like entries on a dance card.
I was honored to be so invited, but at the same time, the “overdoing it” is leagues away from what I now understand Ramadan to be about.
This was more a faulty notion that came from a particular mediation of the period of fasting from a particular class of people.
Broadcast from countries which simply replace daytime with nighttime in order to not “feel” any deprivation.
Which is categorically not the point.
But this is the world we live in.
The same thing happens with Christmas.
Or any religious holiday for that matter.
This is an imposition on–and is not of–people of faith.
Ramadan is my favorite time of year, of this I am certain.
Instead of a separate period within the calendar, I see it as a focused reminder of what communal living is supposed to be about the rest of the year.
My friends in my neighborhood cannot close up at sunset like most others.
So iftar is a rather impromptu affair on the floor of their shop.
It’s a tiny corner green grocer, open to the street.
I’ve learned much about local agriculture, farming, and food from my evenings there.
Much of the neighborhood thinks I’m an employee.
Which doesn’t bother me in the least.
I’ve watched the local foodways change over the years.
And not for the better.
Aspects of food production and consumption that take on elitist trappings in the “First World” are a given here.
The driving concept is whether the food is “baladi”, that is to say, locally grown.
Due to pressures from various sources such as the European Union, the IMF, the World Bank, a competitive mindset, and an export model, this has become much more difficult to answer.
It used to be that the question of “is this local?” would find a simple response, “yes” or “no”.
And “no” still meant “not too far away”, like Syria.
Now I hear things such as “the seed is foreign, but it is grown locally”.
New words have entered the local dialect: “ice-berg” (lettuce); “broccoli”; “granny” (green apple); “grapefune” (grapefruit).
The bigger problem is that local varieties are being replaced by “cash crops”.
Such as mangoes and kiwis.
Which require a different eco-system.
But which make a profit.
In the short-term.
The mentality of “year-round availability” becomes more and more pressing.
So fruits and vegetables are chemically treated for refrigeration and warehousing.
All I know is there is nothing like the savor of something when you’ve not tasted it for a year gone by.
That first cherry. That first peach. That first clementine.
Or eating fruits and vegetables that cannot survive shipping over great distances.
Like custard apples. And persimmons.
And varieties of banana that basically candy themselves in their own sugar.
Or consuming things throughout their growing cycle.
Like green almond fruit, or unripe navel oranges.
The opposite of “baladi” as concerns bananas is “somali”: Somalian.
Even though the bananas originate from Central America.
I’ve gotten to know the competitors of Chiquita.
Which are not allowed on the American market.
And thus the notion of a banana republic.
Which seems to be Lebanon’s fate.
In the meantime, I need not mention the health benefits of eating with the seasons.
Which makes every Ramadan a little bit different.
Especially as concerns our planning of recipes.
We divvy up the meal and chores early in the day, cook, and then assemble everything at the sun’s setting.
Anyone else “left out” of their usual family or community equation for whatever reason is welcomed to join us.
Friends driving taxi cabs, uncles, extended family, all show up.
This is basically how I learned to cook traditional food.
A large group of very hungry people is the best test of one’s cooking abilities.
Especially if you are not able to taste or sample as you proceed.
I have developed a reputation for mint lemonade, among other things.
I have learned how to butcher offal and make meshwi (kebabs) from it.
This, after one of the men in the neighborhood, returned from his work in the Gulf, distributed the meat from a half dozen sheep at the end of the month to those in the neighborhood.
My friends asked if they could use my kitchen.
I can honestly say I was not expecting the entirety of the innards to be all connected to the windpipe of the animal, now held aloft over my kitchen counter.
But I’ve always believed in knowing exactly where our food comes from.
And so live and learn.
We roasted the meat over coals on my back balcony.
Nothing goes to waste.
This is likewise the history of much cookery as we know it.
I believe the venerable Joy of Cooking still contains recipes for squirrel, among other previously traditional foodstuffs.
We tend to think of those days as times of penury.
Whereas I would now say that five giant industrialized agri-businesses making ninety percent of the American food supply from corn, soy, and corn-and-soy-fed beef is the basic definition of “want” and “lack”.
While simultaneously being the ironic definition of “gluttony”.
The communal dinner serves a very important function.
In our house growing up the daily family dinner was a given.
Every summer there would be a huge block party for all the neighbors.
My mother’s church would often have pot-luck dinners for the congregation.
I recall my sister and I would hold on the first Sunday of the month an open dinner.
We would invite neighbors and friends, and their friends, and then we would cook up a huge meal.
