Eating My Way Through the Cedar Revolution
In this excerpt from a memoir of love and war, a former Beirut correspondent recalls the way her experience of Lebanon's most turbulent times was shaped by the meals she ate throughout.
On February 14, 2005, a truck bomb filled with one ton of TNT ripped through the armored motorcade of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri. Soldiers and policemen gathered around the enormous crater the bomb blasted out of the road. Rescuers dragged charred bodies from flaming cars. On Future TV, the anchor wept as she announced that Hariri, the billionaire businessman who owned the television station, was dead. Angry crowds gathered at Hariri’s mansion, just up the street from where I lived, chanting anti-Syrian slogans. Outside the hospital where the victims were taken, women rocked and sobbed and held one another.
Just hours after the killing, opposition politicians gathered at Hariri’s house and drafted a statement accusing the Syrian regime and Lebanon’s reigning pro-Syrian government of his murder. Hariri had never officially joined the opposition, but he was planning to run an independent slate in the upcoming parliamentary elections, and opposition politicians believed the Syrian regime killed him in order to prevent him from challenging its rule over Lebanon.
A week after the assassination, Hariri’s supporters called for a massive demonstration. No party banners, instructed party leaders, only the Lebanese flag. Employees of global advertising agencies unveiled a brand: a red-and-white color scheme and the word “Independence” in English, Arabic, and French. Thousands of protesters marched toward downtown holding signs: STOP SYRIA. SYRIA OUT. TRUTH, FREEDOM, INDEPENDENCE. One massive sign said simply, in giant block letters: HELP. Once the demonstrators arrived in Martyrs’ Square, they set up a tent city and vowed to remain until the government fell and Syrian troops left Lebanon.
For the next few months, downtown Beirut hosted something between a wake and a rave. Money, posters, flags, and food flowed in from political parties. Teenagers pounded tent stakes into the earth. Middle-aged men wearing bespoke suits walked around clutching bags from Patchi, the upscale chocolatier, and passing out flagpoles. At night, singers and emcees would shout slogans from a giant stage. Hundreds of people strolled up and down, mostly young girls and boys dressed in their best, strutting and preening like joyful, revolutionary mall rats. The Lebanese called this peaceful uprising the independence intifada. The Bush administration declared it the “cedar revolution.” American pundits proclaimed it proof that the Iraq war had been worthwhile: the January 2005 Iraqi elections had awakened an “Arab spring,” a wave of democracy that would sweep through the region, starting with Beirut.
My husband Mohamad and I spent most of our nights downtown that spring. Dinner downtown became a ritual: We would eat dinner at Al-Balad, a restaurant just off Sahat al-Nijmeh that served Lebanese country food, and then walk around talking to the young people that filled the square. They were thrilled to be part of a mass movement; they spoke eagerly of throwing off years of humiliating Syrian rule. Most of them believed that once the Syrians left, all of Lebanon’s economic and political problems would leave with them.
By now, after being based in Lebanon for about a year and half, I was beginning to see the deep vein of depression that ran through Beirut. You felt it even among those young enough to have missed most of the country’s 1975-1990 civil war. Lebanon was particularly cruel to its young: About a third of college-educated Lebanese had to migrate abroad to find salaries that matched their qualifications and the high cost of living in their own country. The income from Lebanese working abroad made up almost a quarter of Lebanon’s GDP. But the young people who were forced to leave their own country in order to keep its economy afloat were not even allowed to vote from abroad. Zuhair al-Jezairy, an Iraqi journalist who spent part of his own exile in Lebanon, described it mournfully as “not so much a country for its children as a staging post for their future exile.”
If we spent our dinners downtown, among the flags and banners of the young revolutionaries, weekend lunches were a different ritual. Every weekend, Mohamad and I went to visit his parents, Umm and Abu Hassane, for a homecooked meal. They lived in dahiyeh, a 15-minute drive (on a good day) and a world apart from Martyrs’ Square.
Going to dahiyeh was like traveling backward in time. We would catch a servees, one of the dilapidated old taxis that careened around Beirut blasting their horns at unwary pedestrians and picking up multiple passengers for a dollar each. As we rode up Bishara al-Khoury Street, along the old Green Line, downtown and its nightclubs slid away behind us. The moth-eaten buildings of the civil war, the Beirut of snipers and militiamen, lumbered up ahead. At the end of the drive, past the fenced-off Pine Gardens and the walled Hippodrome, under the giant hand-painted billboard of Musa al-Sadr, a Shiite leader who disappeared 1978, we entered dahiyeh.
