Lebanese-American author Salma Abdelnour does not think much of the way the press represents Lebanon.
Journalists in Lebanon (particularly the foreign ones) appear to write from only two angles, she complains. Either they’re dramatizing every trivial political incident and grimly predicting a return to civil war, or they’re raving about Beirut’s hip clubbing scene and gorgeous beaches and recommending it as the next big tourist destination.
Abdelnour rails against such articles and their “goddamned predictable angle.” The author – who ordinarily labors as a food critic – laments that she’s never had a chance to write a more insightful piece. One might expect that her 300-page memoir, which describes a year of her life in Beirut, would provide her with just such an opportunity.
Unfortunately, she doesn’t deliver. The book’s title alone “Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut” is redolent of Lebanon clichés – describing the city as a sort of fragile post-war paradise, teetering permanently on the brink of violence.
Abdelnour decided to return to live in Beirut after 30 years, she explains in the introduction, having moved to America with her family at the age of 8, at the height of the Lebanese Civil War. Her main reason for this move was her sense that she has never truly belonged in America.
A major theme of the book is thus the search for “home,” both geographical and emotional. Pages of soul-searching, in the form of long lists of rhetorical questions, dwell on the idea of belonging – “But what did home mean anyway? What was I looking for? Was it a less uneasy fit with the world around me? Or some other nebulous feeling I craved but still couldn’t name?”
No one knows.
The book is essentially a diary, and seems to have been written more for Abdelnour than a public readership. It focuses on emotional drama rather than actual events, which tend to be fairly humdrum, and is written in the present tense – an unusual choice for a memoir, which unfortunately makes it feel slightly contrived and self-conscious.
“I’m sitting on my suitcase,” runs the opening line, “trying to force it shut so I can zip it.” Is she sitting on her suitcase with her laptop? Is she extending one hand out to the desk to type as she packs?
The incessant questioning appears to be catching.
The diary format places the focus on the author. Although multiple characters are introduced, they are referred to fleetingly, and only in terms of their relationship to Abdelnour. As such there is almost no character development, even among reappearing figures.
Her New York-based boyfriend, Richard, comes off little better as we come away with no sense of him as an individual. Given that a second preoccupation of the book is whether or not the two have a future together, this poses another problem.
“Will I end up deciding Beirut is home and wanting to stay there?” Abdelnour wonders halfway through the book. “Will I try to convince Richard to move there if I do? Or will I by chance meet someone else in Lebanon?”
By this point, unfortunately, the reader has been given little reason to care one way or the other.
The author’s background as a food critic is an asset.
Her descriptions of traditional Lebanese food are guaranteed to elicit hunger pangs and the recipes in the appendix will appeal to anyone interested in Lebanese cooking.
Abdelnour veers back and forth between descriptions of family lunches, nights bar-hopping in Gemmayzeh with an assortment of friends, and panicked accounts of various protests and minor political upheavals.
She fears these might herald a return to the violence of her childhood, but in fact each turns out to be simply a side effect of Beirut’s complex sociopolitical climate.
Despite her criticisms of other authors’ lack of insight into Lebanon, Abdelnour never succeeds in illuminating for her readers the substrata of the country she aims to explore. Anyone living in Lebanon is unlikely to find anything new.
Short histories of various archaeological sites and political and religious groups never go much beyond what can be found by a flick through a guidebook or a quick Google search.
“Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut” is essentially a light-hearted holiday read. It is entertaining – if not always very engaging – but its premise promises more than it delivers.
For those thinking of traveling to Beirut on holiday, the book might provide a nice overview of the city and particularly of the food that awaits them. It’s unlikely to reveal any great insight into Lebanon’s complexity, however, or provide answers concerning the true meaning of home.
Salma Abdelnour’s “Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut,” published by Broadway Paperbacks, is available from Librairie Antoine.