My sister is a pastry chef, so it was always a facetious competition between the dinner and the dessert.
I would like to think we managed to come out pretty even in this regard.
Proof of this came when one friend suggested we open a restaurant.
It’s not something I hadn’t thought of before.
But there are some basic problems inherent to such an idea.
First, the restaurant as we know it has come to be based on a premise of private dining.
And that of a particular class.
Even the venerable down-and-dirty diner has been upscaled.
I was thinking about something more along the lines of the Brazilian cantina.
A kind of public cafeteria.
But this cannot work if the underpinnings of community are not there.
The second problem is that the notion of “openness” is missing.
For example, communal centers of food preparation.
Like the local bakeries here in Lebanon.
Which will roast your eggplants for you, for example.
Or which will take your own special za‘atar or kishik (fermented yoghurt) topping and make manqousheh to your liking, for another.
The communal incentive that started our monthly series of dinners was not able to stand up to the individualizing pressures destined to see it fail.
Which it eventually did.
I remember I was at a friend’s house for a Christmas dinner.
She lives in the center of a rather posh neighborhood not too far from my house.
All of the signage there is in French.
It’s also where my orphanage happens to be.
She was cooking a roasted rack of lamb, as well as a soup, and other vegetable dishes.
That is, until the oven stopped working.
In a panic, she called her mother and told her she was bringing everything to her house to finish cooking.
Her mother replied: “Just bring everything to the restaurant across the street!”
My friend could not imagine asking a private restaurant to cook her dinner for her.
Nonetheless, she and her cousin went across the street and at the door, demanded to see the manager.
They proclaimed: “Our family has lived in this neighborhood since long before your restaurant came into being! We consider you as our neighbor, and so we were wondering if you might be able to help us finish cooking a small dinner for a party across the street.”
The manager brought them to the chef in the kitchen.
On the wall was a votive devoted to St. Charbel, patron saint of the Maronite Church.
My friend’s cousin started furiously crossing herself, and exclaimed (rather dramatically): “St. Charbel has brought us to you! It is your religious duty to help us finish cooking!”
There was no arguing with such miraculous destiny.
The meal was cooked to perfection.
The blessing here of course is a traditional community mindedness.
Which could not be masked by the privatized formality of a rather boojy restaurant.
Such community is often there if you look for it.
And if the “dividing line” between classes has not expanded too much.
I remember wanting to volunteer during Thanksgiving at local food kitchens among the housing projects in my neighborhood in New York.
I never got a call back.
This used to make me quite upset.
But now I realize that such community is formed over a period of years.
And having the luxury and privilege to “drop in” is, well, offensive.
A slumming of it.
Similar to the offense we see in adoption from a foreign locale.
A disrespect to a given place.
And those thereof.
I regret not realizing this then.
I try to make up for it now.
The traces of such community can be found in unlikely places, such as architecture.
For example, the exterior walls of the stairwell in my building are architecturally designed to be open.
In terms of the six months of the year when a cross-breeze is rather essential to indoor living.
Such that keeping the front door open allows for a nice flow of air.
My apartment building in New York functioned similarly, just for the record.
We can blame air-conditioning for the lowering of roof heights and the closing in of balconies and terraces with glass.
A self-silencing and a creation of borders where formerly there were none.
All of the new buildings have replaced the traditional ground floor of shops with open parking spaces.
All of the new buildings resemble stacked fishbowls; aquariums on stilts.
This is, of course, environmentally as well as socially an unsound practice.
A hermetically sealed remove from a living community.
Which often starts to wither and die from such metrocidal practices.
Luckily, my neighborhood still has a balance of old-style buildings.
Which open up completely to the outside balconies.
Themselves of a goodly size, not vestigial afterthoughts.
So there is truly a communal living space that moves from inside to outside.
The noise of the street reflects an active networking of various functional aspects of the community.
Each noise is specific to its function.
And thus the tong-clack of the foul and corn seller; the china-cup clank of the ambulatory or bike-driven coffee “shop”; the comical horn and horse bells of the mazout oil vendor; the loud megaphone voice of the vegetable purveyor; the yells and bicycle bell of the ka‘ak boy; the deep and cadenced cry of the metal collector; the “tayyib! tayyib!” of the “delicious!” cotton candy man.
This last one, like a griot, will respond in rhymed stanza to anything yelled out to him that matches his particular meter and form.
A wonderful street poetry.
It is difficult for me to describe this non-existence of “private” space.
