When Salma Abdelnour was nine years old, she and her family left their home of Beirut to escape the violent early years of the Lebanese civil war. They settled in the suburbs of Houston, Texas, and from there she went on to college at UC Berkeley, followed by work as a food and travel writer and editor for magazines in New York. Unable to shake the feeling of being somewhat out of place in the United States, she decided to move back to Beirut three decades after saying goodbye to the city. She would spend a year, maybe more, to test out her feeling of belonging in Lebanon and chronicle the experience. [Click here for the best biographies and memoirs she read while there.]
Now back in New York, Salma just celebrated the release of her book “Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut,” a five-sensory travelogue with rich insight into Lebanon and the broader Middle East. Her secular perspective on the culture and its history of political and religious conflict, peppered with mouth-watering descriptions of the region’s food, is informative and refreshing.
After an initially rough emotional adjustment to life in Beirut, Salma orients herself back into the city by walking it, creating her own map of paradoxical images: a bombed-out Holiday Inn, palm trees along a bright blue Mediterranean sea, Ottoman ruins against brand new skyline, and upscale shops from Hermès to Stella McCartney. With transporting immediacy, she captures the scent of strong Arabic coffee, the taste of zingol, a tangy chickpea and bulgur soup (included among the book's recipes), and the sounds of Arabic colliding with English and French. I’ve never been to the region, but after reading this book, I feel a curious hunger to explore it in all of its chaos and beauty.
Cara Cannella: It sounds as if you’ve wondered about home and homesickness your whole life. How did you turn that longing into a book?
Salma Abdelnour: I had a craving since the age of nine to go back to Lebanon and try and see if it’s home again, to see if I can pick up the pieces of what I left behind and try to build a life in twentieth-century Beirut. When I went back, I put a lot of energy into reconnecting with the city and people there, but I also made a deal with myself to keep track of everything I was seeing and doing. I took incredibly detailed notes seven days a week, whether it was for ten minutes or six hours. I tried to capture everything I’d gone through and thought about each day. Sometimes it would be at 3pm, sometimes at 4am.
CC: How did you arrive at a month-by-month account of your year there?
SA: I didn’t know how the book would be structured early on. After four or five months of taking exhaustive notes, I started feeling my way to structure the narrative chronologically. Only a fraction of what I had in my notes could be included, so I pulled out the most vivid and telling anecdotes and started to form chapters. From there, I continued with the intense daily note-taking, but I was more focused on what I could leave out, and the story took shape.
CC: What question were you trying to answer in writing the book?
SA: I wondered if my pursuit of making Beirut home again was just a silly fantasy. In Thomas Wolfe’s novel, “You Can’t Go Home Again,” which I quote at the beginning of my book, he answers that question: no, you can’t. But the question felt very real to me. I wanted to try to reconnect to my childhood home in a deep way. Beirut still feels very alive to me. It’s such a complicated city, and in that, it reminds me of New York in so many ways.
CC: How did your plans for an international move fall into place?
SA: For a while, I'd been thinking about the logistics of moving to Beirut, plotting out how to go freelance and leave the corporate magazine world. I had some things in place that made it fairly easy: work that I can do from anywhere, a place to live (my family still has an apartment there), and a support system of extended family. Then one day, I got a cold call from an agent who had read some of my magazine stories and asked if I had any book ideas. I brainstormed for a few days and came up with five or six ideas to send to him. He didn't bite on any of them, but when I mentioned that I was considering moving back to Beirut, he said “That could be a book.” We went back and forth, then I wrote the proposal over the course of a month.
CC: Was this the most personal of the ideas you presented?
SA: Definitely. This idea was closest to my heart, and he could tell that from how I talked about it. Originally I thought I should tap into or expand upon one of the stories I’d written for a magazine -- about food trends, or chefs, or travel plans. But once he heard me talk about going back to Beirut, he encouraged me.
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