Literally, the dahiyeh means “the suburb.” But over time, in Beirut, the word evolved into a shorthand for the constellation of neighborhoods just outside the city limits and home to approximately half a million people, many of them Shiites from the south. The area was largely controlled by Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia that had emerged during the war and became one of the most powerful political parties in Lebanon. It was also a Syrian ally.
The government had rebuilt very little in Beirut’s outlying suburbs since the civil war. Electricity still went out for up to eight or even 10 hours a day, because Lebanon’s electrical company could not meet the population’s demand. Water taps ran dry for days in the hottest months of the summer. These shortages were not unique to dahiyeh — friends who lived in other suburbs had the same problem — but they were worse there.
I was curious to find out whether the intifada would inspire people in dahiyeh to vote their corrupt leaders out of office — if, having thrown off the Syrian overlords, Lebanon would finally elect politicians who could provide basics like water and electricity.
“Umm Hassane, are you going to vote?” I asked her at one of our lunches.
“Why should I vote?” she asked, setting down a plate of stuffed zucchini and grape leaves. “Nobody deserves it!”
In Bint Jbeil, the southern village where Umm Hassane grew up, politicians would pass out bread, meat, vegetables, and olive oil a few days before the elections. The village women would spend the next two or three days making every dish in their repertoires: kibbeh, kusa, grape leaves, maqlubeh, and more. On election day, everyone would gather in the town square, stuff themselves, and vote for the politician who had distributed the food. Umm Hassane regarded elections with a certain cynicism.
But what about here in Beirut? I asked her. Surely it was different here. Whom would she vote for?
She looked at me like I was crazy. Umm Hassane had lived in dahiyeh for almost half a century, but thanks to Lebanon’s arcane election laws, she could not vote there. Because her residency was still in Bint Jbeil, where she had been born, she had a choice: she could spend hours on a hot, diesel-fumed bus, rattling down to the village she left behind decades ago, all for the dubious pleasure of casting a vote for politicians who did not represent her. Or she could stay at home, spend the day coring zucchini and stuffing grape leaves, and actually end up with something to show for her time.
“Would you vote if you could vote in Beirut?” I asked Umm Hassane.
She turned around from the sink and gave us a withering look. “What do you think this is?” she asked, putting a fist on her hip and waving the other hand around the small dim kitchen, the oilcloth-covered table, the forest of concrete outside. “America?”
On March 8, 2005, Hezbollah’s leader, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, held a massive counterdemonstration in downtown Beirut to “thank Syria” for what it had done for Lebanon. Nasrallah had been hinting that the anti-Syrian opposition was poised to sign a peace agreement with Israel — anathema to Shiites with ties to the south, where memories of the Israeli occupation, which ended in May 2000, were still raw. Hundreds of thousands of supporters of Hezbollah and Amal, the two main Shiite parties, as well as a constellation of smaller Christian and secular parties, flocked to Riad al-Solh Square, on the other side of downtown from Martyrs’ Square.
On March 14, one month after Hariri’s murder, the anti-Syrian coalition responded by holding its own massive rally downtown. Hundreds of thousands gathered in Martyrs’ Square, and with that, Lebanon had a new political fault line. Both sides — those who had demanded that Syria leave, and those who had rallied behind Nasrallah and his allies — claimed to represent the majority. Each side defined the other’s political beliefs in the darkest possible terms: If you questioned the anti-Syrian movement or its leaders, you were a terrorist sympathizer. If you criticized Nasrallah or his allies, you were a lackey of Western imperialism. If you thought both sides had earned criticism, then clearly you sympathized with the wrong side, depending on which one you were talking to, and were hiding your loyalties out of some nefarious motive. You had to take sides.
About a week after the March 14 rally, the khamsin began to blow.