I can say that I don’t think I can live any other way now.
I recall the days of recovering from my hernia surgery in bed at home.
I ended up leaving my door open to avoid having to get up to let in neighbors and friends dropping by to visit.
Offering to run errands, or bringing food by.
My neighbors upstairs often check in on me, hernia or no.
Or excuse themselves for asking a favor.
This time when the hajjeh came down was no different.
She effusively greeted me, and then as quickly apologized for bothering me.
I vociferously denied any bother, and asked what I could do to help.
She proceeded to inform me that she needed me to go up to the roof, climb down to the building ledge, slide a ladder down on to her balcony, go through her apartment, and finally open the door to let her in as she had forgotten her keys inside, and didn’t want to miss the call to prayer.
“Of course, hajjeh”.
On our way upstairs, she said: “Daniel, enta ibni”.
She says this to me all of the time.
It’s enough to reduce me to tears.
“And you’re my mother, yaa hajjeh”.
I’ve lost count of how many mothers I have here.
The Arabic words for “mother” and “community” are formed from the same root, by the way.
This should not surprise us at all.
We made our way up to the building’s roof.
“I’ll hold on for you”, she said, as I lowered the bit-too-short ladder to the ledge below, and then climbed over myself.
On some level we both knew that my weight, given a shift in momentum, would carry both her and the ladder down with me.
“bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim”, she said.
I repeated her invocation of blessing.
I believe this is referred to as: “throwing all caution to the wind”.
While maintaining “absolute faith in the greater scheme of things”.
Sitting on the ledge, I contemplated the next step, which involved lowering the ladder again, and leaning it against the apartment wall on the balcony below.
“Daniel, you’re tall (God bless you); you might just jump down!”
I learned the vernacular Arabic for “jump” at the exact time and in the exact place I least wanted to use such a word.
I lowered the ladder, and it thankfully fell against the wall as planned.
I dropped myself down from the ledge to the welcome footing below.
I climbed down to her balcony and brushed myself off.
Her apartment was familiar to me for being in the same line.
I made my way to the front door.
An ironic reversal of the previous scene took place.
The effusive greetings happened all over again.
“Thank God for your safe return!” she said. “I didn’t want to miss my prayer!”
“Of course not, yaa hajjeh! May God keep you!”
“God bless your hands!” she said.
“ahlayn”, I replied.
Meaning: “[You are among your] people/family (doubled) [and thus you have no worries]”.
That night at the corner, I recounted my death-defying spectacle.
“What are you talking about? That’s normal!” said my friends, before relating their own feats of balcony jumping, building scaling, and other neighborly acrobatics.
They made some tea, and my Spiderman story became the subject of the evening among the neighbors and shoppers.
“Hamdullah ‘asalameh!” came the usual reply: “Thank God for your safety!”
“Allah ysalm(a/i)k”, I said: “May God keep you safe.”
These days during Ramadan, if I happen to have iftar somewhere else, or vary the month away from the neighborhood in any way, I tend to feel guilty, and I end up apologizing profusely for my absence.
Which is a bit overboard if I give it any serious thought.
But I feel that I owe it to my neighborhood; to my community; to my mothers.
The last time I came back to Lebanon from the States, the father of the family above the shop set off some roman candles and fireworks to celebrate my safe return.
I was completely overwhelmed.
A time of Thanksgiving.
And a time of Homecoming.
Image: Ramadan | Date: August, 2010 | Place: My kitchen; Beirut | Camera: Sony “CyberShot” DSC-TX1; Carl Zeiss lens | Caption: One of my “brothers” from the neighborhood snuck up on me when I was cooking and took this shot; I had left the front door open because it was so hot outside. The cookie trays show the traces of ghraybeh (Syrian shortbread) I had previously made; I had turned my attention to rizz bi sha‘rieh (rice with vermicelli). The toasted almonds are to place on top later. This photo is interesting (and sad) because you can see the building going up outside of my window. What used to be a nice view is now a concrete wall full of noisy air conditioners. I remember when the workers got up to my floor and I asked them: “How many floors?” “Ten!” they replied. There are now months when no sun reaches my back balcony. My fourth-floor apartment looks out onto the fifth floor of the new building, so much they compress the space. The bottom floor houses the family that sold the plot of land to the developer; someone lives on the top floor. The rest of the apartments are empty. In Lebanon this is referred to as a “money-laundering scheme”, pictured mid-construction on right. Every day I dread hearing that my landlady has bowed to developers, thus dooming my building to destruction.