Around the World in Words: Lebanon

As with so many other countries, the most I know about Lebanon is its food. While living in Cape Town I went to a market in Somerset West and happened upon a stall loaded with Lebanese food. It had everything from falafels and kuftas to fatayers and pita bread.

The woman at the stall passionately informed me that various foods popularly thought of as Greek, are actually Lebanese. Baklava is one such example. But cuisine draws its inspiration from so many different sources, that crossovers are inevitable.

Johannesburg is also home to a contingent of Lebanese people, and there is a fair share of Lebanese restaurants to be found in the city – one just around the corner from my home makes the most incredibly sweet and delicate baklava.

Food is also a prevalent theme in the memoir I read for the Lebanese leg of my reading challenge, The Locust and the Bird by Hanan Al-Shaykh. This is a memoir not about the life of the author, however, but of her mother’s – hence the subtitle: My Mother’s Story.

The book begins with her mother, Kamila’s, rural beginnings. They are simple, but joyful. Yet life takes an unexpected turn when she has to move to Beirut, where she is unwittingly betrothed and eventually married off to her brother-in-law.

Despite this unexpected and unpleasant twist in her path Kamila finds joy at every turn, relishing in her passion for music, movies, coffee and, of course, food. Kibbeh, kafta, meghlie, lemon grass folded into bread with a little salt – Al-Shaykh enticingly evokes the myriad flavours of her mother’s memories.

Kamila’s marriage may be rough and joyless, but she still finds romance in the form of Muhammed. However, her loveless marriage and romantic tryst play second fiddle to the subplots of finely-crafted female friendship.

Kamila, through Al-Shayk’s words, highlights the injustice meted upon a young girl. But she also draws attention to the strength and joy to be found in the ties of female solidarity, as Kamila’s female friends and relatives play instrumental parts in helping her pursue her passions – whether it’s sneaking into the cinema, planning a rendezvous with true love, or sharing a warm laugh over a cup of coffee.

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