Every spring, a wind rises up from Egypt and the Libyan desert and blasts Beirut with its hot breath. The weather changes overnight with the khamsin, or “fifty,” named for the number of days it can last. Some scientists and Bible scholars believe that the ninth plague of Egypt from the book of Exodus — the “darkness which may be felt” — was a khamsin. It is “an ill wind that blows no one in the Middle East any good,” wrote Time magazine in 1971, adding that the khamsin can “madden men,” cause car accidents, and increase crime rates by as much as 20 percent. A professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University diagnosed this mysterious malaise as an overabundance of positive ions. The ions made old people depressed and lethargic, but had the opposite effect on young people, who became literally supercharged with positive electrical energy. These physiological effects, Time noted, corresponded to the ill winds of other continents — France’s mistral, Austria’s foehn, and California’s fabled Santa Ana, to which writers from Raymond Chandler to Joan Didion have attributed wildfires, murder, and suicide (not to mention a rash of overheated metaphors).
But I loved the khamsin. The wind made me feel reckless; it promised unexpected pleasures and dangers. Overnight, the cold rain of Beirut winter turned into unearthly heat. The air smelled like sand. The sky turned orange. Suddenly it was time to switch from shoes to sandals, to go outside at night, and people would shake their heads and say: “It’s the khamsin, the khamsin!” with that knowing pride people always show toward events that surprise them every year. That spring, a few days after the khamsin began, my friend Hassan called to tell us that he had green garlic.
Lebanon had a universe of wild edible greens that marked the seasons more reliably than any calendar. Country people foraged for them in fields, on mountainsides, and in vacant lots. Grocery stores and khadarjis did not usually carry these greens — they were too uncultivated, too ephemeral. But you could get them from Bedouin women who sold produce on the sidewalk. I bought my greens from Umm Adnan, who sat across from Café Younes; Hassan had introduced me to her when we first moved to the neighborhood. Umm Adnan was somewhere in her 60s — she didn’t know exactly where — and she had been making her living this way for 25 years. She would wake up every day at four in the morning, arrive at her spot before eight, and set up shop right on the sidewalk with big black garbage bags full of greens: fresh mint, oregano, parsley, romaine, arugula, purslane, and, if you were lucky and it was in season, green garlic.
The coming of the green garlic was always an unscheduled seasonal gift. People would hold impromptu dinner parties. Friends delivered armfuls of the slender green spears to each other and sautéed them with pencil-thin asparagus and wild fennel. Or they mixed it with sleeqa, the grab bag of wild weeds that country people gathered in the spring. Hassan’s garlic came from his family land in Khiam, considerably south, where it appeared earlier than in Beirut. On a warm windy evening in late March, we went to Hassan’s place for a dinner feast of early spring greens.
A couple of my sister-in-law Hanan’s friends were there, including the big writer I had met in Baromètre, back in 2003, the one who looked like Hemingway. Hassan’s five-year-old daughter ran through the apartment laughing. The pale green shoots of garlic were streaked magenta at the bottoms. He chopped them into segments and sweated them in a skillet. He had a pile of khubaizeh too, a hairy green mallow that grew in vacant lots, abandoned buildings, and piles of construction debris. He chopped the khubaizeh and braised it in its own juices with wild fennel and caramelized onions. The green garlic he sautéed with scrambled eggs, a traditional Mediterranean way of serving vegetables and wild greens, and sprinkled with ground coriander. He loaded a plate with radishes, scallions, hot green peppers, and goat yogurt. He brought the garlic and khubaizeh to the table on big plates, two heaping mountains of green, and passed out pieces of flatbread.
We tore into the khubaizeh first, the wilted leaves still thick and wet with dark green juice. Behind their fennel camouflage, the mallow tasted weedy, treelike — a leaf you could imagine giraffes or buffalos gnashing on. And then I tried the eggs, with their green whisper of garlic. Grown-up garlic dominates the plate, but this was different: Hiding under the sweaty, animal smell of garlic was something grassy and almost sweet.
“This ‘cedar revolution,'” said Hassan. He was speaking Arabic, but he mouthed the Bush administration neologism in sarcastic, American-accented English. “This is just more propaganda. Nothing will be different in the end. Until now, nothing has changed.”
Strangely enough it was the big writer, whom I remembered as the most cynical of Hanan’s crowd, who replied. “Non, ça bouge, ça bouge,” he said, shaking his massive head slowly from side to side. “It’s moving. Things are changing at last.”
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